Christchurch: New Zealand’s ‘English’ Garden City
Land in Christchurch and you could be forgiven for thinking your pilot missed the turn and you’ve ended up in England. As New Zealand’s oldest established city – it was given city status in 1856 – it retains many traces of its colonial past, not the least of which can be found in its architecture and place names.
Indeed the very name Christchurch was taken from Christ Church College in Oxford, England, as the early English settlers had visions of building a city around a cathedral and college, just like the city back home. They pretty much achieved their dream and the city gradually grew up around Cathedral Square, where the much dreamt-about Christ Church Cathedral stands.
Thanks to the foresight and forward-planning of the city’s founding fathers, Christchurch is a truly beautiful city, and scores of heritage buildings and green public spaces make it a pleasure to wander. The pretty River Avon meanders through the city to further enhance the feel of an English country garden and it’s easy to forget which hemisphere you’re in.
But there is much more to Christchurch than the parks that earned it the nickname ‘Garden City’. Today it is a bustling, modern city with first-class arts and entertainment facilities, an interesting and well-preserved heritage, and locals who enjoy an active, outdoor lifestyle. Walk the streets and you parade through the past and the present simultaneously, while a hint of the future lies just around the next corner.
Perfectly located as the gateway to the South Island, Christchurch is a relaxing, attractive place to begin your New Zealand adventure. There’s also plenty here to keep you entertained for days …
Did You Know?
- The city was named by the Canterbury Association, which settled the surrounding province of Canterbury. The name of Christchurch was agreed on at the first meeting of the association in 1848. It was suggested by J.R. Godley, who had attended Christ Church, Oxford. Some early writers called the town Christ Church, but it was recorded as Christchurch in the minutes of the management committee of the association.
- The River Avon, which flows through the city, was named after the River Avon in Ayrshire, Scotland.
- Archaeological evidence suggests indigenous people lived in the area from the 13th century.
- The city has played an important role in Antarctic exploration, with explorers Captain Scott and Ernest Shackleton both departing on expeditions from the port of Lyttelton in Christchurch.
How to Get Here
Christchurch International Airport (CHC) is the main airport that serves Christchurch. It is located 12 kilometres to the northwest of the city centre.
A public bus service is available from the airport to the Christchurch city centre and suburbs. The travel time is approximately 30 minutes. Taxis of course are easily available just outside of the Arrivals level, and the travel time is 15-20 minutes. Several nationally known, and local car rental companies have counters within the airport.
New Zealand Dollar
The most convenient way to access cash in local currency is to use a debit or credit card in an ATM in New Zealand. All banks have ATMs accessible 24-hours a day, generally outside the branch or in the foyer.You might be charged a fee by your bank, and you may need a new PIN number, so contact your bank or credit card company before you travel to make sure you’ll be able to access your account.
For locations of ATMs you can visit these VISA and MasterCard Web sites.
Travellers cheques are becoming less popular in New Zealand. If you do use travellers cheques, take cheques in NZ$ not Canadian or US funds. Travellers cheques can be exchanged for cash at banks, exchange houses and large hotels, or used to settle accounts in some, but by no means all, retail or dining establishments.
Credit cards are accepted in most establishments in New Zealand. Be aware you may be charged a fee to use credit cards abroad, and you should let your issuing company know what countries you are travelling to, as their fraud departments can sometimes freeze cards used in foreign countries.
What will the seasonal weather be like?
New Zealand is in the Southern Hemisphere so summer is from December to February, while winter falls in June, July and August.
Christchurch has a temperate climate, with maximum temperatures in July ranging from 5 C to 15 C and in January temperatures range from 15 C to 25 C.
The summer climate is often moderated by a sea breeze from the northeast, but a record temperature of 41.6 C was reached in February 1973, so it could at any time become warmer. A notable feature of the weather is the nor’wester, a hot föhn wind that occasionally reaches storm force, causing widespread minor damage to property.
Rainfall is common throughout the country and provides New Zealand its lush, green countryside. Be aware that the weather can change unexpectedly, even in summer, so be prepared if you’re heading off on an outdoor adventure.
A great start for any visitor is the free electric Shuttle Bus that follows a route around the city centre. It operates from 7.30 AM until 10.30 PM and is an ideal way to get your bearings. Used by locals and visitors alike, it’s an environmentally friendly initiative the city is rightly proud of.
Christchurch is served by buses (local and long-distance) and trains. The local bus service is known as Metro. The car, however, remains the dominant form of transport. There is a functioning tram service in Christchurch, but its loop is restricted to a circuit of the central city. The trams were originally introduced in 1905, ceased operating in 1954, but returned to the inner city (As a tourist attraction) in 1995.
If you need to explore further afield, the Metro bus system will take you to destinations outside the city centre. You can buy a Metrocard All Day Travel Pass that allows unlimited travel.
Christchurch is also a departure point for two famous rail journeys aboard either TranzCoastal or TranzAlpine passenger trains. Both journey through breathtaking areas of the country, offering plenty of photo opportunities. The TranzAlpine, in particular, is regarded as one of the top ten train trips in the world for the spectacular scenery it passes in the Southern Alps.
As in any city, taxis are common in Christchurch. Only ever get into a licensed taxi, which should have a meter running. You can flag taxis in the street, or call private hire car companies to arrange a pick-up time and location.
If you want to rent a car, free city maps are available from the Christchurch Visitor Centre in Cathedral Square. Car rental agencies will usually provide maps also, but, investing in a handheld GPS system featuring turn-by-turn voice directions could be invaluable. GPS systems today also feature points of interest that are nearby your location, and many other features that will provide a level of confidence while navigating in a foreign country.
New Zealand has a wide range of ferries and water taxis which operate from Wellington and travel either locally or to several coastal areas throughout the country.
Note You can purchase a New Zealand Travelpass, which provides several options to travel by coach, ferry and rail nationwide. Passes are valid for 12 months.
What not to miss …
World Heritage Site(s)
Heritage is our legacy from the past, what we live with today, and what we pass on to future generations. Our cultural and natural heritages are both irreplaceable sources of life and inspiration.
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), seeks to encourage the identification, protection and preservation of cultural and natural heritage around the world. There are currently three World Heritage Sites in New Zealand.
The large number of public parks and well-developed residential gardens has given cause, justifiably, that Christchurch be nick-named The Garden City. Hagley Park and the 30-hectare Christchurch Botanic Gardens, founded in 1863, are in the central city.
The Christchurch Botanic Gardens are botanical gardens founded in 1863, when an English oak on 9 July 1863 was planted to commemorate the solemnisation of marriage between Prince Albert and Princess Alexandra of Denmark. The Gardens sprawl over an area of 30 hectares, and lies mostly within the loop of the Avon River. The Christchurch Botanic Gardens have a variety of collection of exotic and local plants of New Zealand. A loop of the gently-flowing Avon River, criss-crossed by bridges, encloses a large part of the Gardens while the adjacent 164 hectare Hagley Park enhances its natural splendour. The Gardens are open every day of the year and admission is free.
And if you enjoyed the Botanic Gardens, you may wish to visit Mona Vale, which is an historic, and elegant, Victorian homestead surrounded by English style gardens, and charming outbuildings. Mona Vale was part of the estate belonging to the Deans, one of Christchurch’s first settler families. The house and garden date from 1899, with additional land acquired and outbuildings constructed after the turn of the century.
The Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament, commonly known as the Christchurch Basilica, was designed by architect Francis Petre. Construction began in 1901, and it replaced a smaller wooden church designed by Benjamin Mountfort that had been in use since 1864. The Cathedral was officially opened on February 12 1905, a mere four years after construction began. Today, the building, said by some to be based on the 19th-century Church of Vincent-de-Paul, in Paris, is held to be the finest renaissance style building in New Zealand and the most outstanding of all Petre’s many designs.
And you can’t come to Christchurch without visiting the Christchurch Cathedral – and you can’t really miss it anyway. The cathedral spire reaches to 63 metres above Cathedral Square. Situated at the heart of a bustling city, ChristChurch Cathedral is the most visited building in New Zealand. The cornerstone was laid on December 16 1864, but financial problems in the fledgling city saw its completion delayed between 1865 and 1873. The nave and tower were consecrated by 1881, though the entire building was not finished until 1904. (Note The Cathedral is undergoing reconstruction).
Canterbury Museum, in the Cultural Precinct, is in an exquisite historic building. The natural and human history museum is renowned for its displays of early Maori and European settlement. The Christchurch Street, a recreation of the city during the Victorian era, is a local favourite. Other aspects to the museum include artefacts and stories from the heroic era of Antarctic exploration, the Hall of Asian Decorative Arts and the Edgar Stead Hall of New Zealand birds. Younger visitors enjoy learning about the life of the museum’s most famous resident, the mummy, Tash pen Khonsu, and interacting with the natural world in Discovery.
And if art is your thing, be sure to visit the Centre of Contemporary Art. Established in 1880 to exhibit fine art in the area, the center has a long history of showcasing some of the best talent in the country. From sculptures to photos to paintings, the exhibits are constantly changing so you never know what you might see. The Christchurch Art Gallery – Te Puna O Waiwhetu – will also interest you. Opened in 2003, this purpose-built facility has a collection of more than 5,500 of the country’s most important art items.
And here’s something a little different to try … Hanmer Springs Thermal Pools & Spa is an attraction of international standing, offering a world-class experience in a stunning natural environment. The thermal pools are situated in the alpine village of Hanmer Springs about a 90 minute drive from Christchurch. The soothing mineral waters have been attracting visitors for more than 125 years as they seek to relax, unwind and ease their aches and pains in this beautifully landscaped area. The variety of pools include sulphur and rock pools, and range in temperature from approximately 36 – 42 C. And there’s an area specifically for children.
A trip to Christchurch would not be complete without going punting on the River Avon. Settle back on plush velvet cushions while your punter – dressed in full Edwardian regalia – glides you effortlessly past the leafy banks of the river as it winds through the Botanic Gardens and beyond.
For the kids …
The International Antarctic Centre will keep the whole family entertained for hours. Experience an Antarctic storm complete with lightning and blizzard effects, slide down icy slopes, explore ice caves, and have a snowball fight with real snow – all indoors. And you can meet rescued penguins at the Penguin Encounter, then prepare for an exhilarating ride on a Hagglund ATV. These vehicles are used by scientists in the Antarctic, and this one takes you over a rough terrain course and through a crevasse so you can share the experience.
The Christchurch Gondola is an exciting way to see the city and surrounding area. Once you climb aboard, you ascend 448m to the top of Mount Cavendish, where you will find an extinct volcano. There’s plenty of entertainment at the top, including the Heritage Time Tunnel ride that takes you on a journey spanning 12 million years, and several nature walkways. It’s 15 minutes by car from downtown, or you can take the Best Attractions bus that departs from Cathedral Square.
Ferrymead Heritage Park is another attraction not too far from town that the kids will love. The heritage township includes several historical buildings, tearooms, a picture theatre, a prison and a museum. On certain days electric trams, steam trains and vintage vehicles make special appearances – and unlimited rides on the tram and train are included in the ticket price.
The Southern Encounter Aquarium & Kiwi House is a wildlife wonder in the heart of Cathedral Square. Catch the elusive kiwi in action on a Kiwitour, watch divers feed creatures of the deep including sharks and rays, then feed the salmon and trout yourself.
Orana Wildlife Park, New Zealand’s only open range zoo, is set on 80 hectares of park-like grounds. The Park has been developed as an open range sanctuary for endangered animals, providing them with enclosures as close to their natural habitat as possible. Streams, moats and banks are used as barriers to allow visitors the opportunity to see the animals in a natural manner. Over 400 animals from 70 different species live here.
Adrenalin Forest is Christchurch’s newest adventure tourism activity, located at Spencer Park, about a 20 drive from Christchurch. Adrenalin Forest is best described as a multi level aerial obstacle course. Participants negotiate a series of rope bridges, Tarzan swings and flying foxes from platforms constructed in the tree canopy. The platforms range from 2 to 17 metres in the air, and so participants literally feel like they are flying through the trees. The concept is a phenomenon in France, where more than 500 similar adventure parks have sprung up in the last 10 years. There are 5 different courses, with increasing levels of challenges and height. All participants receive a detailed safety briefing before entering the course, and are securely attached to a safety wire at all times.
The Air Force Museum houses 28 fully restored aircraft that span four eras of flight, from the early pioneers to present day. Kids will love the interactive flight simulators and hands-on displays, and don’t miss the free guided tours that take you behind the scenes of a fascinating restoration process.
The main shopping streets in the centre of Christchurch are Colombo, Cashel, High, Hereford, Gloucester and Armagh. You’ll find everything you need in this area, including all the chain stores and a range of individual one-off retailers. Christchurch’s iconic department store, Ballantyne’s, is also nearby. Established in 1854 by some of the area’s first settlers, it’s still going strong today.
New Regent Street is a quaint cobbled thoroughfare with pastel-coloured buildings that house an eclectic mix of boutiques. Even if you’re not looking to buy, an hour spent here browsing the shops and enjoying an al fresco coffee is time well-spent.
A favourite entertainment venue, The Arts Centre, is also a popular shopping spot with visitors, where you will find fine art galleries, a range of specialty shops that sell Kiwi-made arts and crafts and a weekend market. The market brings together more than 80 kiosks selling jewellery, clothes, art and fresh produce.
For more market browsing, don’t miss the Cathedral Square Market. With its wide range of crafts and other goods on offer, there’s usually something to catch your eye. Look out for unique Kiwi treats like New Zealand woodware, paua jewellery (paua is a shell found in New Zealand), Maori bone carvings, local honey products and sheepskin fashions. It’s a colourful, character-filled place to spend a morning.
Christchurch after dark …
For wining and dining in any number of historic buildings, you can begin your evening at Cathedral Square, which is the heart of the cultural quarter.
For a wide selection of fine dining options, head to elegant Victoria Street. With Indonesian, Italian, Greek and Thai cuisines, to name just a few, you can eat your way around the world without leaving Christchurch.
But you may want to check the local papers to see “What’s On” at The Arts Centre of Christchurch, which is now a vibrant entertainment venue. This heritage precinct is a fascinating place to visit where you will find grassy quadrangles, magnificent buildings and historical arcades. It now boasts an enviable choice of ways to pass an evening, including a world-class theatre, art house cinemas, restaurants and cafes.
Christchurch’s lively night scene mostly revolves round “The Strip,” where one can find numerous cafes and restaurants lining the banks of the Avon. The posh eateries become thrilling nightclubs after dark. There is absolutely no dearth of nightlife opportunities around the city of Christchurch. The options include going to the casino, heading to a restaurant for a nice late supper, going to a bar, or visiting a nightclub in Christchurch.
Cashel Mall and Cashel Street also ‘feature’ a few popular drinking establishments from Irish pubs and traditional ale houses to wine bars and cafes. And Bedford Row is where to go for a more lounge-like experience with a good chance of hearing some jazz, but you’ll need to look carefully as the smaller establishments can be hard to find.
If you fancy taking your chances with Lady Luck, you can gamble on spending some time at the Christchurch Casino. With two restaurants, two bars and hundreds of gaming chances you could easily lose track of time – especially as it’s open 24 hours a day.
Sports / Outdoor Adventure
Simply put, Kiwis love their rugby. Even New Zealanders not into sport take an interest when the mighty All Blacks are playing, and if the national team is unfortunate enough to lose, the entire country goes into mourning. To see where the fearsome warriors play in Christchurch, head to the AMI Stadium. If you’re lucky enough to score tickets to a game, you’ll get to see the All Blacks perform their famous haka – traditional Maori dance – before the match.
Kiwis love their cricket too, and it’s a big occasion when they play Australia, their closest rival. The New Zealand national team is known as the Black Caps and is one of the top teams in the world. Their Christchurch games are also played at the AMI Stadium.
Local Customs and Etiquette
As a rule Kiwis are a laid-back, friendly bunch. You’ll probably hear the phrase “How’s it going bro?” between friends and strangers alike, and if something’s good it’s often described as “sweet as”. Don’t be alarmed if you see two people pressing noses in the street – it’s a traditional Maori greeting.
New Zealanders tend to be outgoing and often express an interest in overseas visitors. It’s hard to offend a Kiwi, unless you see them as a second-class Aussie – there’s great rivalry between the two nations, particularly in the sporting arena.
A fairly liberal, forward-thinking country – New Zealand gave women the right to vote back in 1893 – most Kiwi etiquette rules relate to issues of equality. There is little class structure and not much racial tension between the many different ethnic groups.
Most Kiwis are very environmentally conscious and treat their land with a sense of respect that stems from the traditional Maori view that everything in nature has a life force. Damaging that life force hurts both the object and the offender. Actions that flaunt this belief are frowned upon.
Tipping is not expected in New Zealand. If you have received good service at a restaurant and want to show appreciation, five to 10 per cent of the bill is fine. There is no need to tip for every drink you order in a pub, although some bartenders in the flashier joints will try and encourage this by placing your change on a tray. If you don’t tip, it doesn’t usually affect how quickly you get served.
Above all, New Zealanders are honest and open, and appreciate the same from you.
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