Luxury Escapes Guide to Christchurch

Architectural creativity and culinary smarts are driving the dynamic and contemporary reboot of New Zealand's most gracious and historic city.

Following challenging earthquakes in 2010 and 2011, New Zealand's biggest southern city is continuing its ongoing rebuild and renaissance as an exciting and intriguing destination. Innovative post-earthquake precincts like the SALT District and South Town are becoming hubs for good bars, cafes and restaurants, often framed by the colour and creativity of a world-renowned street-art scene.

The city's English colonial heritage is also being refreshed and revitalised with the Gothic Revival precinct of the Arts Centre showcasing art galleries, performance spaces and more opportunities for good eating and drinking. Nearby, the stately Botanic Gardens segue to the leafy expanses and riverside walks of Hagley Park, and the Christchurch Art Gallery displays important New Zealand art amid a spectacular architectural statement. The city's pre-colonial history – Christchurch is known to New Zealand's indigenous Māori as Ōtautahi – is also being recalled and celebrated by inventive urban walking guides.

Beyond the cultural and culinary attractions of New Zealand's most rapidly-changing city, convenient day trips from Christchurch provide the opportunity to make the most of an extended visit. Lyttelton is an arty port town with an excellent music and restaurant scene, while the spectacular volcanic landscapes of Banks Peninsula cradle the former French settlement of Akaroa. To the north of Christchurch, the Waipara Valley is often overlooked as one of New Zealand's best cool-climate winegrowing areas, while the agricultural patchwork collage of the Canterbury Plains foreshadows the impetuous heights of the Southern Alps to the west.

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Things to see and do

History, science and art at the Arts Centre

Dating from 1877, this stately enclave of Gothic Revival buildings is an architectural reminder of the city's history of English settlement. Originally Canterbury College, the academic precursor to Canterbury University, the heritage precinct now features art and design shops, bars and restaurants, and an arthouse cinema. Galleries and museums to visit include the innovative Central Art Gallery and the surprising Teece Museum of Classical Antiquities. Rutherford's Den is a hands-on and interactive showcase of the life and world-changing work of Lord Ernest Rutherford, the Nobel Prize-winning New Zealand nuclear physicist who first split the atom in 1918.

Iconic New Zealand canvases at the Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetū

Its modern glass-sheathed facade contrasting with the heritage ambience of the nearby Arts Centre, the Christchurch Art Gallery offers a superb showcase of New Zealand art and a regular programme of special exhibitions, which includes Installation view of Te Wheke: Pathways Across Oceania. Bold works encapsulating the country's distinctive natural light and rugged and elemental beauty include paintings from Rita Angus, Colin McCahon and Bill Sutton. Check the website for one-off events – past examples have included innovative video walls and spectacular light installations – and time a visit to join a free one-hour guided tour daily at 11am or 2pm. The gallery's shop sells a diverse array of innovative New Zealand design and crafts.

Get your bearings with Christchurch Tramway

Reinforcing Christchurch's quintessential English heritage, the Christchurch Tramway trundles agreeably around a 4km inner-city loop, commencing near the earthquake-damaged Christ Church Cathedral and also taking in up-and-coming areas like the street art-adorned High St precinct. It's an entertaining and enlightening way to get your bearings when first arriving in the city, especially when a journey is soundtracked by a brief but informative commentary from the tramway's easygoing Kiwi drivers.

Shop, eat and drink along historic New Regent Street

With its Spanish Mission architecture dating from 1932, New Regent's pastel-shaded streetscape is one of New Zealand's most beautiful. Thankfully spared from damage in the 2010 and 2011 earthquakes, elegant balconies overlook a pleasant pedestrian area lined with arty shopping opportunities and some of Christchurch's most interesting cafes, restaurants and bars. Dive into artisan gelato and a fair-trade espresso during the day before returning for whiskey, craft beer and innovative fine dining at night. Travelling through the narrow street on the Christchurch Tramway is also recommended. Be sure to listen for its arrival if you're strolling and window shopping.

Discover music and artisan makers in Lyttelton

Make the 12km journey south from Christchurch to the historic port town of Lyttelton. The heritage shopfronts along Victoria Street frame a bohemian selection of art and design stores – stop by Henry Trading for artisan gifts crafted by local makers – before coffee amid the retro pop art and vinyl records at Spooky Boogie. After visiting Saturday morning's Lyttelton Farmers Market, locals often adjourn to Civil & Naval for eclectic tapas and craft beers from local favourites, Eruption Brewing. Music from Lyttelton artists making waves internationally could include gigs by Marlon Williams or Aldous Harding at Wunderbar.

Sample fresh produce at Christchurch Farmers Market

Held riverside amid the leafy gardens of Riccarton House, the city's Saturday morning farmers' market may well be New Zealand's best. Stalls selling gourmet and artisan produce from around the Canterbury region are joined by authentic street food from the city's increasingly diverse migrant communities, and jazz, blues and country music is often performed on the verandah of historic Riccarton House. For breakfast, check out Posh Porridge's special of the week, or feast on a comforting sourdough sandwich from Bacon Bros. Fairtrade and organic chocolate from Bennetto Natural Foods makes a good gift for friends and family back home.

Urban storytelling with Āmiki Tours

Led by three proud members of the South Island's Ngāi Tahu iwi (tribe), a personalised walking tour with Āmiki is an excellent way to experience the city known to local Māori as Ōtautahi. Māori culture, history and legends are all weaved into leisurely strolls along the Ōtākaro/Avon River and through hip post-earthquake precincts like the Westbank and SALT ('South Alternative') District. Book the Kai Safari experience to combine the easygoing charm of guide Riwai Grace and a few hours of progressive dining around Christchurch's best eateries.

Inspiring memories at Quake City

Beyond the photographs of damaged buildings and scientific explanations of the earthquakes that rocked Christchurch in 2010 and 2011, the most affecting aspects of this compact but well-curated museum are the personal stories of the city's resilient and adaptable residents. Be prepared to spend longer than expected watching poignant video memories of survivors recounting their own experiences, and admire the vital cleanup work done by the Student Volunteer Army, a grassroots movement mobilised on social media immediately after the event. Detailed plans and models show the scope of Christchurch's exciting ongoing urban renewal.

Top places to eat and drink

Inati

Welcome to the most innovative bistro in the city. Divided into 'Earth, Land & Sea', Inati's menu of shared plates is best enjoyed around the curved bar while chatting to the savvy bar staff. Sustainable and locally-sourced ingredients are harnessed for seasonal dishes like venison tartare with elderflower caper berries or charred octopus with chilli and lemon. Leave room for dessert of feijoa tea cake and be sure to ask for wine recommendations from a wine list focusing on boutique vineyards from the nearby Waipara wine region.

Earl

Settle into one of Earl's comfortable booths and explore a menu focused on delivering southern Mediterranean flavours to the southern hemisphere. Shared plates include leek and smoked cheddar croquettes or braised artichokes with a trio of Italian cheeses, while bistro classics feature confit duck and slow-cooked Canterbury lamb. Earl celebrates a casual and inclusive ambience, and each week there is a focus on varietals from smaller New Zealand and international winemakers. Beginning with an artisan gin and tonic or prosecco cocktail is highly recommended.

The Last Word

Positioned as the final act after an evening's dining along New Regent Street, the Last Word is also a fine place for a tipple earlier in the night. The city's best whiskey selection spans the globe from Tokyo to Tasmania and Islay to Ireland, while considered cocktails and a well-curated selection of craft beer are also key attractions. Ask about special tasting flights pairing whiskey and artisan chocolate and don't be deceived by the compact downstairs area. Upstairs is spacious with a warming fire and very comfortable sofas.

Twenty Seven Steps

An excellent dining option amid the Spanish Mission architecture of New Regent Street, Twenty Seven Steps celebrates a cosy and compact two-storey space. Established in 2015, the restaurant has been a consistent winner of regional and national dining awards, with local and seasonal produce underpinning a hearty but sophisticated menu. Canterbury lamb, venison and seafood are all regularly featured, often infused with French technique and flavours. Booking ahead is essential and starting the evening with a drink downstairs at the Tiny Bar is recommended form.

Utopia Ice

Thoroughly grown-up ice cream flavours including dark chocolate and sea salt, or coconut, tayberry and kaffir lime are the focus at Utopia. Many of the icy treats are crafted using local and seasonal ingredients, and there's a diverse range of vegan options. Pick up a cone to go and explore the surrounding High Street area to see what's new and different in the neighbourhood's eating and drinking scene. Utopia also offers a fine line of deliciously chewy cookies. How does chocolate chip, olive oil and sea salt sound to get you started?