My home town: a local's guide to Christchurch, New Zealand

Culture editor Ashleigh Stewart introduces us to a lesser-known side of the New Zealand city currently undergoing a renaissance

Estuary of the Heathcote and Avon Rivers, Christchurch, and the Southern Alps, Canterbury, South Island, New Zealand
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Before 2011, if you told someone you were from Christchurch, they might have known of it as a quaint, if not a little sleepy, city in New Zealand's quieter island – that was, if they'd ever heard of it at all. After 2011, it became associated with earthquakes and a citywide effort to rebuild. After March last year, it mostly elicited a cry of anguish due to the terrorist attacks at two mosques that killed 51 people.

The city has experienced its fair share of tragedy and, while authorities have long said the main centre of the South Island would have its time in the sun, this could be its year.

My favourite time to visit

The beauty of this city is that it really appeals to a traveller of any season – its eastern beaches make for a perfect picnic and swimming spot in summer and it's an hour's drive from a ski resort, which is ideal for winter lovers like me. The Southern Alps, which run along the spine of the South Island, look best when they're dusted with snow and framing the city. Mount Hutt, one of the country's best ski resorts, provides an excellent day out on the slopes above the Canterbury Plains. There's nothing better than a flat white and a scone on a crisp, sunny winter's day.

CHRISTCHURCH, NEW ZEALAND - DECEMBER 13 : A tram in front of the Art Gallery in Christchurch, New Zealand, on December 13, 2010,  South Island. (Photo by EyesWideOpen/Getty Images)
A tram in front of the Art Gallery in Christchurch, New Zealand. Getty Images

My top spots

It's taken eight years, but the central city has really come alive in the swing of the rebuild. The Riverside Market is a true post-earthquake triumph, as is The Strip, the row of restaurants, bars and nightclubs that was wiped out by the disaster but has been reborn. Sadly, the Christchurch Cathedral, once a cultural landmark, still lies in ruin in the middle of the city centre, but the Transitional Cathedral, designed by Japanese architect Shigeru Ban and constructed entirely of cardboard, has made up for it. A stroll through town is also a lovely way to spend an afternoon – bold street art has cropped up all over in recent years and the 165-hectare Hagley Park is a good indication of why Christchurch is known as The Garden City.


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My best advice

Make time to explore the city's surrounds. Christchurch is smack bang in the middle of gorgeous beaches, mountains and vast, rolling plains, so weekends are never dull. The newly reopened Summit Road allows sweeping vistas from the Port Hills, as do its many walking tracks – my favourites for a weekend calorie-burner are Rapaki Track and Bridle Path. The nearby towns of Lyttelton or the French-inspired Akaroa also offer a glimpse into New Zealand as it was decades ago.

NEW ZEALAND - OCTOBER 30:  The Avon River meanders through Christchurch's magnificent Botanic Gardens, a part of Hagley Park, a vast green expanse in the middle of Christchurch of almost 160 hectares (395 acres). In the Botanic Gardens, founded in 1863, in an area of 30 hectares (74 acres), visitors can see a wonderful collection of over 10,000 exotic and indigenous plants, with many trees over 100 years old. The largest city in the South Island, and the country's second largest urban area, Christchurch has a reputation as New Zealand's garden city.  (Photo by Arnold H. Drapkin/The LIFE Images Collection via Getty Images/Getty Images)
The Avon River meanders through Christchurch's magnificent gardens. Getty Images

Great places to eat

New Zealand and Australia's ode to the humble brunch is Unknown Chapter. Not to be mistaken for the style of brunching we're used to in the UAE, this is where you'll find a hard-to-beat coffee, plenty of avo on toast and other Kiwi breakfast staples. For dinner, one of the city's best restaurants, Twenty Seven Steps, is on New Regent Street. The cobblestoned road, flanked by pastel-coloured Spanish Mission-style buildings, is the city's only complete heritage streetscape. Head to the nearby Rollickin' Gelato for dessert.