What to do in Christchurch: your post-quake guide

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After two weeks on-the-ground research in Christchurch recently– Lonely Planet's third visit since the February 2011 earthquake – we’re confident the city is one of New Zealand’s bravest and most resilient communities.

Our latest visit was unlike any other Lonely Planet research gig, with virtually all of the bars, cafes and restaurants recommended in our 2010 New Zealand guidebook no longer open. But amid the occasional uncertainty of aftershocks, Christchurch is re-emerging as one of NZ’s most exciting cities.

If you’re heading to the South Island of New Zealand, definitely spend a few days in the city. There’s still plenty to do, and you’ll be supporting the new businesses inspiring Christchurch’s renaissance.

Note that there is considerable demand for Christchurch accommodation, and booking ahead is strongly recommended. The city has been experiencing aftershocks, though latest reports suggest they could be (finally) moving away from the city;  keep up-to-date with the latest info at christchurchnz.com.

Welcome to SoMo

Dubbed SoMo, the area 'South of Moorhouse Ave' is Christchurch’s most dynamic neighbourhood. Addington features the urban chic of the Addington Coffee Co-op, while Simo’s Deli serves excellent North African street food.

Related article: Christchurch revival: why New Zealand's comeback city is a must-see for 2013

Addington is also the city’s new hub for live entertainment. Christchurch’s iconic Court Theatre has relocated into a restored warehouse and Dux Live has opened as a music venue. Look forward to a combination of beers from the Dux de Lux microbrewery and local and overseas acts. From April 2012, rugby fans can watch Christchurch’s beloved Crusaders at their new home ground in Addington.

To the west in Sydenham, the Honeypot Café and Burgers & Beer are both popular refugees from the still-closed Central Business District (CBD), and we’ve also heard rumours of new restaurants and arthouse cinemas opening up nearby. Across in Addington, the buzz is about the planned redevelopment of the Wood’s Mill heritage building as a hip bar and restaurant precinct.

Shipping container chic

Pop-up shipping-container shopping centre in Cashel St. Image by Brett Atkinson.

Who knew there were so many uses for a shipping container? While the city’s rebuild is carefully planned, the humble container has emerged as a funky option to kick-start Christchurch’s retail and hospitality sectors.

Bringing commercial life back to the fringe of the CBD, the RE:Start development showcases almost 30 retailers in a colourful labyrinth on Cashel Mall. Iconic Christchurch shops like Scorpio Books and Johnson’s Grocery have been joined by New Zealand’s best designers; free wi-fi and robust coffee from alfresco cafes are other essential distractions.

Later at night the shipping container action shifts to bars like Revival – complete with its own Middle Eastern food truck – and Cargo in Addington. Elsewhere in a rapidly changing city, you might see containers being used as hip street corner Thai restaurants or funky Japanese noodle bars.

Christchurch’s new social hubs

While the beleaguered CBD remains shuttered behind the Red Zone cordon, other establishments are emerging as essential socialising hubs for Christchurch locals. For the best coffee in town, head to the Addington Coffee Co-op or the cool Black Betty perched on the edge of High St, the city’s former hip shopping precinct. More grungy is the bohemian Beat Street Café at 324 Barbadoes St, and for the city’s best brunch grab an alfresco table at Under the Red Veranda.

For a stronger tipple, head to Pomeroy’s Old Brewery Inn, a hoppy shrine to NZ’s great craft beer scene (and home to Christchurch's best pub food), or make the short trek to Woolston and the Cassels & Sons Brewery. For cocktails, wine and tapas, the Volstead Trading Company and The Monday Room are both popular recent additions to the Christchurch bar scene.

Best eating

Some of Christchurch’s pre-earthquake restaurants have relocated to suburbs around the fringe of the CBD, but many are frozen in time awaiting the rebuild. The Bodhi Tree, NZ’s only Burmese restaurant, has reopened in Fendalton, and Chinwag Eathai fills a buzzy space with innovative Thai food and potent cocktails. Surrounding Victoria St is one of Christchurch’s emerging ‘eat streets’, with an expanding range of bars and restaurants.

Equally tasty, but more virtuous is the vegetarian and Indian-influenced food at The Lotus Heart, now relocated from Cathedral Square.

Other essential Christchurch foodie destinations include the Christchurch Farmers' Market, held Saturday mornings year round, and on Wednesday evenings from November to April (you’ll find the friendly Simo - of Simo's Deli - dishing up traditional Moroccan flavours at the weekly market). Another excellent farmers’ market is in the historic suburb of Lyttelton, badly damaged in the earthquakes, but now bouncing back with remarkable community spirit. Don’t miss playing a few ends at the Lyttelton Petanque Club, a development from the Gap Filler Charitable Trust, a community initiative that’s reinvigorating derelict spaces around Christchurch. Another Gap Filler project, the Think Differently Book Exchange, sits on the corner of Barbadoes and Kilmore Streets on the edge of the CBD. Just look for the retro fridge crammed with assorted tomes available to swap.

Is it a fridge? Is it a book shelf? The Think Differently Book Exchange is both. Image by Brett Atkinson.

Where to celebrate Christchurch’s historic charm

While much of the city’s heritage architecture has been damaged by earthquakes, Christchurch's traditional English ambience is still in evidence. Local students punt visitors languidly along the slow-moving Avon River, and the Botanic Gardens and Hagley Park remain some of NZ’s most impressive public spaces.

Near Christchurch’s historic Arts Centre, the Canterbury Museum is a fine showcase of NZ’s indigenous Maori culture; other highlights include an exhibition about Christchurch’s important historical role in the exploration of Antarctica.

Keeping up to date

Christchurch is already changing more rapidly than any other city in New Zealand, and the pace of change and rebuilding is only going to increase. Here’s our pick of the best online resources to maximise a visit to the city:

  • Pop Up City: Canterbury & Christchurch Tourism’s regular blog detailing new openings around the city. Also check out their main site for information updates.
  • Christchurch Music: The definitive guide to the local music scene. Key venues include Dux Live, the Darkroom and The Brewery.
  • CERA: The Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority publishes a handy map detailing road closures and the extent of the security cordon around Christchurch’s CBD. It’s currently projected the city centre will re-open around April-May 2012 but this timing is dependent on how quickly damaged high-rise buildings can be safely demolished. Click here for the detailed plan to rebuild Christchurch’s CBD.
  • Neat Places: A local blogger’s authoritative view of the best of Christchurch’s shopping, eating and drinking.
  • Lonely Planet’s new complete Christchurch chapter is available for free download until October. If you are going to Christchurch, please download it! We guarantee you'll have a better time with it than without it. Also see Brett's most recent (May 2012) update, and the Lonely Planet Thorn Tree, for other travellers' Christchurch reports.

Author Brett Atkinson has been all over the globe for Lonely Planet.

This article was published in January 2012 and updated in May 2012.