Christchurch reimagined: Passionate locals revive the city

Christchurch, New Zealand’s oldest city is now the country’s newest destination story. Follow the top tips of local personalities who’ve had an active hand in reimagining their home town.

Christchurch, New Zealand’s oldest city is now the country’s newest destination story. 

Since devastating earthquakes struck Christchurch – New Zealand’s second largest city in 2010-11, creative and passionate locals have been determined to use the opportunity to reimagine their city. Now Christchurch is emerging with an intriguing new edge and, while the central business district that bore the brunt of the quakes is a work in progress, visitors to Christchurch will be rewarded.

Local personalities who’ve had an active hand in reimagining Christchurch share their favourite things to do in town. 

Sam Crofskey – the man behind Christchurch’s urban renewal

Sam Crofskey, owner of C-1 Espresso Café – a busy High Street establishment serving up excellent espresso and a quirky new twist on express food – was among the first to breathe new life into Christchurch’s damaged central city. The story of how the engineer turned ‘hospo artist' rebuilt his ruined café business is one of challenge and ingenuity. 

When C-1 reopened in November 2012 in one of the few heritage buildings left standing, it was the first permanent café to re-establish in town and possibly the first in the world to deliver food at 100km per hour by pneumatic tube. It may also be the first to serve red wine produced from the rooftop vineyard. C-1’s phoenix-like rise has won plaudits for Sam - even if he is dismissive of this praise, pointing out that there are now more cafés in Christchurch than before the earthquakes.

Drop into C-1 any day of the week and you may spot young mothers, academics, architects, businesspeople, tourists and even a former mayor. “There’s a really eclectic mix of people,” says Sam. 

The café décor is pure fun, not least because of the network of pneumatic tubes that runs along the ceiling and snakes down into the dining area delivering ‘Pneumatic Sliders’. The artworks and menus are filled with cartoons and stories - many with a political take. 

“It’s the young people who are going to make this place interesting,” says Sam. “That’s what’s happening now. The city feels alive, it feels vibrant, it feels full of hope and opportunity, there’s no doubt about that. If you want to give something a go, you can.”

C-1-Espresso is located at 185 High Street, Christchurch. The café is open from 7am to 10pm daily, no bookings are required

Sam Crofskey’s five Christchurch tips

  • Godley Heads: “Regardless of the weather this is a quick and easy reminder as to why Christchurch is home.” For expansive views of the city, from the Pacific Ocean to the Southern Alps, take a 40-minute drive from the city via Ferry Rd to Sumner, then follow the signs.
  • Riccarton Markets: “A sandwich from our friends at Bao Down is always the first call at these very social markets.”  Every Sunday 9am - 2pm at Riccarton Park (146 Racecourse Rd).
  • Pop up markets and events: “Christchurch is ever changing and the 'First Thursdays' eclectic, performance art market is a highlight of the calendar.” First Thursday of each month, 5 – 9pm, in various locations in Sydenham.  
  • Lyttelton: “The port town provides a great escape from the city, and is never complete without enjoying the coffee at the rebuilt Lyttelton Coffee Company. The views from their new deck are worth the short trip alone.” Open 7am – 4pm (Mon – Fri), 8am – 4pm (Sat and Sun) at 29 London Street, Lyttelton.
  • The post-quake hospitality scene:  “I’m certain there are not enough hours in the day (or night) to go to the new places that are springing up - food markets, food trucks, new restaurant, bars, cafés and precincts. We enjoy the regular haunts as much as checking out all the new places.”

Giulio & Christy Sturla – savouring small and sustainable

Aftershocks were still rattling Lyttelton when Giulio and Christy Sturla launched Roots. From turbulent times and humble origins came a new culinary star – the 2015 Cuisine magazine ‘NZ Restaurant of the Year’, Roots is taking food sustainability to a new level while helping reinvigorate the little port town.

With only 10 tables and no set menu, Roots is a new restaurant almost every day, reinventing according to seasonal availability from the garden, markets, organic specialists and local foraging. “In summer, we pick around 30 or 40 different edible leaves from around the garden. They are all tiny. Everything tastes different – it’s incredible,” says Giulio.

Drawn to New Zealand’s natural beauty, Chilean-born Giulio and Christy, an American, arrived in 2010 with the dream of starting their own restaurant. Giulio’s personal culinary journey had included a year working without pay at Spanish restaurant Mugaritz under chef Andoni Luis Aduriz, learning how food could be presented as a complete sensory and creative experience.

But there was a different kind of sensory experience when an earthquake severely damaged the city on Giulio’s first day at work in Christchurch. While the restaurant building survived the earthquake, later damage forced it to close. With a family to support, the couple sold homemade goodies and produce then started a daytime café / evening supper club. They leased damaged premises, refurbished by hand, gardened, foraged and bartered their way into opening Roots.

Meanwhile Roots is also helping to put the heart back into Christchurch’s port town, with its burgeoning array of new restaurants, cafés and shops providing proof of resilience and the power of reinvention.

Roots Restaurant is at 8 London Street, Lyttelton. Open from 5.30pm for dinner (Tues-Sat) from 5.30pm for dinner; lunch by appointment only (Fri and Sat).

Giulio and Christy’s five Christchurch tips

  • Ferry to Diamond Harbour: “It reminds you that we are surrounded by water … Diamond Harbour is so quiet and peaceful, a beautiful place for a walk.” 
  • Barry’s Bay Cheese: “We always stop to sample the cheeses there.” This traditional dairy has daily cheese tastings and you can watch the cheese-making every second day (Oct - May). 
  • Akaroa: "A pretty little town and a great base to explore Banks Peninsula’s coastal landscape, wildlife and history. “… a wonderful place to go walking, fishing or just enjoying the harbour.” 
  • Christchurch Gondola: "A great place to visit." Take the Christchurch Gondola to the Summit Station on Mt Cavendish for impressive views. 
  • Farmers Markets: Fresh artisan foods and local produce, arts and crafts, and live music. Local markets can be found in various locations in and around the city.

Glen Tregurtha – life cycles through Christchurch

Glen Tregurtha’s view of the changing face of Christchurch is an intimate daily affair guiding cycling and walking tours through the city precincts. 

Each tour is a showcase of the city’s amazing transition as bars, restaurants and commercial buildings open, bringing people back. “Every time I see new street art or hear of a new bar, it’s exciting,” he says. “It’s creating spaces and places to allow people to re-engage with the city. Every new thing is a step in the right direction.”

In 2012, when Glen began working for Christchurch Bike and Walking Tours, his beat traversed the Red Zone with its checkpoints guarded by soldiers. “It was difficult seeing the changes,” he says. “But you have to move on at some point. I knew it was an amazing opportunity for the city to reinvent itself, so from the beginning my mind set has been unwaveringly optimistic.”

There is “no shortage of great stuff to focus on” during the two-hour tours. Highlights include the Transitional ‘cardboard’ Cathedral designed by Japanese architect Shigeru Ban and the crowd-pulling street art of huge murals created by some of the world’s leading street artists. A former graphic designer, Glen has an affinity with these splashes of brilliant colour on concrete canvasses that have helped to reinvigorate the central city.

Having lived in Christchurch for most of his life, Glen is familiar with little-used paths between houses, over wooden bridges and along the meandering Avon River banks. “I love how the bike tours allow us to get up close and personal with the city growing around us,” Glen says. “It’s very satisfying to watch people’s changing mind sets. They come with a perception of what they will see and often can’t make sense of it. But after the tour they walk away as excited about the future of Christchurch as I am.”

Bike and Walking tours depart from outside The Antigua Boat Sheds (2 Cambridge Terrace).

Glen’s five Christchurch tips

  • Transitional Cathedral: The world’s only cathedral made substantially from cardboard (234 Hereford Street).
  • Summit Road: From Sumner village, cycle or walk up Evans Pass Road to Summit Road, then head down via Mt Pleasant.
  • Christchurch Farmers’ Market: Fresh farm produce, high-quality artisan and prepared foods on Saturdays (9am - 1pm) at 16 Kahu Road, Riccarton.
  • Boo Radley’s: Great live music at a new bar / restaurant in a heritage building (above Tequila Mockingbird, 98 Victoria Street).  
  • Castle Hill: A small alpine village (30 minutes’ drive west of Christchurch) with great hiking and mountain biking (summer), and nearby ski-fields (winter).

Marcia Butterfield Christchurch reveals Neat Places

Marcia Butterfield thought her hometown was getting a bad rap when her friends complained about the lack of things to do in post-earthquake Christchurch, so she set out to prove otherwise. 

As the city began repairing its damaged heart, it was hard to keep up with all the creative community projects, new openings and returning old favourites. Marcia’s response was ‘Neat Places’ – a practical little guide profiling whatever was new and hot to do in Christchurch. Since 2010, Marcia’s “little hobby project” has flourished into a business with a website, smartphone app and handy printed city guides. 

With vineyards and ski fields only 90-minutes away by road, mountain bike trails and surf beaches on the fringes, Christchurch is the perfect destination for outdoor enthusiasts, says Marcia. But she chooses to live in Christchurch for the culture, cuisine, and collective creativity that have been expressed in a series of “amazing transitional projects that have emerged following the earthquakes”.

“It’s impossible to get bored in Christchurch,” says Marcia. “For one thing, not many people get to experience a city evolving from the ground up. For another, I’ll never tire of the creativity and inspiration that this city gives me, or the big open spaces and endless possibilities that surround us.” 

Neat Places is for visitors as well as for locals. By revealing the hidden gems – local, distinctive and one-of-a-kind businesses – and how to find them, it makes the challenge of exploring a city in recovery more accessible and enjoyable. The geo-locational smartphone app is free to download and users don’t need to connect to Wi-Fi or data to use it. 

Marcia Butterfield’s five Christchurch tips

  • Supreme Supreme: Retro American-style diner and coffee roaster. Open 7am – 4pm (Mon – Fri), 8am – 4pm (Sat and Sun) at 10 Welles Street. 
  • The Auricle: This innovative sound gallery and wine bar is a unique experience located on St Asaph Street. Open 12pm – evening (Wed – Sun).
  • The Colombo: Stylish shopping destination for clothing, homeware, gifts and lunch. Open 9am - 5:30pm (Mon – Sat), 10am – 5pm (Sun) at 363 Colombo Street, Sydenham.
  • The Agropolis: An urban working farm where locals and visitors can get involved at Saturday morning workshops. Open daily at 154 High St in central Christchurch.
  • Black Estate, Waipara: Family-run winery eatery for stylish relaxed food and wine. Open 10am – 5pm daily (90 minutes’ drive north of the city, at 614 Omihi Rd in the Waipara Valley wine region) .

George Shaw – colouring Christchurch’s streetscapes

Ex-pat Englishman George Shaw, who owns one of the largest collections of works by reclusive British graffiti artist Banksy, saw the oppportunity to turn Christchurch into a world street art leader by curating a major exhibition featuring international street artists.  

The 54-year-old, who moved to New Zealand with his wife and young family in 2009, was behind the Spectrum street art festival and a major expression of the movement that has transformed a city long celebrated for its gardens and historic buildings into a canvas for a colourful, transitional art movement.

There are nearly 50 major murals throughout the city – the result of crowd-pulling events in 2014, 2015 and 2016. 

Street art has turned Christchurch into “a magnetic city”, George says, with more major murals than anywhere else in the southern hemisphere, and architects, designers and organisations are increasingly identifying Christchurch with street art. Part of the reason is that new buildings with blank concrete walls offer as much potential for street art as the walls on existing buildings. 

Visitors to Christchurch will find beautiful works such as the bright, abstract colours on the wall of the Canterbury Development Corporation Building. “It’s quite a phenomenon,” says George. “There’s this fabulous energy that’s happening in Christchurch as the city re-emerges.”

Street art is exploding into the biggest art movement the world has ever seen, says George, and it has the potential to transform lives and cities for the better. “We have been able to offer [artists] a channel and outlet that wasn’t there previously,” he says. “We want to entertain people. Our art is about entertainment, it’s not about reverence. Don’t turn your mobile phone off when you’re here, turn it up and add to the atmosphere.”

George Shaw’s five Christchurch tips

  • Re:START Container Mall: “unique architecture with great community atmosphere.” 
  • Smash Palace: “best burgers, great beer and an awesome people place.”
  • C-1 Espresso: “best place to hang out for an extended coffee and a feed. Their lovely quirkiness is perfectly offset by the amazing music they play.” 
  • New Regent Street: “It’s a lively little spot day and night, crammed full of interesting bars and cafes all set within beautiful traditional architecture.”
  • Isaac Theatre Royal: “Gorgeous venue that feels like somewhere in London’s West End … and best of all it has the most amazing piece of street art on its rear wall.” 

Christchurch - Best time to visit
Long known as ‘the Garden City’, Christchurch comes to life in spring, while summer is an opportunity to enjoy some of the city’s 40 safe swimming beaches. In autumn, the changing of the leaves makes the city’s historic districts especially beautiful while winter brings snow to the mountains and nearby ski areas.

Spectrum 2015-16 is now closed but you can find wonderful examples of street art all around the central city year-round. The Christchurch Art Gallery - which reopened in December 2015 - has extensive collections by important New Zealand and Canterbury artists. 

How to get there
Located in New Zealand’s South Island, Christchurch is the country’s second-largest city. It has an international airport, and there are regular flights from other domestic centres.

What’s nearby
From Christchurch and within 90 minutes’ drive, you can be in the Waipara Valley vineyard region, or in the historic French settlement of Akaroa in the heart of a now extinct volcano or at Mt Hutt - the region’s premier commercial ski area - or soaking your cares away at Hanmer Hot Springs. Lyttelton, about 20 minutes from the centre of Christchurch, is a quirky, relaxed port town and the city’s oldest settlement.