As the largest city in New Zealand’s South Island, Christchurch acts as a gateway to some of the most beautiful scenery in the world.
Having suffered a major earthquake in 2009, the city is still regenerating. A lot of the damage remains today, with seemingly endless construction works and a destroyed church right in the city center. Nevertheless, Christchurch natives have managed to turn the disaster around to help build community spirit in the city.
You can learn all about the impact on local lives – as well as the geology behind the earthquakes – whilst in town. This makes for a very surprising addition to any New Zealand itinerary.
If you opt to stay in Christchurch for a while, there are some excellent day trips that can be taken within a few hours to other destinations across the South Island.
Though most people visit for the natural beauty, you can also experience rural New Zealand life and adrenaline sports in many of the destinations.
Here are the 15 best day trips within reasonable traveling distance from Christchurch.
1. Akaroa and the Banks Peninsula
Akaroa is a small town located on the Banks Peninsula, which juts out of the South Island just east of Christchurch. In the town itself, you can embed yourself in local Kiwi culture – learning all about the history of the islands, as well as sampling the famous New Zealand coffee and pies.
The harbor town is also home to native wildlife, including rare Hector’s dolphins and unique birdlife. The rest of the peninsula is great for exploring the dramatic scenery and learning about New Zealand’s conservation efforts across the country.
2. TranzAlpine Train
The TranzAlpine Train connects Christchurch with Greymouth and you can easily organize a return as part of a day trip. They cross through the Southern Alps – the area of New Zealand with the most breathtaking scenery, which has been shaped by seismic activity for centuries.
You will be able to take in astounding views over the mountains and lakes and see some of the spots used for filming in the Lord of the Rings movie franchise. The most famous site across the route is Arthur’s Pass, affording the most dramatic views available on the island.
Kaikoura is a popular stop-off point for visitors to the South Island but makes a unique day trip in its own right.
Cut off from Christchurch by earthquakes in 2016, the road into the town has recently been restored, making it much easier to visit. Here, you can sample some of New Zealand’s finest seafood, as well as take in rural Kiwi culture at its finest.
There are popular boat trips from the town that allow you to discover dolphins and whales, and a short drive along the coast will reveal a large seal colony. If you visit just after mating season, you can also get up close with baby seals from the colony.
4. Aoraki Mount Cook National Park
Mount Cook (known as Aoraki in Maori) is New Zealand’s tallest mountain, and the surrounding national park has some great hiking options as well as a breathtaking view over Lake Pukaki.
During the winter, there are some excellent skiing opportunities within the region; in the summer, you can enjoy kayaking in the clear, glacial waters of the lake.
If you are interested in conservation, there are plenty of centers in the area that give great presentations on how New Zealand is preserving its natural history.
The most popular destination in the South Island, Queenstown is a little further afield than other options, so we suggest taking an organized tour if you are planning a day trip to make sure the timing is right.
This is the adrenaline capital of New Zealand, with one of the most famous bungee jumps in the world located in Shotover Canyon.
The Tiki Trail is a hiking and mountain biking track that takes you halfway up Ben Lomond to the Skyline Queenstown area, where you can try out the luge or just experience the best view over the city. There is also a cable car available for an easier ride.
6. Hanmer Springs
New Zealand is well known for its seismic activity, and this has allowed some excellent hot springs to appear across the country.
The most famous are located on the North Island; however, Hanmer Springs is an excellent option away from the crowds of the other natural springs – and is arguably the best spa town on the South Island.
There are plenty of mountain biking tracks around the town, as well as hiking trails, where you will be rewarded with excellent views over the surrounding forests and mountains. In winter, it is a great place for skiing, snowboarding and ice-skating.
Located on the shore of Lake Tekapo, this area is often overlooked by tourists for the neighboring Mount Cook National Park, however, has some great secluded hiking trails and a very relaxed atmosphere within the main town.
Mount John is an excellent hiking trail, with a glass-walled café at the top for you to admire the views over the lake with a typical Kiwi flat white in hand.
There is also the Mount John observatory – infamous for being the observatory that downgraded Pluto from its status as a planet. You can learn all about space exploration and how New Zealand has influenced discoveries over the past few decades.
If you opt to save money and drive through the Southern Alps rather than take the train, Greymouth is an interesting endpoint.
Its industrial history means many tourists do not take the time to explore the town, but there are still some great sites to be found. Shantytown Heritage Park is a recreated gold rush village.
The West Coast of the South saw some of the main gold mining activity in the country, and the impact of this gold rush can still be seen in the region to this day. At Shantytown, you can learn all about this section of New Zealand history.
Also located on the West Coast, Hokitika is a quaint town full of typical New Zealand culture.
It is the modern hub for jade products – known locally as greenstone – which is the most common material used for carving Maori pounamu. You can learn about the precious stone in one of the many stores and centers across the town, as well as get the opportunity to carve your own pounamu.
The National Kiwi Centre is also a fun place to try and spot a native Kiwi bird, as well as learn about the other unique animals found across both islands.
Only a short drive away from Christchurch, Timaru (known as Timaz by locals) is a short departure from the dramatic scenery the South Island is most known for, and is instead a much better destination for checking out rural Kiwi culture.
Typical Kiwi cafés, filled with award-winning pies, are spread across the town, and there are many Kiwiana shops for you to pick up some souvenirs to take back home. The town is also an artistic hub, with locally owned galleries and cool sculptures throughout the town center.
Thanks to the ferries from Wellington, Marlborough is another gateway to the South Island for visitors who opt to sail rather than fly.
The region is filled with beautiful vineyards – particularly near Wairau and Awatere – where you can experience some of the most famous wine in the world. Most of the wineries offer tours and tasting experiences.
The Marlborough Sounds are also packed with natural beauty and are somewhat quieter than the more famous fjords of Southland.
Bird enthusiasts will enjoy discovering some of the most unique species in the world in the region, with excellent birdwatching spots dotted around the area.
Another cute little town located south of Christchurch, Oamaru is an excellent place to spot Little Blue Penguins. These penguins are native to the southern half of the South Island; this is the closest you can get to them in person.
Oamaru is an excellent place to check out some of New Zealand’s oldest colonial architecture, inspired by the Edwardian architecture of the United Kingdom.
The town also serves as a hub for helicopter tours, which take guests on a sightseeing tour over the Otago region, as well as some of Canterbury.
This cool little town is off the radar for many tourists but absolutely should not be missed.
It is a bit of a longer journey, so leave early or consider an organized tour. Nevertheless, it is worth the trip and most of the main sites can be covered in a day. The town is modeled on Edinburgh in Scotland, with many of the street names taken from the city.
This has resulted in incredibly unique street layouts, with the world’s steepest street located in the city. There is a great street art scene that not only encapsulates traditional graffiti and murals but also painted public benches and sculptures.
If you are visiting in May, aim to be in town for the Jaffa Race – where locals throw the small orange sweets down the hill to raise money for charity.
Punakaiki is the entrance point to Paparoa National Park – a lush and vibrant area of the country with plenty of native wildlife and plant species.
The most famous site is the pancake rocks – piles of flat rocks which resemble enormous stacks of pancakes. There are also blowholes in the same area, where you can experience the true power of the Tasman Sea and how it interacts with the New Zealand coastline.
If you enjoy horse riding, there are popular treks stemming from the town and horses are available to hire.
Also a little off the tourist trail, Geraldine is full of surprises and is a true culmination of all the best parts of the South Island.
Located in the Canterbury plains, the town has incredible views of the Southern Alps. You can check out some of the largest sheep farms in the country and learn all about local history and culture.
Be sure to check out some of the independent art galleries and pieces of street art that really add a sense of vibrancy to the town. You can even purchase some local handicrafts, which make much more unique gifts than the usual Kiwiana from tourist stores.