Rebuilding Christchurch: Five Years After the Earthquake

In the last few years, Christchurch, New Zealand has become all but synonymous with one event: the 2011 earthquake that devastated the city. The earthquake has played a core role in shaping Christchurch’s current identity, in many ways for the best, as the city continues to rebuild itself. With relatively affordable flights from Sydney to Christchurch, I made New Zealand’s third (and the South Island’s first) largest city the kickoff point for my massive trip around the world that I set off on a week ago.

Christchurch Cathedral, New Zealand

What remains of the Christchurch Cathedral after the earthquake

I picked myself up a New Zealand SIM card at the airport (can’t stay disconnected that long!) and navigated the Christchurch bus system, then overconfidently tried to lug my weighty backpack the remaining 25-minute walk to the hostel, very discouraging when planning 9+ months of carrying it around! But at last I arrived at my hostel, a converted 1874 prison. Spoiler alert: I did not spot any ghosts in my jail cell-turned-dormitory.

Exhausted from travel preparation and saying my sad goodbyes to Sydney, I used the first day to relax in the hostel and catch up on blogging work and travel planning. Day two, however, I set out to explore, beginning the day with a free walking tour.

The tour took us by Christchurch’s key sites and explained how the earthquake had affected the city. I had arrived just a few days after the fifth anniversary of the event, during which 185 people were killed and up to 2000 were injured. Within the year, over 10,000 residents had left the city, and the New Zealand government estimated that Christchurch would cost up to $40 billion (roughtly $26.5 billion U.S.) to rebuild.

ANZAC Bridge, Christchurch, New Zealand

Christchurch’s World War I memorial bridge under construction

A significant amount of work still needs to be done before the city is restored to what it once was. Empty lots can be found on every street, construction is happening everywhere you turn, and a few of the buildings are still half in rubble. Our tour took us by the Cardboard Cathedral, one of Christchurch’s most well-known monuments, a church that was built out of cardboard and other inexpensive materials to provide a religious refuge following the earthquake. We also saw the lot where the CTV building once stood, a building that completely collapsed in the earthquake, killing 115. Nearby are the 185 Empty White Chairs, an emotional tribute to those who lost their lives in the earthquake.

Cardboard Cathedral, Christchurch

Inside the Cardboard Cathedral. The roof is held up with cardboard tubes.

185 Empty White Chairs, Christchurch, New Zealand

The 185 Empty White Chairs memorial

Though incredibly sad to see the devastation that Christchurch faced, the efforts to revitalize the city are inspiring. I had lunch at Re:Start, a shopping area built out of shipping containers, which allowed business to flourish even after shops were destroyed. Colorful street art and creative memorials can also be found throughout Christchurch.

Re:Start, Christchurch, New Zealand


After the tour and lunch, I paid a visit to the Canterbury Museum, which houses an interesting variety of exhibitions covering everything from natural history to Antarctic expeditions to art. I spent several hours in the free museum (I always love free when traveling!) enjoying these exhibitions. I learned about the Paua Shell house, in which an elderly couple housed their collection of iridescent shells and other souvenirs on their walls, a tourist hotspot in Bluff, New Zealand that has since been relocated to the Canterbury Museum. I also enjoyed the museum’s re-creation of an early Christchurch Street, complete with streetlights, storefronts, and talking statues.

Paua Shell House, Canterbury Museum, Christchurch, New Zealand

The paua shell house

Outside of the Canterbury Museum are the Christchurch Botanic Gardens. Christchurch is known as “The Garden City,” and it’s easy to tell why. I wandered the idyllic park and sat by a stream soaking in the sun and reading, a tranquil end to my time in Christchurch.

Christchurch Botanic Gardens, New Zealand

The Botanic Gardens

Though Christchurch lacks the natural beauty that much of New Zealand offers and is a relatively quiet destination that can be explored in a day, it provided a great start to my trip to New Zealand. It was fascinating to learn about the city’s recent history and how it has rebuilt itself since the earthquake, and it’s beautiful to see just how much hope residents have for their city. I look forward to seeing what Christchurch shapes itself into in the next few years.

6 Responses

  1. This is just a logistics question I have: are you toting all your worldly possessions on your back for the next nine months? Or did you mail home a huge box of your non-travel stuff? I can’t imagine whittling down all my things after living 3 years in Spain to just a backpack! Bon voyage as your round-the-world trip begins!

  2. Sarah says:

    This is why I love Christchurch. After earthquakes the City easily recovered and still has a lot to offer for tourist.

  3. Penny says:

    Such a national tragedy. I do hope the lives and buildings of the local population are looking better today than what things were like all those years ago. Christchurch is such a lovely city.

    Cheers Penny…

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