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Canterbury Travel Guide: Tips For a Fun Trip to Canterbury

Canterbury Travel Guide: Tips For a Fun Trip to Canterbury

Our Canterbury Travel Guide will give you a good overview of the region. If you’re looking for posts about a particular area click on one of these links: Christchurch | Akaroa | Mount Cook | Lake Tekapo | South Canterbury | North Canterbury | Kaikoura | Arthur’s Pass | Hakatere.

Home to the South Island’s largest city (and by far its busiest airport), Canterbury is the entry point to this beautiful island for a huge number of travellers. The region branches out from Christchurch, with Banks Peninsula to one side and the snow-capped peaks of the Southern Alps to the other plus a coastline stretching from Timaru to Kaikoura. Our Canterbury travel guide will show you the best places to visit and some tips on how to plan your trip.

Canterbury Travel Guide: Towns | Cities | Regions

Canterbury is a huge place, so we’ve divided it up into six main regions. Each one is unique, so explore a little and you should find something interesting to add to your Canterbury travel plans.

Christchurch

Christchurch is the South Island’s only big city, with the others (Dunedin, Invercargill and Nelson) often feeling like oversized towns in comparison. You’ll find all the big city comforts in Christchurch, from suburban shopping malls to an endless array of dining options. Big hotels, major events, inner city traffic — you get the picture!

Christchurch, as far as tourists are concerned, is divided up into two three areas — the city centre, Port Hills and the coast (Sumner, New Brighton and the northern beaches). The city centre, with the Avon River cutting through it’s otherwise flat and built-up streets is fun to walk around, with all the museums, boutique shops and cafés you could hope to find.

New Regent Street, Christchuch, New Zealand

The Port Hills is the place to go for walks and scenic drives — some stunning views over Christchurch in the right light (Mt Vernon Park, Sugarloaf Scenic Reserve, Christchurch Gondola). Lyttleton is a good spot to visit for lunch and you can drive further around to Governors Bay and Diamond Harbour. Sumner Beach is a great spot for a meal by the ocean and New Brighton Beach, with its pier and hot tubs is another good place to visit.

READ MORE: Christchurch Itinerary: How to Spend There-Seven Days in Christchurch

Akaroa and Banks Peninsula

With a touch of French Flair and some awesome coastal scenery, Akaroa is one of the best small towns to visit in Canterbury. Only 90-minutes from Christchurch, it makes for a good day trip or a place to spend a night or two away from the bustle of the city.

There’s heaps to explore around Banks Peninsula — bays, bush walks, dolphin tours, viewpoints and scenic drives high above the calm waters of Akaroa Harbour.

READ MORE: 15 0f the Best Things to Do in Akaroa

Mackenzie Basin and Mount Cook

New Zealand’s tallest mountains are found huddled together in Aoraki Mount Cook National Park, a three-hour drive from Christchurch. There are lots of walks that take advantage of the views, from short walks (Kea Point, Tasman Glacier), slightly harder ones (Red Tarns, Hooker Valley) and much harder ones (Mueller Hut).

Or you can avoid walking and enjoy the views from the comfort of your car — the drive from Lake Tekapo is one of the most beautiful in New Zealand.

The scenic drive to Mount Cook, New Zealand

Lake Tekapo is a good base for exploring Mount Cook National Park and the Mackenzie Basin. It’s the busiest tourist town in these parts but Twizel is a lot closer to Mount Cook (could be a good option if taking multiple trips into the national park). Lake Tekapo is an interesting town in its own right, with some quality walks and other sights including one of New Zealand’s most picturesque churches (Church of the Good Shepherd) as well as hot pools right by the lake. Other places to visit in the Mackenzie Basin include Fairlie (try the pies) and Burkes Pass.

READ MORE: 16 of the Best Things to Do in Lake Tekapo

Fun things to do in Lake Tekapo and the Mackenzie Basin, New Zealand

Rakaia | Hakatere | Arthur’s Pass

Lake Tekapo and Mount Cook National Park get most of the tourist attention when it comes to mountain areas in Canterbury, but there are heaps of other places to explore. The Rakaia / Hakatere Conservation Park area is a fun one, with the scenic drive to Mount Sunday the highlight.

There’s also the Rakaia Gorge Walkway and Lake Coleridge (Peak Hill Track), while the drive to Mount Sunday takes you to several other lakes. These places are popular with locals but not so much with foreign travellers — there are countless walks in these parts and we haven’t come close to doing them all — a great place to get off the beaten path!

Arthur’s Pass is another place to head for prime Southern Alps scenery. There are heaps of walks in the area (Devil’s Punchbowl Falls is one of the best) and it’s a scenic and popular driving route, linking Canterbury to the West Coast. 

READ MORE: Driving From Christchurch to the West Coast: Best Places to Stop

South Canterbury

South Canterbury includes Timaru, the second largest settlement in Canterbury, as well as inland areas such as Geraldine and Peel Forest. Timaru is pretty seaside town of around 30,000 people. The historic town centre is a great place for a wander and some shopping, with Caroline Bay a short walk away. There’s also a short coastal walk just south of town (Jack’s Point Lighthouse) which is worth a look if you’ve got time.

READ MORE: 14 of the Best Things to Do in Timaru

Geraldine is the gateway to Peel Forest and a good place to consider spending the night. There are some good food options (especially Barkers) and plenty of places to sleep. Peel Forest features short walks to waterfalls (and a big tree), while Mount Peel is a strenuous but rewarding hike with stunning views over South Canterbury.

North Canterbury

Travelling north of Christchurch soon brings you to North Canterbury. It’s common to sprint through to Kaikoura (two hours north of Christchurch) or Picton, but if you’re keen to explore you’ve got options. I reckon the best of the bunch is Cathedral Cliffs/ Gore Bay, but Hurunui Mouth and Manuka Bay are also worth checking out.

The Cathedral Cliffs overlooking Gore Bay, North Canterbury, New Zealand

We camped at Hurunui Mouth a few years ago and recommend it — you can also camp at Gore Bay and several other places. If looking for a lively town to spend the night on you should probably carry on to Kaikoura.

Hurunui Mouth road, North Canterbury, New Zealand

Kaikoura is a popular South Island tourist town, mostly due to the whale watching that happens just offshore. Seeing whales in the flesh is always exciting — try and it do it at least once in your life if you get the chance! There are some nice beaches and a spectacular coastal walk (Kaikoura Peninsula Walkway) to see, and the views of imposing mountains so close to the coast is quite a rare sight. From Kaikoura it’s a short drive until you’re in Marlborough (Blenheim, Picton, Marlborough Sounds).

North Canterbury also includes Hanmer Springs, inland from Kaikoura. You’ll pass through it (or very close to it) when driving between Christchurch and Nelson. The main draw is the hot pools but there are some good hikes too.

Top Experiences

There are months’ worth of adventures to be had in Canterbury, so if you’re short on time you’ll need to choose wisely. The following five experiences are good places to start!

Hiking in Mount Cook National Park: Hooker Valley Track | Tasman Glacier | Red Tarns | Scenic Road to Mount Cook | Lake Tekapo

Exploring Banks Peninsula: Akaroa | Scenic Drives | Dolphin Watching

Seaside Fun in Kaikoura: Whale Watching | Kaikoura Peninsula Walkway | Beaches in Kaikoura

Hakatere Conservative Park / Lake Coleridge: Mountains off the Beaten Path: Mount Sunday | Lake Clearwater | Lake Emily | Peak Hill Track | Lake Heron | Rakaia Gorge Walkway

Exploring South Canterbury: Timaru | Caroline Bay | Mount Peel

Big City Sights in Christchurch: Tram Tour | Christchurch Gondola | Walking by the Avon River | New Regent Street | Riverside Market

Getting Around

Buying or renting a car is the best way to get around the South Island, but it’s not for everyone. You can see a decent amount using tours and buses — a good option if you’re not keen to drive.

If relying on buses and tours you’d start in Christchurch (or Picton off the ferry) and take a tour to Mount Cook / Lake Tekapo, spend a few days in Christchurch (good public transport), bus to Kaikoura and spend a few days there and maybe stop off in Timaru if you’re heading south towards Dunedin. Lots of options! You’ll be stuck in towns and cities a little more if you don’t have your own transport but if you plan it right it’d be a great trip.

Where to Stay

Christchurch, Kaikoura, Lake Tekapo, Hanmer Springs, Timaru, Twizel and Geraldine are the towns you’ll likely stay in if sleeping in motels and hotels. If you’re camping there are endless options. So many camping grounds and some are free for self-contained vehicles.

Canterbury Itinerary

A seven-day Canterbury itinerary, starting in Christchurch, could include a couple of nights in Christchurch, a night or two in Akaroa, two-four nights in Lake Tekapo / Mount Cook / Hakatere, one night in Geraldine and one or two in Kaikoura (or Arthurs Pass if heading to the West Coast).

If starting in Picton it’s pretty much the same just in a different order. Kaikoura – Christchurch – Akaroa – Lake Tekapo/ Mount Cook – Timaru / Geraldine. If you’ve read this far you should be well versed in Canterbury travel! If you have any questions or need anything clarified let us know in the comments below!

Are you planning a trip to New Zealand? Check out our South Island travel guide!

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Jon Algie

I'm a South Island local -- born in Timaru and raised in Dunedin. I left the island in 2006 and returned 10 years later. Having seen a good chunk of the world I realised how special this place is -- the most beautiful island in the world! Seven years (and almost 400 posts) later I'm still helping locals and tourists alike plan their trips around the South Island.