What I Really Thought of Christchurch

Christchurch Construction - New Zealand

I have to be honest with you guys, I’ve been putting this post off for months.

I try to start and every time I stare into the blank page, the cursor blinking back at me, taunting me to begin. The truth is, Christchurch is a hard place to talk about because it’s not a place that I enjoyed. It’s a difficult statement to make for me, because it’s a city that has been through so much and one that I wanted to support and love with open arms.

But, in the spirit of sincerity, I thought it was finally time to share with you all what I really thought of Christchurch.

What I Really Thought of Christchurch, New Zealand

The 6.3 earthquake that occurred just outside of Christchurch on February 22nd, 2011 at 12:51 pm, wreaked havoc across the city and killed 185 people. It was New Zealand’s second deadliest natural disaster to date.

Christchurch Cathedral - New Zealand

There have been ongoing efforts to rebuild and even a Re:Start movement within the city, but it doesn’t feel like there’s any heart behind it. Over four years later and the city is still defeated, emotionless, and subdued from the after effects of the quake.

There is rubble and constant construction, there are still the remains of buildings that have been left there, forgotten in the sadness.

Related: How to Easily Get a New Zealand Working Holiday Visa as an American

Christchurch, New Zealand

Christchurch Cathedral - New Zealand

When we went on a trolley tour around town, the elderly guide constantly referenced buildings that used to be there, but barely talked about the new ones that had gone in since the earthquake. Just before we stepped off, he related to us a fond memory from childhood of the old movie theater that used to be across the street before it fell down.

Christchurch seemed to either still exist in pre-2011 or be centered around the earthquake, the general mindset was not one of the future, but of the past.

Christchurch Street Art

No matter what activity we chose to do, there was a lackluster joyless manner in the random strangers we came across on a daily basis. We went punting on the river at one point, and although it was a relaxing day, the oarsman’s forced jokes fell flat and awkward. The stoney faces of the other workers looked at us blankly as we came back through the shop on our way out, after kindly refusing to buy a picture we didn’t ask to have taken.

Punting in Christchurch, New Zealand

The hardest part was going to see the Cardboard Cathedral and the memorial for the many people who died in the six-story Canterbury Television building (CTV) in 2011.

I met the nicest man of my whole time in the city at the Cardboard Cathedral. He was passing out pamphlets and interested in learning more about each and every visitor that came in. He was genuinely happy for the tourists that were still coming to Christchurch, and that we were inquisitive about the earthquake and the history of the makeshift cathedral.

Cardboard Cathedral - Christchurch, NZ

The Cardboard Cathedral is one of the few signs of hope in a city that is still recovering. It was meant to only be a transitional cathedral after the original Christchurch Cathedral fell in the earthquake, but it has become such a beloved place by tourists and locals alike that there are no plans to take it down anytime soon. The cathedral was made mainly from cardboard and structured and designed with earthquakes in mind.

Other signs of creativity and resilience could be seen in small doses around the city. While I was there, they had colorful giraffes to represent a community that stood tall. They were meant to be auctioned off last January, with proceeds that would go to local charities.

The Re:Start area of the city that I mentioned before is also a new place. It’s an artsy, alternative space that is colorful, communal, and full of food carts and music.

Re:Start Mall - Christchurch, NZ

Sheep in Christchurch, New Zealand

Visiting the 185 White Chairs Memorial next to where the CTV building fell was something else all together. Each chair was designed uniquely to represent each individual who perished in the earthquake. Walking around and taking my time at each spot, I stopped in front of a child’s small chair and a baby carriage.

185 Empty White Chairs - Christchurch Earthquake Memorial

I didn’t say a word, let out a sound, or shed a tear, but inside I was raging at the unfairness of these destructive events. How often they seem to inflict pain on innocent people around the world. I felt such uncontrollable anger at the situation, until sadness took over and enveloped me. This sadness would stay with me for the remainder of my time in Christchurch.

I’m not saying Christchurch is a place that shouldn’t be visited. In fact, it’s a place that should very much be a part of your New Zealand experience. It’s a city that needs a kick in tourism again, it’s a place that shouldn’t be forgotten because of a profound tragedy that took place. It was simply a very sad place to visit.

Quake City - Christchurch, New Zealand

It’s somewhere I want to go back to one day and feel happy and excited to be in. In life we tend to ignore the places or memories that make us uncomfortable, but sometimes those are the most important places to visit to feel a real emotional connection.

Have you ever been to Christchurch? What were your thoughts on the city?

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Mimi McFadden

Travel Writer/Blogger at The Atlas Heart
Mimi founded The Atlas Heart to create a community of travelers inspired to see the world. The Atlas Heart is a space where you'll find anecdotes on slow travel, craft beer, outdoor adventures, and all the eccentric bits in between that this world has to offer.
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  1. I agree with everything you write here. This was exactly how I felt – particularly about the heavy focus on the past…i was flabbergasted when I arrived in Christchurch. It was the first city I visited in New Zealand and I could not believe that 4 years on, it looked the way it did. Thanks for sharing your wonderful honest opinion.

    1. Thank you Tess, I’m glad I wasn’t the only one who felt this way when visiting Christchurch. There’s still a lot of work to be done to support the city, but I have high hopes for when I come back to New Zealand again.

    1. Thank you, Carol. I couldn’t believe the extent of the tragedy when I arrived in the city and saw it with my own eyes – the disaster got so little coverage in my home country of the US.

  2. It’s always fascinating to me how a place as large as a city can have its own distinct feel/mood—but they always do. I hope Christchurch is able to heal and revitalize in time. Thanks for sharing your experience there. 🙂

    1. Thanks for reading, Brooke. It’s crazy how much Christchurch made me feel, with such a wide range of emotions. As you say, it’s strange coming across so many cities that tend to have their own underlining personalities beneath the surface – Christchurch definitely had a powerful one.

  3. Thank you for sharing your perspective! I know how hard it is to write about places that evoke more sadness than happiness. I haven’t been to Christchurch yet, but will be visiting in a few months. I hope they continue to rebuild and begin to focus on the future!


    1. I really hope so too! You’ll have to let me know if it has changed at all in the last year. I think it was definitely a hard place to visit but an incredibly important one to see as well.

  4. I really appreciate you sharing such an honest perspective. The pictures are beautiful though and it seems like the city has a lot of history.

    Allison Jones

    1. Thank You, Allison. It does have a lot of history + is still the largest city on the South Island, if you can believe it. Christchurch has a lot to offer but it’s a place that’s still trying to recover.

  5. I actually really like Christchurch, but maybe because the few times I’ve stayed there it’s been with friends who live there and I’m not seeing it from the full on tourism perspective. I do agree they are very much living in the past, but it’s also kind of hard not to with how much destruction was caused by the quake. Rebuilding definitely takes a long time!

    1. That’s good to hear, Chelsea. I have heard from locals and other Kiwis that have lived there that it’s a vey different city to live in as opposed to just travel to for a few days. It is crazy how much destruction can happen in such a short amount of time, while the rebuilding of both the buildings and the community takes such an incredibly long time. It’s a city that I want to give another go in the future!

  6. I have never been to Christchurch so this post was really interesting. I’m surprised to see buildings surrounded by rubble. The cardboard cathedral is amazing! I hadn’t even heard about it before. It is a shame that the city seems to be in the midst of a depression though.

  7. I like the idea of the chairs, to represent each individual. It’s so sad they lost their lives like that, but it’s a lovely way to remember them.

  8. I remember visiting Christchurch in September 2011, 7 months after the first big earthquake. I can’t say I saw anything of the city, it was all taped off and it was awful to see what I imagine must’ve been quite a lively city in ruins. Restaurants and shopping centres were still running on the outskirts but I would like to revisit to see how it’s progressed in the last 4 years.

    1. That would’ve been interesting & heartbreaking to see Christchurch 7 months after the earthquake happened. If you went back now, I would be curious to know how much it has progressed from an outsider’s perspective looking in, how much it has developed in strides when comparing the city to what it was back in 2011.

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