Canterbury is New Zealand’s biggest region by land area, covering 44,504 km². It is the second-largest region in the country by population, with the latest data showing a population of 649,800 people calling Canterbury home.

It will perhaps then come as no surprise that Canterbury is full of amazing things to do. When you have destinations as diverse as Kaikoura and Mt Cook based in the same region, it’s no wonder so many people choose to holiday in Canterbury every year.

One of the best ways to explore the whole of the Canterbury region is on a self-drive tour. It’s amazing how many places you can get to in a week, or better still, a couple of weeks.

If you are planning to explore the region by car, make sure you check out our amazing car rental deals in Christchurch where you will find some great prices as well as some new additions to our fleet including the Tesla Model 3.

Where is Canterbury?

The Canterbury region stretches out from just north of Kaikoura to Waimate, just south of Timaru – a journey of around 380kms. To the west, the boundary runs to the centre of the Southern Alps before they fall away to make up the West Coast region.

Christchurch is the seat of the Canterbury region and home to 59 per cent of the region’s population. Other major towns and cities in the region include Timaru, Ashburton, Rangiora, and Rolleston.

Within Canterbury’s borders, you will find some amazing places to visit and some awesome things to do. Check out some of our favourites and the favourites of our GO Explorers out there and let us know if there are any that we have missed.

Best things to do in Canterbury

Due to its size, it can be pretty tricky to narrow down all the amazing things to do across the Canterbury region. Instead, we have highlighted some of the most popular destinations in Canterbury and highlighted some of the best attractions and activities to do in each of those destinations.

This will hopefully give you some inspiration to plan your next trip to one of these amazing Canterbury destinations.

1.      Exploring the Garden City


We may as well start with the biggie – Christchurch. Also known as the Garden City thanks to its abundance of green space and amazing gardens, Christchurch is usually the starting point for people looking to explore the Canterbury region.

Christchurch is a big hit with our GO Explorers and offers up a huge range of activities and attractions to suit everyone. Some of the biggest hits include:

  • International Antarctic Centre – probably the coolest place in Christchurch (see what we did there?!), experience an Antarctic storm, check out the penguins or take a ride on the Hagglund.
  • Botanic Gardens – The botanic gardens are a must any time of the year, covering an area of 21 hectares. The gardens contain a variety of local and exotic plants, and the rose garden has more than 250 varieties!
  • Punting on the Avon – Christchurch has a very English feel to it and there is nothing more quintessentially English than punting on the river. This is a peaceful way to explore the city although be warned – some of our Explorers have got a bit wet trying this out!

Christchurch is absolutely jam-packed with things to do so we recommend you check out our City Guide to Christchurch for more ideas on things to do, places to stay and where to eat out when you are next in town.

2.      Port Hills

 

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Located just a short 20-minute drive from downtown Christchurch is the Port Hills. Here, you will find lots of walking tracks, mountain biking trails as well as some stunning views of Christchurch, the Canterbury Plains, Banks Peninsula and Lyttelton Harbour.

  • The Christchurch Gondola – located in the Port Hills, the Christchurch Gondola is one of the most popular attractions in Canterbury. The gondola will take you up over 1km to the top of the Port Hills, 500 metres above sea level with 360-degree views over the region.
  • Godley Head – the Port Hills area is known for amazing walks and biking tracks and Godley Head is one of the most popular. The Godley Head Walkway and Taylors Mistake Loop is a 9.5km walking track with stunning views.
  • Lotus Day Spa – the Lotus Day Spa is not only a five-star luxury spa resort but also a stunning place to spend some time. Set in expansive, award-winning gardens, this world-class day spa offers massage therapy and luxurious pampering.

3.      Akaroa


Akaroa is a very cool place. Located on the Banks Peninsula, the town still holds on to its French colonial past. The area was formed by significant volcanic activity that has formed the harbour in Akaroa and Lyttelton and is now home to some of New Zealand’s most amazing wildlife.

  • Swim with dolphins – Akaroa is home to the world’s smallest and rarest oceanic dolphins, the Hector’s dolphin and Black Cat Cruises offer the opportunity to not only see these amazing animals in the wild but also to get into the water with them. Bucket List activity right there.
  • The Giants House – Recently awarded 6 stars and classified as a Garden of International Significance, the Giants House is a historic Akaroa house with original contemporary artworks, terraced gardens with sculptures, mosaics, ceramics … a creative sensory, quirky, colourful feast…a unique creation by artist Josie Martin.
  • Akaroa Lighthouse – the water draws your eye at every turn in Akaroa as the turquoise waters invite you in. One of the coolest things to see is the Akaroa Lighthouse – a beautiful lighthouse with a long history and a nice walk to get there.

Akaroa is a hidden gem and we have dedicated an entire guide to exploring the town so make sure you check it out.

4.      Hanmer Springs

 

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Another of New Zealand’s hidden gems is Hanmer Springs located in northern Canterbury, located around a 2-hour drive from Christchurch. The town is most famous for the hot springs that give the town its name, however, there is much more to Hanmer than relaxing in the hot pools with some spectacular views of the Southern Alps.

  • Thermal Pools and Spa – it’s hard to talk about things to do in Hanmer Springs without talking about the springs themselves. The Thermal Pools and Spa resort have a range of pools, water jets, slides, saunas and steam rooms, perfect for the whole family.
  • Jet Boat – New Zealand is a country that loves a jet boat ride and Hanmer has jumped on board. Thrill-seekers will love the buzz as you shoot down the Waiau River through narrow gorges, performing 360-degree spins.
  • Hanmer Forest – there are lots of amazing walking and biking trails all around Hanmer Springs and Hanmer Forest is a great place to explore with some of New Zealand’s oldest exotic plants found here.

5.      Kaikoura


Kaikoura is one of New Zealand’s most popular tourist destinations and therefore one of the most popular in Canterbury. The town is located at the northern border of Canterbury and is popular for the amazing whale watching opportunities you will find here all year round. There is more to Kaikoura than whale watching, however.

  • Whale watching – the biggest attraction in town are the sperm whales that live off the coast of Kaikoura. It is possible to go whale watching all year round here and these are some of the most magnificent animals on the planet to see up close in the flesh.
  • Kaikoura Peninsula Walkway – The landscape is something that can’t be missed and the best way to immerse yourself in it is via the Kaikoura Peninsula Walkway. The walk in its entirety takes 3 hours and follows an amazing section of the east coast of the South Island with the opportunity to see the bird and marine life along the way.
  • Crayfish – even if you don’t make it out onto the water to see the whales, dolphins or seals, you can still enjoy the harvest of the ocean and try some delicious crayfish. It is the dish of the town and draws people from all over to sample some of the delicious crayfish from the waters around Kaikoura.

Don’t miss our in-depth guide covering some of the best things to do in Kaikoura.

6.      Arthur’s Pass


Arthur’s Pass is one of New Zealand’s most iconic road trips and train rides. It will take you from Canterbury over to the West Coast, however, it is more than just a road between two places. Arthur’s Pass is one of New Zealand’s National Parks and has a lot of things to do in and around the area – it is an epic road trip though!

  • Devil’s Punchbowl Waterfall – This is arguably the most spectacular of the waterfalls along Arthur’s Pass. At 131m, this huge waterfall plunges down a sheer faced mountain slope in quite spectacular fashion.
  • Castle Hill Limestone Boulders – Lord of the Rings Fan alert! Not only are the Castle Hill limestone boulders an amazing place to visit, but they are also famous as one of the filming locations used in the LoTR movies.
  • Otira Viaduct Lookout – One of the most spectacular features of Arthur’s Pass is the Otira Viaduct – one of the most photographed sections of road in New Zealand.

You can read more about the history of Arthur’s Pass as well as discover more things to see and do in our recent post.

7.      Lake Tekapo

 

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Lake Tekapo is another of New Zealand’s hottest tourist destinations and another that is found within the Canterbury region. It’s a wonderful place to visit at any time of the year – the turquoise waters are amazing in the summer, the colours of the trees are amazing in the autumn and the winter brings great skiing to the area. No matter when you visit, there are plenty of things to see and do in Lake Tekapo.

  • Church of the Good Shepherd – This humble little church sits against probably the most incredible backdrop conceivable, before the lakes and mountains of the Southern Alps. It’s simply breathtaking and is worth the visit alone. Very Instagramable.
  • Lupins – If you time your visit right (between November – February) you’ll be able to enjoy the blossoming and beautiful lupins in and around the lake. The colours they bring to the town are simply stunning and you will not want to put your camera away.
  • Stargazing in the Dark Sky Reserve – Lake Tekapo sits within the Aoraki/Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve – a classification that is given to places with the clearest skies in the world. This makes it the perfect place to visit for all those astrophotographers out there with literally millions of stars above.

It will come as no surprise to you that we have gone into a lot more depth about the amazing things to do in Tekapo – check out our post which covers off 13 of the best.

8.      Mt Cook

 

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This might come as a surprise to some, however, New Zealand’s highest mountain, Aoraki Mount Cook, is also located in the Canterbury region. Whilst the mountain certainly grabs your attention, forming the backdrop to most activities in the region, there is much more to see and do in Mt Cook than simply admiring the views of the spectacular peak.

  • Glacier kayaking – One of the many unique experiences you can enjoy in Mount Cook is glacier kayaking, some 700 metres above sea level. The Tasman Lake is where this takes place which is itself a terminal lake for the magnificent Tasman Glacier (the largest in NZ).
  • Hooker Valley Track – One of the most photographed and tramped upon tracks in New Zealand is the Hooker Valley track. This 10km return walk will take you through stunning terrains with views of Lake Tasman, the Tasman Glacier and Mt Cook itself.
  • Skydiving – it wouldn’t feel like a complete list of things to do somewhere in New Zealand without including skydiving and Mt Cook is one of the most spectacular places in the country to give it a whirl.

If you are planning a trip to Mt Cook, make sure you check out our post covering 11 of the best things to do in Mount Cook.

9.      Timaru

 

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Timaru is the second-largest city in Canterbury and is located near the southern border of the region, sitting midway between Christchurch and Dunedin. It’s a great place to spend a few days and during the summer months, Caroline Bay is one of the most popular beaches and swimming spots in the region.

  • The coastal track – From Caroline Bay, there’s a track that takes you north along the coastline. There are some nice views along the way including an old lighthouse which offers spectacular views.
  • South Canterbury Museum – we have yet to include a museum on our list of things to do in Canterbury and this one is a great one. Full of a large variety of artefacts and displays, the museum is a great place to spend a couple of hours.
  • Botanic Gardens – whilst you will find botanic gardens in almost every town and city in New Zealand, the Timaru Botanic Gardens are definitely worth a visit. They are very accessible and can be accessed by road where you can pretty much drive the whole way around them.

Round-up

Canterbury is an awesome place to explore and with so many amazing locations dotted throughout the region, you will never be short of things to see and do. There is nothing better than hitting the open road and exploring as much of the region as possible and some of our road trip itineraries will give you some great ideas when it comes to planning a trip to Canterbury this year.

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