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The Best Things To Do In Canterbury Region NZ   

The Canterbury Region in South Island, New Zealand, offers a diverse landscape featuring stunning mountains, pristine lakes, picturesque plains, and breathtaking coastal areas. We are drawn to the region’s varied and thrilling adventures and take several visits every year. In this guide, we share what makes the region so special, the charming towns and villages to visit and the best things to do in Canterbury Region, New Zealand. 

The road before us on a road trip to Mount Cook with surrounding mountains. Its one of the best things to do in Canterbury.
Road trip to Mount Cook

What Is Canterbury Famous For?

The Canterbury area is best known for Christchurch, the gateway city to the wonders of the South Island. 

Canterbury’s famous landmarks include New Zealand’s highest mountain, Mount Cook, and the Canterbury Plains – the agricultural capital on the South Island. 

Additionally, the Canterbury region is well-known for its beaches and oceans, which are abundant with wildlife, and its pristine rivers and lakes.

Prominent Landmarks In The Canterbury Region, New Zealand

Lake Tekapo

Lake Tekapo is situated in the Mackenzie Basin and is renowned for its mesmerizing turquoise waters. 

The Church of the Good Shepherd, located on its shores, is an iconic landmark and a popular spot for photography enthusiasts.

View of Lake Tekapo & The Church of the Good Shepherd
Lake Tekapo & The Church of the Good Shepherd

For more information on the South Island’s turquoise gem, read The Best Things to Do in Tekapo, New Zealand.

Aoraki/Mount Cook

Aoraki/Mount Cook is the highest peak in New Zealand, standing tall at 3,724 metres. 

Getting to Mount Cook is a journey in itself. Passing through charming Lake Tekapo and quaint villages, the road to Mount Cook runs along the stunning Lake Pukaki, offering breathtaking views of the mountain and lake panoramas.

The surrounding Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park is a paradise for hikers, climbers, and nature enthusiasts, offering breathtaking alpine scenery, glaciers, and stunning trails.

Walk one of the many enchanting trails or take a jet boat ride on Lake Tasman to view the glacier.

Visitors to the region regard the Hooker Valley Track as one of their Top 10 Canterbury attractions.

Besides that, we consider the Tasman Glacier & Lake tour one of the coolest things to do in Canterbury and one of our top South Island highlights.

Lake. mountain and glacier view in New Zealand South Island.
Exploring Tasman Glacier and Lake by boat is one of the most fun adventures we’ve had in NZ.

Akaroa

Nestled in the Banks Peninsula, Akaroa is a quaint French-influenced village with a stunning harbour, charming streets, and historical buildings. 

An Akaroa must-do, the much-loved Giants House is a historic museum that showcases original sculptures and artwork.

Take a wildlife-watching harbour cruise, walk the streets to see heritage buildings, or simply indulge in delicious French cuisine. 

For those who want a unique experience, some tours take you swimming with dolphins.

Dolphins seen from Akaroa Dolphin watching cruise.
One of the best things to do in Canterbury region is the Akaroa Dolphin Watching Cruise and seeing dolphins.

Want to find the best things to do in Akaroa? Read next – Romantic things to do in Akaroa, NZ and Akaroa’s Best Restaurants to read our review on the best places to eat with water views.

Arthur’s Pass National Park

Immerse yourself in the stunning alpine landscapes of Arthur’s Pass National Park. 

Take a scenic hike, discover hidden waterfalls, and keep an eye out for native bird species. The gorgeous and friendly kea (a colourful New Zealand parrot) is predominant in the area.

Kea in the wild
Spotting a kea is a South Island Bucket List Must Do!

Towns And Villages To Visit in The Canterbury Region

Christchurch

As the largest city in the South Island, Christchurch is a vibrant urban hub with a fascinating blend of historic charm and modern attractions. 

Christchurch offers visitors a wide range of activities. You can take the Christchurch gondola to see epic views, visit the Christchurch Botanic Gardens, or take the Christchurch tramway for a city tour.

Explore the vibrant street art scene in the CBD, browse through the Canterbury Museum to see Maori artifacts and natural and cultural history, and visit the International Antarctic Centre to experience what it would be like in Antarctica.

Additionally, you can go punting on the Avon River to see Christchurch City from a different perspective, complete with a guide dressed in traditional Edwardian attire rowing you quietly along the water.

Further, you could head to one of Christchurch’s beaches and catch a sunset.

Vibrant red clouds and outline of flax bush during sunset at a Christchurch beach

Hanmer Springs

Hanmer Springs is renowned for its natural hot pools and picturesque surroundings in the heart of the Southern Alps.

The quaint village is one of our favourite places to visit in Canterbury New Zealand. 

Relax in the soothing thermal waters and indulge in a spa treatment. Alternatively, the area has various hiking and mountain biking trails for those who enjoy being active.

Kaikoura

Kaikoura is one of the Canterbury tourist attractions that stands out among many South Island destinations. 

The picturesque coastal town is renowned for its diverse marine life. You can enjoy whale-watching tours to witness these majestic creatures up close or opt for a dolphin-watching adventure.

Kaikoura highlights include the Kaikoura Peninsula Walkway, where you can see native flora and wildlife, such as birds and fur seals, and the Ohau Point Seal Colony.

Alternatively, savour fresh seafood at one of the local restaurants and relax on your balcony in one of the many hotels that offer sea views.

Seafood platter with sea view
Indulging in a seafood platter at The Pier, Kaikoura

Ashburton

While Ashburton is less compelling a tourist attraction than some other South Canterbury destinations, the small town has a charm that people who want to get off the tourist trail appreciate. 

Enjoy the area’s many rivers and lakes and visit the Ashburton Domain for a leisurely walk in nature.

For those who love exploring cities, there is the Ashburton Gallery, the Ashburton Aviation Museum, and the Ashburton Village in a historic mill house.

Besides that, many cafes and restaurants offer various cuisines.

Mid & South Canterbury Towns

Mid & South Canterbury are rich in rivers, lakes, beaches, farmland, mountain ranges and geological wonders.

Take a road trip along the coast, visiting coastal cities like Timaru. Then, loop back to Christchurch through the heart of inland Canterbury while experiencing local hospitality in towns such as Omarama, Twizel, Fairlie, and Geraldine.

The Best Things To Do In Canterbury New Zealand

A whales tail seen in the ocean at Kaikoura
It was a thrilling experience seeing the whales in Kaikoura.

Wildlife Watching

Visitors can find diverse animals in Christchurch’s Willowbank Wildlife Reserve, including native New Zealand species like kiwi birds, tuatara, possums, ferrets, eels, and kea parrots. They also have a farmyard section with animals such as alpacas, horses, sheep, donkeys, rabbits, pigs, roosters, and llamas.

There are also many opportunities to observe birds and marine life in their natural habitat. For instance, in Kaikoura, you can go on a boat trip to spot whales and dolphins or enjoy seaside walks to encounter seals basking along the rugged coastline. 

Moreover, the vast landscapes of national parks and scenic reserves in Canterbury provide an ideal setting to witness a variety of native birds, including tui, fantails, and bellbirds, in their natural habitats.

Boat Trips and Cruises

Experience the thrill of a rafting adventure in Hanmer or go on a wildlife cruise in Akaroa to see dolphins and penguins. 

In Christchurch, one can enjoy cruising the Lyttleton Harbour on a heritage sailboat or go punting on Christchurch’s Avon River.

Additionally, you can take a boat tour of the Tasman Glacier in Mount Cook National Park. We consider this boat trip the most exciting thing to do in the Canterbury region and one of the most thrilling things we have experienced in New Zealand. When we were there, we even saw icebergs floating in the lake!

Canterbury Beaches

View of New Brighton Pier and surfers with surboards walking on the sand at New Brigton Beach New Zealand.
One of our favourite things to do in Canterbury, Christchurch is walk along New Brighton Pier and admire the ocean views.

Visit Christchurch’s most famous beach, New Brighton Beach, to surf, swim, walk along the pier and the 18 kilometres of golden sands or just relax on the beach.

For a different coastal vibe, head to Sumner Beach, where ocean-view bars and the mysterious Cave Rock beckon.

Out of Christchurch, experience the coastal laidback vacation vibe at Akaroa’s beaches or go wildlife spotting at Kaikoura’s beaches.

Rivers and Lakes

For a tranquil escape, explore the rivers and lakes that crisscross the landscape, each reflecting the natural beauty of the South Island. 

Whether you want to spend time in nature, go for a freshwater swim or go fishing, there are plenty of rivers and lakes you can visit.

From the mighty Rakaia and Waimakariri Rivers, offering picturesque settings for fishing and strolls along their banks, to the serene Lake Tekapo, with its mesmerizing turquoise waters, Canterbury’s rivers and lakes provide the perfect backdrop for unforgettable moments in nature.

Hot Pools 

Embark on an enchanting journey chasing hot springs in Canterbury. Some of New Zealand’s best hot springs are in the region.

Hanmer Springs offers a blend of soothing pools and stimulating experiences. 

Methven is home to the new and luxurious Opuke Thermal Pools & Spa. 

Lake Tekapo is an idyllic spot with hot pools and panoramic views. 

Lastly, He Puna Taimoana, the newest hot pool in Christchurch, boasts saltwater hot pools with ocean views.

Ski & Snowboarding Adventures

The area’s diverse terrain offers numerous ski fields. Whether you’re a seasoned pro or a first-timer, the region boasts slopes that cater to all levels. 

Renowned for its extensive terrain and reliable snowfall, Mount Hutt offers a thrilling experience for skiers and snowboarders.

For those seeking a charming alpine atmosphere, Porter’s Ski Area provides a more intimate setting with stunning views. It’s family-friendly slopes and welcoming ambience make it an ideal choice for all ages and skill levels.

Cheeseman Ski Area, nestled in the Craigieburn Range, is known for its natural terrain and adventurous spirit. This field is perfect for those who relish the challenge of off-piste skiing and want to explore the untamed beauty of the backcountry.

Canterbury’s extensive ski terrain caters to all levels. Other notable options include Aoraki/Mount Cook’s Mount Dobson, Roundhill, Fox Peak, Ski Selwyn, Temple Basin, Mount Olympus, Broken River, Craigieburn, Hanmer Springs Ski Area, and Mount Lyford Alpine Resort.

Hiking Adventures

Hikers on a trail with epic mountain views in Aoraki/ Mount Cook National Park, New Zealand

The Canterbury region provides plenty of opportunities for hikers of all types, from local scenic reserves and ski fields to national parks. 

Explore Arthur’s Pass National Park for an alpine experience and to see waterfalls and Kea birds, Hanmer Springs Forest Walk for easy bush walks, and Hooker Valley Track to see New Zealand’s highest peak. 

For breathtaking coastal views, there’s the Banks Peninsula Track and Awaroa-Godley Head Loop Track, where you can also see historic baches and old military buildings.

For a unique walking experience, you can hike along an extinct volcano on the Crater Rim Walkway or discover ancient Maori rock art on the Opuha Rock Art Trail.

Train Trips

For those seeking a different kind of journey, hop on a scenic train trip. 

The world-renowned TranzAlpine journey is a scenic rail trip that traverses the majestic Southern Alps. It is often rated as one of the best things to do in the South Island. Additionally, it’s ranked as one of the best train trips in the world by National Geographic.

The train takes you from Christchurch to Greymouth on the West Coast, offering panoramic views of snow-capped mountains, alpine forests, and winding rivers. 

Another South Island train trip, the Coastal Pacific, is a train journey that hugs the captivating Pacific Ocean coastline and takes you to exciting places to visit around Canterbury. 

Starting from Christchurch, the scenic train trip takes you along the coast to the charming seaside town of Kaikoura, through Marlborough’s vineyards, and the coastal village of Picton.

New Zealand South Island Travel Insider tip:

The train trip across from Christchurch to the West Coast is the best way to see some of the most majestic landscapes in New Zealand. This scenic train ride is also a great option if you don’t want the stress of driving through the winding mountainous roads.

Campervan Adventures

For those craving freedom and the open road, hiring a campervan or minivan is the ultimate way to explore at your own pace.

Drive through the picturesque landscapes of Canterbury, starting from its sprawling plains to the lakes and mountains. 

Then, when you have had enough of driving, set up camp anywhere you want (in designated freedom camp areas) and wake up to the beauty of nature every morning.

Campervan road trips are one of our favourite things to do in Canterbury region, and it’s our preferred way to travel around the South Island of New Zealand. This mode of travel has allowed us to stay at many incredible camping sites, delivering the most epic panoramas and views we would not be able to experience from a traditional motel room.

READ NEXT – Discovering the Best South Island Campgrounds.

Green campervan at Mt. Cook campground

Extreme Adventures & Activities in Canterbury

From adrenaline-pumping activities in Canterbury to daring escapades, the area caters to thrill-seekers of all kinds.

Go rafting on the Rangitata River, skydiving in Mount Cook, horse riding along the Waimakariri River or dolphin swimming in Akaroa.

Additionally, Christchurch Adventure Park offers mountain biking, ziplining, and chairlift rides. This adrenaline-packed playground features downhill tracks, jump trails, and challenging descents.

For adventure extremists, you can delve into the depths of Arthur’s Pass with an extreme caving or rock climbing adventure.

For those seeking a less extreme adventure, consider scenic flights by plane or helicopter over Mount Cook, which are equally as thrilling. 

Natural Wonders and Geological Marvels

Towering pinnacles and clay ridges near Omarama, New Zealand
Clay Cliffs -One of the more surreal things to do in Canterbury region

The natural wonders and geological marvels are among the best things to see in Canterbury.

Step into a realm of geological wonder at Castle Hill Kura Tawhiti Conservation Area. Massive limestone boulders create a surreal landscape, leaving you awe-inspired. 

Venture to the unique Clay Cliffs near Omarama, where towering pinnacles and clay ridges create an otherworldly landscape. Besides Kura Tawhiti, the Clay Cliffs are among our favourite geological wonders on the South Island.

Explore the fascinating limestone landscapes of Elephant Rocks, near Duntroon, where massive weathered boulders create an open-air gallery.

Visit Cathedral Road in Gore Bay, a small reserve with a walking track to witness the eroded siltstone pillars known as “The Cathedrals”. 

For a coastal spectacle, see the impressive cliffs of Kaitorete Spit that overlook Te Waihora/Lake Ellesmere.

Drink & Eat, Canterbury, New Zealand

The largest city in the South Island, Christchurch stands as a culinary mecca. Explore the city’s vibrant dining scene, from hidden gems to well-known establishments.

Our favourite dining options in Christchurch include the new trendy food halls, Little High Eatery and Riverside Market, that have popped up in the last few years, as they offer a vibrant scene and plenty of choices for every member of your party with cuisines from all over the world.

Seafood lovers will find paradise in Kaikoura, and those who prefer local flavours paired with exquisite wines will enjoy a visit to a winery such as Pegasus Bay Winery and Deli.

Further, if you’re looking for unique things to do in Canterbury region, check out the Waipara Valley Vineyard Trail, which is 14.5 km. 

The trail will take you through some of the best vineyards in the area, where you can stop for lunch at a vineyard cafe and enjoy the scenic views. What’s great about this trail is that you can exercise while indulging in delicious food and wine.

How To Get To The Canterbury Region

If you arrive by air, Christchurch International Airport is the region’s main gateway. 

You can rent a car or campervan from the airport, and most companies near the airport offer free shuttle services to their locations. 

Alternatively, you can use public transportation to explore the area.

If you arrive from the North Island by ferry, you will arrive at the top of the South Island in the small town of Picton in the Marlborough Sounds region. 

It is a 2-hour drive from Picton to Kaikoura. It takes 4.5 hours from Picton to Christchurch. 

Bus services and a coastal train trip from Picton to Christchurch are available.

Is Canterbury worth visiting?

The Canterbury Region of New Zealand offers diverse natural wonders, thrilling experiences, and delightful cuisine. We love exploring the region and wouldn’t miss the opportunity to visit whenever possible!

Whether exploring the vibrant city of Christchurch, visiting historic landmarks, venturing on outdoor adventures in the majestic landscapes, or indulging in gourmet treats, there are many fun things to do in Canterbury NZ.

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