When I explored New Zealand‘s South Island, as part of my round the world trip, it was 2014. Just three years earlier, a devastating earthquake had hit Christchurch, killing 185 people. The beautiful and bustling city was reduced to empty streets, broken buildings and demolition sites. I wasn’t sure what to expect on my backpacking Christchurch trip, but I found street art, hope among the ruins and a unique hostel experience.

backpacking christchurch

Discovering Christchurch’s street art

One of the first things I noticed, as I wandered the eerily empty city on my first evening, was the street art. Popping up on the walls of damaged structures and building sites are colourful artworks, from cartoon strips to portraits, slogans and montages. 

This splash of graffiti shows a spark of courage, defiance and creative expression amid the tragedy and destruction. Despite the lack of cars and people on its streets, there is life here.

The artwork spells out messages, such as ‘Hope’, ‘Peace’ and ‘We Got the Sunshine’. Its iconography includes Nelson Mandela and an enormous reclining female nude holding a paintbrush, perhaps symbolising the imminent creation of a reborn city.

The Christchurch earthquake memorial

The most moving artwork in Christchurch is its memorial, ‘185 Chairs’. Using the chair to symbolise an everyday spot where someone once sat, worked, dreamed or played, this installation remembers those who lost their lives in the earthquake. 185 unique chairs, from a wooden kitchen stool to a wheelchair, a comfy sofa and a baby’s high-chair, each one represents an individual who died that day. This simple and very human exhibition left a lump in my throat.

The day I arrived, a fresh official art installation was unveiled in the city’s heart, Cathedral Square. Created by local artist Sarah Hughes, the colourful wall of flags is an optimistic and symbolic work, commissioned by the Council as part of their transitional project.

backpacking christchurch

“The scale of the work draws attention to the buildings that are not there,” Hughes told journalists. ” The colours of the flags I selected were in contrast to the grey and dusty environment I experienced on site visits to the red zone before the Square was opened last year. It is my wish that it brings aspiration and hope for people visiting the Square and for what the Square and city of Christchurch will become.”

Christchurch Cathedral

One of Christchurch’s most iconic buildings was its eponymous 19th century cathedral. Sadly it suffered a great deal of damage in the earthquake. It became one of the most prominent victims, its image used in news reports around the world. While in 2014 it was still standing, the spire was destroyed and the remaining building incurred severe structural damage. The last of what was once a beautiful rose window on the front of the cathedral fell to the ground during further shocks in December that same year.

backpacking christchurch

This is not the first time the cathedral has been damaged by severe earthquakes. A newspaper report from September 1888, displayed near the site, records the first time the top of the spire collapsed during tremors. Hauntingly, it recalls, “the Cathedral bells were set toiling and continued to ring for several minutes.” What I liked, when looking at what remains of this beautiful cathedral, is that it still harbours life. A flock of birds sit wing-to-wing along the roof and every so often they rise up and swirl in formation, swooping around the sky.

Rebuilding the city

There are signs across the city, erected by the Council, explaining how each area will be redesigned and rebuilt. Meanwhile the former Council office stands in a state of disrepair in the wake of the earthquake.

backpacking christchurch

The citizens of Christchurch are in dispute over whether the cathedral should be demolished and replaced by a new, modern construction, or whether it should be rebuilt exactly as it was. In the mean time, the congregation are now able to worship every week in a transitional cathedral – also known as the Cardboard Cathedral, just a few blocks up the road. Opened in August 2013, it was constructed using materials including timber, steel, shipping containers and cardboard tubes. Instead of a replacement rose window, it has highly colourful triangles of stained glass.

backpacking christchurch

Along with the affirming street art and the flocks of happy birds, the Cardboard Cathedral is a sign that all is not lost. There is hope and life and colour. Christchurch will rise again.

The best hostel for backpacking Christchurch

It was cold and raining the night I arrived in Christchurch. At around midnight I broke into jail. I was about to spend the night in a cell: the Christchurch Jailhouse hostel.

The Jailhouse Accommodation used to be Addington Prison. From 1874 to 1999, it housed sentenced and remand prisoners from the Christchurch area. After then, it was used as a women-only prison and a military camp. Since being bought and renovated by a local couple in 2006, it is now an award-winning hostel, perfect if you’re backpacking Christchurch.

backpacking christchurch

Built under the guidance of Benjamin W Mountfort, who also designed the Christchurch Cathedral, Addington Prison was constructed from concrete – a relatively new material at the time – in the Gothic Revival style.

backpacking christchurch

With its colourful former inhabitants, it may not be surprising to learn that rumours of paranormal activity have echoed through the walls over the years. Christchurch Paranormal Investigators NZ have received reports of “sounds of screams coming from cells, full apparitions being seen in the once prison kitchen, the punishment area and many of the corridors… Strange lights being seen and electrical equipment being tampered with…” A taxi driver, who claims to also be a psychic medium, told me he visited the site a year ago and sensed a number of spirits roaming the place. He was surprised to hear what a peaceful night’s sleep I enjoyed here.

backpacking christchurch

When you walk into Christchurch Jailhouse building, you are met with a friendly reception area. It’s light and airy, with replica features, including an old-fashioned phone box and jail-themed artwork. A mannequin is delightfully attired in a black and white striped prison uniform, next to a height chart where you can have your photo taken and pretend you are being incarcerated.

backpacking christchurch

Then, when you step through the double doors, you experience the full, white-walled, high-ceilinged beauty of this unique accommodation. Stairs ascend to a first floor where the dorm rooms and bathrooms are located, in the original cells. Even the toilet door has bars across it.

backpacking christchurch

The dorm rooms are clean and stylish, with comfortable, non-squeaky, non-wobbly bunk beds (seriously a bonus in hostel living), topped by sheets that smell freshly-washed and are properly made the old-fashioned way. Despite every tiny little sound being easily echoed through the cavernous central hall, the place is silent and I slept better than I had in a week.

backpacking christchurch

Through word of mouth and recommendations, the Christchurch Jailhouse accommodation continues to attract plenty of guests. If you are intrigued by the idea of staying in a former prison, or simply seeking clean, friendly and affordable city accommodation, I would certainly recommend spending the night in a cell.

Next, read more about my journey around New Zealand’s South island.