Banks Peninsula is a holiday haven full of quiet bays and hidden lookouts along its winding volcanic coastline. Only a 1.5-hour drive from Christchurch in New Zealand, it’s a popular choice for both domestic and international holidaymakers. If you’re wondering about the best things to see and do in Banks Peninsula, then look no further. Here are all my favourite activities!
Interesting facts about Banks Peninsula
- Banks Peninsula was formed from the remains of two volcanoes. This makes it the most prominent volcanic feature of the South Island.
- According to tradition, the first Maori settlers of the area were the Waitaha.
- Captain James Cook first caught sight of the peninsula in 1770 but mistook it for an island as he circumnavigated New Zealand. He named it Banks Island after the botanist, Joseph Banks, onboard their ship, the Endeavour.
- Banks Peninsula was used as a whaling base in the 1830s. In 1838, a French whaler attempted to buy the peninsula and form a colony. Before they could arrive on return from France, the Treaty of Waitangi had been signed which declared British sovereignty over the whole of New Zealand.
- Akaroa is considered the main town in the harbour of the same name, despite having a population of less than 700.
- The nearby towns of Lyttleton and Christchurch outgrew Akaroa, becoming more prominent for businesses and settlements to thrive.
- Akaroa is now primarily a holiday town that has retained many of its French influences.
If you’re visiting Christchurch for any extended time, I can’t recommend heading out to Banks Peninsula enough. With incredible natural scenery over the Pacific Ocean and marine wildlife to enjoy, it’s surely not to be missed.
I’ve been fortunate enough to visit Banks Peninsula a few times now, and each visit I discover another thing to see or do that I absolutely love.
Here are the top things to see and do in Banks Peninsula, but by no means is this an exhaustive list. I guess I’ll just have to return to add to this summary over time!
Food in Banks Peninsula
If you’re anything like me, a trip is not complete without sampling some of the best local delicacies and tasty treats.
Barry’s Bay Cheese
You absolutely cannot drive all the way out to Banks Peninsula and not stop at Barry’s Bay Cheese shop. It is heavenly (sorry, vegans – I promise I’m cutting out dairy in other areas!).
Not only do they offer samples to try so you can choose your favourite cheese to purchase, but you can also watch the factory production process while inside the shop!
If you need a suggestion for where to start, I would highly recommend the Pepper Havarti, Paprika Havarti, and the Cumin Spice Cheddar. Add in some crackers and chutney, and you’ve got yourself a picnic of dreams. Delish.
French Farm Winery
Wine tasting, pizza, stunning views… You can get it all at French Farm Winery! This newly refurbished restaurant and events venue is a stunning place for lunch on a summer’s day. Don’t be fooled by the name, though. You can’t actually take part in a wine tasting here. However, you can drive just a couple of minutes down the road and enjoy the cellar door at French Peak Wines.
Fish and Chips
With such an abundance of marine life in Banks Peninsula, of course the fish is going to be fresh and delicious. I’ve been a vegetarian for a few years now, but on my first visits to Akaroa I still ate fish and managed to sample the goods. I have to say, it was pretty incredible. If fish isn’t your thing though, the chips are also very worth the pitstop! Just make sure to keep an eye out for seagulls scavenging for scraps…
I’d highly recommend taking your dinner to-go and perching on a bench along the waterfront. It’s the perfect place to watch the world go by.
Fudge at Pot Pourri
To finish off all these tasty savoury meals and snacks, there’s no better place to pick up something sweet than Pot Pourri. As part of this gift shop is a fudge bar selling all sorts of flavours. From Kiwi favourites Hokey Pokey to the classic chocolate fudge, these rich and sugary treats are a perfect take-home souvenir.
Nature & Wildlife in Banks Peninsula
Like almost anywhere in New Zealand, Banks Peninsula is an ideal location for sampling incredible natural scenery and spotting local wildlife.
Akaroa dolphin watch tour
There is one particular marine life species that Banks Peninsula is famous for: Hector’s dolphin. As the smallest and rarest dolphin in the world, getting the chance to see them in their natural habitat is very special.
Luckily, Black Cat Cruises offer the chance to take a 2-hour nature cruise through the harbour to see Hector’s dolphins in their natural habitat. These playful creatures love to dance in the ripples created by the boat. On our visit, it didn’t take long for us to see them scamper beneath the water. The cruise takes passengers out to the Pacific Ocean where we had the chance to see albatross soaring overhead and seals lounging gracefully on the rocky coastline. For wildlife fans, it doesn’t get better than that. With commentary including advice and historical facts throughout, this activity at $95 NZD per adult is a top attraction.
If just seeing the dolphins from the boat isn’t enough, you can also book a chance to swim with the dolphins too. Considered one of the top activities to experience in New Zealand, this is truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience. At $185 NZD you’ll have two hours to come face to face with the dolphins. As they are so rare and extremely delicate, the utmost care is taken to protect these wild animals. That means sticking to strict instructions to not touch or feed the dolphins.
Take a hike to a sacred Maori site
One of the best things to do around Banks Peninsula is hiking. Experiencing the natural scenery and tranquility is best done on one of the hiking trails available.
An excellent short hike that is easily achieved by most fitness levels is to Onawe Peninsula which takes around 1 hour.
You’ll see a small hill from the car park at Onawe Flat Road (or nearby in Duvachelle), which gives you a taste of the route to take.
The actual hike takes you along the beach, as the reddish rocks loom over you. You might find during high tide that it’s very wet so keep an eye out for the water levels, or wear shoes you don’t mind getting soggy! You’ll soon start to walk at an incline up the hill. The track is clearly marked and the beautiful views begin to appear. Before long, you’ll reach the top with 360 views over Banks Peninsula and Akaroa harbour.
Not only is Onawe Peninsula a beautiful viewpoint, but it is also the plug of the ancient volcano and a sacred Maori site. While there are no remains of the pa (Maori fortified village/fortification) that once stood here, you can see why this particular location was chosen. As such, while you enjoy the views and short hike, please respect the area and refrain from eating on site.
To explore other hiking options around the area and throughout New Zealand, visit the Department of Conservation walking and tramping guide.
Drive around the peninsula on Summit Road
Truly one of the best ways to see Banks Peninsula (or the whole of NZ, in fact) is by road. Driving the winding lanes is a joy thanks to the rewarding scenery you’ll experience. Summit Road is one of our favourite ways to explore Banks Peninsula by road. Every turn presents a new perspective on an increasingly beautiful landscape.
Enjoy the views from a scenic reserve
After all that driving, you’ll want to be rewarded for your efforts, right? Not only are there plenty of lookouts along the roads, but there are also opportunities to take a short walk to reach a lookout or viewpoint.
A great example I’d recommend is at Otepatotu Scenic Reserve. Along Summit Road between Okains and Le Bons Bays is a small campsite and car park, which is the start of this short but steep track through the forest. Once at the top of Lavericks Peak you’ll be rewarded with outstanding views overlooking Banks Peninsula, the winding Summit road below, and Akaroa Harbour.
If this isn’t one of the best things to see and do in Banks Peninsula, I don’t know what is!
BONUS: Godley Head
If you’re short on time or simply don’t fancy a long drive, you can sample the scenery of Banks Peninsula from Godley Head instead. Just a 30 minute drive from Christchurch CBD, this coastal walk overlooking the entrance to Lyttleton Harbour is absolutely gorgeous.
Additionally, the nearby Port Hills and popular surf beach of Taylor’s Mistake are a great way to escape the city without going too far.
I would also argue that this area has some of my favourite views in Christchurch, so definitely one to add to the list!
Activities to do in Banks Peninsula
A visit to Banks Peninsula isn’t all wildlife and nature, although that certainly is a big attraction. There are plenty of unique activities and sights to enjoy too! Here are some great things to see and do in Banks Peninsula:
Relax at the beach
When visiting Banks Peninsula you absolutely must get out and about to the bays. Whether you like you laze by the beach, brave a swim in the Pacific Ocean, or kayak around the bays – there is something for everyone to enjoy.
One beach that we always are drawn to is Wainui Beach, close to French Farm. Wainui sits almost directly opposite Akaroa, making for great views of the town from afar. The sandy beach is perfect for families to enjoy a day out, as many locals certainly do while visiting their bach (a holiday home for Kiwis, rhymes with “catch”!) for the weekend or a holiday.
Visit the cinema
What to do on a rainy day in Banks Peninsula? Catch a movie at Ethels Cinema! We all enjoy a bit of escapism, so when you can’t do so in reality perhaps immersing yourself in the fantasy worlds of the big screen will do the trick.
Marketed as a boutique twin screen entertainment venue, this cinema has a variety of movies on offer including recent blockbusters and art house films.
Explore the Giant’s House
One of Akaroa’s quirkiest yet most intriguing attractions is the Giant’s House.
What is the Giant’s House I hear you ask? Well, it is an artistic, rainbow-filled wonderland. Think Alice in Wonderland made from mosaics.
I’m not entirely sure how else to explain Giant’s House. It’s arty, it’s weird, it’s silly, it’s utterly brilliant.
The house itself is a historic building in Akaroa from around the 1880s, however, it’s the gardens that are the main attraction.
Overlooking the harbour, the gardens are adorned with intricately decorated sculptures in every colour you could imagine. You can easily spend an hour or two exploring every nook and cranny in this lavish playground.
If you just can’t get enough, you can even stay overnight at the Giant’s House!
Wander past the historical houses
On a stroll around Akaroa, you’ll surely let your mind wander and imagine what it’d be like to live in these sweet, quaint homes. Well, beyond considering a life that could have been, there are some historical points of interest to stop at. Banks House, Akaroa Court House, and Akaroa Customs House are great examples of interesting buildings in the area.
The less obvious homes might surprise you too, though. Many of the homes are from the 1800s and are so well-maintained it’s like stepping back in time. Keep an eye out for heritage plaques as you walk around Akaroa, you might spot a notable resident or two of these homes! Learn more about Akaroa’s historic buildings from the Akaroa Civic Trust.
Step inside Akaroa Museum
If you haven’t been historically satisfied, just yet, then a visit to Akaroa Museum might just do the trick. Open seven days a week, this is the go-to attraction to learn more about Banks Peninsula’s place in New Zealand’s European past and the vital Maori history before.
Another great activity to do In Banks Peninsula on a rainy day (or to get some shade!), there is so much to learn about Akaroa and the surrounding bays. The museum keeps long term as well as temporary exhibitions related to Banks Peninsula. Ranging from fun facts to serious details focussed on social and cultural history through the years, it’s a great way to fully appreciate the area’s past.
Browse the art galleries
If you’re more interested in art than history, Banks Peninsula has that too!
Akaroa Art Gallery, housed in the old powerhouse, makes for a unique gallery space. With exhibitions primarily from local artists, there’s a real mix of works and themes to explore.
Another great gallery to visit is the Little River Gallery, which can be found on the route between Christchurch and Banks Peninsula, around 30 minutes drive from Akaroa. This pit-stop location makes it an ideal place to break up your journey, see some of the fantastic pieces of art, and perhaps grab a bite to eat. Little River Gallery offers sculptures, prints, paintings, and jewellery so you won’t be short of items to browse.
I often enjoy visiting art galleries while on holiday. I find it fascinating to see what works are on display and what they can tell me about the destination. Art galleries are also such calm places. You’re always welcome inside and you never know what you’ll discover.
Go souvenir shopping
In Akaroa, there is a short strip of charming shops, cafes, and restaurants that are delightfully appealing to visitors. Pick up a souvenir to take home or simply do some window shopping.
Not only that but the local markets are packed with all sorts of items by local sellers.
The Farmer’s Market in Akaroa opens every Saturday from October to April, with a variety of sweet, savoury, and scented items to peruse. Alternatively, the Craft Market is open every weekend throughout the summer months. Stallholders with clothing, jewellery, ornaments and more guarantee that you’ll find the perfect gift to take home.
Walk to Akaroa Lighthouse
Taking a gentle stroll around Akaroa Harbour and you’ll eventually reach Akaroa Lighthouse. What’s unusual about this lighthouse, is that it was moved from its original location in 1980! For a small fee, you can go up the lighthouse to enjoy the views, or you can simply admire it from outside. Whichever you choose, I think it makes a great focal point for the harbour!
Areas to stay in Banks Peninsula
Accommodation in Banks Peninsula is likely to be made up of a lot of holiday homes, Airbnb’s, and B&B’s. In my opinion, this is the best way to experience life on Banks Peninsula. The laid-back outdoorsy vibe just wouldn’t suit a 5-star hotel so you should certainly try to embrace your country-loving side.
Easily the busiest and most notable place to visit in Banks Peninsula is Akaroa. You’ll find everything you need to enjoy your visit in Akaroa. The majority of popular things to see and do in Banks Peninsula can be found here.
On the nearest side of the peninsula to Christchurch is the port town of Lyttleton. A seemingly sleepy area, it’s a great place to escape from the city without making the long trip south to Akaroa. However, this isn’t necessarily the area to stay for visiting all that Banks Peninsula has to offer. Due to the distance, Lyttleton is perhaps not the first place you’ll think of when planning a visit to Banks Peninsula.
On the northern side of Banks Peninsula are a couple of bays that are popular with locals. While it’s less favoured by overseas visitors (not a cruise ship in sight!), it’s a worthwhile spot to truly embrace the outdoorsy lifestyle that New Zealand boasts.
Have you been convinced to visit? Which sounds like your favourite things to see and do in Banks Peninsula? If you’ve been and you’ve got recommendations to add, I’d love to hear them for my next trip! If you’re planning to visit, let me know where you’ll be stopping first.
Pin it for later!