12 Best Things To Do in Timaru: Penguins, Parks and More

Join us as we share our favourite things to do in Timaru – a small but mighty city (that’s more like a town) in Aotearoa.

Timaru is located between Christchurch and Dunedin. Though it’s a relatively small city (with just shy of 50,000 residents), it is Canterbury’s second-largest.

It’s famous for the Boxing Day Festival where thousands of people flock to the city in order to enjoy the carnival, but that’s not all there is to see and do there.

With a safe beach for swimming, lots of great walks in the area, and a surprising number of attractions and eateries, you’ll find plenty of things to do in Timaru.

If that’s not enough to convince you, then we’re here to show you hidden gems that this small city has on offer.

Did you know? Timaru is officially a city as it was granted that title years ago when the threshold was lower. Because of that, it is still considered a city, even though it wouldn’t be by today’s standards.

The Best Things to Do in Timaru

Whether you’re looking to visit some of the city’s galleries and museums, or you’d prefer to just take it easy, Timaru has something for everyone.

So, let’s take a look at the best things to do there.

1. Visit the South Canterbury Museum

Visiting the South Canterbury Museum is one of the top things to do in Timaru. It’s the best way to learn about the region as the museum has lots of exhibits that focus on both the social and cultural history of the area.

Some of the most popular permanent exhibits within the South Canterbury Museum include natural history, Māori history and social history. You’ll also get to learn about the early European settlers.

However, there are also intriguing temporary exhibits that are frequently updated, ensuring each visit feels fresh.

The museum is also free so it’s a worthwhile stop even if you’re short on time and budget.

4 Perth Street, Timaru 7910

Two persons standing with preserved creatures in a glass container displayed in the South Canterbury Museum.
A new exhibition being set up – the ‘squid table’. Keep an eye out for new displays! Photo: South Canterbury Museum.

2. Head to Te Ana Māori Rock Art Centre

If you’ve got an interest in Māori culture then you’ll want to visit Te Ana Māori Rock Art Centre.

Tours of this incredible place will teach you all about Māori history, and you’ll have the chance to make your own indigenous rock art too.

You can also head out on a self-guided tour, departing from the centre. You’ll follow the guide in your own vehicle to some of the area’s first Māori rock art sites. There, you’ll get to witness carvings and paintings that were left hundreds of years ago.

If you have an interest in culture and history, we believe a visit to Te Ana Māori Rock Art Centre is one of the top things to do in Timaru.

2 George Street, Timaru 7910

A guy sits with an ancient rock art in Te Ana Maori Rock Art Centre.
See old Māori caving art in the caves themselves. Photo: Te Ana Maori Rock Art Centre.

3. Search for Penguins along Caroline Bay

During your trip to Timaru, you’ll want to spend some time looking out for penguins. The city is built along Caroline Bay which is home to a permanent population of little blue penguins (or kororā, as they are known in te reo Māori).

The best time to visit is from mid-September onwards, but if you head there between October to January you might even get to spot some gorgeous little chicks!

Either way, the best time to spot them is at dusk. This is when they’ll make their way up to the rock line, making them easily visible.

Looking for these little fellas is one of the best things to do in Timaru so make sure you include it on your itinerary.

Little Blue Penguins with color tags on their left flippers in Caroline Bay.
Spot little blue penguins in Timaru. Photo: Richard Roche.

4. Admire the architecture of the Sacred Heart Basilica

Whilst you’re in the city, we recommend swinging past the Sacred Heart Basilica.

This Catholic church was built in 1909 and ever since then, it’s been one of Timaru’s most iconic and beautiful attractions. Its design has elements of both Roman and Byzantine architecture, and includes stunning domes, arches, columns, and stained glass windows.

The Sacred Heart Basilica is situated along Craigie Avenue and can be visited every day of the week. Just research the mass times first so you can pop in when it’s quiet.

7 Craigie Avenue, Parkside, Timaru 7910

Front view of the Sacred Heart Basilica, brandishing its Roman and Byzantine architecture.
Photo: Sacred Heart Basilica.

5. Check out the Aigantighe Art Gallery

If you’re a culture buff then make sure you head to Aigantighe Art Gallery.

The gallery was founded in 1956 and is now home to the third-largest public art collection in the South Island.

Its name ‘Aigantighe’ translates to ‘home’ in Scottish Gaelic as the family who founded the gallery were originally from Scotland.

As you wander around, you’ll find a variety of artworks from all across the world that date back to the 16th Century. This includes Pacific, Asian, and European art pieces.

The Aigantighe Art Gallery has an extensive permanent collection to admire, but they also hold temporary exhibitions throughout the year.

49 Wai-Iti Road, Maori Hill, Timaru 7910

Artifacts and paintings displayed in Aigantighe Art Gallery.
Photo: Aigantighe Art Gallery.

6. Head to the Timaru Artisan Farmers Market

If you’re planning to visit Timaru Farmers Market then you’ll have to time your visit right. It is held every Saturday morning between 9 am and 12:30 pm along George Street, and we think it’s a worthwhile stop on your Timaru itinerary.

For starters, this is the best place in the city to grab fresh produce including seasonal fruit, vegetables, meat and eggs. There’s also plenty of baked bread and treats available.

As you wander around the market you’ll also find a variety of fresh flowers, artisan crafts produced by local artists and organic goods. You’ll often find buskers performing too.

As with almost all markets in New Zealand, entry is free.

2 George Street, Timaru 7910

Bouquet of flowers displayed for sale in Timaru Artisan Farmers Market.
Photo: Timaru Artisan Farmers Market.

7. Explore Timaru Botanic Gardens

The Timaru Botanic Gardens are the perfect place to relax and enjoy Mother Nature.

Covering an impressive 19 hectares, there are plenty of beautiful sites to see including the Anderson Rose Garden, the Queen Victoria Garden and the War Memorial Wall.

Not only that, but you’ll find endangered plants from all across the world within the conservatory.

Timaru Botanic Gardens has been around since the 1860s making it one of the oldest public gardens in New Zealand.

We suggest you pack a picnic and a blanket and enjoy an afternoon in the sun at the gardens.

Queen Street, Parkside, Timaru 7910

White flowers in the Timaru Botanic Gardens.
Photo: Timaru Botanic Gardens.

8. Walk the South Beach Coastal Track

The South Beach Coastal Track runs from Patiti Point car park to Stuart Street and it’s a worthwhile addition to your Timaru itinerary.

Although the walk only takes around 20 minutes, it’s worth it as the track runs along the edge of the beach. Not only will you be rewarded with expansive ocean views, but you’ll get to spot a variety of birdlife (including banded dotterels, South Island pied oystercatchers and white-fronted terns). If you’re lucky you might even get to see penguins and seals popping up out of the water!

The track is only 1.7 km (1 mile) long and is relatively flat so it’s suitable for all fitness levels.

Someone walking on a dusty path, wearing sports shoes.
Keep your eyes peeled for a range of wildlife on the South Beach Coastal Track.

9. Visit the York Street Gallery of Fine Art

Another fantastic place to visit within Timaru is the York Street Gallery of Fine Art.

The gallery is owned by Debbie Templeton-Page who works hard to promote artworks by New Zealand artists. She’s also a sculpture artist herself, with work displayed throughout the country.

As you wander through the gallery, you’ll get to marvel at pieces by several fantastic artists including AA Deans, Llew Summers and Mary Horn.

The York Street Gallery of Fine Art also holds temporary exhibitions throughout the year so even if you’ve been before, it’s worth a second look.

21 York Street, Seaview, Timaru 7910

The York Street Gallery is filled with artworks, set against white walls.
Photo: York Street Gallery of Fine Art.

10. Explore Centennial Park by foot or bike

Centennial Park is often referred to locally as ‘the Scenic Reserve’. It covers an area of 65 hectares and is the perfect place to connect with nature.

This is a popular site for walking, cycling and jogging. The lake within the park is also a favourite spot for kayakers and fishermen.

Not only that but you’ll also find two free BBQ areas there and a children’s playground. With facilities like these, it makes for a great family day out.

However, if you’re looking for something a bit more strenuous then Centennial Park’s got you covered there too.

Why not walk along one of the park’s two tracks? The Lower Track is the easiest option, while the Upper Track offers more of a challenge.

Back bike wheel on dry grass.
Take your bike for a spin at Centennial Park.

11. Admire Timaru’s historic architecture

When we’re visiting Timaru we love to admire the area’s historic architecture.

In particular, we recommend walking along Stafford Street – this is one of the most charming streets in Aotearoa.

It’s located in the centre of town and is home to plenty of historic buildings, some of which even date back to the late 1800s.

After you’ve marvelled at the street’s architecture why not grab a coffee or dine in one of the many restaurants found in this area?

Then head down some of the side streets to find hidden gems and new favourite shops.

Old shop fronts on Stafford Street in Timaru, painted in pastel colours.
The beautiful shopfronts of Stafford Street. Photo: denisbin.

12. Have a drink at Hector Blacks – the quirkiest bar in Timaru

Hector Black’s is located off Stafford Street which is that awesome road we just mentioned.

It’s easily the quirkiest bar in town and is set in one of the most historic buildings in the city. It was formerly home to the National Bank of New Zealand, but now it’s one of the most popular spots in Timaru to grab a drink.

Famous for its laid-back atmosphere, crazy antiques and wide range of cocktails, it’s no wonder this place is so popular.

So, if you have some spare time make sure you visit Hector Blacks for a cold bevvie… you won’t regret it.

129 Stafford Street, Timaru 7910

The black and red interior of the Hector Black's bar, including unique, wacky artwork.
Photo: Hector Black’s.

As you can see there is plenty to see and do in Timaru. Whether you’re looking to admire the city’s unique architecture or walk the South Beach Coastal Track, it’s worth stopping off as you pass between Christchurch and Dunedin – oh and don’t forget a stop in Oamaru too.

Have you ever been to Timaru?

If you have, make sure you drop your favourite spots in the comments below!

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