My recent visit to New Zealand included a short stop in Dunedin. We only had one full day to explore, but we were lucky that it brought back memories of our trip to the city a few years earlier. That time we were able to do a fantastic tour of the popular Cadbury Factory that dominated the town, but has unfortunately since closed down. We also had a car to explore future afield. This time we explored the inner city area. With both trips, I have now been able to pull together this huge list of all the best things to do in Dunedin, New Zealand
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Where is Dunedin, New Zealand
It will be no surprise to hear that Dunedin has a strong Scottish heritage – after all, the name Dunedin comes from the Gaelic name for Edinburgh and therefore it is often referred to as “Edinburgh of the South”. It is located towards the bottom of the South Island and is the main city in the Otago region. With a population of around 130 000, it is one of New Zealand’s bigger cities and is the university city of the south, housing the University of Otago, the first university in NZ.
There are two main ways to get to Dunedin – by road or air. If you are driving, it will take almost five hours to drive directly from Christchurch to Dunedin, although there are some great stops along the way to break up the trip too. If you need car hire, Dunedin and Christchurch both have options
Flights to Dunedin land from from all the major cities in New Zealand and some of the smaller centres too. It also has a regular international flight from, Australia. Brisbane to Dunedin flights are daily.
Things to do in Dunedin, New Zealand
Dunedin itself has an upbeat, cosmopolitan feel thanks to the influx of university students. You will find a lively cafe scene here with all sorts of food options. It also houses many of the top museums and galleries in New Zealand. Venturing outside of the city gives you some unique wildlife experiences. Plan to spend a few days checking out all these amazing Dunedin activities.
Relax in The Octagon
Right in the centre of Dunedin is a public space called the Octagon because, well, it’s an octagon! Many of the streets go outwards from this are so it is likely you will pass through here at least a few times. During the day various spaces are set up for relaxing and socialising, and food vans sell all sorts of delicious treats, particularly during the summer months. There is also free wifi in this area if you need it, which was a godsend during my recent visit.
Dunedin Public Art Gallery
If you are looking for things to see, Dunedin Public Art Gallery is located right on The Octagon so id easy to find and free to enter, so it’s worthy having a quick browse. It showcases historic and contemporary works by artists from both New Zealand and overseas. It is the main gallery in New Zealand for decorative arts such as ceramics, furniture and textiles.
Olveston Historic Home
Olveston was build by local business man David Theomin and was completed in 1907. It’s an impressive turn of the century home in the Jacobean style with 35 rooms. The Theomin family have collected fine arts and antiques and the house was bequeathed to Dunedin by David’s daughter Dorothy in 1966 and the house is now a time capsule of the grand houses of the early 1900’s. Entry to Olveston is by guided tour only, which is great because you then get to hear some great stories about the family and the unique features of the home, which was surprisingly modern for it’s time.
If you are a beer drinking, visit Speight’s Brewery to taste some of the local brew. These guys have been brewing beer since 1876, so by now they have come up with a pretty good product. Take advantage of their tour of the factory to learn about how the beer is brewed. The tour ends in the tasting room where you can try some of the beers available. You can also pour your own beer, which is harder than it looks! And for those of you who don’t drink beer (like me!) the tour is still interesting, and instead of beer, you can taste their Apple Cider at the end.
Dunedin Railway Station
This eye-catching building is one of the most distinctive Dunedin attractions. Opened in 1906, this was the busiest railway station in all of New Zealand with up to 100 trains a day. Now though there are only a few tourist trains that depart and arrive. Even if you are not catching one of those rare trains, it’s worth coming into the railway station to see the lovely mosaic floor made up of over 750 000 tiles and the beautiful historic features. While here you can also visit the New Zealand Sports Hall of Fame (see below) or the Otago Art Society
New Zealand Sports Hall of Fame
As mentioned above, this is located in the Dunedin Railway Station and should be on your list of things to do in Dunedin NZ. Head up the stairs and follow the signs making sure you take a photo of the incredible mosaic floor from the balcony. If you are a sports fan you will enjoy browsing around this small but well appointed museum. Of course there is a lot of emphasis on rugby since it is New Zealand’s national sport. The All Blacks do very well at on the world stage, so have a lot to show off! There is also a wide range of other sports too, including Olympic and Commonwealth Games achievements. You will also find a display on Edmund Hilary, one of New Zealand’s most famous sons and the first person to summit Mt Everest. The museum is open 10am until 4 pm every day (except some public holidays) and entry is $6NZD for adults with some discounts available.
Otago Art Society
The other half of the top floor of the Dunedin Railway Station is occupied by the Otago Art Society. They provide a space for local artists to work, as well as have a permanent gallery displaying works. Temporary exhibitions are also a regular feature. The gift shop has a whole pile of unique, locally produced artworks that would make an interesting New Zealand souvenir.
Toitū Otago Settlers Museum
This absolutely needs to be in your top 10 things to do in Dunedin. From the front the ultra-modern building doesn’t look very big, but once you venture inside, you will discover there’s actually a huge amount of information on the history of the Otago region in the Toitū Otago Settlers Museum. It starts with the local Maori people, then the first settlers and finally right up to today. There are great displays of everyday items through the generations, and a huge pavilion of vehicles too.
The museum opens every day from 10am to 5pm (except Christmas Day). Entry to the museum is free and you will also find free wifi throughout. In the foyer is a gift shop and a small cafe if you are in need of refreshment. If I had to pick one museum to visit when looking at what to do in Dunedin, then this would be the one.
Lan Yuan, Dunedin Chinese Garden
If you are looking for some “unexpected Dunedin” things to do then this would surely be on the list – the Lan Yuan Dunedin Chinese Gardens. While these gardens are a great example of traditional scholars gardens, I would love to have had more information about them. I have been to these sorts of gardens before so sort of knew what I was looking at, but a quick tour would have been fantastic.
Since my visit I’ve discovered there is a video that plays in the entrance that explains a lot of the gardens, but I must have rushed past without paying it any attention. It’s also possible to arrange a tour if you are interested – see their website for details. All in all, this was a nice place in the centre of Dunedin to sit down and relax in tranquility for a while. Take advantage of the tea rooms here for some chinese tea and snacks.
University of Otago
Take a stroll around the beautiful campus of New Zealand’s first university, opening in 1871, the University of Otago. The buildings were built in the grand style of the time, and the famous clocktower is a symbol of Dunedin. Not to be out done by the architecture, the gardens are just as pretty, particularly in spring. If you want information as you stroll, call into the University of Otago Visitor’s Centre and pick up information for a self-guided tour of the campus.
Dunedin Botanical Gardens
For more strolling in picturesque gardens, include the Botanical Gardens in your activities in Dunedin. Continuing with firsts, this is the first Botanic Garden to be established in New Zealand in 1863. The Botanic Gardens include an impress Glasshouse housing tropical and and sub-tropical plants. There is also an Alpine House to provide just the right environment for delicate cold weather plants. To keep you moving through the gardens there are a few walking trails, including the Dunedin Volcano Trail, a one hour walk up an extinct volcano.
And yet another first (or perhaps “only” is a better word) is Larnach Castle, the only castle in New Zealand. This is a Dunedin must do. The castle sits in an absolutely stunning position on the Otago Peninsula with sweeping views back over the bay to Dunedin. It is out of town a little so you will need a car to get here or join in on a tour.
Built in 1871, it has collected it’s fair share of scandalous and tragic stories over the years. A visit to the castle now will show off the stunning interior, restored over the years to show off the opulence of this magnificent home. Also visit the gardens, which have been declared Gardens of International Significance. When you have explored the whole place, sit down for high tea in the ballroom at 3pm each day – but make sure you prebook.
If you have always wanted to sleep in a castle this could be the next best thing, staying in the castle grounds. Larnach Castle accommodation is boutique style with a variety of options. If you stay in one of the accommodation options below, your visit to the castle is included in the room rates
Visit a Church
I know this is a much more European suggestion than one that would normally be seen in this part of the world but Dunedin has some really lovely churches that are worth having a look at, just like you would in Europe. Look out for the Knox Presbyterian Church on George Street, St Paul’s Cathedral on The Octagon or the First Church of Otago on Moray Place.
Baldwin Street, Dunedin
Of all the places to go in Dunedin this could just about be the quirkiest. Back when I visited Baldwin Street it was the steepest street in the world! During my second visit it had been relegated to only the second steepest, but I have just discovered that as of April 2020 it has again won the title back after a formal review showed it is steeper that it’s competitor in Wales. Nothing like a bit of competition between nations.
Apart from being the steepest street in the world, Baldwin Street became famous for another competition were once a year locals stand at the top of the street and roll Jaffas (local orange-flavoured chocolate balls, well known in this part of the world for being rolled down cinema aisles too!) down the hill. Each Jaffa has been sponsored, with the winner taking home a prize, but most of the money goes to charity.
There is also an annual foot race called the Baldwin Street Gutbuster where competitors run up and down the street. Not sure I want to try that one!
Relax on a Beach
For that one day a year that it is warm enough to swim (okay, maybe that’s just me who needs it to be crazy hot to go in the sea!) there are some stunning beaches around Dunedin. Maybe you don’t even need to venture into the water, just take a walk and admire the scenery, one of the best activities to do in Dunedin. While there are dozens to choose from, St Clair Beach could be a good option. It’s the favourite swimming beach of the locals, is lined with restaurants and cafes, and has an enclosed hot salt water pool heated to a lovely 28 degrees.
If you are looking for a beach to hike to and enjoy the view, Tunnel Beach has been labeled as the most romantic beach Dunedin has to offer. It’s a short walk through a man-made tunnel, hence the name, to a secluded beach which is dotted with sandstone boulders. There are views to a sea arch, and the cliffs are filled with fossils. This is not a swimming beach though, it’s currents are too dangerous.
Surfers should head to Blackhead Beach to catch the best waves in the area.
Taste the Whisky
While in Dunedin, take advantage of the Scottish heritage and head to a whisky bar to test out both the local and international selections. Dunedin has got a reputation for some good whiskies, with one called the Dunedin Doublewood winning the “Best Whisky in the World” a few years ago. To test it out, some of the popular bars are Albar, Bacchus Wine Bar or the strangely named, Dog With Two Tails.
Take a Cooking Class
New Zealand may not strike you as a location with a distinctly different cuisine – except perhaps for the Maori hangi – so a cooking class may seem an unusual suggestion. What New Zealand does have though is some amazing local produce. Spend a few hours with a local chef and learn how to turn those incredible ingredients into a tasty meal.
Not to be confused with the Toitū Otago Settlers Museum, the Otago Museum focuses on the geography and science of the local area, the wildlife, and a lot more of the Maori culture of the region. In fact this museum has 1.5 million different items to teach you about Otago so is another of the best places to see in Dunedin. The museum is open from 10am until 5pm every day and entry is free. They usually have extra temporary exhibitions that do require payment if you wish to see them.
If you want to have a guided tour of the Otago Museum to really learn about what you see there, there are two options available.
Street Art Trail
If, like me, you are a street art fan, there is a great street art scene here in Dunedin and it’s really worth spending some time walking through the inner city streets to have a look. I was told that the Visitor Information Centre has maps to follow, but I completely forgot to call in and get one so followed a map online instead. To see many more pieces of the artwork and where they can be found, click through to my Dunedin Street Art post here.
Dunedin Hop On Hop Off Bus
Many of the above Dunedin tourist attractions are a little out of the city centre, so while you could walk to each one, you may end up spending much of the day walking between them. Instead you can jump on the Dunedin Hop On Hop Off bus that will take you around the city for the whole day, allowing you to get off when you want to or stay on and see parts of the city you would otherwise miss. For more information see the website here.
(Covid has seen the hop on hop off bus cease – lets hope it comes back as New Zealand starts to welcome visitor again)
Hire an E-Bike
Here’s another way to get around the city, or take a much longer ride out into the countryside – and it could just be one of the most fun things to do in Dunedin. Hiring a bike is a great idea, hiring an electric bike is and even better one, to make those hills much easier. After all, Dunedin is home to the world’s steepest street!
The Scottish Shop
For a truely unique New Zealand souvenir visit The Scottish Shop to relive the traditional heritage of the town. Pick up a little piece of Scotland with a New Zealand twist or even go as far as buying a traditional kilt in your family tartan without having to travel to the other side of the world. Have a look at their website for more information.
Dunedin City Tours
Apart from all the stuff to do in Dunedin, there are a wide range of tours to help you see the city and close surrounds if you prefer to hop on one of these. Many are run as shore excursions for the many cruise ships that dock at Port Chalmers to visit Dunedin, but they can also be booked by those not on tours. Here are just a few that you can choose from
- Iconic Dunedin City Highlights Tour
- Full-Day Dunedin Tour with Larnach Castle & Gardens, Speight’s Brewery
- Wildlife Cruise & Larnach Castle Tour
- Heritage Highlights Walk
Day Trips from Dunedin & Activities Further Afield
Even after all these Dunedin attractions, New Zealand has more to offer. Here are some great ideas for day trips outside of the city, either with tours or you can explore some of the sites independently.
Take the Tourist Train to Taieri Gorge
While no commuter services run from the Dunedin Railway Station, there is still a tourist train that does a 4-hour loop through the Taieri Gorge and back. It takes passengers through so stunning natural landscapes, and over and through some incredible feats of engineering as it navigates the many bridges and tunnels. There are short stops at the most scenic places along the way to allow photographs to be taken. The train is one that has been restored from yesteryear so the journey brings back the nostalgia of times past. There is commentary on board, and a dining car too for snacks and light meals. And since passengers remain on the train for the whole time, this is one of the best things to do around Dunedin when the weather is bad.
The Seasider Rail Journey
A second train trip from Dunedin is The Seasider. This 90-minute round trip follows the coastline to the town of Waititi. This time the view are of the Otago Harbour. Again there is onboard commentary, the train will stop for photo opportunities and there are refreshments available.
Visit Port Chalmers
If you have arrived to Dunedin by cruise ship this is where you will disembark. Port Chalmers is about 13km from Dunedin, and is a cute little coastal town. While you are here, visit the Port Chalmers Museum (entry by gold coin donation) to learn about the rich maritime history. Take a stroll to the Iona Church, and continue on to the Lady Thorn Rhododendron Dell. Once you have finished exploring, make your way to the The Portsider, a great little local pub for a meal or a drink.
Otago Harbour Ferry
If you are short on time or don’t want to pay for an expensive tour, while in Port Chalmers jump on the Otago Harbour ferry to cross over to Portobello on the other side of the harbour. The captain gives a running commentary about the area and you can admire the stunning scenery from the water. Also keep an eye out for the many seabirds that call Otago home.
The Orokonui Ecosanctuary is a fenced-off area of forest where all pest have been removed and now only native species live and thrive. There are plenty of self-guided walks available at the sanctuary, but you can also join one of the various guided tours to learn more about this fragile eco system and what the sanctuary is doing to help preserve it. For more information head on over to their website here.
Penguin Place is a tourism-funded sanctuary located on the Otago Peninsula providing a protected habitat for the endangered Yellow-eyed Penguins. There are now only 2000 breeding pairs left, so this project aims to improve those numbers. Visits are only done by guided tours. Also there is some fantastic budget accommodation at Penguin Place if you are looking for something basic and affordable. Click through to their website for more details.
Royal Albatross Centre
Located right at the tip of the Otago Peninsula, the Royal Albatross Centre is the only mainland breeding colony of Northern Royal Albatross in the world. There are two tours offered by the centre, one to see the albatross, and another to see Little Blue Penguins in the evenings. The centre also arranges transport from Dunedin if required. More more information see their website.
Take a Guided Day Tour
There are, of course, dozens of tours available that combine some of these attractions so that you can see more of them in a day. There are also some more that offer even more options of things to see and do in Dunedin. Here are just a few ideas to get you started.
- Twilight Wildlife Viewing with Ex-Ranger Including Dinner
- Private Tour: Dunedin to the Catlins
- Southern Skies Stargazing Tour in Dunedin
- Iconic Silverfern Train and Moeraki Boulders Tour
- Glow Worm Tours Dunedin
- Maori Pa Tour
- Maori Waka Tour
- Albatross, Wildlife and Harbour Cruise
- Otago Peninsula Wildlife Day Tour
Accommodation in Dunedin
When it comes to accommodation, Dunedin has a wide range of options. I’ve mentioned a couple of options above, but here are some more places to stay in Dunedin. The budget traveller will not go wrong with On Top Backpackers. Here you can find a range of room options from private to dorms. For the mid range traveller the Highland House Boutique Hotel looks like a good option. Rooms look lovely without the huge price tag. It is a little out of the centre at North Dunedin, but still within walking distance. If it’s luxury you are looking for, the Camp Estate by Larnach Castle mentioned above would fit the bill, as would Distinction Dunedin Hotel if you prefer to stay in the centre of the city.
Everthing above should give you plenty of things to see in Dunedin, so how about now checking out some of the rest of New Zealand? These posts will help you
10 Day New Zealand North Island Itinerary
Things to Do on Stewart Island, New Zealand
Hobbiton Tour from Tauranga Review
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