Most visitors planning a big trip to New Zealand will find themselves in Auckland, Wellington, or Christchurch at some point. But you should also ask yourself is Dunedin worth visiting? This small city in the Otago region of South Island has plenty to offer tourists. Those who make the effort to get there won’t regret it.
If you think the city’s name sounds like it should be in Scotland, you’d be right. Dunedin comes from Dùn Èideann, which is the Gaelic translation of Edinburgh. The city even boasts its own tartan and there’s a statue of Robbie Burns in the Octagon, a prominent city centre plaza. But the two namesakes are almost 12,000 miles apart and separated by 11 time zones. Why on earth would they share the same name?
The answer lies, of course, in migration. Thousands of Scots made their way to New Zealand in the second half of the 19th century. Many hoped to get rich quick on the back of the Otago gold rush. Though most didn’t, some of them stuck around anyway. Today the city has a population of over 100,000. So what’s the attraction today and why would you come? Here are nine reasons why you must visit Dunedin during that NZ adventure…
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Dunedin is a salt-washed city at the very far southern end of New Zealand. It’s sat between wild coastlines of wave-splattered rocks where seal colonies (more on them later) laze about and endless surf batters the shoreline. If that sounds like just about the perfect place to go looking for untouched beaches, then that’s because it is!
Saint Clair Beach is the main sandy stretch close to the center. It dashes along the south side of the town with its oceanside parks and lookout points. People gather there in warmer weather to chillax and sunbathe the summer days away. The white-sand run of St Kilda Beach is even prettier but still urban; a good alternative when there are crowds.
Then you have the beaches that await those willing to travel a little out from town:
- Tunnel Beach – This one looks more like something from the Portuguese Algarve than South Island. A sandstone cliff soars overhead, while staircases cut into the stone help visitors get down.
- Brighton Beach – Facing east, Brighton Beach gets good surf swells from the southern Pacific in the winter. It’s also a lovely sunrise spot with jagged rock stacks to gaze at.
- Smaills Beach – A rock reef and white sand is topped by oat-covered hills here. Smaills Beach is also a hotspot for rare, yellow-eyed penguins.
The steepest street in the world
It’s official – Baldwin Street in Dunedin is the world’s steepest street. Recognition of its mind-boggling status was originally granted over a decade ago, but it would seem it’s not as easy as you might think to prove you’re the steepest of all. A Welsh street, Harlech’s Ffordd Pen Llech, successfully challenged the decision for a time, holding the Guinness World Records honor from June 2019.
But New Zealand wasn’t going to give up without a fight. Dunedin lodged an appeal and after a review it was agreed that those critical measurements should be taken only from the centerline of the street. That meant Dunedin road’s 34.8% gradient easily beat the Welsh contender’s 28.6%, sending it straight back to the record books. We’ll leave the decision to walk it up to you – expect a hefty workout for the calves!
To see New Zealand’s only castle
New Zealand’s sole castle dates from the late 19th century. Wealthy entrepreneur William Larnach commissioned this Gothic Revival mansion in 1870 and moved his family in four years later. He never referred to his home as a castle, however, preferring instead to call it ‘the camp.’ Even then, it needed a few tweaks before they could feel comfortable. It soon became apparent that the verandas were too cold to use in Dunedin’s chilly winters. Larnach’s solution was 20 tonnes of glass, which he shipped over from Venice – obviously! Later, he splurged on a ballroom, which was a present for his daughter’s 21st birthday.
Financial woes and personal tragedy eventually struck and the family sold up. Their beloved home was put to various uses: A lunatic asylum, a hospital for soldiers suffering from shell shock, a nunnery and a farm – the once-grand ballroom was even used as a sheep pen. Eventually it was rescued and for decades, the privately-owned castle has been one of Dunedin’s most popular visitor attractions. Its beautiful gardens were a later addition. They are one of only five rated of international significance by the New Zealand Gardens Trust. Today, the house is the glamorous setting for an annual winter ball.
All the wonderful architecture
Dunedin is a city known for its great architecture – even its railway station building is worth a closer look! But one historic property you really shouldn’t miss is Olveston. David Theomin was a successful businessman who had traveled the globe collecting fine art and furniture. It was only fitting that he should have a place worthy of displaying his collection. A British architect designed his arts and crafts mansion and in 1906, the family of four moved into their lavish, 35-room pad. When his spinster daughter died there were no heirs; instead, she gifted the place to the city.
Olveston opened to the public in 1967 and now everyone can enjoy David’s treasures. His eclectic collection includes musical instruments, Chinese urns and Japanese ramma panels decorated with gilt phoenix and wood carved peonies. But this meticulously preserved property also offers a fascinating insight into turn of the century life for the well-to-do.
On top of that, you’ve got the imposing facade of Dunedin Cathedral, a church that looks like it could have been plucked from an old English village. And there’s that aforementioned train station, which channels the elaborate Flemish renaissance style of the Low Countries in its crenulated tops and ochre-tinged wall panels.
The captivating street art trail
New Zealand’s first public art gallery opened in Dunedin in 1884. Today, it houses one of the country’s best collections of art, including works by the late Frances Hodgkins, who was born locally. But creativity takes many forms and in Dunedin and art here isn’t confined to stuffy museums. Colorful murals decorate walls all over the city and. Thought-provoking designs painted by local and internationally renowned artists collectively form Dunedin’s fabulous street art trail.
The best place to start is Vogel Street, where thee warehouse walls provide a blank canvas for expression and decoration. Many of the murals you see there tell a story. A work entitled Empress of the Penguins, for instance, draws attention to the endangered status of local yellow-eyed penguins, while a fish swallowing a Māori waka (canoe) and a submarine is in part a nod to the Japanese vessels spotted in Dunedin’s harbour during World War Two.
The food and drink
Dunedin-bound foodies are in for a treat, not least of all when they see the array of stalls and food trucks that turn up to the Otago Farmers’ Market held at the railway station each Saturday! But throughout the city, there are numerous cafés, bars, and restaurants, many of which marry fresh ingredients sourced from local farmers, fishermen, bakers, and cheesemongers with a liberal dash of international flair.
The city even has its own artisan chocolate factory: OCHO. Regular tours there suit anyone who is keen to learn more about the journey from bean to bar. All the cacao beans are grown in the South Pacific but the magic – sugar and that all important know-how – is added in Dunedin.
Alternatively, visit Speight’s, a Dunedin icon. Tour the premises and learn about the manufacturing process in the country’s oldest brewery, which first opened its doors in 1876. Sample the beer in the tasting room where the brewery’s experts will teach you how to perfectly pour a glass of the amber liquid. Finally, the city’s Scottish heritage comes to the fore in Albar, which hosts in-house whisky tastings and offers a “Malt of the Month” special.
Otago’s famous wildlife
Seals, penguins, and sea lions are just a few of the creatures you’ll find close to Dunedin. Daily tours depart from the center of the city, so it’s easy to enjoy a wildlife encounter and still be back in time for dinner and a Speight’s. Expect to see a breeding colony of New Zealand fur seals as well as endangered New Zealand sea lions. Also keep an eye out for cute little blue penguins (the smallest species there is, at just 25cm tall) and the less common yellow-eyed penguins (now highly endangered).
Sea birds are also prevalent. It’s common for Royal albatrosses to soar overhead. These magnificent birds have a three-metre wingspan, which enable them to travel at speeds of up to 60 miles an hour! The world’s only mainland breeding colony is located just half an hour from Dunedin on Taiaroa Head. Closer to the city, the Orokonui Ecosanctuary houses nocturnal kiwi and rare South Island kākā, a native parrot with dazzling plumage.
A chance to see the Southern Lights
Most of us are familiar with the Northern Lights, but who knew that there was a southern version? The Aurora Australis are much harder to tick off the bucket list because there’s relatively little land far enough south to see them from. That just increases the bragging rights down here in Dunedin!
Along with Chile, Argentina and of course Antarctica, southern New Zealand is one of those places. And if conditions are right when you rock up in Dunedin, you might just be lucky enough to spot it happening. You’ll need dark skies, so it’s best to head beyond the city limits – nearby Hooper’s Inlet, Sandfly Bay, or Second Beach in neighboring St Clair are all good options.
Check the aurora forecast before you set out to time your trip for a night with plenty of solar activity. Once you arrive, face south to make sure you have an uninterrupted view of the horizon. Keep your fingers crossed that the elusive green curtains dance before you and put on a show you’ll never forget.
Otago – the greater region
Another reason you might want to book a flight down to Dunedin from Christchurch or Auckland is that it’s a prime gateway to the greater Otago region. That’s a jaw-droppingly spectacular cut-out of South Island. Spanning all the way from the shimmering beaches of Dunedin town, it reaches inland to encompass arguably the most famous sections of the Southern Alps.
The piece de resistance has to be the area around the adventure mecca of Queenstown. Head there to climb peaks like Ben Lomond in the company of kea parrots and swim in the icy glacial waters of Lake Wakatipu. The region also includes the snowy ski runs of Cardrona and the Remarkables mountains, along with the hiking haven of Wanaka.
Oh yea, and it lays claim to some of the best wine in the country – nay the world! Move over Hawke’s Bay, because the Otago labels are prized for their fruity whites and mineral content. Taste them at the award-winning wineries of the Queenstown valley around lovely Arrowtown. There’s even a hop-on, hop-off wine-tour bus!
So, is Dunedin worth visiting?
It sure is! Dunedin is an oft-overlooked town that sits on the cusp of the wild Pacific Ocean in the south of New Zealand. It’s rich in Scottish-influenced heritage, has striking Neo-Gothic architecture, and a creative side that means art works and galleries are brimming from most blocks. On a quirkier note, this is the place to come to walk the steepest street on the planet. Oh, and it’s a ticket to some of the most stunning parts of South Island, which come in the form of surf-washed beaches and snow-capped mountains. It’s 100% worth visiting if any of that sounds like your sort of thing!