29 June 2021

Top 10 Things to do in Dunedin, New Zealand

Dunedin is the second-largest city in the South Island of New Zealand and oozes an old-school charm, has an interesting history, amazing architecture, gorgeous harbour views, and offers a plethora of wildlife and nature to explore.

You can easily spend several days exploring Dunedin and the Otago Peninsula, with an abundance of activities and things to do to suit all kinds of visitors.

Before we get into some of the top things to do, if you don't know much about Dunedin, here are some fun facts to help get you acquainted:

10 Fun Facts about Dunedin

  • Dunedin is the Celtic name for Edinburgh and has a large Scottish heritage with many early settlers coming from there.

  • Dunedin is the world's fifth-largest city in geographical size.

  • Dunedin is home to the steepest street in the world.

  • Otago Girls’ High School was one of the first state-run secondary schools for girls in the world.

  • The Railway Station is the most photographed building in New Zealand.

  • Dunedin was the largest city in New Zealand by population from the 1860s until about 1900.

  • The University of Otago, New Zealand’s oldest university, was the first in the country to admit women to all its classes. It is also the South Island’s largest employer.

  • Dunedin is the farthest city in the world from London.

  • Larnach Castle, located on the Otago Peninsula, is New Zealand’s only castle.

  • The Otago Daily Times is New Zealand’s first daily and oldest surviving newspaper.

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Now that we know a bit more about this fascinating city, here are my top ten recommendations for things to do. I've had the pleasure of visiting Dunedin twice, so I'm certainly no expert but these are great activities that highlight some of the best the city has to offer, especially for first-time visitors.

1. Elm Wildlife Tour

Dunedin and its surroundings are home to some truly incredible wildlife, and Elm Wildlife Tours offers a half-day Peninsula Encounter tour where you get to explore the stunning Otago Peninsula and spot wildlife in their natural habitat.

On our tour, we saw Royal Albatross - the largest seabird in the world, playful New Zealand fur seals, a waddling Yellow-Eyed penguin - the rarest penguin in the world, and roaring New Zealand sea lions. 

Our guide was very knowledgeable and took us to exclusive private-access-only spots. The company does fantastic conservation efforts and it was a highly enjoyable afternoon out - a very recommended tour that showed off so many highlights of the Otago Peninsula. 

2. Dunedin Railway Station

Affectionately known as the 'Gingerbread House,' the Dunedin Railway Station is the most photographed building in New Zealand.

The iconic architectural landmark dates back to 1906 and was built in Flemish Renaissance style. The station is open to the public, so head inside to marvel at the ornate interiors and period adornments. The booking hall alone features a mosaic floor of almost 750,000 tiles. Upstairs you'll find an art gallery and a sports hall of fame.

3. Royal Albatross Centre

At the endpoint of the Otago Peninsula, is the world's only mainland breeding colony of the Northern Royal Albatross. They are one of the largest seabirds in the world with a wingspan of three metres. Even if you're not necessarily into birds or bird-watching, witnessing these giant, magnificent birds up close is a special and unique experience. 

Inside the Royal Albatross Centre, you can find a cafe, gift shop, toilets, and information about different tours they run throughout the day. On their tours, you get to visit their exclusive observatory with great views of the Albatross. You might even be lucky enough like I was and witness fluffy nesting chicks and a parent flying in to feed them (binoculars are provided).

In the area is also a historic observation post, Fort Taiaroa. If you're into military history, you can book a combo tour and see the underground tunnels, the world's only restored 1886 Armstrong Disappearing gun and learn all about the history.

4. Larnach Castle

Surrounded by stunning views of the Otago Peninsula,  Larnach Castle - New Zealand's only castle is a must-visit. It has a fascinating history - William Larnach had the 43-room mansion built on the back of the Otago gold rush in 1871.

After a tragedy, the castle sat idle for many years before the Barker Family purchased it in 1967. Since then, they have lovingly restored and improved it, creating a castle experience, award-winning gardens, luxury accommodation and unique dining experiences.

My husband and I splashed out for the full experience with the castle and gardens tour, lodge accommodation and the four-course Trust the Chef dinner. It was an amazing experience and I highly recommend it for a special occasion.

5. Explore the beaches

There are so many incredible beaches in the area to explore, with plenty of wildlife to spot (keep to a safe distance of course). If you have your own car and don't necessarily want to do a paid wildlife tour, head out and explore on your own. There are some great resources sharing where to spot sea lion and fur seal colonies along the peninsula. 

What I love about Dunedin beaches is that quite often you have them all to yourself (apart from a furry friend or two). Victory Beach (pictured above) was recommended to us by a local and after gravel roads and a bit of a hike, it was so secluded and an entirely magical spot.

Saint Clair Beach is a popular beach for surfing and hanging out for the day, and there are some great surrounding cafes. Tunnel Beach is meant to be amazing and I was hoping to visit on my latest trip but unfortunately, the tide times didn't work out for me.

6. Baldwin Street

Okay, but did you even go to Dunedin if you didn't check out the steepest street in the world? Baldwin Street owns the Guinness World Record and is a popular tourist spot to capture some hilarious photos for the gram if that's your thing. If it's not, you can probably skip this one.

The 350-metre stretch of road has a gradient of 19-21 degrees, which means the ground rises a metre for every 2.86 metres you cover horizontally.  That's pretty steep!

7. Check out the foodie scene

Who knew that Dunedin was such a trendy, foodie city? There is an abundance of incredible cafes (with great coffee), popular restaurants specialising in every type of cuisine, there's even a great craft beer scene.

Trip Advisor and plenty of foodie articles will point you in the right direction of where to eat, but some of my top recommendations include:

Etrusco at the Savoy - for amazing Italian cuisine, Starfish Cafe - for a delicious brunch by the beach at Saint Clair (pictured above), The Corner Store Cafe - for delicious coffee and baked goods, Prohibition Smokehouse - for delicious cocktails and smoked meat, Ironic Cafe - for a yum brunch opposite the Railway Station, The Good Oil cafe - for great coffee and brunch on George Street, Takeaways on Marlow - for the best fish and chips and tartare sauce I've ever had!

8. Speights Brewery Tour

One for the beer fans, the Speight's Brewery Tour is a 60-minute interactive and informative guided tour through their historic working brewery. Opening in 1876, it's the oldest brewery in the country. On the tour, you'll learn all about their extensive history, their brewing process and how they became legendary not only in the south but right around the country. 

The tour finishes in the Tasting Room where you get to taste and sample a range of Speight’s finest beers (included in the tour price). The Speights Ale House is located only a few metres down the road if you fancy another pint or some food afterwards.

9. Chinese Gardens

If you appreciate beautiful gardens, you'll enjoy New Zealand’s first Chinese Garden, Lan Yuan. It's an authentic example of a late Ming/early Ching Dynasty Scholar's Garden and celebrates Otago's Chinese heritage.

It's stunning to visit in all seasons and is a great way to spend an hour or two, strolling through and soaking up the tranquility. You can bring a picnic, play games and puzzles in the garden, and try traditional Chinese teas at the Tea Shop which also sell a selection of steamed buns (both sweet and savoury) and dumplings.

10. Signal Hill Lookout

Without a doubt, the best panoramic views overlooking Dunedin is from Signal Hill. If you have a car, it's a short drive up a windy road and the views are breathtaking, especially at sunset. It's quite exposed up there, so rug up on the colder days!

For the especially keen, it's about a one-hour walk (each way) from the Dunedin Botanic Gardens.

Where To Stay

There are plenty of good accommodation options to choose from depending on your budget. For my latest visit, it was for a special occasion so I wanted to stay at a highly-rated and comfortable place. After a lot of research, I settled on Bluestone on George. It's in a convenient central location, has free parking, spacious comfy rooms with all the amenities including a balcony, spa bath, free wifi, etc. We stayed for two nights and it was very pleasant.

For our third night, as mentioned, we splashed out to stay at Larnach Castle, which was a really cool experience. The lodge room wasn't overly fancy but it had everything you could need. The star of the room was the giant balcony with the most incredible water views overlooking the Otago Peninsula.

For those travelling on a budget or with a campervan, I recommend staying at Dunedin Holiday Park (which is where I stayed on my previous visit). It's one of the best holiday parks I've ever stayed at with good, clean facilities, great customer service and it's close to the beach.

How To Get Around

If driving is an option, I highly recommend it as the best way to get around and properly explore. The drive along the peninsula, the views and coastlines are all stunning, and you can explore the beaches and wildlife at your leisure. 

I hired a rental car at the airport. There are all the usual agencies, I used Go Rental for the first time as they were the cheapest and quite affordable. I had a good experience and would recommend using them. Just be sure to book accommodation with parking included.

If driving isn't an option, you can catch a bus to and from the airport (or a taxi if you can afford it!). It's very easy to get around the city centre on foot or again via a bus or taxi if need be. 

I highly enjoyed both times I've visited Dunedin over the last couple of years and I certainly look forward to the next one. I hope you've found my top recommendations helpful if you plan on visiting yourself. Do you have any others to add? Share them in the comments below!

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Happy Travels,

Krysti Jaims

* Please note, nothing in this post is sponsored, everything mentioned is my genuine recommendation.

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