Ōtepoti, Dunedin, “the Edinburgh of the South” - call it what you will, this is a special place. Early Māori history mingles with the city’s Scottish heritage, its Victorian and Edwardian architecture, and the beautiful environment and wildlife to make this area unique.
Dunedin was once New Zealand’s largest city, after the gold rushes of the 1860s swelled the population. The University of Otago is the country’s oldest. To this day, Dunedin bursts with youth. Well-known as ‘Scarfies’, some 20,000 students add a special vibrancy to the city and contribute to its distinctive culture.
University of Otago Registry building, photo: Tourism Dunedin
You too can experience Scarfie life - without having to take out a student loan. Stroll through the university grounds, trawl through second-hand shops for vintage treasures or visit North Dunedin’s iconic student flat streets. Catch a gig at student haunts such as Refuel or the Crown Hotel. Loads of great bands have come out of Dunedin - Straightjacket Fits, The Clean, The Chills, 3Ds and many more. Built in 1862, the Crown Hotel is a bit of an indie music icon, and you can still enjoy a jug, with your wall of noise.
Dunedin history and heritage
The area around Dunedin/Ōtepoti was first settled by Māori, including the peoples of Waitaha, Kāti Mamoe in the 16th century and then Kai Tahu (Ngai Tahu). Head to the excellent Toitū Otago Settlers Museum to explore the history of Dunedin/Ōtepoti. Exhibitions bring to life Maori perspectives, first encounters with European explorers, Scottish Presbyterian settlement and the founding of a “New Edinburgh” in 1848, the gold rushes from 1861, and more.
Chinese Garden, photo: Dunedin Tourism
Next door to Toitū Otago Settlers Museum is the Dunedin Chinese Garden - a traditional scholar’s garden, built in recognition of the Chinese people who came to Otago during the goldrush in the 1860s, and those who stayed on to found businesses in the region. Constructed with carved stone and wooden pavilions created by artisans in Dunedin’s sister city, Shanghai, it’s a tranquil spot. Visitors can try Chinese tea, steamed buns and dumplings in the tea house.
The city of Dunedin has retained its distinctive 19th century architecture. Many of its finest Victorian and Edwardian buildings are not museum pieces; rather, the city lives within them. Take a step back in time in The Exchange - the city’s hub in the late 1800s - and see the old National Bank and BNZ Bank, and post office buildings nearby.
Visit the city’s heritage buildings - the historic home of Olveston, Fletcher House, the photogenic Dunedin Railway Station, and Speights Brewery - and you’ll see that Dunedin’s early founders and traditions still stand proud on the cultural landscape.
Statue of Robbie Burns in front of St Paul’s Cathedral and Dunedin Town Hall, photo: Tourism Dunedin
Dunedin delights in its Scottish heritage: there are numerous pipe bands and highland dancers and a statue of Scottish bard, Robbie Burns, presides over The Octagon, the pedestrian plaza at the city’s centre.
Street Art and Galleries in Dunedin
Dunedin boasts New Zealand’s first public art gallery. Established in 1884, Dunedin Public Art Gallery is renowned for its collection of New Zealand art works from 1860 to the present, historical European works, Japanese prints and decorative arts. Set in the heart of the city, the gallery holds works by famed local artists such as Frances Hodgkins, Colin McCahon, Ralph Hotere and Kushana Bush, along with thoughtfully curated exhibitions, and a cafe.
Dunedin Street Art: Phlegm (U.K), photo credit: Alan Dove
You’ll find art out in the streets too. Dunedin Street Art brings the walls of the warehouse precint to life. Follow the street art trail and you’ll discover fantastic artworks from international as well as homegrown artists, blazing across huge walls, or turning up little quirky surprises, all lifting the city into a more interesting, provocative and imaginative sphere.
Family activities around Dunedin
Otago Museum is a great place to go with the family, especially if the weather isn’t too good. Entry is free to most parts of the museum. There is a small charge to visit the Tropical Forest - here you can enjoy a balmy 28 degrees, with colourful butterflies flitting about amid orchids and palms.
Jump on a train! Not only is Dunedin Railway Station a fantastic building, but you can start off from there on some amazing scenic trips, such as the Taieri Gorge Railway with its bridges, tunnels and viaducts, or the Seasider in summer.
Children and chocolate lovers may well want to visit Cadbury World. Have a squiz at Tripadvisor to see if it’s for you.
In summer, head to St Clair, and you can swim lengths in the saltwater pool, beside the ocean. There are dramatic views of the waves rolling in, and you watch surfers, or spot a seal perhaps.
Otago Peninsula - wildlife, beaches and Larnach Castle
The Otago Peninsula stretches out for about 20kms, enclosing Otago Harbour. With superb views of the sea and harbour, it’s a wonderful place to explore, for sparsely populated beaches, and unique wildlife, especially seabirds, and seals.
Take the walk to Sandfly Bay, on the south coast of the peninsula, for giant dunes, a beautiful long beach, and the chance to spot sea lions. If you happen to be lucky enough to see yellow-eyed penguins, crouch down and stay distant - they’re very shy!
Larnach Castle should not be missed. In a spectacular setting on the Otago Peninsula, the castle was built in 1871 by William Larnach, merchant and politician, for his wife Eliza. While the history of its founding family is touched with scandal and tragedy, the castle is now a peaceful and fascinating place to visit: interiors have been lovingly restored and furnished, and the gardens are famously beautiful.
For tranquil garden walks and excellent food, visit Glenfalloch, a woodland garden, with restaurant and cafe, run by the Otago Peninsula Trust. It’s free to enter the gardens, though donations are appreciated. You could go green - catch a bus from Dunedin, then hire an electric bike from Glenfalloch to tootle around the peninsula. After all, the Otago Peninsula was named one of the world’s top ten rides by Lonely Planet, so rent, borrow or take a bike and give it a whirl.
Albatross chick at Taiaroa Head, photo: Tourism Dunedin
The Royal Albatross Centre, at Taiaroa Head, is the only mainland albatross colony in the world. There are cultural and wildlife tours available - giving you a chance to see these great seabirds, and to learn more about the area’s Māori heritage and natural history.
From soaring flight to a bit of a waddle: the hoiho, or Yellow-eyed penguin is an endangered native penguin, found around Otago. At Penguin Place a conservation reserve, funded by guided tours, visitors can watch the penguins from trenches and hides, getting a much closer view of these charming but shy seabirds.
Yellow-eyed penguins, photo: Tourism Dunedin
Dunedin Area - holidays beyond the city
Head north of Dunedin and you’ll find lovely coastline and interesting places to explore. The seaside village of Port Chalmers is the main port of Dunedin, and is a good place to seek out arts, crafts and music, along with cafes and restaurants. The Port Chalmers Seafood Festival takes place in September.
Orokonui Ecosanctuary lies on Blueskin Rd, about 20kms northeast of Dunedin. Walk through forest, enjoy the beautiful views and look out for native birds such as kākā, takahē and tui, along with Otago skinks, tuatara and butterflies.
There are holiday spots and baches (“cribs” if you’re from round here) continuing north. Try fishing at Aramoana, with seabirds and sea lions to keep you company. At Long Beach you might find shellfish, spot seals and dolphins, or could try caving, rock-climbing or surfing. At Purakaunui Inlet, collect cockles or go boating. Waitati sits on the edge of beautiful Blueskin Bay, 15 minutes from Dunedin, with Warrington Beach to the north. Forage for mussels or southern clams in Blueskin Bay and cook them over a driftwood fire. Swim, surf or kayak, depending on the weather, at Warrington Bay. It’s a scenic drive along Coast Road from Warrington Bay to Karitane, where you could enjoy kayaking, explore the estuary, surf perhaps, or take the walkway along Huriawa Peninsula past blowholes. At low tide, watch the race horses train on Waikouaiti Bay. For a gourmet picnic, stock up at the Evansdale Cheese factory nearby.
Where to stay
What to do
- Step back in time at Larnach Castle
- Discover the historic home and art collection at Olveston
- Explore the region’s history at the Otago Settlers’ Museum
- See yellow-eyed penguins on the Otago Peninsula
- Visit the Royal Albatross Centre at Taiaroa Head
- Spend a day at the Dunedin Public Art Gallery
- Down some local beers while listening to a band