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 cities are almost 12000 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? Here are seven reasons why you must visit Dunedin.
You can tackle 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. 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 the Dunedin road’s 34.8% gradient easily beat the Welsh contender’s 28.6%, sending it straight back to the record books. Now, whether you choose to walk up or down is up to you, but regardless it’s going to give your leg muscles quite a workout.
You’ll be able to visit 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. Later, he splurged on a ballroom, which was a present for his daughter’s 21st birthday.
These days, it’s the glamorous setting for an annual winter ball. But financial woes and personal tragedy 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.
You’ll quickly learn that the city’s packed with architectural gems
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.
You can follow Dunedin’s 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, art isn’t confined to stuffy museums. Colorful murals decorate walls all over the city and not just indoors. 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 whose 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.
You can fuel up tasty food and drink
Dunedin-bound foodies are in for a treat, not least 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’s regular tours 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 – just 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. The city’s Scottish heritage comes to the fore in Albar, which hosts in-house whisky tastings and offers a “Malt of the Month”.
You’re just a stone’s throw from 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. 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 at just 25cm tall) and the less common yellow-eyed penguins.
Sea birds are also prevalent. It’s common for Royal albatrosses to soar overhead. These magnificent birds have a 3 metre wingspan and those powerful wings 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.
You might catch a glimpse of the Southern Lights
Most of us are familiar with the Northern Lights, but how many of us realize that there’s a southern version? The Aurora Australis is much harder to tick off a bucket list because there’s relatively little land far enough south to do it from. But that just increases the bragging rights! 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 see them. You’ll need dark skies, so it’s best to head beyond the city limits, such as at nearby Hooper’s Inlet, Sandfly Bay or Second Beach in neighboring St Clair.
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.