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Ten top things to do in Dunedin

Located in the southeast corner of the South Island, Dunedin is a destination as historic as it is remote. The city has a wealth of wonderfully preserved Georgian and Victorian architecture, and it's easy to step back in time during your visit. Roslyn Jolly checks in with a handy list of ten top things to do...
Ten top things to do in Dunedin
Ten top things to do in Dunedin: Dunedin Railway Station

Dunedin is New Zealand’s oldest city and one of the world’s southernmost urban centres.

Known as the ‘Edinburgh of the South’, it wears its Scottish heritage with pride. The city is also New Zealand’s wildlife capital, and the gateway to the wild and beautiful Otago Peninsula — an eco-tourism magnet.

Here are ten top things to do in Dunedin. 

1. Travel back in time at Toitu

Maori explorers, American whalers, Scottish colonists and gold-diggers of all nations are among the settlers whose stories are told at Toitu Otago Settlers Museum. It’s the best kind of regional museum — modern, inclusive and accessible. Marvel at the tiny whale-boats that fuelled a worldwide industry, gaze at the human faces of history in the extraordinary Settler Portrait Gallery, or test your sense of personal space in the recreated ship-berths of the world’s longest migration voyage — from Britain to Dunedin.

Ten top things to do in Dunedin
Toitu Otago Settlers Museum. Image courtesy of Dunedin Tourism. Image: Graham Warman

2. Relive the golden age of rail at Dunedin Railway Station

Any list of ten top things to do in Dunedin must include a visit to Dunedin Railway Station. It’s the most photographed building in New Zealand. The Flemish Renaissance exterior — affectionately known as ‘gingerbread style’ — and luxurious booking hall, with its mosaics, stained glass and galleries, display the wealth of the city back in 1906, a time when railway stations were as ornamental as they were useful.

Only sightseeing trains run from here now, and there are two beauties on offer from Dunedin Railways. The Seasider runs along the coast, while the Taieri Gorge Railway heads inland, both through spectacular scenery.

Ten top things to do in Dunedin
Ten top things to do in Dunedin: Taieri Gorge Railway. Image: Bigstock

3. Climb the world’s steepest street

It’s official. The Guinness Book of Records names Baldwin Street, Dunedin, as the world’s steepest street. The sharper than 1:3 gradient puts it ahead of other well-known steepies like Filbert Street in San Francisco. See how quickly you can get to the top, or tilt your camera to capture some of the weird optical illusions created by the unusual angles of the streetscape.

4. Meet the monarchs of the sky at the Royal Albatross Centre

With a wingspan of more than three metres, the Royal Albatross is the world’s largest flying seabird. These aerial giants spend most of their lives at sea and usually breed on remote islands, but a 40 minute drive from Dunedin brings you to the Royal Albatross Centre at Taiaroa Head, the world’s only mainland breeding colony. Guided tours let you see nesting birds and, if you’re lucky, their chicks. You might also see albatrosses soaring above the cliffs, while below on Pilot’s Beach sea lions loll on the rocks or enjoy the surf.

If you stay until nightfall you can join a tour to watch little blue penguins — the world’s smallest penguins — returning to their nests.

Ten top things to do in Dunedin
Ten top things to do in Dunedin: Have an audience with the Royal Albatross.

5. Relax in Dunedin’s Octagon

Why have a town square when you can have an octagon? This eight-sided piazza is Dunedin’s centerpiece. You’ll find some of the city’s best bars and cafés here — most with outdoor seating. Admire the old stone buildings that showcase Dunedin’s historic grandeur while you sip a flat white or your favourite New Zealand wine. There are often street musicians and market stalls, while a huge statue of Scottish poet Robert Burns presides over the scene.

Ten top things to do in Dunedin
Ten top things to do in Dunedin: The Octagon. Image courtesy of Dunedin Tourism

6. Learn about the faith of the founding fathers

Dunedin’s founding fathers, like their American counterparts, were seeking religious freedom when they set out to build a ‘New Edinburgh’ in the antipodes. Their religious — specifically Presbyterian — heritage shaped the social and material fabric of the city. Make time to pop in to one of Dunedin’s grand Presbyterian churches to tap into this cultural heritage. Knox Church in George Street makes an elegant statement about wealth and prestige, while the Heritage Centre at the First Church in Moray Place offers priceless insights into the values and ideas of Dunedin’s religious pioneers.

7. Enjoy a leafy lunch at the Glenfalloch Woodland Gardens

Weather on the Otago Peninsula can be windy and foggy, but a benign microclimate on a section of the northern shore, just 15 minutes from Dunedin, creates the perfect conditions for the glorious Glenfalloch Woodland Gardens to flourish. The gardens, established in 1871, offer glimpses of Dunedin harbour through the trees and provide a lush setting for lunch at the Glenfalloch Restaurant. Enjoy the profusion of hydrangeas, fuchsias, rhododendrons, the magnificent colours of Japanese maples, and the sounds of streams and birds, as you savour delicious local fare.

Ten top things to do in Dunedin
Ten top things to do in Dunedin. Image courtesy of Glenfalloch Restaurant

8. Hit the books at the University of Otago

Dunedin has the specific energy that only comes from a student town. The 20,000 students who attend the University of Otago make up more than one-sixth of the city’s population. The university is New Zealand’s oldest, and the campus is well worth a visit, with its imposing granite buildings, graceful trees and even a river running through the middle. Across the road at 546 Great King Street, Scribes Bookshop is the perfect second-hand bookshop — spacious, well-stocked and friendly.

Ten top things to do in Dunedin
Ten top things to do in Dunedin: University of Otago. Image: Roslyn Jolly

9. Get back to nature at the Orokonui Ecosanctuary

‘Nature on nature’s terms’ is the philosophy of the Orokonui Ecosanctuary, situated about a half hour drive north of central Dunedin. It’s a place of relaxation and recreation for humans but also, and more importantly, a place of safety for endangered New Zealand flora and fauna. Join a guided tour or take one of a range of self-guided walks for an hour or two of peaceful immersion in a beautiful natural environment. You’ll see orchids, ferns and butterflies, native forests and rare indigenous birds such as the busy Tui, cheeky South Island Kaka, and adorably placid Takahe. There’s also a Kiwi crèche but these birds are usually asleep by day. Finish your visit with a snack at the café and sublime views over surrounding native grasslands.

Ten top things to do in Dunedin
See the South Island Kaka at the Orokonui Ecosanctuary. Image: Roslyn Jolly

10. Toast a local legend at Speight’s Brewery

Wherever you go in New Zealand’s South Island, you’ll see signs advertising the local Speight’s beer. In Dunedin you can visit the historic Speight’s Brewery, where the brand originated in 1876. Tours take in both the old and the new brew-houses and end with generous samplings. You can continue the experience with a meal at the Speight’s Ale House next door, where tap ales are matched with local menu favourites.

For further information, please visit www.dunedinnz.com

Do you have any suggestions to add to our list of ten top things to do in Dunedin? We would love to hear from you. Please leave a comment below.

Additional images: Bigstock

About the writer

Roslyn Jolly is a freelance travel writer whose work has appeared in Luxury Travel, Get Up & Go, The Sunday Telegraph and The Australian. In her former career as an English Literature academic, she studied and taught the work of great travel writers, such as Henry James, Herman Melville and Robert Louis Stevenson, and became fascinated by the history of travel and tourism. Two years at school in Wales and three years at university in England allowed Roslyn to travel extensively in Europe and North America, which she continues to do.


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