Are you planning a trip to New Zealand? You won’t want to miss exploring the little town of Dunedin, New Zealand! Scroll to read all the best things to do in Dunedin, New Zealand from an exchange student who lived there!
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Guest post by Mikaela of Voyageur Tripper
Dunedin is a fun city on the east coast of South Island, New Zealand. As most New Zealand itineraries completely skip over Dunedin, you won’t find many tourists here.
But should you make the trip here yourself, you will be greeted by beautiful beaches, historical buildings, wildlife sightings, and more.
I was an exchange student living in Dunedin, so for almost six months this city was my home. I visited every beach, tried every attraction on the “must-do lists” and tasted just about every late food option.
Below you will find my favourite places to be and things to do in Dunedin, New Zealand.
About Dunedin, New Zealand
The first thing you need to know about Dunedin is its pronunciation because I made this mistake once and never quite lived it down. Dunedin is pronounced Duh-KNEE-din. It is not pronounced DOON-eh-DIN.
Okay, glad that’s out of the way.
Dunedin is the second largest city on the South Island (following Christchurch, which is three hours away by car). Dunedin was actually New Zealand’s first city; the discovery of gold nearby in 1861 set off a gold rush and the city’s population ballooned in size.
The prosperity inspired several remarkable buildings and institutions to be created:
- The University of Otago. Established in 1871, this makes it New Zealand’s oldest university.
- Dunedin Railway Station. Built in 1906, this is the most photographed building in New Zealand.
- Larnach Castle: This ‘mock’ castle (New Zealand’s only castle) sits on the Otago Peninsula and was constructed as an extravagant family home but can now be toured.
- Dunedin Botanic Garden: Created in 1863, this is New Zealand’s oldest Botanic Garden and features a stunning Edwardian Glass House.
Nowadays, Dunedin is home to 130,000 people. The 20,000-strong student population plus the location on the Pacific Ocean coast, gives Dunedin a laid-back, beachy college town vibe.
There isn’t any hustle and bustle here – just good times and great places to explore.
What is the Best Time of Year to Visit Dunedin?
The best time of year to visit Dunedin, New Zealand depends on your preferences and what you want to do during your trip.
Here is a breakdown of what to expect during different seasons in Dunedin:
Summer (December to February)
This is the peak tourist season in Dunedin, as the weather is warm and sunny, and there are many outdoor events and festivals. However, prices are also higher, and crowds can be significant.
Autumn (March to May)
The weather in autumn is mild, and the crowds have thinned out compared to summer. This is a good time for hiking and outdoor activities, as the fall colors are beautiful in the surrounding hills and forests.
Winter (June to August)
Dunedin can be chilly and wet during the winter months, but there are also fewer tourists, and prices are generally lower. It’s a good time for indoor activities like visiting museums and galleries.
Spring (September to November)
Spring is a beautiful time to visit Dunedin, as the flowers are in bloom, and the weather is mild. However, it can also be rainy, and some attractions may still be closed for the winter season.
Overall, the best time to visit Dunedin depends on your interests and preferences. If you want to enjoy outdoor activities and festivals, summer is the best time to visit.
If you want to avoid crowds and enjoy mild weather, autumn, and spring are good options. If you’re on a budget and don’t mind the cold, winter can be a good time to visit.
How to Get to Dunedin New Zealand
The easiest way to get around New Zealand’s South Island is with a car. Public transit is available between cities and towns, but won’t help you get to trailheads or some of the off-the-beaten-path destinations.
Dunedin is tucked away on the southeast coast of the South Island. Nestled at the base of the Otago Peninsula, Dunedin pairs accessibility with nature. The main Highway 1, passes right through Dunedin, so it’s easy to get here from Christchurch in the north or Invercargill in the South.
Yet, surrounding Dunedin is excellent day hiking and opportunities to get out and enjoy a little slice of wilderness.
Dunedin is also well-connected to highways leading to Milford Sound, Wanaka and Queenstown (all are within a four hour drive of Dunedin).
It’s easy to make a quick detour to Dunedin while driving from one of these iconic destinations to Christchurch at the end of your trip.
Is Dunedin New Zealand Worth Visiting?
Yes, Dunedin, New Zealand is definitely worth visiting! Dunedin is a vibrant and historic city located on the east coast of New Zealand’s South Island.
It’s known for its stunning natural beauty, including the Otago Peninsula, which is home to rare wildlife such as penguins and seals, and the stunning coastal scenery of Tunnel Beach.
Dunedin is also a cultural hub with a rich history and many attractions for visitors to explore, such as the historic railway station, the Olveston House, and the Toitū Otago Settlers Museum.
The city also has a thriving arts and food scene, with many galleries, theaters, and restaurants showcasing the best of local talent.
Overall, Dunedin is a must-visit destination for anyone traveling to New Zealand’s South Island, offering a unique mix of natural beauty, cultural heritage, and modern amenities that make it a truly unforgettable place to visit.
Things to do in Dunedin New Zealand
Dunedin Botanic Garden
For such a small city, Dunedin’s botanic garden truly punches above its weight.
The garden covers 30.4 hectares and includes both an Upper and Lower garden. It is home to 6,800 plant species.
My favourite part of the Dunedin Botanic Garden is the Winter Garden Glasshouse, which is an Edwardian-style building housing tropical desert and sub-tropical plants.
There is also a cafe in Dunedin Botanic Garden. I recommend visiting in the morning, grabbing a cup of coffee and strolling through the gardens to start your day.
Taieri Gorge Railway
The Dunedin Railway Station is the most photographed building in all of New Zealand, and it is from here that the Taieri Gorge Train departs.
The ride takes you through a beautiful part of Otago only accessible by train. For the most part, there isn’t a road that accesses the Taieri Gorge.
Inside the gorge, you’ll get a taste of the beautiful and dramatic Otago scenery, and learn a lot about the region from the helpful guides on the train.
The Otago Museum is a small museum with free admission near the University of Otago. The exhibit on Maori and Polynesian history and culture is incredibly well done, striking the perfect balance between informative and engaging.
The highlights of the museum could be done in under two hours, however, there are some paid exhibits if you want to linger longer. The paid exhibits change on a rolling basis.
When I visited there was an IMAX documentary on Great White Sharks and a Live Butterfly Experience.
The Otago Peninsula is perhaps my favourite place around Dunedin. With the exception of a few houses, shops, and a castle, the peninsula is largely undeveloped.
This means it has numerous walking tracks with wildlife viewing opportunities, but it is still reasonably close to town. Also, the views out to the Pacific Ocean are stunning.
Here are a few of my favourite things to do on the Otago Peninsula:
- Find sea lions on Sandfly Bay
- Spot Albatross at the Royal Albatross Centre
- Check out Larnach Castle, New Zealand’s only castle
- Hike to Lover’s Leap
And if you’re feeling hungry:
- Get lunch at the Glenfalloch Garden & Restaurant
- Get dessert at Two Fat Stags by the Bay
Beaches Around Dunedin
Out of all the places I’ve been, Dunedin has some of the best beaches. It definitely offers the most variety in its beaches.
Some are great for surfing, others are better for lounging; there are beaches with cliffs and caves and possibly penguins. So much to be explored!
Here are my five favourite beaches around Dunedin and what they are best for:
- Aramoana Beach (for swimming and lounging)
- Surfing at Smail’s Beach (if you’re already a great surfer)
- St. Claire’s Beach (if you’re a beginner surfer)
- Tunnel Beach (for sunrise)
- Long Beach (for sea caves and maybe penguins)
Take a Day Trip to the Catlins
Just south of Dunedin is The Catlins, one of the most underrated regions in New Zealand. As it’s located just over an hour from Dunedin, The Catlins makes for the perfect day trip.
The Catlins is home to cascading waterfalls, sprawling beaches, wildlife, decommissioned lighthouses, and more.
It’s a small region, so you don’t need more than a day to see all the highlights. It’s also out of the tourist limelight, so it shouldn’t be busy.
There is a ton to do there – more than you could do in a single day. So if you’re interested in planning a day trip here, I’ve written a very comprehensive guide to The Catlins to help you.
Where to Eat in Dunedin, New Zealand
Dunedin has some great food joints. Usually, I’m not much of a foodie when I travel, but I was with my boyfriend who loves good food, so he made me try everything. Here are four places that became my favourites.
If you’re a coffee lover, Strictly Coffee is a must-visit. This award-winning roastery and cafe has been operating in Dunedin since 1992 and serves up some of the best coffee in the city, along with a range of delicious baked goods.
Potpourri Vegetarian Cafe has healthy (and delicious) brunch options and is located downtown. The interior features wooden tables and exposed brick. Also, the baked goods are super tasty.
Good Good is an insanely good burger joint in a fun & retro space downtown. I recommend the cheeseburger with shoestring fries and a chocolate shake.
Nova Cafe has the most delicious injectable brioche donuts. They give you a little syringe loaded with your choice of filling for you to inject into your warm, plain donut.
There are seven options for fillings, including salted caramel, chocolate hazelnut, Bavarian apple, and vanilla custard.
Where to Stay in Dunedin New Zealand
Dunedin offers a few options for accommodations. I stayed in student housing for the first few months and then in an Airbnb once my lease was up.
My advice is to stay in Airbnbs as much as possible in New Zealand. I stayed in them throughout the South Island and found staying with locals offered the best experience.
Locals usually have great recommendations for things to do and are not shy about divulging everything on Kiwi life. You’ll learn a lot more at an Airbnb than at a hotel or hostel.
However, not everyone wants to stay in an Airbnb or vrbo. Here are some decent hotel options.
Visiting Dunedin FAQs
Are there any family-friendly activities in Dunedin?
Yes, there are many family-friendly activities to enjoy in Dunedin, New Zealand. Here are a few suggestions:
Toitu Otago Settlers Museum
This interactive museum is a great place for families to learn about the natural and cultural history of the region.
The Toitu Otago Settlers Museum is a fascinating museum that explores the history and culture of the Otago region.
The museum has a wide range of exhibits and interactive displays that offer visitors a unique and immersive experience of the region’s rich heritage.
This wildlife sanctuary is home to many rare and endangered species of birds, reptiles, and insects. Families can take a guided tour to learn about the conservation efforts of the sanctuary and see some of the unique flora and fauna of the region.
Dunedin Botanic Gardens
This beautiful garden is a great place for families to explore and enjoy the outdoors. Kids will love the playgrounds and picnic areas, while adults can enjoy the stunning views of the city and harbor.
Otago Farmers Market
The Otago Farmers Market is a vibrant and bustling marketplace that takes place every Saturday in Dunedin. The market offers a wide variety of fresh produce, artisanal goods, and delicious local cuisine, making it a must-visit destination for foodies and lovers of all things local.
Dunedin Chinese Garden
The Dunedin Chinese Garden is a beautiful and serene space located in the heart of the city.
The garden was designed and built by a team of artisans from Dunedin’s sister city of Shanghai and is a great place to explore and learn about Chinese culture and history.
Dunedin Public Art Gallery
The Dunedin Public Art Gallery is a fantastic destination for art lovers, with a wide range of local and international works on display. The gallery also hosts a range of exhibitions, talks, and events throughout the year, making it a great place to explore and discover new art.
This scenic beach is located just a short drive from the city center and is known for its dramatic rock formations and caves. Families can take a hike down to the beach and explore the caves and tide pools, but be sure to watch for waves and keep an eye on children.
Overall, Dunedin has plenty of family-friendly activities and attractions to enjoy, making it a great destination for travelers with kids.
Can you see penguins in Dunedin?
Yes, Dunedin is a great place to see penguins in New Zealand.
The Otago Peninsula, which is located just outside of the city, is home to the world’s only mainland breeding colony of Northern Royal Albatross, as well as colonies of Little Blue Penguins and Yellow-Eyed Penguins.
There are also several tour operators in the area that offer guided tours and penguin-viewing experiences.
What is the history and culture of Dunedin?
Dunedin, New Zealand has a rich history and culture that is shaped by its Maori and European heritage. The city was founded by Scottish settlers in the mid-19th century and quickly became a hub of commerce and culture in the region.
The Maori people, who are the indigenous people of New Zealand, have a long and rich history in the area. The traditional name for the area around Dunedin is Ōtepoti, which means “place of the potteries” in Maori.
The Maori people have a strong cultural presence in the region and have played an important role in shaping the city’s identity.
The European settlers who arrived in Dunedin in the 1840s brought with them their own culture and traditions, including the Scottish heritage that is still celebrated in the city today.
Dunedin was originally planned as a Scottish settlement and many of its early buildings and institutions, such as the University of Otago and the Dunedin Railway Station, reflect this heritage.
What are the best hiking and outdoor activities in Dunedin?
Dunedin, New Zealand offers a wide range of outdoor activities for visitors to enjoy. Here are a few of the best hiking and outdoor activities to check out:
The Otago Peninsula is a must-visit destination for outdoor enthusiasts. The area is home to a variety of wildlife, including penguins, seals, and albatrosses, and has a number of hiking trails that offer stunning views of the coastline and surrounding hills.
This scenic hike offers panoramic views of Dunedin and the surrounding countryside. The hike is challenging, but the views are well worth the effort.
This popular hiking and mountain biking trail is located just minutes from the city center and offers sweeping views of the city and harbor. The trail is suitable for hikers of all levels and is a great option for families.
Dunedin Botanic Garden
This beautiful garden is a great place to enjoy the outdoors and take a leisurely stroll. The garden has a range of walking trails and picnic areas, as well as a number of unique plant collections.
Dunedin has a number of beautiful beaches that are perfect for swimming, sunbathing, and surfing. Some of the best beaches in the area include St. Clair Beach, Tunnel Beach, and Brighton Beach.
How far is Dunedin from other popular destinations in New Zealand?
Dunedin, New Zealand is located on the east coast of the South Island and is a popular destination for travelers visiting the region.
Here are some distances between Dunedin and other popular destinations in New Zealand:
- Queenstown – 280 km (174 miles) or approximately a 3.5-hour drive.
- Christchurch – 360 km (224 miles) or approximately a 4.5-hour drive.
- Milford Sound – 385 km (239 miles) or approximately a 5-hour drive.
- Te Anau – 290 km (180 miles) or approximately a 3.5-hour drive.
- Wanaka – 200 km (124 miles) or approximately a 2.5-hour drive.
- Invercargill – 170 km (105 miles) or approximately a 2-hour drive.
While Dunedin is a bit further away from some of the other popular destinations in New Zealand, it is still easily accessible by car, bus, or plane. The city also has its own airport, which offers domestic flights to many other parts of the country.
And that’s Dunedin, New Zealand!
I hope you’ve found this list of the best things to do in Dunedin to be helpful. If you have any questions, please leave a comment or get in touch with me on my blog and I’ll do my best to answer it! Happy travels!
About the Author
Mikaela is the voice behind Voyageur Tripper, a blog dedicated to outdoor adventure travel. She spent several seasons working as a canoeing and hiking guide in Canada, and has lived or studied in the Canadian Arctic, New Zealand, India, and France.
On her blog, you’ll find camping resources, tales of (mis)adventures, travel guides, and more. She is most at home with a coffee in one hand and a paddle in the other.