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 the 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 in 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 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 Pacific Ocean coast, give Dunedin a laid-back, beachy college town vibe.
There isn’t any hustle and bustle here – just good times and great places to explore.
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 trail heads or some of the off-the-beaten-path destinations.
Dunedin is tucked away on the south east 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.
Things to do in Dunedin New Zealand
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.
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.
Cafe: The Good Earth Cafe has excellent coffee (and the steak salad is great too). It’s located close to the Otago Museum and Dunedin Botanic Garden.
Brunch: 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.
Dinner: 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.
Dessert: Nova Cafe has the most delicious inject-able 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 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.
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. Follow her on Instagram or Facebook.