Dunedin: A bonnie Scottish city in New Zealand

Hands down, this was our favourite city in New Zealand, even if a lot of native Kiwi peeps think it's one of the coldest and wettest. This Scottish-settled city might be tucked all the way on the south of the South Island, but it's worth discovering for its charming architecture, stunning scenery and Highland heritage

Nate and Mark in the Octagon, Dunedin

I can’t remember how or where I first heard of Dunedin, long before setting foot in the Land of the Long White Cloud, but as soon as I saw images of it and found it on a map, I felt drawn to it. It was inexplicable, like my internal compass had suddenly locked onto it and was determined to guide me there.

After exploring places on the North Island and briefly staying with new friends in Christchurch, we journeyed southwards. Our coach took us across the farmland of the Canterbury Plain, through the bluestone port of Timaru and the Steampunk town of Oamaru, further and further south into the region of Otago.

The landscape of Otago, New Zealand

It could have been the dreary, drizzly grey weather, or perhaps the old stone buildings beside the winding roads, but as we drove into Dunedin that afternoon we both felt an inexplicable sense of familiarity and homecoming, like we’d found a very distant corner of the United Kingdom.

The flatness had given way to rolling hills and pine trees, with red deer and sheep grazing on the slopes. We half-expected to see a Highland cow appear from behind an old stone wall, possibly wearing a kilt.

The drive through the Otago region of New Zealand

Dunedin is often described as “Edinburgh of the South”. Its name is from the Gaelic for Edinburgh, “Dùn Èideann” (which sounds like an Elvish city from Lord of the Rings in my opinion, which stands to reason in this country) and one look at the architecture there told us why: it’s like a mini-imitation of the Scottish capital.

The statue of Robert Burns in the Octagon, Dunedin

A little history about Dunedin: In the mid-1800s, a group from the Free Church of Scotland founded a colony on the Otago Peninsula, determined to establish their own versions of Edinburgh and Protestant Christian faith. The bonnie Scots had no doubt snubbed the warmer places further north in New Zealand, heading southwards until they found somewhere where the rain was sideways and the phrase “It’s a wee bit chilly doon there” meant there were icicles hanging off your sporran.

By the 1860s, the Otago Gold Rush was in full swing and the city of Dunedin became a very wealthy place. This explains why, unlike the other more modern looking cities in Aotearoa, Dunedin has so many grand Victorian buildings.

Municipal Hall in the Octagon, Dunedin, NZ

Praise be to the Victorian architects

Dunedin oozes soul because it has a more visible history than most other Kiwi cities. Auckland has modern sprawl, Wellie has the windy seafront (parp) and Christchurch has its quiet urban charm, but Dunedin has grandeur. Nowhere else in the southern hemisphere can you find examples of such Victorian splendour and Scottish heritage.

One of my favourite buildings was the Railway Station, which looked like a cross between a chocolate box and a cuckoo clock. Built in Flemish “Renaissance-Revivalist” style, even the interior is ridiculously fancy, with ornate tiles and a stained-glass steam engine.

Dunedin Railway Station
Stained-glass window in Dunedin Railway Station

The floor of Dunedin Railway Station
The old ticket windows at Dunedin Railway Station

Religion is also responsible for most of this city’s impressive stone buildings. There’s the austere St Paul’s Cathedral on the Octagon, Knox Church and the First Church of Otago. If you head to the latter, there’s also a tiny museum tucked at the back, with some intriguing old photos on display.

The First Church of Otago, Dunedin
An old photo of the founding fathers of Dunedin

We loved hanging out in the city’s centrepiece: The Octagon. A bit of a headache for the town planners since it was first designated in 1848, this eight-sided city ‘square’ now features a theatre, a cinema, the city’s art gallery, public library, municipal chambers and a nice selection of bars. We planned our trip to Thailand over a few pints of Guinness in The Craic Irish Tavern there. With a handful of restaurants and outdoor seating (ambitiously continental, given the region’s chilly climate) all around this plaza, it’s a cool place to come and socialise in Dunedin.

Another shot of Robert Burns' statue with iconic Octagon architecture behind.

Something integral to Dunedin’s sophisticated, cultured and vibrant atmosphere is its huge student population. We strolled through the grounds of New Zealand’s oldest university, marvelling at the sublime architecture as bells tolled and the sound of a brook joined the birdsong. It was like a scene from a Harry Potter movie, minus the owls and goblins.

Otago University Campus

Our favourite three C’s: coffee, cake and chips

Besides being green-fingered hippies disguised as hobos, Nate and I are also coffee and cake enthusiasts, especially when there’s dairy-free, gluten-free treats on offer. Thankfully for us, Dunedin has a few places that satisfied our cravings for oat-milk lattes and slabs of butterless cake.

The Dog with Two Tails has to be top of our list, with top nosh and a quirky interior. We were especially mesmerised by a random model railway line running around the room, with a tiny train speeding around it that we thought was going to plummet into a patron’s soup at any given moment. Head to this venue if you love live music; we heard some very talented musicians at this café.

For vegans and gluten-free peeps, there were two places that grabbed our attention: Modaks Espresso on George Street and Naturalley, which is tucked away down an alley on Moray Place. Both did meals that were made by chef’s who give a f*ck when it comes to food, i.e. there’s plenty of plant-based, wholesome stuff.

Wall art for Naturalley Organic Cafe

Whenever we felt the urge to abandon our mindful (i.e fish-free) eating habits, we kept returning to the Fish Hook on Prince Street, which did tasty chips and fish sourced from the seas close to Dunedin Harbour.

Shopping

Nate and I also love rummaging through op-shops, even if we’re haven’t really got room for anything extra in our bags. For anyone not in the know, op-shops (opportunity shops) are what Kiwis call charity/second-hand/pre-loved shops. Dunedin is an op-shopper’s paradise and we can guarantee you’ll find plenty of places to trawl for a bargain.

There’s also a mall in Dunedin, as well as a high street with lots of boutique stores, so people who prefer to buy things new can find something too. As you’d expect from two minimalist nomads who have everything they own in a bag on their backs, shopping isn’t really something we can give much advice on, but we thought we’d drop in some information for any shopaholics visiting Dunedin.

Art and history

When we’re not hunting for old sh*t no one else wants, we enjoy tracking down a bit of art and culture too.

The street art in Dunedin rivals any found elsewhere in the world, with huge murals decorating alleyways and entire buildings. A picture speaks a thousand words, so here are a few of our favourites:

Street art in Dunedin