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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
Dunedin’s museums and galleries, like other Kiwi cultural centres, are top class. We went to the Otago Settler’s Museum, which introduced us to the very first Scots to settle here, their stern, severe faces all staring at us from a horde of portraits in the gallery. We marvelled at ancient Maori artefacts and admired the museum’s collection of vintage cars, but our highlight had to be the dress-up boxes in some of the rooms, where you could literally become a part of the exhibits.
The Otago Museum was just as entertaining, if a little sobering. Although fascinating and informative, the collection of taxidermied animals were testament to how monumentally f*cked NZ’s wildlife has been, thanks to habitat loss, invasive species and overall human interference. So many species have vanished from this country since humans arrived here around 700 years ago. Sad but true.
To cheer ourselves up and experience the flipside to ecological devastation in NZ, we visited the Orokonui Eco-Sanctuary, where some of the native species can live in relative safety from marauding stoats, rats and mice. The reserve (on the outskirts of the city, beyond Port Chalmers) is home to rare skinks, even rarer takahe (so rare, we didn’t see a single one) and ancient tuatara (we didn’t see these either). We reckon places like Orokonui are like shutting the door after the horse has bolted; rats and stoats are so widespread in New Zealand that it’s hard to imagine how they’ll ever get rid of them, but we did enjoy being able to see and hear bellbirds and tuis in the native bush.
Another place we experienced nature, albeit at a distance, was the Royal Albatross Centre right at the end of the Peninsula. We didn’t end up venturing beyond the wire fence and up close to the nests, as it was the end of the day. Instead, we spent about 30 minutes craning our necks skyward and hoping to catch sight of one of the huge birds from the outside of the reserve. Just before we were about to give up, we spotted one of them wheeling high overhead. Here’s a picture of what we glimpsed:
The Otago Peninsula is one of the most stunning areas we’ve ever visited, with rolling golden hills surrounding a long stretch of water leading to the harbour at Dunedin. It’s the ideal place to get away from the city and be immersed in remote, dramatic landscape.
Closer to the city centre are the Dunedin Botanic Gardens, which we would recommend to anyone who loves green spaces and things that grow but can’t get out to the wilder parts of Otago. After enjoying the heat of the glasshouses, we strolled up the hill and watched kereru in the fruit trees as the sun sank over Dunedin’s hilly streets.
What we didn’t do in Dunedin (but wished we had)
Despite spending almost three weeks in Dunedin, and visiting the place twice, there were still so many places we didn’t see and things we didn’t do.
All the more reason to head back there, we say.
We missed New Zealand’s only castle, Larnach Castle on the Otago Peninsula (we were with a friend on a whistle-stop tour and it was too late in the day to venture inside), so we didn’t get to see one of its exquisite Victorian interior nor the internationally acclaimed gardens.
We also missed the ruin of Cargill’s Castle, a derelict building from the Victorian era whose owner also had a tunnel excavated through the cliffs for his family to enjoy their own private beach. Both these places are the kinds of intriguing remnants of history Nate and I love to explore.
We didn’t have time for many of the other beaches in the Otago area either. We only briefly visited St Clair beach (to be fair it was early spring and a bit too brisk for a dip) and we also missed the dubiously-named Sandfly Bay, where you can spot fur seals, sea lions and yellow eyed penguins amongst the dunes, presumably while being eaten alive by insects.
Back in the city, we also missed out on the Cadbury’s Chocolate Factory experience (although this might be due to the fact that we prefer chocolate that doesn’t involve cows in the manufacturing process), and the Speights Brewery Tour. We did find the Speights Spring Water tap: a well of spring water provided for free by the Speights company, where people can fill their water bottles in the street outside the brewery.
The Otago railway experience was another thing I wish we’d done. You can take a steam train from the magnificent station, journeying through the Otago landscape and into Taieri gorge. This one has definitely been added to the bucket list…
Where we stayed and who we met
Because this is a blogpost about what we did in Dunedin, rather than your standard travel guide, we can’t really recommend the best places to stay.
We did meet with a friend who had booked in at a lovely bed and breakfast called Hulmes Court, which had cosy, homely interiors and a resident cat named Solstice (any hotel that features an animal is a worthy place to rest your head, in our opinion).
Our choice of digs was predictably unconventional: we stayed in a very spartan Hare Krishna Cultural Centre through the WWOOFing website, hoping to help out in their community kitchen in exchange for a room for the week. When it turned out they didn’t need the extra hands, we were still offered a bed for practically nothing and ended up with free time to explore in the bargain. We also made some lovely new friends in the process.
In fact, Dunedin was all about friends for us. Perhaps this was because of the lovely energy of the place, where people seem to make time for each other. We celebrated Thanksgiving with Brittany and Ashley, the two Oregon girls who bought our car from us. We enjoyed a movie and a Mexican with our kindred spirit Kathleen. We joined in with the feasting and chanting in the Hare Krishna centre and became friends with Seva there. We met up with Dot, a family friend of Nate’s and explored the Peninsula and Mosgiel with her. We even got to experience the St Andrews Day celebrations, with performances and Scottish-themed food and drink on offer in the Octagon. Och aye, it was a bonnie time indeed.