Things to Do in Dunedin & The Otago Peninsula
From Naseby and Ranfurly in the east to Cromwell and Arrowtown in the west, Central Otago is a sprawling alpine landscape known for winemaking and natural beauty. Spanning more than 3,800 miles (9,900 square kilometers) but with only 18,000 residents, this isolated, historical part of New Zealand is a great escape from the urban jungle.
Built in the late-19th century by William Larnach, Larnach Castle is New Zealand’s only castle. It’s been beautifully refurbished and the grounds are carefully tended. The views across the hills and water of the Otago Peninsula are some of the best in the area. A trip to Larnach Castle is a great way to spend a day while visiting Dunedin.
Made of bluestone with marble floors and stained glass windows, the Dunedin Railway Station is one of Dunedin’s most impressive buildings and purportedly the most photographed in New Zealand. Far more than a railway station, here you can also grab something to eat, visit a sports museum, or photograph the attractive building.
Olveston Historic Home, an unmissable Dunedin attraction, was constructed in the early 1900s and is still decorated as when it was built. The original owner collected unique items worldwide, making this not just a house but a museum. Visitors can view the interior and the large, beautiful gardens.
When walking up Dunedin’s Baldwin Street, don’t be ashamed if you need to stop and catch your breath for a while. After all, this short, steep, concrete street is famously known as the steepest street in the world, and thousands of visitors annually make the leg-straining climb to the top. With grades that reach up to 35 percent, the street astoundingly climbs 232 vertical feet over the course of only 0.2 miles. In fact, the street is so remarkably steep, that when it was first constructed in the mid-19th century, concrete was used in lieu of asphalt so that the tar wouldn’t melt and roll towards the bottom on the hottest days of summer.
Thanks to its superlative steepness and fame, Baldwin Street hosts a number of events that take place throughout the year. Each July, thousands of revelers gather at the bottom during the popular Cadbury Chocolate Festival, and thousands of chocolate candies are rolled down the entire length of the hill. In summer, committed runners sprint up the street during the torturous “Baldwin Street Gutbuster,” where endurance is required to run up the street, and balance for running back down.
Right in the center of Dunedin city is the Octagon, an 8-sided plaza lined with cafés, restaurants, bars, and nightclubs—and bustling with locals and visitors alike at all times of day. Enjoy a meal or a beer in the sunshine before taking in an exhibition at the Dunedin Art Gallery or heading to the Regent Theatre for a show.
The Royal Albatross Centre, within Dunedin city limits on the Otago Peninsula, is an ideal spot for nature viewing. The center is home to the only mainland breeding colony of these large birds in the world. Add a tour of the center to a day trip out to the peninsula—a must-do activity while in Dunedin.
On the New Zealand’s South Island, a short drive from Dunedin, Penguin Place is a conservation reserve for the endangered Yellow-Eyed Penguin. It’s entirely funded through guided tours, so your visit will directly contribute to the birds’ preservation. In addition to bird sightings, the reserve offers beautiful views of Otago Harbour.
On a sunny day, you’ll find the best view in all of Dunedin is from the top of Signal Hill. This 1,289-foot forested promontory rises high above Dunedin Harbor, and offers sweeping views of the blue Pacific and green of the surrounding hills. On clear summer days you can find locals and visitors enjoying the uphill stroll to the summit, and mountain bikers whirring down the numerous trails that weave their way through the woods.
While walking maximizes the hill’s beauty, there’s also a road that winds its way up to the scenic reward at the top. Not far from the Signal Hill summit, a large memorial commemorates New Zealand’s 100th anniversary that took place in 1940, and two bronze statues on the side of the memorial are an ode to the original Scottish settlers who founded the waterfront town.
Set smack in the middle of Dunedin’s Octagon—and thereby the center of town—St. Paul’s Cathedral is unlike any other in New Zealand. First constructed in 1862, the cathedral endured an entire century of half-completed jobs, often because the building party eventually ran out of funds. Though the stone structure is still impressive, the multi-period styles of architecture created a noticeably curious look. The architectural oddities aside, the cathedral today isn’t known for looks, but rather, for its sound. Numerous professional musicians and singers have gotten their start in this choir, and the enormous organ with its 3,500 pipes is the Southern Hemisphere’s largest. On occasion, the cathedral will open around 1pm for a 20-minute concert, and the general public is welcome to attend and experience the holy acoustics. When the light is right, it falls through the stained glass of the large Dunedin Window, and Maori, Christian, and historical themes can be found in the colorful panes.
More Things to Do in Dunedin & The Otago Peninsula
Taieri Gorge Railway isn't just a way of getting from Dunedin to Pukerangi. It’s an experience in itself. The train travels through the Central Otago landscape of hills and gorges, pastureland and forests. It follows part of the route of the historic Otago Central Railway, constructed in the late 19th century during Otago’s Gold Rush.
Recently refurbished, the Toitu Otago Settlers Musuem is a fascinating look at the life and times of Dunedin’s early settlers. Because of its sheltered, deep water port and fertile coastal plain, Dunedin was one of the South Island’s earliest places where Europeans settled. Arriving by boat in 1848, European settlers—predominantly Scottish—slowly began to build a community in the coastal Otago frontier, which exploded into hyper-growth when gold was found in the hills. From the time of the gold rush in 1861, Dunedin continued to serve as the center of life in Otago and the Southland, all of which is on display in this massive downtown museum. Aside from exhibits on European settlers, visitors will also find info relating to native South Island Maori, as well as a look at how Dunedin was New Zealand’s “First Great City.” At the Smith Gallery, look in the eyes of early settlers through the stunning collections of portraits, all of which feature early settlers from pre-1864. You’ll also find newer, more modern exhibits on Dunedin in the digital age, and this one of the city’s best activities on a cold or rainy day.
The long Otago Harbour is a spectacular setting for Dunedin, a historic city that hums with young, student energy. It’s a perfect home base for exploring the Otago region. From here you can ride a historic railway, explore the University of Otago campus, spot penguins in the wild, and even visit New Zealand’s only castle.
The New Zealand Garden Trust classifies Glenfalloch Woodland Gardens, on the Otago Peninsula near Dunedin, as a Garden of National Significance. Established in 1871, the gardens are full of flowering trees, ferns, and a Matai tree that’s around 1,000-years-old. The gardens are a must-visit for keen gardeners and nature lovers to explore.
The hillside city of Dunedin is an important stop for cruise liners sailing around the South Island and the southernmost Dunedin Cruise Port serves as the gateway to this lively university town with Scottish roots. Use Dunedin Cruise Port as the jumping-off point for exploring the wider Otago Peninsula, a finger-like protrusion of land renowned for its marine wildlife, and more.
McLean Falls, on the Tautuku River in the Catlins Conservation Park spanning Otago and Southland, is a 72-foot (22 meter cascade waterfall surrounded by damp New Zealand bush. The path to the falls passes through an attractive podocarp forest with flowering fuchsia trees. While the short walk there is categorized as easy, there is some uphill.
From cuneiform tablets to Moa eggs and a tropical indoor rainforest, the Otago Museum holds thousands of treasures for Dunedin visitors to explore. As Dunedin’s most popular and visited sight, the Otago Museum has enough displays to fascinate travelers for hours, from exhibits on South Pacific cultures to New Zealand’s ancient wildlife. See the cup Sir Edmund Hillary used when he summited Everest, or a 50 ft. Maori war canoe that was completely carved by hand. The nature exhibit is one of the best in the entire Southern Hemisphere, where displays range from a whale skeleton that dominates an entire room, to the skeleton of a giant Haast Eagle that’s been extinct for 500 years. There are also displays of Maori arts such as carvings from bone and jade, and a dizzying journey through a Planetarium that highlights the stars, heavens, and cosmos that shine on Dunedin each night.