Dunedin isn’t a particularly popular destination in New Zealand. Many people visiting New Zealand dedicate one, maybe two weeks to the South Island. They visit Milford Sound, Mount Cook and Wanaka (all amazing destinations near the west of the island) but leave themselves little to no time on the east (where Dunedin is located). Heck, even in my own two week South Island Itinerary, I skip over Dunedin. However, after living in the town for 5 months I must say that Dunedin has some great places to offer. So you have the time, here are some excellent things to do in Dunedin.
Things to do within the Dunedin
First I’m going to outline some things to do with Dunedin itself. The city has about 127,000 people, so by most people’s standards it’s more of a town. But as the 7th largest city/town in New Zealand, and the 2nd largest on the South Island there are plenty of things to see and do. The city has a young vibe, similar to a college town, because it’s home to ~20,000 students studying at University of Otago. It has has a relaxed and beach-y vibe, being situated right on the east coast. If you’re interested, here are a few other quick and quirky facts about Dunedin.
Explore the Botanic Gardens
Considering the size of the city, the Dunedin Botanic Garden it quite impressive. I’m not a botanist, so I can’t tell you if it’s impressive from a botany perspective, but what I can say is that it is a wonderful place to roam around with a cup of coffee. There’s a little cafe, some beautiful greenhouses, and kilometers and kilometers of trails through forest and over streams.
Discover the Otago Museum
This is an outdoor adventure blog, so why the heck am I recommending a museum? I promise, museums typically aren’t my thing, but the great part about the Otago Museum is that 1) it’s small so you can see the bulk of it in under two hours, 2) it has an excellent exhibit on the history of the Pacific Islands and Maori culture, 3) it’s free!
Walk through the University of Otago
When going between the Botanic Gardens and the Otago Museum, choose the route that takes you through the University of Otago (New Zealand’s oldest university). The university has a beautiful clock tower adjacent to a small and winding river and other European style buildings.
Take the Taieri Gorge Train from the Dunedin Train Station
Fun fact: the train station in Dunedin is the most photographed building in New Zealand. Second fun fact: I do not have a photo of it myself so you’ll have to take my word that it’s nice (or search it on Google images). From the train station, you can take the Taieri Gorge Train which takes you through beautiful Otago scenery that you can’t access by car. It’s 4 hours and total (with a few places to get off the train and wander around) and costs $105 NZD. A little pricey, but if you aren’t on a tight budget, it’s a nice way to spend the afternoon.
Just outside of Dunedin: Otago Peninsula
Even if you skip over the city of Dunedin, you’ll definitely want to visit the Otago Peninsula. There’s beautiful scenery, many opportunities to see wildlife and more.
Wander around Sandfly Bay
Sandfly Bay is a great place to spot sea lions and seals. You’ll often find them napping on the rocks that line the shoreline. Remember that they’re wild animals so be sure to give them space (at least 10 meters).
Hike to Lover’s Leap and the Chasm
There’s an old fable about Lover’s Leap, something about a forbidden love and a cliff. While I may not know much about the story, I do know it’s a pretty hike. You walk along the Sandymount Track and you’re taken to some sheer cliff faces and a land bridge, plus you’ll have fantastic views of the Pacific Ocean the whole way.
Visit the Royal Albatross Centre
The Otago Peninsula is home to the only mainland colony of Albatross. You can see them on a visit to the Royal Albatross Centre. What I would recommend for people who do more planning than me (which is you, because here you are reading this post and doing research), go early in the day and join one of the guided walking tours that the centre hosts. We didn’t join a group so we didn’t know where to go to see them and didn’t see any Albatross at all!
Make a stop at Larnach Castle
The Larnach Castle’s claim to fame is that it’s New Zealand’s only castle. If you’ve been to the castles in Europe, you’ll find Larnach pretty underwhelming. I wouldn’t have gone had a not been living there for so long, however I thought I’d mention it here if castles are a thing you’re interested in. I’m not saying it isn’t nice or that it isn’t worth a stop, I just think there are better uses of your time if you aren’t in Dunedin for long.
The many beaches in and around Dunedin
I think Dunedin has some of the best beaches in the world. Some are visually stunning, and some are excellent for beginner and intermediate surfing. My top recommendations would be Tunnel Beach for sunrise, Aramoana for swimming and St Clair for surfing, but you can see a full list of them on the official Dunedin website.
Take a surf lesson at St Clair Beach
If you want to try surfing, St Clair Beach is the best beach to visit. You can rent surf boards from the beach or do a surf lesson with the St Clair Surf School. Tip: if you’re just learning, stick to the far left. Far right is where the serious surfers hang out!
Swim at Aramoana Beach
Aramoana is a beautiful beach 20 minutes outside of Dunedin. What makes it so beautiful are the spontaneous boulders (at 20 feet high are they still considered boulders?) lining the shore. It also a really nice beach for swimming.
Walk along Smails Beach
If you’re a competent surfer, Smails Beach is one of the best places to surf in Dunedin. The reason you need to be a good surfer is that there’s a serious riptide in the area. If you’re a non-surfer or just a beginner, you can walk along the beach and enjoy the beautiful views.
Watch the sunrise at Tunnel Beach
Tunnel Beach is my favourite beach for watching the sunrise. It’s also been named the most romantic spot in Dunedin. It’s called tunnel beach because you need to go through a tunnel to access the small beach. Why is there a tunnel? Years ago, a wealthy family wanted their own private beach. The father had a small tunnel blasted through the side of cliff and rock stairs put in so that they could access this otherwise inaccessible beach.
Explore the caves at Long Beach
Long Beach is a nice spot for catching a sunset. Also, if you walk along the beach to the left (from the car park), after about 15 minutes you’ll arrive at some caves with are pretty neat. I visited the caves near dusk and saw two blue penguins in the wild. If you are lucky enough for an encounter like this, lie down on your stomach at least 15 meters away. And don’t shine your lights on them. They startle very easily and can literally die from stress.
Where to next?
As I mentioned, my two week itinerary for South Island doesn’t include Dunedin. However, my three-week South Island itinerary does! You can always find ongoing recommendations and quick tips on my Instagram, or reach out to me to ask questions.