Why Dunedin is New Zealand’s Coolest, Best Looking City
This post was originally published in February 2018 and updated in December 2018
If there’s one thing New Zealand doesn’t do so well, it’s cities. I generally advise people to get out of the main centres as soon as possible, as the real appeal of New Zealand lies in its huge variety of (mostly) unspoilt landscapes. Dunedin is different. It’s by far the most interesting city in New Zealand in terms of history and architecture, and there are upwards of 20 beaches within a 20 -30 minute drive of town. Throw in over a dozen sweeping viewpoints, some world class street art and even a couple of waterfalls and you have (by far) the coolest, best looking city in New Zealand*.
*I grew up in Dunedin (between the ages of 10 and 21) and have been living here for the past year, so I might be a little biased. It’s all true though, as you’ll soon find out!
The city centre
Dunedin’s city centre is full of old buildings, many dating back to the late 1800s. Dunedin was the most important city in New Zealand for a time and a lot of that heritage has been kept (which hasn’t always been the case in New Zealand). The Octagon is the focal point of the city, where you’ll find some great bars and restaurants as well as St. Paul’s Cathedral and the Town Hall (First Church is also close). Make sure to pay a visit to the nearby Dunedin Railway Station, New Zealand’s most impressive old building.
FURTHER READING: I’ve written over 20 posts on Dunedin over at See the South Island — check them out for more information on the places I mention in this post
George Street has you covered for shopping, and the Warehouse District (just south of the Octagon) is where you’ll find cafes, well-restored old warehouses and some of the city’s best street art. There are also a couple of great museums (Otago Settlers Museum and Otago Museum) and the University of Otago, with its old buildings and peaceful setting (especially when the students are on holiday).
A good option for a city centre stroll is to walk along George Street, check out the Otago University, continue on to the Botanic Gardens and then up to Baldwin Street, the steepest street in the world (and spiritual home of the Baldwin brothers).
Despite often being far too cold to contemplate visiting a windswept beach, Dunedin does have some of the best bays and beaches in New Zealand. There are so many options, from the relaxing suburban beaches of St Clair and St Kilda to the long, deserted stretches of sand on the Otago Peninsula. There are also some great beaches on Dunedin’s northern coastline, including Long Beach and Warrington Beach. If that’s not enough, you can also visit Dunedin’s southern coastline, home to Tunnel Beach. Further along lies Brighton Beach, probably the best place in Dunedin to watch the sunset.
Hikes and viewpoints
There are dozens of hiking trails in Dunedin and many of them open out to some special viewpoints. You can walk through the forest to the beat of native birds or along craggy coastlines to empty beaches. You can also drive straight to some of the viewpoints. Some of my favourite spots to see Dunedin from above include Heyward Point, the road towards Taiaroa Head, Mount Cargill (and the Organ Pipes) and the track above Sandfly Bay.
Taieri Gorge Railway
If you want to see a side of Dunedin that isn’t often on show, book a trip on the Taieri Gorge Railway. This historic railway line once linked Dunedin to the prosperous region of Central Otago, but now it’s all about sightseeing. The scenery on offer is awesome. First you’ll travel through the outskirts of Dunedin then above the farmland of the Taieri Plains. From there it’s all about the narrow Taieri River and the rugged gorge it cuts through. If you go in spring parts of the gorge will be covered in yellow gorse — it’s an interesting sight! The trip takes around four hours and is a great way to spend half a day in Dunedin.
FURTHER READING: Read a full post about my trip on the Taieri Gorge Railway
There are three main directions you can drive to see the best of Dunedin’s coastline. The drive over Highcliff Road to the peninsula beaches is a highlight, as is the drive to Port Chalmers and over to Heyward Point / Long Beach and on towards Karitane. You can also get some nice coastal views on the drive towards Taieri Mouth (passing by Tunnel Beach and Brighton Beach).
Some of New Zealand’s cutest sea-based wildlife call Dunedin home, including penguins, sea lions and the royal albatross. The Otago Peninsula is your best bet for spotting penguins and albatross — go to one of the beaches (Sandfly Bay, Alans Beach, Victory Beach) just before sunset and you might spot some yellow eyed penguins. Head to the Albatross Centre at Taiaroa Head to spot albatross and little blue penguins. You’ll likely see sea lions at many beaches in Dunedin — don’t get too close as they can be dangerous. You can also spot lots of native birds along the forest trails (Ross Creek and Mount Cargill in particular).
Up until a year ago I never knew there were waterfalls in Dunedin. There are actually two, both around 10 minutes drive from the city centre (plus a bit of a walk). Nicols Falls is the better of the two — the track can get quite muddy but it’s definitely worth a visit. Return to a nearby track after dark to see glow worms. School Creek Falls is easier to reach and is also really nice — it’s in the Ross Creek network of tracks.
It’s a common misconception that Dunedin is home to New Zealand’s only castle. There are actually two castles in Dunedin (and someone recently built another one near Oamaru). The often forgotten Cargill’s Castle, which now lies in ruins, is a fun place to visit. You can’t go inside unless you’re willing to slide under a fence (which for legal purposes I’m not recommending) but you can get a good look at the castle from the outside and the view down the coast towards Tunnel Beach is worth the trip alone. It’s been a long time since I visited Larnach Castle (and I may have only seen the outside) but it’s a popular tourist spot in Dunedin, as much for the gardens and harbour views as the actual castle.
Day trips from Dunedin
The Catlins, an area packed full of beaches, waterfalls and viewpoints can easily be visited as a day trip from Dunedin. You can also drive north to the Moeraki Boulders and Oamaru, stopping at various beaches along the way.
FURTHER READING: Check out lots of posts on the Catlins on my South Island blog
What is your favourite city in New Zealand? Have I convinced you to visit Dunedin? Let me know in the comments below!
I was hosted by Dunedin Railways for the Taieri Gorge trip. All thoughts and opinions are my own