Buttressed by steep hills to the north and west, Dunedin looks east toward the Pacific and the weather-beaten headlands of the Otago Peninsula. A relaxed university town, its buoyant ambience belies its remote South Island setting. Its foundation stones were laid by Scottish settlers in 1848. They bequeathed a proud Scots heritage that’s still evident today. Most notably, you’ll find it in the statue of Rabbie Burns that graces the Octagon, the town’s purpose-built focal point, and in the moniker of the city’s rugby union team, the Highlanders.
It’s a walkable place full of stately Victorian and Edwardian civic architecture, but it’s also your access point to exploring the Otago Peninsula’s thriving birdlife.
Central Dunedin contains a fine cast of civic buildings thanks to its mid-19th-century gold-rush boom, including its Victorian-era law courts and the Municipal Chambers. Its prima donna, though, is its railway station. A grandiose Flemish-Renaissance creation made from Central Otago bluestone and Aberdeen granite, it’s souped up with turrets, Royal Doulton porcelain, friezes, stone lions, French tiles and stained-glass windows.
It’s worth investigating even if you’re not planning to take a train. But, if you are, this is your start and endpoint for the Taieri Gorge Railway. A half-day ride, it takes you through a backcountry of schist cliffs, farmland, and vertiginous river valleys.
The Octagon’s public square is the hub of the city’s easy-going cafe culture, and Dunedin’s best sights cluster in the streets that fan outward from this lawn-and-tree-dotted space.
There’s First Church, a Presbyterian place of worship designed by Scottish architect Robert Lawson, which has a much-celebrated rose window. On a more profane note, at nearby Speight’s Brewery you can take tours and sample its ales.
Breaking with the European-influenced architecture of much of the city, Toitū Otago Settlers Museum inhabits a building with a triangular, shard-like roof. It tells the story of those first intrepid Scottish settlers.
More contemporary still is the graffiti art that decorates the streets around the Octagon, and much of the city. Some murals make use of Maori iconography and New Zealand native birds in their bold designs.
North of the Octagon lies the University of Otago, New Zealand’s most prestigious, with its bluestone clock tower. Its leafy campus makes for a pleasant afternoon’s wandering, and as a sporting fan you can catch a game of cricket at the University Oval.
Close by is the city’s Botanic Garden (watch out for kea, completely unabashed New Zealand alpine parrots). Farther north still is the oddity of Baldwin Street — it claims to be the world’s steepest.
Things to see and do near Dunedin
Heading south, you’ll reach the coastal suburb of Saint Clair, where you can watch surfing theatrics from its esplanade, and look out for New Zealand fur seals. The best wildlife watching, however, is to be found on the Otago Peninsula, a half-hour drive from the city.
Here, you have a chance of spotting rare yellow-eyed penguins on an Otago Peninsula wildlife cruise. There’s also the option to observe this species at Penguin Place, a custom-made sanctuary, while the Royal Albatross Centre runs guided viewing tours to see northern royal albatrosses and little blue penguins.
Best time to visit Dunedin
January sees the city at its quietest, while students are on their summer break. Avoid visiting outside November to March, when the weather is much chillier. Luckily, the Otago Peninsula’s penguins are year-round residents.
Suggested itineraries featuring Dunedin
Our itineraries will give you suggestions for what is possible when you travel in Dunedin, and they showcase routes we know work particularly well. Treat them as inspiration, because your trip will be created uniquely by one of our specialists.
Map of Dunedin
Places & hotels on the map
Places near Dunedin
- The Otago Peninsula 8 miles away
- The Catlins 85 miles away
- Arrowtown 104 miles away
- Lake Wanaka 106 miles away
- Queenstown 107 miles away
- Twizel 114 miles away
- Glenorchy 126 miles away
- Lake Tekapo 130 miles away
- Te Anau & Manapouri 139 miles away
- Stewart & Ulva Islands 146 miles away
- Mount Cook National Park 150 miles away
- Milford Sound 151 miles away
- Haast & Lake Moeraki 156 miles away
- Fox & Franz Josef Glaciers 169 miles away
- Doubtful Sound 175 miles away
- Akaroa & Banks Peninsula 188 miles away
- Christchurch 193 miles away
- Arthur's Pass National Park 210 miles away
- Hokitika 220 miles away
- Hanmer Springs 259 miles away
- Punakaiki 264 miles away
- Kaikoura 288 miles away
Accommodation choices for Dunedin
We’ve selected a range of accommodation options for when you visit Dunedin. Our choices usually come recommended for their character, facilities and service or location. Our specialists always aim to suggest properties that match your preferences.
Ideas for experiencing Dunedin
Our specialists seek out authentic ways to get to know the places that could feature in your trip. These activities reflect some of the experiences they've most enjoyed while visiting Dunedin, and which use the best local guides.