The best things to do in Dunedin, New Zealand

Rich in history, renowned for its wildlife, and boasting a distinctly quirky character, these are the best things to do in Dunedin.

Dunedin’s gothic-style urban landscape is reminiscent of Edinburgh. There’s eye-popping street art that could leave even New York (spray-painted) green with envy, and the beaches are so blue one could be forgiven for thinking they’re in the tropics – if the wetsuit-clad surfers weren’t already a giveaway. Add a wealth of gob-smacking wildlife and a culinary scene that’s all class, and the second-largest city in New Zealand’s South Island is a holidaymaker’s delight. The small, walkable city is filled with bustling cafes, shopping boutiques and outstanding street art. It’s home to the world’s steepest street, rare wildlife, stunning beaches, outstanding mountain bike trails, castles and pyramids. These are the best things to do in Dunedin.

Kick off your adventures in the heart of the city, starting at The Octagon, an eight-sided plaza surrounded by shops, restaurants, galleries and a tourist information centre. With gothic architecture lining the streets, it doesn’t take long to notice the city’s Scottish influence. The word Dunedin comes from Dùn Èideann, the Scottish Gaelic name for Edinburgh.

Things to do in Dunedin
Dunedin Railway Station © James Lewis

Nature, wildlife and conservation in Dunedin

Birdwatching

Flanking Dunedin’s stunning harbour, Otago Peninsula is a natural sanctuary for endangered species celebrated by David Attenborough as a “unique and very special place”. If you’re looking for nature, wildlife and conservation-type things to do in Dunedin, be sure to visit the Royal Albatross Centre. Visitors can explore the only mainland breeding colony of Royal Albatross in the world. The sight of the gentle giants, with a wingspan of over three metres, gracefully gliding nearby is awe-inspiring, as is observing their fluffy chicks eagerly awaiting feeding from their patient parents.

Royal northern albatross © DunedinNZ

Penguins

But these wandering seabirds are just one of Dunedin’s avian wonders. A short distance away, Penguin Place, the world’s first entirely tourism-funded conservation program, providing a chance to witness endearing Yellow-eyed Penguins (hoiho) in their natural habitat. An even more immersive experience with New Zealand’s unique bird life, Orokonui Ecosanctuary is a thriving predator-free haven of native biodiversity packed with a dazzling array of native birds, from the vibrant tui to the elusive kiwi. 

One the most adorable things to do in Dunedin is visit the world’s smallest penguin, the blue penguin, another wild local resident that nests in the area. These petite marine birds are just 25 centimetres tall and make a comical sight as they waddle in from a day at sea. Blue Penguins Pukekura has an amazing tour at dusk, where you can watch the magic unfold from the comfort of a purpose-built viewing platform, giving up-close viewing and an experience you’ll never forget.

Blue penguins in Dunedin
Blue Penguins in Dunedin New Zealand © DunedinNZ

Fur seals and sea lions

Visitors will be equally smitten with Dunedin’s fur seals and sea lions. Dunedin’s rugged coastline provides a sanctuary for these charismatic critters, with Monarch Wildlife Cruises and Natures Wonders venturing out for a wild rendezvous with playful pods of pinnipeds frolicking in the ocean while their sunbathing cousins laze languidly in the sun. They’re protective of their space, so be sure to give these animals a wide berth should you come across them in the wild.

Beaches in Dunedin

Of course, Dunedin’s natural bounty isn’t just of the flippered and feathery variety. Exploring the beaches is one of the best things to do in Dunedin. Surrounded by epic coastline secreting hidden treasures, there are around 30 beaches within a half-hour drive of Dunedin city. Tunnel Beach with its wind-whipped sandstone cliffs is a favourite, while Doctor’s Point, located near Blueskin Bay, is a local secret where, at low tide, it’s possible to stroll along the sandy shore through black stone arches and sea caves. In the winter months, these are wonderful places for romantic walks and wildlife spotting and it’s quite likely that you’ll have a beach all to yourself. Whilst in the warmer months there are plenty of prime spots for swimming, paddling and soaking up the views. Surfing is an all year round pastime here, with some of the best breaks in New Zealand.

Tunnel Beach Dunedin, New Zealand © DunedinNZ

Tunnel Beach

Arguably the most famous beaches in Dunedin, a trip to Tunnel Beach is a bucket list activity for many visitors to the city. Tucked away on the southern coastline, Tunnel Beach is a mix of natural and man-made wonders, with a huge sandstone arch and hand-hewn staircase tunnel cut into the cliff itself

Doctor’s Point Beach

Doctor’s Point Beach is one of the best secret beaches in Dunedin. It is located on Dunedin’s northern coast. The long sandy beach skirts the serene Blueskin Bay and is home to Taoka’s Arches. They are a small series of sea caves separating the two sides of Doctor’s Point Beach. Just make sure you visit at low tide because you can’t get through when the water rises.

Taoka Arches Dunedin
Taoka Arches at Doctor’s Beach © DunedinNZ

Dunedin’s pyramids at Victory Beach

Head to Victory Beach if you want to see Dunedin’s pyramids. Unlike Egypt’s version, Dunedin’s pyramids were formed naturally as a result of volcanic activity more than 10 million years ago. The Little Pyramid has a walking track to the top, with extensive views of Okia reserve, the wetlands, dunes and ocean from the beach, you can see the wreck of the SS Victory, which sank in 1861 after a drunk sailor ran the ship aground.

The Dunedin pyramids
Dunedin’s pyramids © DunedinNZ

The Organ Pipes

The Organ Pipes are an outstanding collection of interlocking stone basalt pillars created during the volcanic formation of the Otago Peninsula. They’re similar to the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland, but with mountain-top views. If you’re looking for outdoorsy things to do in Dunedin, make a day hike of it and head up the Mt Cargill Track from Bethunes Gully, or the shorter option down from the Mr Cargill Road carpark to see one of Dunedin’s most incredible rock formations.

The Organ pipes Dunedin things to do
The Organ Pipes © DunedinNZ

See the Southern Lights (Aurora Australis) in Dunedin

One of the most unmissable things to do in Dunedin is see the Aurora Australis. Dunedin is one of the few places where you can see the Aurora Australis, and the sneaky southern lights can be unpredictable. According to locals, they tend to occur with only 30 minutes’ notice, and the displays can be spectacular. The Aurora happens all year round. But the best time to view it from Dunedin is around midnight between March and September. The best places to view the aurora close to the city are Second Beach, Tunnel Beach, Sandfly Bay and Hoopers Inlet. Look south towards the horizon and watch in awe.

The Aurora Australis from Second Beach © DunedinNZ

Join a Southern Skies Star Gazing tour to learn about the unique celestial features of the Southern sky, while also sharing stories and waiata (songs) about how Māori viewed the stars and planets. If indoor stargazing is more your style, head along to the 360-degree planetarium at the Tūhura Otago Museum. Sit back in comfort while you enjoy one of the many regular shows.

The Tūhura Otago Museum Planetarium © DunedinNZ

Cycling and mountain biking in Dunedin

Cycling and mountain biking are popular things to do in Dunedin. Recreational cyclists and hardcore adventure-seekers can both slake their thirst for two-wheeled leisure time with the growing range of bike-centric trails and pathways in Dunedin. Cruise the gentle Otago Harbour cycling and walking path which currently runs all the way from St Leonards on the West Harbour to Portobello on the Otago Peninsula side. You’ll discover gorgeous waterside views, plenty of refreshment opportunities and quite often wildlife popping up nearby.

Otago Harbour cycle path © DunedinNZ

You can rent an electric bike from Dunedin e-bike hire and make a day of it, jumping on board the Port to Port ferry to ‘cycle the loop’ around almost the whole harbour. If multi-day cycle journeys are your thing, then Dunedin is a great starting point for the Otago Central Rail Trail, which kicks off in Middlemarch, a hinterland township in greater Dunedin and goes all the way to Clyde in Central Otago. Mountain bikers are in no way neglected here though. One of New Zealand’s best downhill tracks is literally in the middle of the city at Signal Hill Reserve. On the weekend, you can hop on a shuttle bus from the bottom of the hill, so there’s no hard slog to start each run.

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Architecture and heritage in Dunedin

Some of the best things to do in Dunedin are free. While Dunedin’s natural offerings are undeniably awesome, the city’s heritage treasures are equally captivating. The grand Dunedin Railway Station stands as a testament to the city’s Victorian and Edwardian past, with its intricate architecture and elegant façade. Stroll through the charming streets and discover an array of historic buildings, including the spectacular St. Paul’s Cathedral with its exquisite sculptures, superb stained glass and enormous pipe organ. Olveston Historic Home, dating back to 1904, is a magnificent 35-room residence featuring a stunning collection of art and antiques along with artfully preserved gardens. And then there’s lovely Larnach Castle, perched high on the ridge of the Otago Peninsula. This extraordinary feat of architecture offers a glimpse into the opulent lives of the city’s early settlers, as well as a damn fine scone. 

Walk the world’s steepest residential street

Baldwin Street Dunedin holds the Guinness World Record for the world’s steepest street. Of all the things to do in Dunedin, this is the one that will hurt your legs the most. But you’ll have the satisfaction of getting a selfie at the top to prove you conquered the slope.

Lan Yuan Dunedin Chinese Garden

If a stroll around a garden is more your pace, head to the Lan Yuan Chinese Garden. This traditional and serene garden was built by Shanghai artisans as an inner-city haven for peaceful contemplation and is the only genuine Chinese scholar’s garden in the Southern Hemisphere. You can soak up the peace over tea and dumplings.

Lan Yuan Dunedin Chinese Garden Things to do in Dunedin
Lan Yuan Dunedin Chinese Garden © DunedinNZ

Larnach Castle

Merchant baron and politician William Larnach built Larnach Castle in 1871 as a gift for his beloved wife Eliza. Larnach spared no expense with his lavish home, which is now one of the most famous sights in Dunedin. Explore the restored castle and gardens at leisure, check out the 360-degree views from the turrets and stop into the ballroom for high tea, or a dram or two of whiskey. If you’re after a special accommodation experience, the castle has three different options ranging from family-friendly to boutique lodgings.

Larnach Castle © DunedinNZ

Tūhura Otago Museum

Tūhura Otago Museum is one of the most popular indoor family attractions in Dunedin. Among the many fascinating exhibits and galleries, the interactive science centre has 41 interactive activities, a double helix slide, a planetarium, a tropical butterfly forest and a visual science gallery. It’s a great place to spend a few hours viewing the collection of more than 1.5 million artefacts from the wider Otago region and further afield.

Olveston Historic Home

A must-visit for lovers of art, antique furniture, ceramics and statues, little has changed inside this Edwardian mansion designed for one of Dunedin’s most prominent businessmen in 1900. Olveston is a genuine time capsule of national significance because it is a fascinating glimpse into the past. Like a little piece of Downton Abbey in Dunedin, you can explore the lavish family rooms, serene gardens and the one-time servants’ quarters.

Inside the pool room © Olveston Historic Home.

Toitū Otago Settlers Museum

The 100,000 objects in the Toitū Otago Settlers Museum highlight the culture, technology, art, fashion and transport achievements of the Otago region. Highly interactive displays provide an engaging look at the past, from the more recent developments right back to the early settlement era of the region.

Dunedin escape rooms

Looking for fun things to do in Dunedin? Try one of Dunedin’s escape rooms. Choose between escaping a cell in Dunedin Prison or using logic and magic to solve a mystery at The Savoy. This immersive activity is suitable for teams of two to six people. 

Street art in Dunedin

Dunedin’s rich and diverse creative community have taken art to the streets, and one of the best things to do in Dunedin is take a leisurely walk through this outdoor gallery. Down side streets, alleyways and around every turn, vibrant whimsical street art can be found around almost every corner. You’ll find Ed Sheeran, shiny metal bulls, extinct native eagles and a steampunk style submarine, among the many weird and wonderful creations. Check out all there is to discover on Street Art Cities Dunedin.

These phenomenal artworks were created by both local and international street artists, including ROA (Belgium), Pixel Pancho (Italy), Phlegm (UK), Natalia Rak (Poland), Dal East (China) and Mica Still (NZ). It’s one of the most popular things to do in Dunedin and it’s completely free.

Dunedin Street Art, NZ street art, Dunedin urban art, graffiti in Dunedin, graffiti trail in Dunedin
Some of Dunedin’s wonderful street art © DunedinNZ

Where to eat and drink in Dunedin

Dunedin is a darling of New Zealand’s dining scene. From cosy cafes to award-winning fine dining establishments, the city’s eclectic array of culinary delights never disappoints. Explore Dunedin’s cool coffee culture, enjoy craft beer flights at boutique breweries including the historic Speights Brewery, browse a bounty of fresh produce at the weekend Otago Farmers’ Market and tour a bean-to-bar chocolate factory tour – all part of the charm of delicious Dunedin.

Just leave plenty of room to sample fresh local seafood delicacies including wild-caught Bluff oysters and classic blue cod, then wash them down with wonderful wines from the region. Dunedin offers an amazing selection of artisan producers, bars, distilleries, craft breweries and awesome café culture, so sampling the flavours on offer are essentials things to do in Dunedin. Stop off at the Otago Farmers Market which takes place every Saturday morning to enjoy local produce and artisanal goods, perfect for a gourmet breakfast on the go.

Otago Farmers Market © DunedinNZ

Tuck into seafood and local delicacies such as Blue Cod and Little Neck Clams at the likes of Plato, where excellent cuisine meets design kitsch. You can also sample the iconic chowder and seafood platter at the Carey’s Bay Pub, complete with resident fisherman to yarn to over a beer.

Wander the St Clair beachfront and stop off for a sundowner at the Esplanade, where the Italian bistro food and views of the Pacific will have you living la dolce vita. Nearby tītī also takes top billing and is a great spot to people watch as you devour the exquisitely fresh cuisine.

The Esplanade © Neat Places

Fine dining in Dunedin

If you’re looking to indulge, head to Moiety located in the city’s Warehouse Precinct for a five-course degustation with inspired ingredients. Just around the corner, the Press Club at Fable Hotel is impeccably stylish with a small but satisfying menu and an excellent selection of cocktails, wines and fine whiskeys. Tap into the city’s Scottish links at Bracken restaurant, where the modern Scottish cuisine offers an innovative take on traditional dishes and ingredients. For plant-based dining enthusiasts, a meal at Taste Nature should definitely be on the itinerary.

Indigo Room © DunedinNZ

Bars in Dunedin

There’s no shortage of fancy things to do in Dunedin, and bar-hopping is one of the most enjoyable. Seek out eclectic, cosy bars and eateries tucked away in secretive spots, like Indigo Room, Pequeno and Mr. Fox, where the cocktails are well worth the effort. If you like to stay up late, head to Woof! on the corner of Moray Place and Lower Stuart Street. This vibrant bar has great service, awesome drinks and a fun atmosphere. Gin lovers need to call in at No.8 Distillery to get a fix of their award-winning drops, or Dunedin Craft Distillers which literally crafts boutique spirits from bread.

No.8 Distillery © DunedinNZ

Craft breweries in Dunedin

Exploring craft breweries is among the top-rated things to do in Dunedin. Craft beer is booming in Dunedin and each destination brewery is totally distinct in terms of taste and ambience. Emerson’s Brewery and restaurant is a popular spot for the thirsty local crowd, with a selection of stalwart favourites and a revolving range of seasonal brews. The food here is hearty and full of international inspiration, including the legendary poutine and thrice-cooked fries, the perfect pairing for a pint or three.

Emerson’s Brewery and Restaurant © Neat Places

While not a craft brewery per se, historic Speights in Rattray Street is one of a handful of gravity-fed breweries in the world and is arguably the birthplace of the beer industry in New Zealand. Take a tour and see where the malty magic happens then head next door to the Speights Alehouse and order a tasting tray and gastro pub tucker.

To soak up the community vibe and enjoy some epic scenery too, head to Arc Brewing Co in Blueskin Bay. This family brewery creates small-batch handcrafted beers that are fresh and flavourful. The relaxed beer garden and cosy indoor space is a popular weekend destination where a different food truck is parked up each day.

The newest and most intriguing cab off the rank is Steamer Basin Brewery, which is tucked down the elusive sounding ‘no name alley’ near Bond Street. In true Dunedin style, this quirky den of delicious brews has real personality, matched only by the colourful array of street art adorning the alley walls outside.

Steamer Basin Brewery © DunedinNZ

Road trips to and from Dunedin

A list of things to do in Dunedin isn’t complete without mentioning the spectacular road trips that start from this vibrant city. Dunedin is a short drive from Queenstown via the Central Otago Touring Route. The 341-kilometre journey follows scenic highways from the Pacific Ocean to the foot of the Southern Alps via the beautiful Strath Taieri and Maniototo Plains. You can find the full list of activities on the Central Otago Touring Route here. If you’re taking in the scenic highlights of Fiordland and the Catlins, then the Southern Scenic Route, which starts (or ends) in Dunedin is a fantastic option. 

Things to do in Dunedin
Central Otago © Tourism NZ

We highly recommend taking at least 3-5 days to wind your way along this road, spending time in characterful settlements such as Middlemarch, Ranfurly, Oturehua and Clyde, as well as the larger towns of Alexandra, Cromwell, Arrowtown and Queenstown. The journey will take you through one of the world’s most extreme wine regions. Take your time to linger over cellar door tastings, long al fresco lunches and talk to local wine-lovers.

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