Dunedin, the South Island’s second biggest city, is full of historic sights, beautiful beaches and interesting scenery. It’s easily New Zealand’s best city and you should spend at least a couple of days there before moving onto more iconic places like Queenstown and Fiordland. There are so many fun things to do in Dunedin, both in the city centre and the surrounding area – keep reading for lots of inspiration for planning your time in Dunedin!
The City Centre
George Street and the Octagon
Dunedin’s city centre is full of old buildings as well as heaps of cafes, bars and restaurants. The Octagon is Dunedin’s version of a town square and is a great place to sit with some fish and chips (or eat in one of the restaurants and cafes). This place comes alive at night, as most of the bars and nightclubs are in (or very near) the Octagon. George Street is Dunedin’s main shopping street – it’s basically a big outdoor mall (and there’s an actual mall on George Street too).
There are lots of street art murals in downtown Dunedin. Some of the best are in the Warehouse District (a short walk from the Octagon) and around Stafford Street / Manse Street (a 5-10-minute walk from the Octagon).
Dunedin Railway Station
A visit to Dunedin Railway Station, one of the city’s most iconic old buildings, is one of the best things to do in Dunedin. It’s a short walk from the Octagon and there are also some other nice buildings nearby, including the old Dunedin Prison.
Museums and Galleries
Dunedin is home to two quality museums, and they’re both free! Otago Museum, located close to the university, has heaps of varied exhibits (and the Science World, which does cost to enter) and the Toitu Otago Settlers Museum tells the story of how Dunedin, and Otago in general, was settled and what life was like in those early days. There are also several art galleries in Dunedin, as well as some theaters and music venues.
University of Otago and the Botanic Garden
More interesting historic architecture awaits at the University of Otago, which is a good place for a stroll (especially in spring when the blossoms are out). There are some nice cafes around and the Botanic Garden (where you’ll find the requisite flowers, trees and other plants) is nearby.
A short distance past the Botanic Garden sits Baldwin Street. It’s officially the steepest street in the world, although a street in Wales is trying to steal that crown. Walking up Baldwin Street (or driving, if you’re brave) is one of the top things to do in Dunedin, especially if you don’t have a car (you can walk from the Octagon / George Street or take a bus).
The Warehouse District
This is one of Dunedin’s prettiest inner-city areas and it’s a great place to go for a coffee or some food. There are some nice cafes, a donut shop, a really good burger place and some nice pieces of street art. The Warehouse District is a short walk from the Octagon / George Street — definitely seek it out if you’re staying in the city centre.
This is one of the best beaches in Dunedin that you can reach by bus. There are some viewpoints on the road above the beach and you can also do the Karetai Road Track, which starts at the far end of the beach and has great views looking back towards Smails Beach and St Clair / St Kilda.
Sandly Bay is a rugged beach best seen from the viewpoint above, but it’s also worth walking down the steep dunes to the edge of the water, where you might see sea lions and yellow-eyed penguins. Of course, you’ll have to walk all the way back up!
The Sandymount Track
The Sandymount Track is one of the best hikes in Dunedin due to its varied views. You can see over Allans Beach and Hoopers Inlet as well as some interesting rock formations (the Chasm and Lovers Leap).
Taiaroa Head, at the end of the Otago Peninsula, is where you’re most likely to see albatross and little blue penguins in Dunedin. There is a nice beach (Pilots Beach, where little blue penguins are common) and some good views back towards Aramoana (and there’s also a lighthouse).
One of two castles in Dunedin (the other is Cargill’s Castle, which is in ruins), Larnach Castle is a fun place to visit as long as you’re not expecting anything on par with the best European castles. The views are nice though and there is plenty to explore both inside and outside the castle.
This small settlement on the Otago Peninsula is a good option if you’re looking to spend the night away from the city. There are a few places to eat and drink in Portobello as well as a few accommodation options, and there are some good views nearby. Also check out Macandrew Bay, Broad Bay and Harrington Point if you’re looking to spend a night or two on the peninsula.
The Southern Coast
St Clair Beach
Widely regarded as Dunedin’s best beach (and, in my opinion, New Zealand’s best city beach), St Clair Beach is the perfect place to visit on a sunny day. You can walk along the dunes above the beach (or take a stroll along John Wilson Drive), go surfing in the world-class waves or hang out at one of the cafes and bars at the Esplanade. You can also walk all the way along (it turns into St Kilda Beach about halfway) where you might see some sea lions (and less people).
READ MORE: 26 of the Best Beaches in Dunedin
This small castle is in ruins and is fenced off, but you can still see it from the street (or if you’re willing to slide under a fence, not that I’d recommend that of course). The best part about Cargill’s Castle is that it’s located on a cliff above the ocean and therefore has some great views along Dunedin’s southern coastline.
Surreal scenery and a historic “tunnel” are the highlights of a visit to Tunnel Beach, one of Dunedin’s most popular beaches. It’s a short (but steep) walk down to the beach and you can get some great views from the headland above it.
Brighton Beach is my favourite place in Dunedin to watch the sunset (being on the east coast, it’s not really a sunset destination) and there are lots of different little bays, headlands and viewpoints to explore. You can also head further south to Taieri Mouth if you aren’t yet tired of beaches.
There’s a beautiful beach at Taieri Mouth, but the main reason to visit is to hike the Taieri River Track. It’s a pretty easy walk and the views are great — it’s quite different to the other places of interest in Dunedin and it’s a scenic drive to get there.
The other side of the harbour
Mount Cargill and the Organ Pipes
One of the highest points in the Dunedin area, Mount Cargill has a commanding view over the city, harbour and peninsula. You can drive all the way to the top (where a rough car park and a big TV tower greet you) or walk up on a couple of different tracks. Climbing the Organ Pipes, downhill from the summit, is one of the most unique things to do in Dunedin and is a bit of an adventure.
Cruise ship passengers arrive in Port Chalmers (and usually jump on a bus headed straight for the city), but it’s not without its charms. The main street is lined with old buildings, boutique shops and cafes and there are some good harbour views from the roads above town.
The hike to Heyward Point is probably my favourite walk in Dunedin – the views over Aramoana Beach and the Otago Peninsula are amazing on a sunny day and there are plenty of other things to see on this 2-3 hour walk.
This spot, on the hills above Port Chalmers, is one of the best places to see native birds in New Zealand. You can take a guided tour of Orokonui Ecosanctuary or explore on your own — you’ll likely see lots of birds (we saw tuis, kakas, bellbirds and more).
The Northern Coastline
Doctors Point is the start of a cool little coastal walk, which takes in the Arches (a series of sea caves) and two excellent beaches (Canoe Beach and Purakaunui Beach). You can get some good views from the headland separating the two beaches. You can only get through the Arches at low tide, so plan around that.
The scenic drive to Oamaru
This is one of the most scenic coastal drives in New Zealand, assuming you take a few detours off the main road. You’ll pass through small coastal settlements, get sweeping coastline views, set foot on deserted beaches and see New Zealand’s oldest surviving farm buildings (which is more exciting than it sounds).
If you’re looking for a spectacular day hike in Dunedin, look no further than the Silver Peaks Reserve. There are some stunning views on offer and it feels like a world away from the city (yet only a 30-minute drive). You can stay overnight in a hut and turn it into a two-day walk if you want, but the route I describe in my post should be good enough for most people.
Other things to do in Dunedin
Dunedin isn’t all about coastal views and beaches – there are also two waterfalls to check out. Nicols Falls is my favourite – it’s reached via a muddy forest track and is very pretty after rain. You can also hang around after dark to see glow worms (on a nearby track). School Creek Falls, located in the Ross Creek area (a big network of forest tracks which is popular with local walker and runners), is a bit smaller but is a lot easier to get to (it’s a 5-10-minute walk from the road).
The Pineapple Track
This hiking track above Dunedin holds great views over the city. If you do the whole track you’ll end up all the way down the hill (meaning you’ll have to walk all the way back), but if you just want the views you’ll see the best of them from near the start of the Pineapple Track.
As you’ve probably noticed, Dunedin isn’t short on spectacular views. As well as all the ones I’ve mentioned already, there are several viewpoints scattered around the city that you can drive straight to. Some of my favourites include Signal Hill, Unity Park Lookout and Rotary Park.
READ MORE: 30 Stunning Viewpoints in Dunedin
Taieri Gorge Railway
If you want to see a different side of Dunedin (well, its outskirts at least) I highly recommend a trip on the Taieri Gorge Railway. The train first heads through farmland and then through the rugged Taieri Gorge, where amazing views await at every turn.
For such a small city (only around 130,000 people) Dunedin is blessed with some world-class sporting infrastructure. Forsyth Barr Stadium, New Zealand’s only roofed stadium, is the perfect place to watch a game of rugby. The Highlanders (who play in Super Rugby, arguably the top rugby league in the world) are based in Dunedin – if you visit between February and July you could easily catch a game. The All Blacks also play there (once a year generally). In the last couple of years there have also been some huge bands / singers playing at Forsyth Barr Stadium, including Ed Sheeran and Elton John. If you’re a cricket fan you’ll be well served by the University of Otago Oval, where you might be lucky to catch an international match.
As you can see, there are so many things to do in Dunedin. I haven’t mentioned all the beaches, viewpoints and hikes because it’d take you weeks to see everything (and most people reading this are likely to only stay a few days) – if there’s one city in New Zealand I’d recommend spending a long time in, it’s Dunedin. I should probably mention that it’s my hometown (well, I moved there when I was 10, left at 21 and returned at 31), but I’m sure I’d still be raving about it if that wasn’t the case!
Are you planning a trip to Dunedin? Check out my other posts on the city (I’ve written over 30 posts about it!).