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Otago Travel Guide: Tips for a Fun Trip to Otago

Otago Travel Guide: Tips for a Fun Trip to Otago

Our Otago Travel Guide will give you a good overview of the region. If you’re looking for posts about a particular area click on one of these links: Dunedin | Oamaru | Waitaki Valley | Wanaka | Queenstown | Arrowtown | The Catlins | Central Otago | South Otago

Otago is the best of the South Island rolled up into one easy to explore region. The dramatic coastline features boulders, nuggets, deserted beaches and an array of wildlife (including two types of penguins) while inland you’ll find some of the most beautiful mountain vistas in New Zealand.

Otago Travel Guide

You’ll find countless walks, beaches and viewpoints along the Otago coastline — it stretches all the way from Oamaru to the Catlins and there is rarely a dull section.

Central Otago is where the scenery starts to change, with coastal hills giving way to the Old Man Range and the desert-like valleys and basins of Central Otago.

A short drive from Cromwell and you’ll be in either Queenstown or Wānaka, two of the world’s top mountain resorts towns. Fans of hiking will have tough choices to make — there’s no way you’ll have time to do all the tracks! Those after a more sedate trip will find boat trips, scenic drives and wine tours — or you could just sit by the lake and enjoy the sun (for 10 minutes until you burn).

Towns | Cities | Regions

Dunedin

Dunedin is the only city in Otago — at 130,000 residents has more than five times the population of the next biggest settlement (Queenstown). The city centre of Dunedin is full of restored heritage buildings, and only a few kilometres away you’ll find St Clair Beach, one of over two dozen beaches within a short drive of the city.

The Otago Peninsula is one of the best coastal regions to explore in New Zealand — so many viewpoints, walks, beaches and wildlife experiences (seeing the little blue penguins is such a fun thing to do). There’s also a castle!

Read more about Dunedin: Dunedin Travel Guide | Dunedin Itinerary | Best Things to Do in Dunedin | Best Restaurants in Dunedin | Best Beaches in Dunedin | Best Walks in Dunedin

The Catlins

Drive for 90 minutes south of Dunedin (along the Southern Scenic Route) and you’ll reach the Catlins. It’s a similar coastline to Dunedin — lots of interesting things to see including Nugget Point Lighthouse, Purakaunui Falls and Cannibal Bay. You can see a lot on a day trip through the Catlins, but spend a night or two if you can.

Read more about the Catlins: Catlins Itinerary | Best Things to Do in the Catlins | Best Beaches in the Catlins | Best Waterfalls in the Catlins

Cannibal Bay, the Catlins, New Zealand

Central Otago

Central Otago’s arid landscape and consistent weather makes it the perfect place to produce wine — if you’re only going to visit one wine region in the South Island this should probably be it (Marlborough may argue with that).

There’s a lot more to explore in Central Otago, including dams, historic towns (there’s heaps of them), ruins from the goldmining days and some great places to eat and drink.

Read more about Central Otago: Best Things to Do in Central Otago | Best Dams in Central Otago

Wānaka

Ski fields, world-class day hikes and a cute little town by the lake — you can see why Wānaka is so popular. That popularity brings some benefits, including a great dining and drinking scene for a town of its size.

There aren’t many places in the South Island with that “international tourist town” kind of a feel — some people hate it but I’m glad there are places like Wānaka and Queenstown here. Variety is key with travel, and I can see tourists being relieved to see some life (especially after dark) after visiting some of the sleepier tourist towns in the South Island.

Stunning view of Lake Wanaka from Roys Peak, New Zealand

Read more about Wānaka: Best Things to Do in Wānaka | Wānaka Itinerary | Wānaka Travel Guide | Best Walks in Wānaka

Queenstown

I could copy and paste that last paragraph about Wānaka here as they’re similar places. Queenstown is bigger and busier and arguably more beautiful — that’s a tough call to make though. Lake Wakatipu dominates the landscape in Queenstown and you’ll find heaps of hills and mountains to climb, as well as more sedate walks such as Bob’s Cove and the Morning Star Track.

Read more about Queenstown: Queenstown Travel Guide | Queenstown Itinerary | Best Beaches in Queenstown | Best Walks in Queenstown | Best Scenic Drives in Queenstown

Oamaru

Oamaru is the best town in New Zealand to see Victorian architecture. From its heyday as a thriving port in the late 1800s, it quickly declined into the sleepy town it is today. Luckily, most of the old buildings remain — such a nice old town to stroll through. Oamaru is also home to penguins, good beaches (especially around Kakanui) and heaps of boutique shops and galleries.

Read more about Oamaru: Best Things to Do in Oamaru | Best Beaches in Oamaru | Driving from Dunedin to Oamaru

Waitaki Valley

There’s 145 km of road between Oamaru and Twizel, the closest town to Mount Cook. Most of that is through the Waitaki Valley, with the small towns of Kurow, Omarama and Otematata good options if you’re keen to stay the night. There are some good short walks (especially the Benmore Peninsula Walk) and lots of river and lakeside rest stops. Parts of the Waitaki Valley are technically in Canterbury, but Otago kind of claims them.

Benmore Peninsula Walkway

Read more about Waitaki Valley: Benmore Peninsula Walk | Elephant Rocks | Clay Cliffs

Top Experiences

Our top Otago experiences include exploring the walks, viewpoints and beaches of Dunedin, road trips through Central Otago, hiking in Wanaka and Queenstown and visiting the beaches, waterfalls and clifftop views in the Catlins. Tours to check out include Walter Peak Station in Queenstown, Mou Waho Island in Wānaka and the Little Blue Penguins in Dunedin.

Rushed Otago Itinerary

A quick jaunt through Otago could look something like this: Dunedin — the Catlins — Queenstown / Wānaka. You could do that in as little as four days, but the longer the better. Spend a couple of nights in Dunedin (maybe head up to Oamaru for a day) and then drive to Queenstown via the Catlins (or via the Waitaki Valley if going to Oamaru). Spend the last couple of nights in Queenstown or Wānaka before flying out from Queenstown Airport or moving on to somewhere like Mount Cook or Fiordland.

Relaxed Otago Itinerary

If you’re after a more relaxed Otago Itinerary we’ve got you covered. Again, I’m assuming you’re starting in Dunedin. Spend a few nights there (or a week) and from there drive up to Oamaru and through the Waitaki Valley (spend a night or two in Oamaru and maybe Omarama), make a detour to Mount Cook if it’s not already in your plans and then journey through Lindis Pass to Central Otago.

Hang out in Central Otago for a day or two (or longer if you have the time) then make your way to Queenstown and Wānaka. You’ll want at least a week in that region, especially if you’re into hiking. After that drive to the Catlins (it’s not too far from Queenstown) and then up to Dunedin via the Southern Scenic Route. All of that will take anywhere from a week to a month or more.

Are you planning a trip to New Zealand? Check out our South Island Travel Guide!

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Jon Algie

I'm a South Island local -- born in Timaru and raised in Dunedin. I left the island in 2006 and returned 10 years later. Having seen a good chunk of the world I realised how special this place is -- the most beautiful island in the world! Seven years (and almost 400 posts) later I'm still helping locals and tourists alike plan their trips around the South Island.

Dianne

Tuesday 25th of April 2023

Great blog Jon. Cheers from Dianne and JoHn. Lochmara.

Jon Algie

Tuesday 2nd of May 2023

Thanks, it was cool meeting you guys. I've got a post about Lochmara coming up. Hope you make it back to the South Island some time!

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