By Experience Oz

The top 10 things to do in Dunedin, NZ and surrounds

Experience the charm of days gone by with a trip to Dunedin. This huge city will spoil you rotten with things to do.

Boasting a genuine old-world feel and rich in some of the most beautiful architecture in New Zealand, Dunedin on the South Island's south-east coast is the Otago region's crowning gem, with some of the best examples of Victorian and Edwardian construction this side of the equator combining with a wonderful coastal location that provides a wonderful balance of nature and the man-made.

Dunedin has a heritage that is rich and a culture that incorporates a strong Scottish influence, and simply taking a walk around the city soon conjures up images of Europe. A strong arts presence and prominent culinary scene round out the experience, helping to make Dunedin one of the truly underrated travel destinations in all of NZ. If you've got even an inkling of interest in history and an appreciation for architecture coupled with a desire to get out and explore some beautiful coastline teeming with wildlife, then Dunedin makes for a wonderful destination of choice.

If you're in or visiting Dunedin, here are 10 if the top things to do in the city and its surrounds:

10. Hare Hill Horse Treks

Location: Aramoana Road, Dunedin, NZ

The abundant greenery that surrounds Dunedin to the north, west and south makes for some ideal farmland, so it only makes sense that chances for hopping on horseback to explore this beautiful region is an easily accessible and highly enjoyable opportunity. The facility of Hare Hill, which can be found roughly 20 minutes' drive to the north east of the city CBD is an expansive farm spread out over 60 acres with a spectacular outlook over the northern side of lovely Otago Harbour, and it's here you'll want to head for the area's premier horse riding experience.

Both beginners and advanced riders are welcome to come along and join in one of the most eco-friendly ways to tour the greater Dunedin area, with the choice of riding through a variety of trails that traverse their way through lush, green open paddocks over looking the vibrant blue harbour, or instead head down to the beaches of Aramoana for some waterfront riding and an up-close look at the coast.

The facility is run by friendly and down-to-earth owners who are very patient with those hopping on horseback for the first time, and during the rides they're always happy to share their vast knowledge on not only the Dunedin region but New Zealand in general while answering any questions you may have.

The beach rides are worthy of special note, as you'll not only get to witness a variety of different beaches, but also have a high chance of encountering various local wildlife as well; seals and even massive albatross birds are a fairly common sight on on the beach course, and be sure to keep your eye out towards the ocean as it's rich in marine life and presents many additional chances for animal viewing. The trail rides above the harbour, meanwhile, offer a wonderful vantage point from which to take in the panorama out to the port and the surrounding rolling hills.

With riding lessons also available for those who want to pick up (or enhance) their riding techniques, there's no reason why anyone shouldn't saddle up with Hare Hill Horse Treks and enjoy a completely natural sightseeing adventure.

9. Signal Hill

Location: Dunedin, NZ

If you're simply after the best views available of Dunedin and surrounds, then you need look no further than the impressive lookout point of Signal Hill. At 393 metres high and overlooking the head of Otago Harbour, it's easily the most prominent viewpoint that's accessible to the public and provides a wonderful birds-eye view of the city and its surrounds that makes for a good “first port of call” to your visit to the city as you'll soon get a sense of the lay of the land and where everything is.

On a clear day you'll be granted a nice panorama of the peninsula, Port Chalmers and further out to the horizon that will bring what you've previously only been viewing on your maps to life.

Getting to the top of Signal Hill is easy as well as it's accessible by road, and while it's quite a steep ascent, all it takes is a short drive (around 15 minutes) to arrive at the lookout's main parking area which has ample free parking available in all but the busiest of seasons.

On the hill there's a monument with two large bronze statues which were erected to commemorate New Zealand's 100 year anniversary that also incorporates a stone imported from Scotland's Edinburg – Dunedin's sister city, and the monument itself is surrounded by a large scenic reserve filled with plantations of forestry.

Signal Hill is also well worth visiting at night (preferably in the warmer months as it can get quite cold at the top) as at night time the twinkling of the city lights adds an entirely different and charming atmosphere to the proceedings. Bear in mind however that if you're looking for a night view in summer that it generally doesn't get dark until late in the evening, so you may find yourself waiting several hours if you arrive too early! You'll also want to bring a light jacket regardless of season, as on windy days the exposure of the lookout can make the cold quite penetrating.

Regardless, if it's the “big picture” view of Dunedin and its surrounds you're after, then there's no reason not to put in the minimal amount of effort to soak in the views from Signal Hill.

8. Nature’s Wonders Naturally

Location: Harington Point Road, Dunedin, NZ

The Otago Peninsula is renowned for its abundant yet fragile wildlife, with an environment that blends marine, air and land-based animals into a complex ecosystem that's as delicate as it is beautiful. The “Nature's Wonders Naturally” effort is an attempt to showcase this diversity to the public in the most environmentally-friendly way possible in order to foster a new appreciation for the animals who call this part of New Zealand home – it's neither a zoo nor a wildlife park, simply a chance to witness nature in its most organic condition, and it's in this that the experience truly shines.

The team who run the expedition are clearly passionate about what they do and the principles they believe in, and during your visit you'll get an up-close taste of this firsthand.

Situated at the true “end of the road” on the cliff of the peninsula, the array of wildlife to take in here is extensive; both the rare Yellow Eyed and Blue penguins can be seen going about their business on the beach, while you'll have the opportunity to get closer up to wild seals and their pups than you're likely to get anywhere else in New Zealand.

As part of the experience, you'll join the friendly and knowledgeable guide aboard an ARGO (basically an 8-wheel ATV vehicle designed to be as eco-friendly as possible) and head through the property to an ideal viewing spot from which to see the seals, then travel a little further to a specially-built cubby house come hidey-hole that you can hop inside for optimal views of the wildlife without disturbing them.

360 degree views extending from the coastline down to the harbour make for some outstanding photo opportunities, so be sure to bring a camera with a decent lens (rather than relying on your mobile phone camera) to ensure you come away with some amazing shots. The Nature's Wonders Naturally experience is about as much of an “off-road” adventure as you can expect, so it's wise to wear comfortable clothes and prepare to get dirty as the vehicle kicks up the dirt and mud.

For one of the best-value and intimate looks at the wildlife of the Otago Peninsula – and one which kids especially will love – that will have you learning a lot as well as seeing a lot, Nature's Wonders Naturally ticks all the boxes.

7. Taieri Gorge Railway

Location: Anzac Avenue, Dunedin, NZ

Travelling directly into the heart of the Central Otago Hinterland, this world-class scenic train trip is a must for one of the easiest-yet-enjoyable sightseeing adventures the coastal Otago region has to offer.

While other itineraries are available that highlight the coast and the cliffs, it's the Taieri Gorge route that is perhaps the most impressive; the train heads out from Dunedin's historic train station (mentioned in greater detail below) and passes through the city before making its way towards the spectacular gorge itself.

Carved out over the course of thousands of years by the waters of the Taieri River, the Taieri Gorge is brimming with beautiful scenery of a myriad of kinds; mountain ranges bring to mind just how much of an alpine landscape New Zealand truly has, while the greenery is as typically bright and vivid as you'd expect from NZ's vibrant palette of colours. It's a journey that shows of in its fullest just how much the marvels of engineering are able to achieve; the train spends much of its time actually within the gorge, and the feats of design and execution to complete such a long extent of track add an extra layer of appreciation to the proceedings.

The train trip is just as informative as it is scenic as well, as an extremely detailed commentary outlining all of the passing natural highlights as well as the history of the railway and New Zealand as a whole is given throughout the journey, making the Taieri Gorge Railway as much of a sightseeing tour as it is an efficient and nostalgic method of getting from A to B. Carriages on the train vary as well; while the overall theme of the train attempts to maintain a “classic” feel, some of them have been updated to a more modern motif, so your miles may vary somewhat.

The train has various viewing platforms at the ends of carriages which are ideal for taking pictures, and also performs several stops along the way for the chance to stretch your legs, walk across a suspension bridge, and take some photos of the Gorge and its surrounds from a different vantage point. The journey takes roughly 4 hours (2 hours each way) so be prepared for a reasonable time investment, however its on-board facilities make grabbing a cup of coffee, sandwich or even a glass of bubbly a hassle-free problem should the stomach start to rumble.

While many will tend to compare the trip to the TranzAlpine from Christchurch, the Taieri Gorge is an entirely different kind of scenery that should be experienced and judged in its own right – and if you're visiting the Dunedin region, it's well worth the time investment.

6. Larnach Castle

Combining its stunning setting with craftsmanship and a great location – plus the fact that it's New Zealand's only true castle – makes Larnach Castle pretty much a must-visit from Dunedin. While the building itself is impressive in its quality carvings, materials and general ostentatiousness, it's the gardens that surround the castle that make a trip here truly complete; they're incredibly well maintained and follow a very Alice in Wonderland-esque theme with an intriguing framework of hedges and trees and vibrantly colourful flowers during springtime which have been painstakingly crafted over the course of 45 years.

Guests are welcome to wander through the gardens at leisure so simply sit back and soak up the sunshine. The gardens boast a good mix of species as well, with some rare and exotic types from as far as the Himalayas.

For those who have visited Europe, the term “castle” may be a little misleading – Larnach is much more of an elaborately-crafted manor house than it is a full-blown castle – however the work and dedication that has gone into restoring the building to its former glory is remarkable, and the architectural style with its tower and turret are an obvious tip of the cap to traditional castle-style design.

An extra admission fee is charged to enter the interior of the building, and upon entry it's easy to see the degree of preservation is striking. The insides have remained very true to the castle's era, with Victorian furniture and carvings a prominent feature, while the main ballroom features a cafe where visitors can enjoy lunch and a coffee.

If you're feeling particularly royal, there's even the opportunity to either dine in the castle (upon prior appointment) or stay overnight in the grounds, which will grant you some further insight into the castle's establishment and history – which is quite interesting, to say the least. While it's not cheap (the cost is $26 per adult ticket at time of writing), the money goes directly back into the maintenance and further restoration of the facility rather than lining someone's pockets, and as one of the most unique attractions that New Zealand has to offer it's more than easy to justify a visit.

Lastly, a nod should be given to the amazing views over the water and surrounding landscape seen from atop the castle turret – which is worth the price of admission on its own.

5. Speight’s Brewery

Location: Rattray Street, Dunedin, NZ

One of the fixtures of Dunedin's city centre and an icon of South Island beverages, Speight's is synonymous for “beer” in the region as its brewery has been churning out bottles of quality amber since way back in 1876 on the same site that it can be found today. Far more than just a factory, the building itself is ripe with history and has been listed as a local heritage centre for many years which grants visitors an insight to the brewing techniques of the past.

Touring the brewery is highly recommended and will cover all-things-beer, from how Speight's was founded, to the transition in brewing techniques of the modern age and the history of beer in general. The brewery's tour guides are typically friendly and easygoing with a wry sense of humour and don't take themselves too seriously, which befits the atmosphere of such a venue.

Speight's produces a wide lineup of beers, ranging from pale ale and draughts to various microbrews so while it helps to be a fan of beer in general, even thoughts who aren't massive beer lovers should be able to find a taste here that satisfies the palate (or at least quenches the thirst), and at the conclusion of the tour you'll have the chance to sample a variety of the brews for yourself.

Guests are encouraged to hop behind the tap and pour their own drinks, with six different varieties available to take for a taste-test-drive; you'll have roughly half an hour to enjoy as much beer as you like included in the price until the experience includes.

There's also the opportunity to bundle standard tours with both two-course lunch and dinner packages, which can help to extend the experience or make for the ideal kicking-off point for a night out on the town in the surrounding parts of Dunedin.

While obviously not a great attraction for those with kids, a visit to Speight's is perhaps one of the best things to do in the city when the weather turns sour, and its significance to the city of Dunedin couples with some genuinely tasty beer to make it a favourite of adults visiting both locally and from abroad.

4. Otago Museum

Location: Great King Street, Dunedin, NZ

Located smack-bang in the middle of Dunedin, the Otago Museum makes for one of the most obvious yet greatly satisfying attractions in the area. With an emphasis on natural history, the Otago Museum is a favourite spot for kids and adults alike as the operators go out of their way to make education a fun word for the little ones.

The museum aims to cover a balance of history, ecology and sciences and does a solid job walking this delicate line; it's well organised layout is divided up into separate sections so you can cater your visit to your (and your kids') field of interest accordingly.

Animals both past and present feature prominently here, with extinct birds of New Zealand's history of particular interest, while the museum's Butterfly exhibition set amongst an actual tropical environment serves as a living, breathing example of NZ's current ecosystem and is worth a visit by itself. Hundreds of butterflies as well as the likes of birds, fish, turtles and geckos can be found amongst the tropical forest, and it's easy to forget you're right in the heart of one of New Zealand's largest cities while here.

History buffs will likewise be in their element as the Otago Museum does a solid job of encompassing a number of historical eras; Maori and Pacific Island cultures of course play a large role, however there are also robust Egyptian and Greek exhibits as well – plus a number of wholly unique (and unexpected) temporaries such as a motorbike exhibit that visitors can climb on and simulate to their wildest of biker dreams back in 2014.

Maritime history – which has been a big part of New Zealand's development – as well as war and military features round out the experience to one of the more comprehensive you'll find. How long you choose to spend here is entirely up to you; it's easy to while away half a day (especially if it's raining outside) exploring the museum's three floors, and with regular temporary exhibitions held throughout the year, there's always something fresh to see for repeat visitors.

Perhaps best of all, it's entirely free to enter the Otago Museum – although a suggested donation of $10 is well worth paying to go towards funding what is overall an excellent example of what a museum should be.

3. Dunedin Railway Station

Location: Dunedin, NZ

If there's a symbol of Dunedin that can make the best claim to being internationally known, then the city's famous railway station would likely be it. Featured on postcards New Zealand-wide, it's a marvellous building that was constructed during the days of NZ's boom period following the Edwardian Baroque fashion which was popular in Europe at the time.

No expense was spared when building the terminal that was once the country's busiest, and to this day its intricate construction and decorative mosaic floors make for a great sight to behold. Tiles and bricks spread out on the paths detail the history of the station, while the gardens that surround them are as typically beautiful as can be expected from a renaissance-style construction.

The station, which still functions for a limited number of tourist-oriented lines (such as the Taleri Gorge trip mentioned above), is something akin to an active rail museum – older models of trains are on display out the front, while various vintage ticket counters, arched stained-glass windows and finely-constructed wooden staircases round out the feeling of stepping back in time; all it's missing are the steam trains.

Farmer's markets are also held outside the station on Saturdays from 8:00am which make for a bustling, outdoors-y shopping experience that the ambience of the station and gardens caps off nicely and are well worth a visit if you'll be in Dunedin over a weekend. Dunedin Station also contains an art gallery slash gift shop in the upstairs area, which can make for the ideal spot for grabbing yourself a keepsake or other memento of your time in the city.

Lastly, sports junkies have an added bonus here as Dunedin Station is also home to a sports “Hall of Fame” museum detailing New Zealand's historic involvement and achievement in the likes of rugby, cricket and the Olympics that, while small, checks all the boxes if you're a sports fanatic.

There's a reason why Dunedin Railway Station is often claimed to be New Zealand's most photographed piece of architecture – and all it takes is a visit and a stroll in its presence to see why, and being just a short walk from the city centre, there's no reason to miss out.

2. Drive, Walk or Tour the Otago Peninsula with Elm

Location: The Octagon, Dunedin, NZ

We're sure you've noticed, but one of the most frequently-mentioned areas of Dunedin on this list for various reasons is the Otago Peninsula, and there are few better ways of seeing it for yourself than simply hopping in a rental car, picking a track and taking a walk, or embarking on a tour with Elm Wildlife Tours.

The peninsula juts prominently out to the sea from the mainland and features a cavalcade of sights – both natural and man-made – to take in for the interested visitor that's easily accessible from Dunedin city. With roads that are in a generally good condition and easy to navigate, a drive will allow you to get an all-round view of the city and its position nestled in the harbour while various points along the way are well worth a stop to get out and explore.

For those not confident to navigate the terrain by themselves - or simply wanting to save time - Elm Wildlife Tours specialise in showcasing the native wildlife and educating visitors on their conservation all for a highly reasonable price. Remote beaches that offer a sense of isolation combine with numerous wildlife hotspots to form a destination that is expansive and can easily soak up more than one day.

Animal enthusiasts will want to pay a visit to both the Royal Albatross Centre and observatory which features videography on these kings of all seabirds along with a great outlook to see the Albatross in person, as well as the Penguin Place which serves as a privately-backed conservation effort to conserve NZ's endangered Yellow Eyed Penguin.

Large New Zealand Hooker Sea Lions can also be found sunning themselves on the coast at various stretches of beach with their numbers concentrated at Sandfly Bay, rounding out the wildlife offerings. Larnach Castle mentioned previously on this list also lies roughly halfway down the peninsula from Dunedin, as well as the charming village of Portobello that's ideal for a rest stop.

Walking tracks branching off in various directions abound all the way from the start of the peninsula to the finish, and the sheer isolation of many of these are enough to give you a feeling of escape that's extremely satisfying. At the fair end of the Otago Peninsula is Taiaroa Head, which provides a stunning outlook off into the waters of the South Pacific and features a lighthouse, sheer cliff faces and historic military gun emplacements and forts to cap it all off.

If you're travelling continuously, the trip from Dunedin to the tip of the Otago Peninsula only takes roughly over 40 minutes; however the numerous adventures and sights available along the way mean you can turn this stretch of land into one of the most robust experiences in the greater Dunedin region, with the only limits being fuel, free time and your imagination.

1. Olveston Historic Home

Location: Royal Terrace, Dunedin, NZ

Tossing up between #1 and #2 on this list basically comes down to whether you're more of a fan of the natural or the man-made, and how much wildlife you've seen previously throughout New Zealand; however the individuality of Olveston Historic Home on Royal Terrace makes it more unique to Dunedin than anywhere else.

A veritable walk-in time capsule, the house and its lawns have changed little since 1906, and Olveston is an accurate window into the styles, fashions, decorations and craftsmanship of that time in New Zealand's European-influenced history. Its walls adorned with prized artworks, its interior equipped with every possible creature-comfort of its time, and its 35 rooms being the picture of how the “better-half” lived, Olveston is an interesting attraction that is part mansion, part museum.

Previously owned by the Theomin family before becoming property of the city of Dunedin, Olveston Historic Home contains everything that the family who owned it left before departing from this world; every room tells a story and every fine rug has some history behind it, which are all outlined in full by the almost-ridiculously knowledgeable tour guides.

The attention to detail in the construction of the home is amazing, and its numerous antiques reek of impressively-posh Britishness. The contents of Olveston are not limited to only relics from the U.K, however; the Theomins were well-travelled, and brought back keepsakes from all across the globe which diversifies the offerings on display even more.

Tours of Olverston Historic Home take place six times per day and are the only way to get inside and explore (everything inside is either incredibly valuable or incredibly fragile), and are available in both one and two-hour flavours, so if you're wanting to absorb this unique slice of Dunedin then booking in advance is recommended.

If you've got a taste for the historical or just want to step back in (rich people's) time, Olveston should be on the top of your Dunedin to-do list.

In addition, if you're looking for all the top things to see and do in and around Dunedin including activities, attractions and more, be sure to check out our main region section to browse and book online!
Experience Oz

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