More than a whiff of Scottish heritage hangs in the cool Dunedin air, so it’s not surprising that many of the things to do in Dunedin have a Scottish flavour. Dunedin’s hilly harbour side terrain is filled with streets and suburbs that mirror places in Scotland.
Names like Clyde Hill, Belleknowes and Kenmure are as Scottish as Dunedin itself, which is the Celtic word for Edinburgh. The statue of Robert Burns, Scotland’s most famous poet, stands in the centre of the Octagon and the South Island city’s moody weather does wonders to enhance Dunedin’s Scottish atmosphere.
Dunedin’s grand Victorian and Edwardian architecture completes the picture to make it easy to think of Dunedin as a wee patch of Scotland in the South Pacific and a unique place to include when planning a New Zealand itinerary.
Things to do in Dunedin
1- Visit Larnach Castle
None of this is obvious to me when I arrive at Dunedin Airport – 30km from the city – on a freezing winter’s night.
The route from the airport to Larnach Castle, which sits on a ridge of the Otago Peninsula, turns into a dark and winding road where I drive high above the city with the lights of Dunedin twinkling in the valley beneath.
The headlights of my rented Ford beam through layers of mist and darkness, turning trees into glowing ghostly shapes half-hidden by swirls of mist.
Camp Road ends at a set of soaring iron gates.
I jump out of the car and jab at the intercom, peering anxiously over my shoulder into the forest.
The gates creak open, not soon enough, and I drive up to the building’s steep front steps.
Larnach Castle is only a 20-minute drive from Dunedin but when it was built in 1871, it was in a remote and isolated spot.
In the main dining room, the dinner table is set for myself and two other guests.
We’re served a three-course meal in much the same way original owner, William Larnach, might have entertained in the 19th century.
Larnach, who was descended from Scottish stock, was a wealthy banker from NSW who moved to Dunedin in 1871 with wife Eliza, their four children and Eliza’s sister Mary.
He hired 200 workmen to complete his new home, which took three years to build and 12 more years for European craftsmen to complete the interior.
No expense was spared.
Materials came from all over the world: marble from Italy, slate from Wales, tiles from England and glass from Venice.
These days Larnach Castle is a key attraction in Dunedin.
The gardens are rated by the New Zealand Gardens Trust as a Garden of International Significance and the original home is a museum with rooms furnished with period furniture from Larnach’s era.
When Eliza died of a stroke at 38, William Larnach promptly married her younger, prettier sister, Mary, who also died at 38 of blood poisoning.
At age 57, a merchant baron and MP, Larnach married for a third time to the much younger Constance de Bathe Brandon but his luck turned and in 1898, on the brink of bankruptcy, he shot himself after discovering his wife was having an affair with his son Douglas.
After a family feud over the terms of his will, the castle was sold off and used as a home for shell-shocked soldiers and a mental hospital.
After hearing this tragic history, I’m convinced that my cosy room in Larnach Lodge’s farm building wing is haunted.
The four-poster bed is comfy and the room has stunning views of the Otago Peninsula but it comes with banging, creaking and groaning noises which has my imagination going wild.
It keeps me awake for half the night but also puts me in the right frame of mind to delve deeper into Dunedin’s history.
2- Admire Dunedin’s architecture
Dunedin is a handsome city with steepled churches and grand architecture.
Its distinctive Scottish flavour makes it a unique place to put on a New Zealand South Island itinerary.
The city’s most ornate building is the Flemish Renaissance railway station, which has a mosaic floor of almost 750,000 Royal Doulton porcelain tiles.
The 1km long platform is the longest in New Zealand and is used each year as a catwalk for the South Island’s main fashion show!
3- Tour Speights Brewery
The Speights Beer Tour is a journey through the history of beer making, the history of Speights Brewery (it dates back to 1876) and a lesson on the beer-making processes.
The best part of the tour ends in the brewery pub where beer lovers can help themselves to as much beer as they can drink in half an hour.
Book the tour here.
Another brewery to try is the Emersons craft brewery.
4- Visit the Otago Settler’s Museum
The Otago Settlers Museum tells the story of the people who formed the backbone of the city, from the Maori to the early Scottish settlers through to the first Chinese who came to work the Otago Goldfields in 1865.
Inside the museum, there’s a recreation of the steerage quarters of an immigrant ship bound for Otago and an interactive exhibit that depicts the epic voyages faced by the early Scots.
5- Head to the beach
Dunedin has a stunning coastline and beaches such as Tunnel Beach, Brighton Beach, Long Beach and St Clair Beach are have mystical energy that draws you to the ocean.
At many beaches, such as Aramoana Beach, look up and gaze in awe at the stars or the Aurora Australis.
6- Visit the Royal Albatross Centre
The Royal Albatross Centre at Taiaroa Head also has a historic relic hidden beneath the nature reserve.
A guided tour of the underground tunnels reveals an underground circular gun pit which holds the world’s only Armstrong Disappearing Gun still in working condition.
Fort Taiaroa was established (over 100 years ago) to counter the threat of invasion from Russia.
7- Visit Nature’s Wonders on the Otago Peninsula
No trip to Dunedin is complete without spending a day on the Otago Peninsula watching the sea lions, yellow-eyed penguins, New Zealand fur seals and Royal Albatross.
At Nature’s Wonders, the 8-wheel amphibious vehicle is a fun way to see wildlife on this coastal farm.
The land has stunning panoramic views and rugged cliffs, which are home to breeding colonies of Cormorants, New Zealand fur seals, yellow-eyed penguins and little blue penguins.
The penguins are incredibly cute and can be seen in their nests during the season.
It’s a memorable wildlife experience in a truly stunning location and one not to be missed!
8- See kiwis at the Orokonui Ecosanctuary
A kiwi spotting tour at Orokonui Ecosanctuary is a delightful way to spend a few hours.
The sanctuary is a conservation centre for the Haast tokoeka kiwi conservation, which is the rarest of all kiwi.
See the cute chicks at the 14ha kiwi nursery, which has the capacity of keeping them safe from stoats (their main predators).
Amazingly, only 5% of Haast kiwi chicks reach adulthood in the wild!
Also, keep an eye out for native birds and other exotic New Zealand animals such as Tuataras and Otago Skinks.
9- Drink whiskey at Albar
Back in Dunedin I end my trip at a moody whiskey bar on Stuart Street, Albar, with a bowl of haggis and a choice of 50 different whiskeys from Scotland.
It’s a fine finale to my visit of this wee speck of Scottish heritage in the South Pacific.
10- Relax in the Botanic Gardens
From the charming Edwardian Winter Garden glasshouse, with its succulents and tropical plants, to the serene Japanese Garden and its bamboo grove, Dunedin’s Botanic Garden is a tranquil place all year round.
Dunedin’s garden was the first Botanic Gardens to be built in New Zealand (1863) and is possibly one of the most magnificent botanic gardens in the Southern Hemisphere.
There are more than 6,800 plant species that attract native birds.
11- Learn about history at the Otago Museum
If you only have time for one museum, head to the Otago Museum. It’s one of the oldest and biggest museums in New Zealand and has displays of the country’s culture, science, history and archaeology.
Within the museums is the Tūhura Otago Community Trust Science Centre, where interactive displays will keep you interested for hours.
You can’t miss the giant helical slide but make sure to spend some time in the tropical butterfly enclosure and the 360° Planetarium.
12- Walk the World’s steepest street
The name of the street is Baldwin Street and it’s a residential street that bills itself as the world’s steepest.
Before the closure of the Cadbury Chocolate Factory, there used to be a wacky Jaffa race down this steep street during the Cadbury Chocolate Festival!
13- Follow the Dunedin Street Art Trail
Around Dunedin, creative, cool and colourful street art painted by talented local and international artists is an eye-catching sight.
Being a small city, the impact of seeing street art is truly striking.
14- Go on a train ride
Most visitors to Dunedin will take the time to visit the Dunedin Railway Station, which is a handsome piece of architecture and a reminder of the city’s history.
While at the railway station, board the Taieri Gorge Railway for an excursion to the Dunedin hinterlands or the Waitati Seasider for a train ride to the coast.
The train rides are a relaxing way to see the beautiful countryside around Dunedin.
15- Go on a cruise
Another way to see wildlife around Dunedin is to go on a cruise around Taiaroa Head Nature Reserve.
Look up at the cliffs and you might catch sight of royal albatross, fur seals and penguins.
How to get to Dunedin
Several airlines fly to Dunedin Airport directly from Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch.
If you’re travelling from overseas, you’ll most likely connect through one of these cities.
The airport is 29km from the city and the most cost-effective way to get to the city is by shuttle ($20) as taxis can be rather expensive ($90).
Alternatively, hire a car and drive yourself around during your stay as Dunedin is small and has little traffic.
Larnach Lodge has rooms from $260 a night and admission to the castle and gardens is free for guests but otherwise costs $27 for adults and $10 for children.