Dunedin travel guide

Dunedin is often referred to as the ‘Wildlife Capital of New Zealand’ and it’s not hard to see why. This city and its surrounding area are home to penguins, albatross, sea lions and fur seals, among other marine life.

Not only is Dunedin incredibly biodiverse, but it’s also beautiful with rugged coastlines, pristine beaches and historic buildings.

It’s one of the southernmost cities in New Zealand, and is home to a growing food scene, lots of walking trails and one of the country’s most famous universities!

With such a variety of things to do here, it’s the perfect holiday destination for couples, friends, families and little ones.

This guide will take you through everything you need to know if you’re planning a trip to Dunners.

A sea lion opening its mouth while on the sandy shores.
The wildlife in Dunedin is a real standout in Aotearoa. Photo: DunedinNZ.

An Overview of Dunedin

Population~130,400
Airport codeDUD
RegionOtago, South Island
Area255 km2
Elevation4 metres above sea level
Main attractionsWildlife, beaches, walks, the southern lights, historic buildings and scenic landscapes.
Nearby destinationsOtago Peninsula, the Catlins, Invercargill, Moeraki, Oamaru and Timaru.
Tourists dipping in the swimming pool while the sea waves crash adjacent to it.
The St Clair Hot Salt Water Pool is a great place to spend a Dunner stunner day. Photo: DunedinNZ.

The History of Dunedin

Dunedin has a very interesting history.

It was first settled by Māori between 1250 and 1300 AD. Kahui Tipua were the first Māori people to arrive there, but after a number of different tribes (likely visiting the area as a result of migration), it was the Ngāi Tahu iwi (the South Island’s largest tribe) that settled for the long-term.

A Scottish settlement was established in 1848, giving Ōtepoti the name that most people know it by today.

The city was originally going to be called ‘New Edinburgh’ by these European settlers from the Free Church of Scotland. Instead, they settled on the name ‘Dunedin’, the Gaelic translation for ‘Edinburgh’

Until the 1860s, Dunedin was a relatively quiet town. Then the Otago gold rush happened! This caused the population to increase dramatically, attracting many men from China. As such, this city is home to the oldest Chinese community in New Zealand.

As the city grew, so did its wealth. In fact, Dunedin was considered to be one of the largest and wealthiest cities in the country for several years. Because of this, religion and education were invested in which is why you’ll find The University of Otago here.

However, Dunedin’s flagship status didn’t last with some of the other large cities soon taking over in terms of size, population, and wealth.

Though things have changed, this is still a city full of life, history and wildlife, making it a wonderful stop on any New Zealand itinerary.

Larnach Castle in Dunedin, tucked in between two green hedges.
Larnach Castle in Dunedin. Photo: Camilla Rutherford.

The Geography of Dunedin

Dunedin is situated on top of the remains of a Miocene volcano, which was active between 10 and 13 million years ago. Although there’s no chance of an eruption today, it does mean you’ll find plenty of unique geology in this region.

Like many other cities in New Zealand, Dunedin has experienced earthquakes in the past and these still continue today. However, they’re often of lower magnitudes than other areas of the country.

Dunedin hugs the Pacific Ocean, providing a chilly home to much of the region’s marine wildlife, including penguins, albatross and sea lions.

Mans standing at the end of the tunnel at Tunnel Beach in Dunedin, looking out to the water with large rocks in the foreground.
Tunnel Beach is a must-visit on the outskirts of Dunedin. Photo: Roady.

Things to do in Dunedin

There are so many fantastic things to do in Dunedin that it can be difficult to decide where to start. Luckily, we’re here to help!

Top activities and attractions include:

Wildlife

Make sure to visit the Royal Albatross Centre and keep your eyes peeled for penguins and sea lions on the local beaches!

Baldwin Street

This is the steepest street in the world. Pay it a visit and climb as far as your dare.

The Southern Lights

Being one of the southernmost cities in the world has its advantages, as you’ve got a great chance of spotting the aurora Australis.

Walking

Some of the most popular trails in Dunedin (and its surrounding area) include the Coastal Trail to Lovers Leap, the Street Art Trail and the most southerly Writers Walk.

Beaches

Popular beaches in Dunedin include Tunnel Beach, St. Clair Beach, Doctor’s Point and Murdering Bay.

Historic Buildings

Some of the best historic places to visit include The University of Otago, Dunedin Railway Station and Larnach Castle.

Scenic Viewpoints

There are plenty of amazing lookouts, including Singal Hill, Mount Cargill, Rotary Park and Brighton Beach.

Places to Eat in Dunedin

You’ll find plenty of awesome dining options in Dunedin.

These are some of the most popular ones:

Esplanade Restaurant

Offering stunning sea views, an extensive menu and plenty of drink options, the Esplanade Restaurant is a fantastic choice!

Etrusco at the Savoy

Etrusco at the Savoy is a fully-licensed Italian restaurant is family-owned and is known for its delicious food and relaxed atmosphere.

No 7 Balmac

Boasting a lively atmosphere, fantastic service and a variety of tasty dishes, No 7 Balmac has a lot to offer!

Paasha Turkish Cafe & Restaurant

Serving traditional Turkish food that’s made with fresh ingredients, your tastebuds will come alive if you decide to dine at Paasha Turkish Cafe & Restaurant.

Best Cafe

Best Cafe is the place to go in Dunedin for seafood, and it’s open for both onsite dining and takeaways.

A group of friends sitting outside at a table, enjoying food and drink at a Dunedin eatery.
Dunedin is known for its character-filled eateries. We recommend you visit some while staying in the city!

The Best Places to Stay in Dunedin

Although many people choose to visit Dunedin as they pass through to another area, we reckon they’re missing out!

There’s so much to see and do in this historic southern city. For that reason, we recommend spending at least 2-3 nights there.

Here are a few of our top accommodation picks in Dunners:

Budget: Leith Valley Holiday Park and Motels

This holiday park is out of the city, but it’s just a 3-minute drive in a car. With an onsite sauna, BBQ facilities, a games room, and a communal kitchen this affordable accommodation has a lot to offer – especially as they have a variety of room and camping options available.

Check availability: Leith Valley Holiday Park and Motels.

Mid-range: George Street Motel Apartments

Offering a variety of studios and apartments, George Street is perfect for families and those looking for a bit more space. Pets are also allowed so the whole family can come along.

Check availability: George Street Motel Apartments.

Luxury: Larnach Lodge & Stable Stay

If you’re looking for a unique place to stay then head to Larnach Lodge. Although it’s not in the city centre, you’ll be staying in an impressive castle. Here you can wander around the grounds and eat in a historic stable – it is iconic!

Check availability: Larnach Lodge & Stable Stay.

5* Hotel: The Chamberson

This modern 5* hotel is situated in the city centre. It boasts gorgeous suites and studios, some of which feature a private kitchenette. You’ll find plenty of popular tourist attractions nearby, along with laundry facilities and car parking on-site.

Check availability: The Chamberson.

Self-contained accommodation: St Clair Studio

This simple but comfortable property has the most incredible ocean views. It sleeps two people and includes use of a private hot tub. It’s also just a 10-minute walk from the city centre.

Check availability: St Clair Studio.

Hotel room dominated by white and grey colours with neatly arranged bed beside the window.
Find a comfortable place to rest your head in Dunedin. Photo: Fable Dunedin.

Save Money on Your Visit

As a reader of NZTT, you’re entitled to a range of discounts in the region.

Pick up a bargain through BookMe (no promo code required), or save 10% on anything sold through Backpacker Deals using the coupon code NZTT.

Stunning clear water at St Kilda Beach in Dunedin. Two surfers are in the water.
With water like this at St Kilda, why wouldn’t you head down South?! Photo: Dunedin NZ.

Nearby Towns and Attractions

There are tons of fantastic things to do in Dunedin, but if you’re looking to do a couple of day trips then you’re in luck as a number of locations nearby are worth visiting.

The easiest way to reach the destinations listed below is to hire a car as you’ll have complete flexibility.

Alternatively, you might be looking for a spot to visit before/after you visit Dunedin, in which case they’re also handy.

Here are some of the best places to visit either as a day trip or as your next stop…

The Otago Peninsula

While visiting Dunedin you can’t miss out on a trip to the Otago Peninsula!

This area of New Zealand is famous for its wildlife. If you’re lucky you’ll get to spot two species of penguins (yellow-eyed and little blue penguins), the Royal albatross, seals and sea lions.

It’s also a great spot to enjoy the southern lights when they’re out and about as the sky there is darker than in town.

The Otago Peninsula is a 25-minute drive south from Dunedin.

A cute yellow-eyed penguin on the grass near a beach in New Zealand.
Yellow-eyed penguins are found around the Otago Peninsula. Photo: Ben Tubby.

Moeraki

As you travel north from Dunedin towards Oamaru, you’ll find the small settlement of Moeraki. Barely a dot on the map, this is a surprising tourist stop.

This is where you’ll find the Moeraki Boulders. These intriguing spherical rocks and a fun photo op.

Plus, you’ll find some of the freshest fish and chips around in this area.

A woman jumps on huge rounded rocks on the beach while his boyfriend awaits her.
Check out the Moeraki Boulders when you’re down south. Photo: Miles Holden.

Oamaru

Heading further up the coast, you’ll find Oamaru, the largest town in the Waitaki District. It offers stunning views of the Pacific Ocean, historic buildings and a surprising number of attractions for a fairly small town.

The most popular thing to do here is to pay a visit to the local blue penguin colony. They can be found just 5 minutes from the town centre, and there’s even a seated grandstand, allowing you to relax as you watch the penguins come ashore.

Oamaru is a 1.5-hour drive north from Dunedin.

>>> Explore Oamaru.

A couple walking along the road of Oamaru Victorian Precinct.
Explore the Victorian Precinct in Oamaru. Photo: Tourism Waitaki.

Timaru

Timaru is the second largest city in the Canterbury region of New Zealand and you’ll find plenty of things to do here.

For starters, this city is known for its resident blue penguin colony, the iconic Boxing Day Festival and its Māori rock art.

You can also wander the South Beach Coastal Track if you’re wanting to admire the surrounding scenery.

Timaru is a 2.5-hour drive north from Dunedin.

>>> Explore Timaru.

Three little blue penguins on the sand in Timaru, New Zealand.
Three little blue penguins on the beach in Timaru. Photo: Timaru Penguins.

The Catlins

Heading southwest from Dunedin, the Catlins is a coastal area that stretches between Balclutha and Invercargill. Full of rugged beauty, pristine beaches, native forests, waterfalls and gorgeous lakes, this is a must-visit for nature lovers.

There are so many fantastic places to visit in the Catlins. This includes Tokata / Nugget Point, McLean Falls, Tautuku Bay and Slope Point.

Nugget Point is a 1.5-hour drive southwest from Dunedin. As the Catlins are spread out, the exact drive time will depend on where you want to visit.

>>> Explore the Catlins.

A white lighthouse on top of a hill overlooking the Pacific Ocean.
The Nugget Point Lighthouse attracts many visitors to the Catlins.

Invercargill

Invercargill is one of the southernmost cities in the world, so naturally, it’s the southernmost city in New Zealand.

Known for its scenic coastline, old heritage buildings and character, it’s a worthwhile addition to your itinerary.

Depending on the time of year you visit, you might even get to spot the southern lights (aurora Australis).

Invercargill is a 2.5-hour drive southwest from Dunedin.

>>> Explore Invercargill.

A bow of a wooden ship pointing upwards inside Queens Park Winter Garden.
Queens Park Winter Garden in Invercargill. Photo: Great South.

In addition to these locations, many also choose to drive on to Te Anau (home to Milford Sound) and to Queenstown. It’s also possible to head north to Christchurch and Mount Cook/Tekapo.


Whether you’re looking to explore castles or wander around museums, Dunedin has something for everyone!

There are also plenty of fantastic day trips that you can do from this city. So, what are you waiting for?

We hope this Dunedin guide has helped you plan your trip!