It’s been called ‘New Zealand’s best-kept secret’. Not any more: here’s how to spend 72 hours in Dunedin.
Fashion? Check. Character? Check. Adventure? Check. A great food scene? Check. Dunedin might not have the size of bigger, brasher cities, but that’s one of its many charms.
So what can you see and do in 72 hours in “one of the world’s great small cities”?
At the airport, pick up your rental car and head for the suburb of Roslyn. You’ll know you’re there when you see folk bustling in and out of Highgate Bridge, or “The Friday Shop” as it’s best known. Former Michelin-star chef Jim Byars only opens on Fridays and crowds flock for his French-inspired delicacies: croissants, tarts and pre-made meals like boeuf bourguignon. Some things sell out quickly, so it’s a good idea to go online and order before you fly.
In the city, hit the shops. You’ll soon realise why Dunedin has had its own fashion week for almost 20 years.
Plume has housed collections of upscale, interesting and edgy New Zealand and international clothing since 1978, including its own brand NOM*d. Company of Strangers has had a cult following since 2008 for its darkly subversive yet romantic high-quality New Zealand-made garments, leather and jewellery.
You’ll find over 60 national and international brands at Slick Willy’s, which has been preventing “fashion crimes of department stores” since 1983. If you’re looking for predominantly New Zealand and Australian clothing, footwear and jewellery, Belle Bird Boutique’s pretty window displays will lure you to treasures within.
Lunchtime. Head for the newly revitalised Warehouse Precinct – where heritage industrial buildings have found a new life as cafes and boutiques. Vogel St Kitchen kicked off the movement to revitalise this historic neighbourhood.
Once a derelict printing shop, it has been renovated into a modern industrial space, a buzzing space packed with locals and visitors seeking specialities like the Bannockburn pizza or pulled pork sandwich.
In the afternoon, assimilate some southern culture. Olveston Historic Home is a time capsule of the Theomin family’s mansion from 1906-66, with fine art, furniture and artefacts acquired from around the world.
A stone’s throw away is the quirky Dunedin Museum of Natural Mystery, home of artist and sculptor Bruce Mahalski. Collections of skulls, bones, biological curiosities, ethnological art and unusual cultural items sit alongside the artist’s works.
Check out some of Dunedin’s world-famous street art on the sides of city buildings as you stroll to dinner at Good Good, a fun and funky spot that makes and serves American-style comfort food from a caravan dressed up like a 50s beach hop, inside a warehouse. Chow down on mac’n’cheeseballs, hot fried chicken with a milkshake to wash it down.
Bedtime. In the inner-city, the stately former Chief Post Office has recreated itself as the elegant and luxurious Distinction Dunedin Hotel.
Kickstart your second day with a caffeine jolt from Morning Magpie café. Park up in a comfy old chair, along an old-school bench or at a communal table to enjoy ridiculously good coffee and locally baked treats.
It’s next to the most photographed building in New Zealand – the gingerbread-ish railway station – where you’ll find the Otago Farmers’ Market. Grab lunch from one of the many artisan stalls because you’re going on a journey into the distant past.
The Taieri Gorge Railway is one of the country’s most scenic rail adventures. The four-hour ride (there are longer options) runs south across the Taieri Plains and climbs into the gorge, a narrow and deep ravine carved out by the ancient Taieri River.
It’s an unforgettable trip combining natural wonders with the challenge of engineering: 10 tunnels, countless bridges and viaducts, slowing or stopping for views (and Instagrams) of breath-taking beauty.
Back in the city, it’s only some hops, steps and a jug to Emerson’s Brewery Café. You don’t have to be a beer-lover: while the tour and tasting sessions are an attraction, founder Richard Emerson’s longtime dream – the on-site restaurant – offers great bar snacks, sharing plates, and meals that leave ordinary pub-fare for dead.
Drive 20 minutes along the scenic Otago Peninsula to New Zealand’s only castle. Take time to stroll Larnach Castle’s gardens and grounds, tour the building to hear its scandalous and tragic history, before dining in the Castle Dining Room and spending the night at one of its three accommodation options.
Breakfast at the Castle, and then head to where the wild things are. The peninsula’s rolling hills, secluded bays, sandy beaches and clifftop vistas are home to wildlife including albatross, penguins, fur seals and sea lions. David Bellamy called it “the finest example of eco-tourism in the world.”
Nature’s Wonders Wildlife Tours is a self-funded conservation effort protecting local wildlife. Its one-hour tour takes you 8-wheel driving to a breeding colony of cormorants (spotted shag), fur seals basking on rocks and swimming with their pups, and along Penguin Beach to spot little blues and their rare, shy yellow-eyed cousins.
You can take to the water, too. Monarch Wildlife Cruises and Tours circumnavigates the harbour in half- and full-day tours. You’ll see historic villages like Portobello and the world’s only mainland nesting place of the northern royal albatross.
There’s always one more thing to see in and around Dunedin. Your drive back to the city runs along the southern coast of the peninsula, where there’s nothing between the white sandy beaches of St Kilda and St Clair until you reach the Antarctic. It’s home to New Zealand’s most consistent surf break, but that’s far from the only thing that attracts people to St Clair.
Cafes and bars line the esplanade, most offering an awe-inspiring view of the Southern Ocean and surfers at play. Lunch on the deck at Starfish – it’s got to be fish’n’chips in Emerson’s beer batter – and hopefully, you remembered to pack your togs.
St Clair’s Hot Salt Water Pool is the only one of its kind in New Zealand. Opened in 1884, it’s a spectacular spot right on the seaside, with waves crashing onto the boulders below the pools – while you enjoy the treat of swimming in salt water heated to 28C!
Sorry, but it’s time to head for the airport. But you’ll be back – you’ve barely got to know this great little city.