Kia ora! New Zealand may be best known as the land of hobbits and elves, but there’s more to see beyond the mountains. If you’re on the South Island and want to detour off the breakneck pace of the backpacker circuit, Dunedin will satisfy all your city-life needs! Home of the University of Otago, New Zealand’s first institution of higher learning, the student population keeps this small town vibrant. Feel tiny against Tunnel Beach and appreciate the bay below at Signal Hill lookout, but there’s a few more can’t-misses just outside the college campus lifestyle. See the top five must-dos in Dunedin!
Sip a stubbie at Speight’s Ale House
While New Zealand is proud of their wine growing regions, Kiwis and backpackers alike love to kick back with a “stubbie” (a can of beer). Speight’s is one of the cheapest and most popular beers in New Zealand and is brewed right here in Dunedin! The recently renovated brewery is available for tours, taps, and tasty treats. Not a big beer fan? Then step outside to the angled sidewalk and take advantage of the water on tap – you’ll often catch sight of a line of locals filling up their jugs for a week to take out to the peninsula. The natural spring water is donation-funded, so drop a coin in as thanks and fill up your water bottle!
Enjoy fresh spring water outside the brewery!
Catch a rugby match
The All-Blacks may be known for their national-union rugby skills around the world, but professional teams for a much more affordable ticket play around the country. Nestled in the harbor, you can watch the Highlanders perform the traditional Maori Haka at Forsyth Barr Stadium. Cheer and sing for the 80-minute match and keep an eye out for the student section aptly named “The Zoo” for a high energy crowd. After it’s all over, follow the students to The Octagon a mere half hour by foot to celebrate a win or drown your sorrows after a loss. This downtown area has bars and clubs for the night owls so you won’t notice the long trudge uphill to your hostel!
The Zoo is going to be filled with screaming students at a rugby match!
Walk up Baldwin Street
Speaking of uphill, did you know Dunedin is home to the World’s Steepest Hill? (At least, that’s what they claim!) This Scottish settlement was designed back on the other side of the globe with complete disregard for the lay of the land. Because of that, the builders followed the grid pattern up a steep 35% grade! No campervans are allowed up, but you can take your hiking boots and make the 1000-foot trek to the top. The neighboring streets are also astonishingly steep, so get your stretching in because there’s no easy way back down! Make sure that when you get back to the bottom and step into one of the nearby cafes for a well-deserved L&P that you appreciate the beautiful murals painted all around the city on buildings and Lilliput Libraries.
At a 35% grade, make sure to stretch your hamstrings before hiking up!
Oooh and aww at the Little Blue Penguins
If you have a bit of time near sunset, a journey out to the very end of the peninsula is well worth the drive. Watch the Royal Albatrosses glide above your head as they keep an eye on their chicks, watch closely at the waves crashing beneath you and you’re likely to spot a few seals lounging on the rocks, and enjoy the sun dipping behind the mainland. You can join a guided tour to a platform on the sea every evening to watch the world’s smallest penguins dive onto land just after dusk. Each penguin will spend several minutes preening itself with oil before scurrying off in search of their young. In high season, hundreds will wash up on shore in an evening, so please drive slowly when you leave as they will cross the highway to find their nests further inland!
See history come to life at the Settlers Museum
On a Saturday morning, start your day at the Otago Farmer’s Market with live music and delicious scents tempting you from every direction. When you’ve had your fill, stop in the old train station to appreciate the intricate tile work and stained-glass windows – it truly is a work of art! Continue walking past the train engine in a glass house until you reach the Settlers Museum. While there are many free or donation-only museums scattered throughout both islands, this one is top notch! Wander through rooms designed to look like the steerage of an immigrant ship, celebrate Maori art, watch the women’s take on the Great War, step in a trolley bus, and play on some of the first video games. For a small city, this museum is deceptively large and a delight to spend an afternoon exploring. From the first inhabitants up to the present day, it is well-designed and a pleasure to get lost in.
Look closely for the New Zealand Railroad logo in the stained glass and the tiles!
Bonus: Day trip to the Catlins for the Southern Lights
If you’re very lucky with your timing (which is much more likely in the winter), keep an eye on the forecast for aurora australis. Just a couple hours away from Dunedin you can get yourself lost in the Catlins Forest Park or settle into next to a lighthouse on the coastline near the southern tip of New Zealand to watch the Southern Lights dance far away from the light pollution. Even if you miss seeing any auroras, enjoy the clear night sky with few cities and thin ozone to see more stars than you could imagine. Dunedin isn’t on most backpacker’s radar which makes it a hidden gem of the South Island. It’s a beautiful city to experience true Kiwi culture in every shop in the main drag, every wind-whipped hill home, and every seagull begging for your fish and chips. For the outdoorsy hiker to the avid historian to the teetotalers to the party animals, there’s something for everyone on the east coast. Make a point to stop here on your next journey through New Zealand – you’ll find that with every step it welcomes you in and whispers, “welcome home”.