Get a taste of the top things to do in Dunedin, New Zealand, with this 3-day itinerary. Including plenty of free things to do in Dunedin, this guide caters to all budgets. Known as the ‘Edinburgh of the South’, this charming city, steeped in history is definitely worth visiting for a short city break.
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My main reasons for including Dunedin in my New Zealand itinerary were its astounding street art and unique wildlife. I ended up seeing lots of Eagles fans indeed – of the American rock band, not the bird species – and fell in love with its gorgeous historical architecture.
I even (foolishly) climbed the world’s steepest street and found myself eye-to-eye with a sea lion. Feeling inspired? I put together this travel guide that will help you plan your own city break in Dunedin, New Zealand.
Your Dunedin 3-day itinerary covers the following tourist attractions
Dunedin, New Zealand, travel information
Before I give you the breakdown of your ideal three days in Dunedin, let me give you some basic information about the city.
Where is Dunedin?
Dunedin is located on the east coast of New Zealand’s South Island, about 360 kilometres south from Christchurch. It’s the island’s second largest city and the biggest city of the Otago region, an area famed for its outstanding scenery. Sprawling out of the city lies Otago Peninsula, home to some of the country’s most unique wildlife.
What is Dunedin known for?
Today’s Dunedin is a vibrant student city, offering many cultural activities. However, founded as ‘New Edinburgh’ in 1848 by Scottish settlers, Dunedin is famous for its Scottish heritage. The city’s connections to Scotland are still ever-present in its identity and cityscape.
How to pronounce ‘Dunedin’?
The name Dunedin comes from ‘Dùn Èideann’, the Scottish Gaelic name for Edinburgh. There are many variations on its pronunciation – many of which were probably only used by me – but the correct way of pronouncing Dunedin is: dun-EE-din.
They used a clever pun on this name during the mid-nineteenth century – mud–edin – when the city was notorious for its muddy streets.
How many days do you need in Dunedin?
This ultimately depends on your time and personal interests of course. Some people ‘do’ Dunedin in a day, but I’d suggest to spend three days in Dunedin. This allows you to see the main Dunedin tourist attractions and explore the unique wildlife and magnificent scenery just outside of the city centre.
This Dunedin 3-day itinerary suggests three days and three nights in Dunedin. However, if you’d rather spend three days and two nights in Dunedin, then simply swap the activities of day 2 and day 3. Or skip the Little Blue Penguin viewing on day three and resume your travels in the late afternoon.
When is the best time to visit Dunedin?
Dunedin is great for a cultural city break all-year through, just don’t expect blistering sunny days, even in summer. Due to its temperate maritime climate, summers can be cool. Winters are relatively mild, and unlike common belief, it doesn’t snow here that much. On the other hand, it can rain often and heavily.
Hubby and I visited Dunedin in early March, which is the start of autumn in New Zealand. The weather was fickle as it would be balmy warm one (brief) moment and incredibly fresh the other due to the chilly wind. Overall, the mornings tended to be grey and chilly, followed by sunshine in the afternoon and cooler evenings. So in a sense, quite typical weather for lots of New Zealand destinations. The best thing is to wear layers that protect you from the possible chilling winds and weather changes in the day.
Things to do in Dunedin, New Zealand in 3 days
This Dunedin 3-day itinerary includes two days in Dunedin’s historical city centre and one day trip to Otago Peninsula. I wrote this Dunedin city guide based on my own visit in March 2019. Since this was before Covid-19, some places might have closed or have restricted access. Therefore, please check information regarding opening times and access to the venues beforehand and consult the official Dunedin city website.
Day 1 morning: Exploring Dunedin’s striking architecture and vibrant street art scene
Start your urban explorations with a visit to the Dunedin i-SITE Visitor Centre (50 The Octagon) to pick up a free copy of the Dunedin Street Art Trail map.
The Octagon and more notable buildings in Dunedin city centre
The visitor centre is located in The Octagon. This octagonal-shaped square, dating back to 1846, forms the civic heart of the city. The square is lined with dozens of bars and restaurants, but we didn’t go in any of them as the area seemed rather touristy to me.
Yes, I’m well aware of the irony.
The Octagon was heaving with activity all weekend though. Because we happened to visit Dunedin during one of the biggest events of the year: the near sold-out Eagles gig in Forsyth Barr Stadium which houses over 30,000 visitors. All very eager to party and most of them combining the concert with a long weekend in cultural Dunedin.
Besides the bars, restaurants and visitor centre, you’ll also find some interesting buildings around The Octagon that are worth pointing out. First there’s the Public Art Gallery, is included in this 3-day Dunedin itinerary, with the Reading Cinema right next to it. Further along The Octagon you’ll find The Regent Theatre, the striking Town Hall, which also houses Metro Cinema, and St Paul’s Anglican Cathedral.
But the main eye-catcher of The Octagon is located right in the middle: the statue of Robert Burns. Although the Scottish national poet never set foot in Dunedin – he died well before the city was founded – his nephew, Reverend Thomas Burns, was one of the city’s founders.
Dunedin street art trail through the Heritage Warehouse Precinct
At the time of writing, the Dunedin street art trail consists of over 30 murals. Most of them are painted by the world’s most respected street artists including my personal favourites such as Faith47, Pleghm, ROA, Dal East and Pixel Pancho.
These photos give you an impression of the astounding murals you can find in Dunedin. I wrote a separate article about the Dunedin Street Art Trail, which you can find here: Dunedin Street Art Trail: Blending Art and History.
While you’ll find a handful of the paintings around The Octagon, most of them are located further south down Princes Street. This very straight road isn’t only one of the city’s main roads, but also one of New Zealand’s most historic streets.
Built during the 1860s Otago gold rush, this used to be Dunedin’s original CBD which is now further north. Leading you away from the city centre, you’ll find yourself in a completely different area. Characterised by impressive Edwardian architecture, the area also features warehouses and historic buildings reminiscent of the former thriving Otago Harbour. As Hubby and I have a taste for industrial architecture, the street art trail through the Warehouse Precinct was a real treat for us!
Stop for lunch at either Vogel Street Kitchen (76 Vogel Street), a cool industrial-chic café located towards the south end of Princes Street or head back to the city centre and go to Market Kitchen (472 George Street). This was our favourite place to eat in Dunedin – we had lunch there two days in a row. It might be wise to make a reservation, especially at the weekend, as it’s a popular place.
Things to do in Dunedin day 1 afternoon: Dunedin Public Art Gallery & Speights Brewery
After lunch it’s time for some more art, but this time we head indoors. The Dunedin Public Art Gallery (30 The Octagon, free entrance) is New Zealand’s first art gallery. It’s especially famous for its historic art collection.
Despite its long history, the building struck me as very modern and offers a fantastic combination between traditional paintings and contemporary art. The permanent collections on the ground floor feature works by famous painters such as Gainsborough and Turner while the top floor houses contemporary art.
We spent at least two hours browsing the extensive temporary exhibition on contemporary Chinese art which was truly engaging and even playful.
Finish your first day in Dunedin with yet another taste of the city’s history, but literally this time! Founded in 1847, Speights Brewery (200 Rattray Street) is New Zealand’s oldest brewery. Get all the ins and outs of this Dunedin icon during one of the several 90-minute daily tours. Of course you’ll get to sample some beer as well!
Dinner tip: Finish your first day in Dunedin with dinner in the Speight’s Ale House adjoining the brewery and wash down your pub grub with some more fine ales.
Dunedin day 2 morning: Dunedin Railway Station & Otago Settlers Museum
Start the day with a visit to one of the most beautiful and famous buildings in Dunedin: the Dunedin Railway Station. Admire its stunning exterior, charming clock tower and beautiful gardens. Don’t forget to step inside to take in all the ornate decorations, including the mosaic floors and glass-stained windows.
While the train station was the busiest of New Zealand when it opened early 20th century, it’s now mostly known as the departure point of the Taieri Gorge Railways tourist train. This spectacular train journey, offering dramatic views of the Taieri River Gorge, is one of the top Dunedin visitor attractions. A round-trip takes 4.5 hours and departs daily. We didn’t have time for this, but it’s certainly something I’m considering for a possible future trip to New Zealand.
Book your Dunedin City Tour and scenic train ride to the Taieri Gorge here.
Instead of the Gorge, we went to the Otago Settlers Museum right next to the railway station. The museum is free to visit and is significantly bigger than you’d expect! You could easily spend 2-3 hours here.
Being New Zealand’s oldest history museum, the exhibits uncover the fascinating history of the Otago region from the arrival of the first Māori settlers to the arrival of the digital era.
My favourite exhibits included the historical women’s fashion display and range of vintage cars and carriages that were set up in the surprisingly large hall. But obviously nothing beat trying on the latest fashion and taking my new cool bike out for a ride. (I didn’t get very far though.)
Lunch tip: The Otago Farmers Market
Stop for lunch at the Otago Farmers Market. It is held in the square of the Dunedin Railway Station on Saturday mornings. Selling local produce, this market is a go-to destination for foodies.
Alternatively, you might head over to the next destination – the Dunedin Botanic Garden – and grab a delicious freshly prepared bagel from Beam Me Up Bagels (9 North Road) to eat in the garden opposite. From the Otago Settlers Museum you could walk it in about 35 minutes. Or take the number 8 or 11 bus instead if you want to rest your feet for a moment.
Enjoy a peaceful moment in the Dunedin Chinese garden
Located right between the train station and museum, you find the Dunedin Chinese Garden, the only authentic Chinese Garden in the southern hemisphere. It was created at the end of the 20th century in recognition of the region’s Chinese heritage due to the great influx of Chinese immigrants during the Otago Gold Rush.
Entry fee for the Dunedin Chinese Garden is around NZD 10 for adults and most people spend about an hour here. Although it’s recognised as a Garden of National Significance we didn’t visit the Chinese Garden but opted for the Botanic Garden instead. So let me tell you about what you can find in that park now.
Things to do in Dunedin day 2 afternoon: Dunedin Botanic Garden & Baldwin Street
Established in 1863, the Dunedin Botanic Garden is New Zealand’s first botanic garden. Hubby and I were lucky to be staying practically next to it which allowed us for an early morning visit.
I don’t know about you, but the term ‘botanic garden’ always makes me think of old ladies gathering for tea. It’s therefore not something that I’m dying to see on my travels. BUT – yeah, you might’ve guessed it – the Dunedin Botanic Garden is really worth exploring!
The garden is over 30 hectares in size and is free to visit. Besides the fragrant rose garden – including some old ladies hovering around – it also features serene walkways in lush surroundings.
As you move up the slope – the garden goes from 25m altitude to 85m altitude – you pass the Mediterranean Garden and several grand trees as part of the arboteum.
However, the main attraction is the aviary which houses the most colourful lorikeets, parrots and even the endangered kea. Make sure to stop for a chat with Sid. This yellow-crested cockatoo definitely likes the attention!
Climb to the top of Dunedin: Baldwin Street & Signal Hill Lookout
Now, if you thought the climb in the garden was tiring, you might want to prepare yourself for the following. Because your next must-see Dunedin attraction is Baldwin Street, aka the World’s Steepest Street.
Although it was one hell of a climb indeed, we stayed in this area and all the streets were incredibly steep. We felt a bit sick of the thought having to drive down our street actually, but thankfully it was a smooth descent.
Once you’ve made it to the top, probably slightly panting as I did, you’ll be thankful for the bench awaiting you there!
Shortly after your visit in March 2019, Baldwin Street lost its Guinness Book of World Records status to a street in Harlech, Wales (UK). I have friends both in Harlech and in Dunedin so suddenly I found myself torn between overexcited friends at one side of the world and disappointed friends at the other side.
However, as of April 2020, Baldwin Street in Dunedin has been reinstated as being the world’s steepest street. Personally, this meant I could at least use these photos for this blog post!
As our garage-turned-guesthouse was close to Baldwin Street, we made our way back for a rest and bite to eat. But if you want to enjoy fabulous panoramic views of Dunedin, then you might want to visit Signal Hill Lookout. Situated at almost 400 metres high, this lookout offers great views of the city, Otago Harbour and the peninsula.
You can drive up to Signal Hill Lookout by car and leave the car in the car park whilst you explore the area. Alternatively, you could hike or cycle up there from town. Depending on your fitness level, the loop from Baldwin Street would take about four hours to walk.
Three days in Dunedin – Day 3: Otago Peninsula
On this last day of your Dunedin city break, you’ll get the explore the unique wildlife of Otago Peninsula. And if it’s a sunny day, you can even enjoy some of the several great beaches in Dunedin!
Dunedin day 3 morning: Visit Larnach Castle, New Zealand’s only castle
What would you say if I told you there are castles in New Zealand?
If you want to see New Zealand’s only castle, then Larnach Castle is a must-visit during your three days in Dunedin. It might not be as old as its European equivalents, but Larnach Castle does have the same level as intrigue.
Dedicated to his first wife, affluent banker and politician William Larnach initiated the construction in 1871. It took fifteen years, 200 workmen and several master European craftsmen to finish their ‘humble’ abode consisting of 43 stately rooms.
Unfortunately, the family didn’t get to enjoy their beautiful home in bliss for long. Following the tragic deaths of Larnach’s first and second wives, his daughter and several business disasters, he took his own life in the Parliament buildings in 1898.
Today the castle is owned by the Barker family. They purchased the derelict castle in 1967 and have restored the building to its former glory. Larnach Castle is now open for visitors, allowing them to wander around a unique New Zealand landmark.
Besides exploring the historical building, you can also dine in style here or enjoy a scrumptious High Tea. And if you want to extend your stay at the castle, you can even book your accommodation on the castle grounds!
Highlights of Larnach Castle include the spectacular ballroom and the Larnach Castle Garden. Located on the hills of Otago Peninsula, the beautifully landscaped gardens provide stunning panoramic views of the peninsula, Otago Harbour and the Pacific Ocean.
Book your tickets for Larnach Castle and Gardens here.
Dunedin day 3 afternoon: Albatross Colony, Fort Taiaroa & Allens Beach
Lunch tip: Stop for lunch in the quaint little town of Portobello located between Portobello Bay and Latham Bay. Find some restaurant tips here.
Royal Albatross colony
Besides being the home of New Zealand’s only castle, Otago Peninsula is especially famous for its rugged landscape and unique wildlife. Located at Taiaroa Head in the northern tip of the peninsula, you’ll find the Royal Albatross colony. This is the world’s only mainland breeding colony of the northern Royal albatross, one of the two largest albatross species.
Visiting Taiaroa Head you might be lucky to see these majestic birds soaring through the skies above you. Unfortunately, we weren’t that lucky. Arriving here early in the day, the dramatic cliffs were still enveloped in the morning fog. Obscuring our views of both the iconic Taiaroa Head Lighthouse and the albatrosses the fog did add a breath-taking atmosphere.
Your best chance to see the albatrosses is to visit the Royal Albatross Centre. From their observatory you won’t only get the best views of the birds but also their nests and chicks. During a 60-minute guided tour, you’ll learn all the ins and outs of this noble bird and witness their daily life and social interactions.
Book your guided tour of the Royal Albatross colony here.
The hidden tunnels of Fort Taiaroa
Hiding underneath the Royal Albatross colony, lies a secret part of New Zealand’s military history. Built underground in the late 19th-century, Fort Taiaroa was supposed to defend New Zealand from a threatening Russian invasion.
While the invasion fortunately never happened, the intricate underground tunnel system remains intact and can even be visited on a guided tour. The tour includes a stop at the Observation Post
from which spotters peered out onto the water seeking out enemy vessels. But the fort’s most prized possession is the Disappearing Gun. Often used for coastal defence systems, this heavy piece of artillery at Fort Taiaroa is now the world’s only remaining Disappearing Gun in working condition.
Spotting sea lions at Allens Beach
Otago Peninsula has some great beaches to enjoy a relaxing dip or stroll whilst taking in glorious views. Our friend who lives locally took us to Allens Beach for a lovely walk. From the free car park it’s only a 5-minute walk to the beach and the easy Allens Beach Track.
Allens Beach is great for a swim or leisurely walk, but also an amazing place to see wildlife from up close. Penguins are known to frequent the beach, but we actually saw several sleeping sea lions here.
Since they were so well camouflaged, blending in with the white sand lying there still undisturbed, I actually never saw them until I almost accidentally walked right into one! But I quickly created some distance between us once I noticed them. The recommended distance is at least 10 metres between sleeping sea lions and 20 metres when they’re active.
It was really quiet at the beach during our visit and our host told us it’s mostly only known to locals. So promise me to keep this tip between us, okay?
Day 3 evening: Blue penguin tour
Finish your three days in Dunedin with a truly unforgettable experience at Pilots Beach on Otago Peninsula. This time not to enjoy the sunshine or recreational beach activities though. But to see the Little Blue Penguins, the world’s smallest penguins, waddle back ashore at dusk after a long day out in the water.
You can enjoy this magical event during a guided 75-minute tour starting from the Royal Albatross Centre. Since viewing groups are limited, it’s recommended to book beforehand. Known to frequent the coastlines of New Zealand and southern Australia, this might be your best opportunity to get a good look of these adorable and unique penguins.
Dinner tip: During the New Zealand winter months, tours start at 5.30pm while in the summer months they don’t start till 9pm. Depending on your activities before the tour departure, you might want to enjoy a snack or dinner in the Royal Albatross Centre café.
This concludes my 3-day Dunedin itinerary combining the top Dunedin tourist attractions and fantastic wildlife experiences. If you follow this guide I’m sure you’ll get the most out of your three days in Dunedin, enjoy!
If you’re planning on visiting Dunedin during peak season (January-March), it’s recommended to book your accommodation beforehand. And check if there are any big events taking place during your stay which could limit accommodation options.
We had that problem because of the sold-out Eagles concert that attracted thousands of visitors to the city for the weekend. I wouldn’t recommend the place we ended up in to you, but will share where I would have wanted to stay instead!
The Terminus Apartment: spacious and modern apartment with exposed brick walls and a balcony.
538 Great King Motel: self-contained spacious motel rooms with free parking and Wi-Fi
Alpaca Farmstay: located at 6 kilometres from Dunedin city centre, this unique accommodation overlooking Dunedin has alpacas on its grounds. Being big alpaca fans, we would have loved to stay here and feed the alpacas.
Click here for more Dunedin accommodation options.
Which of these activities would you definitely want to do if you were visiting Dunedin, New Zealand? Let me know in a comment below!
Thanks, Zarina xx