Backpacking in Dunedin
A vibrant university city, Dunedin is the second-largest city in the South Island. Unlike other New Zealand cities, Dunedin is scattered in gothic architecture reflecting the wealth the city experienced during the gold rush. But arguably, the thing that gets us most excited about this city are the locals. And by locals, we mean penguins, seals, albatross and sea lions!
Other attractions include Cadbury Chocolate tours, Speight’s Brewery tours, the steepest street in the world and the students. Indulge in the heritage of the area by taking a scenic train ride from Dunedin Railway Station or spend some time on the Otago Peninsula with various wildlife tours to see an array of wildlife behaving in their natural environment.
As a student city, there are always affordable deals to find in the many bars and cafes around Dunedin’s city centre, The Octagon. That’s great for the backpacker budget too! For more great things on a budget, check out 12 Free or Cheap Things to do in Dunedin.
Things You Can’t Miss in Dunedin
- Sealion and penguin spotting on the Otago Peninsula
- Surf or relax at St Clair Beach
- Visit the city’s architectural sights such as Dunedin Train Station
- Explore the surrounding coastal areas like Tunnel Beach
- Check out the free museums
- Walk at Ross Creek
- Mountain bike at Signal Hill.
Dunedin Insider’s Guide
See Some of the World’s Rarest Wildlife
If you’re a bit of a wildlife nut, get yourself to the Otago Peninsula. It could be the only place you get to see sheep and penguins in the same place!
The highlights of the Otago Peninsula include the extremely rare Hooker sea lions and yellow-eyed penguins. Not only that but you can see little blue penguins in their burrows, New Zealand fur seals playing in rock pools, and the world’s largest species of albatross, the royal albatross!
Where to Find Wildlife on the Otago Peninsula
Getting to the Otago Peninsula requires transport of some sort, so if you don’t have your own or you can book onto a wildlife tour, where some activity providers will pick you up straight from your hostel. Visit the Royal Albatross Centre where you can go see nesting albatross at Taiaroa Head and little blue penguins waddle onto shore as the sun goes down on Pilots Beach. Penguin Place is another penguin sanctuary on the peninsula, while Elm Wildlife Tours and The Monarch provide unique wildlife experiences.
If you’re going it alone to see what you can discover, take some of the walking tracks on the peninsula and drive to the different bays. Allans Beach and Sandfly Bay are usually good for spotting yellow-eyed penguins and sea lions. Go to Portobello Bay, Papanui Inlet and Hoopers Inlet to see water and wading birds. Grey duck, black swan, paradise shelduck, pied oystercatcher, pied stilt, grey teal, royal spoonbill… there’s heaps! And you’re likely to see pukeko wandering in the grass and tussock. Don’t get too close to any wildlife that you see on the Otago Peninsula as much of them are endangered.
For more about wildlife, check out 10 Things You Did Not Know About New Zealand Wildlife.
Take Your Own Architectural Tour Around Dunedin
A lot of focus is put on natural beauty in New Zealand but Dunedin’s architectural sites offer something manmade for your travel photos.
Walk around the gardens at Larnach Castle, situated in high up on Company Bay. Considering you can do walks for free, the slight drawback here is that it is around NZ$17 to access the gardens, Ballroom Cafe and outbuildings.
Further into Dunedin city centre is Dunedin Railway Station, which is easily spotted by its iconic clock tower. It is dubbed the most-photographed heritage building in New Zealand. That’s got to count for something, right? If the mood takes you, hop on board The Two Dunedin Railways. Book your train journey with Dunedin Railways. [Update: Dunedin Railways is no longer operating].
If modern architecture is more your thing, The Forsyth Barr Stadium is a 20min walk from the city centre. If you are not lucky enough to get caught up the atmosphere of a rugby match then there is always the more quaint Sunday Stadium Market.
This next sight is more for entertainment value due to the actual situation of the architecture. Baldwin Street claims to be the steepest residential street in the world. It’s ridiculous, but a must-visit!
Lastly, as Dunedin’s primary industry is tertiary education, it’s fun to make like a student and see the University of Otago’s Registry Block. This university was the first in New Zealand and certainly screams that fact with its gothic-style buildings.
Surf and Explore Dunedin’s Coastal Areas
St Clair Beach is renowned for its consistent surf conditions, plus there are surf schools nearby if you’re eager to learn.
Going further south can lead you to Tunnel Beach where the sea has carved sandstone archways. The best time to visit is at low tide so you can access the beach through a manmade tunnel. Find Tunnel Beach down Tunnel Beach Road signposted off Blackhead Road in the south of Dunedin. If you don’t have your own transport, you can take the bus close to this location. Take the bus to Corstorphine on route 32, 33, 34, 35 or 36 which drops you off at the corner of Middleton Road and Stenhope Crescent. It is approximately 30 minutes walk to the start of the track. Ask your bus driver when to get off the bus if you are unsure.
Chocolate and Beer
If that combination sounds good to you, then you’ve come to the right place! Dunedin is the home of Speight’s and Emerson’s beer. Speight’s offers people the chance to go on a brewery tour, where you are given one glass. What you do with that glass and how many time you fill it is up to you. Fill your water bottle for free outside the brewery with the spring water Speight’s uses in its beer.
Chocolate fanatics will find their life complete once they witness the chocolate waterfall at Cadbury World. Tour the chocolate factory, which includes chocolate tastings. Make sure to book and the tour is only available on weekdays. [Update: Cadbury World is no longer operating, but you can still get your chocolate fix on the OCHO Chocolate Factory Tour].
Walking and Mountain Biking Tracks
There are many places to explore by foot or by bike around Dunedin. Explore Dunedin’s surrounding bush, nearby beaches and waterfalls, and experience the Otago Peninsula.
Walks in Dunedin
Stretch your legs and get some awesome views from McGouns Track and Pineapple Track (3h30mins return), which starts from Booth Road. The track is mostly gravel with some boardwalks. Delve into native forest and you’ll reach the Pineapple Track where you turn right and downhill to a water treatment station.
Additionally, Ross Creek (various walking times) is another popular option with heaps of loop tracks to explore taking you into forest and to waterfalls. Access is via Fulton Road, Wakari Road, Burma Road, Tanner Road or Rockside Road.
Mountain Biking in Dunedin
For mountain biking tracks, don’t miss Signal Hill with specially designed downhill runs. Mountain biking is also a great way to explore the Otago Peninsula on easy Grade 2 trails. Finally, the Otago Rail Trail is a popular multi-day option by first taking the train from Dunedin Railway Station and starting the trail from Middlemarch. For more trails and information, check out Mountain Biking in Dunedin.
Museums in Dunedin
There are two museums well worth checking out in Dunedin. Not only are they full of fascinating relics from the local European and Maori people, but they are also free!
Check out the many floors of the Otago Museum (419 Great King Street), telling the stories of the Otago region from the natural history to the first arrivals of people. They have displays of impressive fossils, maritime displays and even a planetarium and a butterfly house (the latter two come at an extra cost).
For the story of Dunedin’s settlers through the ages, visit the Toitu Otago Settlers Museum (31 Queens Gardens). We’ll let the impressive displays of Maori and European culture do the talking.
If You Have Some Extra Time in Dunedin…
- Cadbury Chocolate Carnival: the highlight is the Jaffa race down Baldwin Street (July)
- Speight’s Brewery tours
- Toitu Otago Settlers Museum
- Markets such as The Vintage Roundup (monthly)
- Experience Dunedin’s nightlife such as Copa, Mou Very and Innocent Bystander
- Find more things to do in Mountain Biking in Dunedin
- And even more in The Two Dunedin Railways and 12 Free or Cheap Things to do in Dunedin