Dunedin: An introduction

Dunedin has a rich Scottish heritage, historic architecture and New Zealand’s oldest university, with populations of curious wildlife inhabiting the Otago Peninsula.

Author Mark Twain once said of Dunedin: “The people are Scotch. They stopped here on their way from home to heaven, thinking they had arrived.” One of New Zealand’s oldest and most important settler cities, Dunedin’s Scottish heritage shows in its fine Edwardian and Victorian architecture, restaurants and bars serving haggis and a wee tipple, and the skirl of bagpipes heard at many events.

The commercial hub of the Otago region, Dunedin is today considered one of the world’s great small cities, a centre of learning, heritage, arts and culture with stunning views from the city rise. Restaurants, cafés, hotels and accommodation lie within walking distance of the vibrant city centre.

Dunedin is snugly placed in the Otago Harbour, sheltered in the arms of a long-dormant volcanic cone. The numerous surrounding beaches and inlets are spectacular and, just beyond the city limits, Otago Peninsula is a haven for wildlife populations and world-leading sustainability projects.

Heritage

Long before the Scots arrived (from about 1100AD), Māori had settled along Otago’s coast, naming the area that is now Dunedin as Ōtepoti. 

Dunedin was planned in the early 1840s and settlers arrived soon after. With the discovery of gold in the 1860s, the town grew into an important commercial centre, enticing many migrants – notably Chinese, but also Irish, Italian, French and German nationals. 

Many Dunedin buildings date back to the goldrush. First Church, the University of Otago’s clock tower, Larnach Castle and Otago Boys High School were built in the late 1800s, and the impressive Dunedin Railway Station was completed in 1906. While Victorian and Edwardian architecture dominate the cityscape, many historic buildings, such as Dunedin Railway Station and the historic Speight’s Brewery, have been reinvented for modern times. 

Arts and culture 

Dunedin, a centre of learning, art and culture since early European days, has been home to many of New Zealand's great poets, writers, artists and musicians.

Toitū Otago Settlers’ museum and Olveston House highlight the early settler heritage, while the Chinese Garden is a reminder of strong Chinese cultural ties and Dunedin’s sister city relationship with Shanghai. Taieri Gorge Railway provides a different perspective on Otago's distinctive landscape and history.  

Dunedin Public Art Gallery, established in 1884, has a major collection of local, national and international art. The city also has a thriving theatre and music scene.

A Street Art Trail meanders from the harbour to Queens Gardens, passing vibrant artworks on walls around the warehouse precinct.

Dunedin is also recognised as a foodie destination, where locally sourced foods and craft brews are celebrated in innovative dishes served at street stalls, funky cafés and cosmopolitan restaurants.

Sport, particularly rugby, is firmly attached to Dunedin culture. The city is home to the Highlanders rugby team, the New Zealand Sports Hall of Fame and the Forsyth Barr Stadium – the only stadium in the world where grass grows naturally under cover.

Nature and wildlife

Dunedin is the gateway to the Otago Peninsula and the Southern Scenic Route, which travels the south-eastern coast.

Otago Peninsula has some of the rarest wildlife species in the world, and most are now in breeding programmes within protected habitats. Taiaroa Head, the southern hemisphere’s only mainland albatross colony, is home to about 140 royal albatross. These majestic seabirds have wingspans of three metres (almost 10 feet) and can fly at speeds up to 115 kilometres (70 miles) an hour.

The world's rarest penguin, the yellow-eyed / hoiho penguin, also live on the peninsula, alongside New Zealand fur seals and sea lions.

Locals are protective of the unique environment and demand that wildlife tours don't intrude on the wildlife or environment. Two local tour operators have Green Globe status, and environmental sustainability is a core business principle for many operators. North of the city, the Orokonui Eco-sanctuary gives rare native animal and bird species the opportunity to rejuvenate and re-establish populations inside a pest-exclusion fence. 

The Otago region has many walking and mountain biking tracks. Outdoor activities include kayaking, fishing and surfing. 

And by the way...

  • Dunedin was the last stop for explorers heading to the South Pole. Scott Memorial at Port Chalmers is named for the British Antarctic Expedition that sailed from there under Captain R.F. Scott in 1910. Unity Park features a memorial to Rear-Admiral Richard Byrd's 1928 Antarctic expedition, launched from Dunedin.
  • Dunedin is a sister city to Edinburgh. The Scottish-themed bar Doon Bar has more than 300 whiskeys to choose from, or visit Albar for deep-fried haggis balls. 
  • The city is also a sister city to Shanghai, which gifted the city a beautiful Chinese Garden where Chinese New Year and other activities and festivals are hosted each year.
  • The world’s steepest street – Baldwin Street – is in Dunedin. Each year, 30,000 Jaffas (chocolate candies) are rolled down the street to support a local charity.  A local man runs up and down the street 30 times a day.
  • The Nude Blacks, a naked rugby team made up of keen locals, play on the day of an All Blacks international rugby match in Dunedin, as a kind of "curtain raiser". 
  • The tunnels of Fort Taiaroa, on the Otago Peninsula, were built in the early 20th century to counter the threat of invasion from Tsarist Russia.
  • Dunedin is a city of New Zealand "firsts" – it has the first university, first newspaper, first medical and dental schools, first female lawyer and first public art gallery.
  • The name "Dunedin" is the Celtic form of Edinburgh, and original town plans were based on that Scottish city. While many street names are the same as Edinburgh’s, town planners had to alter the plans to accommodate hills and swamps.