Dunedin: New Zealand city on a roll

Few New Zealand cities portray such an impressive mix of old and new as Dunedin – the second largest city in the South Island and home to some of the country’s rarest inhabitants.

Sitting at the head of a dramatic natural harbour protected by the Otago Peninsula, Dunedin city spreads from inlet to open sea and rambles across the valleys and hills of an extinct volcano.

Aside from being New Zealand’s wildlife capital and a major eco-tourism destination, Dunedin has earned a reputation for nightlife as well as wildlife, fine arts and culture on top of colourful student life and a repertoire of unique cuisine and quirky fun events that have got the city on roll.

Early Dunedin

Dunedin is known as a city of ‘firsts’ - hardly surprising since it was one of the prime destinations for settlers, attracted by the rich gold fields of Central Otago.

The city boasts New Zealand’s first university, first newspaper, first medical and dental schools, first female lawyer and first public art gallery. Dunedin's Otago Stadium (capacity 30,000, completed ahead of the 2011 Rugby World Cup) is New Zealand’s first permanently roofed, turf-based stadium.

Multi-cultural Dunedin

Dunedin was once New Zealand’s capital and is referred to as the Edinburgh of the south - planned in the early 1840s as a Scottish settlement and based on the original 12,000 miles away.

With the discovery of gold in the 1860s, the town grew to become one of New Zealand’s most important commercial centres attracting many migrants, notably Chinese, but also Irish, Italian, French and German.

While the city’s Scottish heritage is still alive and well - pipe bands and highland dancing celebrations are held throughout the year - so is the rich Chinese history.

Twinned with sister city Shanghai, Dunedin continues many strong links with China and a gallery called ‘Windows on a Chinese Past’ at the Otago Settlers Museum tells the story from past to present day.

Outside of China, Dunedin is one of the few places in the world with an authentic Chinese Garden - gifted by China as a permanent reminder of the Chinese who settled here during the gold rush - and now a popular tourist attraction.

Dunedin Railway Station

Alongside the Chinese Garden, is the Dunedin Railway Station, built in Flemish renaissance style and completed in 1906 - now New Zealand’s most photographed building.

The station was once the busiest in the country and still has the longest platform, 500 metres, which every year becomes the catwalk for the South Island’s main fashion show - iD Dunedin Fashion Week.

Much of the station’s ground floor is now used as a restaurant, and the upper floor is home to both the New Zealand Sports Hall of Fame and the Otago Art Society. A produce market is held in the station grounds every Saturday morning.

Edwardian heritage

Graceful old buildings and the Octagon at the heart of the city give Dunedin a distinct point of difference, and it is widely regarded as the best preserved Victorian and Edwardian heritage city in the southern hemisphere.

Larnach Castle on the city boundary is the country’s only castle and the 14 acres of grounds are rated as one of New Zealand’s ‘Gardens of International Significance’.

As well as some intriguing ‘Alice in Wonderland’ features, the gardens have some stunning examples of species that thrive in the Dunedin climate - like rhododendron and azalea.

Speight’s Brewery, the Gasworks Museum and the Taieri Gorge Railway are all examples of working heritage. Other buildings reminiscent of the city’s early heritage include the Otago Settlers’ museum, Olveston House, First Church, the University of Otago’s clock tower and Otago Boys High School.

Otago University - student culture

The Gothic architecture, strong Scottish influence and vibrant culture that goes with a university-dominated city, make Dunedin one of New Zealand’s most diverse destinations.

Alongside the graceful remnants of a grand past, Dunedin’s student culture is very much in evidence - with ‘Scarfies’ as the local university students are known, renowned for their way of life, made famous by a movie of the same name.

In the Selwyn Ballet - an annual student tradition - boys dress as ballerinas to perform during a major rugby game at the stadium.

Students are also behind the popular spectator sport that has earned Dunedin the title 'home of international nude rugby'. Prior to every Dunedin test match, a nude rugby international is held between University of Otago students and visiting backpackers.

On a roll

Dunedin also has the world’s steepest street - Baldwin St - in North East Valley which rises one metre in every 2.8.

The street is one of the city’s most popular tourist attractions and is likely to be of particular interest to fitness-conscious visitors during RWC 2011 because it is rumoured to be a favourite place for rugby coaches to condition their players.

Each year 30,000 Jaffas (round chocolate candies) are rolled down Baldwin St to support a local charity - as part of the annual Dunedin Cadbury Chocolate Carnival.

Dunedin fare

Dunedin has developed a unique repertoire of foods and no visit is complete without sampling the southern seafood delicacy, blue cod, best eaten at a seaside café overlooking the dramatic southern coast.

Cheese rolls are also a staple treat unique to the region, and Dunedin is the home of Cowell’s pavlovas - an iconic Kiwi dessert now available in supermarkets throughout the country.

The Cadbury Chocolate Factory and Speight’s Brewery are also popular tourist attractions, particularly as factory tours include the chance to sample.

Dunedin’s bars, cafés and restaurants range from dedicated coffee specialists, sophisticated seaside cafés and fine restaurants to vibrant student haunts that are buzzing with atmosphere and offer value for money.

Easy fun

The city is also big on activities that tick the fun and easy accessibility box. Within minutes of the central business area visitors can enjoy:

  • beach walks to famous spots like Tunnel Beach - with spectacular views up and down the Dunedin coastline
  • take surfing lessons at St Clair beach, one of the world’s southern most surf spots
  • tour through the iconic Speights Brewery, pride of the south, or the Cadbury Chocolate factory
  • a round of golf at one of the many golf clubs in the city, including the southern hemisphere’s oldest club, Balmacewan
  • attempt the art of curling on the largest ice rink in New Zealand.

Dunedin is also a festival-friendly city with year round celebrations of everything from seafood to science, sports, Celtic art, rhododendrons and chocolate to a mid-winter carnival that marks the city’s longest night.

Centre of learning

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

Janet Frame, James K Baxter, A. H Reed, Thomas Bracken, Roger Hall - are just some of the literary greats from Dunedin and Hollywood actor Sam Neill is also a native of the city.

Local artists include New Zealand’s best known names like Colin McCahon, Ralph Hotere and Frances Hodgkins - whose work is featured in the Dunedin Public Art Gallery.

Established in 1884, the gallery houses New Zealand’s oldest public art collection and has a wide selection of local, national and international art.

Otago Museum and the university have exhibitions and seminars on local culture and art, and Dunedin also has a thriving theatre and music scene.

The heyday of the city’s music scene was the 1980s - early 1990s, when the so-called ‘Dunedin Sound’ bands and closely related Flying Nun record label rocked local and indie airwaves.

Meet the locals

Interesting Dunedin locals include the yellow-eyed penguin, the rarest in the world and an international attraction for Otago.

Rugby fans might be interested to know that All Black Kieran Read is an ambassador for the Yellow Eyed Penguin Trust, and former All Black captain Anton Oliver is a patron.

The yellow-eyed penguin, New Zealand fur seals, rare Hooker’s Sea Lions, and the only mainland Royal Albatross colony anywhere, prompted Britain’s famous botanist David Bellamy to call the Otago Peninsula "the finest example of eco-tourism in the world".

Visitors don’t have to go far to experience southern marine life - a short drive from Dunedin city is the New Zealand Marine Studies Centre & Westpac Aquarium with more than 100 different local creatures. The centre provides a window on extensive marine research carried out by the University of Otago.