Clinging to the walls of the natural amphitheater at the west end of Otago Harbour, the South Island's second-largest city is enriched with inspiring nearby seascapes and wildlife. Because Dunedin is a university town, floods of students give the city a vitality far greater than its population of 122,000 might suggest. Its manageable size makes it easy to explore on foot—with the possible exception of Baldwin Street, the world's steepest residential street and home to the annual "gutbuster" race, in which people run up it, and the "Jaffa" race, in which people roll the namesake spherical chocolate candy down it. Dunedin, the Gaelic name for Edinburgh, was founded in 1848 by settlers of the Free Church of Scotland, a breakaway group from the Presbyterian Church. The city's Scottish roots are still visible; you'll find New Zealand's first and only (legal) whisky distillery, a statue of Scottish poet Robert Burns, and more kilts, sporrans, and gillies than you can shake a stick at! The Scottish settlers and local Māori came together in relative peace, but this wasn't true of the European whalers who were here three decades before, as places with names such as Murdering Beach illustrate. Dunedin has always had a reputation for the eccentric. Wearing no shoes and a big beard here marks a man as bohemian rather than destitute, and the residents wouldn't have it any other way. The University of Otago was the country's first university and has been drawing writers ever since its founding in 1871, most notably Janet Frame and the poet James K. Baxter. Dunedin also has a musical heritage, which blossomed into the "Dunedin Sound" of the 1970s and '80s.
First Presbyterian Church
On the south side of Moray Place, the church is not vast, but it's still impressive, with a base of Oamaru stone topped by a delicate 200-foot spire. Check out the leaf patterns, dragon, and other carved details around the windows.
Speight's Brewery Heritage Centre
For more tasty indulgences, head to the Speight's Brewery Heritage Centre for a tour of the South's top brewery, which dates back to 1876. Here you can see the various stages of gravity-driven brewing, learn the trade's lingo such as wort and grist, and taste the results. Speight's makes several traditional beers, the most common being its Gold Medal Ale. The company claims that this is the drink of choice for every "Southern Man," which isn't far from the truth. Watch a video of various Speight's television ads and learn to say the tough Southern way, Good on ya, mate. Reservations are essential for the 90-minute tours.
The city's hub is the eight-sided town center. It's lined with several imposing buildings, and a smattering of market stalls, cafés, and bars with tables spilling onto the pavement. In summer it's a meeting place, and it's also the site for the occasional student demonstration. Dunedin City Council provides free wi-fi in this grand arena. A statue of Robert Burns sits in front of St. Paul's Cathedral, a part-Victorian Gothic, part-modern building with an imposing marble staircase leading up to a towering facade of Oamaru stone. On Stuart Street at the corner of Dunbar, check out the late-Victorian Law Courts. Their figure of Justice stands with scales in hand but without her customary blindfold (she wears a low helmet instead).
Relax and enjoy the birdsong amid 70 acres of international and native flora. In addition to the seasonal gardens with their 6,800 plant species are the year-round attractions: an aviary, a winter garden hothouse, a native plant collection, and a rhododendron garden. Parking at the lower part of the gardens, off Cumberland Street, has easier access than the Opoho end, which is steeper, but both parts are worth visiting.
The Otago Museum demonstrates what galleries and museums were like in Victorian times. In this museum's 1877 building, you can visit the "Animal Attic," a restored, magnificent skylighted gallery. The museum's first curator was a zoologist, and many of the original animals collected from 1868 are still on display. "Southern Land, Southern People" explores the cultural heritage of this region, and other galleries focus on Māori and Pacific Island artifacts, animal and insect specimens, and nautical items, including ship models and a whale skeleton. Want to stay the night? Sleepovers include story-telling, meals, and mystery night-time adventures.
These giant spherical rocks are concretions that are just north of the village of Moeraki were formed by a gradual buildup of minerals around a central core. Some boulders have sprung open, revealing—no, not alien life forms, but—interesting calcite crystals. The boulders stud the beach north of the town of Moeraki and south as well at Katiki Beach off Highway 1. Sadly, the boulders at Moeraki Beach have become a bit of a tourist attraction, and there are often whole busloads of people wandering the beach. Watch for little dolphins jumping in the surf just offshore; they're as interesting as the boulders. 7 Moeraki Boulders Rd., Moeraki.
Dunedin Public Art Gallery
The Dunedin Public Art Gallery has lovely exhibit spaces. The shell of an original municipal building has been paired with a sweeping, modern, glass facade. The collection includes European masters Monet, Turner, and Gainsborough, as well as New Zealand and Otago artists. A special gallery highlights Dunedin native Frances Hodgkins, whose work won acclaim in the 1930s and '40s. Hodgkins's style changed through her career, but some of her most distinctive works are postimpressionist watercolors.
Toitū Otago Settlers Museum
This local history museum tells the stories of all Otago settlers, from Māori and early European and Chinese to later Pacific Islanders and Asians. On display are documents, works of art, technological items, and forms of transport. The museum has changing exhibits, events, and historical walking tours of the city. Although the museum itself is free, there is sometimes a charge for special exhibitions.
Dunedin Railway Station
The 1906 Dunedin Railway Station, a cathedral to the power of steam, is a massive bluestone structure in Flemish Renaissance style, lavishly decorated with heraldic beasts, nymphs, scrolls, a mosaic floor, and even stained-glass windows of steaming locomotives. This extravagant building earned its architect, George Troup, a knighthood from the king—and the nickname Gingerbread George from the people of Dunedin. The station is also home to the Sports Hall of Fame, the country's only sports museum.
Taieri Gorge Railway
The Taieri Gorge Railway tourist train runs from Dunedin through the now-closed Otago Central Railway to Pukerangi and Middlemarch (home of the annual Middlemarch Singles' Ball; each year this very train imports young city gals up to a dance with lonely Otago sheep shearers). Also available is a seasonal Seasider route from Dunedin up the coast to Palmerston. The train runs every day; check the timetable for its destination. Reservations are essential. Cyclists can connect at Middlemarch to the wonderful Otago Central Rail Trail.