Bellbirds, books and baroque architecture: visiting New Zealand’s oldest city Dunedin

The South Island destination has gothic buildings and golden beaches, with plenty of wildlife, delicious food and live music

It’s midwinter in the South Island city of Dunedin but the sun is high and the thermostat has just pushed past 10C. Settled by the Scots and known as “the Edinburgh of the south”, Dunedin has long had a reputation in New Zealand as the country’s avant garde student haven, a gritty post-industrial city now home to artists, musicians, academics and more than a handful of eccentrics. Odd is acceptable in Dunedin – applauded, even.

The small city of 120,000 sprawls around the pristine Otago peninsula, which hosts significant threatened populations of sea lions, penguins, seals and rare birds, including the world’s only mainland albatross colony. Cars and trucks routinely stop for wildlife crossing the city’s main thoroughfares, while a gothic city aesthetic contrasts with the golden beaches, sheep-dotted paddocks and bucolic harbour views.

No one’s ever in much of a rush in Dunedin, and locals have time to give in spades. Expect to be invited to join communal tables of strangers if you turn up at the local pub and people don’t know your face. Locals will probably want to buy you a drink too and hear your story.

The St Clair esplanade in Dunedin
The St Clair esplanade in Dunedin. Photograph: Destination Dunedin

Food and drink

Locals enjoy the sunshine at the Esplanade on the St Clair beachfront, a favourite for casual, flavourful Italian dining. When we visit, we order large glasses of sauvignon blanc, a capricciosa pizza and steaming bowls of Italian pork sausage pasta. With uninterrupted sea views of the Pacific Ocean, a classy yet relaxed interior and reliably delicious food, the Esplanade is always packed, buzzy and good fun.

Beetroot and goats cheese macaroon
The beetroot and goats cheese macaroon served at Glenfalloch restaurant in Dunedin. Photograph: Sarah Bramhall/Destination Dunedin

Up on Māori Hill, the neighbourhood bistro No 7 Balmac has just reopened with a new, Middle Eastern-influenced menu. Specialising in wood-fired cooking and local produce, the food here is perfection. We start with octopus skewers in turmeric oil and coriander, and local clams in spicy ’nduja butter with a carafe of house red, followed by confit duck leg, tender wild venison and pork belly that is so more-ish we order seconds. A favourite with Dunedin locals for special occasions, No 7 also has great bar seating and an extensive wine and cocktail list.

Glenfalloch Garden is a 10-minute drive out of town on the Otago peninsula and, despite it being the middle of winter, the 30-acre garden is already blooming with early rhododendrons, pink camellias and late, lilac hydrangeas. My friend and I have no plans for the afternoon so we settle in and order the popular “trust the chef” degustation menu. This four-course feast makes extensive use of local, organic and seasonal produce and is cooked with finesse by the German chef, Hannes Bareiter. Three hours pass before we call it a day then take a meandering stroll through the gardens. This is a must for a luxurious weekend lunch or dinner.

Music and nightlife

The city is the home of the Dunedin sound; a fervent period of musical innovation in the 1980s which produced the locus of the emerging New Zealand punk and post-punk scene. The Verlaines, the Clean, Straightjacket Fits and the Chills all started off in Dunedin, and the city’s musical roots continue to produce and nurture artists today.

Emerson's Brewery in Dunedin
Emerson’s Brewery in Dunedin Photograph: Lewis Mulatero/Destination Dunedin

A night out at a live gig is almost obligatory in Dunedin, but ease into it with a pint of local Emerson’s beer at Albar or Dog with Two Tails, before heading to the Cook in the student quarter of town for whatever gig is on. The Cook’s publican, Mike McLeod, is a musician himself and reliably scoops up the best bands. Post-gig, if you have the stamina, you could continue on to the Crown for another gig and a round of pool. Otherwise head back into the city for a nightcap at Pequeno, a darkly lit wine bar with a roaring fire and a snug, late-night vibe. To enjoy the city’s well-established hipster scene, drop into the New New New brewery on a Friday night for a pint and snacks from one of the food trucks parked out front.


Sea lions on Allans beach
Sea lions on Allans beach. Photograph: Hayden Parsons/Destination Dunedin

Dunedin’s wildlife and beaches are unforgettable – and no visit would be complete without a brisk walk along Allans beach, Long beach, Sandfly Bay or Blackhead. Depending on the season and weather conditions, you can expect to see wildlife roaming free in these areas. Head up to the Orokonui wildlife sanctuary above Port Chalmers to catch a rare glimpse of New Zealand’s vulnerable native bird population, and expect to see kākā, takahē and bellbirds in their natural habitat. World-famous albatross can be viewed at the Royal Albatross Centre or from the Monarch, an elegant wooden boat that meanders up and down the harbour. A southern skies stargazing tour will give you goosebumps of delight and, in the right conditions, the aurora australis may be visible.

As a university town and a Unesco city of literature, Dunedin has a thriving secondhand book scene. Check out Dead Souls Books, Scribes and Hard to Find, or head to UBS for new reads. The staff are well-read and can be trusted for excellent recommendations.

Dunedin is New Zealand’s oldest city and boasts a rich architectural history, including the country’s best collection of Edwardian baroque-style buildings. A ghost tour of Larnarch Castle will raise the hairs on the back of your neck, and guests can stay overnight at the castle’s lodge to complete the experience. (I was visited by a ghost. Really.) A tour of the genteel Olveston House evokes Dunedin’s time as the commercial and social capital of gold-rush New Zealand, when money poured into the port city from the central Otago goldfields.

A all mural of a giant bird
There’s plenty of street art throughout Dunedin. Photograph: Sarah Bramhall/Destination Dunedin

A stroll down the once industrial, now increasingly edgy Vogel Street showcases the city’s austere beauty. It’s also an excellent place for coffee aficionados to begin their morning. Check out Heritage, Good Good and Wolf at the Door.


For a modern edge and creature comforts, try the four-star Distinction hotel. If you want to book a bach, Kiwi-style, check out the Otago peninsula offerings on

The writer visited many of these destinations courtesy of Tourism Dunedin

Looking for a holiday with a difference? Browse Guardian Holidays to see a range of fantastic trips


Eleanor Ainge Roy

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
New Zealand Rugby World Cup cities: Dunedin

The countdown has begun: it's less than 100 days until the Rugby World Cup kicks off in New Zealand. Launching a series of guides to the three major host cities, Rachel Dixon gets the inside scoop on where to stay and what to see and do between games in Dunedin. Tomorrow: Wellington

Rachel Dixon

06, Jun, 2011 @11:08 AM

Article image
New Zealand Rugby World Cup city guide: Auckland

Auckland will be the hub of the World Cup, hosting two quarter-finals, both semis and the final – plus the England v Scotland group game. Food writer Simon Farrell-Green is our tour guide

Rachel Dixon

08, Jun, 2011 @10:58 AM

Article image
Mount Taranaki: will the New Zealand peak’s ‘living person’ status bring respect?
The North Island mountain is to get the same rights as a human being and, amid environmental concerns, the Māori hope this means tourists treat it with care

Phoebe Smith

05, Jun, 2018 @5:30 AM

Article image
New Zealand Rugby World Cup city guide: Wellington

New Zealand's capital is hosting group matches for Wales and Scotland. Blogger Nick Churchouse shows Rachel Dixon where to find the best food, drink and beaches between games. Tomorrow: Auckland

Rachel Dixon

07, Jun, 2011 @10:27 AM

Article image
Caffeine hit: Auckland coffee culture

The flat white, café du jour in London coffee shops, was invented in Auckland (at least that's what they say in New Zealand). Chris Mugan learns how to make one and goes in search of the perfect cup

Chris Mugan

27, Aug, 2010 @11:05 PM

Article image
New Zealand's island ruled by artists
A stone’s throw from Auckland, the bohemian enclave of Waiheke Island has become a gallery-rich art destination. Stephen Phelan follows its sculpture trail

Stephen Phelan

01, Jul, 2011 @9:45 PM

Article image
Wellington day trips: wine, coastal views and James Cameron’s veggies
Visitors to New Zealand’s capital are a step away from hiking the Te Araroa trail, sampling Wairarapa wines or visiting the film director’s organic grocery store

Eleanor Ainge Roy

22, Mar, 2017 @12:32 AM

Article image
Six New Zealand chardonnays you should be drinking now
It’s got a bad rep for being a ‘common’ wine – but it’s time to rethink chardonnay with these sublime bottles from across the Tasman

Daniel Honan

28, May, 2015 @3:53 AM

Article image
Mexico City: a virtual tour through film, music, books, food and art
One of Latin America’s most colourful capitals comes alive through its dancehall rhythms, gritty cinema and tasty tacos

Shaun Pett

08, Mar, 2021 @6:30 AM

Article image
The star quality of New Zealand’s Great Barrier Island
The off-grid island 90km off the coast of Auckland is a Dark Sky Sanctuary ideal for star gazing – and the views by day are heavenly too

Chris Hall

20, May, 2018 @6:00 AM