An Insider’s Guide to Dunedin, Edinburgh of the South and New Zealand’s Most Beautiful City – Dunedin, New Zealand

When travelling overseas, I often meet people who have been to (or know someone who has been to) New Zealand. ‘Where in New Zealand are you from?’ they ask. My reply of ‘Dunedin, in the South Island’ is sometimes met with a blank stare. More often, however, the response is an excited nod of recognition and approval, and a reply along the lines of ‘Wow! That’s my/my wife’s/my friend’s favourite city in New Zealand!’ As a local, born and bred in this small yet magnificent city, what follows is an insider’s guide that I think highlights the best the city has to offer.

New Zealand is well known for its stunning landscape and rich cultural heritage. Where these two elements meet most potently is in Dunedin – Gaelic for Edinburgh and known as the Edinburgh of the South. Nestled between mountains and valleys on the rugged east coast of the South Island, Dunedin is the nation’s oldest city, and with a population of 120,000, the fourth largest. It has come a long way from when the Maori first arrived on its untouched shores over four centuries ago, evolving into a thriving, cosmopolitan city that has just as much character, creativity and beauty as her European namesake.

Two of the most common ways to enter the city are by plane, or by bus, shuttle or car from Christchurch. Dunedin Airport is thirty minutes outside of the city. You can hire a car from the airport (see below for details) or you can get a shuttle into the city, which costs around $10. Buses or shuttles from Christchurch take around five hours, cost between $30-$50 and will drop you off in the vicinity of the central city. Once you’ve made it to the city, you’ll be gob-smacked at how achingly stunning your new surroundings are. You’ll also be surprised by how chilly it is, and that’s just in summer.

If you arrive in the city between 8.30 a.m. and 5.30 p.m. on any day, your first stop should be the Dunedin i-SITE Visitor Centre, located in the heart of town at 48 The Octagon under the spires of St. Paul’s Cathedral. Here you can choose from hundreds of pamphlets outlining all sorts of services, things to do, places to stay and so forth. It’s not exactly off-the-beaten-track stuff, but it will give you a sense of the place and what’s on offer – from penguin watching to tours of haunted houses. If you don’t already have a map of the city, get one from here and orientate yourself.

Places to Stay
Due to an increase in the number of visitors making Dunedin a priority on their itinerary, backpackers/hostels have been mushrooming up around the central city area. For a complete list, Dunedin hostels on BootsnAll.

Here are two of the more established, centrally located backpackers. Next Stop Backpackers is a three-minute stroll from The Octagon. It’s been around for years and offers a range of facilities including a pool table, comfortable TV lounge area, public phone and Internet. The best thing however, is the location, which is on the doorstep of the main street. People who stay here tend to be young, khaki-clad adventurous types.

Kiwis Nest is located near the university on George Street. It’s very sunny (when there is actually sun), airy with modern decor and a homely feel. It attracts a wide range of people, from parents visiting their children at university to seasoned travelers from abroad. Both places offer a range of accommodation, from dorm rooms to private rooms.

If you’re anything like me, food is never far from your thoughts. Also, if you’re like me, you’re always on a budget. There are two supermarkets close to each other in the inner city that serve as a good alternative to eating out, especially for breakfast and snacks. Centre City New World is the more up-market and therefore expensive of the two. However, it has a great wine and gourmet food section. Countdown, a five- minute walk away, is cheaper, bigger and open 24 hours.

If money is less of an issue, the central city area is littered with cafes where you can get a broad range of breakfast food – from the staple toast with jam to heartier breakfasts like bacon and eggs. Peruse the menus of the many cafes around the Octagon and lower Stuart Street area before making a decision.

If you like the good oil and can’t go too long without a warm, creamy latte, then there are two places in this area that serve fantastic coffee. Nova Cafe, a stylish award winning café and restaurant does amazing coffee. Sandwiched between the Dunedin Pubic Art Gallery and the Hoyts Cinema complex, you can’t miss it. Just to warn you though, the food here is, although excellent, pretty expensive, so go for the coffee and go somewhere else to eat.

Another place for excellent coffee is the aptly named Strictly Coffee. It’s a two-minute walk from the Octagon on Bath Street. The décor is modern and sophisticated and it’s here that you can see local movers and shakers getting their fix over important-looking business meetings.

A great place for lunch and coffee is The Fix Café. It’s down near the university on Frederick Street, just off George Street. The coffee is always fabulous, and there’s a pretty Zen-inspired courtyard out the back – ideal for those elusive warm sunny days. The biggest draw, however, is that they don’t actually serve food – it’s bring your own. Because the café is located near the university, there are a plethora of cheap places to grab something to eat, from a piece of pizza from the Italian bakery, to some sushi from the Japanese restaurant next door. Or, if you’ve already made it to the supermarket, bring your own snack and enjoy the coffee while surrounded by the diverse range of patrons and amateur art exhibitions that line the walls.

Not far from here, across from the looming Knox Church is Everyday Gourmet, a deli/café that sells a wide range of exotic and healthy gourmet food. The interior has a warm, homely European feel and it’s a pleasant experience to sit yourself down at a table near the window and people-watch as you chomp on a tuna-filled bagel and sip your cinnamon hot chocolate.

This area is also your best bet for dinner. It seems as if every second place along this part of George Street is an Asian restaurant. Choose from Korean, Japanese, Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese and Cambodian – all cheap and good. My favourite is called Sampan and serves mainly Cambodian cuisine. It’s open from 11 a.m. until 9 p.m. and does an amazing chicken noodle soup for $6.50 that is guaranteed to warm you up in winter. They have an extensive menu with over 60 dishes and the atmosphere is busy and grubby with huddles of Asian students slurping away.

Directly across the road is the Turkish Kebab House which is run by little world-weary but courteous Turkish immigrants. The food here is always fresh, delicious and authentic. The menu has a range of kebabs as well as Turkish desserts and tea. Prices for kebabs range from $6-12. There are a couple of tables and booths in the brightly decorated restaurant area or you can takeaway. It stays open really late, so it’s a good place to stuff yourself after a bender and before bed.

Smack bang on the corner of George Street and London Street is the Albert Arms – a large dark-green establishment that’s a pub on the bottom and has a bistro on top. It’s hearty, rustic pub grub at its best – roasts with gravy, greasy fish and chips, everything your doctor told you to avoid. Locals flock here to watch the rugby on the big screen TV downstairs over a pint of Speight’s, the local ale, before retiring upstairs to devour a meal of roast beef and veggies.

Night Life
Because Dunedin has such a large student population (around 20,000), there’s a vibrant and lively nightlife. However, be warned, unless you like very cheesy music, shots of Russian vodka that taste like petrol and dance floors sticky with vomit residue, stay away from the bars and clubs that are near the university area and around the north end of George Street.

Look out for Fink which is offered free at most shops along George St. It’s a weekly entertainment guide that tells you what’s going on in the city in terms of music, exhibitions, concerts etc. Also check out Dunedin Music – the city has a thriving music scene in all genres and this site has a wealth of information about what’s going on. One weekly event that is highly recommended is Thursday night at the Robbie Burns Pub where you can see the acclaimed Calder Prescott Jazz Quartet, a bunch of bopping old guys who’ve been playing together for decades. It’s a favourite with locals and an event where all sorts of people fall under the spell of the mesmerizing music.

Back in the Octagon area, there is a range of bars (at least eight) to choose from if you’re looking for somewhere to have a few drinks. If you like sophistication and quality, the following two bars are worth going to: Pop and Di Lusso, which co-exist side by side, are both sleek, stylish bars that look like they jumped out of Wallpaper magazine. Enjoy the sexy house music while sampling the wide range of cocktails on offer. The good thing about Dunedin is that it’s not pretentious, so you don’t need to be dressed in Armani to gain entry to these swanky establishments. Also, there’s no cover charge, so if you get inside only to find that a bunch of squawking fashion victim hairdressers have made themselves at home, you can always leave.

A bit further along, on Moray Place opposite the large Rialto Cinema and down a dingy alley way, is Pequeno. This cozy bar, as the name suggests, is small and has a Spanish influence, with blood-red walls, roaring fireplace and large wrought iron chandeliers. It’s warm and intimate, and is where the local black turtleneck-wearing architects and property developers come to relax after a hard day’s work. There’s an extensive and impressive wine list that includes an array of New Zealand wines, as well as a range of tapas. This is where Chris Martin serenaded Gwyneth Paltrow for her birthday when they visited New Zealand. Definitely the place to come to enjoy a quiet glass of Central Otago pinot in front of the fire, but, be warned, it does get crowded on Friday and Saturday nights.

A ten-minute walk south from The Octagon is Arc, on High Street. This establishment is the hippy epicenter of the city, serving a range of organic and vegan food by day, while, by night, serving as home to the city’s alternative and underground music scene with all sorts of bands and performers gracing the stage. It has cheap $2 dollar pints on Tuesday nights, and the best thing is the free Internet. For a bohemian experience, and to rub shoulders with local artists, this is the place to be. Be warned however, it’s slightly feral and some of the punters smell like possum.

Bath Street on, guess where, Bath Street (look for the Beck’s sign above the door) has cheap beer and quality dance music from Tuesday to Saturday. It’s the closest thing the city has to a nightclub, starting late and finishing late, especially on the weekends where things don’t get busy until 1 a.m. and where it doesn’t close until 6 or 7. Tuesday night is reggae, Wednesday Drum ‘n’ Bass, Thursday hip-hop (with DJ Shan, indisputably one of the best hip-hop musicians in the country), and Friday and Saturday nights are usually some kind of house music – often with a big name DJ from Auckland or overseas. People who party here are usually between 18 and 25 and like to dance. The cheap beer specials ($2 for a pint, Tuesday to Friday) also attract a fair amount of travelers as well as the dregs leftover from the other bars that have more respectable closing times.

Things to Do
Since Dunedin is the cultural capital of New Zealand, culture vultures will not be at a loss for things to do. There are a myriad of galleries, design stores, and such like to visit – too numerous to list here (Fink also publishes a guide to arts and fashion in the city which lists many of them and can be picked up for free from shops along George Street). I’ve listed the biggest and most worthwhile institutions here which is a good place to start.

There are two museums worth seeing, both free. The Otago Museum is opposite the university on Great King Street. It has recently undergone a massive reconstruction and has great exhibitions and galleries that are especially revealing and informative about the history of the region, going back to when the first Maori landed in the area. It also has galleries focusing on animals, maritime culture and ancient cultures from around the world. Being both educational and entertaining, it’s a great way to spend a couple of hours, especially if it’s cold and raining (there’s a fair chance), or if you have children.

The Otago Settlers Museum, which is down near the railway station by Queens Garden focuses more specifically and in-depth on the region’s past, exploring the migration of Maori and Pacific peoples, Chinese and Scottish settlers. You will get a real sense of the social history of the area through its authentic reconstructions of days gone by when whalers ruled the sea and gold diggers roamed the land.

Whether or not you’re an art-lover, you’ll find inspiration at the city’s largest gallery, the Dunedin Public Art Gallery, located in The Octagon. Although home to works by Machiavelli, Claude Lorraine, Monet, and Pisarro, this gallery makes exhibiting local and national talent a priority. Occupying a special place in the collection is the work of New Zealand painter Frances Hodgkins, whose father founded the Gallery. Born and raised in Dunedin, she left early in her career to live and work in England where she became well known in the context of Britain’s Neo-Romantic movement. Other national collections include more contemporary work by Dunedin residents Ralph Hotere, Grahame Sydney and Bill Culbert, all internationally respected artists. It’s definitely worth scheduling an hour or two to stroll through the three enchanting, colourful floors of art treasures, and it’s free.

It’s not just the art world that has a keenly felt presence in the city. In recent years, high fashion has become one of Dunedin’s most successful export industries. The big fish in this pond is always Nom*D, a local brand that, in keeping with Dunedin’s character, is often described as ‘dark,’ ‘edgy’ and ‘intellectual.’ However, Nom*D is just at home in a bigger pond, showing at New York Fashion Week. The creator of this label, Margie Robertson, has her own store on George Street called Plume (geddit?). It sells both men and women’s clothing and is worth a look for those interested in fashion, but make sure you’re just looking – it’s tres expensive and only the soccer mums from the wealthy suburbs and the icy intelligentsia can afford to shop here.

There is a range of other successful local designers who have set up shop, too – definitely worth a look, especially if you ladies are after something unique that will make your friends olive-green with envy (some of the labels are exported overseas, but only to exclusive boutiques and department stores in Sydney, Tokyo, London and New York). Boutiques such as Carlson, Belle Bird and Stir are not as expensive as Plume, but aren’t exactly Walmart prices either. Even if you’re on a budget, you’ll be happy you stopped by, if only to get a sense of the local and national fashion scene.

Day Tripping
The best thing about Dunedin is her close proximity to the striking Otago Peninsula. This is a spectacular part of the country, and yes, it’s true, British environmentalist Sir David Bellamy did comment that, ‘In my opinion, Otago Peninsula is the finest example of eco-tourism in the world.’ There are plenty of tours on offer that will take you down to see the famous wildlife, including albatross, penguins and seals. (Again, get information from the Dunedin Visitor Centre.) However, the best way to explore the area is to rent a car for the day and just drive. Armed with a map, take off down curvy Portobello Road, and go where your heart desires. My ideal drive would be right down to Taiaroa Head and the Royal Albatross Colony (around 30 kilometres from the city center and renowned as the only mainland albatross-breeding colony in the world). Have a walk around the centre and see if you can spot one of the gargantuan white birds that boast a wingspan of three metres flying overhead. Then, on the way back, stop off for an ice cream, fish and chips or a quick pint at the Portobello Hotel. Take Highcliff Road, which leads to Lover’s Leap – a beautiful and eerie spot that has a gapping chasm. Not for those who suffer from vertigo. Here you can enjoy being surrounded by rugged tussock while listening to the mighty Pacific crash against the cliffs far, far below. Apart from the vacant, aimlessly wandering sheep, enjoy the solitude.

Then, make your way down to Larnach Castle and marvel at the neo-Gothic splendor of New Zealand’s only castle, which is perched majestically on a hill high above the peninsula. The sweeping views from this point over the harbour and peninsula are awesome. There is a charge for admission (which varies from $10-$20) to tour the castle and learn about the intriguing plight of the Larnach family, from seduction to suicide. In keeping with its Gothic character, the castle is apparently haunted.

If you have time, it’s worth checking out the other side of the harbour. Driving north along the coast on Harbour Road, you will arrive at the historic seaside town of Port Chalmers where the first European settlers arrived in 1848. The town’s old Victorian and Edwardian buildings are still intact, and a stroll along the quiet main street will transport you back to a time when dusty Chinese and European sailors would crawl up into the small store attics which served as opium dens. Like Portobello, it’s a good place to stop for an oversized, dripping ice cream.

Next, take Purakanui Road for about 15 minutes until you reach Purakanui, a sleepy little village with a rugged, pristine beach. The arctic Pacific will ensure you don’t spend too much time frolicking in the water. Instead, explore the remains of an historic Maori settlement (pa) perched on top of the small hill that shelters the beach.

Another thing Dunedin is excellent for is walking. The area has a few good nature walks varying from 30 minutes to several hours. My favourite is the Mount Cargill walk. It’s a ten-minute drive from the central city north, up Pine Hill Road which quickly turns from residential to rural. Follow this road until the end where you reach a large transmitter. The 360-degree views from here are stunning and worth the drive alone. For walking, there are several options to take, depending on time and ability. The one that I like goes down to Bethune’s Gully, a large, forested nature reserve that’s ideal for a picnic before facing the hard slog back up. The walk takes about one and a half hours down, and two hours back up. There are contrasting landscapes and a wide range of flora and fauna to enjoy.

For those who like a nice stroll but don’t like to leave your cosmopolitan comfort zone, the inner city area is a fantastic place for a constitutional. There’s the town belt, which runs through the inner city suburbs on the hill behind the central city area – it’s basically a road through a strip of dense forest and bush. It’s so peaceful that you can hear the birds springing from branch to branch. You’ll feel like you’re a million miles away from civilization until you’re confronted with the colossal old historic Victorian mansions that dot the winding road. Part of the belt connects to Maori Hill, the most moneyed suburb in the city, and the old, opulent houses and their preened English gardens that dominate this area are worth a gander. There’s no right or wrong way to do this, just make your way around the labyrinth of streets and savour the breathtaking views of the city and harbour below.

It’s also worth meandering through the University of Otago, which was constructed in 1870 and mimics the architectural styles of Oxford and Cambridge, with its phallic and iconic clock tower. See the students lay about studying or relaxing on the grassy banks of the Leith River which runs through the campus. Not only is the university New Zealand’s oldest and most prestigious, it’s also the most beautiful.

Getting Around
The central city area is fairly compact and anything you need is in walking distance. However, if you’re going outside of the central city area and you have no car, then you have two options – buses and taxis. Buses run through from the south of the city to the north and vice versa. Take the Normanby bus if you’re going north, or the St. Clair bus if you’re going south. This service is called Citibus and there’s a bus to either of these destinations about every ten minutes. They stop at all bus stops strewn along George Street (the bus stops have timetables). Tell the driver where you’re going and he or she will tell you how much it will cost – usually no more than $2.

There’s a taxi stand in The Octagon, or else you can call one of the various companies for a direct pick up. Bear in mind that Taxis are fairly expensive, but might be your only option, especially between 11 p.m. and 7 a.m. when the buses stop running. They are all metered with little variation in price between companies.

Dunedin i-SITE Visitor Centre
48 The Octagon, 03 474 3300

Car rental
Avis New Zealand
97 Moray Place, Dunedin and Dunedin Airport
486 2780

Budget Rent A Car
330 Moray Place, Dunedin
474 0428

Next Stop Backpackers
2 View Street Dunedin
477 0447
Dorm rooms from $21

Kiwis Nest
597 George Street
471 9540
Bunk room from $20

Centre City New World
Cumberland Street
477 4677

309 Cumberland Street
477 7283

Nova Cafe
29 The Octagon
479 0808

Strictly Coffee
23 Bath Street
479 0017

The Fix
15 Frederick Street
479 2660

Everyday Gourmet
446 George Street
477 2045

Sampan Khmer Satay Noodle House
362 George Street
477 3782

Turkish Kebab House
355 George Street
474 1533

Albert Arms Tavern
387 George Street
477 2952

Pubs and Bars
Robert Burns Pub
374 George Street
479 2701

Bath Street
1 Bath Street
477 6750

Pop Bar
14 The Octagon
474 0842

Di Lusso
12 The Octagon
477 3776

Lower Ground floor
Savoy Building, 50 Princes St.
477 7830

Arc Café
135 High Street
474 1135

Larnach Castle
145 Camp Road, Otago Peninsula
476 1616

Museums and Galleries
Otago Museum
419 Great King Street
474 7474

Otago Settlers Museum
31 Queens Gardens
477 5052

Dunedin Public Art Gallery
30 The Octagon
477 4000

Fashion Boutiques
310 George Street
477 9358

140 George Street
477 5899

Belle Bird
327 George Street
477 1036

316 George Street
477 2505

Taxi Companies
Otago Taxis
477 3333

Dunedin Taxis
477 7777

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