The surprisingly fun city of wildlife, history and chocolate
This post may contain affiliate links. If you make a purchase through these links, I may receive a small commission at no additional cost to you.
Year visited: 2017
Time of year: April
Why Visit Dunedin?
That’s what everybody asked us as we traveled through New Zealand and told them the rest of our plans. Why are you going to Dunedin?
Apparently, they don’t get many tourists there.
But I can’t see why! Dunedin is a large city, steeped in history and full of wildlife. Actually, a lot of cruise ships stop at their port there, so they do get more tourists than it might seem. And they have plenty for those tourists to do.
The real reason we came to Dunedin was simple: that’s where the penguins are.
The Otago Peninsula stretches out from the Dunedin harbor into the point where the Southern and Pacific Oceans meet. It is home to the yellow-eyed penguins (the world’s rarest penguin) and the little blue fairy penguins (the world’s smallest penguin!). It also home to the albatross, seals, sheep, and lots of other birds and wildlife.
(Plus, there’s also the fact the Dunedin is very similar to what Aragorn is called in the LOTR books: Dunedain. So there’s that).
What is Dunedin Like?
The steepest residential street in the world (Baldwin St.) is in Dunedin. The city is very hilly, and if you’re planning on walking to your hotel from the train station—be prepared for a climb.
Weather in Dunedin, New Zealand
The weather was very similar to Western NY. Partly sunny, partly cloudy, increasingly chilly. The weather blows up from Antarctica (how cool is that?) so it can suddenly turn a decently sunny day into a cold, cloudy, windy afternoon.
We were there the very beginning of April (which for them is fall). At some points during the day I was ok without my jacket, although I already had long sleeves and a sweater on. But by the end of the day I had a long sleeved shirt, a light sweater, a spring jacket, my fingerless gloves and my new hat.
It definitely got chilly in the evening with the wind. Locals will tell you to be prepared for all types of weather in one day.
How to Get to Dunedin
By plane or by train
The two main ways to get to Dunedin are to fly, or to take the train. We took the train in, and flew out.
Our trip to New Zealand went like this:
We flew into Auckland —> from Auckland we flew to Queenstown —> from Queenstown we took a train to Dunedin —> from Dunedin we flew back to Auckland —> and from Auckland we flew back home.
Now, hold up. If you’re scrutinously studying a map of Queenstown and can’t find the train station, you’re not alone. I was so confused as to how we were going to get from Queenstown to Dunedin! We booked tickets with Dunedin Railways, which offered a “Queenstown Connection” for their trip to Pukerangi.
I had no idea what Pukerangi was, or how I was getting from Queenstown to there, but the website said it was a connection for guests traveling further to or from Queenstown. So even though I could not find the Queenstown train station (because there isn’t one) on a map, I went with it (I am not the most relaxed traveler sometimes).
Dunedin Railways Train Trip
The Queenstown Connection
Here’s what the Queenstown Connection is: When you book your ticket with Dunedin Railways, they will book a green cab for you. The green cab will show up at your hotel (sometime between 7 and 8 in the morning—which means right at 7!), and drive you for three hours through the beautiful southern island landscape into the absolute middle of nowhere! AKA: Pukerangi.
The Train Stop in Pukerangi, New Zealand
I am not kidding when I say it is the middle of nowhere. We had to stop at a little town 20 minutes before Pukerangi to use the bathroom. And hope that could last us for the next hour or two while we waited for the train to come! Pukerangi is literally a box beside the train tracks, and some local women at card tables behind it waiting for the tourists (because there are tourists in Dunedin) to arrive and buy their souvenirs. That’s literally it.
Then the train comes from the station in Dunedin to Pukerangi, stops so all the tourists can get out and look around, and then goes back to Dunedin. But at least while we waited for the train, we had plenty of time to explore and take pictures!
Dunedin Railways: The Taieri Gorge Train Ride
The train ride across the Taieri Gorge was supposed to be beautiful, but that was probably the least interesting landscapes we saw the whole trip through New Zealand.
I’m guessing that maybe a different time of year, like maybe the peak of summer, it would look better, but for the most part I found the landscape dull and barren.
Nevertheless, it was a fun way to get to Dunedin. Much more interesting (and probably cheaper) than flying.
The best part was the drive across the country, because we really got to see a lot of New Zealand that was a bit more off the beaten track. We stopped at several small towns to use their public restrooms, and buy snacks in their cafés.
Is There Food on the Train?
For some people, this may be an obvious question, but as someone who is not used to train travel, these are the questions that keep me up at night when planning trips!
We got picked up at 7 am, drove 3 hours to Pukerangi, and waited another hour or two for the train to come. So yes, we were hungry.
There is a food car on the train, so we were able to eat lunch on our way to Dunedin.
When we bought our tickets online, we were asked if we wanted to purchase a lunch with our tickets. Not knowing what to expect (but knowing that we would be hungry!), we decided we’d better go ahead and buy the lunch.
But we didn’t have to buy it ahead of time. We walked to the lunch car to pick it up, but we could have just walked to the lunch car and ordered whatever we wanted instead of getting a pre-picked out box lunch.
But the lunch was good, even though we couldn’t figure out what some of the sandwiches were…
Can You Take Your Luggage With You on the Train?
Again, an obvious question for some, but this is exactly the type of question I would ask (so, no judgement here!).
Yes, there was a separate compartment on the train where they loaded our luggage.
When we arrived at the station in Dunedin, we found our luggage sitting out on the sidewalk waiting for us. Which was a little bit uncomfortable, but as you’ll see later, New Zealanders are totally chill and aren’t too worried about people stealing their stuff.
Staying in Dunedin
How to Get from the Train Station to Your Hotel
This was my biggest mistake in planning our trip to New Zealand (this, and booking Jetstar). I wanted to save as much money as possible, so since we were arriving at a train station, not an airport, I looked for a hotel that was within walking distance of the train station.
Walking distance does not take into account hills.
As mentioned earlier, Dunedin is steep. And lugging your luggage up a steep city street surrounded by lots of people rushing all around you is not fun. The booking mentioned that our hotel (the refurbished Chapel Apartments) was a 4 minute walk from the station. 4 minutes? No big deal.
A quick Google Maps search will tell you that it is an 11 minute walk. Still not a big deal, but when it’s so steep and you’ve got lots of luggage and asthma, coughing up the money for a cab would have been better. But then, once we got there and dropped off our stuff, it was easier to walk around.
Where to Stay
(or not…up to you)
The Chapel Apartments were definitely a cool place to stay. They were also pretty centrally located, so after our first strenuous climb, walking from there to nearby restaurants, shops and museums wasn’t too bad. They also were probably a little more pricey than I would normally want, but New Zealand money isn’t worth as much as U.S. dollars, so I always told myself it was going to be so much cheaper in USD. But it was a really cool place and had a kitchen and laundry and plenty of room to spread out.
The downside about staying there (besides the hill you have to climb) is that there was literally no one there. Perhaps there were other guests that we never saw, and we saw some cleaning ladies, but the owner is never there. All of our communication was via email, and the key was left out for us to grab when we arrived. Knowing nothing about Dunedin, we would have liked to have someone to give us some advice and guidance (although there was a nice guidebook in our living room).
The front doors never close. They were wide open the entire time we were there.
I mean, I guess New Zealanders are totally chill, but me, I’m an uptight American and I like my doors locked!
One time after our room was cleaned we came back from exploring and found that the door had not been shut tightly after they cleaned. I mean, we had important stuff in there! Not that anybody bothered it. No one who wasn’t supposed to be there came in at all…but still. It felt kinda weird.
Things to Do in Dunedin
Dunedin had plenty to do. We were there to see the penguins of course, and we had booked a tour through Viator for the afternoon that included a tour of the city and the Otago Peninsula. I am really glad that we had the tour and didn’t try to drive ourselves, because our guide could take us to remote beaches and back roads and tell us about everything so we could actually appreciate it (even if he did drive around the Octagon city center 8 times before going anywhere else).
Our tour guide picked us up and dropped us off at our hotel.
Here is what we did other than our main tour:
(mostly all within walking distance of our hotel)
Cadbury Chocolate Factory
This was one of my favorite things, because I had no idea it was here, and it was so much fun. It was a truly pleasant surprise.
Really the only thing I need to say about this is: FREE CHOCOLATE! They gave us so many free samples of chocolate bars, in addition to all the things we tried on the tour.
You are not allowed to take pictures on the actual tour, but if you ever find yourself in the vicinity of a Cadbury Chocolate Factory (I know there is at least one other one in Birmingham, England), check it out! This was really so much fun.
Sooo… definitely check out the Cadbury World if you’re ever in Birmingham. Unfortunately, the one in Dunedin has closed down (saddest day ever!). But there is a “replacement” chocolate factory, the Otago Chocolate Company. So you can still get your chocolate fix in Dunedin!
Toitu Otago Settler’s Museum
This museum was easy to find, since it was right next to the train station (an easier walk without luggage—although some of our party did opt to take a cab back up to our hotel). And the best part is it’s FREE!
The first part of the museum focuses on the history of the area and the Maori people, which I found interesting, because I know absolutely nothing about New Zealand history. I was glad to get to learn something about the area I was in.
I really enjoyed the second half of the museum though. They had exhibits of life through the years, so they had a collection of vacuum cleaners and how they evolved, and television sets and how they evolved. It was really fun to see. The very end of the museum had actual “rooms” set up showing scenes of a family in the 50’s and then the 60’s and so on. I am not sure if this exhibit was permanent or temporary, but it was one of the coolest museum exhibits I’ve ever seen.
I was too busy exploring to take pictures, but I did find one dress that was worn to a fundraiser for the library that I just had to take a picture of. It reminded me of the “cut paper” projects we did in sculpture class in college.
Hard to Find Secondhand Bookshop
If that name doesn’t entice you to search for (and in) this bookshop, then we definitely shouldn’t be travel buddies. This is one case where the guidebook in our hotel room was actually really helpful because it told us about this bookshop! And we found it quite easily.
This is one of the best secondhand bookshops I have ever been to. It is simply stuffed with books and hidden rooms with more books. And I love bringing home a book as a unique souvenir, especially one that’s stamped with the Library of Dunedin!
They have even more books that you can order online (not exactly a souvenir, but great if you like books—and saves room in your luggage). We were definitely glad we found this bookshop.
This is another thing that we found in our guidebook (maybe it was more helpful than I thought). I love pancakes, and they are rumored to have the best pancakes in town, so I was definitely interested.
This one was actually a much longer walk from the Octagon than the other sites, but it was mostly flat and we didn’t have any trouble with it.
I will say that it was small and crowded inside. We were lucky to have some people to grab a table when one opened up and guard it while others ordered for us. I got the cookies and cream pancakes. Yum!
First Church of Otago
We did not visit this beautiful old church (although we walked right by it on the way to our hotel!). It is right near the city center, so it’s easy to visit while you’re out walking around the town.
Larnach Castle & Gardens
We also did not do this, but it would be a fun tour or day trip to take from Dunedin. They advertise themselves as “New Zealand’s only castle.”
You can take a rental car and drive there on your own, or you can book a tour, which can also include Penguin Place if you want (this is the only one that is not within walking distance).
The Taieri Gorge Train Ride
If you didn’t use the train to get to Dunedin from Queenstown, then this is something else you can do just as a day trip from Dunedin. The train will take you out to Pukerangi, where you can look around and buy some souvenirs. Then you’ll ride it right back to Dunedin.
Those are all the things we did on our own.
The rest of the sites we saw as part of our city & peninsula tour,
but you can also visit them on your own.
Olverston Historic Home
We stopped at this fancy old house that was important for some reason or other. I don’t remember why, but the gardens were beautiful. We walked around and took lots of pretty pictures!
You can take a guided tour, but we just stopped with our tour guide and walked around on our own for a bit.
This is the steepest residential street in the world.
Our tour guide had to stop at the bottom of the street because they are now banned from driving tours up it! Apparently some tourists did not realize that “residential” meant these were people’s homes, not their own personal cafés where they could just stop in and help themselves to a cup of tea (maybe if New Zealanders weren’t so chill, and locked their doors every once in a while!).
It was quite a climb (we didn’t make it all the way to the top!), but a great view over the city.
We returned to the train station during our tour to get ice cream.
Our tour guide was so excited to show us how this worked! It’s just vanilla ice cream, but you pick out what fruit you want, and they put it in a press and mix it into the ice cream. I picked strawberries and blueberries.
If you enter in the main entrance to the train station, turn left, and there is a door along there with the little ice cream counter inside.
Visit a Hidden Beach
Since Dunedin is near the Otago Peninsula, there are a lot of beaches around. Our tour guide took us to the beach where the Southern and Pacific Oceans meet.
These are the other things we covered in our afternoon/evening tour before we got to the highlight of the trip (penguins!):
Learned the History of Dunedin
Visited the University
Saw an overlook of Dunedin at a hilltop park
Saw a Maori temple
Stopped along the road at good spots to take pictures
Penguin Place & The Royal Albatross Center
For a full explanation of how the Penguin Place and the Albatross Center tours work, check out this article, all about how to see penguins in the wild! The very best part of our whole trip was that we got to see both!
Technically, seeing the penguins at the Royal Albatross Center was not part of the tour that we had booked. But since our tour ended right as the sun was going down (the time the penguins come back to shore from hunting all day), our tour guide called the Royal Albatross Center to see if there was still time for us to join their tour. They said, “We’re leaving in 5 minutes, if you can get here.” And we did!
Seeing those adorable little blue penguins scurry up the shore back to their homes was undoubtedly the best part of the trip for me, made even better by the fact that it was spontaneous!