A winter weekend in Dunedin, New Zealand – 7 fun and warming things to do
the ‘edinburgh of the south’ has much in common with its northern counterpart.
So much so, that you’ll even find souvenir shops selling kilts and clan regalia. A winter weekend in Dunedin calls for much of the same as in the Scottish capital: plenty of warm cosy places to dip into, in between getting out and about to see the many sights and attractions on offer.
Settlers from the Lay Association of the Free Church of Scotland decided to replicate Edinburgh’s layout when establishing their new city in 1848. Hence, Dunedin has a Princes Street and a George Street, plus familiar suburbs like Costorphine and Calton Hill. There’s even a castle – of which more later. If you’re familiar with Edinburgh, it won’t take long to get that déjà vu feeling.
Dunedin is situated in the wildly beautiful Otago province in the south of New Zealand, which saw a gold rush in the 1860s. The fine commercial and residential buildings around the city today owe their existence to the considerable wealth generated at that time. Given the level of seismic activity in New Zealand, it’s rare to witness such fine examples of brickwork and ornate masonry as can be seen in Dunedin.
That said, in all honesty, the city is looking a little down at heel these days. Times are hard; there are empty shops and dilapidated properties even in the heritage precinct. On the other hand, there’s heaps of building and restoration going on all over the city, including at the famous railway station. Which is great – though not so good for visitor photographs!
Temperatures tend to drop as you travel south in this country, so winter might not seem like a great time to visit Dunedin. We think otherwise. You can still enjoy the stunning coastline of the Otago peninsula by wrapping up as well as you would for the Lothians in December. Here are our suggestions for a great winter weekend in Dunedin.
1. Dance the night away at the Larnach Castle winter ball
Yes, there is a castle in New Zealand! Not a real one of course, in the sense that it wasn’t built as a fortification. It was built in 1871 as a family home for local businessman and politician William Larnach. William evidently wanted to create a little piece of Caledonia in Otago, though ironically neither he nor his parents were born in Scotland. His proud heritage came from his paternal grandparents.
The current owners have lovingly restored the castle and the wider estate, including the wonderful gardens. To help fund the ongoing works and maintenance, they host various public events including the annual winter ball in mid July. Guests are encouraged to dress in Victorian clothing for the event – an evening of traditional ballroom dancing with buffet supper. Music is played by a traditional ceilidh band.
Although instructions are called out for some of the dances, inevitably these are not always easy to follow, resulting in a certain amount of chaos and hilarity. Late in the evening, a solemn procession – led by a piper – brings in the haggis, after which it is addressed and stabbed in the traditional way. It’s a great fun night, something different, and everyone gets into the spirit of it.
As the castle is some 13k from Dunedin, the hosts provide optional coach transport for guests from the city. We took advantage of this and it was well worth it. One tip, however, is that temperatures can be VERY cold at night and there’s quite a lot of rain at this time of year. So be sure to take a warm coat and some outdoor shoes to change into!
Tickets for the following year’s ball go on sale almost immediately afterwards, and sell out fast – so if you’d like to go, be sure to book early. If you’re unlucky, you can always try for one of the many other events, or perhaps visit during the day for a tour and afternoon tea. You can even stay on the estate – see ‘where to stay’ below.
2. Go for a bracing walk along St Clair beach
If you’re feeling a little under the weather after a big night at Larnach Castle winter ball, then a bracing beach walk might be just the ticket. A 15-minute journey on the number 8 bus will take you from the city centre to the charming, up-market beachside suburb of St Clair in south Dunedin.
The white sand beach sweeps around from a headland to the south, extending northwards to another beachside suburb, St Kilda. Huge waves roll in between the two, making the area a great spot for surfers. Despite the cold, misty weather on the day we visited, surfers were out in force, riding the waves with spectacular skill.
If you need to warm up after your walk, there are some great beachside cafes to drop into. We had hoped to lunch at Titi restaurant after reading great reviews, but it was fully booked. Lesson learned! There are also one or two interesting independent shops to explore, selling clothing and gifts.
3. Take a brewery tour at Speights or Emerson’s
A Yorkshireman, a Devonian and a Scotsman walked into a bar. Or more accurately, a brewery! They all worked for the same Dunedin brewer in the 1870s, until they decided to quit and start their own. That was how Speights – now a household name in the world of New Zealand beers – started.
The brewery is still located at the same address today, on the steeply rising Rattray Street. You can join a 1-hour guided tour of the building and learn more about the history of the company, finishing with a series of tastings. At the time of writing the tour costs $30 per person.
I enjoyed the tour, despite not being a beer drinker. There was fascinating old machinery to see, miscellaneous antique objects and rare medals awarded for early achievements. My husband, a home brewer, was a little disappointed with the historical focus of the tour as there was very little focus on the modern day operations. He had hoped to pick up some tips for his own brews.
Also offering tours is the much younger and more modern Emerson’s brewery, located across the city near the Forsyth Barr stadium. At the time of writing, they have paused their full tours as they are ‘reviewing their offering’ – but it’s still possible to visit their smaller brewhouse and hear about the company’s history.
Richard Emerson started the brewery in 1991 after spending time in Edinburgh in the 1980s and enjoying the pub culture there. He was also rather taken with European beers, and was keen to introduce the style to New Zealand. Today, Emerson’s is known for its eclectic craft beers, producing 8 year-round and 3 seasonal varieties. Like Speights, they have won numerous awards.
Although we didn’t take a tour at Emerson’s, we did stop by for a drink and a bite to eat – and were very impressed with the food on offer. We chose sharing plates of black bao buns with fried chicken and Asian greens, salt and pepper squid, Peking duck and truffle fries. All absolutely delicious. See our Tripadvisor review.
4. Be inspired at the Dunedin public art gallery
This is another wonderful place to escape into when the temperature dips. Although the gallery was first established in 1884, the current premises are a modern, light-filled and thoroughly uplifting delight. The gallery is conveniently located at the Octagon – a central circus which forms a central hub for the city between the heritage area and main shopping streets.
The exhibition rooms house an eclectic collection with pieces from medieval to modern times. No surprise to see important New Zealand artists represented, such as Frances Hodgkins and Colin McCahon, but I hadn’t expected to see works by European masters like Monet, L.S. Lowry and Gainsborough. Whether you prefer traditional or modern art, you’ll find something here to inspire you.
After enjoying the artworks and installations, you can wander around the gift shop or enjoy a coffee and bite to eat in the excellent Nova cafe.
5. Marvel at the city’s stunning architecture
The Otago gold rush in the 1860s attracted many prospectors to Dunedin, to the extent that it became New Zealand’s largest city for a period. Wealthy merchants and their families have left many fine commercial buildings around the city that have been preserved and, in some cases, re-purposed.
The heritage quarter extends west of the Octagon as far as Police Street, south to the Railway station and north to Manse Street. You can stroll around the area and admire the wonderful Victorian and Edwardian architecture and Gothic facades. The railway station is my favourite, and not only because I am a train enthusiast. The extensive and magnificent building could easily be mistaken for a town hall or city council headquarters, such is its grandeur.
Step into the galleried booking hall and prepare to be amazed. The floor is decorated with a mosaic of Royal Doulton porcelain tiles, sparkling with colour reflected from a beautiful stained glass window. Sadly no trains run these days, other than the occasional weekend special, but you can visit the art gallery and sports museum on the first floor.
6. Enjoy the freshness of local foods and wine
Otago is well known for its fine foods and wine, so it’s well worth seeking out restaurants and cafes that serve local ingredients. If you want to buy your own, you can visit the farmers’ market that takes place in the railway station car park on Saturdays.
We enjoyed fresh fish and seafood at the Harbourside Grill, which overlooks the waterfront. The interior has a rustic, seafaring feel, decorated with nautical objects and lots of distressed timber. My husband chose the beer-battered orange roughy with chips. I went for one of the day’s specials, which was pan-fried salmon served with creamy seafood risotto. Staff were very friendly and seemed genuinely delighted that we had chosen to dine there.
The Press Club on Princes Street – located within our chosen hotel – served top notch meals. We dined there on our first night and were very impressed. After sharing a starter of escargots in garlic butter and parsley, I chose the Mount Cook salmon (yes I do love salmon!) with herb couscous and my husband went for the beef burger. Everything was beautifully cooked and full of flavour.
I’ve already mentioned the memorable sharing plates at Emerson’s brewery. Another lunch stop worth mentioning is Marbeck’s Cafe and food store in the Wall Street shopping mall. They serve organic, gluten-free food that is high in quality – and the coffee is very good too. Much of the counter food is made on the premises and is very tasty.
So far I’ve mentioned Dunedin’s renowned beers, but I mustn’t forget the wine. Otago produces some excellent wines but is most famous for its pinot noir. It’s very easy on the palate and highly recommended!
7. Step back in time and enjoy the splendour of Olveston historic home
As well as its swish commercial buildings, Dunedin also boasts some beautiful homes which belonged to the rich merchants in the city’s heyday. One of those is Olveston, located on one of Dunedin’s swankiest streets – Royal Crescent.
Olveston was built in 1904 for the Theomin family. David Theomin, a successful banker, investor and businessman, had first emigrated to Australia from Bristol, England. After meeting and marrying his Australian wife, Marie, the family moved to Dunedin in 1881. Olveston remained as the family home until David and Marie’s daughter, Dorothy, left the house to the City of Dunedin upon her death in 1966.
Today, you can join a tour of this fascinating, opulent and beautiful home, which feels like it’s frozen in time. By all accounts, the family had a very good life there, enjoying the latest mod cons of the period. They were among the first to have electricity – powered by their own generator – and an early form of central heating, long before these innovations were available to the masses.
The tour takes about an hour and leads you through the impressive main hallway, lounge and dining rooms, bedrooms, snooker room, kitchen and workrooms. The family were great travellers and this is reflected in their collections of fine furniture, artworks, china and textiles. Many of the materials and appliances for the house were sourced from England and elsewhere in Europe.
After exploring the house and gift shop, you can wander through the attractive garden, which is perhaps not at its best in winter. However, the conservatory is filled with greenery and blooms. Nearby is the garage where you can see the Theomin’s stylish Fiat 510 Tourer, dating from 1921, behind the glass.
By Dunedin standards, the exterior of the house is not exactly beautiful, but the interior is gorgeous – as are the gardens. We really enjoyed the tour and gained a glimpse of what life must have been like for the wealthy families of Edwardian Dunedin.
If you were to return to Dunedin during a warmer season, there would be plenty of activities to add to our list, especially for enjoying outdoors. Right at the top would be the Royal Albatross Centre, where you can visit the world’s only mainland albatross colony. Imagine how amazing that would be! Mid September to mid November is the best time to see them. A guided tour is recommended as there is no public transport to the reserve.
Meanwhile, back at St Clair beach, there’s a hot outdoor salt water pool, heated to 28 degrees. It’s open from October to March.
travelling to dunedin
You can fly to Dunedin with Air New Zealand from Auckland, Wellington or Christchurch, all of which are linked to other regional and international routes. The airport is some 28k from the city centre, located in a rural area near the village of Momona. Unfortunately there is no public bus service to the city. A taxi costs around $70-$100. We travelled by Supershuttle, booked in advance, at a cost of $20 per person one way.
Intercity operates long-distance bus and coach services throughout New Zealand. They offer a number of routes to Dunedin from south island towns and cities including Christchurch and Queenstown.
The weather in New Zealand can be very unpredictable at this time of year, so it’s worth being prepared for delays and cancellations. We were incredibly lucky with our flights, being the first departure from Dunedin after a day of cancellations due to 100k-per-hour (and worse) winds. Many other travellers found themselves either stuck or diverted to other airports. It’s well worth having travel insurance, a plan B or both!
Where to stay
We chose to stay in the Fable hotel, located in the heritage precinct at the western end of Princes Street. We liked the fact that it was a boutique hotel in a character period building and with an excellent restaurant on site. It’s a warm and cosy choice for a winter weekend in Dunedin, with subtle nods to the city’s Scottish heritage. We loved the tartan wrap in our room! Read more detail in our Tripadvisor review.
Everyone has different tastes and budgets, of course – and Dunedin has something to suit them all. For anyone who has a car at their disposal, Larnach Castle could be an interesting option. Although it’s not possible to stay in the castle itself, they offer on-site manor house, lodge and stable accommodation catering for different budgets. And you can have dinner in the castle! More details are available on the Larnach website.
It’s worth bearing in mind that Dunedin is built on the slopes of some very steep hills. In fact, it’s home to the steepest street in the world – Baldwin Street – according to the Guinness Book of Records. So check the location of your accommodation if for any reason you don’t want to face a hill climb!
If you are interested in New Zealand, you might like my posts on Marlborough Sounds, Russell, New Zealand English, Katherine Mansfield, Wellington street art, best beaches in Wellington, Whanganui and Queenstown.
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What a brilliant little city… with no shortage of things to do! Thanks for this informative guide. I have to admit I knew very little about Dunedin as it seems to get overlooked for some of its more high-profile neighbours – the architecture alone is worth the trip. Great photos too!
What an interesting visit! Fun events, beautiful architecture and that beach walk!
Thank you for sharing.
Definitely some of the nicest architecture in NZ!
I love those orange wigs they’re wearing for the ball; they look like the girl in Brave! That ball sounds like a lot of fun. The Olveston House looks like a delight to tour. Sign me up!
My husband is one of those wig wearers – he got roped into the fun. I should have mentioned the audience participation bit!
Oh, I totally love albatross! And St. Clair beach is quite a beauty here! It’s nice to have such a variety of things to do and see!
It was beautiful and wild, very similar to some Scottish beaches I’ve been to. I can see how the Scottish settlers felt so at home in this region.
A winter ball and a brewery tour sounds like a dream weekend.
Would definitely stay in the heritage precinct and do a self walk tour of the city’s incredible architecture.
Indeed, and I think there are some organised walking tours you can go on.
This looks like our sort of place, however without the dog. Beer, wine, food and scenery do it for us.
Thank goodness there are some lovely Central Otago wines for us non-beer people too!
I was lucky enough to see loads of albatrosses when I was in Dunedin – it was amazing. I got lucky too as there was an exhibition at the Art Gallery with loads of artworks from the Guggenheim in New York. A long time ago now though but a gorgeous city to visit,
Sounds like you timed it perfectly! Would love to see the albatrosses on a future visit.
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