Exploring Dunedin & Otago Peninsula In A Day – South Island New Zealand Road Trip From Christchurch

Have you ever wondered where you’d find the steepest street in the world? Or how about the world’s only mainland albatross colony? Or even New Zealand’s only castle? Look no further, because all will be revealed in this post to take you on a day trip itinerary though Dunedin, a historical gem of New Zealand’s South Island.

To kick off our South Island road trip our first stop would be Dunedin, the second-largest city on the island and one of the southern-most cities in New Zealand. Having visited New Zealand twice before, this was one place I was yet to explore. We were excited to start our adventures in Otago by staying with Kazimir’s family in Waitati, just a short drive from the city itself. We planned to hit a few Dunedin tourist spots around the city, as well as make the most of having a car by driving along the Otago Peninsula. With the car packed up and ready to go, we were off leaving Christchurch to begin our great adventure through the South Island!

How to get to Dunedin?

From Christchurch it’s a roughly 4.5 hour drive down the coast on Main South Road taking you on Route 1 all the way through Rakaia, Ashburton, Timaru, and Oamaru, before crossing around the hills to reach Dunedin.

As we stayed slightly outside the city in Waitati, our drive was slightly shorter and took an extra 30 minutes or so to reach the city centre.

Along the route there are plenty of great places to pause and break up the journey, allowing the driver a well deserved rest! A notable stopping point along the drive is at Moeraki Boulders, around an hour outside of Dunedin. This was a great little place for a short walk and photo opportunity along the beach to admire these fascinating spheres. The unusual size and shape of the boulders have made them the focus of geological research, with legend and science taking their own views on their origin. One can’t help but wonder how they got that way!

Moeraki Boulders
Moeraki Boulders

Man stands on top of Moeraki Boulders showing reflection in the water

Otago Peninsula

After a good sleep following the long drive down from Christchurch, we were met with a beautiful bright morning in Dunedin. We decided to make the most of the good weather early in the day to explore Otago Peninsula as it’s a popular spot brimming with rare wildlife, history, and outstanding views.

Taking the winding drive out of Dunedin city centre along Portobello Road and Harington Point Road we eventually reached Taiaroa Head. This drive can be frustrating, as the narrow roads are often undergoing repairs and development meaning speed limits are in place. Taking your time and ensuring you leave plenty of space between the vehicle in front is just common sense, but especially important for coastal roads such as this. Plus that way you’ll get to enjoy more of the views!

Annoyingly, by the time we reached the peninsula head the clouds had already washed over the skies, however we were still excited to see what activities took our fancy. We briefly walked down to the viewing platform of Pilots Beach where we were treated to a view of sleepy fur seals lazing on the rocks a little further out from the beach. I won’t lie, I was pretty excited to see them!

Pilots Beach viewing platform to see various wildlife
Pilots Beach on Otago Peninsula

The viewing platform is most famously known as a spot where one can view blue penguins make their return to land at sunset. Prices for the blue penguins tour start from $35 for adults, however we didn’t stay for the nightly viewing on this trip. Read about a very similar experience at the penguin parade on Phillip Island to find out more about blue penguin viewings.

We then made our way to the Royal Albatross Centre. With just a small museum of free information, the best way to make the most of the centre is to take one of the paid guided tours. Covering wildlife to military history, visitors can choose the package that best suits their interests and tailor their day accordingly.

We chose to take the Fort Taiaroa tour, costing $25 per person, as we were most interested in the history associated with the area. The tour took around 30 minutes and our guide showed us through the underground tunnels to various key points in the fort. We stopped by the lookout which was used to alert the team of danger heading towards the fort from the sea. The main attraction of the fort tour is to view the fully restored Armstrong Disappearing Gun. This impressive feat of military engineering is quite the spectacle, and the gun at Otago Peninsula is the only one remaining fully restored in the world.

The only fully restored disappearing gun in the world at Otago Peninsula, Dunedin
Armstrong Disappearing Gun
Fort Taiaroa Dunedin
Fort Taiaroa tunnels

Learning about the history and background of this coastal defence was fascinating, and there was so much information to be shared. Visiting Fort Taiaroa was a great complement to our outing in Christchurch to visit Godley Head – the other South Island coastal defence! It was interesting to hear about the Russian invasion scare of 1880s especially considering NZ is such as remote country, and I appreciated the chance to understand a little more about New Zealand’s role in the world of military history. Although I found the tour very informative, I’m not sure it’s worth the $25. I can understand a certain amount of upkeep is required for the fort and it’s likely that costs of the tour are well spent, however this was at a slightly higher price point than I would consider for a 30 minute tour.

Peering into the barrel of the disappearing gun in
Barrel of the gun!

Other tours available from the Royal Albatross Centre include the albatross viewing tour. For $50 visitors can enjoy an hour tour to discover the wonders of this remarkable colony that arrived on the peninsula in 1919, plus a chance to see the colony up close from one of the viewing points. Having seen an albatross in the wild during a boat trip in Akaroa, I wasn’t too fussed to miss out this time.

There are lots of other incredible wildlife sightings possible from Taiaroa Head, such as sea lions, yellow-eyed penguins, dusky dolphins, orcas, and even the occasional humpback whale. Planning ahead with research as to the season, weather conditions, and environment will help know your chances for viewing wildlife, and booking through a tour is essential as the protected area does not allow self-guided tours.

Lighthouse on the edge of Taiaroa Head on Otago Peninsula, Dunedin
Taiaroa Head

Following our tour, we briefly visited the lookouts at various points along the head to enjoy the views once more. Satisfied with our visit on this occasion, we headed back towards the city to explore.

On our way, we stopped by Lanarch Castle a little further along the coastal road of the peninsula. The castle is a popular attraction for tourists, as well as being a stunning wedding venue and hotel. On arrival after climbing the hilly roads (offering some great views along the way!) we realised entry to the grounds alone would cost $15.50, and entry to the castle as well as the gardens would be $31. As we were on a tight budget for this trip, we chose to pass on this occasion. It was a shame to miss out on the only castle in New Zealand, but we felt that one activity would be sufficient on the peninsula to allow more time in Dunedin. On a return trip, I would love to see the grandeur of the castle and grounds, and particularly I’d be keen to try the afternoon tea available in the Ballroom Cafe!

Dunedin City 

With a mix of Scottish and Maori heritage, the city and surrounding areas in this part of Otago are fascinating places to explore. We wanted to get a taste of Dunedin without breaking the bank, and fortunately there are plenty of activities that are low-cost or free!

Although we decided not to splurge our money on our time in Dunedin, we still managed to see and do a lot of different activities in our short time there. As this was our first destination on the road trip, we were careful to budget for other priority activities further down the road. However, if one did want to splash out in Dunedin, there’s certainly plenty of ways to do so!

Railway Station

Dunedin Railway Station is an example of beautiful architecture in New Zealand. No longer functioning for commercial passengers, the station remains as a piece of Dunedin’s history as it overlooks Anzac Square. As well as its iconic contrasting exterior and clock tower, the interiors are equally beautiful with the mosaic booking hall kept in excellent condition.

Front of Dunedin Railway Station from Anzac Square
Dunedin Railway Station

Nearby the railway station is the Toitu Otago Settlers Museum, which is home to Josephine – a steam locomotive that is a favourite attraction for many visitors. Pressed for time, we didn’t explore more of the museum but enjoyed witnessing Josephine in all her glory!

Josephine Locomotive
Josephine the steam locomotive

The Octagon

A short walk from the railway station is The Octagon. Marking the centre of the city, the aptly named 8-sided plaza has bars, shops, restaurants, and city buildings all around. We took a little walk around and admired the architecture of the cathedral before checking out the Dunedin Municipal Chambers (town hall) which gave pretty great views overlooking the plaza.

Trees and gazebo of The Octagon in Dunedin, New Zealand
The Octagon of Dunedin

From The Octagon we walked down George Street past the shopping mall and more cafes and eateries towards the museum.

Otago Museum

The Otago Museum is an educational dream. Located right next to the University of Otago and adjoining a small grassy area, the museum is large enough to spend a whole day exploring. With free and paid exhibitions covering art, natural history,  modern science, and more one can also choose what interests them most and go from there!

We chose to take a look around the free galleries, particularly those showing artefacts and information about the Pacific Islands and their history. It was incredible to see how much variety in culture spans across these relatively close countries, and I learned a lot about the subtle differences and traditions in this comprehensive exhibition. There were even a few islands I’d not known about before, anyone heard of Goodenough Island?!

Although we spent our time visiting much of the historical attractions of the museum, we also enjoyed the interactive whispering dishes outside where each of us stood at opposite ends of the park and whispered into the dish to hear the other – science is amazing!

Grassy space outside Otago Museum with
Whispering Dishes outside Otago Museum


Baldwin Street

After walking around a little more of the city and grabbing a smoothie to quench our thirst, our final stop of the day was a slightly more quirky attraction – the steepest street in the world! Baldwin Street claims that title, at a staggering (literally) 35% slope. I don’t know too much about gradients and such, but I believe that this is around a 19° incline up the relatively short street of 350m in length!

Running up Baldwin Street
Running up Baldwin Street

We were surprised at how many people were tackling the slopes of Baldwin Street when we arrived, there were at least 3 or 4 other couples or families posing and admiring the novelty of such jaunty houses (yes, people actually live here!). Thankfully it’s a pretty quiet street besides the bemused tourists, so we were able to walk to the top on the road without worrying about vehicles too much.

Girl runs uphill of Baldwin Street, Dunedin New Zealand
Attempting to run up Baldwin Street

The last section of the street is by far the steepest, before the abrupt ending and cul-de-sac turnings for residential homes to either side. Once we made it to the top, we were greeted by a bench (thanks Dunedin council, tourists everywhere appreciate it), water fountain, information about the street, and great views looking out across the hills and city. Overall it was a fun and unique way to end our day!

Top of Baldwin Street
Bench at the top of Baldwin Street

Waitati & Blueskin Bay

We were extremely fortunate to be staying in this beautiful spot outside the city nestled in the leafy hills. The views across the bay were truly wonderful to wake up to, and taking in that quiet, peaceful Kiwi space that is so special we were grateful for a chance to really escape the busyness of the city.

In the evening after a day full of sightseeing, we took a gentle stroll along Canoe Beach just down the road in Waitati as the sun was setting. It was the perfect way to end the day as we found the beach to ourselves and the gentle waves creating a wonderfully calm atmosphere. We walked all the way towards the head of the beach, where a couple of small caves can be found. It was pretty good fun to wander through the tunnels and explore the surroundings, especially at such a beautiful part of the day.

Caves in Dunedin

Sun sets over Dunedin beach
Sunset at the beach
Waitati Beach
Cave exploring

And there we have our day exploring Dunedin! While it was only a brief visit, we felt satisfied having done a lot with a short space of time. And knowing we’ll likely be back again someday, we have a good idea of what we’d like to do on the next trip!

Have you visited Dunedin? What were your favourite spots? Share your story below!


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23 Replies to “Exploring Dunedin & Otago Peninsula In A Day – South Island New Zealand Road Trip From Christchurch”

  1. I absolutely loved Dunedin and the surrounding areas! My boyfriend is actually from there so he made sure my first time visiting was the best! I especially loved the walk and views up Mount Cargill 🙂 great post!

    1. No way! Mine is from Christchurch and his family recently moved down there! Oooh next time I visit I’ll definitely check out that walk, thanks so much!

    1. Thank you! It’s a lovely little spot way at the bottom of the world, and yes the steep street is pretty challenging!

  2. This all looks sooo pretty! I did consider heading this way when we explored the South Island a few months ago (I especially liked the look of the Moeraki Boulders) but in the end we decided to head inland to Aoraki/ Mount Cook. It is always really cool to see the places that we didn’t make it to. (…As if I need another excuse to go back to NZ!)

    That street looks ridiculous though. I would feel safe doing a hill start on that slope!!

    1. Great choice, we also visit Aoraki/Mount Cook on this road trip, they were 2 spots I hadn’t managed to visit in NZ yet, so I’m glad we finally went! Totally agree, I always find it just inspires me to visit again! haha me too, can’t believe how casually residents just drove right to the top!

  3. I’ve done the North of NZ but I’m yet to do the South. When I return to Australia from my travels I’ll have to make it a priority to go and visit. This place looks amazing!

    1. Oh lovely! The south is my favourite, I’m a sucker for mountains! Hope you enjoy the rest of your travels 🙂

  4. When I see posts about New Zealand I always wish I could book a flight and go as soon as possible. Such a gorgeous land. I’ve heard that Dunedin is a great place to stop and explore from. One day i hope to find myself here!

    1. It’s an incredibly enticing country, and so much of the South Island is great to explore! Hope you can visit soon 🙂

  5. Mixture of Scottish and Maori heritage? That’s so cool! I had no idea. I would love to visit Dunedin! All of NZ in general really. Now I’m interested to look into it’s history. I’ve just now realised that I don’t know much about New Zealand!

    1. Indeed, it’s a very unique little city! I’m always surprised at the history there as it’s such a new country but with a rich background too. Hope you find some cool facts!

  6. I haven’t been to New Zealand yet but it is definitely on my priority list. I cannot wait to explore its beautiful areas! Thank you for this helpful post. Great photos!

  7. I’m always amazed by how stunning New Zealand looks in photos; just wish it were a bit closer. So much to do, I wouldn’t even know where to begin when visiting.

    1. It’s even more spectacular in real life! Indeed it is very very far, but well worth a visit if you’re able to stay for a longer time!

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