Did you know you can visit a castle in New Zealand? Neither did I, until we took a half day trip to the country’s only one, Larnach Castle in Dunedin! Here’s what you should know about visiting Larnach Castle and how we spent our visit.
Our half day trip to Larnach Castle
On a cloudy Boxing Day in Dunedin, we were on the search for a fun activity that would take us somewhere new. Larnach Castle ticked all our boxes for an easy half day trip out of the house, so off we went.
We took the drive through central Dunedin and up the hill towards the castle, which is a gorgeous scenic route with views over the peninsula and bays.
We did find that there was a larger crowd than we anticipated, which given that it was a public holiday should have been expected. It’s clearly a great attraction for families and judging by the various bus-loads of tour groups, is popular for visitors and locals alike.
I won’t lie, the chaos of shuffling in and out of small rooms, dodging around strangers, and literally queuing on the stairs was frustrating at times. The ground floor had staff to point you in the right direction but elsewhere was a bit free-for-all with visitors taking all and any route. But that’s how it is sometimes!
What there is to see at Larnach Castle
The basement floor is the most informative section of the castle, hence why visitors and told to start there. In this section, we learned about the owners and their lives and could see the timeline of how the castle has come to the current owners. Here, we also learned about the construction and restoration efforts that have previously and are currently taking place.
The next couple of floors involved a variety of rooms displaying various historical items and period features to showcase what the castle might have originally looked like. It was very typical of other historical buildings, where some areas were sectioned off to be preserved whereas others were free for visitors to get up close and personal.
One of the highlights of the visit is a climb up the steep staircase to the roof, where the views over the treetops were just stunning. However, one can’t be in a rush to leave the roof and the traffic system of visitors going up and down can be slow and disorganised. We were up there for much longer than we’d expected!
Outside the castle
Once we completed our tour, we took a stroll around the beautiful gardens. The grounds are impeccably kept and have a range of foliage to appreciate which of course attracts the native birdlife. We also enjoyed admiring the views overlooking the bays from various spots!
Charmingly, there was a subtle Alice in Wonderland theme throughout the garden, a mad hatter here and a quirky sign there. I thought more would have been made of this, so was slightly disappointed by the half-natured attempt but nonetheless enjoyed spotting various characters.
I would definitely say the grounds and gardens was my favourite part of visiting Larnach Castle. While the interior of the castle is beautiful in places, there are areas that are still in disrepair and feel more delicate, whereas the gardens are exquisitely kept. I also appreciated the chance to escape from the narrow hallways and, honestly, getting away from people. The grounds are vast enough to accommodate plenty of visitors, so we regularly had a whole area to ourselves without feeling hurried, watched, or disrupted.
Now, it wouldn’t be a visit to a heritage site without a cafe, would it? The Ballroom Cafe offers a range of light lunch options, snacks, and full meals. We chose to sit outdoors to enjoy our surroundings, but swiftly moved inside when it started raining.
The functions rooms at the castle can accommodate weddings, conferences, and celebrations too, so if you’re truly smitten with Larnach Castle you can enjoy a special occasion there.
History of Larnach Castle
Larnach Castle has a rather colourful history due to the dramatic lives of its original owners. Construction started in 1871 using the finest materials from around the word and took 200 men to build the exterior. The owner was William Larnach, a prominent businessman and politician, who wanted to build a lavish home for his wife Eliza.
Called “The Camp” by William, a name which is proudly displayed in mosaic tiling in the entrance hall, the building was coined a castle by local press in 1874 not long after the couple moved in. Technically, it’s not really a castle as it was never intended to defend anything nor has it ever housed royalty. Nonetheless, the power of the media prevails!
William and Eliza had 6 children, however, after Eliza died when the youngest was still a baby, William went on to marry her sister, Mary, who unfortunately died 5 years later. William’s third marriage was to a much younger woman, Constance de Bathe Brandon.
Tragedy struck the family again when William’s favourite daughter died as a young adult, leading him to send his children abroad to boarding school.
A number of financial difficulties ensued in the following years for William, which resulted in him shooting himself at Parliament. It has also been speculated this fatal action was also caused by an affair between William’s son and his wife… I told you it was dramatic. His family then fought over his will and estate.
The castle then had many owners in the following decades, including years that it was left vacant and vandalised.
Finally, in 1967 the Barker family bought Larnach Castle. They continue to restore and protect the building, which they are able to do through admission fees from visitors.
Things to know about visiting Larnach Castle
We paid $35 NZD each to enter Larnach Castle & the grounds.
There are concessions tickets available for children, families, and early bird prices. You can also purchase a grounds-only ticket for $17.50.
More info on the tickets available can be found on the Larnach Castle website.
The great thing about Larnach Castle is that it’s open every day of the year! We visited on Boxing Day which worked perfectly knowing other attractions would be closed during a public holiday.
The castle opens 8am – 5pm or 9am – 5pm, depending on the season. See the opening times and last entry for the castle and gardens on their website.
How to get to Larnach Castle
Larnach Castle is around 20-25 minutes drive from central Dunedin.
The route is straightforward once you reach South Dunedin, from Portsmouth Drive head to Portobello Road. From there, there are a couple of route options to either follow the coastline on Portobello Road and then turn inland onto Castlewood Road. Or, you can follow the route on Larnach Road onto Highcliff Road. Both have beautiful views along the way, but do drive carefully as the road can be steep at times, with a few twists and turns.
There is the opportunity to stay very close to Larnach Castle at the Camp Estate, Larnach Lodge, or the stables. Unfortunately, you can’t stay in the castle. However, these three options look like a beautiful chance to stay in the grounds and enjoy the nearby attractions.
Larnach Castle is also very close to the Royal Albatross Colony at the edge of Otago Peninsula. If you wanted to make a real day of exploring this area of Dunedin, I’d highly recommend visiting there too!
So there we have our half day trip to Larnach Castle in Dunedin! I hope this will inspire you to see one of New Zealand’s lesser-known attractions, it certainly was a interesting insight into the residents and what life in 19th century New Zealand might have been like for them.
If I were to visit Larnach Castle again, I would only purchase a ticket for the grounds. It’s a fabulous place to come for lunch or to enjoy a change of scene. However, I’d say the interior of the castle was much more forgettable than the gardens. I think my lack of photos from inside shows that! Honestly though, the grounds are brilliant and I just loved the chance to see the peninsula and coastline from this perspective. It’s worth the visit for that alone in my opinion.
Are there any New Zealand attractions you’d recommend that others might not know about? I’d love to hear them!
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