What to do when you visit Dunedin for the first time

For one of New Zealand's smallest cities, Dunedin plays it big when it comes to impressive tourist attractions. It's kind of the perfect holiday  a place where you can get a park without raising your blood pressure, but where you'll also see things that'll knock your socks off. Here are just some of them:

St Clair Beach, Dunedin.
Stunning beaches of Dunedin. Photo credit: Alexia Santamaria/Newshub.

Tunnel and St Clair beaches

You can't come to Dunedin without spending some time by the water. If time permits, Tunnel Beach is magnificent with its dramatic sandstone cliffs, arches and wild enormous-wave-crashing-on-rocks action (make sure you go down to the 'tunnel' if the tide is right). But if you're in rush, sweeping Saint Clair is also a knockout and has the added bonus of excellent waterside cafes. In summer the St Clair pools are a wonderful experience, sitting in a calm heated salt water pool as the wild coastal surf pounds the shoreline right beside you.

Little Blue Penguin
Adorable penguins of the south. Photo credit: Getty Images.

Little Blue Penguin Excursion

Seeing a large black mass move through the otherwise-still water at Taiaroa Head, then materialise into 40-50 adorable waddling Little Blue penguins when it reaches shore, was a life highlight for me. These little cuties have been out all day fishing for their offspring, and the reunion scenes as they climb the cliffs and find their chicks are brilliant. The Royal Albatross centre manages the excursion really well so no harm is done to the world's smallest penguins.

Escape Dunedin experience.
Escape Dunedin by being locked up. Photo credit: Alexia Santamaria/Newshub.

Escape Dunedin

Escape Room games have become very popular internationally, but Escape Dunedin has the extra  and slightly creepier - historical factor of taking place in the actual former Dunedin Prison (used from 1896 till 2007). You're cuffed  with real handcuffs  and thrown in the cells and need to find your way out using a series of unbelievably clever clues, codes, locks and other obstacles. It's incredibly well thought out and a fantastic historical, and cerebral, experience.

Dunedin Street Art.
Dunedin's street art often grabs headlines. Photo credit: Alexia Santamaria/Newshub.

Street Art

The Dunedin Street Art project has been an incredible undertaking. Hidden in unexpected places these 30 plus enormous works of art (some up to three or four storeys high) by well-known international street artists are truly awe-inspiring. It's a fun adventure following the trail map down alleyways and into side streets, being rewarded by eclectic visual treasure every five minutes. For me it epitomises everything that's great about understated Dunedin. That wall in the carpark may look ordinary, but on the other side could be an explosion of artistic talent and vibrant colour.

Orokonui Eco-Sanctuary
Interact with some of New Zealand's most lively characters. Photo credit: Alexia Santamaria/Newshub.

Orokonui Eco-sanctuary

If, like me, you've never really seen New Zealand's birdlife anywhere outside a zoo, a visit to Orokonui is a must. We saw Takahe and Kaka put on a rowdy  and at times comedic  impromptu show in their natural habitat. The sanctuary is the flagship biodiversity project for the South Island where rare and endangered plants and animals are protected from predators by a huge fence around the 307 hectares of forest. The altitude and cloud forest atmosphere make it even more magical with swirling mist and stunning views. Important note: they do an excellent cheese roll in the café. Sushi of the South.

Taieri Gorge
One of Otago's many scenic railway routes. Photo credit: Alexia Santamaria/Newshub.

Taieri Gorge Railway

Spectacular isn't a quite a big enough adjective for this train journey. Dunedin Railways has several scenic options, but we chose the four-hour return Dunedin to Pukerangi trip and were mesmerised by the drama and scale of the landscape  sparkling rivers, deep gorges, sheer schist rock faces, green pastures alternating with arid hill faces. We could see why they market the Taieri Gorge experience as one of the world's great train journeys. Otago at its raw, resplendent best.

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Alexia Santamaria is a freelance travel and cuisine writer.

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