Culture 101: Dunedin - South Island Star
The vibrant New Zealand city is a fun mix of old and new experiences – from a settlers’ museum and Jacobean mansions to breweries and farmers’ markets
Walking through Dunedin’s Toitū Otago Settlers Museum, I discover a memorable marketing pitch from one of Dunedin’s early Scottish settlers, John McGlashan. “If your prospects are bad then I can safely say you would be 10 times better off in New Zealand, where, if you are able and willing to work, to keep yourself sober, you would in a little time be surrounded with an abundance of bacon and eggs, bread, butter, milk and cream, puddings, fowls, and all kinds of vegetables.” Scottish settlers like McGlashan arrived in the mid-19th century with plans to re-create the romance of Edinburgh in the South Island’s second-largest city. I soon discover they also created a charm many places can only dream of, with a blend of new and old that fits perfectly.
Dunedin gets much of its vibrancy courtesy of Otago University, one of the country’s oldest and largest seats of learning, which fills the town with a youthful creativity. One of the town’s newest attractions is the cutting edge Toitū Otago Settlers Museum, which opened late last year and exceeded its annual visitor target in the first six months. From an interactive bus ride through Dunedin in the 1950s to dressing up in period costume and playing an original ’80s video game, this innovative, hands-on museum is as much fun for adults as it is for children.
Dunedin’s traditional layout means everything is within walking distance. Next door to the museum you will find the city’s historic railway station, which was built in 1906. Its over-the-top, Flemish Renaissance-style architecture earned architect George Troup a knighthood, as well as the nickname “Gingerbread George”. Dunedin Railway Station is said to be the most photographed building in New Zealand, so don’t forget your camera. The Otago Farmers Market, also based here, is a huge hit with locals and tourists. It’s the ideal spot to try a bacon buttie – a Kiwi favourite made with fresh bread, butter and bacon. McGlashan was telling the truth about the abundance of bacon.
Around the corner there is the Cadbury factory, which was the first chocolate and cocoa manufacturing plant in the southern hemisphere, and remains one of Dunedin’s largest employers. Guided tours last 75 minutes, and take visitors through the history of Cadbury before heading onto the factory floor, where everyone’s goodie bag rapidly fills with samples. Tours finish with one tonne of chocolate being dropped to form the largest chocolate waterfall in the world.
Much of the city’s wealth came from the gold rush of 1860s and the massive influx of miners, which meant Dunedin needed a brewery. According to locals, Speights is home to New Zealand’s best beer. The brewery is built above a natural spring, which provides a key ingredient. Speights is also one of the only gravity-fed breweries in the world, as I discovered on a tour where Kiwi humour, pouring lessons and beer sampling combine for an entertaining couple of hours.
For a trip back in time visit Olveston House, a perfectly preserved Jacobean-style mansion from the 1900s. This is New Zealand’s best-known stately building, and was bequeathed in its entirety to the City of Dunedin in 1966. With an eclectic collection of fine art and furnishings, Olveston House still has the feeling of a much-loved family home and is a delight to explore. Located in the heart of the city, and home to Dunedin’s cathedral, town hall and art gallery, the town square known as The Octagon is easy to find and has an abundance of restaurants. One of the benefits of a university town is not only the diverse range of eateries but also cheap student prices. Try the award-winning Nova Café for smart bistro fare or head down Stuart Street to Best Café for old-fashioned fish and chips with a charming retro vibe. If you’re after something a little fancier with a great wine list, there is Bacchus or Gaslight, which serves excellent house-made pasta.
With its unique combination of youthful vibrancy and old-world charm, Dunedin offers something for everyone.
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Take me there
Toitu Otago Settlers Museum
31 Queens Gardens
Dunedin Railway Station & Otago Farmers Market
280 Cumberland St
Speights Brewery Tours
200 Rattray St
42 Royal Terrace
29 The Octagon
30 Stuart St
Bacchus Wine Bar & Restaurant
Level 1/12, The Octagon
73 St Andrew St