New Zealand and I share more than a bit of history! You see, not only was my beautiful mama born and raised there, but it was the very first overseas destination I ever visited, and it has drawn me back again and again. But our most recent visit was a first time for my little quarter kiwis.
There are so many things to see and do in New Zealand South Island with kids that it was hard for us to decide where to begin. I’m a big fan of Christchurch and so Frenchy, so chic Akaroa, and there’s no denying that Queenstown with kids is off the charts. But for me it was gorgeous Dunedin that proved to be the perfect place to introduce Raffles and Sugarpuff to the wonders of a country that is such an important part of their heritage.
Our visit left even their Kiwiphile mother surprised by just how much the city has to offer families. Of course, I knew Dunedin had history and heart. And plenty of epic scenery. I mean, it is New Zealand after all.
But it has so much more: a fascinating cultural history, historic architecture and kid-friendly museums, modern street art and cutting-edge science festivals, unique landscapes, natural attractions and wondrous wildlife in abundance… not to mention its kick arse restaurant scene!
And I’m happy to report the kids left both smitten and smarter, thanks to our visit coinciding with The New Zealand International Science Festival. They also left a touch wider after consuming their body weight in the city’s culinary delights. But don’t take my word for it. Here, Raffles (10) and Sugarpuff (7) share their thoughts on the best things to do in Dunedin with kids.
Things to do in Dunedin with kids
1. Building brainy kids in Dunedin
Dunedin is pretty smart, with more PHDs floating around the city than you can poke a telescopic stick at. So, it isn’t all that surprising to discover it is the home of the New Zealand International Science Festival, a two-week celebration of New Zealand’s excellence in environmental, scientific and technological education and research. With 20+ world leaders in science and 230 events in 24 locations, kids (and their parents) can geek out over an inspiring lineup of hands-on STEAM workshops and events for kids and families including mind bending presentations on robotics, virtual reality technology, medicine, experiments, physics, psychology, astronomy and so very much more. Oh, and it’s FUN.
He said: “The International Science Festival blew my mind. I have never had so much fun or been so excited by science. There was so much to do at the University of Otago Expo. I got to help with an actual heart dissection, and play with robots and use super advanced VR technology and heaps of other epic things. I thought the Future Energy Show would be a bit boring but boy was I wrong. Dr Graham shot marshmallows out of cannons, sent rockets whizzing, and made things explode and burst into flames and it was the coolest hour of the whole Science Festival.
We got to meet Dr Graham later and he let me shoot marshmallows from a vacuum cleaner bazooka and shoot an angry bird from a canon and taught us some cool science. I even got to eat an edible helium balloon, which made made my voice sound funny and cracked me up.”
She said: “We had the best time ever at the Science Festival. They had a special day for kids and we got to do experiments and I even made my own pipe cleaner neuron. A neuron is a thing that sends messages from your brain to your body to make it work.
I made a punk one and if it was real it would make me rock! I got to take a really cute robot called NAO for a walk. I think she liked me better than my brother because he tripped her over. There was also a show about future energy and the man on stage kept exploding things and it was noisy and fun. One night a nice lady called Amie took us to a real Observatory Dome and we looked through the biggest telescopes ever to see Jupiter and Saturn, I could even see its rings. I like stars”.
2. Exploring historic Dunedin with kids
Its Maori history goes back many years but it was Captain Cook’s reports of seals that initially drew sealers to Dunedin at the beginning of the 19th century, the area soon becoming an international whaling port. Unlike the English settlement of most of New Zealand, Dunedin was founded by the Scottish Free Church in 1848, the city’s name is even derived from the the Scottish Gaelic name for Edinburgh, Dùn Èideann. In 1861 gold was discovered, and the ensuing gold rush led to a further influx of people from around the world. The city is home to New Zealand’s oldest and most beautiful university, incredible architecture, castles and historic Homes and a raft of great museums housing artefacts that make the region’s history come to life.
He said: “Even though Dunedin isn’t really old it has loads of really interesting history. The Maori people lived there first and we learned a bit about their traditions in the Otago Museum. I’d like to find out more though because it’s really, really interesting. European settlers didn’t come until the 19th century. They were mostly sealers and whalers and the Scottish came to settle in 1842. A little while later they found gold and that attracted Chinese people and there’s now a really pretty Chinese garden to commemorate their contribution to the city’s history. My favourite thing though is the old architecture. The University of Otago and The Dunedin Station are both epic! But Lanarch Castle was my favourite place, and not only because I got to fill my face with scones and cakes at an awesome high tea.
It felt like an ancient castle from Europe. It had amazing creatures like lions and eagles carved into its stair cases and an awesome turret with ramparts from which I staged an imaginary battle with invading orcs (hey, this is Hobbit country).”
She said: “The old buildings in Dunedin were really pretty especially The Train Station because it was all stripy and had a big tower. But I loved Lanarch Castle best because it was super old and had big lions on its steps and it looked like a Queen would live there.
There was a special treasure hunt where we had to solve tricky clues and it was so fun. I think the castle might be a bit haunted though but I think the ghosts are friendly because it didn’t seem scary.”
3. Dunedin’s best museums and galleries
Dunedin’s fascinating history and artistic culture are made extremely accessible in the outstanding collections at its world class museums. The brilliant Otago Museum was a big hit with my little visitors with its living tropical butterfly forest, planetarium and hands on science exhibit, Tūhura, to more traditional cultural and natural displays. In fact, it’s so good I had to physically remove them as they would have happily stayed for a week. The Toitu Otago Settlers Museum is a great spot for kids to learn about the social history of the area while Dunedin’s Public Art Gallery is one of the country’s best, not surprising given the arty and creative city Dunedin is.
He said: “I learned a lot about the people who made Dunedin at Toitū Otago Settlers Museum and they had some pretty cool exhibits but the Otago Museum was the best museum I have ever visited. Every section was epic. There was a bunch of interactive activities in Tūhura, a science exhibit where they had a helical slide, laser-activated screens, multi-player games, and a huge tub with rocks and mining tools so you could dig at them.
Tūhura also had a huge butterfly enclosure and I got to hold this very cool looking caterpillar with horns! The museum’s planetarium was super modern and the best one I’ve ever been in, and we got to explore planets and stars. There were also some old exhibits like the Animal Attic, where there was a giant whale eyeball and a king rat, which is possibly the grossest thing I’ve ever seen, so of course, I loved it. For me the most intriguing exhibit though was the old sword collection in the World’s People section and the Tāngata Whenua gallery, where I learned loads about Maori legends and traditions. Even mum loved this musuem because there was this exhibition about some rock band called The Chills who she liked like a million years ago when she was cool.”
She said: “I could have stayed at Otago Museum forever. There were loads of rooms filled with amazing things like animals and Maori treasures. There was also a planetarium where we got to see the stars and planets and constellations, I liked Leo the Lion. They have a super fun science centre where we got to go down a giant slide and make a tornado and I also loved that I got to help release baby butterflies in the garden and one landed on my nose and tickled my face.”
4. Dining out in Dunedin with kids
Dunedin may be small but it is a world class food city that knocked our tastebuds for six. We tried everything from its farmers markets and hole in the wall takeaways to cafes and fine diners, and didn’t eat a single meal that wasn’t memorable. The region’s incredible local produce is whipped into creative culinary masterpieces by talented chefs and craftsmen, making Dunedin a destination that should be on every self-respecting foodie’s radar.
He said: “Dunedin’s food scene is off the charts. We ate so much great food that I don’t even know where to start. I guess I should start with what they call Southern Sushi, a local variation of a cheese toasty that is serve rolled and is pretty yum. But that little treat was just the start of an epic culinary adventure. They love a bagel in Dunedin and I had the best haloumi and bacon stuffed version at Beam Me Up Bagels as well as some epic bagels stuffed with all kinds of good things at the arty Morning Magpie, across from Dunedin Railways. The Otago Farmer’s Market was so different to any I’ve been to before. The produce was really different, like Venison salami.
I got to nosh on a Banh mi inspired ginger chicken roll but it was the marvellous creations at the Crooked Spaghetti Company, like their genius Breakfast Lasagne topped with a poached egg and stacks of oozy hollandaise sauce, that I was most excited by. For dinner, we enjoyed yummy sticky beef wontons and Peking duck tacos at Vault 21 and the most delicious and delectable three cheese soufflé and confit duck leg at No 7 Balmac.
There was fine dining too at the incredelicious Moiety Restaurant, which I’ve written more about here, where I was sent to heaven with a five-course degustation meal. The food was kind of a combo of Kiwi ingredients served with French techniques and a Japanese twist. There were so many clever techniques and flavour combinations in each of the courses but I especially loved the Salmon belly with toasted nori paste and radish and an amazing beetroot creation. I’m drooling just thinking about them.”
She said: “At the Farmer’s Market I ate juicy apples and mum let me have pizza for breakfast. There was also a special restaurant called Moiety and I had yummy pate with toast. Then I got to eat the most delicious dessert ever made from apples and meringue. I also liked the super crispy chicken at Tao but I wasn’t sure about the black dumplings! I ate a whole pizza all by myself at Zucchini Bros because it was so yummy! And I got to eat a whole wall of desserts at the Science Festival, which was awesome. But my favourite place was Ocho Chocolate Café because we drank hot chocolate and tasted all the chocolate flavours and I learned about how chocolate was made. I think chocolate is my favourite subject.”
5. Dunedin Street Art Trail with kids
Dunedin is all about art and the Dunedin Street Art Trail is a must for visiting families. The city’s walls are an ever-evolving gallery of incredible artworks by local and international street artists, and the trail makes for a fun and colorful way to explore Dunedin with kids.
He said: “Dunedin is a pretty indie kind of place, as demonstrated by my mum’s love of their jangly old indie rock bands, which she came to Dunedin to see back when dinosaurs were still stomping around the streets. There is still lots of live music and cool edgy fashion but the indie vibe has also spread all over its walls.
We loved following the city’s street art trail to spot some of the best artworks, although we probably would have enjoyed it more if mum hadn’t insisted on singing songs by some band called the Straightjacket Fits, off key, the whole time. Sheesh! There were some serious artworks and some seriously strange ones, which, of course, were my favourites.
I especially loved the giant native lizard, steam punk submarine and eagle.”
She Said: “The walls in Dunedin are all covered in paintings and crazy stuff. My favourite pictures were of a boy catching clouds and the lady with the flowers that was near our hotel and the crazy horse and the lizard that is eating its own tail. I wish I could paint on walls too.”
6. Riding Dunedin Railway with kids
Dunedin’s stunning renaissance revival-stye railway station is the starting point for many an amazing rail journey. We were lucky enough to take Dunedin Railway’s trip along the scenic Taieri Gorge route to Middlemarch, passing ever changing scenery as we rode the rails through the Taieri Plains, rocked into the Taieri Gorge and rolled through ten tunnels across countless bridges and viaducts. It is one of the world’s most extraordinary rail jounreys and the commentary on its engineering feats and history, along with the gobsmacking views, kept the kids excited for the entire journey. A stop at Middlemarch for a horse and cart ride and a picnic from the Kissing Gate Café was added icing on this magnificent cake.
He said: “I never knew a train ride could be so epic. Our train ride took us through the Taueri Gorge to Middlemarch, which sounds like the kind of place you might find in the Hobbit. Speaking of which, the train actually click clacked its way past the rock formations in Sutton which were used in the movies! You know that bit when the orcs are chasing Bilbo and his friends on the back of wolves… yeah well, I know that’s like the whole movie but this was one of the places that the orcs were chasing them on wolves.
And the train journey went past some pretty spectacular scenery and over cool viaducts and bridges. It was such a nice day they stopped the train half way so we could all jump off to enjoy the views.
Middlemarch wasn’t really all that Hobbity but it was super nice. There was a horse and cart waiting for us as we hopped of the train and we went on a picnic amongst the orc rocks near the Salt Lake. Our lunch was from a place called The Kissing Gate Café and we feasted on still warm toasted sandwiches filled with indescribable yumminess as well as cakes and southern sushi (cheese toasties).
We clambered all over the rocks and leapt through the air as if we were the ones being chased by orcs. Then we caught the train home from a tiny station in the middle of literally nowhere, orcless and happy”
She said: “We went on a train trip through a big gorge. We crossed big bridges like the ones in Harry Potter. I thought maybe our train was the Hogwart’s Express but they didn’t sell any Bertie Bott’s Every-Flavour Beans in the café. They had cakes and scones though. We passed horsies, and baby cows and sheep and we counted loads of bunnies. When we got to Middlemarch we went on a horse and cart ride with a friendly horse, but the best bit was the cute puppy called Spike who we were allowed to cuddle on the cart. We went on a special picnic with the yummiest food and cakes amongst crazy rocks and we got to climb and jump and have so much fun with our new friends.”
7. Exploring Dunedin’s wildlife with kids
Everyone knows about New Zealand’s iconic Kiwi, but these little guys aren’t the only feathered cuties to be spotted around Dunedin and the Otago Peninsula. The rare South Island Kaka (a colourful parrot) and a pair of Takahe (an indigenous flightless bird) can be spotted at Orokonui Ecosanctuary. But for the ultimate in adorable, head to the Royal Albatross Centre for a Little Blue Penguin viewing tours at dusk. There’s a purpose built viewing platform and interactive walkway to keep the penguins safe, and the site of the world’s smallest penguins waddling out of the water to their burrows is an incredible sight. Less cute, but definitely magnificent, are the Centre’s colony of northern royal albatross with their three-metre wingspans! Just pack several layers because its chilly in them thar hills.
He said: The Royal Albatross Centre was super cool, and I mean freezing! We had to wear about three hundred layers of clothes up there because it was so cold. But it was also cool because I was able to learn all about the Albatross, which is like a hulk seagull and has a wingspan of up to three metres wide. They’re so big I reckon you could saddle one of these things and fly it! Yeehah! But we went to see the Blue Penguins in their natural habitat. They are the world’s smallest penguin and we watched them as they shot up out of the sea onto the beach with their penguin pals and waddled up to their cliff-face burrows. They were pretty cute, though they are pretty noisy and squawky – a bit like my sister when she is twittering in my face.”
She said: “They have some really funny birds in New Zealand like one called the Moa, which is like a giant mega emu, but its extinct. They also have kiwis and huge albatrosses. I got a fluffy one to bring home with me from the place where we saw my favourite birds, the super cutey penguins. We got to watch them as they came from the sea and waddled off up the penguin highway into their little houses. I loved listening to them all chattering to each other because it sounded like a penguin choir.”
8. Family friendly accommodation in Dunedin
There’s no shortage of great accommodation for families in Dunedin. From hot hotels and boutique beauties to apartment stays, holiday parks and even castle accommodation, there’s something for every family and every budget.
He said: “The Scenic Hotel Southern Cross was really well located in the centre of Dunedin and seemed really close to everything, we had a car parking space but could walk to the Octagon and the railway station and lots of good places to eat. The staff were extremely helpful and friendly and our room was super comfy and modern. One thing I noticed is that the room service was super-fast and super good. We barely had to wait to get anything. And because we exhausted mum so much during the days while we were there, she always fell asleep before me and I got stay up really late watching movies in bed without her realising. Bonus!”
She said: “The hotel we stayed at was really nice and comfy and I got to share the big bed with my mamia. I think people have to take nice lessons to work there or else they’re just the nicest people ever. I also loved that around the hotel were so much cool street art. Next time we visit Dunedin I’d like to stay there again but I’d also like to stay at Lanarch Castle for one night because they have a big house there you can stay at and that would be really cool.”
Disclosure: The Eats Worlds were guests of Enterprise Dunedin but meals were independently paid for and, as always, all opinions, science nerding, train spotting and face stuffing is our own.