24 hours in Dunedin

Behind the heritage facades beats the heart of a buzzing university city, writes Briar Jensen.

Dunedin, winner of New Zealand's most beautiful city award last year, is often considered conservative. But with almost one-fifth of the city's population being university students, it is not dull. Among the beautifully preserved gold rush-funded heritage buildings are funky fashion and design stores, hip cafes and wine bars.

Despite having the world's steepest street, the central city is flat and compact and you can navigate comfortably on foot.

The Otago Peninsula is a treat for nature lovers, being home to rare yellow-eyed penguins and the only mainland breeding ground of the northern royal albatross.

8am

If you're a discerning coffee drinker, head to Strictly Coffee in a side street just behind the Octagon city centre, where you can watch the industrial-sized roaster in action. The best way to explore the city is on foot, so start at the Octagon, overlooked by St Paul's Anglican Cathedral, the imposing Municipal Chambers, Dunedin Public Art Gallery and, in the background, the Gothic spire of First Church. Read the pavement plaques around the Robert Burns statue, which feature intriguing and revealing quotes from notable Dunedin writers and poets.

Strictly Coffee, 23 Bath Street, open Monday to Friday, 8am-4pm, see strictlycoffee.co.nz.

9am

Walk down Stuart Street to the Flemish Renaissance railway station, reputedly New Zealand's most photographed building, with its Royal Doulton mosaic tiles and leadlight windows. Here you can book the scenic Taieri Gorge Railway, which runs half-day return trips to rugged Central Otago. Ditch the diet and follow the delicious smell to nearby Cadbury World for a factory tour with loads of samples.

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Taieri Gorge Railway, Dunedin Railway Station, Anzac Avenue, see taieri.co.nz. Cadbury World, 280 Cumberland Street, open seven days, tours from $NZ12 ($10), children from $NZ7, bookings essential, see cadburyworld.co.nz.

10am

Follow Cumberland Street to the University of Otago, New Zealand's oldest university and the first to admit women, where imposing volcanic rock and limestone buildings cluster around a tranquil, tree-lined stream.

Cross the road to the Otago Museum for exhibits on natural and cultural heritage. If it's cold outside, warm up in the museum's Tropical Forest, home to hundreds of colourful butterflies.

Take a City Walks tour with Athol Parks, a local who knows the stories behind the city's Victorian and Edwardian buildings. Alternatively, combine history with cuisine on a Zest Gourmet Walk, which on Saturdays includes the Farmers' Market for tasty samples of wild game, artisan cheeses and seasonal fruits.

Otago Museum, 419 Great King Street, open daily 10am to 5pm, entry free; Tropical Forest, entry $NZ9.50, children $NZ4.50, see www.otagomuseum.govt.nz. City Walks runs 60- and 90-minute tours from October to April, $NZ20 (children free), see citywalks.co.nz. Zest tailors food tours to your culinary preferences and available time. Half-day tours, includingtastings and lunch, $NZ179, see zestfoodtours.co.nz.

Midday

If you're near the rail station, Ironic Cafe and Bar is a great lunch choice, or if you're back at the Octagon try Nova Cafe, next to the Art Gallery. For beach-view dining, try Swell at St Clair.

Ironic, 9 Anzac Ave, +64 (0)3 477 9988. Nova Cafe, 29 The Octagon, +64 (0)3 479 0808. Swell, 8 The Esplanade, St Clair Beach, +64 (0)3 455 9500.

1pm

Dunedin's design schools incubate innovation, so grab the f*ink guide to arts and fashion in Dunedin (available from i-site Visitor Centre in the Octagon) for some serious retail therapy. Don't miss iconic New Zealand fashion designers Nom*D and Tanya Carlson. Lure showcases six contemporary jewellery designers in one location and Gallery De Novo specialises in quality art. Explore the tranquil, authentic Chinese Garden.

i-site Visitor Centre, Civic Centre, 48 The Octagon, see www.dunedin.govt.nz. The Dunedin Chinese Garden, corner Rattray and Cumberland streets, $NZ8, children free, see www.dunedinchinesegarden.com.

3pm

Head to the Otago Peninsula, stopping en route at Larnach Castle, a neo-gothic manor surrounded by 14 hectares of manicured gardens with harbour views. Continue to Taiaroa Head for a wildlife cruise aboard the MV Monarch to see fur seals, albatross, shags and penguins. Visit the Royal Albatross Centre to get close to these enormous birds and Penguin Place conservation reserve for rare yellow-eyed penguins.

Larnach Castle, Camp Road, garden visit $NZ10, children $NZ3, castle and gardens $NZ25, children $NZ10, see www.larnachcastle.co.nz. Monarch Wildlife Cruises, Wellers Rock Wharf, Otago Peninsula, $NZ40, children $NZ15, see wildlife.co.nz. Royal Albatross Centre, Taiaroa Head, albatross.org.nz. Penguin Place, Harington Point Road, see penguinplace.co.nz.

6pm

Unwind with a drink next to the cosy fireplace at Spanish-themed lounge bar Pequeno, tucked down a back lane.

Pequeno, laneway opposite Rialto Theatre, Moray Place, open Monday-Friday from 5pm, Saturday from 7pm, see pequeno.co.nz.

7pm

There are plenty of dining options around the Octagon, including Two Chefs Bistro. For a pub meal with matching beer, go to Speight's Ale House. If you love seafood and nostalgic kitchen memorabilia a taxi to quirky Plato is a must.

Two Chefs, 121 Stuart Street, +64 (0)3 477 7293. Speight's Ale House, 200 Rattray Street, see thealehouse.co.nz. Plato, 2 Birch Street, see platocafe.co.nz.

10pm

Cocktails don't come any more personalised than at Toast, where owner Shane Legge quizzes you on your favourite tastes before blending the most intricately flavoured alcoholic concoctions.

No, Dunedin is definitely not dull.

Toast, 59 Princes Street, +64 (0)3 479 2177. For accommodation, retire in style at a heritage B&B, such as Fletcher Lodge or One Royal Terrace, both within walking distance of the city centre. Fletcher Lodge, 276 High Street, see www.fletcherlodge.co.nz. One Royal Terrace, 1 Royal Terrace, see oneroyalterrace.co.nz.

Briar Jensen travelled courtesy of Tourism Dunedin.

Virgin Blue has a fare to Dunedin for $259 with a change of aircraft in Brisbane. Air New Zealand charges about $322 with a change of aircraft in Christchurch. (Fares are one way from Melbourne and Sydney, including tax.)

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