Dunedin's History & Culture



It is for good reason that New Zealand's oldest city is known as the Edinborough of the South - 'Dunedin' comes from Dun Eideann the Scots-Gaelic name for Edinburgh, founded largely by Scottish immigrants, who raised the impressive buildings which now add much to the city's charm. 

History and Culture of Dunedin

Dunedin was once New Zealand’s largest city. Those glory days are over, however Dunedin’s forward thinking 160 years ago has left a significant mark on New Zealand’s history. The town planning, architecture and the public buildings erected in the late 1800’s have made Dunedin a wonderful place to visit even it is no longer our most populated city.

It is also a UNESCO designated City of Literature. It is a magnificent example of a small city that lives, breathes and connects through its people, its culture and love of literature. Today, it is best known as a university town of excellence. 


Early years

Captain Cook first stepped ashore in Dunedin in early 1770 and named Cape Saunders on the Otago Peninsula and Saddle Hill. He reported back to England he had seen numerous penguins and seals in the area, attracting sealers in the late 19th century.

Then in 1848 the Lay Association of the Free Church of Scotland founded Dunedin, deciding it would make it the principal town for its Scottish settlement.

A surveyor from England, Charles Kettle was given the task of creating the foundation of the city. His brief was to reproduce the characteristics of Edinburgh. With his bold design he created the Octagon. It is the city centre of Dunedin. It is an eight-sided plaza with the main street going through it.

The city has subsequently grown, but the Octagon still remains the town centre.


Otago Gold Rush

The population of Dunedin remained small until the gold rush in the 1860’s. As the number of people increased so did the wealth of the city and it quickly became New Zealand’s largest urban centre.

The city invested in education, religion and public works. Over the next 40 years’ substantial buildings including the Otago Museum, the main building of the University of Otago (New Zealand’s first university), the Council Chambers and St Joseph’s Catholic Cathedral where erected

Otago Gold Rush
Boom Times

In 1900s Dunedin continued to thrive on the back of the gold boom. The economy was strong and businesses prospered. There were a number of outstanding schools and Otago University was the best in New Zealand.

Banks and other financial institutions grew along Princes Street, south of the Octagon. Another wave of public buildings saw the completion of the Law Courts, the main Railway Station and St Paul’s Anglican Cathedral. As the gold boom petered out the economy turned rural and Dunedin became the leading wool-selling centre in the South Island.


After the Second World War

In the post-war era farming thrived and industry expanded. Niche industries appeared in engineering, bio-technology and fashion. The city began to expand with new housing suburbs built on the surrounding hills.

A new airport opened in 1962 and Port Chalmers on the Otago Harbour continued to provide a deep- water facility and a means of transporting goods.


Dunedin today

Today Dunedin is known as the Edinburgh of New Zealand, wearing its Scottish heritage with pride. It is one of the best-preserved Victorian and Edwardian cities in the Southern Hemisphere.

Larnach Castle, built in 1871 with its spectacular views over the city and harbour is a reminder of yester-year. As is Olveston House, a fine example of Edwardian design. The home with 35 rooms was designed for a merchant family in the early 1900s.The mainstay of Dunedin today is the University of Otago with a student roll of about 18,800. It plays an important role in the city’s economy, its social and intellectual life. The students, known as ‘scarfies’ are a dominant fixture in the city bringing youth and fun to the community. The university is well regarded for it medical and dental schools, with Dunedin Hospital being the major hub for Southland and Otago region.

Dunedin Public Art Gallery houses New Zealand’s oldest public art collection. Old masters feature in its permanent collection alongside significant works by Dunedin and national artists such as Ralph Hotere and Frances Hodgkins. 

Dunedin is also famous for its wildlife. With a long and picturesque harbour, the views are endless, the beaches are beautifully rugged and the seals, sea lions, birds and penguins are plentiful. At the foot of Taiaroa Head, the entrance to the harbour is the Royal Albatross Centre. It is the only place in the world where an albatross colony is on the mainland and the Northern Royal Albatross can be viewed in their natural habitat. 

Dunedin Today

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