A weekend in the southern city won't be long enough, writes Alexia Santamaria.

It's not hard to see why the Scots thought they'd found paradise in the Otago Peninsula.

And with all the tourist attractions that have developed over recent years, Dunedin is now the perfect place for a relaxing, and stimulating, break. It was also recently named New Zealand's most under-rated city by CNN Travel. Big enough to be interesting, but small enough to be convenient, it oozes character, charm and fun. If you're spending a few days there, here are options you should try to include.

Water

If you have the time and energy — it's a bit of a walk back up the hill — visit Tunnel Beach, named because of the tunnel John Cargill excavated so his family could swim in private (tragically it was this very spot that would take his youngest daughter in a drowning accident). The scenery is magnificent, with sweeping sandstone arches and dramatic cliff faces animated by the fury of wild waves crashing on the rocks. It's one of those places where Mother Nature exerts her beauty and force in equal measures.

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Definitely walk down to the tunnel if the tide is right, it's well worth it. If you don't have time for a Tunnel Beach excursion, gorgeous St Clair is 10 minutes from the city centre, unusual for such a stunning and dramatic surf spot. The cafes are great and a stroll along the Esplanade is a Dunedin must-do.

Gardens

Dunedin has a number of gardens worth a visit. I had time only for a stroll around the Botanic Gardens, which was impressive enough (totally deserving of its status of six-star Garden of International Significance) but I have heard great things from locals about Olveston's Garden, Glenfalloch Woodland and the Chinese Gardens. The Botanic Gardens are more than 30ha of stunning floral and green planting with more than 6800 plant species and on a beautiful day there's nowhere lovelier to have a picnic and a walk. Don't forget to grab some duck food.

History

Toitū, the Otago Settlers Museum, is a truly delightful space, where Dunedin's history is presented in an interactive way. From the lives of local Māori to the Scots, the Chinese, and everyone who followed the discovery of gold, you really get to experience Dunedin's highs and lows through an entertaining series of exhibits. It traces all aspects of the settlers' lives — innovation, art, fashion, domestic life and transport. You'll find yourself spending longer in there than you planned.

Food

Where to start with food in Dunedin? The Otago Farmers' Markets are wonderful — especially in stonefruit season — and a great place to have breakfast or stock up on picnic treats. Wolf at the Door and The Corner Store Cafe are excellent for coffee. Kiki Beware is the place to go for modern comfort food (think banh mi sandwiches, poutine, spicy fried chicken) Good Good Burgers for, well, (very) good burgers. Johnnie's Southern Kitchen takeout for some of the best Tex/Mex/Cajun outside the US; Emmerson's and New New New Corporation for excellent local craft brews. Francesca's Italian Kitchen for real Italian pizzas and Vault 21 for cocktails and delicious sharing food.

Wildlife

With nothing much between Dunedin and Antarctica, there are some impressive wildlife viewing options and Orokonui Ecosanctuary is definitely one of them. On the day we visited, the resident takahē and kaka put on a great impromptu show; it was magical to see their comedic antics in their natural habitat. The ecosanctuary is the South Island's flagship biodiversity project. Multiple species of plants and animals are protected from predators by the huge fence that surrounds the 307ha of forest. Many rare and endangered species have been reintroduced (including nearly 20 kiwi) and its altitude makes it even more magnificent as the mist swirls around the trees.

If you don't mind staying up until 10pm, when they come home from fishing, the Little Blue Penguin experience at the Royal Albatross Centre at Taiaroa Head is a must. Seeing hundreds of Little Blues swim ashore with fish for their babies, in nests sometimes metres above sea, is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

A weekend is nowhere near enough for this fun city — we haven't even mentioned Lanarch Castle, the world-class train journeys, the incredible street art trail, the museum and Port Chalmers. Go for the week or plan a couple of visits, no matter what your interests, Dunedin will have something everyone in your group will love.

FACT BOX

GETTING THERE

Jetstar and Air New Zealand fly direct from Auckland to Dunedin.