Uncover an authentic Victorian precinct while exploring the imaginative fantasy steampunk world of vintage parts, glorious costumes, and amusing commentary.
Nature is on a show with blue penguins waddling home past visitors and Duntroon geological rock landscape a short trip away. Combine with a trip to another Victorian showpiece, Timaru, and enjoy time spent in mid-Canterbury.
For more ideas about mid-Canterbury, check out our regional guide.
Genuine dyed in the wool heritage bottled and reimagined for visitors. Oamaru has curated the history of Oamaru, New Zealand, into quirky, fun encounters. You are not going to forget your visit in a hurry.
Kids are welcome to clamber, jump and climb at Steampunk. The blue penguins will capture your heart as they waddle back to their nests in the evening, Oamaru is definitely worth a stopover.
Oamaru’s wealth is built on the refrigerated meat trade. In 1880 the newfound wealth was heady, with imposing buildings made from locally quarried limestone rivalling Los Angeles for the population size and grandeur.
Then it went effectively bankrupt, and the town barely grew from the late 1890s. The town itself hardly grew after 1881. Its small hinterland – a triangle of farmland, no more than 35 kilometres on each side (the Pacific Ocean, the Waitaki River, and the Kakanui Mountains) – limited its development.
Oamaru became a town where the young population left. The decline protected the Victorian facades and grand buildings as there was no interest or desire to knock them down for redevelopment.
The 1970s saw the beginnings of an interest in marketing Oamaru’s distinctive street frontages. The cute blue and yellow-eyed little cuties, adorable waddling penguins for Oamaru stoically trudging up and down the beach as regular as a clockwork, became an iconic symbol.
Best Time to Visit Oamaru
Oamaru can be visited all year round, with each season bringing its own unique charm.
From the Northern Hemisphere – remember New Zealand’s seasons are opposite to Europe and North America. Summer is between December to early March, and winter is from June to August.
Check out Oamaru Weather Forecast and Observations for an up to date weather report.
Things to do in Oamaru
Explore the Victorian Precinct
Victorian Precinct is a busy hub with quirky shops, galleries, and traditional artisan crafts such as bookbinding. A stroll into history with nooks and crannies supporting small artisan pop up ventures and eccentric interiors inviting you to check out exactly what it was you thought you saw.
Come here to look for handcrafted items, antiques, and treasures. Explore the galleries, which are full of imagination and surprises. Or simply relax with a glass of craft beer or a fine whisky.
Enter the Steampunk Universe at Steampunk HQ Museum
Steampunk HQ is a museum where you are encouraged to climb, jump and turn levers on and off. It’s fantasy and surreal, with imagination defining the style and materials of the exhibits, the gallery and the contraptions both inside and outside. Steampunk HQ museum is a perfect rainy day place to visit.
Steampunk is a marriage between Victoriana and science fiction. Throw elaborate detail, bustles, copper, crystal, dark corners and highly detailed knobs, levers, traps, and screws. Steampunk has an eye for a functional machine, spluttering and trudging down the street with a sauce swell in a top hat as the driver.
An annual Steampunk Festival is a show stopper, parasol duelling with sharpened edges, teapot racing, and a fashion show are just some of the events organised.
Oamaru is the centre of New Zealand for Penny, or Ordinary Cycles as they are officially called. You can also check out the Ordinary Cycle Club, which loves to venture out on their Penny Farthings.
Stroll Down Harbour Steet
Head to Harbour Street, a street lined with grand limestone buildings, most of which date back to the late 1880s. There are cafes and personal historical touches which make the buildings feel authentic. It is the best free thing to do in Oamaru.
Harbour Street has second hand/vintage clothing, the Lost Souls Gallery features surreal, slightly odd artwork.
Ride the Vintage Train at Oamaru Steam & Rail
Oamaru Steam & Rail takes you on a picturesque train ride along the clay cliffs of the Victorian Harbour, where you’ll arrive at the Red Sheds. These are occupied by local artisans & craftspeople. Here you can disembark to browse The Forrester Gallery. The building itself is an Instagrammer favourite.
The train operates every Sunday and for special events – for example, Victorian weekend, around Christmas and the New Year. The train is managed by a volunteer group that runs vintage trains around Oamaru’s famous Victorian Precinct and harbour.
Get a Picture at Moeraki Boulders
Just around the corner is Moeraki boulders, granite shaped and smoothed by aeons of seawater movement boulders lying on the sandy shores of Koekohe Beach. It is a must-visit natural attraction in Oamaru.
Around 50 boulders are present on the beach, best seen at low tide. Moeraki Boulders can be reached via the Moeraki Boulders Scenic Reserve parking lot or the Moeraki Boulders Cafe.
Moeraki Boulders is now a hot spot for Instagrammers. Don’t let this discourage you from visiting in the half-light of either sunrise or sunset. Magic made by nature is worth the visit.
Walk the South Hill Walkway
The walkway runs between Takaro Park and Lookout Point. The two-kilometre South Hill Walkway takes you through Oamaru’s Historic Precinct, with a stop at the blue penguin colony as an option. From Lookout Point, the views of the town and ocean are magnificent.
Hike at the Skyline Walk
The Skyline Walk takes you high into the hills for wonderful exercise. The 4.6-kilometre track begins at Fenwick Park and is mostly uphill, but the panoramic view from the summit will keep you going.
The trek is both scenic and strenuous, with tall pine trees, fantails, bellbirds, and native forest. You will pass by the observatory of the Astronomical Society.
Explore Oamaru’s Art Galleries
Oamaru is a creative town with a few art galleries to visit, which are a fun way to kill time for free.
The Forrester Gallery, a renowned gallery housed in a stunning neo-classical 1884 building, should be on your must-see list. Local and Maori art, as well as contemporary prints, paintings, and sculptures, are featured in their ever-changing displays.
The Grainstore Gallery, located in the Victorian Precinct, features a lively mix of local art.
Finally, stop by Art on Tyne, a cute art and gift shop, to pick up something one-of-a-kind and handcrafted locally to take home.
Take a Walk Through the Oamaru Public Garden
Oamaru Public Gardens, a Victorian garden in all its fussy, boxed glory. It was established in 1976, making it among the oldest ones in New Zealand. The garden has received a 5 star ‘Garden of Significance’ rating from New Zealand Gardens Trust.
Oamaru Public Gardens are brimming with natural and man-made features. There are sitting areas for contemplation and ideal picnic sites everywhere you look.
Some highlights include the Fernery, a cool and shady area to sit. A Victorian garden must do plant accessory is a fernery, and Oamaru is a great example of the style and arrangement of a Victorian-era Fernery.
Then there is a band rotunda, aviary and peacock house. The heritage trees are a massive height adding to the garden’s majesty as Victoriana in all its planted glory. A perfect place for the Victorian heritage week tea parties.
The main gates are classical statements of splendour circa 1876. Then Craig Foundation, Italian marble surrounded by formal beds, welcomes you into the nineteenth-century world of botanical wonders.
Another feature is the Wonderland Statue donated to the children of Oamaru in 1926 by Robert Milligan. The statue is located in the Wonderland Garden. The summer house or conservatory is a popular place for romance. Look for original garden objects such as a sundial, croquet lawns and a wishing well.
Our favourite is the peacock house. We can visualise those feathers in the ornate Victorian hats.
Explore the Blue Penguin Colony
Blue penguins are the smallest of the world’s penguins, and Oamaru is one of the best places to see them. These world’s rarest penguins come ashore to nest in the rocky outcrops.
Oamaru Penguin Colony has seating set up around the nesting site so that you can watch the penguins waddle ashore. You are welcome to watch the penguins return from the sea in groups with the setting sun. Choose a guided tour to learn more about these amazing creatures.
Soak in the Beautiful Scenery at Bushy Beach Scenic Reserve
Bushy Beach is not only a fantastic photo opportunity with its long-stretching sandy beach backed by coastal forest, but it’s also another great place in Oamaru to spot some wildlife.
The natural coastal vegetation at Bushy Beach Scenic Reserve is the last remaining in the area. Wind-sheared scrub, dominated by hebe, ngaio, mahoe and broadleaf, clings to the cliffs and shelters penguins, other seabirds, and various insects.
Unique flora and fauna exist here – a number of native plants and insects are at either their southern or northern geographical limit. Yellow-eyed penguin/Hoiho breed at Bushy Beach.
To avoid disturbing the yellow-eyed penguins/Hoiho, keep off the beach between 03:00 pm and 09:00 am. Keep at least 20 meters distance from marine wildlife.
Adult penguins return to feed their young at any time of the day. You can also regularly see New Zealand fur seals, with New Zealand sea lions and elephant seals occasional visitors to the beach.
Follow a 10-minute zig-zag track to the top of a cliff with some great viewing of a seal colony on the rocks below. Continue onwards to a viewing hide where you can watch yellow-eyed penguins on the beach (usually between 03:00 pm and 09:00 am).
No dogs are allowed in the reserve.
Visit the Childhood Home of Janet Frame
Located at 56 Eden St, the Janet Frame House is the Oamaru home of one of New Zealand’s most prolific and celebrated authors – Janet Frame. The house is now a museum with information on the life and works of Janet Frame.
Visiting New Zealand author’s house is a book buff must-do destination with your trip organised around opening hours. Remember to check beforehand.
Learn About Town’s Early History at Waitaki Museum & Archives
Waitaki Museum (also called North Otago Museum) collects artefacts and objects that tell the natural, cultural, agricultural and industrial stories of the Waitaki District.
Here you can explore Oamaru’s past, from early Maori occupation around the Waitaki River mouth, European settlement by whalers and run holders through to the discovery of gold and the wool and meat industries, which led to the development of Oamaru as a significant port town.
Discover Fossils at Vanished World
Vanished World is a fascinating geological site with prehistoric penguins, Sharktooth dolphins, and whale skeletons and fossils. It includes a visit to the well known Elephant Rocks. Vanished World is located 43 kilometres from Oamaru, which is approximately a 35-minute drive.
The self-guided trail spans coastal localities from Moeraki to Oamaru and extends inland through the Waitaki Valley. The trail has more than 20 sites related to landforms, distinctive rocks, minerals, and fossils.
In partnership with the University of Otago, The Department of Geology is pleased to be in partnership with Vanished World Inc. – supporting the Vanished World Trail in North Otago. The Vanished World Trail allows public access to geological localities that reveal the ancient history of the region ~ fossil sites, extinct volcanoes, mineral localities, and major landforms. Vanished World localities range from Waianakarua to Oamaru on the coast and inland to Duntroon.
The Vanished World trail is self-guided; drive from place to place, starting or stopping at any point. At most localities, there is a short walk to the site. A colour A3 brochure about the trail gives a map, photographs and comments about each site. Brochures are sold in Oamaru, Duntroon at the Vanished World Centre, and other local towns.
Satisfy the Foodie Inside You at Whitestone Cheese
Whitestone Cheese is an Oamaru-based artisan cheese factory. Here, you can enjoy cheese tasting and a factory tour to observe cheese making. It is foodie heaven for those who love cheese.
It’s a great choice for a rainy day or things to do with kids in Oamaru. Who doesn’t like to see liquid milk being heated, boiled, curdled and squeezed into the recognisable shape of cheese?
Take a Braided River Jet Boating Ride
Braided River Jet Boating experiences will have your heart pumping with each turn or gazing out at wildlife unique to the braided river system.
Each trip is tailor-made to your preferences. Choose from an adventure to the Waitaki Hydro-Dam, out toward the Pacific Ocean, or hours of sightseeing and maybe a bit of fishing.
Indulge in a Wine Tasting Session
The Waitaki District is also emerging as one of New Zealand’s unique wine-growing regions.
Take a wine tour and visit boutique cellar doors while enjoying the landscape. Boutique family-owned vineyards from Ostler Wine, River-T Estate Wines and Sublime Wine follow the gravel beds of the Waitaki River. Hand-picked grapes and seasonal freshly prepared food create delicious moments for a foodie day trip
Learn About Farming at Totara Estate
Totara Estate, a historic farm, is the birthplace of New Zealand’s billion-dollar frozen meat industry. It is located 9 kilometres from Ōamaru and is one of the top tourist attractions.
Here, you can explore a variety of reconstructed farm buildings made of local limestone that depict what life was like for a farm worker in the mid-1800s. Stables, cookhouses, tack rooms, bunk houses, and butcher sheds are among the structures that set the tone for a day of learning about farming and the history of Ōamaru.
Afterwards, unwind in the cookhouse with a cup of billy tea and scones. Pre-book a guided tour to get the most out of your visit.
Admire the Stunning Coastal View at Cape Wanbrow Walks
Cape Wanbrow is a beautiful walking track that leads to Lookout Point, where you can enjoy panoramic views of the harbour and the Pacific Ocean. The climb up the walkway is steep, and it can be slippery after rain.
Dogs are allowed on this walking track. The access is via Test Street or the lookout at Selwyn Street.
Cape Wanbrow has mountain bike tracks as well. The trails are steep, with varying levels of difficulty (up to grade 5), but they are mostly intermediate. The 8-kilometre circuit is interconnected, allowing you to explore the area.
The mountain biking tracks are well signposted. The lookout point on Tamar St. or the eastern end of Test St provides access to the tracks.
Attend an Event at Oamaru Opera House
Oamaru Opera House is an event house located on historic Thames Street. Oamaru Opera House hosts a variety of shows, including comedy, theatre, music, and dance. It has nine flexible spaces that can be rented for private functions and events.
Visit the Opera House Cafe & Bar for delicious sweets, light meals, world-famous Allpress coffee or a selection of local and international beers, wines, and spirits.
Visit Friendly Bay Playground
Friendly Bay Playground is a modern playground and a must-see tourist attraction for families with young children.
Rings, an overhead climbing ladder, parallel bars, and a vaulting horse are among the fascinating gymnastics equipment found here. Aside from that, the pirate ship, giant elephant, flying fox, hamster wheel, and the famous penny-farthing swing set are all available for children to enjoy.
Friendly Bay Playground has public toilets, coin-operated barbecues, and a uniquely designed steampunk drinking fountain. A walkway surrounds the playground, allowing parents to keep an eye on their children while taking a leisurely walk.
Get Inspired by Some Art at Woolstore Complex
Woolstore Complex is a historic limestone building that was built in 1881. Originally, it was used to store wool and grain. Today, it is home to a gift shop, an auto collection and a portrait studio and 15 art galleries. With such a variety of things to see, it’s no wonder that Woolstore Complex is an art lover’s paradise.
Visit the Woolstore art galleries to see a variety of art and design that showcases the skilled craftsmanship of local and international artists, or simply visit the gift shop to purchase exquisite souvenirs for your loved ones. If you’re feeling hungry, the cafe here serves tasty snacks and beverages to quench your hunger.
Take a Trip to Whitestone City
Whitestone City is an important historical hub that provides interactive tours of the Victorian Heritage Precinct. It’s housed in a grain store that dates back to 1882. Although it is technically a museum, the experience here is so interactive and fascinating that you will feel as if you have travelled through time.
Whitestone City is fitted out in the style of a colonial town, with events, exhibitions, merchants, and a variety of individuals dressed up to give visitors a taste of what Oamaru was like in its early days.
Stroll at S14 Beach
Between Oamaru and Kakanui sits S14, a beautiful sandy beach. It has no official name on the map, but locals have nicknamed it the S14 Beach because it is located near the 14th hole of the North Otago Golf Club.
The beach is a great place to take a stroll, relax, and enjoy the stunning views of the ocean. Visit in the evening to watch the sunset for a romantic experience that you and your partner will never forget.
Ride a Cycle on the Alps 2 Ocean Cycle Trail
Alps 2 Ocean Cycle Track is New Zealand’s longest cycle track, and many consider it the “jewel in the crown” of New Zealand’s 22 Great Rides. The track is suitable for all ages and is divided into nine sections with easy to intermediate grades.
The track begins at the foot of the spectacular Aoraki Mt Cook in the Aoraki National Park or in Tekapo, with both paths meeting on the shores of Lake Pukaki’s turquoise waters. The track then passes through Twizel and the Lake Ohau shoreline before descending to the highest point on the trail, where you can see the Mackenzie basin in all its glory. From here, the track follows an easy grade and reaches the town of Oamaru.
Along the way, you’ll pass through a variety of landscapes, from native beech forest and tussock lands to high-country sheep stations. You will ride alongside the Waitaki Hydro lakes and dams and the gorgeous green plains of the Waitaki Valley.
Allow 5-7 days to ride the entire track, and don’t forget to take some time to explore the area while you’re here. Alternatively, if time is limited, go on a day trip or do a section or two over a long weekend.
For a track map, click here.
Visit Clark’s Mill
Clark’s Mill is a historic flour mill that was built in 1866. It is located 13 kilometres south of Oamaru. It is one of the few remaining water-powered mills in New Zealand, which is still operational today.
The building’s main attraction is a rare collection of roller milling machines constructed in 1893. The original water race, a railway connection constructed in 1877 to connect the mill to the main trunk line, and a millers’ home known as Smokey Joe’s are among the other attractions.
A self-guided tour of the mill is available, including experienced hosts, historic images, and other educational displays. Tours are provided every Sunday and Thursday afternoons from October to April, with the machinery in operation on the last Sunday of each month.
Discover the Natural Habitat of Some Wetland Birds at Devil’s Bridge Wetland
Devil’s Bridge Wetland is a man-made wetland created by local farmers and supporters. Many wetland bird species, such as Black Swans, use this lagoon as a breeding ground. The lagoon is protected by a QEII covenant.
The wetland is bordered by a walking track with various native plants and flowers alongside. Devil’s Bridge Wetland is on private property; therefore, please obey all signs posted by the owner.
To reach Devil’s Bridge Wetland, take Eden St in Oamaru for 3 kilometres. Make a left on Homestead Rd, then a right on Devils Bridge Rd. Follow the road for about 4.5 kilometres until you see the wetland on your right. Parking is available in a few spots.
Admire Some Sunflowers at Kakanui’s Sunflowers Field
Kakanui is a small town famous for its sunflower field. The town’s sunflower fields bloom and become a popular tourist attraction every year. The best time to visit the sunflower fields is from early January to late February.
Topflite grows these sunflowers to yield some of their seeds. Click here to learn more.
The sunflower field is a beautiful sight and makes for a great photo opportunity. So, if you’re ever in Oamaru during the summertime, make sure to check it out.
Ride a Horse at Sanctum Grove Equine
Sanctum Grove Equine is a family-friendly horse riding centre located 25 kilometres from Oamaru.
The place offers a variety of horseback riding experiences, such as horse trekking, one-hour rides, two-hour rides, and private lessons. You can also hire a pony for birthdays and other special occasions.
Shop Some Fresh Local Produce at Oamaru Farmer’s Market
Oamaru Farmer’s Market is held every Sunday morning from 09:30 am till 01:00 pm. It is located on the corner of Wansbeck and Tyne Streets next to Scott’s Brewery.
You’ll find a wide variety of fresh local produce, such as fruit and vegetables, meat, honey, eggs, cheese, bread, and much more. As you walk around, try something from the food trucks and food stalls, such as freshly made breakfast or steaming coffee.
Explore the Ancient Maori Rock Art Sites of Duntroon
Duntroon is a small town located 43 kilometres south of Oamaru. The town is home to some of the most well-preserved Maori rock art sites in New Zealand.
The town is home to two Maori rock art sites, the Takiroa Art Site and Maerewhenua Historic Area.
Takiroa Art Site
Takiroa Art Site features charcoal and red ochre works on the limestone walls of several large overhangs. Some have been well conserved, but many have suffered from weathering.
Animals and sailboats are depicted in the paintings, the antiquity of which is unclear. The local Ngai Tahu iwi presently manages the site, and the paintings are protected by protective fencing.
Maerewhenua Historic Area
Maerewhenua Historic Area is an identical site where the paintings are located, on the underside of a limestone. The majority of the paintings are made of charcoal.
The painting here dates back to the time before the arrival of Europeans. Moa bones have been discovered here, showing that the area has been occupied for hundreds of years.
Free Things to do in Oamaru
There are plenty of free things to do in Oamaru. Here are some of our favourites:
- Visit Oamaru Historic Victorian Precinct
- Explore Harbour Street
- Visit Moeraki Boulders
- Visit Oamaru Public Garden
- Explore Oamaru’s Art Galleries
- Stroll at S14 Beach
- Visit Bushy Beach Scenic Reserve
- Visit Woolstore Complex
- Explore Oamaru’s walking tracks like South Hill Walkway, Skyline Walk and Cape Wanbrow Walks.
Unusual Things to do in Oamaru
Here are some unusual things to do in Oamaru that you’ll love:
- Visit Steampunk HQ
- Visit Whitestone City
- Discover fossils at Vanished World
- Explore the Oamaru Blue Penguin Colony
- Ride the vintage train at Oamaru Steam & Rail
Oamaru Marine Life
Oamaru’s marine life is preserved, protected and abundant. Oamaru Blue Penguins, Yellow Eyed Penguins and New Zealand Fur Seals are frequent visitors to Oamaru shores, with many returning to breed.
Yellow-eyed penguins swim as far as 50 kilometres off-shore and dive up to 120 metres for their food which they find mainly near the seabed. Yellow-eyed penguins can be seen at Nugget Point Totāra Scenic Reserve (Roaring Bay) and Curio Bay. Yellow-eyed Penguin Trust, a non-governmental organisation, works on the conservation of Yellow-eyed penguins across the area.
Please use the hide for viewing and stay off the beach. Supporting wildlife viewing means at least 4 metres from the wildlife and respecting their space.
How to Reach Oamaru
Oamaru is located in the Waitaki district of New Zealand. Oamaru is 86 kilometres south of Timaru, 247 kilometres south of Christchurch and 113 kilometres north of Dunedin.
InterCity operates regular buses to Oamaru from Timaru, Christchurch and Dunedin.
Is Omaru Worth Visiting?
Oamaru is definitely worth visiting. This small town has plenty of things to see and do. Oamaru is worth visiting for its Victorian architecture, blue penguins, incredible marine life, walking tracks, art galleries and Steampunk HQ.
Travel Pack Information
- City of stone New Zealand Geographic, Written and Photographed by Vaughan Yarwood, Issue 073.
- Oamaru Cycling Tracks