Oamaru is a small town located on the East coast of New Zealand’s South Island. Often overlooked by many people on a quick 1 or 2-week tour of New Zealand, but Oamaru has a lot to offer for those who take the time to see it. I spent 2 months living and working in Oamaru on my working holiday and loved this little town. I made friends, a home and lots of memories here. Here are some of the best things to do in Oamaru.
1) Oamaru Steampunk HQ
Prior to visiting Oamaru I had never heard of steampunk before and didn’t really know what it was. Steampunk is a genre of science fiction that typically involves steam-powered machinery and inventions. Often incorporating brass, copper, wood and other older materials into inventions of all kinds. The Steampunk HQ is a museum/gallery of sorts that features a range of steampunk-inspired designs by different artists. It’s easy to spot in town with the large steampunk engine outside that blasts flames and makes strange noises when a $2 coin is inserted.
Inside the Steampunk HQ are 2 rooms and a large outside area with lots of different exhibitions, many of which are interactive too. There is so much to see inside this wacky museum, you could easily spend 1-2 hours exploring here. Visitors are encouraged to take pictures and enjoy the crazy experience that is steampunk. If you are looking to save money too, we got 50% off the standard price by booking on Bookme here.
If you are after a good coffee, Casa Mia Espresso is located next door to the Steampunk HQ and make great barista coffee and a good range of food. Maybe slightly biased as this is where I worked whilst in Oamaru but the coffee is great and the staff are lovely too.
2) Oamaru’s Little Blue Penguin Colony
By far my favourite thing about Oamaru is the penguins. There are two penguin colonies that call Oamaru home and it has even been dubbed ‘penguin town’. I was hella excited to be living in penguin town and went out to see the penguins as often as I could. The little blue penguins that reside in Oamaru are the world’s smallest penguins and they are super cute! There are two ways in which you can see the penguins; either at the official Little Blue Penguin Colony which is located at the end of the waterfront road. Alternatively, you can also see them for free every night when they start to arrive ashore.
The iSite in Oamaru will tell you the only way to see the penguins is by paying to go inside the colony. Whilst seeing the penguins at the penguin colony will help contribute to the conservation of the animals, you can also see them for free. The easiest way to see the penguins is to wait along the harbour once it’s dark outside. I can personally confirm every time we went out to see them we did and were never disappointed. The best place to wait is by the water near the piers. As they nest in the cliffs across the road they have to climb up the embankment here and make their way safely across the road. They return to shore every night after sunset. As they are so small you have to look carefully for a flash of their white bellies in the dark.
A Few Things To Remember:
- Please remember these are wild animals and not to crowd around them.
- Leave the little blue penguins a pathway to get to the other side of the road safely.
- If they seem shy and are not attempting to cross the road it is likely because they cannot see a clear pathway across.
- If you are taking photos, cover the red focus light on your cameras as it is damaging to their eyes.
- Be careful driving at night time anywhere in Oamaru, the penguins will travel further into town to nest than you would expect.
Above all, enjoy watching the little blue penguins as they wander around. It really is a treat to be able to see these animals in the wild.
Here’s a video from when I first saw the Little Blue Penguins in Dunedin:
3) Yellow-Eyed Penguin Colony
Oamaru’s second penguin colony is the yellow-eyed penguins. These are the rarest species of penguins in the world and sadly are in fast decline. Bushy beach scenic reserve in Oamaru still has a small number of yellow-eyed penguins that nest there. Their behavioural pattern is slightly different from the Little Blue Penguins in that they return to their nests, 1-2 hours before sunset. The great thing about this is if you wish you could watch both penguin species in one day!
Access to the beach is closed to the public before 9 am and after 3 pm each day to avoid disturbing the penguins. However, there are viewing platforms above the beach for the public to watch the penguins return to their nests from a safe distance. There are only a few yellow-eyed penguins here and you have to be much more patient to see them than the Little Blue Penguins. Likely you will hear them before you see them, the Maori name for the species is ‘HoiHo’ meaning noise shouter due to the shrill of their call.
Remember to take your binoculars and a camera with a good zoom as you will be watching them from more of a distance than the Little Blue Penguins. Luckily, they are bigger than the Little Blue Penguins so it makes it easier to spot them.
4) Oamaru Victorian Precinct @ Harbour Street
Harbour Street is Oamaru’s very own victorian precinct. Here you will find all manner of strange and wonderful things. Boutique shops selling victorian clothing, steampunk-inspired artworks, antique books and souvenirs. There are a couple of bakeries and coffee shops. ‘Deja Moo’ sell tasty homemade ice cream. Moreover, if you are interested in Oamaru’s historical links with the Victorian era, be sure to visit Whitestone City. An interactive museum that takes you back in time to Oamaru’s Victorian past.
Also on Harbour street is the New Zealand Whisky collection offering tastings at their cellar door. Craftwork Brewery also offers tastings and sell bottles of handcrafted Belgian style ales. One thing we did notice about Harbour street is that a lot of the businesses are not open all the time, it’s worth taking a walk down on a few different occasions if you can as it’s likely you’ll see something that wasn’t open last time.
5) Oamaru Botanical Gardens
Oamaru’s botanical gardens were surprisingly big. One of the latest botanical gardens we had visited whilst in New Zealand and quite unexpected for a small town. They are maintained well throughout the year and have lots of different pathways to wander around and get lost. They even have a small aviary area with a few different birds. One of them will even talk to you! A great way to spend a morning or afternoon in Oamaru without having to spend money.
6) Scott’s Brewery
Lastly, but certainly not least is Oamaru’s own microbrewery. We spent many afternoons after work and weekends down at Scott’s brewery. By far the best place to go for a drink and bite to eat in Oamaru. In the summer there are plenty of places to sit outdoors and enjoy the sun, but the inside is just as nice. The brewery is open plan so you can see the employees working in the brewery, whilst the industrial design inside has a chilled and inviting atmosphere.
They have a large selection of beers and ciders brewed on site. Yes, more than just one cider! Over the summer they had a summer special raspberry cider which was refreshing, sweet but not too sweet and delicious! Scott’s also makes great homemade pizzas, chips and a selection of other food. Every Sunday in the summer they have live music on the deck, we could even hear it from our hostel on days we didn’t go down!
If you’re in Oamaru for a day or two make sure to stop by Scott’s Brewery, we loved it there!
I really enjoyed our time in Oamaru and so glad we decided to stay for a couple of months. It’s a great town to explore with more to see than meets the eye at first and it’s also located well to explore other nearby places on days off work.
Did you enjoy this guide on what to do in Oamaru? Let me know in the comments or by sharing the post on social media.