The top things to do in Oamaru, New Zealand, include a visit to the steampunk museum, a walk through the Oamaru Victorian Precinct, and watching adorable little blue penguins.
As if stepping out of a time machine, we entered the Oamaru Victorian Precinct, and it was 1870. Not literally, but there is an overriding feeling that this is a town Father Time forgot. From Victorian architecture to the steampunk ambience and lovable penguins, there are plenty of things to do in Oamaru.
Oamaru is much more than just a quick stop while driving up the South Island’s east coast. It’s a place to explore, and we recommend spending the night if your schedule allows it.
Here you will find much more than just the fascinating Victorian Precinct. While you will find many of the best things to do in Oamaru there, you also won’t want to miss some of the incredible nature and wildlife surrounding the town.
We had arrived late on a Saturday after a rare and lucky wildlife encounter that included endangered yellow-eyed penguins and a New Zealand fur seal pup. Late to bed, early to rise, and we were ready to go. We define early start as out-the-door before 9 am.
It was a Sunday morning, allowing us to head straight to the weekly farmer’s market, a well-promoted regional event. To our surprise, this town sleeps later than we do, and the market didn’t start until 10 am. This gave us plenty of time for a walk along the coast and a big breakfast. Oamaru is a charming town worth more than a meal stop.
Let New Zealand inspire you …
12 Things to do in Oamaru
Oamaru Victorian Precinct
Arriving here early, before most of the tourists and their modern vehicles, and even before many of the buildings were open, we had a sense that the past had returned. The restored buildings felt untouched.
Everything we see is from the 19th century, and an almost eerie feeling passes over us. As tourists arrive and buildings open up, you have to wonder if Jules Verne sat here when he wrote his romance novels.
It’s a town where time stood still, yet it progressed. No wonder it is home to steampunk in New Zealand.
Famous for limestone, the white buildings have been called whitestone (and yes, this town is home to Whitestone Cheese).
It seems natural that New Zealand’s Steampunk Museum is in the Oamaru Victorian Precinct. The choice of an 1883 grain elevator building offered the perfect ambience, just a bit creepy, yet strangely inviting. Inside Steampunk HQ, we were transported to an alternate reality filled with steampunk paraphernalia. Some of it was just to look at and wonder, while others were hands-on. There was a pipe organ to play, old dentist chairs to sit in, and an alternative reality room to experience.
If you are looking for a definition of steampunk, I think dictionary.com defines it well: “Steampunk is a subgenre of science fiction and fantasy featuring advanced machines and other technology based on steam power of the 19th-century and taking place in a recognisable historical period or a fantasy world.”
Still confused? Visiting won’t help. It’s a difficult subculture to understand, yet fascinating to observe, even without full appreciation. Steampunk HQ is one of those places that you have to experience. Check for discount entry tickets for Steampunk HQ.
Whitestone City Interactive Heritage Centre
We travelled back to Oamaru’s roots at Whitestone City. As if we were fresh off the ship in the late 1800s, we enter into an interactive world that let us experience the fun side of life in that era.
First, we headed into a saloon for a game of bagatelle, then we took a ride on a working penny-farthing carousel, took a seat in the classroom while the teacher gave a lesson, and we simply walked down the replica road.
The interactive experience allows visitors to discover Victorian-era life, from the rules of the classroom and the consequences of breaking them to learning a new game or two. It’s not a museum but rather a place of hands-on discovery.
Oamaru penguin colony
The highlight of many visits to Oamaru is watching the little blue penguins return to shore at dusk. The world’s smallest penguin may also be the cutest. What do you think?
Penguins tending to their eggs stay back and can be viewed during the day. The Blue Penguin Colony is a naturally protected habitat. Staffed with marine scientists, the centre is more than just a tourist destination, they also participate in environmental research and the impact of changing environments on penguins.
Oamaru’s unique playground follows the genre of the town. The spot has been home to a playground since the 1920s. However, the current modern Steampunk playground opened in 2011.
For me, it’s the giant penny-farthing swing that drew me here, but that’s not all. There is also a pirate ship, tower slide, gymnastic rings and equipment, climbing ladders, and a giant elephant.
The Oamaru Farmers’ market is much smaller than I imagined. If your goal is a quick glance at everything, you could visit the entire market in 20 minutes or even less, but don’t rush. Enjoy the country charm you came here for, and plan to stay a bit longer.
Adorable children danced and played, almost upstaging the talented local musicians (who I believe were their parents). Local fare and produce are there to be enjoyed, and if you haven’t had one of the famous South Island cheese rolls, the market is your chance.
Intermix a few local crafts and a friendly atmosphere, and you can be sure most of the town locals are here.
More things to do in Oamaru
- Oamaru Lookout Point: A somewhat steep walk or an easy drive brings you to a spectacular lookout point over the harbour.
- Penny-farthings spotted inside one of the buildings in the Oamaru Victorian Precinct.
- Public Gardens: One of New Zealand’s oldest gardens, the Oamaru Public Gardens were opened in 1876 and are now registered as a ‘Garden of Significance. We enjoyed the peaceful Chinese Garden portion. There are also several fountains, walking paths, a fernery, a children’s playground, a rose garden, and aviaries.
- The Galley Restaurant: From the exterior, The Galley appears to be an old, rusty, seaside building with a door that seems locked but, in fact, is open. From the interior, it is a charming cafe with fabulous traditional breakfasts and, more importantly, great coffee. After your meal, take a walk along the waterfront.
- I was so excited to see these two that I forgot to ask why they dressed this way.
- St Lukes Anglican Church
- This was one of my favourite displays. It sits next to the artist’s workshop that invites visitors to request entry.
More on Oamaru
- Oamaru is a seaside town located on the east coast of the Waitaki District (Otago) in the South Island of New Zealand.
- We drove up the coast after spending several days in Dunedin. We made an overnight stop in Oamaru on our way to Christchurch. The drive times are approximately Dunedin to Oamaru: 1.5 hours, Oamaru to Timaru: 1 hour, and Timaru to Christchurch: 2.25 hours.
- The Seasider train, part of the Dunedin Railway, also travels to Oamaru, similar to the scenic train trip we took to Taieri Gorge.
- There are a number of motels along the road in Oamaru, any of which look fine. We opted for the one with the best price. Reserve a room through Booking.com
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- Flights: we use Expedia for the best and cheapest flight options.
- Accommodations: we use Booking.com (hotels) or BookABatch (self-contained).
- Cars (gas or electric): we use RentalCars to search for deals and dealer ratings.
- Campervans or Motorhomes: we use Campstar where Albom Adventures readers get a 3% discount
- Activity discounts: we check Bookme.com for discounts of up to 70% on activities.
- Private guides: we love the private guides at Tours by Locals
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Have you been to Oamaru? Are you a fan of Steampunk?
More from the South Island you might also like … or check out 18 Extraordinary Things to Do in the South Island.
Disclaimer: We are frequently provided with complimentary entrances, tours, or sample items to aid in the writing of Albom Adventures. However, the opinions expressed here are strictly our own.
Looks like there are loads of things to see and do – lots of fun!
Steam punk has an interesting look to it. Great sight seeing tips! Pinned and tweeted.
I don’t know if I’m a steampunk fan per se, but I can appreciate a commitment to theme! I love the penny farthing swing – functional public art is always awesome. And it looks like Oamaru has a diversity of history and culture to explore. I’d probably be more into the Maori artifacts! Thanks for sharing – this feels VERY far away from Copenhagen!
Very Nice and Informative post.
Thanks for the great article – we love our town and all it has to offer.
I had no idea this place even existed! I love all things steampunk so Oamaru seems perfect to me!
Such an interesting town indeed Rhonda.. that Steampunk HQ is super unique and one of a kind! And the view feom the lookout is great as well. Love to come down here
I didn’t know New Zealand had an entire town dedicated to Steampunk but it doesn’t completely surprise me considering they embraced the Lord of the Rings thing so much! I’ll have to check it out next time!
I usually associate NZ with nature so the historic townscape is something new to me! Whitestone City Interactive Heritage Centre looks like a fun place to visit. Glad that it is full of hands-on experience!
Leanne @ Deep Fried Fruit
Steampunk! Who knew. So interesting.
Elisa (World in Paris)
I never heard about the steampunk concept before and it seems interesting enough for a visit to Oamaru. Loved also the Victorian architecture inside the precinct but why there is the British flab instead of the New Zealand flag on the building?
During my NZ trip I missed a little bit of culture /architecture , it is a pity I did not know about Oamaru (and I had the lonely planet guide!)
As we go back in time, we are in the days when we were a British colony. Remember, the union jack is still on our flag.
The Union Jack predates the NZ flag, so it is there as part of the Victorian Heritage of the area
ah this is too cool! I love all of your photos!
You’d probably find me in the Victorian Precinct or at the Lookout and Public Gardens. I’m a huge fan of victorian architecture and overall architecture/design of gardens. I love that I could experience such different design types all in the same area!
I love Oamaru and have visited several times. We have friends who farm just outside the town and have airbnb rooms on the farm. The old district is lovely and the gardens too. I didn’t know about the rock art centre – that’s very interesting.
The rock art is in Timaru, about an hour north, but worth the trip.
How cool is this?! I’m not a huge Steampunk aficionado, but I always love learning more about art movements and such. I’ll have to check this out on my upcoming trip to NZ. Te Ana Maori Rock Art Centre is absolutely up my alley!
Oh, is that a pretty town or what? It reminds me so much of the mining towns (in the US) I love so much! Now, I was not expecting to see the ocean so close. I am used to these kind of places in the mountains.
I love Steampunk! I even have a Steampunk cosplay outfit. I had no idea that a Steampunk Museum existed in the world. Mind blown. Now I really can’t wait to visit New Zealand.
I’ve never heard of Oamaru before and now that I have, I think I must visit (New Zealand is high on my wish-list anyway). I didn’t really understand much about Steampunk, but I do really love the clothing styles. I’d enjoy visiting the museum to see if I could understand more (and look at the fashions, if they have any on display).
Oamaru is intriguing. If nothing else, I want to take my children to that playground. They’d love it! I’d love it, too.
Very unique and different and I am always up for an adventure. I would love to visit Australia and New Zealand one day.
The headquarter is majestic, and the giant penny farthing is peculiar! The area is magical!! I would enjoy the view of the blue ocean with the St Lukes Church in sight. @ knycx.journeying
I love a quirky town and it seems Oamaru has quirks by the bucketload. What a fun looking place. I can never figure out exactly who would ride a penny farthing, probably because my legs are really short!
That view of the harbour is beautiful! Such blue sea!
Wow, I had no idea Steampunk had a capital anywhere, but this was so interesting, thank you! I’ve pinned your post for later, as my fiancé and I are trying to pick locations for a honeymoon and New Zealand is up there at the top. He loves Steampunk so this seems like a great place to stop for a night or two. Thanks for your post!
Whoaa! Thank you for the super comprehensive write up! I love that playground. So unique and definitely fits in the entire steampunk theme. It’s definitely a great way to step back in time and enjoy all these odd and unusual displays. Making note of this for when we finally do make it to New Zealand!
The Whitestone heritage center seems like an interesting way to explore the area’s history, and the Maori cave painting is stunning. Definitely adding both to my list. Great article.
I haven’t heard of Oamaru before I read your post. It looks like a beautiful spot to visit. I love the playground, I’ve never seen anything like it before, so unique
I had never seen anything like that playground before either.
The steampunk museum looks like a fascinating place that I know my teenage son would love to visit! I know I would too! Thank you for giving me another place to add to my New Zealand list.
My teenage daughter loved it too, or course so did Jeff and I. It’s just so bizarre, we had to like it
Marcus and Mel
Never knew there was such a thing as a Steampunk Museum let alone it being in New Zealand. We would all love to visit the Steampunk HQ, especially our son. It looks really cool and lots of fun.
Can you imagine riding a penny farthing that tall?! New Zealand looks amazing, but I love how different Oamaru looks to the stereotypical images of the country. I love the black and white couple photo as well.
LOL -I can’t imagine riding any Penny-farthing.
I didn’t realise Oamaru was the ‘steampunk capital of NZ’ – I didn’t even know steampunk had made it to NZ 😉 I love how industrious NZ is, taking their own history and capitalising on it – it’s a true entrepreneurs country! I suppose the victorian grandeur isn’t always obvious in NZ, so it’s lovely to see how it has been preserved and celebrated in Oamaru. I’ve got a stop here on our tour of the south island planned – hopefully for 2019!
Very true, this is a country of do-it-yourselfers and people who enjoy things like Steampunk. It crosses into our world often as one of my girls is a LARPer.
Such a pleasure to visit somewhere historical where the buildings themselves make you feel like you travelled back in time. What an utterly cool setting for the Steampunk HQ! And the city looks like one that’s got lots else to see and do too.
Both the town and Steampunk HQ had plenty to see and do.
What a lovely Victoria city with grand architecture and such rich history. It’s great to see the locals (I assume the couple dressed up were locals!) getting into the spirit of the place. Will definitely make it a point to visit next time I’m in NZ.
I assume they were locals, and I am embarrassed that I never asked.
Never in a million years i thought there was a steampunk vibe this huge in New Zealand! I’d definitely love to visit the Steampunk HQ, especially if you can touch and use the stuff (maybe not the dentist chair! :D)… added it to our bucket list!
New Zealand if filled with alternative sub-cultures. This is just one of them.
That was very interesting! It’s the first time that I hear about Oamaru but I am familiar with steampunk. Some elements can also be seen in the Mad Max movies. I wonder why on earth do you find this museum in this particular town? And is it a private museum? I love time trace and the different stations of your itinerary sound like something I’d love to do myself one day. Can’t believe the farmer’s market didn’t open before 10am. Even here in Spain people are not that late 🙂
I think the Steampunk compliments the Victorian architecture beautifully. I think it seems a natural fit. It was a private museum with an entrance fee. As for the Farmer’s market, I was worried the produce would be all gone when we were arriving, so like you, I was shocked the market wasn’t even set up yet. It was smaller than the smallest market we encountered when we were living in a long-term home exchange house in Spain.
What a great place to visit. A great way to learn about history. That lookout is great, though I like the velocipèdes best!
I’ll admit, I had to look up the world Velocipede. The particular ones in Oamaru are Penny-farthings
Lyn aka The Travelling Lindfields
I am not sure if we have ever been to Oamaru. We have spent time in the area, staying at Dunedin, so it is possible, but if we have I don’t remember it and I am sure I would remember the steampunk. It is definitely a town to go on our list for our next visit to the Sth Island. I first heard of steam punk early this year when it featured as a theme in the Chatswood area for Vivid Sydney. It is fascinating – if confusing – stuff. I would love to see the playground you photographed.
The Steampunk Museum has only been there for a few years. It wasn’t there the first time we drove through about 10 years ago. It was the Penny-farthings I remembered.
I have to confess that I’ve never heard of Oamaru. Quite a strange name, I have to say. A very pleasant town though, with lots of interesting things to do. I would have surely liked to walk by those Victorian style houses and be taken back in time.
It just a small town, filled with history and fascinating things to see and do.
I know so little about Steampunk that I didn’t realize there was even a museum for it . This looks like quite the interesting city, though, and I think I would most enjoy eating at The Galley and visiting the museum.
I have been to a Steampunk convention in Auckland, but like you, I was surprised to learn about a museum when I was researching the South Island.
L. Diane Wolfe
I love the playground. All of it is a photographer’s dream!
You are so right. I have hundreds of photos from our short visit.
Paul F. Pietrangelo
Weird but amazing. What I really enjoyed were the view from the lookout & the Oamaru Public Garden. They relaxed me just looking them both. See ya Rhonda.
The lookout and the gardens are both beautiful, but we found the entire town to be slow and relaxing.
Alex J. Cavanaugh
What a unique town. And a really interesting place to have a steampunk museum. I couldn’t even tell you where one was here in the states.
Little New Zealand really does have it all, compacted into two islands.
You know, I’ve never really considered New Zealand as a destination. There were just too many other places that called out to me louder than NZ. But that steampunk museum in Oamaru alone would be worth a trip! I love steampunk.
Love Steampunk and have read a few Books but never seen a Musium advertised here. Looks like a nice untouched area
I am not sure how many Steampunk museums there are worldwide, but this is the only one in New Zealand.
This post gave me all of the reasons I need to finally visit New Zealand! Definitely adding Oamaru to the list of places to see when I’m there… I’m in love with the photos you’ve taken, sounds like an all around amazing trip with beautiful views. Thank you for sharing these awesome photos too!!
Oamaru is a small town, one of many amazing places to see in New Zealand.
Oamaru is a very interesting town! If I were to go to New Zealand again and stopped by Oamaru, I would want to stop by the playground and the Public Gardens. Your pictures are awesome! The gardens are beautiful! 🙂
That playground is amazing. And as for public gardens, it’s the right part of the country for them. The one in Oamaru is great, as are the ones in Dunedin and Christchurch.
I never knew what Steampunk was Rhonda. I have a better idea now, but like Japan, I will chalk up this culture to being wonderfully weird LOL. Definitely a different feel to the movement but the place looks inspired in its own right. Like a step back in time with modern convenience. A cool and rare mix in today’s world. I am loving the photos and that couple is dapper!
Yes, wonderfully weird is a great way to describe it. Fascinating and disturbing would be another.
How fun. I would have enjoyed this excursion very much. What a beautiful day and the shots are awesome as always.
Have a fabulous day, Rhonda. ♥