Ōamaru. © Claudia Babirat

Tohu Whenua: Historic Ōamaru


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Historic Ōamaru is home to New Zealand’s most complete streetscape of Victorian commercial buildings. 

Stroll down Harbour Street and you’ll feel like you’ve stepped into a Charles Dickens movie set. Not only are you suddenly immersed in a world of ornately carved limestone buildings, the locals all seem to be wearing period costume by default. 

Just as eclectic are their businesses, a mix of antiquarian bookshops, galleries, vintage clothing shops, artisan workshops and artist studios. Step into Whitestone City and things get even more quirky. Set in an original grain store that was built in 1882, it’s not a typical museum – you’re encouraged to touch and try everything, from playing parlour games to riding on our country’s only penny farthing carousel. Just around the corner is Steampunk HQ which features an alternative retro-futuristic version of 19th century England. 

It’s worth contemplating that we owe the existence of Ōamaru’s Victorian Precinct to a group of dedicated locals who, for the past three decades, have bought and lovingly restored many of the historic enclave’s buildings.

They’re celebrating the fact that Ōamaru was once a majestic colonial outpost that played a key part in Otago’s industrial and agricultural heritage, thanks largely to the bounty of wool, grain and frozen meat exported from its port to British markets. By repurposing the buildings (which were built between 1860 and 1880), the people of Ōamaru have effectively breathed new life into their heritage without losing its authenticity. 

The precinct is at its liveliest on Sunday when the excellent Ōamaru Farmers Market is in full swing, the steam train is running and artisans are busy in their studios. Or come in November and take part in Ōamaru’s very popular annual Victorian Fête and Heritage Celebrations. 

Ōamaru's Victorian Precinct is recognised as a Tohu Whenua, one of Aotearoa New Zealand’s best heritage experiences. The precinct is proudly cared for by the Ōamaru Whitestone Civic Trust.

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