The historic city of Bendigo may have been founded on gold, but now visitors are rushing here for other reasons instead. Smack bang in the middle of Victoria, Bendigo is a city rediscovering its resources.
Founded in 1851 shortly after two eagle-eyed farm workers’ wives spotted something glittering in a riverbed, the city is now paying homage to wealth of a different kind and is being reinvented as a cultural and foodie hotspot.
While a rich history has bequeathed the city a legacy of grand buildings, historic gardens, avenues and charming homes – making it a delight to explore – it’s also a goldmine in terms of exceptional local produce. Wineries, craft brewers and boutique food producers abound, and there’s a gin dispensary, too, which has to be important.
Awarded in November last year with a UNESCO City of Gastronomy award, Bendigo is now displaying to the world just how far it has evolved. What better way to delve deeper into this city than on tour with a local or two to discover the hidden delights and get a bird’s-eye view from those who love and know the place best?
A world of art
Adorning cityscapes with street art can be challenging, particularly in a city imbued with heritage buildings, but with thoughtfulness and some support from the local council, Bendigo has achieved just that. The freshly minted street art tours led by passionate artist and community organiser Nacho Station (no, not his real name) are the perfect way to discover the art that abounds.
Beginning at Get Naked Espresso Bar (no, you don’t have to) where the whole idea started, Nacho will introduce you to the etiquette of the street art and graffiti scene and uncover a world of artistry around town. By the end you’ll recognise the works of local practitioners, including teacher-by-day Mr Dimples, and create some street art of your own, in a totally non-destructive way, of course. This is a tour that trains you to peer high and low to spot works you’d otherwise miss.
Alternatively, explore the Bendigo Art Gallery with a volunteer guide who’ll divulge the back stories of their favourite pieces. The building merges heritage with contemporary, as does the collection. It reflects the ethos of a visionary director determined to add an edge to the initial works, which were largely donated from wealthy gold rush families. Look out for the rolling series of exclusive exhibitions from around the world.
Fossicking for food
What better way to find culinary treasures than with some of the makers and bakers themselves? On a Food Fossicking Tour, with a constantly changing mix of producers, you meet some of the folk behind the food (with a good bit of taste-testing en route) and discover they care about each other as much as the food.
The tour starts at the 1887 roller flour mill, now repurposed as Mister Grimsby Coffee, for a local pastry and special siphon coffee brew. At The Good Loaf bakery, it’s all about re-using and re-purposing (including the building itself, a 1950s Beaurepaires tyre shop) as well as using the best local ingredients to produce outstanding sourdoughs.
Decadence is next at Indulge Chocolates where chocolatier Hayley Tibbett will demonstrate how to temper and mould her Belgian couverture chocolate delights (with sampling of course). Next, join chef Gina Triolo from Hoo-Gah Cafe who shares some of her nonna’s culinary tips and hands over the cooking reins for visitors to make ricotta gnocchi from scratch. If there’s still space, fill up at the Visitor Centre, sampling local wines and epicurean goods.
Discovering the past
Bendigo is shrouded in a deep, rich history and its Vintage Talking Tram is a perfect way to orientate yourself and get acquainted with the town’s past. As you sit on polished timber seats in original carriages, the recorded commentary points out heritage buildings and landmarks.
Time it right and you can top it off with a guided tour through the refurbished Bendigo Town Hall, where poultry once roamed, and get acquainted with the architects and architecture from the glory days when Bendigo was the richest city in the world.
For an in-depth exploration of the town, join Peter Hargreaves and Jill Hanlon on the Bendigo Walking Tour. They’ll reveal the stories of the town’s social history on a leisurely two-hour stroll through streets and parks, helping you imagine a time when the river was a muddy mire and alcohol was cheaper than water. The tour provides an understanding of how some of our social practices began, like union movements and home ownership for the masses (hello, Bendigo Bank), and allows you to visualise past scenes in the current locations.
Old meets new
The 1860s Sandhurst Gaol, once a place of harsh punishments and misery, has been reimagined and now houses the Ulumbarra Theatre in a glorious melding of architectural styles. Knowledgeable volunteers will lead you through the gaol’s austere corridors, bringing stories of past residents to life, including the late inmate Mark ‘Chopper’ Read.
It’s a testament to the foresight and energy of the principal of the Bendigo Senior Secondary College, which took over the site when the gaol was decommissioned in 2006, that the building – slated for destruction – was saved and now provides a thriving modern arts space as well as college facilities.
Those into dark and dank will relish an underground tour of Central Deborah Gold Mine, which delivered nearly a tonne of gold during its 15 years of operation until 1954. Tour guides illuminate the web of dimly lit tunnels with stories of past conditions and machinery demonstrations. Ear muffs supplied.
Diehard history and gold seekers (it’s finders keepers) who enjoy dress-ups can go deeper with a longer 2.5-hour tour that includes a lunch of Cornish pasties, or descend 228 metres below to Level 9 for half a day of dirty exploration and drilling. Not for the claustrophobic. Above ground afterwards, explore the museum and equipment and climb the mine’s poppet head for a great view of the city.
Add these to your itinerary, too
Pick fresh veggies from the Peppergreen Farm community garden, then take afternoon tea in its plush velour train carriage on site.
Meet the longest dragon in the southern hemisphere at the Golden Dragon Museum.
Join stalwart chef Bobby at Malayan Orchid for incredible meals in a casual setting.
Enjoy tapas at El Gordo on eclectic Chancery Lane.
Go all out with a degustation at Masons of Bendigo.
Eat in or take home delicious local fare at Bendigo Wholefoods.
Bendigo is under two hours from Melbourne by road or train.
The residence of Mackenzie Quarters is an 1877 building accommodating up to 12 guests in the heart of Bendigo’s arts precinct.
For more information visit bendigoregion.com.au