Geelong always had the potential to be that somewhere you had to be.
Its city centre sits on a north-facing bay – rare in the southern hemisphere – and there are more parks and museums here than you could visit in a month of Sundays. But its industrial roots hurt its tourism appeal.
Till now, that is.
For there’s a renaissance going on. Geelong is ‘doing’ a Brooklyn – quietly transforming itself into the kind of place where you’ll find hip-as-hell distilleries, breweries, cafes, hotels and restaurants where the factories used to be. Grab a seat somewhere within it, and enjoy the show.
Dubbed the ‘city by the bay’, Geelong has the kind of natural landscape other Australian cities dream of.
You can walk along a waterfront esplanade where you’ll find restaurants with views across the water, and stroll along an Art Deco boardwalk where you’ll find colourful sculptures that chronicle the history of the city. Or there’s the sea bath suitable for families at Eastern Beach, Geelong’s main swimming spot.
Fringing all this are botanical gardens – and other parks – and 19th century museums, even the old city gaol from 1851 that you can incarcerate yourself in. And there are piers with restaurants and bars and shops with views all the way to Melbourne.
But, as aforementioned, undermining all of this was Geelong’s perennial reputation as an industrial powerhouse.
Victoria’s second largest city was known for its no-nonsense, blue-collar locals, who preferred VB over fancy craft beers, and fuss-free pub dinners on a Friday night. But there’s been a transition.
Changes have been happening quietly for years, but they’re only now reaching their zenith. Just like Brooklyn (in New York), Geelong’s industrial layers are peeling away as the city gentrifies.
There are indie hang-outs now where the factories used to be – but with the same 160-year-old facades. One of the best examples is Anther Gin Distillery, located beneath the chimney in the restored Federal Mills, the wool mills just north of the city that are a century-or-so old.
The distillery owners shifted from Melbourne to Geelong, banking on Geelong’s renaissance.
It worked; the place is thriving as patrons gather to drink some of Australia’s most awarded gin (Anther Gin won Australia’s Best Gin at the Australian Distilled Spirits Awards in 2018) inside the rustic old red-brick warehouse.
Or how about Little Creatures?
It chose Geelong as its base to produce and distribute its beer for the entire east coast of Australia.
Geelong is well on its way to becoming a craft beer epicentre, and Little Creatures’ $60 million brewery is leading the charge.
Inside, you’ll find a brewery village experience: it’s home to Canteen, one of the best brewery bars in Australia within a huge warehouse, in amid laneways where craft markets are held. And this is also where Furphy Ale was born – Little Creatures were looking to create a distinctive local beer when they built the brewery, using nothing but local hops and malt.
You’ll find Furphy all over Australia, but it started right here in Geelong.
It’s happening all over the city. You’ll find two-hatted restaurants such as IGNI in Geelong’s back alleys – a tiny 28-seat eatery that’s regarded as one of Australia’s very best restaurants.
Restaurants and cafes are moving into every gold rush-era factory they can. And, in a city once inherently monocultural, there are even provincial French bistros like Bistrot Plume out in the ‘burbs, and communal Middle Eastern fare at The Arborist, served up in an architecturally designed tiered restaurant built around the iconic Fraxinus excelsior (or European ash) tree on trendy Little Malop Street.
These days, multicultural Pakington Street, in Geelong West, is the site of Pako Festa, the largest free celebration of cultural diversity in the state, which in 2019 (pre-Covid) attracted about 100,000 people.
Bellarine Peninsula and Beyond
While most Melbourne locals – and visitors to Melbourne – flock to the Mornington Peninsula, the Bellarine Peninsula remains blissfully off the radar of most – but the secret’s getting out.
There are around 20 wine cellar doors, starting barely 15 minutes from Geelong, which are home to some of Australia’s most awarded – but underrated – cool-climate wines.
The maritime climate is ideal for winemaking (fancy a pinot noir, chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, shiraz or sparkling wine?), and the peninsula has had a rich agricultural history, dating back to the 1830s. There are provedores, restaurants, cafes and farm gates spread across the area.
But then, the Bellarine Peninsula is Australia’s best-kept epicurean secret. Here you’ll find as many wineries with small, cosy tasting rooms as you will grandiose establishments with sweeping views over Port Philip Bay.
Choose which experience you prefer. For those seeking gourmet produce and a view, Jack Rabbit Vineyard and Scotchmans Hill are both award-winning wineries and winery restaurants, where you can sit outside looking to Melbourne across a calm, blue bay.
Or, maybe you’d prefer an intimate indoor meal within a 1920s’ homestead warmed by a log fire? Try Oakdene Vineyards.
Though food and wine’s just the start of what the Bellarine Peninsula’s got – it’s also a bona fide golfer’s paradise, with a landscape that resembles the windswept rugged coastal plains of Scotland where golf began 650 years ago.
There are courses in Australia’s Top 10 public courses, such as Barwon Heads Golf Club and 13th Beach Golf Links, which host some of Australia’s biggest golf competitions. There are also hit-and-giggle local courses built beside the sea for those who don’t take themselves too seriously.
There’s a rail trail for cyclists, which travels from Geelong South for 32.5 kilometres, taking bikers from the coast to the middle of the bush, and everywhere in between.
You’ll also find bustling historic seaside villages such as Queenscliff, home to 19th century pubs and hotels. And Barwon Heads, the backdrop to the ABC’s original Sea Change series, chosen for its pretty village and lonely, deserted beaches.
Geelong is also the gateway to the Great Ocean Road, which begins at the surf town, Torquay, 20 kilometres south-west, and winds its way along spectacular coastline.
Trendy accommodation options were once in short supply in Geelong and The Bellarine. Motels, chain hotels and B&Bs offered rooms, but they were never the sort you’d take shots of and put up on Facebook.
Now you’d be mad not to put them up on Instagram – and nothing is more social media friendly than recently opened R Hotel Geelong, a nine-level tower built within a heritage-listed building (built in 1854).
This 4.5-star full service hotel was only opened to the public on March 1, and it’s just a three-minute walk from the ferry terminal. There are 128 rooms and apartments with park or city views with open-plan kitchen, and living and dining areas flowing onto private balconies.
There are also options for those preferring a Port Philip Bay view such as the Novotel Geelong, which has 109 recently refurbished rooms with private balconies offering amazing views right out over the water and easy to access from the ferry terminal.
Coming next year is the largest new hotel project in Geelong in almost two decades. Set for completion in 2022, at a cost of $75 million, this 14-storey hotel will be the first Holiday Inn & Suites in Australia, featuring hotel rooms, apartments, a sky lobby, restaurant and bar and a ground floor retail area.
And there are great accommodation options beyond Geelong in the Bellarine that’ll make you feel you’ve left the modern world behind. Stay on 80 hectares of conservation land right by the sea at Lon Retreat & Spa. Located near the quaint coastal village of Point Lonsdale, there’s private access to the beach, and nature walks all through the property. There are seven luxury suites with their own unique character, and a mineral spa on property.
Or for a bush escape amongst the gum trees, The Woods offers studio cabins built under century-old gums where kookaburras gather, but it’s still just five minutes’ drive from another tranquil coastal village, Ocean Grove. There’s also a tennis court, BBQ area, firepit and golfing green on site.
Just as Sydney has its Manly ferry, Melbourne has a ferry service to Geelong, 90 minutes away. It runs twice a day, seven days a week. It docks just a block away from three major accommodation venues. But with everything to experience in Geelong and beyond, you’ll want to stay longer than just a day.
Geelong is also just an hour’s drive from Melbourne’s CBD, or an hour’s train journey from Melbourne’s Southern Cross Station with V-Line.
You can also fly to Avalon Airport, 20 kilometres north-east, and hire a car (Budget, Hertz, Avis and Europcar operate from the airport).