Exciting art, cultural and dining experiences are just some of the reasons you should head to Ballarat for your next weekend away.
Ballarat is undergoing something of a renaissance. With Australia’s largest ever showcase of living Australian artists on display, contemporary artisan masterclasses to get involved with and dynamic dining experiences to be had, there’s a swell of grassroots creativity happening in the Victorian city and now is an exciting time to visit. Here’s why.
An idea 10 years in the making, the Biennale of Australian Art – or BOAA – has launched this year as the largest ever showcase of living Australian artists. Great care has been taken to bring together a selection of artists who collectively represent all Australian states and territories: from the Northern Territory’s talented Numina Sisters to Perth-sprung Archibald finalist Abdul Abdullah and to Victoria’s own performance artist Jill Orr.
Their work is presented dynamically at 14 venues across the city: Ballarat benefits from a spoil of heritage buildings that act as interesting – if not blank – canvases for art. Don’t miss the range of photography, performance art and sculpture on display at the George Farmer building, an old bacon curing factory built in the late 1800s that was abandoned until now, or the work in situ at the Ballarat Welcome Centre, a former convent built in 1881.
Visitors to BOAA can also follow the sculpture walk around Ballarat’s picturesque Lake Wendouree, check out an art gallery in a laneway (Unicorn Lane Gallery), see installations at the Museum of Australian Democracy at Eureka (see the flag and scrub up on your history while you’re there) and explore the Art Gallery of Ballarat, the oldest and largest gallery in regional Australia. BOAA 2018 runs until Tuesday 6 November and tickets cost $25 full price and $15 concessions, with entry valid across two days.
The Art Gallery of Ballarat opened in 1884 as a purpose-built gallery and today retains its sense of gold-rich grandeur. The gallery boasts an impressive collection of Australian art history from the early colonial period onwards.
More often than not, the story this collection builds of Australia has been told from a single perspective, and now the gallery’s new director Louise Tegart and curator Julie McLaren are seeking fresh ways to activate and interpret it.
Part of BOAA 18 but running until 7 April, Louiseann King: Solis sees evocative sculptural installations by local artist and academic Louiseann King juxtaposed against depictions of women and landscapes in the 19th century from the permanent collection.
On display until 10 February, the vivid paintings of Aunty Marlene Gilson, a Wathaurung (Wadawarrung) Elder living on country in Gordon near Ballarat, explore Aboriginal myth and stories of the goldfields.
Ballarat’s rich history of craftsmanship is being celebrated by a series of workshops and masterclasses run by the contemporary movers and makers on the scene. Made of Ballarat’s series spans everything from ceramics and charcuterie to beekeeping, knife-making and spoon carving.
Events coming up soon include the chance to make a belt at Sovereign Hill’s leather harness and wheelwright workshop (Leather Belt Making Workshop, Saturday 27 October); an opportunity to explore the gin-making process at Kilderkin Distillery (Larrikin Gin Masterclass, Friday 16 November); a workshop and lunch with Salt Kitchen Charcuterie at Mitchell Harris Wines (Nose to Tail – A Charcuterie Experience, Saturday 17 November); and an ‘open hive experience’ with Backyard Beekeeping Ballarat (The Secret Life of Bees, Saturday 24 November), with more to be announced.
4. Amazing food and wine
When Mitchell Harris Wines opened in a 140-year-old former produce store, tentmakers, and motor workshop in 2013, it was a pocket of Melbourne quality and cool in an otherwise unremarkable hospitality landscape. Fast forward five years and while this industrial-chic wine bar – which showcases wines cold-climate wines of the local regions as well as Mitchell Harris’ own – is still a standout on the scene, it’s not alone in the enticing and exciting drinking and dining stakes.
For breakfast, brunch and lunch you’ll find a concentration of cafes serving top-tier coffee and food. Try Fika Coffee Brewers for urban-chic, Hydrant Food Hall for industrial-cool and Webster’s Market and Cafe for bright and breezy neighbourhood vibes. Yellow Espresso is also a very popular brunch spot and one of the trailblazers of Ballarat’s third-wave coffee scene, located in the city centre. Lunch and dinner dining options include excellent Spanish tapas at characterful Meigas, chewy and flavourful wood-fired pizzas at Forge Pizzeria and an eccentric, contemporary Argentinian-inspired grill restaurant at the Pub with Two Names: a historic pub that was reopened in 2018 following a creative makeover by renowned artist David Bromley and his wife Yuge.
The pièce de résistance of Ballarat’s foodie renaissance is located in a space with no sign at the door. Underbar is a 12-seat fine dining restaurant that opens on Friday and Saturday evenings to serve a chef’s tasting menu shaped by the seasons and surrounds. Chef Derek Boath brings more than 20 years’ experience in some of the world’s top restaurants to the table and ensures each sitting is an intimate, artful and experiential affair for serious fine food aficionados. Reservations open on the first day of each month and get snapped up quickly.
For something a little more low-key and slightly more irreverent, the Lost Ones Contemporary Art Gallery and Basement Bar is not to be missed.
Housed in an 1870s Masonic temple, check out the art upstairs before heading downstairs for a drink in what used to be the Freemasons’ dining hall; original bench seating is still in situ. But there are velvet couches to get comfortable on too – settle in with a craft beer, wine or a signature cocktail (including the on-trend Foraged Old Fashioned made with Tasmanian gin, pine and orange bitters), hang out with the resident cat and strike up a game of Scrabble or Cards Against Humanity.
The Lost Ones Basement Bar also hosts live music, performance poetry and events like ‘Draw the Nude Man’ life drawing classes.
6. It’s not as far away as you think
Perhaps because many of us have memories of schlepping to Ballarat’s Sovereign Hill for school excursions as kids, Ballarat often comes with the misconception of being ‘far away’.
It’s all relative, of course, but from Melbourne the city is an easy 90-minute drive north-east or a simple 90-minute train journey from Southern Cross Station: making it an ideal weekend away for Melburnians, or a great alternative city break for the rest of us.