From timeless experiences to the cutting-edge, here are the top things to do in Ballarat: a city built on gold that’s in the midst of a creative regeneration.
History is never far from your fingertips in Ballarat: it’s there in its grand architecture and immersive experiences that transport you back to the heady days of the gold rush. But there’s a new energy pulsing through the wrought-iron-trimmed streets today: in recent years Victoria’s third-largest city has been undergoing something of a cultural renaissance, with chefs, artisans and creatives tapping into its rich heritage to invent it anew.
Experience this through its thriving dining scene, by sipping some local wine or by joining a workshop with a local maker. Here, our pick of Ballarat’s timeless and contemporary charms.
1. Take a heritage walking tour
Built on gold wealth, Ballarat was the wealthiest city in the world at one point during the 1850s and its wonderfully preserved heritage streetscape reflects this. Get to know the history of this gold-rush town through its architecture by signing up for a 90-minute walking tour with Ballarat Heritage Tours or take a Heritage self-guided one via Ballarat Revealed.
Learn about the beginnings of Ballarat from the corner of Sturt and Grenville streets and take in buildings ranging from the Ballarat Mechanics’ Institute, which has been edifying and entertaining locals for more than 150 years, to the long-running Her Majesty’s Theatre and sites including Ballarat’s very own Turkish Bath House – now a skate ramp.
Another of Ballarat’s truly grand heritage buildings, the Art Gallery of Ballarat is, in fact, Australia’s oldest and largest regional gallery. Opened in 1884, it boasts an impressive collection of Australian art history from the early colonial period to the present day. Today its collection is presented alongside touring and temporary exhibitions across its elegant 19th-century rooms and contemporary architectural additions. The gift shop is great, too, selling art books and products by local artisans.
Since 1970, Sovereign Hill has been telling the tale of life as it was in 1850s Ballarat, during the greatest shallow alluvial gold rush the world has ever seen. A living outdoor museum built on a former gold-mining site, today it’s a Ballarat icon: costumed characters and horse and carts populate a goldfields town full of shops, hotels, a theatre, schools, factories, a gold diggings and underground mines.
A new immersive theatre experience, Aura, launched last year to add to the experience. This light and sound show unfolds through hundreds of projections that follow the story of gold from its very beginnings, incorporating the Wadawurrung creation story, right up until the current day. Stay on site at the Sovereign Hill Hotel for the whole package.
Visit the Eureka Centre to experience another important part of Australian history: the site of the 1854 Eureka Stockade Rebellion and the home of the Eureka Flag – one of the nation’s most important cultural artefacts. Through art installations and digital technology at this modern museum, you’ll hear the stories of the men and women who fought for miners’ rights and helped inform the development of modern democratic Australia, as well as learning about the cultural impact of the gold rush.
5. Experience a festival
Ballarat hosts a roster of arts and cultural festivals, so time your visit accordingly. White Night Ballarat takes place in spring and sees the city’s iconic buildings, cultural institutions and streets brought to life with projections, installations, performances and music. Sovereign Hill’s Winter Wonderlights brings similar illumination to the depth of winter.
Ballarat International Foto Biennale presents a showcase of photographic exhibitions, talks, workshops and events every two years in spring.
6. Take an artisan masterclass
Tap into Ballarat’s rich history of craftsmanship by signing up for a workshop or masterclass with one of its local artisans. Ballarat’s Lost Ones Gallery, housed in an old masonic hall, hosts a Makers Studio with leatherwork and jewellery-making workshops, while Adam Parker of Parker Knives hosts much in-demand knifemaking workshops throughout the year. And keep an eye on colourful ceramicist Ruby Pilven’s website for upcoming workshops.
Or head 15 minutes south out of the city centre to the country town of Buninyong, where master green woodsmith Paul Ryle is keeping traditional woodcrafts alive. Join an outdoor spoon-carving workshop for an introduction to green woodworking (which uses freshly cut, unseasoned woods as well as energy-efficient, unpowered hand tools) and take the fruits of your labour home.
7. Sample Ballarat’s wine region
In addition to a flourishing dining scene, Ballarat is home to its own boutique wine region, which specialises in cold-climate wines like pinot noir, chardonnay and delicate sparklings, as well as riesling and shiraz.
Don’t miss a tasting at Eastern Peake Vineyard, 20 minutes north of town at Coghills Creek, where second-generation winemaker Owen Latta, Gourmet Traveller’s Australian Young Winemaker 2018, has been making waves with the family-run property’s eponymous label and his own natural LATTA Vino label.
Look out for his wines served at the best spots in town, including Mitchell Harris Wine Bar, which – as well as producing its own wines – acts as a cellar door for the region and hosts tastings and other events.
8. Have an unforgettable dining experience
You’ll definitely find Owen Latta’s wines at Underbar, the pièce de résistance of Ballarat’s foodie renaissance. Located in an unassuming space with no sign at the door, Underbar is a 16-seat fine-dining restaurant that opens on Friday and Saturday evenings to serve a seasonal tasting menu shaped by the surrounds courtesy of chef Derek Boath. Reservations open on the first day of each month and get snapped up quickly.
Committed foodie? In addition to sampling Ballarat’s ever-growing wining and dining scene, time your visit to coincide with Ballarat’s month-long Plate Up Festival in May, which celebrates local produce, venues, craft beers and boutique wines through a series of special events, lunches and workshops across town.
9. Spend an afternoon at Lake Wendouree
Take a walk around Ballarat’s picturesque Lake Wendouree, originally a swamp and now one of the nicest ways you can spend a sunny afternoon. After a botanic garden was laid out on its western shore in the 1850s, the lake itself saw a transformation and by the 1870s it had two rowing clubs and pleasure craft to recommend it as the recreational hub it remains to this day.
Have a casual bite at the Yacht Club, admire the quaint and historic Lake Wendouree boat sheds and then take to the water for a trip back in time onboard the replica Golden City Paddle Steamer. This 45-minute cruise takes in scenic views and the history of the lake, operating on Sundays from November to May each year.
10. Explore Ballarat Botanical Gardens
Wander through the beautiful Ballarat Botanical Gardens on the western side of Lake Wendouree: regional Victoria’s oldest inland botanic gardens is a medley of mature trees and marble statues set within colourful flowerbeds. Covering 40 hectares, it’s also home to the Robert Clark Conservatory, a striking modern build harbouring an oasis of seasonal displays that’s a hub for the Ballarat Begonia Festival held each March.
The gardens are also home to the Ballarat Tramway Museum, which provides the chance to ride in one of the 100-year-old trams that provided Ballarat’s public transport until 1971. A 20-minute ride, it journeys through the gardens and alongside Lake Wendouree.
Whether you’re an avid fisher or not, a trip to Tuki Trout Farm offers a unique experience and rural idyll 40 minutes from Ballarat – set at the end of an unsealed road on top of a hill with verdant valley views.
The ponds here are stocked with rainbow trouts and visitors are guaranteed a catch; you can then have it cooked in the restaurant. Dishes here include such pond- and paddock-to-plate offerings as fresh-baked rainbow trout served bone-free with crushed green peppercorn dressing, roast potatoes and locally baked bread, and cut-of-the-day lamb.
The property also has its own on-site accommodation, Tuki Retreat, which offers cosy stone or weatherboard cottages with open fires.
Family-run Ballarat Wildlife Park is home to a large variety of native Australian animals and other exotic creatures, including free-roaming kangaroos, eight resident wombats and a colony of little penguins. Meet Maneki and Satu, the park’s resident Sumatran tigers, and choose from a number of animal encounters with meerkats, koalas and even a giant tortoise who’s over 80 years old.
For more family fun, check out Kryal Castle: an adventure park and accommodation based in a replica medieval castle a little further east out of town from Ballarat Wildlife Park.