The surrounds of Melbourne are rich with travel options whether you're planning a long holiday or weekend break with family and friends. A 75 minutes drive west, past Wyndham and beyond the city's bright lights will take you to largest inland city in Victoria. As the site of the world's largest deposit of alluvial gold, Ballarat is steeped in history of the 1850s and the Eureka Rebellion.
The legacy of the gold rush is well preserved and the city offers a unique opportunity to relive the golden era through its tree-lined streets and magnificent Victorian and Edwardian buildings, churches, statues and gardens. The heritage backdrop set the scene for art and culture, fashion, food and attractions that are quintessentially Ballarat, interwoven with the old and new. Here are some of the best things to see and do for starters. You might just leave a little richer after a visit to Victoria's goldfields.
Old Colonists' Hall & Alexandria Tea Rooms on Lydiard Street
The grand architecture of the gold rush days can be experienced on foot. Ballarat boast some of the best-preserved heritage streets in Australia like Sturt Street and Lydiard Street. A visible legacy is the collection of bluestone and brick buildings that date back to the 1850s. You can view its history in the grand boulevard, public buildings, churches, shops and restaurants. Just put on your walking shoes and enjoy your stroll through the pages of time.
While trams no longer operate in Ballarat since 1971, you can still take a ride on one of the 90 year old passenger services at the Ballarat Tramway Museum. The 20 minutes ride covers 1.3 kilometres of the original line through the Botanical Gardens. Thanks to the wonderful volunteers who help keep this important piece of Ballarat's history alive, you can also view the tramcar fleet, workshops area, display of photographs and tramway memorabilia at the depot. Visit the website for more details.
Situated in an early gold diggings area, Sovereign Hill is a living museum of Ballarat after the discovery of gold in 1851. It offers the rare opportunity to experience the place and people of Australia's 1850s gold rush. You and your family can enjoy panning for real gold in the creek, exploring the underground mines, riding a horse-drawn wagon as well as entry to the adjacent Gold Museum.
Sovereign Hill is also famous of its nightly production of the Eureka Rebellion with sound and light, and Christmas in July. You can also do an overnighter in the park's hotel. Check out the website for more details on packages, promotions and visiting times.
Kryal Castle offers an affordable family day out with medieval legends, myths and fairy tales. The 40 year old theme park reopened in March 2013 after a multi-million dollar redevelopment. This is Australia' only medieval adventure park with dramatic arena shows, a special effects dungeon, a torture museum, costumes for hire and a cast of knights, dragons, wizards, kings, queens, princesses and fairies. Check out the website for more details on packages, promotions and visiting times.
The arts and cultural scene in Ballarat is a welcomed blend of the old and new. You can enjoy a hip and historic mix of live theatre, pop-up galleries, art and craft markets and cultural events in various traditional and unconventional venues around town. Some highlights include live shows at Her Majesty's Theatre, Australia's oldest continuously operating performance venue; major collection of Australia art dating back to the early colonial period in the Art Gallery of Ballarat; exhibitions in cafes; and events like the Festival of Slow Music and The Design Market.
Ballarat Botanical Gardens
Ballarat Botanical Gardens / Photo courtesy of City of Ballarat
The Botanical Gardens of Ballarat is one of the country's oldest and finest gardens, offering 40 hectares of horticultural treasures including weeping elms planted since 1863. Established in 1858, it captured the romanticism of a 19th century gardenesque landscape. It is also home to the avenue of Prime Minister busts, Australian former Prisoners' of War Memorial and seasonal botanical displays such as the Ballarat Begonia Festival. The Friends of the Ballarat Botanical Gardens help promote, support and contribute to the development of the Ballarat Botanical Gardens by engaging the public in scientific, educational, historical, cultural and recreational functions of the Gardens. For more information, visit the website.
In addition to Hugo, the 80 year old giant tortoise and the 5 metre crocodile 'Crunch', Ballarat Wildlife Park is the only regional zoo with a reptile collection of over 200 snakes, lizards, turtles, crocodiles and frogs. Stretched over 32 acres of woodlands, the family-operated conservation park offers the opportunity to come close to other Australian native animals like Tasmanian devils and emus. You and your family can also hand feed 100 free roaming kangaroos and patting koalas and wombats. Check out the website for more details.
Instead of the high street shopping in Melbourne's Bourke Street Mall, the heritage streets of Ballarat are home to an eclectic mix of vintage, gourmet treats and national brands. Majority of the fashion and accessory retailers can be found in Bridge Mall and Central Square. Other interesting buys include locally found gold nuggets from the Mining Exchange Gold Shop, extensive collection of second-hand books in the Victorian-era building of the Known World Bookshop and gourmet food from Darriwill Farm.
Ballarat is home to plenty of good eats including pubs, cafes and restaurants that serve craft beer, regional and foreign wines, and Australian, Asian and European cuisine. You can start the day with proper coffee and tasty pastry at L'Espresso; enjoy a lunch of regional wine and pasta at Golden City Hotel; drop by the cider bar in The George Hotel for a refresher; and dine in French style at Gallery Bistro in Craig's Royal Hotel.
Ballarat also has an emerging reputation as Victoria's centre for craft beer due to its strong brewing history combined with university courses, breweries, specialist pubs and beer festival. Check out the Rebellion Brewery and Red Duck Brewery.
The Visitor Information Centre is jam-packed with information on accommodations, attractions, guided tour options, suggested itineraries, local transport and maps. The friendly staff can provide you with expert advice regarding your visit. Remember to purchase your Ballarat Pass which provides discounted admission to top attractions like Sovereign Hill, Kryal Castle, Ballarat Wildlife Park and the Museum of Australian Democracy at Eureka (M.A.D.E). You can contact the Centre at 1800 44 66 33 or walk in at 43 Lydiard Street North.