Discover beautiful Ballarat
Though less than 90 minutes from Melbourne, Ballarat has a relaxed country atmosphere in a grand setting. It has enough history to justify days of exploration. Ready to go?
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The grand streetscape of Melbourne was created from the wealth of the goldfields, specifically Ballarat and Bendigo in the 1850s. Both cities now have populations of less than 100,000 but boast grandiose buildings you’d expect in much larger cities. These, too, were funded by gold.
Sovereign Hill is a sprawling open-air museum at Golden Point, a suburb of Ballarat. It’s a clever recreation of a goldfields town, complete with volunteer actors. Some of the buildings have been transported here and others have been built from the original plans. Even if you can’t find kids to bring along it is definitely worth a visit. Watching over $150,000 worth of molten gold poured into an ingot can induce gold fever in the most stable personality. Or you can have fun panning for gold yourself. The Gold Museum tells the history of the goldfields, displays gold in all its forms – and you can even buy a gold nugget of your own in the gift shop.
A surprise highlight of the adventure was churning butter. Perhaps it was Enid Blyton’s depiction of bucolic English farm life but I’ve always wanted to do this (ideally followed by a picnic tea complete with lashings of cream of course). Ask at the desk because at various times during the day, cream and pikelets are made in the Postmaster’s kitchen. Be aware that you’ll earn your treat because after you ha vebeaten the cream and it seems to be firm you’ll still be only about a quarter of the way to ending up with butter and buttermilk.
Sovereign Hill, along with the Great Ocean Road and Phillip Island’s penguins, attracts over half a million visitors each year. One show that’s certainly for adults is the sound and light spectacular entitled “Blood on the Southern Cross” that tells the controversial tale of the Eureka Rebellion across the open-air set. Don’t miss it.
In downtown Ballarat it is a joy to simply wander around and take in the streetscape. One of the most impressive buildings is the Mining Exchange that now houses a gold shop with the main hall used for functions. The Ballarat Art Gallery, Australia’s oldest regional gallery, houses remnants of the original Eureka Flag and an impressive permanent collection. The Town Hall and Her Majesty’s Theatre are also worth a look, as is the historic George Hotel.
A unique feature of Ballarat is Lake Wendouree, set in the middle of town but still around three kilometres from the CBD. The Ballarat Botanic Gardens cover 40 hectares on the western side of the lake and is a stunning formal garden surrounded by open parkland. It’s a significant cool-climate garden with many well-established trees and a begonia weekend each March. In 1884 the gardens were adorned with several statues brought from Italy. The garden’s Prime Ministers Avenue is lined by the busts of the 26 Prime Ministers since federation.
Famous historical faces
There’s one place in town where history, architecture, the paranormal and horse racing all come together. From the heavily decorated street lamps to the large rooms, imposing façade and turrets, Craig’s Royal Hotel at 10 Lydiard St at the heart of the city has long been a grand hotel. Prince Alfred stayed here in 1867; Adam Lindsay Gordon operated the stables behind the hotel at that time; Lord Kitchener and Mark Twain also chose this as their Ballarat address. In 1911, Dame Nellie Melba serenaded the city from Craig's balcony. It has recently been through an extensive four-year restoration and has transformed into a fine boutique heritage hotel.
One of Australia's most endearing horse racing stories is based around Craig's. The flamboyant Walter Craig, who bought the hotel in 1857 when he was 32, told everyone of a dream he had in which his racehorse "Nimblefoot" won the 1870 Melbourne Cup. In the dream, when he approached the jockey to congratulate him, Craig asked why he was wearing a black armband. The jockey replied "because the horse belonged to Walter Craig who died three months ago". So Craig backed his horse heavily but expected not to see the win. The story was well known and even appeared in a newspaper a day before the Cup. Nimblefoot did indeed win the race at long odds. The jockey was wearing a black armband for Craig who had died three months earlier.
Have you ever been to Ballarat? Or wanted to go? Join our conversation below…