The discovery of gold near Ballarat in 1851 led to a dramatic transformation of the small Victorian settlement.
In little more than a decade it became an aspirational regional city with grand hotels, theatres and galleries. Today, Ballarat is famous for its period architecture and rich colonial heritage. With a thriving arts scene, great eateries and prized gardens to explore, this destination has plenty to offer visitors — and is easily reached by road or rail from Melbourne.
Enjoy this Ballarat travel guide.
Need to know
Base yourself: City centre
Average hotel price per room/per night: AUD $120
Best breakfasts: Lydiard Street, Sturt Street
Great coffee: Ballarista, Yellow Espresso, Kittelty’s
Top spots for a beverage: Craig’s Royal Hotel Bar, Mitchell Harris Wines, Hop Temple
Must-dos: Heritage architecture walking tour, Art Gallery of Ballarat, Ballarat Botanical Gardens, Sovereign Hill
Best times to visit Ballarat
Ballarat is a year round destination but it’s at its glorious best in spring. The weather is mild, special events are in full swing, and the city’s magnificent gardens are in bloom. Expect temperatures in the mid to high teens.
Summers are generally hot and dry, with temperatures ranging from the high 20s to mid 30s, and occasionally into the low 40s. Autumn is a lovely time to visit, while winter can be very chilly — particularly overnight when temperatures fall to less than 5 degrees.
Across the board, Ballarat’s weather can be unpredictable and experiencing four seasons in one day is not uncommon. Pack accordingly.
Ballarat for history lovers
As a consequence of the Gold Rush and the wealth it brought to the city, Ballarat offers no end of opportunities to step back in time — thanks to its stunning Victorian-era architecture.
Put on your walking shoes and join Ballarat Heritage Tours on a guided stroll around the city centre. Local historian Andrew Sharpe leads the 90-minute tour, which focuses on historic Lydiard Street and the heritage railway precinct that surrounds Ballarat train station.
A million ounces of gold was extracted from the Ballarat goldfields, yet very few miners actually got rich. Most found nothing. The harsh conditions, lawlessness on the goldfields and widespread corruption helped trigger the famous Eureka Stockade rebellion. In 1854 a group of miners took up arms against the colonial government over the high cost of mining licences. The only armed civil uprising in Australian history was quelled by soldiers in just over 15 minutes. The original Eureka flag is on display at the Eureka Centre.
Learn more about life in the goldfields at award-winning Sovereign Hill. This historical town recreation has been transporting visitors back to 1850s Ballarat for more than 40 years. It’s one of Victoria’s premier tourist attractions. The open-air museum features realistic streetscapes, shops and eateries, manned by costume-clad staff. Try your luck at panning for gold, ride in a horse-drawn wagon or take an underground mine tour. Pre-purchase your tickets, and allow a full day to take it all in.
The Sovereign Hill experience continues after dark with Aura — a night time show, which was launched in 2019. A series of spectacular projections trace how gold ‘changes everything’ — from the creation story of the Wadawarrung (the region’s First People), through to the Eureka rebellion.
Top cultural experiences in Ballarat
Ballarat has a thriving arts scene with top quality galleries, theatre and music events.
The Art Gallery of Ballarat is one of Australia’s oldest and largest regional galleries and houses a wonderful collection of 19th and 20th century Australian, British and European art. The permanent collection features pieces by top Australian Impressionists including Streeton, Dobell, McCubbin, Heysen and Roberts. The gallery’s free guided tour is a must-do.
Ballarat’s main venue for live performance is the beautifully preserved Her Majesty’s Theatre, which first opened its doors in 1875. The annual programme at ‘Her Maj’ encompasses everything from musical theatre and ballet to jazz and classical music.
Great places to eat in Ballarat
From fine dining in grand hotels to great pizzas and classic pub-grub, Ballarat offers fare to suit every taste and budget.
Breakfast or brunch at Knife Fork Spoon Kitchen Espresso is great way to start your day, and the expansive menu will leave you spoilt for choice (tip: the scambled eggs and smoked salmon served on a freshly-baked croissant is a real winner). Enjoy the bright, light atmosphere and great service. Knife Fork Spoon is usually packed for brunch on weekends but is well worth the wait. The café also serves up elaborate cupcakes and very decadent milkshakes.
The popular and ever-busy L’Espresso is another top option for an all day breakfast (they also do coffee and cake, and homemade gelato), as is cosy Ballarista — which boasts arguably Ballarat’s best coffee.
If you’re in search of a great pizza, don’t go past The Forge Pizzeria. Delicious thin-crust woodfired pizzas are made with top quality local produce.
Craig’s Royal Hotel is one of Ballarat’s most famous landmarks, and provides several dining options. The Gallery Dining Room offers a buffet breakfast followed by a sophisticated lunch or dinner menu. Coffee and snacks are on offer all day in Craig’s Café and Larder on the ground floor. To enjoy some of the hotel’s historic opulence, order a glass of wine or a cocktail in Craig’s Bar.
Over at The Provincial Hotel, Lola restaurant serves up stylish European-inspired cuisine. The Wagyu beef is the star of the show.
For an afternoon beverage, pre-dinner drink or nightcap, Ballarat has options galore. Tucked away in a quiet lane, Hop Temple is a firm favourite with local beer aficionados. It offers dozens of brews from around the world, both on tap and bottled.
Wine lovers should drop by the chic Mitchell Harris wine bar. Make your selection from the substantial wine list of local and international drops, including Mitchell Harris’ own vintages. There’s also an extraordinary collection of rare wines available from the cellar, which have been collected from all over the world over more than 20 years. They’re all available for purchase if you have the cash to splash.
When only a G&T will do, make your way to Kilderkin Distillery — the home of Larrikin Gin. The tasting experience showcases six gins, ranging from the classic London Dry to the uniquely Australian Sunburnt Country (infused with ‘bush tucker’ botanicals). The friendly staff offer informal distillery tours and will be happy to explain the gin making process.
Where to shop in Ballarat
Ballarat has a great range of boutique stores that offer everything from sweet scents to quirky gifts.
If you like perfume and scented body products, you’ll absolutely adore Sweet Fern. This award-winning niche perfumery stocks hard-to-source and unique scents from around the world. You can get your hands on some very exclusive perfumes made under royal seal by Penhaligon’s of London, including the personal favourite of the late Princess Diana. Sweet Fern also stocks a full range of Aesop products. Fragrance masterclasses are offered to help you find your signature scent.
For homewares and gifts with a difference, head to Bridge Street Mall and peruse the eclectic offerings of Wen & Ware. The store stocks everything from handmade bowls from the Philippines to tote bags made from recycled tents once used by the French army. The staff here are famous for their gift wrapping expertise.
Booklovers will delight in the beautifully presented Collins Booksellers on Lydiard Street.
Ways to relax in Ballarat
Part garden and part outdoor gallery, the Ballarat Botanical Gardens are superb.
The 40 hectare gardens are renowned for their many statues — including Prime Minister’s Avenue, which features bronze busts of every Australian prime minister since federation (although the city is struggling to keep up with the recent turnover of PMs). Twelve Carrara marble statues — gifted to Ballarat by wealthy local Thomas Stoddart in 1884 — are dotted throughout the gardens.
Other highlights include the giant redwoods, the rose garden, the statuary pavilion and the lovely Robert Clarke Conservatory with its stunning seasonal floral displays. Guided tours are offered on Sunday mornings courtesy of Friends of the Ballarat Botanical Gardens. Volunteer guides share their knowledge of the gardens and spin some good yarns about those who made the gardens what they are today.
Opposite the Botanical Gardens, Lake Wendouree is another of Ballarat’s treasured outdoor spaces. In 1956 the lake was home to the rowing, canoeing and kayaking events of the Melbourne Olympic Games. The famous Olympic rings are still on display here 60 years later. The six-kilometre circuit around the lake is popular with joggers and those who prefer a sedate stroll.
For more information, please visit www.visitballarat.com.au.
Louise travelled as a guest of Ballarat Heritage Tours.
Do you have any tips to add to our Ballarat travel guide? We would love to hear from you. Please leave a comment below.
Additional images: Bigstock
About the writer
Louise Reynolds made up her mind at the age of about four that she would one day travel the world — and has so far visited around 30 countries across five continents and the Pacific. A hopeless Francophile, she has a particular love for France, its language and pretty much all things French. Louise’s favourite way to see the world is on foot and her boots have taken her walking on famous trails in Europe, South America and New Zealand. She also has a passion for her home state of Victoria and loves exploring its diverse regions.