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 from Melbourne.
Enjoy this Ballarat travel guide.
Need to know
Base yourself: Historic town centre
Average hotel price per room/per night: $120 AUD
Best breakfasts: Lydiard Street, Sturt Street
Great coffee: Lydiard Street, Sturt Street
Top spots for a beverage: Craig’s Royal Hotel Bar
Must-dos: Heritage architecture walking tour, Art Gallery of Ballarat, Ballarat Botanical Gardens, Sovereign Hill
Best times to visit
Ballarat is a year round destination, but it’s at its best in spring when the weather is milder, 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.
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. Kitted out in 1850s garb, local historian Andrew Sharpe leads the 90-minute tour, which focuses on historic Lydiard Street and the heritage railway precinct that surrounds Ballarat Central 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. 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 famed 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.
Ballarat has a thriving arts scene with top quality galleries, theatre and music events.
The Art Gallery of Ballarat is Australia’s oldest and largest regional gallery, 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.
Live performance centres around 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.
Recently the city has gained new fame through the popular television drama The Dr Blake Mysteries, which is set and filmed in Ballarat. The City of Ballarat has created a self-guided walking tour of filming locations along historic Lydiard Street.
From fine dining in grand hotels to great pizzas and classic pub-grub, Ballarat offers fare to suit every taste and budget.
The extensive all-day breakfast menu at Knife Fork Spoon leaves the standard eggs on toast for dead. Choosing how you want your eggs prepared may take some time. The folded eggs with roast pumpkin, blue cheese and beetroot pesto is a real winner. The fabulous food comes with a bright, light atmosphere and great service. It’s usually packed for brunch on weekends but is well worth the wait.
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.
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. Several cocktails, including the Peach Melba and the Mark Twain, are named after famous guests of the hotel.
For pizza you can’t go past The Forge Pizzeria. Delicious thin-crust woodfired pizzas are made with top quality local produce.
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. Wendy McLachlan and husband Doug transformed a former bank into a homewares and gift store in 2002, which offers everything from handmade bowls from the Philippines to tote bags made from recycled tents once used by the French army. Wendy and Doug also produce their own range of scented candles (dubbed Nomad after their lifestyle). Their staff are famous for their expertise in gift wrapping.
Booklovers will feel right at home at The Known World Bookshop. Grab a coffee from the espresso bar and browse for your next great read. The collection of children’s classics in the back room will jog some treasured childhood memories.
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. Twelve Carrara marble statues — gifted to Ballarat by wealthy local Thomas Stoddart in 1884 — are dotted throughout the gardens. There are giant redwoods, a rose garden, and the lovely Robert Clarke Conservatory with its stunning seasonal floral displays. Don’t miss the statuary pavilion.
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 after a sedate stroll.
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 send us a message.
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 explore the world is on foot and she has walked famous trails in Europe, South America and New Zealand. She also has a passion for exploring her home state of Victoria. While travelling, she is usually found with a pile of books and at least one teddy bear in tow.
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