Mount Gambier is a hidden gem of a destination, situated midway between Melbourne and Adelaide on the spectacular Limestone Coast.
It’s South Australia’s largest regional city — and one of the few in the world established on the slopes of a dormant volcano. Giant sinkholes (cenotes) and crater lakes dramatically illustrate the region’s turbulent geological past, and the natural beauty of the landscape will take your breath away. The city and surrounds offer something to interest everyone.
Enjoy this Mount Gambier travel guide.
Need to know
Base yourself: City
Average hotel price per room/per night: AUD $130
Best breakfasts & coffee: Presto Eatery, Cafe Melzar, Metro Bakery and Cafe
Top spots for a beverage: 1862 Wine Bar & Grill, Sorrentos Cafe
Must-dos: Blue Lake, Riddoch Art Gallery, Umpherston Sinkhole
Best times to visit Mount Gambier
Summer is by far the best time to visit the region. At that time the colour of the famous Blue Lake changes from standard issue to a vibrant cobalt blue. The effect lasts from November through to late March. Temperatures at this time average at a comfortable 28 degrees. Winter sees daily average temperatures of around 14 degrees. Pack your woolies!
Mount Gambier for history lovers
Before European settlement, Mount Gambier was inhabited by the Boandik First People.
According to local dreamtime stories, the Blue Lake and Valley Lake craters were formed from the campfire of a giant known as Craitbul.
The first recorded European sighting of the region was by Lieutenant James Grant. He reported seeing a distinctive mountain from the deck of the survey brig HMS Lady Nelson in 1800. To find out more of that backstory, pay a visit to the Mount Gambier Visitor Centre. It’s easy to find as there’s a full size replica of the brig parked outside.
While at the centre, you can also get a fascinating insight into the past from Christina Smith — an early European settler. She relates the story of her experiences with the Indigenous people in the 1840s. You’ll also learn about tragic shipwrecks, intrepid gold diggers and ambitious pastoralists. Make sure you take a walk over the glass floor in the centre’s fossil cave section. Oh, and check out the miner who is watching you from overhead!
Mount Gambier has no less than seven other museums and historical facilities to explore, including the Old Courthouse (constructed in 1878) and the Millicent National Trust Museum — which counts among its treasures an array of horse drawn carriages. The city centre is dotted with period buildings and a self guided heritage walking tour will introduce you to the many highlights.
Those wanting to immerse themselves more fully in local history can even book a stay in the Old Mount Gambier Gaol (now a private hotel).
Top cultural experiences in Mount Gambier
With a population of around 30,000 people, Mount Gambier has a strong cultural buzz.
The Riddoch & Main Corner Complex is the city’s artistic hub. It houses the Riddoch Art Gallery — the largest regional gallery in South Australia. Enjoy the twice daily free screenings of the short film Volcano, which tells the tale of the geological disturbance that created Mount Gambier. You will leave feeling enlightened about how the various sinkholes, lakes and craters in the area were formed.
Just a short walk from the gallery are the beautiful Cave Gardens, the centrepiece of which is a 30-metre-deep sinkhole — the town’s original water source. A flight of stairs takes you down to a suspended viewing platform and each evening there’s a sound and light show to enjoy. If you happen to be around on a Saturday morning, mix and mingle with the locals at the Cave Gardens farmers market.
Those with a passion for the performing arts should check out what’s on at the Sir Robert Helpmann Theatre during their stay. The theatre was named after the late Sir Robert Helpmann — a world renowned performer who was born in Mount Gambier. Legendary Australian jazz trumpeter James Morrison also has a local venue named in his honour. Morrison’s Jazz Club is open each evening from Thursday to Sunday.
Great places to eat in Mount Gambier
Indulge your taste buds at one of the many cafes, restaurants and chic bars to be found in the city centre and beyond.
Start your day with a friendly smile and some delicious delights at Presto Eatery. This funky café has an innovative menu and options to suit all dietary requirements. The acai bowl is delicious!
For brunch or lunch, head on over to Café Melzar. Their burgers with crispy fries are awesome. They’re open Tuesday to Sunday.
For a casual dinner and drinks, try 1862 Wine Bar and Grill in the Mount Gambier Hotel. Given that local fishermen harvest succulent seafood from the waters of the Southern Ocean off the Limestone Coast, it’s worth pushing the boat out on the deliciously fresh seafood platter. The eatery has a great ambiance too.
If you’re celebrating something special you can’t go wrong at Thyme @ the lakes, which is situated at one of the highest points in Mount Gambier and offers unparalleled views across the city. I recommend the chicken and camembert gnocchi. Leave room for dessert!
Where to shop in Mount Gambier
The Riddoch Art Gallery design shop promotes locally made products.
The shop offers an array of hand-crafted items, including jewellery, summer scarves, limestone sculptures and paintings — all of which will make great gifts or a reminder of your visit to Mount Gambier.
The rest of the city’s retail action is mainly located along Commercial Street East and West. Pop into Lima & Co to enjoy the atmosphere and check out the range of clothing, jewellery, homewares and quirky gifts. Wander through to the florist section tucked away in the rear of the store, and breathe in the scents of the beautiful blooms.
Ladies, you’ll also love Mangos. Find that new piece you just know you need to have in your wardrobe! Guys, don’t worry, you’re covered at hip and happening Country Grey Menswear. Also check out Country Attitude — one of the largest stockists of RM Williams products in the region.
Located just a short drive north of the city centre, Mount Gambier Marketplace has 25 specialty stores and lovely air conditioning.
Ways to relax in Mount Gambier
A walk up to the Centenary Tower on the southern side of the city will give you an absolute bird’s-eye view of the region and its unique topography.
The tower has been open to tourists for more than a century. You’ll be able to see both the Valley Lake and the wonderful Blue Lake. Relax for a while and take in the vibrant colours. To get another perspective of the Blue Lake, do the 3.6-kilometre walk around the rim.
East of the city centre, Umpherston Sinkhole is one of the region’s most spectacular geological oddities. It’s named after James Umpherston — who transformed it into a sunken garden back in 1886, complete with hanging vines and secret terraces. The view from the bottom of the sinkhole looking up is epic!
Engelbrecht Cave is another must-see. It features an intricate maze of water-filled passages that stretch out beneath the city streets. Take the 164 steps down to the various viewing platforms. When you’ve had enough, head back up to the surface and enjoy a coffee at the onsite café.
A 15-minute drive south from the city will bring you to the gorgeous Little Blue Lake. It’s a popular swimming hole, complete with a floating pontoon. If you really want to get amongst it and immerse yourself (literally) in the Limestone Coast’s underwater world, there are more than 50 sinkholes in the region that contain water. Kilsby Sinkhole is renowned for its natural beauty, and snorkelling tours are available.
For more information, please visit www.discovermountgambier.com.au.
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Cover image courtesy of Ockert le Roux. Additional images: Bigstock