Only got a couple of days to get to know a new city? Our Big Five City Guides can help. We break each destination down into culture, history, dining, shopping and relaxation must-sees and dos. Adam Ford checks in from fabulous Tamworth in northern New South Wales...
‘It’s a long straight road and the engine is deep;
I can’t help thinkin’ of a good night’s sleep;
And the long, long roads of my li-ife were a callin’ me…’
So begins Joy McKean’s Lights On The Hill — a song made famous by her late husband Slim Dusty and later covered by Keith Urban. It won McKean the first ever Golden Guitar Award in 1973 at the inaugural Country Music Awards of Australia in Tamworth, and to this very day the lyrics greet guests on arrival at Tamworth Regional Airport.
At first glance, it seems an odd kind of welcome; like many country music ballads, the song doesn’t have a happy ending. But after spending some time in Tamworth, you soon realise that that’s kind of the point. Country music is all about pithy lyrics sung from the heart come what may, and this robust regional city embraces that ethos with gusto. Even while it’s in the grip of crippling drought, you can still expect a warm country welcome and amazing hospitality during your stay.
Enjoy this Tamworth travel guide.
Base yourself: City centre
Average hotel price per room/per night: AUD $170
Great breakfasts: The Workshop Kitchen, Hopscotch Restaurant and Bar
Awesome coffee: The Terrace Tamworth, Ruby’s Café and Gift Store, Espresso Addimi
Top spots for a beverage: Coal Bunker Bar, The Press 2340, The Welder’s Dog, The Pig and Tinder Box
Must-dos: Oxley Scenic Lookout, Australian Country Music Hall of Fame, Tamworth Powerhouse Museum, Barraba silo art
Anytime is a good time to visit Tamworth, although if you’re not mad keen on crowds or peak accommodation prices, you might want to avoid the month of January when school holidays collide with the behemoth that is the Tamworth Country Music Festival. On the subject of school holidays, Tamworth is a great family destination. The city offers a whole bunch of mostly free attractions that kids will love — including the fantasmagorical Tamworth Regional Playground.
Average temperatures in summer hover around the low 30s, although Tamworth has recorded some monster hot days of late — including a 43-degree scorcher in January 2019. While the current drought continues to wreak havoc, November and February are traditionally the wettest months of the year. Winter ushers in average daytime temperatures in the mid-teens. Nights in winter are super chilly, with averages of just above zero.
Tamworth is renowned as Australia’s capital of country music, which sets the cultural tone around town.
The city is most famous for the Tamworth Country Music Festival. It takes place in January each year and is recognised as the world’s second largest country music festival (after Nashville in the USA). The ten-day event attracts around 700 performers and 300,000 visitors and culminates in the Golden Guitar Awards ceremony. Much has been written about the event so we won’t tarry too long on it here, except to say that visiting Tamworth during the festival can be as expensive or inexpensive an exercise as you want it to be. There are high profile ticketed events to splash out on, but equally, there are hundreds of free gigs that take place across some 120 venues. By all accounts, it’s an amazing experience.
You can tap into Tamworth’s country music vibe with ease at any time of the year. Start by taking a stroll down historic Peel Street. You’ll find life-size brass statues of country music legends Smoky Dawson, (which looks so realistic you almost expect him to tip his hat and say hi) Slim Dusty and Joy McKean, along with walk-of fame-style plaques embedded in the pavement that commemorate Golden Guitar award winners. There are also plenty of period architectural gems to admire, including the Post Office building which dates back to 1886.
Don’t go looking for a Visitor Information Centre here in town; it’s actually located out on the A15 approach to the city and marked by the epic Big Golden Guitar — at 12 metres high, a worthy inclusion on Australia’s list of regional ‘bigs’. The Big Golden Guitar Tourist Centre is currently getting a makeover. The much-loved Gallery of Stars Wax Museum, which features wax effigies of Smoky Dawson, Buddy Williams, Chad Morgan and many others, will be upgraded and joined on the site by the brand spanking new National Guitar Museum (scheduled to open in 2020).
For a dose of high culture, drop by the excellent Tamworth Regional Gallery on Peel Street. The gallery was established in 1919, making it one of the oldest in regional New South Wales. It moved into its current, very impressive digs in 2004. There are two large exhibition spaces that host a diverse annual programme. Check the website for what’s on during your visit.
Tamworth lies in the heart of the Kamilaroi nation — one of the four largest Indigenous nations in the country.
European settlement of the region ramped up from around the 1830s, driven by the quest for good grazing land. Tamworth was designated a town in 1850, and officially deemed a city in 1946.
One of the most interesting chapters in the city’s history occurred at 8pm on the evening of November 9, 1888, when Tamworth Mayoress Mrs Elizabeth Piper flicked the switch on Australia’s first municipal electric street lighting grid. Get the full story on how Tamworth became the country’s First City of Light by visiting the superb Powerstation Museum. Standing on the site of the original power station, the museum is staffed by extremely knowledgeable volunteers. It’s home to the world’s only operational John Fowler steam-driven engines, along with a seriously extensive collection of electric appliances from across the 20th century.
Those interested in taking a stroll down Australian country music’s memory lane should head for the guitar-shaped Australian Country Music Hall of Fame at the southern end of Peel Street. Again, run almost exclusively by volunteers, the Hall of Fame’s collection of memorabilia is extensive and encompasses everything from acetate recordings to rhinestone-studded stage costumes. The Walk a Country Mile exhibition, technically a separate entity, is housed in the museum and provides an engaging chronological rundown of Australia’s country music heritage.
Country music may be Tamworth’s tourist bread and butter, but the city is also on the rise as a paddock-to-plate dining destination.
The culinary scene here may come as one of the biggest surprises of your visit. Here are a few of the highlights.
It’s not often that a regional hotel’s inhouse eatery gets top culinary billing in our guides, but in this case it’s well justified. Even if you are not staying at the wonderful Powerhouse Hotel, you have to eat at The Workshop Kitchen at least once. The entry, with its wine walls and ritzy wood-panelled desk, sets the scene perfectly for what’s to come, and the open kitchen draws the eye from around the room. There are lots of layers to the modern Australian menu, but the premium steaks (done on the Western Red Ironbark wood-fired grill) are incredible, as is the wine list. Leave room for dessert.
Carmen’s Italian Restaurant takes a bit of effort to get to (it’s a three-kilometre drive south of town), but once you’re there you can sit back, relax and enjoy Carmen’s amazing hospitality and her blend of Southern Italian-inspired cuisine and treasured family recipes. This is clearly food made with love. Special mention to the stylish, modern setting, which completely sidesteps the décor clichés often associated with Italian-style eateries outside of Italy.
Hopscotch Restaurant and Bar is located within the recently revitalised Bicentennial Park recreational precinct on the edge of the CBD. It’s literally surrounded by the Tamworth Regional Playground — which makes it a great choice for breakfast, brunch or lunch if you have the family in tow — but don’t let that put you off if you’re sans youngsters. Everyone will enjoy the on-trend interior (with its concrete floor, wood accents and hanging plants) and innovative menu. We dropped by for breakfast, but the Cuban sandwich on the lunch menu has been noted for future reference.
Just across the road from the park is The Terrace Tamworth, which offers a tranquil retreat from the outside world on its second-floor outdoor dining space. Peppered with potted plants and pops of floral colour, and with plenty of sunny spots to bask in, this is a top choice for a brunch or coffee break while you weigh up the options for what to see or do next around town. The menu is fresh and light. Check out the eclectic offerings in the onsite fashion and gift shop. You’re likely to find a delightful souvenir of your visit.
Café culture is alive and well in Tamworth. Ruby Cafe and Gift Store on Peel Street (just down from the art gallery) is a must-drop-by for its shabby-chic vibe, while Hissy Fits Café in the town centre is the option for those that like to share their breakfast with the world via Instagram (the meals always look sensational!). Espresso Addimi at the northern end of the CBD has a reputation for awesome coffee.
Tamworth makes the perfect base for relaxed country drives that meander through small heritage towns.
One option is to head north from the city towards Manilla and Barraba. The drive to Manilla takes around 40 minutes, and when you get there, drop by Molly May’s café in the town centre. The building has been a pub, tobacconist and leather shop in previous lives; today it’s an Aladdin’s Cave of gourmet food stuffs (much of it produced locally), beautiful baskets (imported from Africa), bits of antique bric-a-brac, and tasty treats — including a mighty fine smashed avo. The café has also garnered quite a reputation for itself in the freak shake world.
If you decide to indulge, work off those extra calories with a walk down the main street and a visit to the Manilla Heritage Museum. It’s packed to the rafters with all manner of local memorabilia.
Forty minutes’ drive further along the B95 will bring you to the town of Barraba, which has put itself on the map with a stunning new piece of silo art. Painted by renowned street artist Fintan Magee in early 2019, the whopping work is a homage to the ingenuity and grit of farmers in the face of drought. The silo is located on the southern approach to town.
As you head back into Tamworth, take a turn to the left and head up towards the mountain range that flanks the city. Here you’ll find Victoria Park and the Botanical Gardens, a lovely spot for a relaxed stroll. There’s a cluster of attractions located here, including the Tamworth Miniature Railway (which holds a public running day on the third Sunday of the month between 10am and 3pm) and Marsupial Park. This entry-by-donation wildlife park is maintained entirely by volunteers. Meet the sleepy resident kangaroos and emus and take a walk in the free flight aviary. The park is also home to the colourful, community-built Tamworth Adventure Playground.
Nearby, Oxley Scenic Lookout offers absolutely spectacular views across the city. There are some interesting interpretive boards to peruse and keep an eye out for the plaque in the garden commemorating the final resting place of the ashes of Smoky Dawson and wife Dot.
In the evening, venture out and explore Tamworth’s burgeoning small bar scene. The sublime Coal Bunker Bar at the Quality Hotel Powerhouse is a great spot to relax after a hard day of sightseeing with a charcuterie board and your choice from the extensive cocktail or whisky menu. In town, head for Brisbane Street and the iconic Northern Daily Leader Building, which dates back to the 1920s. Hidden beneath the building is a very cool speakeasy-style bar called The Press 2340, which does cocktails reminiscent of the prohibition era. There’s often live music and the occasional open mic night. For a venue with plenty of buzz, try The Welder’s Dog on Dowe Street — a boutique brewpub that does a lively (alcoholic) pink lemonade as part of its repertoire.
For a handmade memento of your visit to the region, Barraba is the place to be.
On the town’s main street, you’ll find the fabulous Fuller Gallery and Claypan — a community arts collective and potters’ guild. The gallery not only provides a showcase for the work of local artists; it’s also a vital support network for those based on remote properties. Browse for ceramics, paintings, knitwear and the like. Purchases are cash-only.
Just up the main street from the gallery is Merlene’s Fine Fibres Studio. Merlene spins and dyes her own yarns (using only natural dyes), and then transforms them into an exquisite, winter-warming range of jackets, jumpers, hats and scarves. There’s no website and the shop isn’t open regular hours. Call Merlene on 02 6782 1838 and let her know that you are planning to drop by.
Tamworth’s Powerhouse Hotel is completely redefining the concept of an Australian regional hotel. Stage one of a multi-million-dollar redevelopment of the property delivered the fabulous Workshop Kitchen, Coal Bunker Bar and central reception area. Stage two is currently underway and if you are lucky enough to be staying in one of the refurbished Powerhouse King Rooms, prepare to be completely amazed as you step through the door. The decor transports guests back to the stylish Art Deco era of the 1920s (a nod to the power station that operated on this site from 1923). Waffled wall panelling, sumptuous soft furnishings, custom-made furniture and a palette of rich greens and blues create a space that is a credit to the hotel and its design team.
Amenities at the hotel include a tropical pool, spa and BBQ area. Motoring enthusiasts may like to check out the Powerhouse Motorcycle Museum, which is connected to the hotel and showcases an array of heritage motorised two-wheel bling. Also take some time to read the plaques at the base of the Art Deco obelisk that stands tall in front of the hotel. It celebrates Tamworth’s history as Australia’s First City of Light.
Do you have any tips to add to our Tamworth travel guide? We would love to hear from you. Please send us a message.
Cover image courtesy of Destination NSW. Additional images: Bigstock
Adam Ford is editor of The Big Bus tour and travel guide and a travel TV presenter, writer, blogger and photographer. He has travelled extensively through Europe, Asia, North America, Africa and the Middle East. Adam worked as a travel consultant for a number of years with Flight Centre before taking up the opportunity to travel the world himself as host of the TV series Tour the World on Network Ten. He loves to experience everything a new destination has to offer and is equally at home in a five-star Palazzo in Pisa or a home-stay in Hanoi.