The events of the 5th of August 1944 shocked a nation and earned Cowra a place in Australian history. Today this quintessential rural town engrosses history buffs, foodies, wine lovers and silo art hunters in equal measure. Tick off these ten must-sees and dos.
The story of Cowra in Central New South Wales could aptly be titled ‘War and Peace’.
It’s a tale of pioneers and prisoners, and courage and commitment, unlike any other in Australia. From learning about the infamous Cowra Breakout in 1944, to soaking up the emotive beauty of the Japanese Garden and region’s soaring silo art, there’s plenty to keep inquisitive visitors occupied for a stay of three or four days.
Here are ten of the best things to do in Cowra.
1. Travel back to the Cowra Breakout
It’s worth dropping into the Cowra Visitor Information Centre for two reasons. First, you can get the ‘goss’ from local experts about special events and activities that are happening during your stay. You can also buy souvenirs, local gourmet products and wines. Second, you need to meet Claire — the main character in a fascinating hologram presentation, who tells the story of the Cowra Breakout through her eyes. We found it totally enthralling and recommend this as your first unmissable Cowra stop.
2. Learn more about the bloody bid for freedom
Then it’s time to visit the site of the camp that Claire introduced you to, which was Australia’s largest World War II prisoner-of-war detention facility. Sit in the shade under the guard tower and listen to the site’s fascinating story broadcast by loudspeaker. As you listen to the events of that night, it’s chilling to picture the scenes of chaos that unfolded in the darkness as an estimated 1,000 Japanese POWs armed with makeshift weapons attempted to stage a mass escape. You’ll hear of desperate men striving to maintain their honour, and the few brave soldiers who tried to withstand their suicidal attack.
3. Contemplate the past at the Cowra War Cemeteries
Not far away, the Cowra War Cemeteries are two cemeteries side by side: Australia’s only Japanese war cemetery, which holds the graves of the prisoners who perished in the breakout; lying peacefully beside them, the graves of the four Australians who lost their lives, as well as the graves of other local soldiers. It’s a place of tranquillity, and a light breeze was blowing as we wandered beneath the Japanese maples. The site, beautifully tended by the RSL, is often visited by Japanese dignitaries.
4. Visit the Japanese Garden
At the end of Sakura Avenue, the Cowra Japanese Garden and Cultural Centre has become a symbol of reconciliation between Japan and Australia. Designed by world-renowned designer Ken Nakajima, these are the largest Japanese gardens in the Southern Hemisphere. Lovingly designed and curated with flowering plants, rocky hillsides, manicured hedges, waterfalls, lakes and streams, we found the gardens peaceful and contemplative. Time your visit if you can for the annual cherry blossom festival in September, but otherwise, there are always gorgeous floral displays to enjoy.
5. Connect with local Indigenous culture
What do walls, bridges, tanks and silos have in common? They’re great sites for murals! We sighted the Cowra Bridge Pylons as we crossed the Lachlan River Bridge, before making a quick U-turn to check out and photograph the awesome artworks. These huge murals, painted by local Aboriginal artist Kym Freeman with the help of local youths, depict native wildlife and the Wiradjuri people, who predated white settlement in the area.
6. Meet the winemakers
The wineries around Cowra and Canowindra are well known for their organic, minimal intervention wines. You’ll need to book ahead to visit Antonio’s Wines, Rosnay Organic or Wallington Wines, but if you’re short on time there are a couple of shortcuts worth knowing. We took the Cowra Wine and Forage Tour, which gave us small group face to face interaction with winemakers and an included lunch. Just out of Cowra, The Quarry Restaurant and Cellar Door is a centralised cellar door where you can taste and purchase wines from various local vineyards. We stopped there for dinner and enjoyed the restaurant’s classic cuisine.
7. Explore the towns that time forgot
It’s worth doing the 80-kilometre drive from Cowra to two of NSW’s prettiest historical villages — Millthorpe and Carcoar. Wander through the National Trust-listed town of Millthorpe with its quaint houses and shops, and drop by the Millthorpe Providore to pick up some local produce and goodies. Call into the Slow Wine Co, Tamburlaine or Angullong cellar doors for tastings, before looping back to visit Carcoar.
Dubbed ‘the town that time forgot’, Carcoar is home to the annual Carcoar Cup Running Festival. The start and finish lines for the race are clearly marked on the road in front of the Royal Hotel. There are lots of photo opportunities around town, along the riverbank, and across the old wooden bridge. You can stop for coffee and cake (and to pick up a town map) at The Village Grocer, but save room for the second point of interest. It’s really special…
8. Dine with emperors in Carcoar
It’s rare for a restaurant anywhere to win an award in its first year, let alone a global award from the World Food Travel Association. But Antica Australis has done just that. Owners Paolo and Kelly Picarazzi’s locanda (a traditional Italian inn), situated in a lovingly restored heritage building, specialises in the cuisine of Ciociaria — a mountainous area referred to as Italy’s ‘wild heart’. You’ll be dining on the fare of Roman emperors during this slow-cooked degustation, explained course by course as it’s brought to the table.
9. Check out a country castle
Visiting any castle is special, especially a feudal-like castle in the middle of country New South Wales! Mount Oriel Homestead, often referred to as Iandra Castle, was built in 1878 by George Henry Greene — a local pioneer share farmer. Set on a hillside in great grandeur, the castle forms part of a 3,000-acre estate. Check opening hours before you take the half-hour drive from Cowra.
10. See silo art
A further 20 minutes from Iandra Castle (50 kilometres from Cowra) is the town of Grenfell, which is famous for its silo art. Painted by Heesco Khosnaran in 2019, the Grenfell silos depict the local farming landscape. In the foreground are sheep, cattle and canola with native parrots and galahs flying overhead. Perspective is given by the Weddin Mountains National Park in the distance.
Grenfell could easily inspire the theme for your next trip — following the NSW Silo Art Trail.
Do you have any suggestions to add to our list of the best things to do in Cowra? We would love to hear from you. Please leave a comment below.
Cover image: Cowra township from Bellevue Hill Lookout. Image courtesy of Destination NSW
About the writer
Marj Osborne has been reviewing restaurants for over 20 years, formerly for Mietta’s Eating and Drinking in Australia, and more recently for her own blog — Good Food Gold Coast. Her work has also been published in Cafe Culture, Cove Magazine, the Gold Coast Bulletin and Blank Gold Coast. A researcher, teacher-librarian and former hospitality educator trained in vegetarian cooking and wine appreciation, Marj believes in positive living and thinking, and spending time enriching the body, mind and soul. She finds joy on country road trips discovering hidden gems.