Ipswich may only be 30 minutes' drive from the Brisbane CBD, but it successfully blends the best of city and country life. You'll also discover a proud pioneering and military history. Here's a checklist of ten amazing things to do.
As the thundering roar of another fighter jet passing high overhead fills the air, my affable guide turns to me and quips: ‘Just another day at the office’.
He’s dressed in full fatigues and showing me around the fascinating RAAF Amberley Aviation Heritage Centre outside Ipswich in South East Queensland. It’s dedicated to preserving the history of Australian military flight, but this no ordinary museum. For one thing, it’s located on a live Royal Australian Air Force Base, so gaining entry requires a bit of pre-organisation. Secondly, it fills four or five full size military hangars. And it’s not every day you get the opportunity to get up close to a Black Hawk helicopter or F-111.
This is just one of the unique experiences on offer in and around Ipswich — a bustling city of around 220,000 people and the gateway to the picturesque Lockyer Valley. Ipswich has long lived in the shadow of the Queensland capital Brisbane, but with a rich pioneering history to explore, a growing paddock to plate dining scene, fabulous country pubs to check out, and several unique attractions like Amberley, it’s a compelling proposition in its own right for those looking for a short break destination that combines the best of town and country. History buffs might like to combine a visit to both Ipswich and Toowoomba, and follow the Cobb and Co Tourist Drive in between.
Ipswich is sitting on a stash of incredibly fine period buildings. Established in 1827 as a convict limestone mine and opened up to free settlers from the early 1840s, today there are some 130 historical markers dotted around town that designate surviving heritage points and buildings of interest. Download a self-guided walking tour itinerary from the City of Ipswich website and head off to explore. ‘City Centre People, Places and Events’ is fairly broad and covers the key CBD sites, including the Old Flour Mill on Brisbane Street, the Old Town Hall (now the Ipswich Art Gallery) and the Soldiers’ Memorial Hall — built to commemorate those killed in World War I. Keep an eye out for the stunning, grandly-named Queen Victoria Silver Jubilee Memorial Technical College, which has been spectacularly but sympathetically converted into a mixed-use commercial precinct.
Two tips for your walking expedition: The CBD is quite hilly and it won’t take you long to heat up. Have water and a hat with you. Also be aware of the city’s two lane, one-way street system, as that second lane can sneak up on unsuspecting jay walkers. Use the designated crossings!
2. Admire the works at the Ipswich Art Gallery
The Ipswich Art Gallery is another reimagining of a building from yesteryear that should get a standing ovation. It seamlessly melds the period detail of the Old Town Hall with new-build construction, creating a polished but cool and inviting space with soaring ceilings and a variety of exhibition spaces. Look for details like the proscenium arch of the original auditorium and the stairs leading down to the old backstage dressing rooms.
The gallery exhibits a beautifully curated selection of local stories, along with touring exhibitions and a revolving showcase focussing on the work of one particular local artist. There’s a dedicated Children’s Gallery on the mezzanine level.
3. Learn the history of Aussie military flight
The Amberley RAAF Base is located around 15 minutes’ drive west of Ipswich and as mentioned, your visit to the Heritage Centre must be prearranged. However, it’s free of charge and well worth doing. As you drive along the treelined Avenue of Honour and past the F-111C parked by the base Pass Office, the excitement of actually stepping foot on a military base begins to build. You’ll be met by a representative from the centre, and following ID checks (all visitors aged 16 years and over must have a passport or licence with them) you’ll follow them in your vehicle to the heritage hangars to begin the two-hour tour with a volunteer guide. Many of the guides are ex-service personnel and have personal knowledge of the aircraft on display. There are also general displays pertaining to the history of defence in Australia.
Amberley recently celebrated its 80th birthday and even if you’re not a fan of inspecting ex pieces of multi-million-dollar military hardware, seeing the base first hand is a unique experience.
4. Explore The Workshops Rail Museum
‘If it could be made, it could be made in the workshops’ was the motto and catch-cry of the North Ipswich Railway Workshops — at its height, a fraternity of 3,000 tradesmen of every description, who literally manufactured everything Queensland’s growing rail network needed. Today, key buildings on the sprawling site house The Workshops Rail Museum — an engaging homage to the history of rail, but equally a fascinating insight into the mateship and sense of community fostered on this large scale turn-of-the-20thcentury industrial worksite. Yes, you’ll see lots of trains (and one seriously epic model train set), but you’ll also hear stories of the onsite gardens kept by workers; of the community meetings and lunchtime lectures that took places around the public rostrum; of the war memorial built by the yards to commemorate their fallen workmates in WWI; and of lively conversations around the dinner table between generations debating the future of steam technology. Expect to spend a good four hours here to even begin to do it justice. The café housed in the old workers’ dining hall is an atmospheric spot for lunch.
5. Lose yourself in paradisiacal Queens Park
A stroll through the walled Japanese-style Nerima Gardens on the edge of Ipswich’s historic Queens Park is akin to losing oneself in some mythical Shangri-La. Shaded pathways and wooden bridges lead you through a tranquil landscape of lush foliage, babbling waterfalls, lily-coated ponds and contented freshwater turtles casually sunning themselves on rocks. Strange and exotic bird cries fill the air, courtesy of what turn out to be two extraordinarily vocal peacocks that live in the neighbouring Ipswich Nature Centre. It’s a delight as well, and visiting families will love not only the beautifully kept animal enclosures, but also the entry price (a gold coin donation).
Queens Park has plenty more to offer, but special mention to the Art Deco elegance of what was once the Ipswich industrial rubbish incinerator — located adjacent to the Nature Centre. It was designed by none other than American architect Walter Burley Griffin, who also designed the nation’s capital. Yes, Canberra. Fun fact: WBG actually designed two other incinerators in Australia: one in Willoughby, Sydney, and the other in Hindmarsh, Adelaide. This one is now home to the Ipswich Little Theatre.
6. Order a flight of top drops
If all this trooping about has you in need of refreshment or a bite to eat, head back into the CBD to that restored former tech college we mentioned earlier. It’s home to the Pumpyard Bar and Brewery, which produces a range of craft beers under the 4 Hearts Brewing brand. The building’s rich red brick walls contrast beautifully with the gleaming stainless-steel vats, and the bustling bar and restaurant has a relaxed and friendly vibe. Purchase a tasting paddle of four drops, including perhaps the zesty Limestone Pale Ale, Coalminers Stout, Kickback Red IPA, and ambrosial Gillys Ginger Beer. The bar menu offers a great range of classic southern-style eats. Style it up a notch in Dovetails Restaurant next door (run by the same team as the Pumpyard).
7. Float high above the landscape at dawn
As you travel west from Ipswich, suburban streets quickly morph into a patchwork idyll of small country towns, rolling farmland, and national parks and reserves that make up the Lockyer Valley and lower Somerset region. One of the best ways to appreciate the region’s scenic beauty involves a very early start, but it’s worth setting the alarm for. Floating Images offers a one-hour hot air balloon flight at dawn that will see you soaring high above the landscape as the sun rises behind Mount Coot-tha and the distant Brisbane CBD.
The meeting point to transfer out to the launch site is the Ipswich Visitor Information Centre on the edge of Queens Park, and a hot breakfast afterwards is included in the cost of your flight. You’ll be back at your hotel by around 9am for a catch-up snooze.
8. Enjoy a great latte
Ipswich is the kind of place that makes you wish there was more than one breakfast per day. The city has a great café scene and a quick Google search will reveal plenty of awesome options. Special mention to Ellen and Rod Café, which has a lovely local feel and sensational smashed avo, Oikos on Limestone Street (always chockers from the looks of it, whatever the time of day), Dancing Bean Speciality Roasters on Brisbane Street (across from the Old Flour Mill building), and probably our fav, Rafter & Rose, with its cabinet-of-curiosities-esque interior and secret garden vibe outside.
9. Visit the region’s best country pubs
One of the great joys of exploring the countryside around Ipswich is its plethora of good old fashioned country pubs. Every town has at least one and they’re generally packed with character, not to mention characters. Some of the gems we can personally vouch for are the colonial-style Marburg Hotel (circa 1881), the Royal Hotel Harrisville (circa 1875 — although the original pub burnt down, and was rebuilt in 1920), the rustic Mulgowie Hotel, and ‘The Dugie’ (Dugandan Hotel) down in Boonah, which dates back to the 1880s and has some really interesting local history displayed on the walls of the bistro. And they’re just the tip of the ice-cold brews on offer.
You would have to really hightail it to tick all these off in one day — unless you had wings. Which you do (well, blades at least) if you head out with Pterodactyl Helicopters on their epic Lockyer Valley Country Pub Crawl by Chopper. It’s a rock-star way to travel!
10. Get spooked on a haunted mansion tour
Woodlands of Marburg sits in stately splendour, surrounded by jacaranda trees, on a hilltop just outside the town of Marburg — 20-or-so-minutes’ drive from the Ipswich CBD. The two-storey heritage-listed colonial era mansion, complete with wrap-around balconies, ornate wrought iron work and a widow’s walk, harks back to a time of genteel rural prosperity. Built in the late 1880s by timber miller and rum distiller Tommy Smith, the home has also served as a seminary and comes complete with a chapel, grotto and graveyard. It now operates as a wedding venue and country guest house (more on that in a moment).
Like all good mansions, as the light falls Woodlands takes on an ethereal feel, and there have been various reports through the years of things that go bump in the night. So much so, that visitors and guests have the opportunity to tour the house after dark with a paranormal investigator. We were staying at Woodlands and were invited to do the tour. I’m not a bona fide believer by any means, but there was cause to check under the bed and behind the curtains that night — just in case.
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Where to stay in Ipswich
Woodlands of Marburg
The guest accommodation at Woodlands is located in two wings separate to the main house (there is no accommodation inside the mansion itself). The Executive and Deluxe rooms are elegantly appointed, with soft bedheads, chocolate and gold accents, and sumptuous travertine bathrooms. Waking up to the sun pouring in through the white shutters and views of the Lockyer Valley is sublime. The property also has a section of budget, family, and dorm-style accommodation (used primarily for retreats and events). Amenities include complimentary Wi-Fi and a half-size Olympic swimming pool (hand dug by seminary priests in the 1960s!), which is located within close proximity to both accommodation wings, and surrounded by lush gardens.
Behind the main house, Tommy Smith Café is open for dinner Friday and Saturday nights, and breakfast and lunch on weekends. Dine beneath the jacarandas on the garden terrace or overlooking the valley to the west. The menu is good value and features an Italian twist in the evening.
Do you have any suggestions to add to our list of the best things to do in Ipswich? We would love to hear from you. Please leave a comment below.
Cover image: Australian Air Force/Alamy. Additional images: Bigstock
About the writer
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.