Laidback Launceston (pronounced Lon-seston), Tasmania’s second largest city and northern hub, answers to ‘Lonnie’ or even just ‘Lon’ if you’re embracing your inner millennial.
Sitting at the confluence of three rivers in the idyllic Tamar Valley, and with an extraordinary wealth of gloriously well-preserved Victorian-era architecture, there’s a whole lot to love about this destination. Fine food, fabulous cool climate wines, a rich history and fast-evolving cultural scene to explore, and access to world-famous natural landscapes like Cradle Mountain-Lake St Clair National Park are all on offer.
Ask any mainlander if they could live in Tassie and you’ll invariably hear ‘I couldn’t stand the winters’. They are certainly cold, and generally pretty wet in Launceston, with maximum daytime temperatures below 10. Consider that when planning a visit mid year and pack accordingly. And remember, it’s nothing that a local pinot noir and open fire can’t fix.
Here are ten of the best things to do in Launceston.
Launceston was established in 1806, making it one of the oldest urban centres in the country. The best way to start your visit is just to wander and lose yourself in the 19th century streetscape. It’s an incredible opportunity to literally step back in time — a fantasy only very occasionally interrupted by a 60s shocker or modern apartment development. This would have been a city of extraordinary wealth and prestige at the turn of the 20th century, evidenced in grand buildings like the neo-classical Town Hall, (constructed in the 1860s) and the majestic Launceston Post Office, which dates back to 1889. It’s worth going old-school and sending a postcard just to give yourself an excuse to wander inside.
Other architectural highlights to look out for around town include Albert Hall and Custom House, alongside Art Deco gems like the Holyman Building and Princess Theatre.
To learn more of the city’s backstory, and pick up plenty of tips for places to eat during your stay, book a guided city walking tour with Free Walking Tours Launceston (aka pay-what-you-think-it’s-worth-at-the-end). Led by passionate locals Roz and Madi, this new venture is all set for big things and is 1.5 hours extremely well spent. Departing from City Park, the tour takes in various points of interest around the CBD. You’ll pass The Cornwall Hotel, which was built by John Pascoe Fawkner in 1824. The hotel is said to be where the plan for the settlement of Melbourne was hatched.
History lovers shouldn’t confine themselves just to the city centre. It’s worth checking out the newly revitalised Seaport precinct (a former shipyard and dry dock) and also heading for the hills that surround the city to take in the incredible array of characterful period homes. Not unlike in San Francisco, what are fondly known in the US as ‘painted ladies’ (refurbished Victorian-era homes), cascade down the hillsides, almost seeming to jostle each other for the best views of city and river plain below.
If you have more time on your hands and access to a car, do a day trip to the historic town of Evandale. It’s another lovely spot to romance the past, and the Ingleside Bakery Café (housed in what was originally the council chambers) makes a great lunch stop.
There are two stunning period homes within easy reach of Evandale, and both are open to the public. Clarendon is a Georgian mansion that wouldn’t have looked out of place on the set of Gone with the Wind. Built by convict labour under what was known as the assignment system (which operated until 1840), the stately home is now managed by the National Trust.
A ten-minute drive west of Evandale will bring you to World Heritage-listed Woolmers Estate. Woolmers was established by Thomas Archer I in the early 1800s. It was also constructed in large part by convict hands, and for that reason the estate was awarded World Heritage status in 2010. It’s a fascinating colonial era time capsule and one that will take you the best part of a day to do justice to. Leave enough time for a mosey through the Rose Garden, which was modelled on the French formal garden style of the 17th century. The garden blooms in late spring and early summer.
Launceston’s must-see Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery is the largest regional facility of its kind in the country, with no less than 1.5 million pieces in its collection. QVMAG has two sites — the gallery on Royal Park on the edge of the CBD and the museum site at Invermay (10 minutes’ walk from the CBD). The free Tiger Bus runs between the two. The gallery’s collection spans eras and genres, from Australian Impressionists like Tom Roberts through to contemporary names such as John Olsen. A wonderful portrait of a youthful Queen Victoria presides over the main foyer.
Over at the museum, the exhibits encompass just about everything that has ever opened and shut, along with generous helpings of bugs, bones and other biological specimens.
There’s no shortage of waist expanding ways to pass your time in Launceston. Drawing on the finest Tamar Valley produce and matched with wines from the same, here are just a handful of recommendations for your dining pleasure.
Housed in an old flour mill, hatted Stillwater has set the standard for fine dining in Launceston for almost two decades. The same team are behind Black Cow Bistro in the city centre — an upmarket steakhouse housed in a former Art Deco-era butcher shop. The service is attentive and the wine list well suited to the menu of mostly meaty fare. The beef is dry aged, free range, grass fed, and hormone free. It’s not cheap, but worth the splash.
Also check out Geronimo Aperitivo Bar and Restaurant on Charles Street for inventive European-style cuisine and a sassy setting. Guests can opt to sit at a table or perch at the bar. There’s a carefully curated cocktail list to wet your whistle and a varied menu of small and large share plates. Full marks for the fourteen-hour braised lamb shoulder with baby carrots, mint chutney and fetta. You can’t go wrong here.
Good things come in small packages and with a capacity of just 20 (and plenty of loyal local followers), you’ll need luck on your side to snaffle a table at Bar Two in Earls Court (off Brisbane Street). This hole-in-the-wall wine bar showcases local drops, matched with fresh oysters, gourmet pizzas and charcuterie platters.
For casual eats, a steady stream of locals will lead you to cavernous Bread and Butter on Cimitiere Street — a sourdough bakery, café and small batch butter factory all under one roof. This place is mind-blowing! Colourful contemporary artwork adorns the walls of the industrial space, which features plenty of seating (some tables with personal toasters) and an open fireplace to take the chill off the air in winter. Order from the light menu or take your pick from the packed cabinet of baked delights. The coffee is awesome.
The weekly Harvest Market brims with gourmet goodies and community pride. Signboards with feel-good messages set the tone, and as you wander between the stalls, what strikes you most is the relaxed and friendly vibe. That, and how amazingly delicious everything looks! Watch the cheesemonger carving off big chunks of cheddar or marvel at the artisanal sourdough piled high. This is a farmers’ market in the purest sense. It’s held on Saturday mornings from 8.30. Go hungry.
Lonnie’s CBD harbours plenty of pockets of retail goodness beyond the standard chain stores that you’ll find in any Australian city. Take a walk through quirky Centreway Arcade and adjoining Old Brisbane Arcade, and along the circular sweep of Quadrant Mall. One of the most charming stores in the city has to be the Old Umbrella Shop on George Street, which once repaired and re-covered brollies. That’s long since ceased, but the shop does still sell umbrellas and has a display of period brollies to peruse. The shop is managed by the National Trust.
Around by the entrance to City Park on Tamar Street, lovers of fine design will adore Design Tasmania. It incorporates a museum dedicated to wood design and a shop, which sells everything from cheese boards to bedroom furniture. It’s all exquisite, but be warned: you could walk out with quite a hefty souvenir of your Tassie trip!
Once you’re done browsing all those lovely things, take the opportunity to explore City Park. It has a history dating back to Launceston’s settlement, but the site was designated a public park in 1863. Highlights include the macaque monkey enclosure (yes, you read that right), the John Hart Conservatory, the children’s train, and what are reputed to be the oldest wisteria vines in the country. If you’re still reeling from the random presence of the primates (as we were), here’s the story (and precedent). The original ten macaques were a gift from Lonnie’s sister city of Ikeda in Japan in 1980, but according to the Launceston Historical Society, the park actually has a long history of housing zoological exhibits. One consisted of no less than 62 thylacines (the now extinct Tasmanian tiger), which were put on public display in the park between 1885 and 1913. The last Tasmanian tiger died in captivity in Hobart in 1936.
As you stroll through the park, it’s not hard to envisage the Victorian utopia that the early European population sought to create in their far-flung young city. That same effort is on display at fabulous Cataract Gorge. Taming this wild landscape that sits on the city’s doorstep would have been no mean feat, and they were successful with the establishment of the pleasure gardens on one side of the gorge — complete with a bandstand, tearoom and prancing peacocks. Today the gardens are a stark contrast with the surrounding Australian bush. Take the 1970s-vintage chairlift across the gorge and enjoy a walk back.
Lonnie is the gateway to the Tamar Valley wine region, and it would be remiss to come all this way and not sample the pinot noirs, pinot gris and chardonnays that the region is best known for. The awesome team at Prestige Tours Tasmania offers half and full day wine tours, which take in up to four and six boutique cellar doors respectively. Enjoy included tastings at each, along with a shared cheese platter and a glass of the wine of your choice on the half-day tour, or a grazing platter lunch with wine on the full-day tour. Highlights of our tour included urban vineyard Velo Wines (their sparkling chardonnay is sublime), the rustic beauty of Goaty Hill Wines (which has just received a five star rating from Halliday), and Swinging Gate Vineyard, where winemaker Doug does literally everything by hand. His Sweet Blush pinot gris is a delightfully sweet summer drop.
The wine industry doesn’t have everything its own way in this part of the world. Brewing and distilling are also big business, and you can taste a great range of local drops at the Saint John Craft Beer Bar in town. While they don’t do a tasting paddle as such, the guys will be happy to let you try before you buy.
Comfort Hotel Olde Tudor is conveniently located on the approach into Launceston from the airport. This hotel will make a great base if you plan to explore the many attractions south of the city (such as Evandale and Clarendon) or if you plan to do the drive down to Hobart and want to hit the road early. The distinctive Tudor-style hotel is also just a short drive from the CBD (around ten minutes).
The hotel offers a phenomenal list of amenities. There’s a variety of affordable room types to choose from, along with a pool and spa, a fabulous family bistro with kids’ play area (open for breakfast and dinner daily, and lunch from Wednesday to Sunday), a sports bar, gaming room, and bottle shop. There’s even a shopping precinct attached, which has a chemist and supermarket.
One of the wonderful things about travelling in Tasmania is the island’s wealth of heritage-style hotels. Choose from quirky period guest houses, grand purpose-built Victorian-era hotels, and public buildings of old that have been converted into accommodation options. Quality Hotel Colonial Launceston is one such establishment.
Built in 1847 as a grammar school, today the hotel combines oodles of old-world character and charm with modern amenities. There are tales to be told throughout the property. Look for the initials of boarders from the early years carved into the architraves in the main building. Enjoy breakfast daily in the QC Brasserie (originally the school chapel) and leave a night free to have dinner at the atmospheric Three Steps On George. With its vaulted ceiling it feels akin to an old English pub, but is actually the school gymnasium.
The writer travelled as a guest of Choice Hotels and Prestige Tours Tasmania.
Do you have any suggestions to add to our list of the best things to do in Launceston? We would love to hear from you. Please leave a comment below.
Cover image: Tourism Tasmania/Rob Burnett. 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.