Mount Gambier is a gem of a destination, situated midway between Melbourne and Adelaide on the spectacular Limestone Coast.
It’s the third largest urban centre in South Australia and occupies the slopes of a dormant volcano — thought to have last erupted some 5,000 years ago. 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 surroundings offer something to interest everyone.
Here are ten of the best things to do in Mount Gambier.
1. Take in the lake views from the Centenary Tower
Mount Gambier’s famous crater lakes sit just south of the city, and a walk up to the Centenary Tower will give you an absolute bird’s-eye view of both the Valley Lake and the wonderful Blue Lake. The tower has been open to tourists for more than a century. If you happen to be visiting in summer, you’re in luck. At that time, the colour of the Blue Lake changes from standard issue to a vibrant cobalt blue. The effect lasts from November through to late March.
To get another perspective of the Blue Lake, do the 3.6-kilometre walk around the rim.
2. Explore the city’s sinkholes and caves
East of the city centre, Umpherston Sinkhole is another of the region’s 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 also a 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.
3. Learn some local history
Prior to 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 get 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 get a fascinating insight into the past from a hologram version of Christina Smith — a European settler from 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 above!
4. Step back in time on a self-guided heritage walk
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).
5. Be a culture vulture
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.
6. See a live jazz show
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.
7. Stroll through the Cave Garden
Another of the city’s subterranean sights is framed by the beautiful Cave Garden. The centrepiece 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, the Mount Gambier Farmers Market is held in the garden.
8. Feed your fancy
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!
9. Shop for local handmade souvenirs
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 gorgeous reminders of your visit to Mount Gambier.
10. Swim in the Little Blue Lake
A 15-minute drive south from the city will bring you to the sublime 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, visit www.discovermountgambier.com.au.
Do you have any suggestions to add to our list of the best things to do in Mount Gambier? We would love to hear from you. Please leave a comment below.
Cover image: Ockert le Roux. Additional images: Bigstock