As you roll into ‘Rocky’ in central Queensland, either by plane, train or automobile, you can’t help but get a sense of the vastness of this state.
Rockhampton is located 600 kilometres north of Brisbane, and it’s another 700 kilometres on to Townsville. Head west from Rocky for 700 kilometres and you’ll eventually reach Longreach. This region is big.
Tracts of rich grazing land around the city sprawl against a backdrop of the hazy purple mountains of the Great Dividing Range. This is cattle country and if you were unaware of that fact before you arrived, the six ‘Big Bulls’ that stand sentinel at various entry points to the CBD (representing the six key breeds farmed here) will set you straight.
It feels like Rockhampton is on the verge of something bigger than its bulls. The newly redeveloped Riverside Precinct is absolutely stunning, new players are revolutionising the culinary scene, and an arts precinct is currently under construction. It will complement the existing raft of cultural and historical attractions.
Here are ten of the best things to do in Rockhampton.
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The CBD runs parallel to the Fitzroy River and the stunning Customs House building — constructed at the turn of the 20thcentury — is testament to the city’s historic importance as a river port. Today this classical edifice sits squarely in the middle of Rocky’s spectacular $36 million Riverside Precinct redevelopment, which opened in early 2018. Centred around Denham and Quay Streets, the project included extensive street-scaping and the construction of a fabulous riverfront promenade and recreation area. The plethora of fine Victorian-era buildings that line the riverfront are the icing on the cake. It’s an absolutely delightful spot to while away a couple of hours. The kids will love the dancing fountain, and free Wi-Fi is available.
If you’re up for a stroll to see more of the CBD’s considerable inventory of period gems (on a street grid that was modelled on that of Melbourne!), download the Rockhampton Regional Council’s heritage walking tour map and brochure. Highlights of the walk include the stunning Post Office, School of Arts, Queensland National Bank Building, and art deco City Hall.
The Rockhampton Art Gallery is moving from its current fairly nondescript building on the edge of the CBD, to a purpose-built arts facility in the Riverside Precinct. The gallery holds one of regional Australia’s most significant collections of mid 20th century Australian art, including works by Albert Tucker, Fred Williams, John Brack, John Perceval, Arthur Boyd and Sidney Nolan. It also hosts touring exhibitions and special events. Note: The gallery is currently closed for its relocation, and will reopen as the Rockhampton Museum of Art in late 2021.
European settlers had first contact with the Darumbal first people of Central Queensland from the mid 1850s. The Darumbal Enterprises website is well worth a visit to do some pre-holiday research on the nation’s history and culture.
To gain some insight into the pioneering life of early colonial settlers, a visit to the fabulous Rockhampton Heritage Village on the north-eastern side of town is well worth the modest $14.50 entry fee. It’s home to a mix of original and reproduction buildings that are packed with memorabilia from the 1850s to the 1950s. The village is beautifully presented and what’s really amazing is the facility is maintained and manned almost entirely by volunteers.
Back in town, the Archer Park Rail Museum is another fascinating opportunity to step back in time. Again, largely staffed and maintained, magnificently, by volunteers, the museum features lots of interactive activities that families will love. Climb on board several heritage rail cars and take a spin in what is believed to be the world’s only operating Purrey Steam Tram.
Millions of years of natural history are on display at the privately owned Capricorn Caves, located about 30 minutes’ drive north-east of the city. This is one of the region’s most popular attractions. Take a guided tour through a number of impressive surface caves which are home to tiny ducking and weaving bent-wing bats. The soaring Cathedral Cave is a popular spot for weddings and comes complete with chapel-style seating and a stone pulpit.
From cheap-and-cheerful to sophisticated concept dining, Rockhampton’s culinary scene may come as one of the biggest surprises of your visit. Boathouse is the newest addition to the city’s dining landscape. It’s part of the Riverside Precinct and offers an awesome (and very affordable) menu, along with superb views over the Fitzroy River. Happy hipsters rub shoulders with glowing baby boomers as the cool tunes flow and faultless waitstaff ride the wave of popularity.
The same team is behind Headricks Lane — a funky mixed-use venue housed in a heritage warehouse on East Street. There’s an upscale laneway-style eatery, and a micro-brewery and bar. Lots of interesting textures and industrial finishes work together to create an amazing ambience.
If there’s anywhere you’d expect to get a great steak, it would be in Rockhampton. The historic Criterion Hotel on Quay Street is a popular option. Alternatively, head for the Great Western Hotel (which dates back to 1862). It has an award-winning steakhouse, and hosts a live rodeo in its indoor arena on Wednesday and Friday evenings. Cowboy boots and hats are the unofficial dress code!
The CBD offers plenty of opportunities for shopaholics to get their fix and you’ll find all the retail names you’d expect to cross paths with in any large Aussie urban centre. For something a little more organic, head for the Arcade Car Park Market. It happens every Sunday from 8am to 12.30pm in the heart of the city (immediately opposite the Quality Hotel Regent Rockhampton). From turnips to tarot card readings, hand-made toys, preloved fashions and bric-a-brac, there’s something here for everyone. Check the website for special events and details of live entertainment.
If you happen to be in town on the second Sunday of January, March, May, July, September or November, hightail it over to the Rockhampton Heritage Village Markets. A gold coin will get you in the gate, with proceeds going towards the upkeep of the village. Shop for locally produced arts and crafts, food and fashion and take a spin on the Cobb & Co coach or in one of the village’s classic vintage cars.
For those in need of some me-time, the 33-hectare Rockhampton Botanic Gardens is a stunning retreat. Parts of the gardens date back to the 1870s. One of the highlights is the small zoo, which is home to 60 native and exotic animal species and is free to enter. Other treats include the Japanese Garden, the Banyan fig forest and the tranquil lagoon. The Gardens Tearooms does a mighty fine jam and cream scone.
You can also get away from it all at the top of nearby Mount Archer. The drive from town to the summit takes around 40 minutes. Enjoy a stroll on the Nurim Circuit Elevated Boardwalk, which provides sweeping views of the city far below, along with the surrounding region.
There’s a lot to love about the centrally located Quality Hotel Regent Rockhampton, which occupies a fully restored former TAFE college. And while the heritage-listed main building dates back to 1914, no expense has been spared upgrading the interior to 21st century standards.
Take the sweeping main staircase (or lift) up to the 49 spacious guest rooms and suites with soaring ceilings and plush modern bathrooms. Some rooms have kitchen facilities, which makes self-catering a breeze.
The hotel has a tropical pool surrounded by a verdant garden, and a restaurant that serves breakfast, lunch and dinner (and one of the best lattes in town!). The dinner menu features a fabulous range of well-priced mains. Try the chicken breast stuffed with spinach and camembert, and leave room for a traditional sticky date pudding with butterscotch sauce for dessert. You can’t go wrong.
The writer travelled as a guest of Choice Hotels.
For more information, visit www.capricornholidays.com.au.
Do you have any suggestions to add to our list of the best things to do in Rockhampton? We would love to hear from you. Please leave a comment below.
Cover image: Tourism and Events Queensland
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.