Tamworth is synonymous with Australian country music, but this bustling rural city in New South Wales' north-east has much more to offer visitors than just big ballads. Here's a checklist of ten amazing experiences to tick off, thanks to Choice Hotels.
‘It’s a long straight road and the engine is deep;
I can’t help thinkin’ of a good night’s sleep;
And the long, long roads of my li-ife were a callin’ me…’
So begins Joy McKean’s Lights On The Hill — a song made famous by her late husband Slim Dusty and later covered by Keith Urban. It won McKean the first ever Golden Guitar Award in 1973 at the inaugural Country Music Awards of Australia in Tamworth, and to this very day the lyrics greet guests on arrival at Tamworth Regional Airport.
At first glance, it seems an odd kind of welcome; like many country music ballads, the song doesn’t have a happy ending. But after spending some time in Tamworth, Australia’s capital of country music, you soon realise that that’s kind of the point. Country music is all about heart and hope, come what may. And even in the face of crippling drought, this robust regional city embraces that ethos with gusto.
Here are ten of the best things to do in Tamworth.
1. Attend the Tamworth Country Music Festival
Tamworth is best known for the Tamworth Country Music Festival, which takes place in January each year and is recognised as the world’s second largest country music festival (after Nashville in the USA). The ten-day event attracts around 700 performers and 300,000 visitors and culminates in the Golden Guitar Awards ceremony. Much has been written about the event so we won’t tarry too long on it here, except to say that visiting Tamworth during the festival can be as expensive or inexpensive an exercise as you want it to be. There are high profile ticketed events to splash out on, but equally, there are hundreds of free gigs that take place across some 120 venues. By all accounts, it’s an amazing experience.
2. Visit the Australian Country Music Hall of Fame
You can tap into Tamworth’s country music vibe with ease at any time of the year. Start by taking a stroll down historic Peel Street in the city centre to see the life-size brass statues of country music legends Smoky Dawson (which looks so realistic you almost expect him to tip his hat and say hi), Slim Dusty and Joy McKean. There are walk-of-fame-style plaques embedded in the pavement that commemorate Golden Guitar award winners.
At the southern end of Peel Street, you’ll find the guitar-shaped Australian Country Music Hall of Fame. Run almost exclusively by volunteers, the Hall of Fame’s collection of memorabilia is extensive and encompasses everything from acetate recordings to rhinestone-studded stage costumes. The Walk a Country Mile exhibition, technically a separate entity, is housed in the museum and provides an engaging chronological rundown of Australia’s country music heritage.
3. Snap a selfie with The Big Golden Guitar
Next, head out to the Visitor Information Centre on the A15 approach to the city. You can’t miss it — thanks to the epic Big Golden Guitar out the front — at 12 metres high, a worthy inclusion on Australia’s list of ‘bigs’. Here you’ll find the much-loved Gallery of Stars Wax Museum (which features wax effigies of Smoky Dawson, Buddy Williams, Chad Morgan and many others) and the brand spanking new National Guitar Museum.
4. Get arty at the Tamworth Regional Gallery
For a dose of high culture, drop by the excellent Tamworth Regional Gallery on Peel Street. The gallery was established in 1919, making it one of the oldest in regional New South Wales. It moved into its current, very impressive digs in 2004. There are two large exhibition spaces that host a diverse annual programme. Check the website for what’s on during your visit.
5. Step back in time at the Powerstation Museum
Tamworth lies in the heart of the Kamilaroi nation — one of the four largest Indigenous nations in the country. European settlement of the region ramped up from around the 1830s, driven by the quest for good grazing land. Tamworth was designated a town in 1850, and officially deemed a city in 1946.
One of the most interesting chapters in the city’s history occurred at 8pm on the evening of November 9, 1888, when Tamworth Mayoress Mrs Elizabeth Piper flicked the switch on Australia’s first municipal electric street lighting grid. Get the full story on how Tamworth became the country’s First City of Light by visiting the superb Powerstation Museum. Standing on the site of the original power station, the museum is home to the world’s only operational John Fowler steam-driven engines, along with a seriously extensive collection of electric appliances from across the 20th century.
6. Feast on paddock to plate cuisine
Country music may be Tamworth’s tourist bread and butter, but the city is also on the rise as a paddock-to-plate dining destination. You have to eat at The Workshop Kitchen at the Powerhouse Hotel at least once during your stay in the city. The entry, with its wine walls and ritzy wood-panelled desk, sets the scene perfectly for what’s to come, and the open kitchen draws the eye from around the room. There are lots of layers to the modern Australian menu, but the premium steaks (done on the Western Red Ironbark wood-fired grill) are incredible, as is the wine list. Leave room for dessert.
Carmen’s Italian Restaurant takes a bit of effort to get to (it’s a three-kilometre drive south of town), but once you’re there you can sit back, relax and enjoy Carmen’s amazing hospitality and her blend of Southern Italian-inspired cuisine and treasured family recipes. This is clearly food made with love. Special mention to the stylish, modern setting, which completely sidesteps the décor clichés often associated with Italian-style eateries outside of Italy.
Hopscotch Restaurant and Bar is located within the recently revitalised Bicentennial Park recreational precinct on the edge of the CBD. It’s literally surrounded by the Tamworth Regional Playground — which makes it a great choice for breakfast, brunch or lunch if you have the family in tow — but don’t let that put you off if you’re sans youngsters. Everyone will enjoy the on-trend interior (with its concrete floor, wood accents and hanging plants) and innovative menu. We dropped by for breakfast, but the Cuban sandwich on the lunch menu has been noted for future reference.
Just across the road from the park is The Terrace Tamworth, which offers a tranquil retreat from the outside world on its second-floor outdoor dining space. Peppered with potted plants and pops of floral colour, and with plenty of sunny spots to bask in, this is a top choice for a brunch or coffee break while you weigh up the options for what to see or do next around town.
7. Take a country drive and see some silo art
Tamworth makes the perfect base for relaxed country drives that meander through small heritage towns. One option is to head north from the city towards Manilla and Barraba. The drive to Manilla takes around 40 minutes, and when you get there, drop by Molly May’s café in the town centre. The building has been a pub, tobacconist and leather shop in previous lives; today it’s an Aladdin’s Cave of gourmet food stuffs (much of it produced locally), beautiful baskets (imported from Africa), bits of antique bric-a-brac, and tasty treats — including a mighty fine smashed avo. The café has also garnered quite a reputation for itself in the freak shake world. Further down the main street, the Manilla Heritage Museum is packed to the rafters with all manner of local memorabilia.
Forty minutes’ drive further along the B95 will bring you to the town of Barraba, which has put itself on the map with a stunning piece of silo art. Painted by renowned street artist Fintan Magee in early 2019, the whopping work is a homage to the ingenuity and grit of farmers in the face of drought. The silo is located on the southern approach to town.
Barraba is the place to pick up a handmade memento of your visit to the region. On the town’s main street, you’ll find the fabulous Fuller Gallery and Claypan — a community arts collective and potters’ guild. The gallery not only provides a showcase for the work of local artists; it’s also a vital support network for those based on remote properties. Browse for ceramics, paintings, knitwear and the like. Purchases are cash-only.
8. Ride the rails in Victoria Park
As you head back into Tamworth, take a turn to the left and head up towards the mountain range that flanks the city. Here you’ll find Victoria Park and the Regional Botanic Garden — a lovely spot for a relaxed stroll. There’s a cluster of attractions located here, including the Tamworth Miniature Railway (which holds a public running day on the third Sunday of the month between 10am and 3pm) and Marsupial Park. This entry-by-donation wildlife park is maintained entirely by volunteers. Meet the sleepy resident kangaroos and emus and take a walk in the free flight aviary. The park is also home to the colourful, community-built Tamworth Adventure Playground.
9. Soak up the sublime views from Oxley Scenic Lookout
Nearby, Oxley Scenic Lookout offers absolutely spectacular views across the city. There are some interesting interpretive boards to peruse and keep an eye out for the plaque in the garden commemorating the final resting place of the ashes of Smoky Dawson and wife Dot.
10. Be social at a small bar or brewhouse
In the evening, venture out and explore Tamworth’s burgeoning small bar scene. The Coal Bunker Bar at the Powerhouse Hotel is a great spot to relax after a hard day of sightseeing with a charcuterie board and your choice from the extensive cocktail or whisky menu. In town, head for Brisbane Street and the iconic Northern Daily Leader Building, which dates back to the 1920s. Hidden beneath the building is a very cool speakeasy-style bar called The Press, which does cocktails reminiscent of the prohibition era. There’s often live music and the occasional open mic night.
For a venue with plenty of buzz, try The Welder’s Dog on Dowe Street — a boutique brewpub that does a lively (alcoholic) pink lemonade as part of its repertoire.
Where to stay in Tamworth
CH Boutique Hotel, Ascend Hotel Collection
A stay at the luxurious CH Boutique Hotel, Ascend Hotel Collection, will make your time in Tamworth truly memorable. Located right in the heart of the CBD, guests can walk to most city attractions with ease — including the Australian Country Music Hall of Fame and the Powerstation Museum. The hotel has a variety of room types — from executive king suites with a kitchenette, a lounge area and a balcony, to platinum suites (complete with a spa bath), king rooms, queen rooms, and classic rooms.
CH Boutique Hotel makes the perfect base for exploring the city’s dining scene, but leave one night free to enjoy dinner in the Art Deco surroundings at Deco wine bar and restaurant — the hotel’s popular in-house eatery.
Quality Inn Ashby House Tamworth
Situated just five minutes’ drive west of the city centre, Quality Inn Ashby House Tamworth melds heritage charm with modern convenience. This stunning property offers terrace suites, premier and deluxe rooms, a family suite, and a self-contained apartment. For those who need even more space, the separate Ashby Cottage has two bedrooms, a lounge room, and a modern bathroom. Enjoy the beautifully maintained gardens that surround the cottage.
The hotel’s newly refurbished, super stylish Gallery Restaurant is open for dinner Monday through to Thursday. The menu of modern Oz cuisine draws on locally-sourced seasonal produce. If you prefer to dine in your room, room service is just a phone call away. A tray breakfast service is offered daily.
Do you have any suggestions to add to our list of the best things to do in Tamworth? We would love to hear from you. Please leave a comment below.
Cover image courtesy of Destination NSW. 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.