Toowoomba coats the top the Great Dividing Range west of Brisbane like icing sugar dusted on a ridge of freshly baked buns.
Overlooking the undulating patchwork of farms, grazing land and forested hills that make up the Lockyer Valley, and fronting the agricultural Darling Downs region to the west, the fifth largest urban centre in Queensland and the second largest inland city in the country (behind Canberra) sits at 700 metres above sea level. The altitude brings plenty of benefits; cooling breezes and mild temperatures are one, epic views another (the Picnic Point Parklands and Lookout offers a superb vantage point). And life here is literally a walk in the park as you explore some 250 cool-climate-enhanced gardens and green spaces. More on that in a mo.
While green thumbs will be in their element here, they don’t have it all their own way. History buffs will love exploring the region’s rich colonial heritage and taking in the incredible period architecture, while cool kids can seek of the city’s emerging laneway culture and street art scene. In fact, there’s something for pretty much everyone here. Give yourself at least three days to do it justice.
Here are ten of the best things to do in Toowoomba.
Toowoomba is known colloquially as Queensland’s ‘Garden City’, reason being that the altitude enables plants and trees normally found in much milder parts of the planet to thrive here. And the city certainly makes the most of it, with its multitude of manicured gardens — profuse with colour in spring and delightfully relaxed and shady for the rest of the year. The famous Toowoomba Carnival of Flowers takes place in September and is the city’s signature annual event. 150,000 bulbs and annuals are planted each year in preparation for the carnival, and we witnessed what seemed like an army of gardeners hard at work during our August visit.
Toowoomba has two creeks that frame the city centre and converge into one at its northern point. There are parks and gardens along them both and a wealth of exceptionally well preserved period gems that sit on the very walkable city grid in between.
Swing by the excellent Toowoomba Visitor Information Centre first (located by the East Creek, just a short drive south of the city centre) and pick up a self-guided walking tour map, which will take you past the honey-coloured splendour of the former Post Office (dating back to the 1880s), the gloriously ornate Strand Theatre (head in for a look at the interior even if you’re not seeing a movie), the much loved Art Deco Empire Theatre, and the grand red bricked beauty of City Hall, constructed in 1900.
Across town, the Four-in-hand, Toledo Buggy, Lady’s Phaeton and Furphy Water Cart are just some of the once-household-names you’ll become re-acquainted with as you explore the Cobb+Co Museum’s National Carriage Collection — a homage to horse-drawn transport and one of Toowoomba’s top attractions. Should the thought cross your mind that carts and carriages of yesteryear are not your thing, dismiss it. You’ll end up spending at least a couple of hours here. There’s even a Cobb & Co Tourist Drive to follow between Ipswich and Toowoomba if you get really geed up.
For further immersion in the colonial era, head out to Highfields Pioneer Village, about 20 minutes’ drive north of the city. The village has more than 60 relocated heritage structures jampacked with farm machinery, household items, whatnots and thingamabobs from yesteryear. Those on the trail of Australia’s ‘bigs’ will find one of the latest additions here. Don’t miss the chance to scoff down a slab of freshly baked damper (prepared daily in a traditional brick oven), smeared with golden syrup and accompanied by a cosie-clad pot of tea.
While in Highfields, one of the region’s sweetest retail experiences is close at hand. The Chocolate Cottage Cafe occupies a restored 19th century school building and offers sixty different types of handmade chocolates, lovingly crafted on site.
Art lovers should pay a visit to the Toowoomba Regional Art Gallery (adjacent to City Hall in the CBD), which seamlessly melds the old and the new. One half of the building was originally the home of the Toowoomba Electric Light and Power Co, the other is a modern extension. The gallery has three permanent collections, which include works by Frederick McCubbin, Arthur Streeton and Tom Roberts. Touring exhibitions are also staged regularly.
Those who like to take it outside will find street artscapes in nooks and crannies across the city centre (including a beautiful piece on the rear wall of the Art Gallery itself). There are around sixty commissioned murals to seek out.
There’s no shortage of great places to eat in Toowoomba, but here’s a handful of tasty recommendations. Right in the heart of town, new kid on the block, The Rock, is a stylish gastropub offering a good selection of well-priced mains (including five cuts of steak). Wash it down with a Lord Lamington — vodka, house-made coconut syrup, chocolate liqueur, Tia Maria and cream — a nod to the city’s claim to be the birthplace of the lamington.
Around the corner on Margaret Street, Fitzy’s tells a tale of two sections — the older Tapestry Bar at the front, and the modern restaurant extension (Fitzy’s on Church) at the rear. We went for the more characterful front. Either way, this is a great all-rounder. The menu is jam-packed with hearty bistro-style classics, and there’s a range of craft beers on tap and a way-more-than-decent wine list.
For a casual bite, a craft beer or cocktail, and a generous side of 70s retro vibe, Bar Wunder is a wonder. We stumbled across this treat on Ruthven Street quite by accident, and it’s awesome. The menu is southern comfort food through and through, there’s live music, and patrons can peace out with their pooches in the beer garden.
Café culture has breathed new life into once forgotten civic spaces like Domestic Lane and Seales Walk. Check out the grungy Ground Up Espresso Bar for their selection of ‘back alley bites’, or mosey on over to Milk and Honey Espresso Bar on the edge of the CBD for some Scandi-style simplicity. The smashed avo is to keel over for. Just up the road, The Bakers Duck also keeps things simple in the décor department, and lets the awesome sourdough, pastries and coffee do the quacking.
When beer-o-clock rolls around, make haste to 4 Brothers Brewing, downstream from the main city centre on Brook Street (although we heard that a move into the CBD is on the cards). Pull up with a tasting paddle of top drops like the Lazy Brother Pale Ale, Arrogant Brother Smoked Beer and Country Pumpkin Ale.
Toowoomba has long been known for its antique stores and trade in vintage, bric-a-brac and collectables. While it may not be the trove of lost treasures it once was, you’ll still find a good selection of outlets to trawl. Try Lancaster’s Toowoomba Antiques Centre, which houses the wares of a number of different dealers, Range Antiques for furniture, jewellery and silverware, Roundabout Antiques in Highfields for ceramics and porcelain figurines, and Timeless Antiques if you’re on the hunt for a period brass bed.
Rushing about from one attraction to the next is generally the lot of travellers, but in the case of Toowoomba, you have the perfect antidote. The city’s parks and gardens demand that visitors stop and smell the flowers. We mentioned 250 parks in total and while you probably won’t have time to see them all, definitely tick off these three.
Adjacent to the CBD, Queens Park consists of sprawling parkland and a more formal Botanical Garden in the north-eastern corner. Check out the endangered Wollemi Pine — one of the oldest and rarest tree species on the planet.
Over in Laurel Bank Park, 4.5-hectares of floral joy awaits you, including the Scented Gardens — established back in the 1980s in consultation with the Downs Association for the Blind. Kids will love the whimsical topiaries.
And finally, no visit to the Garden City would be complete without finding your inner zen in Ju Raku En — Toowoomba’s celebrated Japanese garden. In Japan a garden like this can take centuries to reach maturity, and while Ju Raku En is just a snip at 40 years old, it’s coming along very nicely. It’s a joint venture between the Toowoomba Regional Council and the University of Southern Queensland, and is located next to the university grounds in Darling Heights.
A stay at Potters Boutique Hotel Toowoomba is every bit as delightful as it sounds. The 55-room hotel, all with king beds (or king singles as needed), opened in early 2017, and from the reception area and restaurant to the styling of the guest rooms, an understated elegance runs throughout the entire property. Our Deluxe King room was beautifully presented with contemporary artworks and a stylish and well-appointed bathroom. The Wi-Fi was fast; the complimentary chockies delicious.
The hotel’s chef-led inhouse restaurant is a treat in and of itself. To be honest, we shy away from hotel breakfasts in favour of local cafes, but in this instance, dawdling on Potters’ sun-drenched garden terrace over a serving of Eggs Benny and a latte is probably up there with the best breakfast experiences in the city. The restaurant opens for dinner Monday to Saturday and offers an impressive menu and wine list.
Potters Boutique Hotel is also superbly located. It’s just a short stroll to Grand Central and the city centre, and four minutes’ walk to Laurel Bank Park. While you’re right on the edge of the city centre, free parking is offered and there’s an abundance of spaces.
The writer travelled as a guest of Potters Boutique Hotel Toowoomba.
For further information, visit www.southernqueenslandcountry.com.au.
Do you have any suggestions to add to our list of the best things to do in Toowoomba? We would love to hear from you. Please leave a comment below.
Cover image: Toowoomba Carnival of Flowers. 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.