The discovery of gold in central Victoria drew tens of thousands of people from around the world hoping to strike it rich.
Gold fever quadrupled the population and turned tent settlements into wealthy cities. The Victorian Gold Rush may have passed but there’s still plenty to draw enthusiastic visitors to the region. Famed for fabulous period architecture, a rich history and, more recently, as a food and wine destination, the goldfields deserve a place on the itinerary of every visitor to Victoria.
Here are ten top things to do in the Victorian Goldfields.
You can’t visit the Victorian Goldfields without immersing yourself in their history. Ballarat — the region’s biggest city — is a great starting point, and a walking tour with Ballarat Heritage Tours is not to be missed. In 90 minutes, you’ll learn all about the architecture of the city and some of its most colourful characters. Highlights include the historic buildings of Lydiard Street (the best-preserved Victorian-era streetscape outside of the United Kingdom) and the southern hemisphere’s most intact 19th century railway precinct.
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Artisans at work, period shops and costume-clad actors bring Ballarat’s diggings to life at Sovereign Hill. There are plenty of hands-on opportunities for visitors too. Go back to school 1850s-style to write lines with ink and quill, or dress up in vintage garb for a sitting at the photographic studio. Try your luck panning for gold or head underground on a mine tour.
Don’t miss the opportunity to stay in one of the region’s grand historic hotels. Craig’s Royal Hotel has been at the centre of Ballarat’s story for well over a century and has hosted many famous guests, including Prince Alfred (son of Queen Victoria), Mark Twain, Lord Kitchener and Dame Nellie Melba. The hotel was completely restored in 2010 and while the refurbished rooms offer modern comforts, Craig’s is still packed with old world charm. Antique furniture, rich colours, gorgeous fabrics and traditional wallpapers add to the ambience.
To experience the golden era of rail take a ride on the Victorian Goldfields Railway. The volunteer-run tourist railway connects the towns of Castlemaine and Maldon. Trains are hauled by vintage steam or diesel locomotives. Catch the train from Castlemaine and enjoy a couple of hours browsing the boutique shops along Maldon’s main street, along with a hearty pub lunch at the Kangaroo Hotel. On your return trip hop aboard the 1930s-era Macedon club car for a touch of luxury.
In the late 1800s, the area around Hepburn Springs and Daylesford became a mecca for people seeking the reputed health benefits of bathing in mineral-rich spring water. Today the tradition continues at the plethora of day spas dotted across the region. The historic Hepburn Bathhouse has been operating since 1895 and is one of the region’s top attractions. The communal relaxation pool draws water from a thermal spring, which is heated to 34 degrees celsius. There is also a spa pool heated to 36 degrees celsius. An extensive range of spa treatments are also available.
Tiny Clunes lays claim to being the site of Victoria’s first gold strike, but these days it attracts a different kind of treasure hunter. Booklovers and booksellers converge here for the annual Clunes Booktown festival each May. The town is turned into a giant market for rare, collectable, new and second-hand books. But you don’t have to wait for the festival. Clunes has a thriving book scene year-round and regular literary events are conducted by the Booktown on Sundays program. A number of excellent permanent book shops can be found in the heritage town centre, including Index on Literature and The Book Fossicker.
The goldfields region is home to two of Victoria’s best historic cinemas. The charming Star Cinema in Eaglehawk offers a program of arthouse and classic movies in the former Town Hall. From the restored original seating to the 1920s ticket booth, the Star is a celebration of cinema’s heyday. Sit back, relax and watch a film while enjoying a tipple from the fully licensed bar.
Castlemaine’s Theatre Royal is the oldest continuously operating cinema on the Australian mainland. It’s been entertaining locals since 1854. The art deco facade and interior are thanks to a 1930s makeover, and have been lovingly maintained ever since.
Bendigo boasts some of the best examples of the region’s Victorian-era architecture. The Ulumbarra Theatre (housed inside what was once the Sandhurst Gaol), Bendigo Town Hall, the Hotel Shamrock and historic Post Office all offer guided tours. If you prefer to do your own thing, the Visitor Information Centre will give you a map for a self-guided walking tour. You can also climb on board one of the city’s famous Vintage Talking Trams for a hop on hop off tour of landmark buildings and key tourist sites — complete with commentary.
Getting a feel for life as a gold miner is one of the top things to do in the Victorian Goldfields and the Central Deborah Gold Mine in Bendigo offers a range of underground mine tours. Venture 61 or 85 metres underground, or join Australia’s deepest mine tour. You’ll be kitted out in overalls and hard hat before heading 228 metres down for the Nine Levels of Darkness tour.
The area around the small town of Harcourt (25 minutes’ drive south of Bendigo) is home to some of Victoria’s finest wineries, including Harcourt Valley Vineyards and Bress. At Bress’ cellar door you can also taste their renowned apple and pear ciders. Welshmans Reef Vineyard near Maldon produces small batch, handcrafted reds and whites.
Louise travelled as a guest of Ballarat Heritage Tours.
Do you have any suggestions to add to our list of ten top things to do in the Victorian Goldfields? We would love to hear from you. Please leave a comment below.
Additional images: Bigstock
Louise Reynolds made up her mind at the age of about four that she would one day travel the world, and has so far visited more than 30 countries across five continents and the Pacific. A hopeless Francophile, she has a particular love of visiting France. Louise’s favourite way to see the world is on foot and she has walked famous trails in Europe, South America and New Zealand. Louise also has a passion for exploring her home state of Victoria.