The discovery of gold near Ballarat in 1851 led to a dramatic transformation of the city.
In the course of little more than a decade a ramshackle tent township was transformed into an aspirational regional city with grand hotels, theatres and galleries. Today, Ballarat is famous for its period architecture and rich colonial heritage. With a thriving arts scene, great eateries and prized gardens, Ballarat has plenty to offer visitors.
Enjoy this city guide to the top things to do in Ballarat.
Need to know
Base yourself: Historic town centre
Average hotel price per room/per night: $120 AUD
You can’t go wrong with: Thai, Italian/pizza, all day breakfast
Best breakfasts: Lydiard Street, Sturt Street
Great coffee: Lydiard Street, Sturt Street
Top spots for a beverage: Craig’s Royal Hotel Bar, historic pubs
Must-dos: Heritage Walking Tour, Ballarat Art Gallery, Botanic Gardens, Sovereign Hill
Best times to visit
Ballarat is a year round destination, at its best in spring when the weather is milder, special events are in full swing and gardens are in bloom, along with the region’s stunning wildflowers. Expect temperatures in the mid to high teens.
Summers are generally hot and dry, with temperatures ranging from the mid to high 20s, and occasionally up to the low 40s. Autumn is a lovely time to visit, while winter can be very chilly, particularly overnight when temperatures fall to less than 5.
Across the board, like much of Victoria, Ballarat weather can be unpredictable and four seasons in one day is not uncommon. So pack accordingly.
There are plenty of historical things to do in Ballarat. As a consequence of the Gold Rush, the Eureka Stockade and its Victorian-era architecture, the city offers no end of opportunities to step back in time.
Put on your walking shoes and join a Ballarat Heritage Tour. Kitted out in 1850s garb, local historian Andrew Sharpe leads visitors on a journey that brings Ballarat’s story to life. The 90-minute tour focuses on Lydiard Street, the most intact Victorian-era streetscape outside of the UK, and the Southern Hemisphere’s best preserved Victorian railway precinct surrounding Ballarat Station.
A million ounces of gold was extracted from the Ballarat goldfields, yet very few miners actually got rich. Most found nothing. The harsh conditions, lawlessness on the goldfields and widespread corruption helped trigger the Eureka Stockade. In 1854 a group of miners took up arms against the colonial government over the high cost of mining licences. The only armed civil uprising in Australian history was quelled by soldiers in just over 15 minutes.
Blood on the Southern Cross at Sovereign Hill recreates the events leading up to the rebellion through a sound and light show. Visitors are transported first on foot and then by tram – reminiscent of a movie studio back lot tour.
To explore the Eureka Stockade further, visit the Museum of Australian Democracy at Eureka. Interactive displays explain the origins of the rebellion and its significance for Australian democracy. The famed original Eureka Flag is on display here, thanks to painstaking efforts to preserve it.
Be sure not to miss Sovereign Hill by day. This historical recreation has been transporting visitors back to 1850s Ballarat for more than 40 years. It’s one of Victoria’s premier tourist attractions. The open-air museum features realistic streetscapes, shops and eateries. Costume-clad staff and actors recreate life on the goldfields. Try your luck at panning for gold, ride in a horse-drawn wagon or take an underground mine tour. Allow a full day to take it all in.
Ballarat has a thriving arts scene with top quality galleries, theatre and music events. The permanent collection in the Ballarat Gallery, big ticket exhibitions and special events ensure there’s plenty to draw visitors to the city.
Don’t miss Ballarat’s Art Gallery. It’s Australia’s oldest and largest regional gallery, with an expansive collection of 19th and 20th century Australian, British and European art. The permanent collection of Australian works features the who’s who of Australian art, including Streeton, Dobell, McCubbin, Heysen and Roberts. In 2015 and 2016 the Ballarat Art Gallery was the only Victorian venue to host the finalists in the Archibald Prize. The gallery’s free guided tour is one of the top things to do in Ballarat and highly recommended.
Live theatre and music centre around Her Majesty’s Theatre. Australia’s best preserved theatre building, ‘Her Maj’ first opened its doors in 1875. The annual calendar of events here covers everything from musical theatre, jazz and classical music to ballet (in 2017 the theatre will host the Moscow Ballet).
Recently the city has gained new fame as the location of the popular ABC television drama The Dr Blake Mysteries, which is set in 1950s Ballarat. The Ballarat Visitors Centre can provide information for a self-guided walking tour of filming locations.
There’s no shortage of top food options in Ballarat. From fine dining in grand hotels to classic Italian and great pizzas, Ballarat has something to suit all tastes and budgets.
The extensive all-day breakfast menu at Knife Fork Spoon leaves the standard eggs on toast for dead. Choosing how you want your eggs prepared may take some time. The folded eggs with roast pumpkin, blue cheese and beetroot pesto is a real winner. The excellent food comes with a bright, light atmosphere and great service. It’s usually packed for brunch on weekends but is well worth a wait.
The popular and busy L’Espresso is another option for an all day breakfast, and a top choice for a coffee and cake break or a homemade gelato.
One of Ballarat’s most famous buildings, Craig’s Royal Hotel provides several options for all day dining. The Gallery Dining Room offers a buffet breakfast followed by a sophisticated lunch or dinner menu. A quick coffee and a snack is on offer all day in Craig’s Café and Larder on the ground floor. Or to enjoy some of the hotel’s historic opulence, order a glass of wine or a cocktail in Craig’s Bar. Cocktails, including the Peach Melba and the Mark Twain, are named after some of the hotel’s famous guests.
For pizza you can’t go past the The Forge Pizzeria. Delicious thin-crust woodfired pizzas are made with top quality local produce.
Ballarat has a great range of boutique shops offering unique products, from sweet scents to quirky gifts.
If you like perfume and scented body products then you’ll absolutely love the charming Sweet Fern. This award-winning niche perfumery stocks hard-to-source and unique scents from around the world. You can get your hands on some very exclusive perfumes made under royal seal by Penhaligon’s of London, including the personal favourite of the late Princess Diana. Sweet Fern also stocks a full range of Aesop products. Fragrance masterclasses are available to help you find your signature scent.
For homewares and gifts with a difference head to Bridge Street Mall and the eclectic offerings of Wen & Ware. Wendy McLachlan and husband Doug transformed a former bank into a homewares and gift store in 2002, which offers everything from handmade bowls from the Philippines to tote bags made from recycled tents once used by the French army. Wendy and Doug also produce their own range of scented candles (dubbed Nomad after their lifestyle) and Annie Mac jewellery. Their staff are famous for their expertise in gift wrapping.
Booklovers won’t be disappointed by The Known World Bookshop. Grab a coffee from the espresso bar while you browse for books. Look out for the collection of children’s favourites in the back room, where you’ll be sure to find something that jogs childhood memories.
Part garden, part outdoor gallery, the Ballarat Botanic Gardens are a gem. A visit here is one of the most relaxing things to do in Ballarat.
The 40 hectare Ballarat Botanic Gardens are famous for their many statues, including Prime Minister’s Avenue featuring bronze busts of every Australian Prime Minister since federation. Twelve Carrara marble statues, gifted to Ballarat by Thomas Stoddart in 1884, are dotted throughout the gardens. There are giant redwoods, a rose garden and the lovely Robert Clarke Conservatory – with its stunning seasonal floral displays. Don’t miss the statuary pavilion.
Opposite the Botanic Gardens, Lake Wendouree is also one of Ballarat’s treasured outdoor spaces. In 1956 the lake was home to the rowing, canoeing and kayaking events of the Melbourne Olympic Games. The famous Olympic rings are still on display here 60 years later. The six kilometre circuit is popular with joggers and those after a more sedate stroll.
Louise travelled as a guest of Ballarat Heritage Tours.
Do you have any tips for top things to do in Ballarat? We would love to hear from you. Please send us a message.
Additional images: Bigstock
About the writer
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 around 30 countries across five continents and the Pacific. A hopeless Francophile, Louise has a particular love for France, its language and pretty much all things French. Her favourite way to explore the world is on foot and her boots have taken her walking on famous trails in Europe, South America and New Zealand. Louise also has a passion for her home state and loves exploring regional Victoria. While travelling she’s usually found with a pile of books and at least one teddy bear in tow. She also practices the little-known sport of extreme knitting in far off places.