Prepare to be an Adelaide convert by the end of your visit to the City of Churches.
Contrary to what its longstanding nickname suggests, the South Australian capital doesn’t actually have more churches than any other Aussie city (it comes in around 5th on the spired leader board). Famously, the founding fathers weren’t keen on convicts, but they did put out the welcome mat for a broad range of religious faiths — including German Lutherans fleeing persecution in Prussia. That’s thought to have led to the name that was reportedly first used in the 1860s. However, things could have gone in an entirely different direction. While on a day tour to the Barossa Valley with Taste the Barossa, our guide JR reveals that the city was also known at that time as the city of pubs! There are said to be at least 70 current and former hotel sites across the CBD.
Pubs and churches aside, Adelaide has it all as a travel destination. A compact CBD bursting with street art, cool caffs and characterful small bars, stunning period architecture from a variety of eras, cutting edge cultural institutions, a packed calendar of festivals and events, a phenomenal but affordable dining scene, a world-renowned wine producing pedigree, and even a pair of A-list celebrity pandas residing at the zoo; all the ingredients are there for one heck of a holiday.
Here are ten of the best things to do in Adelaide.
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Laid out by Surveyor-General William Light and civil engineer George Kingston in 1837, Adelaide’s CBD occupies a ‘square mile’ framed by four terraces (North, South, East, and West) and a ring of green space separating the city and suburbs. Most of the action for visitors is centred around the North Terrace cultural precinct, retail hub Rundle Mall, the uber-cool East End, party central Hindley Street, and the bustling Adelaide Central Market and Chinatown area adjacent to Victoria Square. The modern city adheres to Light’s vision for a walkable metropolis, and a guided walking tour is a great way to get your bearings. Flamboyance Tours offers a 1.5-hour ‘Welcome to Adelaide’ walk, which will equip you with useful intel for the rest of your stay. Keep an eye out for street art works by English-born/Adelaide-raised/now-based-and-big-in-London Jimmy C.
Adelaide’s preeminent cultural institutions line North Terrace, and while they look imposing, they’re all about accessibility and are free to enter (some special events are ticketed). The Art Gallery of South Australia resides in a stunning Neoclassical complex (parts of which date back to 1900) and is a must-visit. Its collection of 40,000 works encompasses a significant holding of Indigenous art. This was the first Australian institution to acquire an Aboriginal work (notably by Albert Namatjira), and today the gallery hosts the annual Tarnanthi festival of contemporary Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art. Look for a mesmerising recent acquisition titled Kungkarangkalpa (Seven Sisters) by Pitjantjatjara woman Nyunmiti Burton.
Neighbouring the gallery are the South Australian Museum and the State Library of South Australia. The latter is home to the Mortlock Building — a three-storey French Renaissance-style edifice constructed in the early 1880s, the interior of which has to be seen to be believed. Light cascades into the open central void from the curved mansard skylight that runs the length of the building. The wood panelled, upper galleries are lined with ornate wrought iron balustrading, bookshelves and reading desks, while the columned ground floor is used to display artefacts from the library’s collection pertaining to the history of South Australia. You’ll end up spending a couple of hours soaking it all in. Alternatively, just enjoy a quiet read!
Nothing says ‘I’m in Adelaide’ like a stroll through the perennial Central Market, which dates back to 1870. One of the largest covered produce markets in the Southern Hemisphere, seventy-or-so stalls offer fruit and vegetables, smallgoods, meat, fish, cheese, baked goodies, and casual street eats. While you’re unlikely to be looking to purchase a bunch of carrots or stick of celery on holiday, you can get a taste of the market’s best on a guided tour with Food Tours Australia. A generous array of samples is provided, along with a bag to carry your stash.
Back on the northern edge of the CBD, the River Torrens meanders through shaded parklands, past historic rowing sheds, and beneath heritage bridges. A haven for birdlife, the river was dammed at one end in the 1880s to form the sweeping recreational waterway you see today. If you’re up for a leisurely sightseeing experience, climb aboard the jaunty Popeye cruise boat. Departing from Elder Park, The Popeye travels downriver to the weir, then backtracks slightly and continues upriver to Adelaide Zoo — home to giant pandas Wang Wang and Fu Ni. Passengers can disembark there or return to Elder Park. Upgrade your ticket at the time of booking to include a boxed Devonshire tea.
While you’re in this neck of the woods, wander over the shimmering Adelaide Riverbank Footbridge to Adelaide Oval, one of the city’s most iconic structures. Primarily used to host AFL and cricket matches, the Oval can hold around 60,000 spectators and still makes use of its Edwardian-era, manually-operated scoreboard. The ground is home to The Bradman Collection — a free museum that displays Sir Don Bradman’s priceless collection of cricketing memorabilia. Even if you’re not a cricket fan, the museum offers a compelling look back at Australian society from the 1920s to the 1970s.
The Oval looks epic from ground level, but it’s even more impressive when viewed from the top of the stands themselves. Roof Climb Adelaide Oval offers a two-hour experience that will see you trekking across the roof of the Western Stand and Riverbank Stand, and, if you’re game, leaning out from a platform 50 metres above the turf!
OK, it would just be plain wrong to come to Adelaide and not do a wine tour. There are no less than four wine regions within easy reach, and plenty of tour operators who will take care of the driving and decisions on which wineries to visit. The Barossa Valley needs little introduction and is well-suited to red wine lovers. Don’t worry, white varieties are produced here, but this is big Australian shiraz territory. The McLaren Vale terroir melds coast and country with intriguing results, and is home to the d’Arenberg Cube — one of the most (if not the most) incredible cellar doors in the country. The Adelaide Hills is the closest wine region to the city, while the Clare Valley is the most distant at two hours’ drive each way.
Taste the Barossa operates a variety of wine tours from the city, including a popular daily departure to the Barossa. It visits four contrasting wineries for tastings, and features a short stop in the hub town of Tanunda. A grazing plate lunch is included in the tour price.
By the way, if you don’t have a full day available to visit one of the wine regions, don’t despair. They come to you at the National Wine Centre of Australia — located adjacent to the Botanic Garden on the edge of the CBD. There’s an onsite museum dedicated to Australian winemaking, a state-of-the-art tasting room manned by expert staff, and even a working urban vineyard.
Wet your whistle after dark by exploring the city’s dynamic small bar scene. Meet the pioneers at Proof on Anster Street, which was awarded the first small bar licence back in 2013. The intimate downstairs bar is kitted out with stylish wood panelling and objects d’art, while the rooftop terrace is a great spot to hang with a larger group. Over on popular Peel Street, shake things up with a masterfully mixed cocktail at Maybe Mae. The bar is tucked away in the basement tunnel. It’s tricky for the uninitiated to find; look for the doorman, and later in the evening, the queue. Pink Moon Saloon on Leigh Street occupies what is basically a wooden hut in a bin alley. It works.
Adelaide lost most of its suburban tram network in the mid 1900s, but everything old is new again, and the city has spent big bucks putting some light rail services back in. The Glenelg Line survived the 20th century purge and continued to operate from the seaside suburb of Glenelg to Victoria Square in the city. The city extension from Victoria Square to North Terrace opened in 2007 and has since been further extended. Tram travel is free within the city centre, but it’s well worth purchasing a ticket and heading out to Glenelg for a day of beachy pursuits.
Tucked away in the tranquil Adelaide Hills, forty minutes from the CBD by car, a visit to the village of Hahndorf is an absolute delight. Dating back to the arrival of those early Prussian immigrants in the late 1830s, the main street is lined with heritage trees (planted in the 1880s), rustic cottages, artisanal food stores, pubs, cafes, and boutiques, and attracts upwards of 100,000 visitors a year. Despite all the attention, Hahndorf retains an authentic feel and that early German influence is still clearly visible. Download a self-guided heritage walking tour brochure and map and take a stroll back in time.
There’s nothing better than staying in a hotel that’s part of the very fabric of the destination you’re visiting, and the upscale Adina Apartment Hotel Adelaide Treasury on Victoria Square ticks that particular box. Occupying the historic former State Treasury complex — which stood at the heart of political life in the capital for well over a century — the hotel oozes period character and gravitas, but melds it with a thoroughly modernised feel across its suites and amenities.
Stepping into the cool and crisp cobbled central courtyard with its foliage and fountain feels like you could be in Paris or Rome. Onsite eatery Treasury 1860 serves breakfast daily, and lunch and dinner on selected days, and has a courtyard seating area festooned with fairy lights. The self-contained apartment-style guest suites, many of which face into the courtyard, are spacious and well appointed, and come complete with kitchen and laundry facilities. If you’re lucky enough to be on the top floor, that sense of being in old world Europe is almost palpable as you gaze across the surrounding rooftops and stone towers of the General Post Office and Town Hall.
Set aside time during your stay to check out some of the hotel’s historical features. The staff at reception will give you access to the marvellous Old Cabinet Room, which remains just as it was in its glory days. Here, history was made numerous times — including in 1894, when women in South Australia were granted the same political rights as men — the right to vote and run for parliament. It was a combined world-first.
The writer travelled as a guest of TFE Hotels and Adina Apartment Hotel Adelaide Treasury.
Do you have any suggestions to add to the best things to do in Adelaide? We would love to hear from you. Please leave a comment below.
Cover image: South Australian Tourism Commission. Additional images: Bigstock
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.