Review: Townsville city tour showcases the best of North Queensland’s unofficial capital
The cosmopolitan North Queensland city of Townsville has so much to recommend it as a travel destination. You'll see many of the highlights on this afternoon city tour with a knowledgeable local guide. Review: Adam Ford
Explore North Queensland’s biggest urban centre on this comprehensive small group Townsville afternoon city tour with a knowledgeable local guide. You’ll visit the magnificent Strand, Castle Hill and the newly revitalised Jezzine Military Barracks precinct, and learn some of the history of the city. Duration: 2.5 hours (approx.)
As you stroll along the stunning Strand in Townsville, you can’t help but compare it with Fiji or Hawaii.
Manicured lawns and lush gardens lead down to the palm-fringed beachfront, which gives way to a glistening plane of aqua-blue water that stretches out to Magnetic Island. ‘Maggie’, as she’s affectionately known, is unexpectedly close to the mainland — but that’s just one of the many surprises in store for me on this flying visit to Queensland’s fourth largest urban centre.
As the gateway to Magnetic Island, and with its prime position in the very heart of the Great Barrier Reef, Townsville has a lot to offer as a base for a quintessential tropical getaway. What may surprise you though is just how diverse the urban offerings are, including a wealth of magnificent period architecture, a burgeoning café and culinary scene, a healthy showing of cultural attractions and a rich history to explore. For those without time on their side, one of the easiest ways to connect with all of the above in a single day is on a guided Townsville city tour with Tour Townsville.
Owner and operator Toby Dean arrives at our pick-up point (one of three convenient locations in the city) on the dot of 1.30pm and we head off for our 2.5-hour tour. Tour Townsville also offers a popular Military History Tour (Townsville is home to Australia’s largest defence base). Toby is, not surprisingly, a passionate advocate for the city and over the next four hours we’re treated to a fabulous commentary on the past, present and future of North Queensland’s unofficial capital.
This Townsville city tour starts on Flinders Street in the city and Toby gives us a brief rundown on things to see and do in the city centre. Flinders Street was closed to traffic as a pedestrian mall in 1979 and reopened to traffic in 2011 in an attempt to revitalise the flagging fortunes of this retail strip. Today the street is leafy and laidback, with wide footpaths and a plethora of very fine heritage buildings, including the former Bank of New South Wales and the Queensland National Bank (now an excellent antique store).
Flinders Street is also home to the Cowboys Leagues Club (great steaks, we’re told) and serendipitously perhaps to quirky City Lane, which is billed as a northern slice of Melbourne laneway culture — complete with great coffee.
I’ll digress for a moment to add two more cafe recommendations for your visit to Townsville — MJ&Co.Espresso next to the Visitor Information Centre in the short mall by the Grand Chancellor Hotel (fondly known locally as the sugar shaker — you’ll soon work out why), and Hoi Polloi Café in grungy, street art-festooned Denham Lane. Love a cafe with a street piano.
Listen to a podcast of our tips for five top things to do in Townsville:
We cruise by the Old Townsville Railway Station, which is such a magnificent building. While rail services have long since departed to a more modern terminus, Toby tell us this heritage building is possibly earmarked to become a cultural hub.
Next, we make our way up to the peak of Castle Hill — the mount of pink granite that sits pretty much smack bang in the middle of the greater Townsville city area. Castle Hill is officially just a couple of metres short of being classified a mountain and while it may have missed out ever so slightly on that score, the spectacular 360 degree views are worthy of any fully-fledged peak.
For the first time, I get a sense of just how big Townsville actually is. The city fills a vast plain between Castle Hill and Mount Stewart. To the north are amazing views of Maggie and the very distant Palm Islands group.
Castle Hill is popular with walkers and there are plenty of great tracks to get you up to the peak and back on foot if you have the time.
Our next stop on this Townsville city tour is the Jezzine Military Barracks precinct, located on a headland looking out over Cleveland Bay and Rose Bay. On the way we pass the beautiful Queens Gardens — one of four botanic gardens around town. There are actually 300 green spaces to enjoy in and around the city.
There’s a huge amount to see and do at the Jezzine Military Barracks and history buffs could easily spend a whole day right here. The $40 million civic redevelopment celebrates the Indigenous and military history of the 15-hectare precinct, which includes the Kissing Point Fort. It dates back to the late 1890s and played a significant role in World War II. The Army Museum of North Queensland is well worth a visit, and take a stroll along the newly completed coastal boardwalk — which runs behind Jezzine House — the official home of the senior military commander based in Townsville.
To get the most from your visit to the the Jezzine Military Barracks, bring a hat and sunscreen. There isn’t a lot of shade around the old fort itself.
After a brief stop on the Strand for an icecream, Toby heads back towards the city centre — passing the Reef HQ Aquarium — one of the city’s most popular attractions. This is the National Reef Education Centre for the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, so it’s well worth a visit — particularly to get a better understanding of the challenges facing the reef. The excellent Museum of Tropical Queensland is located next door. It focuses on the region’s natural and maritime history. Keep an eye out for Old Customs House with its romanesque colonnades. Its construction was completed in 1902.
As we cross Ross Creek and head up Palmer Street — the city’s premier dining precinct — Toby shares restaurant recommendations for the remainder of our stay (always an upside of doing a tour with a local guide). While you’re in this neck of the woods, check out the Maritime Museum of Townsville. At just $6 for entry (at the time of writing), this has got to be one of the best value things to do in the city.
Toby wraps up the tour by giving us a sense of what the future holds for Townsville. We get an update on the current construction of the North Queensland Stadium — a 25,000 seat arena that is scheduled to open in time for the 2020 National Rugby League (NRL) competition.
All in all, this Townsville city tour is a fascinating introduction to one of North Queensland’s most charming urban centres. Toby’s knowledge and passion are really inspiring and you’ll finish the day with a much clearer picture of exactly what this unassuming destination has to offer — along with a top spot to head for dinner.
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.