The Southern Highlands has long been the country playground for Sydneysiders and, as the biggest town in the region, it’s no great surprise there are lots of things to do in Bowral.
Growing up in Sydney, I always thought of Bowral as a destination for older people – it had antique furniture, homeware stores, and high teas. And, while all of those things still exist, it’s also evolved in recent years.
These days, Bowral has become much more of a primary residence for a lot of people, as opposed to just a weekend holiday house destination. And that means the community has grown and strengthened.
Things to do in Bowral
In the centre of town, you’ll find new restaurants, cafes, and bars that have a more modern and youthful energy (partly because they are run by more modern and youthful people than you may have found in the past).
And then, around town, there are also new businesses that have brought a different style to the region. It’s opened up Bowral and the Southern Highlands to a broader demographic, I feel.
Having said that, though, the Southern Highlands are still what they have always been – lush green rolling hills with charming little towns and picturesque farms between them.
With the higher altitude, it’s much cooler than the coast and you really feel that in winter (although the sunny days are glorious). It’s still a place where you enjoy a crisp walk during the day and a bottle of wine by the fire in the evening
You can visit Bowral as a day trip from Sydney (it’s only about 90 minutes drive) or even as a day trip from Canberra (it’s about two hours). But you won’t have time to see much of the Southern Highlands region.
I would recommend staying for at least one or two nights (it makes a nice weekend trip if you stay Friday and Saturday nights, for example).
When you’re here, you’ll realise how many things to do in Bowral there actually are – from eating and drinking, to exploring the history, discovering some of the new businesses and local experiences, and getting out amongst the nature.
Although there are lots of things to see in Bowral, the main museums are a good way to start, to see some of the iconic history and culture of the region.
The Bradman Museum
From small beginnings, the Bradman Museum in Bowral has grown into a large complex that now includes the International Cricket Hall of Fame. It’s an acknowledgement that the centre is about more than just Don Bradman.
There is a gallery dedicated to Bradman but the other exhibitions cover an introduction to cricket, stories about some of the game’s most important players, significant moments or eras in its history, and the current state of the game.
The museum has become a bit of a pilgrimage site for cricket fans from across the world but even people without a strong interest will get something out of a visit.
Milk Factory Gallery
Right in the heart of Bowral, the original milk factory was built here in 1921. But since 2005 it has been used as a space to exhibit art from creators in the region and further afield.
Exhibitions change regularly so it’s worth popping in to see what’s on the walls at the moment. There’s usually a good range of different mediums and artists with various backgrounds.
Let’s look now at the heritage of Bowral and the Southern Highlands because there’s a lot of interesting history here.
The traditional owners of the land, the Gundungurra and D’harawal people, lived here for thousands of years before Europeans first formally settled the area in 1819. The first settlement was Bong Bong, near where Moss Vale now is. The second settlement was Berrima.
Visiting Berrima is a great thing to do from Bowral – it’s just a ten minute drive away. When Berrima was founded in 1831, the idea was to make it the major town in the region. That’s why you’ll find the large sandstone courthouse and gaol from the 1830s.
In the end, that didn’t happen and the train line went through Moss Vale and Mittagong instead. But historic Berrima still has one of the state’s best preserved Georgian villages and you’ll see many of the important heritage buildings just walking along the main street.
The gaol is in use again so you can’t visit that, but there’s a good exhibition in the courthouse. At the other end of town, there’s also the local museum.
There are three National Trust properties in the Southern Highlands and each shows a different style of heritage.
In Berrima, there is Harper’s Mansion, built in 1834. It’s a great example of what the town could have been if it had expanded as planned.
Just south, in Sutton Forest, is Golden Vale Homestead. This grand sandstone home was built in 1870 and set in about 200 acres, much of it laid out as an English style garden.
And then, there’s the most impressive – Retford Park in Bowral. This large four-bedroom residence in pink Italianate style was built in 1887 by Samuel Hordern and then bought in 1964 by James Fairfax, who turned it into a sumptuous country residence.
The house was set in an enormous rural estate but a lot of the land has now been sold off. Still, there’s a large garden with lots to see. Inside the house is an impressive collection of art and antiques that belonged to James Fairfax.
He passed away in 2017 and bequeathed it all to the National Trust so it could be open to the public. (It’s currently closed because of Coronavirus and will reopen later in 2020).
Although there’s been a lot of urban development in the Southern Highlands, and many people who visit just for a day trip stay only in a town like Bowral, the region is still has lots of important agricultural land.
If you drive along the roads between the towns, you’ll see a lot of farms (and realise how pretty they are here – especially at sunset or when the fog rolls in). But there are also some good ways to try some of the local produce.
To get out on the land, you can visit Redleaf Farm for a tour of this fascinating farm. There are Highland cows, Saddleback pigs, sheep, chickens… And actually a whole menagerie, including peacocks and a miniature donkey called Hector.
Redleaf Farm has a waterfall and a swimming hole – as well as two old train carriages that have been converted into incredible self-contained accommodation that are perfect for a special couples retreat or family experience.
It’s a beautiful spot with lots of different ways to experience it.
There are some wonderful wineries in the region and so an afternoon (or morning, even) of wine tasting is a great thing to do around Bowral.
You can use the Highlands Tour Co to put together an itinerary and drive you between the tastings, if you want to make it easier. Of you can do it yourself, of course.
One of the most popular wineries around Bowral is Centennial Vineyards, which offers a lovely tasting. My favourite is Bendooley Estate, which has a fantastic space for tastings. It’s part of the large complex that blends a book shop with a casual cafe and a more upmarket restaurant.
The region is cool climate and high altitude so the pinot noir and riesling are some of the specialties. Other good wineries to visit in the Southern Highlands are Artemis Wines, and Cherry Tree Hill.
Southern Highlands Pie Trail
Another of the local specialties in the Southern Highlands is the humble pie – done not so humbly. The local bakers take great pride in always trying to upstage each other with new creations and the annual Southern Highlands PieFest is where they are officially judged.
You can still get involved any time of the year with the Pie Trail, a map of about 30 local outlets that all offer pies.
I would recommend the Eden Pie or lamb and rosemary from Gumnut Patisserie, a chicken with leek and camembert from the Robertson Pie Shop, a simple steak pie from Polly’s Pies, or the Ned Kelly (a breakfast pie with beef, egg, and bacon) at Heatherbrae’s.
Where to eat in Bowral
When it comes to food, you really are spoiled for choice in Bowral and the surrounding area in the Southern Highlands. You’ll find a huge range of options and it’s pretty easy just to spend your whole visit just eating and drinking!
I’ll offer a few suggestions of mine to help, but don’t be afraid to ask the locals for their recommendations as well.
For delicious (but slightly casual) meals, try the Grand Bistro, which is run by a lovely couple who used to own the Flat White cafe in Woollahra in Sydney. The Press Shop is a cute little cafe that is also popular for brunch. And the Imperial Hotel has great pub food and a cosy atmosphere.
If you are looking for something less casual, there’s the excellent restaurant at Bendooley Estate, the well-regarded Italian at Onesta Cucina, or – my favourite – the inventive Eschalot in a heritage building in Berrima.
For coffee, I would recommend Rush Roasting Co, which has cafes in Bowral and Moss Vale. You’ll also see their coffee at other outlets through the highlands.
Travel Australia Today was supported by Destination NSW. Now’s the time to love NSW, and as travel restrictions ease, it’s time to explore our own backyard and reboot 2020. From 1 June to 31 December, there are exactly 213 days to make the most of this year. More ideas here.