It may still feel quite laidback, but Townsville is actually the largest city in the north of Australia. It’s an important economic and political hub and you’ll see in the city centre that there are a lot more large boring office buildings than you’ll usually find in North Queensland.
There are a few interesting things to do in Townsville’s CBD and I’ll tell you more about them shortly. But what makes Townsville such a special place is that you only need to go a few minutes from its centre to start enjoying the nature and the beautiful weather.
Forget the port, the nearby refineries, the government buildings. Townsville is a friendly city on a stunning stretch of coast, with lush inland national parks. It has a rich heritage and vibrant arts scene, and is the perfect launching pad to explore the region.
Because of its size, there are lots of flights to Townsville and you could do a lot worse than fly in for a few days to explore the city and the surrounding region.
Or, if you’re doing a road trip up the coast of North Queensland, make sure you leave enough time to explore properly. The city itself only needs a day to see the main sights, but there are lots of good day trips and no shortage of places in Townsville to eat and drink.
To help you with your trip planning, let me share some of my suggestions for the best things to do in Townsville.
Castle Hill Lookout
I would suggest starting at Castle Hill Lookout, where you’ll get a fantastic view across Townsville and surrounds, which will help you get your bearings.
Castle Hill is easy to spot – it’s the large hill which rises up in the centre of the city to a height of 286 metres. You can drive to the top, where there are quite a few parking spots and some short trails that lead you to different viewpoints.
Or you can join the locals getting their exercise and walk to the top. Some people follow the road, or there’s also the ‘goat track’, which apparently has 758 steps.
At the base of Castle Hill is Queens Gardens, one of three botanic gardens in Townsville. The park has a diverse array of plants and wildlife and interesting collections from around the world and is a nice place to pop into.
The other two gardens are a little bit further out of the centre. There’s the largest of the three, Anderson Gardens, which has a strong emphasis on native and dry tropical plants.
The other is Palmetum, which has one of the largest and most diverse public collections of palms in the world. It’s right on the Ross River Bikeway, so you can even cycle out there.
There is no street in Townsville that better represents the city than The Strand, which goes along the waterfront for about 2.2 kilometres.
Although, calling it a ‘street’ is probably a bit misleading because it’s the parklands and walking path alongside it that are the real attraction.
As well as the walkway (and bikeway), there are playgrounds, beaches, a water park, picnic spots, and restaurants and cafes. The Strand is more than just a promenade for a stroll – it could be a whole day of entertainment.
At the northern end of the Strand, you’ll find Jezzine Barracks on the site where the Australian military has had a presence for more than 120 years.
At the top of the hill is the Kissing Point Fortification, which was built as a two-gun battery in 1891 as part of a series of defences to protect Queensland from naval attack.
The barracks themselves now house the Army Museum of North Queensland, which tell the story of the defence forces in Townsville right up to today. Admission is free but donations are appreciated.
The whole site has heritage protection and recently had a massive redevelopment that included new information signs and artworks.
If you’re interested, there’s also an excellent military history tour of Townsville that will give you a much deeper understanding.
The art scene
Townsville has quite an interesting art scene and there are a few different ways to delve into it.
The most obvious is the street art in the CBD, where you’ll find more than 20 commissioned pieces, including some enormous and striking murals on the walls. There’s even this map to show you where to look.
Then there’s Perc Tucker Regional Gallery, quite a large space that has a good series of exhibitions showcasing local, national, and international artists. There are also some smaller community art spaces like the Pinnacles Gallery.
And then there’s the underwater art, which I’ll tell you more about in the next section.
Museum of Underwater Art
Why would you want to walk through an art gallery when you could dive through one? At least, that’s the idea between the new Museum of Underwater Art.
One of the underwater sites has just opened, at John Brewer Reef about 80 kilometres offshore from Townsville. The large artwork is called Coral Greenhouse and it’s a building underwater with lots of smaller sculptures that you can dive around.
In Townsville itself, you can see another piece if the museum without having to dive. The Ocean Siren rises up from the water off The Strand and is a human-like figure that changes colour based on water temperature data from the Great Barrier Reef.
Two more underwater sites will open in the future – one at Palm Island and one at Magnetic Island.
Once you start to scratch the surface, you’ll realise that there’s a lot more to Townsville than you realised at first.
There’s the Indigenous history that goes back thousands of years, the pioneering stories of the first European explorers, and the industrial heritage as the city grew. Some of it you can learn about in the centre of the city, but other important sites are in the outer parts of Townsville.
That’s why a city tour is an excellent way to learn more about the best things to do in Townsville and make the most of your time here. There is a great half-day city tour that you can join, or you can see even more on this full-day tour.
The Ville Resort and Casino
I wouldn’t normally recommend a casino as something to do but The Ville has had a recent redevelopment and it’s become one of the hottest spots in town.
Skip the gambling areas and head straight for the pool and the restaurants, because this is where you’ll get amazing views and be able to kick back and relax.
For food, Miss Songs is one of the best restaurants in Townsville with a very cool take on Asian fusion. Then there’s Splash Bar by the pool, which is perfect for a sunny afternoon. If you’re not a guest, you can buy a pool pass which includes credit for food and drink.
Of course, you could also stay at The Ville – they have great rooms and you’re still very close to the city centre.
Museum of Tropical Queensland
Right near The Ville is the Museum of Tropical Queensland. It’s closed at the moment for maintenance works until early 2021, but I thought I would mention it here in case you’re planning to visit later than that.
It’s a great museum that has a wide variety of exhibitions about the cultural and natural aspects of Tropical Queensland, including an exhibition dedicated to the Great Barrier Reef, and one about the rainforest.
But the main attraction is the gallery with artefacts from the HMS Pandora, which was sent to capture the mutinous crew of the Bounty but sank off the coast of Cape York in 1791.
Next to the museum is Reef HQ, the aquarium in Townsville. It’s the world’s largest living coral reef aquarium and is designed to give you a taste of the Great Barrier Reef.
There’s an underwater tunnel and lots of other windows into the water, so you can see the different types of coral and marine life that is found on the reef.
As part of the Federal Government’s Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, Reef HQ puts a large emphasis on education and normally has very interesting talks and shows.
You don’t need to go far to visit the actual Great Barrier Reef, though. In fact, you’ll be within the marine park if you catch the 20-minute Sealink ferry over to Magnetic Island.
Lots of people just visit Magnetic Island as a day trip but I think it’s worth at least one night (two or three is even better). There’s lots to do and you don’t want to be too rushed.
There are some great hikes you can do around the island and the most popular one if the Forts Walk, where you’re very likely to see some koalas in the wild.
But there are also a couple dozen beaches around the island and you can swim, hang out, and go snorkelling on them. Some are hard to access on your own, which is why a tour with Aquascene is really good way to go.
If you’re going to head over, I’ve written a bit more about the best things to do on Magnetic Island.
Great Barrier Reef
There are other ways you can get to the Great Barrier Reef from Townsville – particularly to the outer reef (Magnetic Island is considered to be the fringing reef).
There are a few dive operators out of Townsville that do full day trips, I would recommend this one.
A popular dive spot is the sunken ship the SS Yongala, which is the largest and most intact historic shipwreck in Australia. You can ask the dive operators about their trips out there.
Paluma Range National Park
Back on the mainland, and there’s another World Heritage Site (other than the reef) that you can easily reach from Townsville called the Wet Tropics of Queensland.
The site actually stretches along the coast for about 400 kilometres and is made up of the lush rainforests that dominate the landscape in North Queensland. The southernmost point is at Paluma Range National Park.
You’ll reach the park within an hour driving and there’s lots to see. There are some cascades and lovely swimming spots at Little Crystal Creek and then some nice walks around Paluma itself.
If you would like a guide to show you the best spots, I would recommend going with North Queensland Tours, who also do a ‘tag along’ tour so you can use your own vehicle.
They offer a full day trip that also takes you to Wallaman Falls, the highest waterfall in Australia, which is a pretty spectacular sight!
As you can see, there’s no shortage of things to do in Townsville. The mix between the nature, the reef, the heritage, and the culture makes it a dynamic spot to visit in North Queensland and a great place to break up a road trip!
THE BEST ACCOMMODATION IN TOWNSVILLE
I think the best approach is to find accommodation (preferably with a pool) in the centre of Townsville so the main sights are in easy reach. You’ll have to drive to places out of town anyway.
It’s clearly a hostel aimed at the international backpacker market, so Civic Guest House has a fun and relaxed atmosphere.
For an affordable option – but still modern and comfortable – I think Motel on Mitchell is the best value in town.
Known as the Sugar Shaker, the Hotel Grand Chancellor is a Townsville icon and has a rooftop pool with an awesome view.
Recently redeveloped, with beautiful rooms and an incredible pool area, The Ville Resort is the nicest accommodation in Townsville.