From the centre of Adelaide, the hills seem to shimmer on the eastern horizon, a welcoming green wall that hints at the abundance spread across the rolling slopes.
There are so many things to do in the Adelaide Hills which are, without doubt, a destination in themselves, on par with places like the Hunter Valley in New South Wales or Margaret River in Western Australia. But the difference is that, although those regions are at least two hours from the centre of the capital cities, you can drive to the Adelaide Hills from Adelaide in less than 30 minutes.
Throughout the Adelaide Hills are strings of heritage towns and quaint villages, following the main roads that lead over the range and then on towards the Murray River. Within them you can see the influences of the early European settlers, gold miners, and farmers.
But I think the real highlights of the Adelaide Hills are found between the towns – in the stunning national parks where you can go hiking or have picnics, and in the agriculture which produces sweet fruits and world-class wines.
The food and drink of the Adelaide Hills is one of the main reasons you would come here, and I’m going to be sharing some tips for the best places to eat in the Adelaide Hills – plus the best places to drink, of course!
So much of the fresh produce is grown right here in the hills, but it’s only in the past decade or so that the region has really made a name for itself as a food and drink destination. One of the best things to do in the Adelaide Hills is visit a winery (or two) but combine that with one of the top-notch restaurants, and you’ve got a perfect day trip.
But, just because you can visit the Adelaide Hills as a day trip, doesn’t mean you should. Spend a night or two here, relax into the laidback way lifestyle, and forget you’re right next to a capital city.
Although I know I just said that the highlights of the regions are found in the landscapes, the towns of the Adelaide Hills are wonderful and well worth visiting. They’re a focus for the culture and agriculture that you’ll find in the surrounding regions, and each have their own individual characteristics.
Stirling seems a little bit too good to be true. It’s only 15 minutes from the Adelaide CBD, but you immediately feel like you’re in the hills.
The main street, lined with charming shops and cafes, is one of the main attractions in Stirling and you’re bound to find something that’ll interest you. If you’re starting early for a day trip, you might consider breakfast or a coffee in one of the cafes.
It’s also worth checking whether your trip coincides with the monthly market, and Stirling is also the closest town to the Mount Lofty Botanic Garden (more on that shortly).
The most popular town to visit in the Adelaide Hills is Hahndorf, heritage listed because of the historic buildings that were built here when it was a German settlement in 1839. (It’s Australia’s oldest German settlement, for a bit of trivia.)
You’ll notice the German influences straight away in the traditional ‘fachwerk’ architecture in many of the buildings, as well as the restaurants serving German food. But, beyond that, you’ll find cuckoo clocks, traditional European sweets, and other throwbacks to the past.
There are enough things to do in Hahndorf to make a stop worthwhile. For starters, stroll the main street, grab a meal at the Hahndorf Inn, and see the art at the Hahndorf Academy, which includes the German Migration Museum.
If you’re interested in visiting Hahndorf from Adelaide, you could take this tour that includes the Barossa, or there’s this tour that includes the Adelaide CBD and Mount Lofty.
The largest of the towns in the Adelaide Hills, Mount Barker, has a different feel to the other smaller and more quaint communities that you’ll find driving through the hills.
Unless you need the shopping centres, Mount Barker is not the most interesting tourist town. However the Saturday morning Adelaide Hills Farmers Market has great produce, and you might like to pop into Auchendarroch House for a meal or to see the gardens.
There are a few other sites of interest around Mount Barker that I’ll mention in a minute.
You need to go a bit further into the Adelaide Hills to reach Woodside, but the extra effort means you’ll discover a quieter and more rural town than some of the touristy areas that are easy to access from the city.
One of the highlights here is Melba’s Chocolate Factory where you can see sweets being made – and, of course, taste them. There are other local producers to visit around Woodside including a cheesemaker and wineries. Plus the main street has galleries, antique shops, and cafes.
Museums and heritage
Throughout the Adelaide Hills, there’s a strong sense of heritage from the communities that built new lives for themselves in the early days of European settlement. And, in more recent years, the artistic and cultural influences from new residents has shown through in some fascinating Adelaide Hills attractions.
Here are a few of the most interesting museums, galleries, and heritage sites that are among the best things to do in the Adelaide Hills.
National Motor Museum
With about 400 vehicles on display, the National Motor Museum in Birdwood is quite impressive and maybe not what you would expect to find in the Adelaide.
As Australia’s largest motor museum, it covers much of the history of the automobile in the country, with a particular focus on how motor vehicles have opened up remote communities.
Discover the impressive artistic legacy of landscape painter Hans Heysen at The Cedars, his home until his death in 1968.
The Edwardian property and its gardens near Hahndorf are beautiful in their own right, but the story of the art makes a visit even more worthwhile.
Glen Ewin Estate
In the northern part of the Adelaide Hills, around Houghton, you’ll find the Glen Ewin Estate, once the grand home of Glen Ewin Jam.
On the estate’s ground, there are still beautiful old stone buildings that now house a bistro and cellar door. There is also a fig orchard where you can pick figs during the season.
A new institute, Fabrik has just been established in the striking industrial buildings of the former Onkaparinga Woollen Mill in Lobethal. It’s still growing and will eventually have space for exhibitions and events focusing on arts, history, and the community.
In the meantime, the space is open when there are special events and exhibitions, so have a look at what’s on and see if you can have an opportunity to get a sneak peek at this very cool development.
SteamRanger Heritage Railway
Before there were highways up into the Adelaide Hills, one of the easiest modes of transportation was the steam train. Some passionate volunteers have maintained some of the trains and railways tracks, meaning you can get get a sense of this historic experience.
There are a few routes that are run on the SteamRanger Heritage Railway on different days throughout the year. To see the Adelaide Hills, I would recommend one of the trips that starts at Mount Barker and goes along the Mt Lofty Ranges down to Strathalbyn.
At any time of the year, the landscapes of the Adelaide Hills are picturesque, and you can see why they’ve inspired artists for generations. The colours change throughout the seasons, each with their own special beauty.
As you drive up to the Adelaide Hills from the city, and as you pass through the towns, you’ll get some stunning views – but there are a few places worth stopping at in particular.
The region may be called the Adelaide Hills, but there are a couple of mountains within them that are of particular note.
The first one you’ll reach is Mount Lofty, near Stirling. It’s the highest point in the southern Mount Lofty Ranges and has a viewpoint with sweeping vistas over the city and out to the coast.
From the summit of Mount Lofty, there are some walks you can do, including the 4.5km (one way) trail down to Waterfall Gully to see a gushing waterfall.
The other mountain worth mentioning is Mount Barker (although it’s not quite as tall of Mount Lofty). You can reach the summit with a 500m (one way) walk from the carpark and you’ll get epic panoramic views right across the Adelaide Hills.
Belair National Park
An interesting bit of trivia for you – Belair National Park was not only the first national park in South Australia, but the second in the whole country. It’s at the foot of the Adelaide Hills, not far from Mount Lofty, and is protected for its heritage as well as the environment.
Belair National Park is a great spot for a picnic – but also to get a bit active. There are woodlands and lakes to explore, plus hiking and biking trails. You’ll find the state’s oldest plant nursery and a rich collection of native flora and fauna.
Within the park is Old Government House, the summer residence of South Australia’s early governors. The cottage isn’t enormous but you can take a guided tour of the buildings and gardens a couple of times a month.
The Laratinga Wetlands near Mount Barker are quite interesting because they’re not actually natural – they were built in 1999 as a way to manage treated wastewater in the region.
But you wouldn’t know that from looking at them today, because they’ve evolved into a beautiful ecosystem that’s become popular with native birds including the Yellow Tail Black Cockatoo.
There’a a trail that will take you through the Laratinga Wetlands and, as worth a being a nice scenic spot, they tell a really interesting story about managing the environment.
The Adelaide Hills may be full of native animals, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy for you to spot them out in the wild. But a few wildlife parks in the region will let you get up close to the most important species.
The most famous is the State Government’s Cleland Wildlife Park, which has been running since 1967. It has a limited number of enclosures and tries to keep animals in their natural environment. A number of koalas were moved here after the recent bushfires on Kangaroo Island.
Another popular centre is Gorge Wildlife Park at Cudlee Creek, which is still operate by the same family that founded it in 1965. There are Australian animals like wombats, echidnas and dingos – and you’re also able to cuddle a koala here (although that’s not something I personally approve of).
And there’s also the Warrawong Wildlife Sanctuary, which has a large area surrounded by a feral-proof fence. There are lots of native animals here and the park claims to have the only remaining platypus on mainland South Australia.
Places to drink
I know you’ve been waiting patiently until I got to the wine, but good news – it’s time! And this is a section you definitely don’t want to skip, because a tasting is one of my favourite things to do in the Adelaide Hills.
Although it’s other wine regions around Adelaide that get most of the attention – the Barossa and McLaren Vale, for instance – the Adelaide Hills is not to be underestimated. The wines here are excellent but it’s only in the past decade or so that people seem to have taken them more seriously.
Adelaide Hills wineries
There are more than 40 cellar doors in the Adelaide Hills so you’ve got lots of wineries to choose from. You won’t find a bad one and if anyone has given you their favourites, feel free to try them.
I’m going to share a few that I’ve visited or know about, so you’ve got somewhere to start.
The cooler-climate wines like sauvignon blanc, chardonnay and pinot noir are the most popular grapes and you’ll find excellent examples of them at Anderson Hill winery. But the venue also makes it worth visiting, with a friendly tasting room and restaurant that has indoor and outdoor seating and even wood-fired pizza.
At Pike & Joyce, you’ll find the standard varieties but the winemakers here are also playing around with some interesting grapes, like the Austrian gruner veltliner. You might, however, constantly get distracted by the sweeping views down the hills.
On a sunny day, Bird in Hand is a great option, with the tables spilling out onto the grassy area near the large complex that also includes olive oil and cheese tastings.
On a colder day, you might prefer to settle in at Sidewood Estate in Hahndorf, which has a cosy wooden feel with a roaring fireplace when needed.
If you want someone else to make the decisions for you – and to drive, so you don’t have to worry about drinking – then a tour could be a good way to go. You’ll get great value with this fun tour to multiple wineries. If you would prefer your own vehicle, there’s this private van tour (but the tastings aren’t included in the price). Or a great option is this Adelaide Hills tour which combines a wine tasting with some Adelaide sights and some other highlights in the region.
Prancing Pony Brewery
Although the Adelaide Hills may be well known for their wineries, that doesn’t mean it’s all you’ll find. The hills are also home to one of Australia’s best craft breweries – Prancing Pony.
The brewery is near Mount Barker and although there’s a bit of an industrial feel (as you would expect at any brewery), it also has a rural atmosphere surrounding it. Inside, the bar feels like a comfortable rustic living room.
Pop in and grab a tasting paddle, have a look at the brewing operations, and even grab a meal, if you’re hungry.
There are lots of opportunities to taste wine in the Adelaide Hills, and there are plenty of pubs within the towns. But I want to make special mention of the Uraidla Hotel and its special feature called The Tank.
The pub, in Uraidla, is a wonderful spot with different areas where you can have a hearty lunch, sit in the sun with a drink, or huddle by the fire with a coffee.
But my favourite area is The Tank, an old water tank that’s just been transformed into a circular cellar with about 4000 bottles on the walls and a small wooden table in the centre for tastings. You can book in for a tasting with any theme you want, or let the sommelier take you on a special journey.