There’s one thing that turned Ballarat into Victoria’s largest inland city. It’s the same thing that once transformed this whole region.
When gold was found here in the 1850s, people came from across the world to try to make their fortune. And many did!
The Gold Rush didn’t just make individuals rich, the wealth also flowed through to the city, which was lined with grand majestic buildings.
Some of the best things to do in Ballarat these days are still related to the Gold Rush – either directly, like the recreation at Sovereign Hill, or indirectly, through the heritage that’s been left behind in the city centre.
But visiting Ballarat is not about going back in time. Of course, the city has evolved, and I think it’s had a particular renaissance in the past few years.
As the cost of living has made it harder for people to live in Melbourne, some have left the Victorian capital and come to Ballarat instead, just 90 minutes away by car (or direct train). And, once here, they’ve created launched amazing new businesses.
These days, one of the best things to do in Ballarat is eat and drink, with excellent restaurants, cool wine bars, and friendly brew pubs. (You can see why so many people now come from Melbourne for the weekend.)
But beyond that, there are still lots of attractions to see, from the art gallery to the heritage buildings, and the botanic gardens.
So, let’s get into it and have a look at my top tips for what to do in Ballarat.
Let’s start with Sovereign Hill, the most famous of the tourist attractions in Ballarat. This open-air museum recreates the Victorian Goldfields of the 1850s, complete with a main street and mining equipment.
Throughout the site are actors who are playing characters from the time – whether they’re shopkeepers, police, or miners. It’s all done really well and there’s a reason Sovereign Hill has been a popular attraction since it opened in 1970.
It’s easy to spend the whole day here – and certainly some school groups and families do. But you can probably also cover most the highlights in half a day if you’re trying to fit it into a bigger trip to Ballarat.
Because it’s such a large destination, I wanted to mention a few of the different things to do on a visit to Sovereign Hill.
The main attraction at Sovereign Hill is the recreation of the town, which is officially referred to as the Outdoor Museum.
Walking along the dirt roads, perhaps jumping out of the way of a horse and carriage, you may even get a bit lost. But you realise that it’s made up of four distinct areas, it becomes a little easier to navigate.
You’ll enter into the Main Street precinct, which is lined with shops. You can certainly buy things at some of them, but they also feel like they’re of the time – a blacksmith, and an apothecary, for example.
Up in the Speedwell Street area, you can see how many of the people lived with buildings recreating the homes of the township. Wander through gardens and kitchens to see life in the 1850s.
Heading down into the Steam & Mining precinct, you’ll get an insight into how gold mining developed over the years, as technology improved and more advanced techniques were used. This is where you can go underground to walk along a mine shaft.
And then there’s the area that’s often the most popular with kids – The Diggings. The tent camps for the different immigrant groups are interesting but the highlight is the creek where you can try your hand at gold panning (and keep anything you can find!!).
To see Sovereign Hill in a completely different way, there’s a special light and sound show called AURA that takes place most evenings.
Over 90 minutes, you’ll move between a few different parts of the site, where projections and other special effects tell the stories of gold, along with the famous rebellion that took place here.
The show is an additional cost on top of the main admission ticket and usually you would come back after dinner to see it.
Australian Centre for Gold Rush Collections
Although many parts of Sovereign Hill are recreations, rather than authentic buildings, the site also maintains an important museum of actual artefacts. In fact, the Australian Centre for Gold Rush Collections has over 150,000 objects!
The collections include artworks, photos, clothing, possessions brought by Chinese miners, and much more. The best way to see the items are with special tours that take you back of house, so have a look if there’s one happening when you’re there.
Sovereign Hill Hotel
And to really explore the old town, you can even stay overnight on the site. The Sovereign Hill Hotel has a range of rooms, from more upmarket ones for couples to larger ones with bunk beds for families.
And don’t worry, the recreation of the 1850s doesn’t continue inside the hotel. The facilities are modern and comfortable – although all you have to do to be back in the Gold Rush is walk outside the front door.
Ballarat is one of the easiest Victorian cities to walk around. (In fact, with the train station in the centre of town, you can easily visit from Melbourne without a car.) And you’ll find some of the city’s majestic heritage just by exploring the centre.
There are a few main streets where you’ll find a wealth of historic buildings in Ballarat. And, within those gorgeous 19th-century streetscapes, there are a few landmarks that are worth making particular note of.
Lydiard Street is where you’ll find the most heritage, on either side of Sturt St. To the south, there’s the imposing Cathedral Church of Christ the King, along with Craig’s Royal Hotel and the beautiful Her Majesty’s Theatre.
To the north, are a series of grand bank buildings, the Former Mining Exchange, and up to the heritage-listed Ballarat Railway Station.
Just around the corner on Camp Street are the remnants of the police station and police court that played an important role in the famous Eureka stockade. Other historic civic buildings here are now mixed in with more modern ones.
And a few blocks away is Main Road, another important historic area. It’s small now but was once the centre of mining life with shops and entertainment. Some of that charm remains and it’s very photogenic part of the city.
As I mentioned, you can easily wander through central Ballarat on your own – but there’s so much to see, it’s worth having a bit of a plan.
The city has put together some self-guided walking tours that will lead you past the most interesting landmarks and I think using one of their maps is a great way to get your bearings and do an exploration of Ballarat. You can see the options here – including a street art route and a craft beer trail.
If you would prefer to see the sights with a guide, you can join Ballarat Heritage Tours, which run on the weekend. Or there’s Golden Nugget Discovery Tours that will show you more than just the city centre, and is a great way to see the whole area.
The heritage in Ballarat is about more than just buildings, it’s also about the culture that developed here – and much of that can be seen in the artisans that carry on the traditions.
One of the more special things to do in Ballarat is join a masterclass to learn about the rich history of craftsmanship here.
- There’s the Lost Ones Gallery, housed in an old masonic hall, that hosts a workshop with leatherwork or jewellery-making.
- Adam Parker of Parker Knives runs knife-making workshops throughout the year.
- And for something a bit more colourful, ceramicist Ruby Pilven also sometimes runs sessions.
But perhaps the best place to have a look is the Centre for Rare Arts and Forgotten Trades, based at Sovereign Hill, that has regular masterclasses on a variety of heritage crafts like needle felting, letter carving, rope splicing, and chopstick making.
With so many interesting stories to tell about Ballarat, it’s not surprising that there are some great museums in the city. While they tend to be focused on the heritage aspects, there are also some art galleries that are impressively forward-looking.
Art Gallery of Ballarat
The Art Gallery of Ballarat is Australia’s oldest and largest regional art gallery. Set in a heritage-listed building that was purpose built as a gallery in the 1880s, the architecture is impressive in itself.
But really the collection is the star attraction, with the focus on showing the development of Australia art from the early colonial period to present day. But one of the things I like is that the rooms aren’t presented as historical periods, but as themes – looking at how different styles explore ‘Home’, ‘Country’, and ‘Disruption’, for instance.
Something in particular to look out for at the Art Gallery of Ballarat is the recreation of the living room of the Lindsay family, many of whom became celebrated Australian artists. The items were donated by some of the family and the room was first set up here in 1969 (although it’s changed over the years).
When it comes to Australian history, one of the most important events to ever take place happened here in Ballarat. Called the Eureka Stockade (or sometimes the Eureka Rebellion), gold miners revolted against the British authorities in 1854, and the event has gained legendary status as the birth of democracy in Australia.
All of this brings us to the Eureka Centre, a museum situated on the site of the rebellion that looks at the event itself as well as its legacy on Australia.
The most important item is the actual Eureka Flag that was hoisted up during the fight. There’s also a permanent exhibition about the rebellion (which has a lot of context around it, even though the battle only took 20 minutes!)
And outside in the park are a number of monuments and memorials dedicated to different aspects of the Eureka Stockade, including to those who died and to the Irish contribution to the event.
Ballarat Tramway Museum
Out at the Ballarat Botanic Gardens (more on them in a moment) is the adorable Ballarat Tramway Museum, which was founded to preserve the tramway experience that existed on the city’s streets from 1887 all the way up until 1971.
This isn’t a stuffy old museum where you stare through glass into cabinets. It’s an interactive museum where many of the exhibits move… because they’re trams! There’s a horse tram from 1887, and then a series of electric trams from around 1913.
The entrance fee to the Ballarat Tramway Museum includes the main museum building where you can see a series of trams that no longer move – plus a ride along a return track of 3.2 kilometres.
Ballarat Aviation Museum
And for something a little bit faster than a tram, you can head out to the airport to visit the Ballarat Aviation Museum. The airport was an air force base during World War II and the museum here is dedicated to its heritage.
There are (non-flying) aircraft like a Wirraway, Dove, Flying Flea, along with Malkara and Ikara missiles, and an early flight simulator.
The Ballarat Aviation Museum is relatively small and is probably best suited for enthusiasts who’ll be impressed with the quality of the restoration and conservation work.
Beyond the heritage and the culture of the city, some of the best things to do in Ballarat make the most of its scenic setting in regional Victoria. Even within the city there are some beautiful natural reserves, and you don’t have to drive far from the urban centre to find even more.
Ballarat Botanic Gardens
The Ballarat Botanic Gardens are one of the true treasures of the city and one of my favourite places to visit here.
The decision to create the gardens was made in 1857 and the police horse paddock was converted to make space for it. Over the years, new features have been added, from a maze and a redwood avenue in the early days, to the modern Robert Clark Conservatory in 1995 – now the iconic image of the site.
One of the quirky features is the Prime Ministers Avenue, where bronze sculptures of all the leaders of the country have been mounted on granite pedestals between the trees. (Australia’s second Prime Minister, Alfred Deakin, was the Member for Ballarat.)
The Ballarat Botanic Gardens isn’t enormous, but there’s enough to see here to spend an hour or two, including artworks, historic buildings, and plant displays.
The botanic gardens is on the edge of Lake Wendouree, which is a Ballarat attraction in its own right. And there are lots of different ways to make the most of it.
From the botanic gardens part of the lake, there are playgrounds for children picnic facilities, and a restaurant. If you’re feeling active, though, the six-kilometre walking track around the shore is a lovely way to get some exercise.
There are also cycling trails, and there are also paddle boats for hire. Or you can just find a spot to watch the birdlife and other local animals that are attracted by the water.
Black Hill Reserve
For a larger tract of natural escape, there’s Black Hill Reserve, about 100 hectares of rare bushland near Kyneton.
The reserve is known for its incredible granite rock formations, including one called the Monolith, which is considered to be one of the largest in Victoria.
Within the reserve, there are wallabies, kangaroos, possums, and echidnas, some of which you may spot along the walking trails – the 3.9-kilometre Circuit Track is probably the best.
Or if you just want to relax, there are picnic facilities and lots of nice scenic spots to hang out.
While kids will enjoy a lot of the Ballarat attractions that I’ve already mentioned (particularly Sovereign Hill), there are some more things to do in Ballarat that will be particularly interesting for families.
Ballarat Wildlife Park
This is your opportunity to get up close to some of Australia’s native wildlife, with more than 100 free-roaming kangaroos that you can hand feed, more than 35 koalas, as well as wombats, emus, penguins, and crocodiles.
As well as the enclosures, the Ballarat Wildlife Park has animal presentation shows were you can learn more about some of the species, including dingoes and Tasmanian Devils.
There are also some international species here, including tigers and meerkats.
Ballarat Bird World
For another animal experience, there’s Ballarat Bird World, where you can follow a raised walkway through the garden to see a variety of bird species, including the gang-gang and black cockatoos.
There are lots of native Australian birds, including in a free-flight aviary. As well as the birds, there are other fun things for the kids – like animatronic dinosaurs, a maze, and a fossil dig table.
Although there’s plenty of heritage in Ballarat, it doesn’t go back this far! The medieval-themed Kryal Castle isn’t related to the region, but is still plenty of fun.
Amongst the knights and other characters, you can explore the castle’s features, including a drawbridge, towers, stocks, and an armoury.
Events and performances throughout the day add to the fun, particularly for jousting. And there’s also accommodation at Kryal Castle, so some families make a stay here the whole destination!