A group of people sit on some grass surrounded by yellow flowers and a large glass greenhouse.
Photograph: Supplied/Ballarat Botanical Gardens

Things you can only do in Ballarat

Victoria’s largest inland city may be best known for its gold rush history, but peer behind the heritage buildings and you’ll unearth plenty more riches

By Time Out in association with Visit Victoria

There is no denying Ballarat is steeped in history – this is a city shaped by the wealth and opulence that came with Australia’s 19th century gold rush. And while the spectacular architecture and heritage-listed attractions remain a huge drawcard, modern-day Ballarat is a destination that inspires and surprises visitors via its thriving arts community, burgeoning foodie scene and natural wonders. So if you think you already know what's in store for you, prepare to be amazed – this charming spot still has a few tricks up its sleeve. 

Think you know everything there is to see and do in Ballarat? We've teamed up with Visit Ballarat and Visit Victoria for their 'Stay close, go further' campaign to bring you a fresh take on what makes this region so special. Here are the experiences that drive visitors to return year after year, and have cemented Ballarat as a must-visit destination.

Natural wonders

It’s not all about Victorian-era architecture and wide, statue-lined streets in Ballarat – venture outside the city limits and you’ll discover natural sites of both great beauty and Indigenous significance. Lal Lal Falls is situated on the traditional lands of the Wadawurrung/Wathaurung people, and is one of the most dramatic falls in the region with a 30-metre drop. Believed to be the home of Bunjil (the All Father or Creator of most Victorian Aboriginal tribes), the name Lal Lal translates to ‘dashing of waters’. From waterfalls to mountains, Mount Buninyong is an extinct volcano located just 20 minutes from Ballarat. It rises 745 metres above sea level, and there are some fantastic scenic walking trails that weave through the crater and up to the lookout tower. An Aboriginal burial site was also found here in the 1860s, along with stone tools. And finally, we have the sparkling jewel in Ballarat’s crown: Lake Wendouree and the adjoining Ballarat Botanical Gardens. At this man-made marvel you can pop in for a coffee at one of the lakeside cafés or walk, run or cycle the six-kilometre Steve Moneghetti track. Then be sure to head over to the gardens to admire the glorious floral displays and heritage oak trees.

Signature dishes

Ballarat’s culinary scene has been quietly simmering away over the past few years, with a bumper crop of new establishments opening – including cute cafés, wine bars and next-level pubs – that have proved there is a healthy appetite for wonderful dining experiences. One eatery that showcases the region’s unique flavours is the Shared Table in Buninyong. Heavily influenced by Asian and northern European fare, the menu reflects what is fresh and in season – opt for the chef's selection and you won't be disappointed. If you’re a fan of the humble toastie (and let’s be honest, who isn’t), Tim Bone is the man you want to see. You can find his stall at the Ballarat Farmers Market and Bridge Mall Farmers Market, and his toasties are chock-full of local ingredients – think goat’s cheese from Meredith Dairy and cold meats from Salt Kitchen Charcuterie. And for a cheeky tipple, head to Mitchell Harris Wine Bar. This former tent-repair and motor-repair workshop is now a super-cool urban cellar door where you can work your way through an impressive line-up of cool climate wines. 

One-of-a-kind experiences

As far as one-of-a-kind experiences go – and trust us, Ballarat has plenty – it’s pretty hard to beat the meerkat encounter at Ballarat Wildlife Park. These meet-and-greet sessions run daily, and provide you with an opportunity to get up close and personal with the six resident meerkats. And when we say up close and personal, we mean it – expect these cute critters to use you as their own personal jungle gym. From sweet to spine-chilling, you can get your scares on a ghost hunt. Eerie Tours are the best in the biz when it comes to exploring the supernatural side of Ballarat, and offer two evening excursions: one through the city’s back alleys, and another in the old cemetery. Finally, lovers of a good frothie won’t want to miss the chance to go to school – beer school, that is. Aunty Jacks is a new brewpub where you can come and develop your knowledge of the beer brewing process via special masterclasses, guest speakers and guided tastings.

Boutique shops

Whoever came up with the idea of window shopping obviously hadn’t visited the boutiques of Ballarat. Leaving empty-handed is not an option in this heritage city, especially once you see the goodies on offer. Head to Fossick first, a homewares store that doubles as a coffee shop  – talk about the perfect combo. Browse everything from candles to blankets, books and souvenirs, all while the friendly staff whip you up a latte. So much more than just your average florist, Windflower is a carefully curated concept store that stocks not only seasonal blooms, but local brands like Lucky and James, Grounded Pleasures and Soho Farm. It should also be your go-to for handmade ceramics and glassware. And at Kelsie White Designs you can shop a colourful selection of prints, greeting cards and postcards. White even hosts watercolour classes, if you’re feeling crafty.

Museums and galleries

It should come as no surprise that a city like Ballarat – with its captivating gold rush history – is home to a plethora of renowned museums and galleries. The best place to begin your cultural tour of the region is at the Art Gallery of Ballarat – Australia’s oldest regional gallery. The heritage-listed building is a work of art in its own right, and boasts a magnificent collection of Australian paintings, sculptures and ceramics. Right next to Lake Wendouree is the Ballarat Tramway Museum, which offers you a glimpse into the past when trams ruled the city's public transport system. There’s a wealth of historic relics on display, including photographs, films and the very first horse-drawn tram to operate in the city in 1887. And did you even go to Ballarat if you didn’t visit Sovereign Hill? This beloved tourist attraction brings the excitement of the gold rush era to life with live demonstrations, workshops and entertainment for the whole family to enjoy.

Memorable accommodation

Hands up if you’ve ever planned an entire holiday around a certain hotel or Airbnb? Us too. For many people, accommodation is considered the most vital element of a restful getaway – and fortunately, Ballarat has plenty to offer in the forty winks department. History and grandeur collide at the Provincial Hotel, which has been beautifully refurbished to enhance the building’s heritage features. The attention to detail is impeccable, and its central location makes it an ideal base for exploring the city. The luxury continues at Battista – once a house of worship (it was formerly the Ballarat Baptist Church), it’s now a dreamy self-contained sanctuary for those seeking rest, relaxation and an epic freestanding bath. And for something on the opposite end of the housing spectrum, book yourself a stay at Jean-Claude. This 1970s York caravan has been lovingly restored to its retro glory, and now sits proudly on the banks of a small dam surrounded by towering gums. 

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