August 11, 2020 | 4 minute read
Ballarat, located about 90 minutes north west of Melbourne, is unquestionably the capital of Victoria’s Goldfields region. The backbone of this historic regional city is one of the best-preserved collections of heritage buildings in the country. Sturdy gold-rush-era buildings rub shoulders with gorgeous Art Deco facades, with a few Brutalist gems thrown into the mix. From lakeside walks and ghost-stalking to culture-vulturing at the largest and oldest purpose-built art gallery in Australia, here are my top five things to do in B-town.
* At the time of writing, activities and places mentioned in this guide are at varying stages of recovery from COVID-19. Please check government and business websites for specific details on opening times and any restrictions before you travel.
Art Gallery of Ballarat
The side streets of Ballarat are dotted with micro galleries, but its premier art space is housed in a beautiful heritage-listed building on Lydiard St. In recent years, the oldest regional gallery in Australia has languished in the shadow of its scene-stealing counterpart in nearby Bendigo, but what Ballarat lacks in blockbuster exhibitions it makes up for with an impressive permanent collection strongly focused on Australian artists, including Tom Roberts, Margaret Preston and William Barak. Recent exhibitions have included a fantastic show of previously overlooked Australian female Modernist artists and a collection of sculpture by Castlemaine artist Eliza-Jane Gilchrist.
Lake Wendouree and Botanical Gardens
After the gold ran out, a stream was dammed to create gorgeous Lake Wendouree, turning reed-infested marshlands into a body of water worthy of hosting the rowing and canoeing events at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics. The lake is hilariously named for an Aboriginal word meaning “go away” – legend has it that when an early settler asked a local the name of the original swamp, she actually told him to get lost. Set aside a little over an hour to amble around the lake’s 6km circumference or a bit longer to make time for Ballarat’s lovely Botanical Gardens, which sit alongside the lake. Pack a picnic to share with the ducks and black swans or hire a canoe for a tootle around the sapphire-blue water.
It’s only natural that a town whose history still has such a strong hold on its present should also have a thriving ghost community. From the perils of life on the goldfields to the bloody Eureka Stockade, plenty of poor Ballarat souls have met gruesome and untimely deaths over the past 150 years – and apparently, a few of these restless spirits are still hanging around with scores to settle. Discover their fates on a night tour of the Aradale Asylum, the final destination of a staggering 13,000 troubled souls; spend an evening exploring Australia’s "most haunted city" or wander into Old Ballarat Cemetery after dark – if you dare.
To find out just how bloody the Eureka Stockade really was, pay a visit to the Eureka Centre in the city’s east – in fact, on the very site of the battle. The centre contextualises the Eureka Stockade and the struggle for miners’ rights as a foundation of Australia’s current-day trade unions, as well as exploring the impact of the gold rush itself on a burgeoning nation. Visitors can see the original Eureka Flag, hoisted by the rebelling miners on Bakery Hill in 1854, before wandering around the Eureka Stockade Memorial Gardens.
So that brings us to the elephant in the room: Sovereign Hill. You cannot visit Ballarat and not go to Sovereign Hill, and frankly, it would be negligent of me to leave it off this list. You’d be hard-pressed to find a product of the Victorian school system who didn’t go on at least one excursion to this gold-rush-themed amusement park.
Why sit in the classroom learning about miners’ huts and sluicing boxes when you can actually poke around a prospector’s home and pan for your very own gold in a running stream? Sovereign Hill offers plenty of fun times for young and old, including having your photo taken in period costume by an old-timey camera, grabbing some truly excellent scones at ye olde bakery and enjoying the spectacular sound and light show, Aura.