The picture perfect city of Armidale is posted high in the Northern Tablelands, where there’s a soft climate and four distinct seasons.
Growing in the Armidale’s urban parks are deciduous trees that put on a dazzling display of reds and yellows in autumn.
East of Armidale the landscape becomes rugged and wild, and Waterfall Way will carry you to an astounding concentration of national parks, flush with rainforest, waterfalls and awesome rock formations.
Armidale is loaded with refined 19th-century architecture, so much in fact that you’ll need to set aside a whole morning for a heritage tour, on foot or by bus.
And in that vein, the city’s outskirts are home to sumptuous homesteads harking back to the days of pastoralists.
1. Waterfall Way
Armidale is at the western end of a 185-kilometre road twisting through the rainforest-covered slopes of the Great Dividing Range until it reaches the Pacific Highway at the coast.
Without question, Waterfall Way is one of the most beautiful drives you can make in Australia, which is saying something for a country overflowing with majestic scenery.
The road takes you through or next to seven national parks, three of which have UNESCO World Heritage status.
Point to point, the journey will take 2.5 hours, but you could give yourself a day, hiking in rainforest, stopping at dumbfounding lookouts and marvelling at the waterfalls that give the road its name.
We’ll cover some of the highlights near Armidale in this list.
2. Wollomombi Falls
The most astonishing scene on the Waterfall Way is a simple drive east of Armidale.
Off the main road, at the northern tip of Oxley Wild Rivers National Park, the Wollomombi River plummets more than 100 metres into a gorge in single drop.
The total descent is as much as 230 metres, putting Wollomombi Falls among the two or three tallest waterfalls in Australia.
The time to make the trip is after a period of heavy rainfall in the rainy season, and you can make the short hike to the picnic area and lookout to view the falls from a platform projecting out over the gorge.
You’ll find information boards, a picnic/barbecue area in the shade of yellow box and red gum, and a trail leading you off to the neighbouring Chandler falls.
Oxley Wild Rivers National Park holds more than 350 different animal species, among them the largest population of endangered brush-tailed rock wallabies.
3. Self-Guided Heritage Walk
At the Armidale Visitor Information Centre you can army yourself with a leaflet for a stroll past the many fine old buildings sprinkled around the city centre.
There are 34 stops along the route, and the oldest of the monuments go back to the 1850s.
Some of the many wonderful sights on the way include the New England Hotel (1897), the State Bank (1889), the Ursuline Convent (1877), Saints Mary & Joseph Cathedral (1912), the Town Hall (1883), the St Kilda Hotel (1863), the Court House (1860) and the Post Office (1880). For extra insight you can also opt for a guided walk, or hop aboard the 2.5-hour Heritage Bus Tour, departing from the visitor information centre at 10:00, Monday to Saturday.
4. New England Regional Art Museum (NERAM)
The regional gallery in Armidale is a heavyweight, boasting the second-largest public collection in the state.
This adds up to more than 4,500 works, from the 1880s to the present, and representing every major movement in Australian art from landscape painting to contemporary art via Impressionism, Modernism, installation art and more.
Just some of the luminaries in the collection include Nora Heysen, Arthur Streeton, Margaret Preston, Tom Roberts and James Gleeson.
You can gaze on this art and travelling exhibitions at six galleries, while there’s also a Museum of Printing with an important trove of presses, bookbinding equipment, guillotines and types from the 1850s to the early-20th century.
5. Ebor Falls
At Guy Fawkes National Park on Waterfall Way is yet another stupendous natural sight, where the Guy Fawkes River drops over four magnificent tiers of basalt.
These are the Ebor upper falls, standing a total of 115 metres in height, while 600 metres downriver there’s another drop at the more restrained lower falls, which have Permian sedimentary geology.
There’s a walking track between both falls, installed with three lookouts for perfect views of the waterfalls and the rugged, wooded scenery of the gorge.
Come in summer and you’ll find a variety of rare ground orchids and golden everlasting daisies in flower around the upper falls, and if you keep one eye on the sky you may see a wedge-tailed eagle swooping past.
6. Cathedral Rock National Park
Another recommended stop on Waterfall Way is this park containing Round Mountain, the highest peak in the New England Tablelands.
This domed basalt peak is part of the eastern escarpment of the Northern Tablelands, and rises to 1,586 metres.
But the main draw in the park is the granite geology, and scrambling over the extraordinary piles of enormous boulders at Woolpack Rocks and Cathedral Rock.
These granites were formed deep beneath the earth’s surface some 270 million years ago and as the surrounding landscape has been weathered down, they have been left stranded as tors on summits.
The namesake Cathedral Rock is nothing short of spectacular, at 200 metres in height and one kilometre long.
In the north-west of Armidale, the University of New England is built around an exquisite mansion completed in 1888. Booloominbah is one of the region’s finest pieces of heritage, designed in the Federation Arts and Crafts style by John Horbury Hunt and built for the pastoralist White family as a summer residence.
The university came later, in the 20th century, and now the property is the backdrop for UNE graduation ceremonies on the lawn.
The house was designed according to the teaching and philosophy of William Morris and the Pre-Raphaelites, and is rich with stained glass and hand-made and painted fittings.
There are also lots of conveniences that were ahead of their time in the 1880s, like gas lighting, mechanical bells, running water and several staircases so residents and staff didn’t have to cross paths.
As soon as you go in you’ll be in the Main Hall, which has an impressive Gothic Revival oak mantelpiece.
The house is now used for administration and university events, but the Brasserie at Booloominbah serves gourmet breakfast and lunch, and fresh barista coffee.
8. Armidale Aboriginal Cultural Centre & Keeping Place
Next door to the regional art gallery is an attraction introducing you to the region’s rich Aboriginal arts and culture.
You can check out selections from the centre’s collections of artefacts, paintings and photography, and view regular touring exhibitions from major institutions across Australia.
With a guided tour you’ll learn how to interpret Aboriginal art, and the complex way it represents the land, sea, wildlife and the Dreaming.
There’s also an interactive corner specially designed for children, as well as a music section, a space where you can watch footage and a bush tucker walk.
The gift shop abounds with handmade paintings and arts and crafts.
9. Saints Mary & Joseph Catholic Cathedral
Perhaps Armidale’s standout landmark is a sumptuous Gothic Revival cathedral with a spire 47 metres tall.
The church was completed in 1912 after just two years of construction, and is composed almost entirely of locally fired polychrome bricks, with Sydney sandstone for the piers and some dressings like east window and porch.
You don’t need to be devout to spend a moment or two in the spell of the main facade, and its intricate brickwork, the quatrefoil tracery on the main window and the niche images of Mary with child and Joseph.
If you go in, you can soak up the profuse stained glass, the double hammer beam ceiling from Australian red cedar, the chancel arch and the sanctuary, carved from marble.
10. Saumarez Homestead
Past Armidale’s south-western outskirts is a National Trust homestead that took shape between 1888 and 1910 when the White family was in residence.
There are 16 buildings on 10 hectares of land, counting stables, a milking shed, a slaughterhouse, horse yards and a blacksmith’s shop.
The main house is an opulent Federation Edwardian-style mansion, on two storeys and with 30 rooms.
You can tour the interiors, which abound with original Edwardian furnishings, and take a look around those historic outbuildings to view a large collection of manual and mechanical farm equipment.
The grounds are a delight too, and Mary White’s garden features a picking garden, heritage rose garden and a cottage garden.
The homestead paints an evocative picture of turn-of-the-century pastoral life, and you’ll need to allow half a day to do this place justice.
11. Central Park
The land for this beautiful urban park was allocated as far back as 1874, and some 150 years later Central Park holds onto many of its Victorian features.
There are historic links to the Saints Mary & Joseph Cathedral opposite, as the park was partially designed by the Capuchin lay brother Francis Gatti (1833-1891), and many of his original plantings remain today.
One compelling piece of heritage is the band rotunda, built in 1902 to commemorate the Boer War, while in 1922 a section of the park was redesigned to host Armidale’s WWI memorial.
On a sunny day the park’s mature trees afford lots of shade, and come autumn the colours are gorgeous.
12. Mount Yarrowyck Nature Reserve
Back out in the granite scenery of the Northern Tablelands about 20 minutes west of Armidale there’s a 600-hectare reserve protecting the imposing mass of Mount Yarrowyck.
A light three-kilometre walking track beckons you into one of the last remaining tracts of natural bushland on the Northern Tablelands’ western slopes, in a landscape strewn with giant boulders.
What makes the walk so special is that the reserve is in the traditional lands of the Anaiwan people who have left rock art visible from the trail.
This dates to between 150 and 500 years old and is shielded from the trail by a timber barrier.
13. Drummond Apex Lookout
The best place to watch the sun go down in Armidale is at this rise above Drummond Park in the north of the city.
From here you can see across the city as it climbs gently from the opposite bank of the Dumaresk Creek, picking out landmarks on the skyline like the spire of Saints Mary & Joseph Cathedral.
Neat the lookout there’s a memorial column for the politician David Drummond (1890-1964), who moved to Armidale aged 17 and remained here for the rest of his life.
14. Bicentennial Arboretum
There’s even more public green space on the west side of town at this calming, heritage-listed park.
Growing at the Bicentennial Arboretum are thousands of native and exotic shrubs and trees, and this is yet another place in Armidale to see leaves turn to red and gold in autumn.
One charming piece of landscaping is the pond, fed by a set of cascades that can be turned on with a button.
There are ample picnic and barbecue facilities, while the children’s playground was reworked in 2016.
15. Monckton Aquatic Centre
For some inexpensive fun on a hot day there’s always the Monckton Aquatic Centre, right by the shops at Armidale Central.
There are four outdoor pools at this complex, including one 50m competition pool with a grandstand, a 50m training pool, a learners’ pool and an expansive area for toddlers to splash in.
All of the pools are heated to 25°, and if you’re resident or staying in Armidale for an extended time you can get discount passes for 10, 20 or 50 visits.