The story of Australia’s third-largest inland city is tangled up in the Victorian gold rush of the mid-19th century.
Gold was first discovered in the area in 1851 and this triggered a frenzy that would burn for many decades due to the sheer wealth of the alluvial deposits.
The money created by the gold rush is hard to miss, in the grandeur of the hotels, venues and government buildings on Lydiard Street and the dignified parkland on the west shore of Lake Wendouree.
Sovereign Hill, the epicentre of the gold rush, is now a first-class outdoor museum.
And Ballarat’s Victorian amenities, like an art gallery, botanical garden and tramway, are all preserved for new generations.
1. Sovereign Hill
At Sovereign Hill you’ll be on ground zero for the richest alluvial gold rush in the world.
The Welcome Nugget, the largest gold nugget ever recovered, was found at this very place and weighed almost 70kg.
This 25-hectare site is now an outdoor museum where you can return to the fast-moving first ten years of Ballarat’s European history.
Sovereign Hill has more than 60 replica historic buildings, from a coach-builder’s workshop to a blacksmith’s forge, and a cast of costumed re-enactors are ready to take you back to the Victorian Gold rush.
They will fill you in with interesting facts and figures, to go with heaps of objects from the period, like furniture, mining equipment, documents, photographs, books and art.
This is also a hands-on kind of place, letting you dip your own candle or pan for gold.
And at the heart of the whole experience are presentations, shedding light on the indigenous Wathaurong people who lived on these lands for thousands of years, or Aura, a 3D movie all about gold and Ballarat’s feverish early years.
2. Lake Wendouree
The large body of water on Ballarat’s west shoulder has been around since the 1850s when a patch of swamp was dammed to create a source of drinking water for the nascent town.
Spreading over 238 acres and mostly shallow, the lake was adapted for water sports down the years, and hosted the rowing and canoeing events for the 1956 Melbourne Olympics.
The islands and reedbeds are an important habitat for waterbirds, and 166 different species have been recorded here, so don’t be surprised to pass a bird-watcher or two.
Tracking the shore is a six-kilometre jogging and walking path, named for renowned distance runner and Ballarat local Steve Moneghetti.
The western shore meanwhile has been a much-loved recreation area for more than 150 years, and along with playgrounds and picnic and barbecue areas has a genteel botanical garden and a museum for Ballarat’s historic tramways.
3. Ballarat Wildlife Park
In almost 40 hectares of scenic bush land, Ballarat Wildlife Park prides itself on its interactivity.
Nealry all of the animals here are native to Australia, counting wombats, koalas, echidnas, quokkas, little penguins and saltwater and freshwater crocodiles.
At some point you’re sure to cross paths with one of the free-roaming emus or kangaroos (more than 100), and these can be fed by hand.
Among the exotic animals at the park are an Aldabra giant tortoise, meerkats and a pair of Sumatran tigers.
You can also sign up for special animal encounters with koalas, meerkats, snakes, wombats, the giant tortoise a tree kangaroo or the a tawny frogmouth.
4. Ballarat Botanical Gardens
One of many parts of Ballarat’s townscape that has been around since the middle of the 19th century is the cool-climate botanical garden on Lake Wendouree’s western shore.
This rolls out over 40 hectares, and features a “gardenesque” Victorian pleasure garden wedged between two sweeps of open parkland to the north and south.
The Botanical Gardens are enriched with a host of monuments, like a set of late 19th-century Italian sculptures depicting figures from Roman mythology, inside a refined pavilion.
There’s an avenue with bronze busts of Australian prime ministers, Australia’s Ex Prisoner of War Memorial (2004) and an imposing modern conservatory with ever-changing displays.
5. Art Gallery of Ballarat
In store at the oldest regional art museum in the country is a complete survey of Australian fine art.
Every period is accounted for, from colonial to contemporary: Starting in the late 19th century, there are works by Jane Sutherland, Louis Buvelot, Tom Roberts, Arthur Streeton, Rupert Bunny and Walter Withers.
And just some of the major 20th-century artists represented at the Art Gallery of Ballarat are Sidney Nolan, Fred Williams, Arthur Boyd and William Dobel.
A word on the building on Lydiard Street: This Neoclassical bluestone monument from 1884 is one of Australia’s oldest purpose-built art galleries and was given a $7m extension in the early 2000s.
There will be up to four temporary shows happening when you visit, and the gallery is the owner of the historic Eureka Flag, which has been lent to the Eureka Centre (more below).
6. Ballarat Tramway Museum
From the late 19th century to 1971 the easiest way to get around Ballarat was by tram.
This was pulled by horse at first and then electrified in 1905. The network once spanned the entirety of Ballarat, and after it closed a small piece on the shore of Lake Wendouree was left open as a heritage line and museum.
The Ballarat Tramway Museum has a long list of vintage trams, generally from the early 20th century, some built for this system and others brought here from Melbourne.
Most remarkable is Tram No. 1, literally Ballarat’s first horse-drawn tram, discovered being used a sleepout in the 1980s and then restored.
You can visit the depot to inspect the fleet and a trove of tram memorabilia before climbing aboard for a 20-minute ride through the Botanical Gardens.
7. Lydiard Street
The lavish wealth from the Gold rush is manifested in the grand and eclectic architecture flanking this street from the railway station down to the SMB Campus of Federation University Australia.
On this stretch of Lydiard Street there’s a preserved 19th-century townscape, and several of the buildings have beautiful iron verandas with intricate columns and balustrades.
As well as the Art Gallery of Ballarat, look for the Mining Exchange (1887-89), The George Hotel (1854), Her Majesty’s Theatre (1875), Ballarat Town Hall (1870), Craig’s Hotel (1865) and the Provincial Hotel (1909), to name a small few.
Amid the solemn architecture, Lydiard Street has bars, restaurants and other cultural honeypots like the Post Office Gallery and the Regent Multiplex, in a 1930s Art Deco building.
8. Eureka Centre
A landmark in Australian history and democracy, the Eureka Rebellion was waged by miners against the colonial authorities in 1854 during the Victoria Gold rush.
It was caused by a few issues, mainly the expense of a miner’s licence and taxation on mining by colonial powers without representation.
This led to a stockade that was violently crushed, but there was such sympathy for the captured rebels that an act was passed granting suffrage for male colonists (and later women) in the lower house of the Victorian Parliament.
The Eureka Centre is on the site of the stockade and replaced a museum that closed in 2018. There are interactive exhibits explaining the rebellion’s causes and repercussions, and the showpiece is the original Eureka Flag, flown by the rebels.
This design has since become a symbol of democracy and protest by both the left and right wing in Australia.
9. Arch of Victory
This monument, put up just after the First World War near the southwest corner of Prince of Wales Park, is the largest commemorative arch in Australia.
The arch of Victory commemorates those who served in the Great War, and honours the Allied Victory.
It stands 16.5 metres tall and 19.2 metres wide and was later updated to mark the Second World War, Korean War and the Vietnam War.
The initial structure was funded by the female workers hired during the First World War at Eleanor Lucas’s Lingerie Factory and was opened by Edward, Prince of Wales (future Edward VIII). The arch heralds the start of the Avenue of Honour, which was planted with almost 4,000 trees from 11 different species.
10. The Gold Museum
Part of Sovereign Hill, the Gold Museum is just north of the outdoor museum and takes you deeper into the Ballarat region’s gold heritage and cultural history.
The permanent exhibition, Ballarat: Inspired by Gold gives a timeline of the city from prehistory through colonial agriculture and the discovery of gold in 1851. The museum has a big collection of gold artefacts, including nuggets, antique jewellery, giftware and coins, as well as a host of other items like carriages, clothes and mining tools to paint a picture of Ballarat’s sudden growth.
11. Ballarat Railway Station
Arrive in Balarat by train and you’ll be given a stately welcome.
The railway station is a wonderful piece of heritage in a staggering state of preservation.
The building, with a portico, pediment and Italianate tower, has changed little since it opened in 1862, and there are tons of details that have stood the test of time.
Crossing Lydiard Street for instance are Victoria’s largest remaining interlocking mechanical gates: These survive because of fierce campaigning by conservationists in the 80s and 90s.
The complex boasts a 19th-century train shed, signal boxes and goods sheds.
Within the station building the waiting room and cafe have been sympathetically restored, with traditional wooden furniture, and there’s a tourist information point for leaflets and brochures.
12. Kryal Castle
On a ridge dominating a green valley 10 minutes out of Ballarat you might be surprised by the sight of a Medieval-style castle.
Never conquered Kryal Castle was built as long ago as the early-1970s and combines accommodation with a variety of old-timey attractions, shows and entertainment.
You can try and solve the stone-built maze, walk the dimly lit passageways of the Dragon’s Labyrinth, see the grisly exhibits at the Dungeon of Doom, catch a bawdy show at the Jester’s Theatre and watch knights in competition at the Royal Joust and Main Arena.
Within the castle walls there’s also a seasonal inflatable theme park and a magic show at the wizard’s Workroom for younger adventurers.
Every month or so, Kryal Castle also puts on a Medieval-themed murder mystery, inspired by Game of Thrones.
13. Victoria Park
A short walk from the south shore of Lake Wendouree is the wooded expanse of Victoria Park.
Many of the park’s trees were planted in May 1890, when Ballarat’s residents celebrated Victoria’s first Arbor Day.
The park also has big swathes of native grassland, growing wildflowers like purple chocolate lilies, white milkmaids, sweet hound’s tongue, a variety of orchids and scaly buttons.
Along with winding paths, shelters, barbecues and picnic tables, Victoria Park is also equipped with a popular “inclusive play space”, which is designed to be used by children of all abilities.
14. Ballarat Bird World
Open Friday to Monday, this small birdlife attraction is only a few minutes from Sovereign Hill and lets you get close to some of Australia’s most colourful species.
There’s a sizeable free-flight aviary that you can walk through, as well as smaller habitats beside an elevated walkway.
As you go you’ll come across yellow, red and white-tailed black cockatoos, major mitchells, gang-gangs and many more.
Bird World is in landscaped parkland, with a manmade waterfall and lily pond, as well as dinosaur models, including an animatronic triceratops.
The cafe has a wood fire so you can warm up in winter, as well as air-conditioning to cool off in summer.
15. Mount Buninyong
Punctuating the Western Plains to the southeast of Ballarat is an extinct volcano that rises to 745 metres above sea level, at a relief of about 200 metres.
This is visible from as far away as Melbourne and was a vital landmark for Victoria’s early pastoral colonisers.
Long before that time, Mount Buninyong was the spiritual seat of the Keyeet Balug clan of the Wathaurang people (or Wada Warrung), who resided in this area for millennia before European colonisation.
Today it’s protected as a Scenic Reserve, and you’ll be able to take a walk through the crater and scan the Western Plains from the rim of the cone on the south and east sides.
Up here you’ll find a shelter, toilets, barbecue facilities, as well as interpretation boards about the volcano’s natural and human history.