In the middle of the 19th century this coastal town at the mouth of the Richmond River was a centre for shipbuilding, and serviced whaling vessels on their way up and down the east coast.
Whaling is long consigned to history, but humpback and southern right whales still bring people to Ballina, and you can see these wonderful animals from the shore on their migration between May and October.
Ballina has high-quality sandy beaches, washed by thundering surf and interspersed by headlands that give you distant vistas of the Pacific and the Northern Rivers coastline.
1. Ballina Naval & Maritime Museum
Fitting for a town with a historic shipping and shipbuilding heritage, Ballina has a enthralling maritime museum right on the Richmond River in the heart of the town.
One event well documented here is Spanish explorer Vital Aslar’s mindboggling cross-Pacific expedition by rafts in 1973. He arrived at Ballina after six months drifting over the ocean.
One of those three rafts is on show, and you can watch a documentary chronicling the voyage.
The museum also holds Australia’s largest naval and merchant ship model collection, as well as absorbing information about the historic Port of Ballina and a tribute to women in the RAN.
As for heavy-duty displays there’s a British Mark 9 21″ Torpedo and a functioning triple expansion steam engine.
2. Lighthouse Beach
Bookended by the North Wall at the Richmond River Mouth and Ballina Head to the north is a classic Northern Rivers beach.
Lighthouse Beach is about half a kilometre long with a swathe of sand on a gentle curve, about 50 metres wide.
Surfers come to ride the waves generated by the currents along the North Wall.
You can also walk to the end of the seawall to cast a line to catch bream, blackfish, tailor and occasionally snapper, mackerel and tuna.
One of the remarkable sights associated with Ballina is trawlers contending with the difficult Ballina Bar surf at the river mouth.
Lighthouse beach is patrolled on school holidays, and is a little safer for swimmers towards the middle and north end.
3. Whale Watching
Every winter around June, humpback and southern right whales depart their feeding grounds in the Antarctic and migrate up the east coast of Australia to calve in tropical waters before returning by November.
As a rule, humpbacks tend to stay clear of the coast on the journey north, but swim close to the shore on the way back.
Southern right whales tend to be more curious and less wary of shallow waters and boats.
June to November you can embark on a whale watching cruise in the company of a marine biologist for privileged views and insights into these magnificent animals’ behaviour.
A more affordable option is to just bring a pair of binoculars and park yourself at a lookout like the tip of North Wall or Ballina Head.
4. Big Prawn
For the uninitiated, every state and territory in Australia is littered with “Big Things”, giant novelty structures all vying to be the biggest of their kind.
The first of these cropped up in the 1960s and now many are heritage listed to stop them from being pulled down.
Ballina’s own Big Thing is a Big Prawn, standing at the western entrance to the town on River Street.
Made of concrete and fibreglass, this was erected in 1989. The giant crustacean stands at nine metres and weighs in at 40 tons, making it the largest of its kind in the world.
When the Big Prawn was in danger of demolition in 2009 West Ballina residents campaigned fiercely to save it.
The structure was restored a couple of years later and was given a tail for the first time.
5. Ballina Historic Waterfront Trail
Like an outdoor museum with picturesque scenery, this walk takes you from Fawcett Park next to the Richmond River in the CBD all the way to the North Wall at the river mouth.
As you go you’ll come across 19 interpretive plaques about seafaring and the role of the river in the early European settlement of the area.
Crossing the bridge to get to the North Wall you’ll stand a good chance of seeing Ballina’s dolphin pod, and the eastern tip of the wall is as good a place as any to spot the whales that swim by in winter and spring.
6. Australian Seabird Rescue (ASR)
One organisation doing invaluable work on the east coast is Australian Seabird Rescue, which has branches all along the NSW coast and connections to sister groups around the country.
This grass-roots community group rescues and rehabilitates seabirds, shorebirds and other coastal animals, particularly sea turtles.
ASR is headquartered in Ballina where you can visit their centre for a guided tour.
As you learn all about the group’s efforts you’ll see any birds or turtles in their care.
You’ll find out just how they rescue injured birds and will find out about sea turtles’ nesting behaviour, and the work needed to track and identify this sensitive species.
The tour takes around an hour and the $8 fee goes back into the organisation.
7. Crawford House Museum
For a break from the roaring Pacific you can make the short trip to visit a dainty historic house museum on the Alstonville Plateau.
This Federation-style property, built in 1910 with an elegant verandah, hosts the local historical society and brims with fascinating household objects from the early 20th century to the 1960s.
The museum has a busy program of exhibitions, giving a sense of rural domestic life in the first half of the 20th century, and has a research room, a great resource for people who want to investigate their ties to Alstonville.
8. Shelly Beach
Ballina’s best beach for families is wedged between two 40-metre promontories, Black Head to the north and Ballina Head to the south.
Current-wise, Shelly Beach is safer than most in Ballina, and is patrolled by lifeguards in the school holidays.
You will need to swim between the flags as the surf is affected by rips.
At low tide there’s a clear, man-made wading pool on the beach’s south side that wee ones are sure to love.
And families out for a wander can join the paved pathway edging the sand for the length of the beach.
9. Ballina Head Lookout
The lighthouse-capped headland at between Shelly and Lighthouse Beach is somewhere you can marvel at the scenery in several directions at once.
Out in the ocean you may catch sight of a humpback whale breaching between June and November, while dolphins are visible all year round slightly closer to the shore.
The surf looks wonderful at this height, and you can see right along Lighthouse Beach to the North Wall at the mouth of the Richmond River.
Further up the slope behind you is the active Richmond River Light, standing in some form since 1866 and with a range of 26 kilometres.
10. Missingham Park
This waterfront park is found where North Creek joins the Richmond River, just before the latter flows into the Pacific.
This is a much-loved place to unwind, on waterside walking and cycling paths or over a barbecue surrounded by greenery.
There’s an amphitheatre for community concerts and events, as well a large covered playground equipped with a liberty swing designed for children with disabilities.
For teenagers, the skate park next to the amphitheatre commands a great view of the river, as does the little beach on the south side, a designated place for people to exercise their dogs.
11. Northern Rivers Community Gallery (NRCG)
You can see what the best artists in the Northern Rivers region are up to at this gallery in a fine restored heritage building dating to 1927. There’s an exciting mix of up-and-coming and established talent on show, and a fast turnover of exhibitions, with something fresh to peruse every month or so.
Everything that you see is available for purchase, while the gallery’s shop offers locally made gifts and jewellery.
Such has been the success of the NCRG that in 2018 it expanded into another heritage building, the old Ballina Fire Station.
Here, Ignite Studios @ NRCG holds multidisciplinary workspaces and a wealth of community events.
Thanks to the Richmond River and North Creek, Ballina has a lot of safe waterways ready to be explored on a kayak or canoe tour.
One local company, Kayak Ballina has the wherewithal to show you around on a guided trip in the company of an Australian Canoeing-certified instructor.
You’ll paddle in a high-end double, sit-inside kayak with rudders and will be equipped with lifejackets for a safe and comfortable cruise.
If you’re in luck you may be joined on your trip by Ballina’s local dolphin pod.
13. Thursday Plantation Visitor Centre
The well-known tea tree and essential oil brand, Thursday Plantation, is based a few minutes away in Ballina’s hinterland.
That distinctive name literally comes from the day in 1976 that the crown lease was granted to the founder Eric White, who wanted to harvest tea tree plants.
The visitor centre is devoted to the benefits of natural remedies, which you can learn about in the rainforest botanical garden, while smaller members of the clan will love the maze.
There’s a cafe inside, as well as a shop selling the brand’s line of essential oils, balms and creams.
Also inside you can check out a short film about the company’s origins.
14. Ballina Food and Wine Festival
The Northern Rivers region has some amazing produce, both from the Pacific Ocean and the many specialised farms in the hinterland.
To celebrate this, for more than a decade the local rotary club has organised an extravaganza, normally on a weekend in mid to late-October.
The main festival day is the Sunday when there’s a program of live entertainment and more than 70 exhibitors to check out.
You can taste premium wine, beer, cider and great food, watch cooking demonstrations, attend a wine appreciation workshop and browse stalls for a range of industry brands.
15. Ballina Visitor Information Centre
Now, it’s a given that the local visitor is a go-to for detailed information about the area, and can help you book tours and accommodation.
But more than that, Ballina has one of the most enticing visitor centre shops you’ll come across.
This is a pantry for the region’s delectable specialty foods.
We’re talking macadamia nuts, coffee, honey, fancy tea, chocolate, oils, preserves, granola, muesli, oils, jams, preserves and a host of other condiments and spreads.
Also in stock is a big choice of local, handmade arts and crafts, so you may struggle to leave without a souvenir of some kind.