Victoria’s second-largest city is only an hour out of Melbourne.
Geelong is one of Australia’s busiest ports, growing quickly in the middle of the 19th century to serve the Western District’s wool industry and the Victorian Gold Rush.
The Port of Geelong continues to thrive, but during the 20th century the city’s waterfront on Corio Bay was left to decay until it was re-imagined as a tourism hub in the 1990s.
The Waterfront has calming green parkland on its foreshore, as well as a beach and elevated lookouts where you can take in the bay and landscape for many kilometres.
And in Geelong’s renaissance, fine old industrial buildings have found new roles as museums, breweries, arts venues and homes.
1. Geelong Waterfront
After decades of decline Geelong’s bayfront had a post-industrial feel by the 1990s, but that was swept aside with a decade-long regeneration project.
As a sign of that transformation, most of the items on this list are on or near the waterfront.
On your way you’ll be met by the Baywalk Bollards, which are sculptures relating to Geelong’s history and identity, carved in the 90s from reclaimed timber pier pylons by artist Jan Mitchell.
The Royal Geelong Yacht Club is here, dating to 1859, as is the 19th-century Carousel, which we’ll cover below.
Between the carousel and Cunningham Pier is a little dock home to Geelong’s floating Christmas tree, which lights up with stunning projections every evening.
Bordering the parkland on the foreshore is a blend of new developments and historic architecture, with a crowd of seafood restaurants and cafes opposite Steampacket Gardens.
2. Eastern Beach Reserve
It’s almost impossible to picture what this peaceful patch of the waterfront looked like in the 19th century.
At that time there were cliffs that were flattened in the 1920s during a project that gave rise to a mile-long sea wall, an enclosed saltwater pool, diving towers, terraced lawns, children’s playgrounds and a boardwalk.
This was all spruced up with that redevelopment scheme in the 1990s.
You can visit the reserve for free to take advantage of the abundant facilities, unwinding on the sandy beach and climbing the white steps of the Spanish Staircase up the hillside under cypresses, peppercorn trees and palms.
3. Geelong Botanical Gardens
In Eastern Park, between Corio Bay and Stingaree Bay to the east are the city’s splendid botanical gardens, established right back in 1851. This makes them the fourth-oldest in the country, with several trees listed on the National Trust’s Register of Significant Trees.
There’s heritage too, on the old avenues that weave across the garden and Eastern Park, and the Ladies Kiosk, statue of Queen Victoria and fountains, all relocated from the city centre.
Just by way of introduction there’ a conservatory, 21st-century garden, rose garden, fernery, temperate garden, walnut lawn and oak lawn.
Spend a bit more time amid the colour and foliage at the Teahouse Cafe.
4. National Wool Museum
The bluestone wool exchange raised near Geelong’ waterfront in 1872 is the fitting location for Australia’s National Wool Museum.
Woollen mills helped drive Geelong’s industrial growth in the early 20th century and remains a part of the region’s economy.
In these galleries you’ll go back to the very origins of the Australian wool industry in the 1840s and discover wool’s journey from sheep to shop, via shearing, classing, pressing and shipping.
One of the museum’s showpieces is an Axminster Jacquard carpet loom, dating back to 1910 and in working order.
An experienced carpet-weaver gives daily demonstrations on this piece of equipment, working on the museum’s own “Manor House Rug”, which is sold in the shop.
5. Geelong Gallery
In a fine ensemble at Johnstone Park, including the city hall and the spectacular new Library and Heritage Centre, stands the grand Geelong Gallery.
This celebrated regional art gallery was founded in 1895, and the current Neoclassical building was inaugurated in 1915. The museum’s collection runs to more than 6,000 works, by Australian and international artists from the 18th to the 20th century.
Eugene von Guerard, Frederick McCubbin and Stanhope Forbes are all represented, and at any time there will be up to six temporary exhibitions going on.
These also cover contemporary art, photography and rarely seen pieces from the collection.
Geelong Gallery also puts on a lively calendar of talks, tours, events and workshops.
6. Geelong Gaol
The city’s maximum security prison, a few blocks in from the bay, was completed in the middle of the 19th century and is the most intact gaol in Australia from this period.
Built from bluestone and with a cruciform footprint, Geelong Gaol only closed in 1991, and notable prisoners included Mark “Chopper” Read.
At the museum you can sample conditions inside the prison and learn about the men, women and, unfortunately, children who did time within these walls.
All of the prison’s appliances and equipment is in situ, and there are also items on show, made by the prisoners themselves.
A grim climax is the original gallows, and you can do a little time in solitary.
7. Steampacket Gardens
Maybe the most vibrant parcel of Geelong’s waterfront sits between the Cunningham Pier and the Royal Geelong Yacht Club.
Along a couple of hundred metres there’s a welcoming stretch of grassy foreshore hemmed by palms and conifers.
This is another place to admire the whimsical painted bollards dotted along Geelong’s waterfront, and the main uniformed group here recalls the Volunteer Rifle Band, which had its heyday in Victorian and Edwardian Geelong.
Now set in a glass pavilion is the Carousel (1892), originally portable and steam-driven and restored when the Geelong waterfront was regenerated in the late-1990s.
Twenty-four of the carousel’s 36 horses are original, and each one took 300 hours to restore.
8. Adventure Park
Geelong lays claim to the first, biggest and arguably the best water park in Victoria.
Adventure Park has been around for more than 25 years and packs in over 20 rides, with new ones arriving with each season.
When we wrote this article in 2020, the park had just unveiled the $4m Tsunami, 7.5 storeys high and 172 metres long, slinging you down tunnels and up funnel walls.
Also recent is the 204-metre Tornado, where up to four riders at a time will experience zero gravity as they’re pulled into a swirling vortex.
It’s not all about action though, as there are splash parks, a mini-golf course, pedal boats, a ferris wheel, a kids’ train and many more gentler attractions for smaller children too.
9. Old Paper Mills at Fyansford
On Geelong’s western outskirts there are century-old vestiges of Geelong’s industrial past, find a new lease of life as a culture and arts district.
The fine industrial architecture of the Old Paper Mills at Fyansford now houses art studios, a gallery, and cafe, with more plans in the pipeline.
The site is on the Barwon River, and also mingles with some lovely natural scenery.
You can take walking and cycling tracks to get down to the river’s rocky banks and appreciate the low, broad cascades of Buckley Falls, most impressive after a spell of rain.
10. Serendip Sanctuary
Go north out of Geelong and you’ll find yourself on the volcanic Western Plains.
Here a patch of wetlands and grass woodland has been preserved and opened to visitors.
For a time the wetlands were used as a place to breed endemic waterfowl that was threatened in Victoria, until the Serendip Sanctuary opened its doors to the public in 1991. On the Wildlife Walk you’ll spot eastern grey kangaroos, emus and a whole spectrum of birdlife, from yellow-billed spoonbills to the reclusive and well-camouflaged tawny frogmouths.
More than 150 birds species have been counted at the sanctuary, visible from hides and in flight aviaries.
Occasionally the abrupt granite peaks of the You Yangs will hove into view just to the north.
11. Bellarine Rail Trail
The old South Geelong to Queenscliff branch line was laid down in 1879 and after closing to passengers in the 1970s has become a safe, easy and picturesque way to cycle to the many tourist attractions on the Bellarine Peninsula.
The 32-kilometre route begins at South Geelong Station, cutting a mostly traffic-free course through Geelong’s eastern suburbs and then through Leopold and Drysdale before finishing at the Queenscliff Railway Station.
Drydale marks the high point on the route and gives you long-distance views back to Geelong and up to Corio Bay, backed by the You Yangs.
There are old stations on the route where you can take breaks, and for the last 16 kilometres the trail runs parallel to the Bellarine Railway, a heritage steam railway running on the old branch line.
12. Cunningham Pier
The 250-metre pier protruding into Corio Bay next to the carousel has been here in some form since the 1860s.
Built for industry rather than pleasure Cunningham Pier was initially known as Railway Pier, and you can still trace the swerving route of the old railway tracks in the paving.
These give you an idea of just how hectic the pier would have been when ships were loading and unloading on the wharfs.
Cunningham Pier was sold off in the 2000s to become a private events venue, housed in the pavilion at the end, but there is a covered walkway open to the public for views back on Geelong and its green waterfront.
13. Little Creatures Brewery
This brewery was born in Fremantle in 2000 and in 2013 made a multimillion-dollar expansion into Geelong.
In true Geelong style, the Little Creatures Brewery has a vintage industrial atmosphere at what used to be the Old Valley Worsted Mills.
This is an expansive site, described by the brewery as the Little Creatures Village.
If you’re wondering about the name, Little Creatures evokes the title of Talking Heads’ sixth album, but also refers to the yeast that turns malt wort in to ethanol.
The brewery makes a hoppy pale ale, an amber ale, a pilsner, a sessions ale, an apple cider and Furphy Refreshing Ale, made only with Victorian ingredients.
On a tour you’ll find out about this old wool mill, and find out all you need to know about how Little Creatures make their beer.
And for those who really want to swot up on the finer details of brewing there’s “Beer School” on the first Wednesday of the month.
14. Geelong Wine Region
Don’t forget that Geelong is also one of Australia’s top wine regions, with a temperate oceanic climate that resembles Bordeaux.
The soils are sandy, there’s low-to-moderate rainfall and summer highs are tempered by Port Phillip Bay.
The predominant grape in Geelong is Cabernet Sauvignon, along with Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Shiraz.
Those Cabernets are robust and age well, and have prominent blackcurrant flavours when they reach their prime.
The tough part is choosing which of Geelong’s 40-odd cellars and wineries to visit, but the Bellarine Peninsula is a great place to begin (Oakdene, McGlashan’s Wallington Estate, Tendah Estate).
15. Geelong Balloon Flight at Sunrise
The coastal scenery around Geelong is gorgeous, but takes on an almost magical quality at first light.
So, if you can handle the early start you’ll be treated to the view of a lifetime on this balloon flight available through GetYourGuide.com.
It will take about 30 minutes to set up the balloon, followed by a safety briefing before you’re floating on the wind and watching Corio Bay, Stingaree Bay, Port Phillip Bay and the Bellarine Peninsula painted by the first rays of the sun.
In the west you can make out the Barrabool Hills and can trace the course of the Barwon River as it twists down to Lake Connewarre.