Wrapped in a bend on the Clarence River, the city of Grafton is a treat for its historic architecture and stately avenues lined with mature trees.
In October Grafton’s multitude of jacarandas come into bloom, and this enchanting scene is celebrated with a week-long festival.
The city has a lot of architecture from the Victorian, Edwardian and interwar periods.
Many of these monuments are open to the public as museums, the regional art gallery and a cavernous cinema/theatre.
Grafton can also be a base if you want to venture into the breathtaking nature in the north-east of New South Wales, where epic beaches, gorges and World Heritage rainforest are all in store.
1. Jacaranda Festival
For a short time in early summer Grafton’s streets and parks are bathed in a magical purple glow when the city’s hundreds of Jacaranda trees burst into flower.
In tribute to this spectacle Grafton has set up the week-long Jacaranda Festival, from the last weekend of October to the first weekend of November.
There will be something going on all over town throughout the festival, from fun runs to open gardens, afternoon teas and the crowning of a Queen, Princess and Drag Queen.
It all peaks on Jacaranda Thursday, when the CBD is completely taken over by roving performers and market stalls for delicious food and arts and crafts.
The second Saturday brings a float procession followed by a sunset concert, and on the Sunday there’s a 10k river run.
2. Grafton Heritage Trail
If any city lends itself to a walking tour it’s Grafton, with its broad avenues, stately mature trees and preserved Victorian and Edwardian architecture.
Call in at the Clarence Valley Information Centre for a leaflet on the heritage trail showing you to 25 historic locations around Grafton.
Many of these have been listed by the National Trust, and we’ll cover a few of them in more detail later, but one sight we won’t mention is the Grafton Gaol.
Opened in 1893, this continues to be a medium security correctional centre for men and women, but you can check out the grand, castle-like facade on Hoof Street.
There are masses of beautiful residences around the city, but possibly the prettiest is Arcola (1907) at No. 150 Victoria Street, a Queen Anne Revival house, now a bed & breakfast.
3. See Park
One of the best places to view the jacarandas in November is See Park, one of a series of green spaces in the heart of Grafton on the course of Alumy Creek.
As Grafton’s trees are such a big asset for the city it’s no surprise that See Park is kept spotless with gorgeous landscaping and comprehensive facilities including sheltered picnic and barbecue areas, a duck-filled pond with a fountain, a shaded playground, artificial waterfall and public toilets.
The many mature trees in See Park offer respite from the sun, and what might surprise you is how much life there is in the park, with lots of lizards scurrying around.
4. Clarence River Historical Society
The headquarters of the region’s historical society are set in the elegant Schaeffer House, a homestead built at the turn of the 20th century by the son of a pioneer German family.
There’s a museum and research room inside, and the society is the oldest of its kind in NSW, having been formed in 1931. F.W.C. Schaeffer was Grafton’s first architect, and when you visit be sure to appreciate the exceptional quality of the workmanship and fittings.
The interior abounds with paintings, black and white photography, glassware, ceramics, furniture, costume, textiles and a hoard of intriguing artefacts charting the history of the Clarence River region.
5. Nymboida National Park
Grafton is the jumping off point for some staggering natural spaces both on the coast and up in the Great Dividing Range.
Nymboida National Park is to the west, in an environment of soaring old growth forest laced with fast-flowing rivers.
The area’s sharp slopes were formed by ancient volcanoes and ages of faulting and uplift, where rocky and far-flung valleys have been cut away by the Mann and Nymboida Rivers.
A great way to traverse the park is in a canoe, contending with rapids and scanning the crystal clear waters for water dragons, turtles and the last breeding population of the critically endangered eastern freshwater cod.
6. Christ Church Cathedral
There has been a church at this spot on Duke Street since 1842, and the current building, composed of salmon-pink bricks, was raised in ten years between 1874 and 1884. In a Gothic Revival style, Christ Church Cathedral rests among lawns and tree-lined streets, and was designed by architect John Horbury Hunt (1838-1904). He was responsible for a catalogue of churches and other public buildings in NSW in this period.
Today the church is a Grafton signature, shining for its ornamental brickwork and reflecting the transition between the Early English and Decorated Gothic styles, around 1300. Check out the imposing western archway, and Hunt’s smart use of wooden louvers instead of glass as a way of cooling the interior.
7. Grafton Regional Gallery
The North Coast’s largest collection of art is housed at Grafton’s regional gallery, which shows off its inventory with a busy schedule of 40+ exhibitions each year.
You can also catch shows by local and national artists, and major touring exhibitions.
As you’d hope for Grafton, the gallery has a historic and handsome location, in Prentice House, which was built in 1880, serving as a home but also a surgery and converted into a gallery in 1986. This institution is renowned in the art world for the biennial Jacaranda Acquisitive Drawing Award, promoting contemporary Australian drawing and valued at more than $30,000.
8. Yuraygir National Park
The remote and protected North Coast of New South Wales is a comfortable drive east of Grafton, and has been frequented by generations of Aboriginal people from the Yaegl and Gumbaynggirr groups.
Yuraygir is extremely biodiverse, made up of sweeping beaches, dunes, lakes, ancient coastal landforms, wetlands, littoral rainforest, clay heath and eucalypt forest.
Protecting 65 kilometres of coast, and boasting a whopping 48 beaches, this is the largest national park on the NSW coast.
There’s a coastal walk along the entire length, taking four whole days to complete.
This is one of dozens of hikes on offer, and you can mix things up with birdwatching, whale watching (in winter), surfing and swimming in the ocean.
The landscape is also woven with watercourses and lakes, perfect for paddling if you have a boat, canoe, kayak or paddleboard.
9. Saraton Theatre
A head-turning sight on Prince Street is the heritage-listed Saraton Theatre, the largest combined cinema and performing arts theatre in Australia.
The exterior dates to 1926, but the interior and the prevailing Art Deco style is from a luxurious remodelling that was ready in 1940. The 950-seat main auditorium is a sumptuous venue to watch new Hollywood release, or catch a classical concert, live gig, play, dance performance or comedy show.
The Saraton is also used for conventions and community performances, and the complex has two new cinemas each with stadium seating for 150.
10. Washpool National Park
This adventure will take you inland, just over the edge of the Great Escarpment to UNESCO-listed rainforest in a world of deep gorges and clear, murmuring streams.
Washpool National Park is within the Gondwana Rainforests of Australia World Heritage Area.
This comprises the largest areas of subtropical rainforest on the planet, as well as much of the world’s surviving beech cool temperature rainforest and huge tracts of warm temperature rainforest.
Here you’ll encounter an extraordinary environment for hiking, among the ancient and primitive plants and animal species from which life on Earth evolved.
Explore this primeval world on the half-day Washpool walk or lace up your boots for the 45-kilometre World Heritage walk, linking this park with the Gibraltar Range to the south.
11. Coldstream Gallery
A short way down the Clarence River you’ll arrive at the historic port of Ulmarra, frozen in time at the turn of the century and still operating a cable ferry on the river.
One of a handful of evocative buildings is the elegant Sydney Stores department store.
Dating to 1907, this is clad with weatherboard, has geometric tiles in its frieze and a delicately carved verandah on the street.
Since 1975 the building has held the Coldstream Gallery, specialising in locally produced painting and a diversity of works in bronze, wood, glass and more.
You can stop by to appreciate the history and purchase an original souvenir, while the gallery also runs a program of creative classes and workshops, and rents out accommodation at this delightful location.
12. Clarence Gorge
This excursion requires a 90-minute drive into the mountains, north-west of Grafton, where the Clarence River weaves through walls of rock and rushes over a series of waterfalls.
Unlike the other natural sights posted above, the Clarence Gorge is actually on private land and a visit will require a bit of planning.
What you can do is book a farmstay with the landowner, who took over 8,000 acres and around 10 kilometres of river frontage in 2019. Staying in this inspiring part of the country you can take bushwalks for a closer look at the gorge and falls, bring a canoe to challenge yourself on the rapids or try your hand at catch and release fishing.
13. The Grafton Bridge
A word on the pair of crossings on the Clarence River in Grafton.
After 17 years of planning a new road bridge opened in December 2019, and has a footpath and cycleway set slightly down from the roadway.
From there you can look across to the old Grafton “Bendy” Bridge, which is still in use and well worth a walk.
This heritage-listed structure was completed in 1932 after a decade of construction, and is nearly unique in New South Wales for a few reasons.
One is the double-decker road/rail format, while another is the bascule, the moveable span of which has been sealed shut.
You can see this mechanism towards the south bank, and the span was last raised in 1969 before a water main was added to the crossing.
14. Grafton District Golf Club
This 18-hole course just outside South Grafton welcomes non-members.
It’s in a lovely setting, resting on a hillside in native bushland.
The sloping terrain allows for elevated tees and a tricky test for long-time golfers, but will be forgiving for those who are still learning the ropes.
Don’t be surprised if you’re joined in the rough by a kangaroo, as there’s a mob of around 100 dwelling in the bush around the course.
After your round you can check out the view from the clubhouse’s scenic verandah and refuel at the restaurant, Birdies on Bent, which is a social linchpin in Grafton, preparing satisfying meals and snacks.
15. Clarence Valley Information Centre
Grafton is the largest settlement in the Clarence Valley area, occupying a big sweep of north-east New South Wales and containing some 60 towns and villages.
To get to grips with all the possibilities you can swing by the visitor information centre, which is well-stocked with local and regional maps, brochures and leaflets.
You can find out about upcoming events across the region, book accommodation and get in-depth advice on trails into the many national parks within striking distance of Grafton.
And if you’ve just got here after a long road trip you can grab a drink, relax in the Gallery courtyard and make use of the free Wi-Fi.