Ringed by tall hills in the Upper Hunter Valley, Muswellbrook is a rural town first settled by Europeans almost 200 years ago.
Coalmining and horse breeding are the traditional sources of income, but Muswellbrook has also won a lot of praise lately for its gourmet food and drink.
We have a number of producers to visit on this list for olive oil, artisan cheese and wine.
Back in town, Bridge Street is enriched with historic architecture from as early as the mid-19th century, and Muswellbrook also lays claim to the only church in Australia designed by famed English architect Sir Gilbert Scott.
1. Pukara Estate
As you travel the Denman Road just out of Muswellbrook, the immense olive grove of the Pukara Estate will hove into view.
This is the headquarters for one of Australia’s most celebrated specialty food brands, producing world-class olive oil as well as a selection of vinegars, gourmet olives, tapenades, mayonnaise, jams, relishes, pesto and dukkahs.
The entire range is available to try at the Denman Tasting Room, where you can also pick up firsthand information about the grove and what goes into top-notch olive oil and vinegar.
You can browse for classy homewares at the gift shop, and treat yourself to coffee and cake in the peaceful surrounds of the olive grove.
2. Hunter Belle Cheese
This acclaimed cheesemaker and dairy brand is based just out of town on the New England Highway and started inviting the public onto its premises a decade ago.
With a herd of Swiss Brown cows, Hunter Belle makes high-quality cheeses like cheddar, feta, camembert, as well as Swiss and blue cheese.
This range, along with Hunter Belle’s milk, yoghurt and butter, enhances the menu at the Hunter Belle Cafe, standing out for sweet treats like fudge, ice cream and milkshakes.
You can also just visit for a tasting at the shop and get a privileged glimpse of the factory through viewing windows into the cheese-making room, maturation room and packing room.
A detailed mural meanwhile explains every step in making cheese, from pasture to plate.
And the quirky star of the show is Bessie, a life-sized fibreglass cow model that can be milked.
3. Muswellbrook Regional Arts Centre
The handsome School of Arts building, raised in 1871, now holds the public gallery for Muswellbrook and the wider shire.
The gallery was established in the 1970s, and draws on a formidable collection, assembled through an acquisitive art prize inaugurated in 1958. This gives the arts centre a true survey of mid to late-20th century Australian art, further enhanced by the Max Watters Collection, bequeathed in 2004. A handful of artists represented include Ken Whisson, John Perceval, Tony Tuckson and Grace Cossington-Smith.
There are up to three exhibitions at any one time, for local and touring exhibitions, while the biennial Muswellbrook Art Prize is awarded on even years.
4. Muswellbrook Heritage Walk
At the time of writing in spring 2020 the Muswellbrook Visitor Information Centre was closed for renovation.
Ordinarily you can drop by for a map of this enlightening 4.5-kilometre trail weaving its way through the CBD.
The walk starts from 208 Bridge Street, or the Railway Station on Market Street.
Muswellbrook has a number of heritage buildings constructed in the middle of the 19th century, the majority lining the arterial Bridge Street.
You’ll see grand civic buildings, palatial residences, hotels and amenities like the post office (1861 and 1885) and the railway station (1869). At 180-188 Bridge Street is the Eatons Group, a stately complex made up of a hotel, shop, residence and retail centre, and with a history that can be traced back to 1839.
5. St Alban’s Anglican Church
Sir Gilbert Scott (1811-1878), who designed and restored churches up and down the United Kingdom in the 19th century, provided the design for this heritage-listed church on Hunter Terrace.
In Scott’s classic Gothic Revival style, St Alban’s is the only place of worship designed by Scott in Australia and was constructed between 1864 and 1869, then enlarged in 1890. The church has modest proportions, and is built from sandstone, with a copper-clad broach spire on the north side.
Call in to appreciate some of the fittings, like the Minton and Hollins tiles of Stoke-on-Trent, a reredos carved from limestone, an organ built in 1868 by J.W. Walker of London and a beautiful scissor-truss roof with original polychrome decoration.
6. Hunter Valley Camels
Take the Denman Road out of Muswellbrook and in a little while you’ll be at a dairy farm distinguished by its big herd of camels.
These animals have been saved from slaughter and are milked no more than once a day to ensure they have enough milk for their offspring.
The business opens its doors to the public for farm tours, so you can find out more about the herd and how they’re cared for.
There are camel milk products to sample and buy, from bath milk to pasteurised drinking milk or cosmetics such as lip balms.
You can also ride a saddled camel, crossing the extensive property and taking in the idyllic Upper Hunter Valley.
7. Two Rivers Wines
One of the Hunter Valley’s top vineyards sits just a little way west of Muswellbrook.
Two Rivers has produced top-notch wine from classic grape varietals since 1988. The vineyard takes its name from its special location, resting between the Hunter and Goulburn Rivers.
In the range in 2020 were Chardonnays, a Pinot Grigio, Verdelhos, Semillons, Merlots, several Shiraz labels and “Confluence”, a Cabernet Sauvignon-Merlot blend.
The cellar door, serving cheese and antipasti platters, has a verandah with dramatic views of the Upper Hunter Valley.
8. Highbrook Park
For a bit of family time, Muswellbrook’s main public park is on the town’s south-western margins.
We can’t talk about Highbrook Park without mentioning the giant lizard rearing up over the playground, 10 metres tall and 70 metres long, with an enclosed slide for a tongue! There’s all sorts of other equipment for little visitors, from climb ropes and mazes to a flying fox, swings and special track where they can learn to ride a bicycle.
To complement the play facilities, Highbrook Park has toilets, barbecues, water bubblers and picnic benches with undercover seating
9. Muswellbrook Cinema
This state-of-the-art cinema opened near the regional arts centre in the 2010s and screens all the latest releases.
As entertainment amenities go, Muswellbrook Cinema punches above its weight for a town of this size.
The sound and picture quality are as good as any multiplex, and there’s modern decor and plush, comfy seating with lots of legroom, as well as an enticing choice of snacks and candy in the foyer.
If you want to splash out you can also upgrade to the VIP Platinum seating.
10. Small Forest Wine
You can continue an Upper Hunter wine odyssey at this boutique winery, run by Atsuko Radcliffe, Japan’s first woman winemaker.
Found outside Denman and with lovely vistas of the town, Small Forest Wine focuses its efforts on just three varieties: A Chardonnay, a Verdelho and Shiraz (red and rosé). At the cellar door you’ll learn a little more about Atsuko’s winemaking philosophy, and between June and December you can book a Sake-tasting session with Atsuko, who is an international authority on this beverage.
Also at the cellar door is an art gallery, with exhibitions updated every couple of months.
11. Barrington Tops National Park
This World Heritage-listed national park in the Hunter Valley is close enough to Muswellbrook be a genuine day trip option.
Barrington Tops National Park belongs to the Gondwana Rainforests of Australia, containing the world’s largest tracts of subtropical rainforest, massive sweeps of warm temperate rainforests and practically all of the world’s Antarctic beech cool temperate rainforest.
Almost nowhere on earth are there as many plants and animals that vary so little from their prehistoric ancestors in fossil records.
This awesome landscape can be traversed on foot, by bike or in a 4WD, and among the species that have lived in near perfect isolation since the time of the Gondwana supercontinent are the common wombat, the swamp wallaby and the Australian brush turkey.
The park and Mount Royal National Park below were partly affected by the 2019-20 bushfires.
12. Mount Royal National Park
Like the Barrington Tops next door, this national park is in the Gondwana Rainforests of Australia’s World Heritage area.
Again, many of the plant and animal species flourishing at Mount Royal have changed little from fossil records millions of years old.
The main foothold for your adventure in the park will be the Youngville Campground, the starting point for walking tracks and 4WD routes.
One achievable walk from here is the three-kilometre Pieries Peak track, taking you to a panoramic lookout over Lake Saint Clair and the Hunter Valley.
13. Lake Glenbawn State Park
On the way to Barrington Tops and Mount Royal is one of the largest rock-filled dams in the country, measuring 100 metres high and more than 1.1 kilometres long.
The Glenbawn Dam is on the Hunter River and the impounded reservoir serves several purposes, among them irrigation, flood mitigation, water supply, wildlife conservation and is a source of hydroelectric power.
On top of all that it’s one of the region’s favourite recreation spots, with a wide choice of holiday accommodation on its shores, from villas to campsites.
Waking and cycling trails deliver you to spectacular lookouts, and some 100 different bird species have been recorded on these shores.
Lake Glenbawn is also an angler’s idea of heaven for its plentiful bass, catfish and golden perch.
14. Muswellbrook Aquatic & Fitness Centre
When we wrote this article in 2020 the town’s public aquatic and fitness centre was in the process of a big makeover.
In the plans was a refurbishment of the 50m outdoor pool, while the centre’s interior was being given a state-of-the-art overhaul, comprising a learner and therapy pool, a water activity park, a viewing deck, kiosk and dry play party room.
Also planned in this multimillion-dollar project was an upgrade of the centre’s fitness equipment.
15. Upper Hunter Show
Two weeks before Easter the entire community comes together for a regional show mixing rural competitions with trade stands and tons of family entertainment.
For just a taster, there’s a rodeo, a whip-cracking contest, a wife-carrying event, tent pegging, coal scuttle races, polocrosse and competitions for poultry, cattle, horses and more.
For fun you’ve got live music, high-tech machinery displays, a petting zoo, fireworks, a demolition derby, tug-of-war, amusements on Sideshow Alley and all the pageantry of the Grand Parade.
Dozens of companies set up shop at the show, and there’s a healthy serving of food stands for Portuguese street food, nachos, pizza, pies, waffles, dumplings, Vietnamese bites, artisan coffee, the list goes on!