Up there with Australia’s most important industrial centres, the South Australian city of Port Pirie is home to one of the world’s largest smelting facilities.
Since the 1880s the silver-lead-zinc ore mined in Broken Hill, NSW has been transported across hundreds of kilometres of outback to be refined in Port Pirie and then exported.
And while smelting is essential to Port Pirie’s economy, there’s a lot more for visitors to uncover.
The waterfront along Port Pirie creek has been given a makeover in the last few years, and has green spaces with views to the Flinders Ranges, a beach and playgrounds for little ones.
You can get out into the ranges at Mount Remarkable National Park, or discover Port Pirie’s industrial, artistic natural heritage at a clutch of museums and galleries.
1. Port Pirie Regional Tourism & Arts Centre
The starting point for any visit to Port Pirie is this multifaceted attraction on the site of the Mary Ellie Street railway station, hosting the visitor information centre, city library, a regional art gallery (more later) and a variety of fun family things to do.
First off, great white sharks are a fact of seafaring life in the Southern Ocean, and the centre has a couple of shark-related exhibits.
One is Shakka the shark, an exact replica of a 5.5-metre monster great white that became ensnared in snapper-catching nets and was brought ashore in Germein Bay. The model is on show alongside Shakka’s fin and jaws.
You can also stare a virtual great white in the eye on a Virtual Reality Shake Cage Dive.
More relaxing is a ride on the Port Pirie Express, a miniature railway running on the first and third Sunday of the month, and Wednesdays during school holidays.
2. Port Pirie National Trust Museum
One of several historic buildings flanking Ellen Street is the elegant Ellen Street Station, completed in the Victorian Pavilion style in 1902. This served as Port Pirie’s main terminus for passengers until 1967, and has since been preserved in situ as the National Trust Museum.
This is the go-to if you want to dip into Port Pirie’s industrial and railway history, but also has natural history specimens and a raft of objects to give a taste of everyday life in the city down the years.
You can climb to the top of the station’s tower, and check out a vintage narrow gauge shunting engine that used to work the line to Broken Hill.
The natural history exhibits deal with the megafauna that used to roam the Mid North Area, and you can view the bones of a Diprotodon, related to the wombat but standing two metres tall!
3. Port Pirie Regional Art Gallery
Part of the Visitor Information Centre complex, the regional art gallery opened in 1992 and puts an emphasis on work by South Australian artists.
The gallery was initially in the old Mary Ellie Street railway station building – now hosting the library – and was then given its own space in 1994 when the Regional Tourism & Arts Centre opened.
As well as the best of South Australian art there are regular touring exhibitions from some of the country’s top cultural institutions, as well as community displays and opportunities for emerging artists from the Mid North.
4. Solomontown Beach (Port Pirie Beach)
East of Port Pirie’s grain silos, and just next to the ominously named Bridge to Nowhere is arguably the prettiest spot on the city’s waterfront.
There’s a stretch of sandy beach here, and a jetty poking out into the creek with ladders for swimmers.
If you don’t fancy swimming in Port Pirie Creek you can relax on the beach or the grassy foreshore, which has a playground for wee ones, a skate park, a covered pavilion and barbecue facilities.
This is also a nice place to be late in the day when you can watch the sun going down behind the silos and smelter.
5. Mount Remarkable National Park
The Flinders Ranges are visible from the waterfront in Port Pirie, and if you’d like to journey into this mountainous region then Mount Remarkable National Park is a great place to start.
The park is divided into three blocks, so while the namesake peak is about 45 minutes north of Port Pirie, the southern Mambray Creek section is 15 minutes north-east of the city by road.
There you can rent a cabin or head off along the 2.4-kilometre Davey’s Gully Hike, which gives you sensational views west and out over the Spencer Gulf.
Amateur entomologists should look out for Mitchell’s diurnal cockroach in the scrub, while a rich variety of birds extending to more than 110 species, has been recorded in the park.
Head into the park northern sections and there’s denser eucalypt forest, and striking formations like Alligator Gorge.
Out on the trails around the gorge you may catch sight of kangaroos, kookaburras or emus.
6. Port Pirie Molfettesi Fishing Boat Museum
This small museum can be found on the waterfront and celebrates the Italian fishing community that first arrived in Port Pirie from Molfetta, Puglia at the end of the 19th century.
The museum’s showpiece is a beautifully restored plank-hulled fishing boat, Elizabeth, built in the early-20th century.
Located where the fishermen launched their boats, the museum goes into detail about how the first Italian migrants were taught to fish the local creeks and rivers by the indigenous Nukunu people.
Even when the museum is closed you’ll be able to view Elizabeth through the glass on the waterfront.
7. Flinders View Park
In the shadow of the huge grain silos on the waterfront in Port Pirie is an adorable little park, always clean and tidy.
As the name suggests, the park’s great asset is its marvellous vista north and north-east to the Flinders Ranges.
As part of an ongoing program to beautify Port Pirie’s foreshore, Flinders View Park has been given a few upgrades in recent years and there’s new furniture and new flooring and equipment for the undercover, as well as a shelter and barbecue facilities.
8. Heritage Rail Trail
Port Pirie is at the west end of a 395km trail into the outback to the frontier mining town of Broken Hill.
The Heritage Rail Trail can tell you a lot about Port Pirie’s development in the late-19th century and the industry that sustains the city to this day.
Stopping at 15 towns, it follows the narrow gauge Broken Hill to Port Pirie line, which was built in the 1880s as a way to transport the newly discovered silver-lead-zinc mineral wealth of Broken Hill to a harbour.
The line was eventually replaced by a standard gauge railway, and this self-guided driving trail along the old route was set up in the 2010s.
One thrilling stop is the junction town of Peterborough, where tons of steam heritage is preserved at the Steamtown Heritage Rail Centre.
On the journey, the free “Daytrippa” phone app neatly displays everything that came before, while pointing out what heritage survives to this day.
9. Port Pirie Aquatic & Leisure Centre
In 2019 this complex reopened as part of the new Port Pirie Sports Precinct, providing facilities for everything from cricket to squash, gymnastics and Aussie rules football.
The Aquatic & Leisure Centre has a design that evokes the profile of the Flinders Ranges and houses an indoor pool and an indoor splash park for children.
Outside is a heated 50-metre pool and a smaller, shallow pool for learners and toddlers.
The outdoor zone has extended hours to 20:00 on any day when the temperature is higher than 32°C.
10. Port Pirie RSL Museum
The local Returned Services League Club in Port Pirie has put together a fantastic display that first opened to the public in 2009. Sourced from an extensive collection, this exhibition has a section devoted to every conflict from the Second Boer War (1899-1902) to the 21st-century operations in Afghanistan.
In each exhibit there’s a detailed summary complemented by personal accounts and plenty of authentic artefacts, from field packs to uniforms and weapons.
The museum also has two multimedia points where you access a trove of footage, audio and photographs, as well as a preserved Bell UH-1 Iroquois “Huey” helicopter.
11. Memorial Park
The city’s main urban park is an expansive parcel of lawns and mature trees just west of the CBD.
Memorial Park was given a facelift in 2020 with new landscaping, furniture, a shelter and LED lighting.
The park is a venue for outdoor happenings throughout the year, from Christmas in the Park to community picnics and the Lealholme Annual Fete in September, raising money for elderly care.
Memorial Park’s centrepiece is the historic rotunda, which has been standing since the turn of the century.
12. Northern Festival Centre
On the Memorial Park’s east side is the Northern Festival Centre, Port Pirie’s multi-purpose arts venue.
The theatre inside is named for the respected stage and television actor, Keith Michell (1926-2015) who grew up in Port Pirie.
We wrote this list at the height of the Coronavirus epidemic in 2020, but normally on the menu at the Northern Festival Centre is a rich assortment of theatre, comedy, live music, dance, cabaret, children’s events, community shows and workshops.
The theatre also doubles as a cinema, screening all the latest Hollywood movie releases as well as recordings of significant ballet, theatre and opera performances.
13. Port Pirie to Napperby Cycle Trail
Just over ten kilometres, this signposted trail leads you east into the idyllic scenery of the Southern Flinders Rangers.
The destination is the quiet township of Napperby near the southernmost block of Mount Remarkable National Park.
The trail is mainly designed for mountain bikes, but long sections are available to hikers too.
This is one of a sprawling network of routes into the Flinders Ranges, but is the most convenient as it departs from the edge of the city.
The terrain is mostly flat, with inspiring mountainous panoramas, and the trail can be completed in three hours, one-way at a slow pace.
14. Port Pirie Airport
The aerodrome just south of Port Pirie has an interesting story to tell as an RAAF station during World War II.
At that time it hosted the No. 2 Bombing and Gunnery School (later No. 3 Air Observers School), for pilots, air observers and air gunners to take bombing and gunnery training.
Immediately post-war the site became a storage depot for aircraft and parts, and several Fairey Battle light bombers used by the base are known to be buried here.
Port Pirie Airport continues to be used by light aircraft, and to pay tribute to the people who trained at the base during the war there’s a small but fascinating display recalling the airport’s military history.
15. Nyrstar Port Pirie Smelter
Though not exactly a tourist attraction, the whopping smelter on the west bank of Port Pirie Creek kindles plenty of interest, not least as the largest employer in the area.
The city has had a smelter for more than 130 years, and the current facility, run by the global multi-metals company Nyrstar, is one of the largest in the world for primary lead production, and the third-largest silver producer.
Also produced by this gigantic refinery are gold doré, copper cathode and sulphuric acid.
The smelter’s sky-scraping can be seen for miles around, while you can get a good perspective on the site by crossing the creek on the “Bridge to Nowhere” and taking the riverfront track up the east bank.