This tourist-friendly city is on the Murray River, the longest river in Australia and the third-longest navigable river on the planet.
Swan Hill’s allure comes from the history and natural splendour of the Murray, as well as a comfortable climate and abundant sunshine.
Until the railway came through in 1890, Swan Hill was a busy river port, served by paddle steamers that started navigating this stretch of the river in the 1850s.
The Pioneer Settlement is a sensational open-air museum bringing the port days back to life, as well as organising paddle steamer cruises and a fantastic laser show in the evening.
Swan Hills also gives its name to a wine region noted for its longer ripening season and high-quality Shiraz.
1. Pioneer Settlement
There’s history in every sense at this outdoor attraction on the idyllic banks of the Marraboor River (Little Murray). This was the first open-air museum in Australia when it opened in 1966, and Queen Elizabeth paid a visit in 1970. Boasting more than 20,000 artefacts, the Pioneer Settlement recreates life on the Murray between the years 1830 and 1930, with a cast of costumed characters and some 50 replica buildings.
Among these you’ll find a post office, old-time photographic studio, newspaper office, Masonic lodge and a genuine Kaiserpanorama (precursor to movies) from 1896. There are two paddle steamers docked at the settlement, the PS Gem from 1876, and the PS Pyap, offering Murray River cruises.
You can browse a Mallee street from the 1920s, take a free horse and cart ride, dress up in period costume and chat with the informative locals.
2. Heartbeat of the Murray Laser Spectacular
As the sun goes down, the riverside at the Pioneer Settlement becomes the stage for a dazzling 3D spectacle mixing lasers, light, sound and water sprays.
This highly creative production uses a nine-metre water screen as a canvas to tell the story of the Murray River across 30 million years.
Looking towards the river from the outdoor theatre there’s a natural Mallee backdrop, combined with historic red river gums, to really ground the show in the Murray’s environment.
The show tends to be seasonal, and booking is essential.
3. Swan Hill River Walk
Give yourself time to see more of the Murray riverside in Swan Hill on this trail that extends for several kilometres and begins in the very north of the town at Miloo Street.
The Pioneer Settlement is just one of the many compelling manmade sights to go with the natural beauty of the Murray.
There are lots of locations harking back to when Swan Hill was a bustling port, like the remarkable Lift Bridge (1896). The first crossing of its kind on the Murray, this bridge was designed with a central span that could be raised to allow paddle steamers to pass through.
There are interpretive boards all along the route highlighting the human and natural history of the area, including the Wati-Wati and Wemba-Wemba people who have been here for up to 13,000 years.
4. Swan Hill Wine Region
The town is the anchor for its own wine region, with vineyards mostly set on the Victoria bank of the Murray and irrigated directly by the river.
The sandy and clay-rich soils resemble those in places like Burgundy and Champagne.
Warm climate varietals like Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon do well in the Swan Hill Wine Region, but there’s an interesting distinction between Swan Hill and the neighbouring Murray Darling region.
Swan Hill gets a bit more rainfall and cooler temperatures, which allows the grapes to ripen a little slower.
The region’s first winery, St Andrews, opened as long ago as 1930, while new vineyards and cellar doors open by the year.
5. Andrew Peace Wines
This highly regarded winery is in striking distance of Swan Hill, right on the Murray at Piangil, VIC.
Andrew Peace is a large-scale producer, but is committed to sustainability, generating 200kw through solar panels, and reusing 100% of wastewater.
Since the early 1980s and through three generations, the winery has progressed to one of Australia’s top family-owned wine companies, selling over a million cases in its lifetime and crushing more than 30,000 tonnes of grapes each year.
Andrew Peace wines has a massive range, dominated by Shiraz and Chardonnay.
If you’ve ever wanted to see a mass production facility in action you can arrange a tour, or you could simply drop by the cellar door for tastings and sales.
6. Murray River Cruise (PS Pyap)
One of those things you simply have to do in Swan Hill is head down to the wharf at the Pioneer Settlement for a lazy trip along the river.
You vessel will be the trusty PS Pyap, launched in Mannum, South Australia as long ago as 1896. An interesting fact about this paddle steamer is that even though it measures 30 metres long and almost five metres wide, the shallow draft of its hull allows it to navigate waters as shallow as just one metre.
The PS Pyap started life as a floating general store and is now a very appropriate way to see the natural beauty of the riverbanks outside Swan Hill.
The cruise lasts an hour and takes you upriver, past the sumptuous Murray Downs homestead, built in stages from the 1860s to the 1890s.
7. Swan Hill Regional Art Gallery
The public art gallery for the region is right on the Marraboor River, a brief walk from the Pioneer Settlement.
This opened in 1966, and in 1987 moved into its current purpose-built home by architect Ian Douglas.
The Swan Hill Regional Art Gallery has a packed schedule of around 20 exhibitions a year, along with displays of works from the permanent collection.
With painting, drawing, sculpture, prints and works on paper, the collection features works produced since 1970 and puts an emphasis on Australian Naïve art.
And alongside its many exhibitions there are guided tours, workshops, school holiday programs, artist talks and live music including concerts on the gallery’s own Steinway piano.
8. The Giant Murray Cod
For fans of kitschy sights, there’s a riverine monster lurking by the Swan Hill Railway Station.
The Giant Murray Cod celebrates Murray’s famous predatory freshwater fish.
Despite the name, there’s no relation to the Northern Hemisphere cod.
As well as having a spiritual meaning for the Aboriginal peoples of the Murray-Darling basin, the fish is an apex predator, able to consume any fish smaller than itself, and even snakes and water dragons.
Swan Hill’s own cod is 11 metres long and six metres wide, and was actually created as a prop in the movie Eight Ball (1992) before being adopted by the town.
9. Lake Boga
In an almost perfect circle, this freshwater lake sits no more than ten kilometres south of Swan Hill.
Lake Boga is a beloved family holiday spot, offering camping, fishing and all manner of water activities.
The namesake township is on the lake’s south-western side, with picnic areas, a railway station, holiday accommodation and a wonderful piece of heritage in the form of the Cannie Ridge Steam Pump operating from 1904 to 1952. There’s a concrete and gravel track encircling the lake, on which you’ll encounter ducks, pelicans and many other species of waterbirds.
10. Flying Boat Museum
In 1942 the RAAF opened a secret flying boat base on Lake Boga’s west shore.
This was in response to the Japanese attacks on Darwin and Broome, creating a need for a base and repair depot for Catalina flying boats beyond the range of Japanese raids.
The base was closed in 1947, but its memory lives on in the form of a first-rate museum.
The museum incorporates the base’s hidden communications bunker, and features a gleaming Catalina (A24-30) that was restored by the Lions Club of Lake Boga.
This is accompanied by footage, archive photographs, communications equipment, tools and the engines of several flying boats.
11. Swan Hill Town Hall
In the CBD, the Town Hall is a grand piece of heritage, in an Art Deco style with Neoclassical pilasters and urns on its facade.
The building was inaugurated in 1936 to celebrate the centenary of explorer Thomas Mitchell camping at the future location of Swan Hill.
Built to house the municipal chambers and an auditorium, the Town Hall is now dedicated solely to performing arts.
There’s a broad program of live music, theatre, dance, cabaret and comedy, while the venue is also used for conferences, community events and expositions.
12. Nyah-Vinifera Park
Go a few kilometres downriver, and on the Victoria bank of the Murray there’s a large expanse of untouched nature.
Growing at Nyah-Vinifera Park are fine old river red gums, dating back more than a century and framing lagoons and billabongs on the river’s edge.
There are also small clues pointing to centuries of habitation by the Aboriginal Wadi Wadi People, like middens and burial grounds.
The park’s main path branches off onto side trails that lead to secluded picnic tables, camping sites or fishing spots where you can try to bag a Murray cod.
13. Showbiz Cinemas
Swan Hill may be a small town with a population of little over 10,000, but if you’re in search of something to do on a quiet evening there’s a great little cinema on the edge of the CBD.
This pocket-sized venue opened in 2013, filling a seven-year need as Swan Hill’s previous cinema was bulldozed to make way for a supermarket in the 2000s.
Fully digital, with high-quality sound and comfortable seating, Showbiz Cinemas has a program combining the latest Hollywood blockbusters with a curated art house and independent movies.
14. Murray Downs Golf & Country Club
A few minutes away on the NSW bank of the Murray is what is billed as the top golf course anywhere on the river.
This 18-hole championship course has won Victoria PGA course of the year, and is regularly voted among the best resort golf destinations in the country.
The greens and fairways are lush, fringed by mature river red gums and contrasting with the Mallee plains habitats all around.
Among the signature holes is the 5th, requiring a tricky shot over water to the green.
15. Swan Hill Region Information Centre
From history to nature, wine, sport, culture and outdoor adventure, there are so many aspects to Swan Hill’s appeal that it can be tricky keeping track of everything.
This makes the centrally located regional information centre invaluable.
You can find out about special offers at attractions and wineries, book accommodation and tours and chat with the staff about your next move in the region.
Added to that there’s a gift shop brimming with local goodies like jams, preserves, sauces, wine, oils, liqueurs and natural cosmetics.