The rural city of Wangaratta is at the foot of the Australian Alps, by the confluence of the King and Ovens Rivers.
Trace the King Valley up into the Alps and you’ll discover vineyards planted with Italian varietals like Pinot Grigio and Sangiovese.
The Ovens Valley meanwhile is the old route of a 19th-century railway, now a rail trail that gives you supreme mountain scenery accompanied by gourmet farms, distillers, cellar doors and craft breweries.
A few minutes out of Wangaratta is Glenrowan, the place where Ned Kelly donned armour plating for his last stand in 1880. Back in town there’s a high-calibre arts and culture district, restaurants steeped in the area’s high-quality produce and peaceful parks shaded by mature trees.
1. Murray to Mountains Rail Trail
Wangaratta is at the start of a 95-kilometre cycling and walking trail, carrying you up to the town of Bright in the Australian Alps.
This is the route of the Bright Railway Line, completed in 1890 and tracking the Ovens Valley for most of its course.
Now the Murray to Mountains Rail Trail is a stunning outdoor experience, mixing beautiful mountainscapes and picture perfect valleys, with endless possibilities for detours at vineyards and gourmet food producers.
As a rail trail the gradients are mostly light, despite the mountainous scenery all around, and the path is sealed for almost the entirety of the route, so you’ll rarely have to contend with traffic.
At Everton station you can also explore a spur taking you to the historic town of Beechworth, which is flush with heritage architecture.
2. Merriwa Park
A real point of pride for Wangaratta is this urban park by the CBD, on the original course of the King River.
In the 1950s the river was diverted using a levee, creating a lagoon in the park attracting ducks and other waterbirds.
There are also towering river red gums throughout Merriwa Park, some that were planted when the park first opened in 1905, and others that have been growing for centuries and support a diversity of wildlife including gliders, possums and owls.
When it comes to facilities, there’s an expansive lawn tennis complex, playgrounds for children, a ferny, picnic areas and barbecues.
The King River now flows through the neighbouring Kaluna Park, which is a vital riparian reserve, replenished by natural flooding which draws spectacular birdlife.
3. Warby-Ovens National Park
The steep granite peaks west of Wangaratta are at a transition in the northern Victorian landscape where the uplands give way to the plains of the Riverina.
Warby-Ovens National Park was created in 2010 protecting the namesake ranges and their important stands of red river gums.
You can get here in a few minutes to scramble over giant boulders and make the hike to Salisbury Falls, which is at its best after heavy rain in winter.
A prominent hill in the range is Mount Glenrowan, which was used as a vantage point by Ned Kelly and his gang.
4. King Valley Wine Region
In north-east Victoria you’ll be in a wine growing region that begins just outside Wangaratta and meanders east along the picturesque valley of the King River as far as Alpine National Park.
Vines have been cultivated in the area since the 19th century, but the wine industry really found its feet in the post-war years with Italian immigration when growers realised how well European varietals fared in these soils.
Italian grapes like Sangiovese, Barbera, Pinot Grigio and Nebbiolo are all prominent in King Valley.
Dal Zotto Wines and Pizzini Wines are two famous names nearby in Whitfield, and during your tasting odyssey you should make time for Milawa, which has made a name for its gourmet produce, particularly olives, mustards and cheeses.
5. Ned Kelly Museum & Homestead
The outlaw and gang leader Ned Kelly (1854-1880) is an indelible part of Australian history and continues to arouse fascination more than 140 years after he was hanged at the Old Melbourne Gaol.
He had his brutal last stand, a bloody shootout with the police in which he and his gang wore improvised armour plating, 15 minutes out of Wangaratta in Glenrowan.
The Ned Kelly Museum is an appropriately kitschy but informative attraction, painting a picture of European colonial life in the 1870s and the dark side of the gold rush.
The interpretive trail leads you through a replica of Kelly’s homestead, while the museum shows off a reproduction of his armour (the original is on show at the State Library of Victoria), as well as artefacts like his death mask.
6. Glenrowan Heritage Siege Precinct
You can take a little walk around Glenrowan, stopping at a succession of places connected to the events of June 1880 and the Kelly gang’s siege with Melbourne troopers.
Kelly’s plan centred on the railway, and an attempt to derail a police train, and you can check out the original stationmaster’s house, the railway platform and the site where Kelly was eventually captured.
It’s interesting to think that many of the mature trees growing around Glenrowan were here in Kelly’s day, not least the “Kelly Copse”, where he is known to have tethered his horse.
Another compelling thing about the siege site is that innumerable ammunition rounds were fired in the action, and every now and again bullets show up in the soil.
7. The Big Ned Kelly Statue
In a country full of “Big Things”, giant novelty statues with a site-specific theme, it’s only right that Glenrowan should have a big Ned.
This is in fact the town’s third big Ned, which might have something to do with Kelly’s controversial status as a folk hero.
The first Big Ned Kelly Statue was pulled down and dumped in the river.
The statue here today, showing Kelly in his armour with gun in hand, was produced by a Sydney-based artist in 1992 and transported in one piece by road.
Made from fibreglass, the piece stands six metres tall and weighs 1.5 tons.
8. Northern Beaches
On the Ovens River in the quiet, northern outskirts of Wangaratta is a reserve covering just over 10 hectares.
This is a place where you can bathe in the river’s cool waters at two sandy beaches on the west bank, Kingfisher Beach and Platypus Beach.
As you might gather from their names there’s a lot of wildlife around the Northern Beaches, and along with the animals mentioned you may come across long-necked turtles, possums, echidnas and bird like grey shrike-thrushes and eastern yellow robins.
The riverside has dense native vegetation made up of river red gums, river tea tree, river bottlebrush and silver wattle, to name a few species.
9. Wangaratta Art Gallery
There’s a small but strong arts and culture precinct on the edge of the CBD, anchored by the modern Wangaratta Performing Arts Centre and the regional gallery, which opened at this striking heritage building in 1987. This is a former Presbyterian church, completed in 1899 and eventually sold off in the 1980s.
Since the 2000s the gallery has assembled a noted collection, focusing on textile art, works in wood, small sculpture, pieces relating to north-east Victoria and works by artists of state and national importance.
The collection isn’t on permanent display, but selections are put on show at regular intervals, along with travelling exhibitions.
The gallery also plays host to the Wangaratta Contemporary Textile Award, the only prize of its kind in Australia.
10. Wangaratta Performing Arts Centre
A bold architectural statement, the modern Wangaratta Performing Arts Centre opened by the art gallery in 2009. The auditorium also makes an impact, seating 520, with raked seating that can be pulled back for private functions and conventions.
This is a platform for a diverse menu of live entertainment, from plays to musicals, classical concerts, dance, fun for children, live comedy and a great deal more.
The building has free Wi-Fi, and the in-house cafe, Intermezzo, is open seven days a week for lunch and breakfast, as well as on evenings when there are performances.
11. Wangaratta Visitor Information Centre
The easiest way to get a handle on Wangaratta and the King Valley Region is to pay a visit to the visitor information centre on Murphy Street.
The building, Wangaratta’s historic former library, is a sight of its own, with a pair of pediments held up by Ionic pilasters, flanking a first floor gallery.
As well as being somewhere to get hold of leaflets and brochures, the centre has interesting interpretive displays, and regularly hosts short-term exhibitions connected to the area.
There’s a treasure trove of gift ideas, from handmade fashion to artisanal olive oil, and the helpful staff will be happy to offer any advice to help you get more from your trip.
12. King George V Gardens
Right in the middle of the CBD is a peaceful little park where you can seek some shade and relax in the greenery.
The history of this space has been charted back to the middle of the 1850s when it was a stables for the local police constabulary.
The gardens’ fine old plane trees were planted in the 1860s to offer shade for the market and stockyards base here at the time.
It wasn’t until 1938 that the space was officially declared a park, and you can make the most of picnic tables and a children’s playground.
In 2019 the gardens were spruced up with an upgraded community stage, a new shelter, extra seating and improved landscaping.
13. Hurdle Creek Still
This small batch gin distillery was set up close by in Milawa in 2016. All of Hurdle Creek Still’s products are made and bottled on site, and the triple-distilled base spirit is produced using local grain with a traditional mashing technique.
The juniper and blend of native botanicals, from hops to pink peppercorns, aniseed and citrus, are vapour-infused to ensure subtle and light flavours.
You can call in at the still for a tasting ($7 for 6), which will be free if you make a purchase.
Some picks from the range include the classic Yardarm gin, aniseed gin, cherry gin, grain jenever and other spirits like Yuzu, Pastis and Dark Cacao (chocolate liqueur).
14. Eldorado Dredge Holes
Not far east of Wangaratta, on Reedy Creek, is a giant relic from the gold mining days.
Most of the mining in Eldorado was done with open pits, but the alluvial gold on the creek was hauled up using an immense floating bucket dredge weighting 2,140 tons and drawing the third-most power from Victoria’s State Electricity Grid after Melbourne and Geelong.
The dredge operated between 1936 and 1954, during which time it helped produce over 70,000 tons of gold and just under 1,400 tons of tin concentrate.
Today this massive hunk of machinery rests by the water, just off the Eldorado-Byawatha road.
15. Wangaratta Festival of Jazz & Blues
Every spring, Wangaratta is the setting for one of Victoria’s premier events, now in its fourth decade.
The Wangaratta Festival of Jazz & Blues is a three-day event, around late-October or early-November, held at of venues around the city.
There are more than 90 performances and events crammed into the long weekend, counting sets by international musicians, masterclasses and youth jazz workshops.
Some past performers include Freddy Cole, Christian Scott, Jen Shyu, Dutch Tilders and many more.
The festival also comprises the National Jazz Awards, a multidisciplinary prize for artists up to the age of 35.