Australia’s oldest inland city shakes off its high-octane image to showcase hip bars and edgy eateries.
Perceptions can be hard to shift. Twenty years ago Canberra was considered boring, Byron Bay was cast as backpacker party central and Bathurst – well, home to revheads and petrol fumes.
But anyone who’s lived in, studied at or visited Australia’s oldest inland settlement can tell tales of Bathurst beyond the racetrack. For one thing, the famous ‘mountain’ was officially renamed Mt Panorama-Wahluu in 2015 after a campaign by the local Wiradjuri people who have long held it as a sacred initiation site.
Supercar racing certainly brings in big bucks – some $200 million a year from its two mega events. But travellers who seek good food, wine, craft beers and micro-distillery gin – and love art – are also heading west. And with the opening of the Bathurst Rail Museum, train buffs are also, pardon the pun, making tracks to the city.
Bathurst back in the day
Bathurst, 200km west of Sydney, is rich in history – Blaxland, Lawson and Wentworth crossed the Blue Mountains in 1813 and the first European settlement took root soon after. Buildings sprung up around a neatly laid-out centre and today it’s easy to see Bathurst’s architectural gems, including the NSW Heritage-listed courthouse by strolling the square bordered by George, Howick, Havannah and Piper Streets.
Like all good cities, Bathurst has mixed the old with the new, resulting in some hip places to eat and drink. And this re-energising hasn’t taken long. In December 2018 I donned a hard hat to walk through the old Tremain’s Mill, an 1857-built flour mill, which hadn’t been used since 1980. A year later it has morphed into an edgy dining space housing Doppio Espresso Café and pizza restaurant Osteria Roma in old shipping containers and the run-down adjacent pub has been reborn as The Victoria, complete with funky murals of the titular queen, craft beers and distilled spiced rum cocktails, and a dog-sitting lawn out the back. The Australian Milling Museum, the first of its kind in the world, will take over the disused mill itself when it opens this year.
Dining scene on the rise
Bathurst has many such restaurants and bars. The stately E Webb & Co department store that graced George Street from the 1860s now houses Cobblestone Lane restaurant, which is open for lunch and dinner and features a very civilised late-supper menu on Fridays and Saturdays. Next door is the Webb & Co Bar, which calls itself a beverage emporium and in keeping with historic surroundings mixes up an array of retro cocktails – Harvey Wallbanger, Grasshopper and Tom Collins – in a snug space opposite beautiful Machattie Park.
Just down the road is The George Hotel, formerly the Park, a new relaxed gastropub serving Mod Oz specialties along with an all-day bar menu where must-have pulled-pork sandwiches can be had. Owner Matt Harrowsmith is also part of the team that created another eatery, Church Bar, a favourite with uni students and complete with a courtyard coffee van. As the name suggests, the restaurant inhabits an old Anglican church hall located in Ribbon Gang Lane, which in turn takes its name from a notorious group of escaped convicts turned bushrangers who terrorised Bathurst in 1830.
Bathurst also has a burgeoning wine industry producing excellent cold-climate wines and unbelievably two vineyards are planted beside the Mount Panorama racing track.
A dose of culture
While the city dishes up every culinary preference, it’s far more than a foodie haunt. Museums, art galleries and studios and heritage crafts are all part of the fabric.
Surprisingly, there’s also a castle – Abercrombie House.
Built in the 1870s by James Stewart, whose father William Stewart had been Lieutenant Governor of NSW decades earlier, the Scottish-style baronial mansion was once set on vast tracks of pastoral land. Today’s lord of the manor is Christopher Morgan, who has lived in the 50-room, seven-staircase granite and sandstone residence for 50 years, even since his father Rex bought it in 1968. He and his wife Xanthe run regular tours and hold weddings, high teas and jazz nights in the castle grounds to finance the never-ending restoration work.
History lovers will also relish the city’s museums, including the new Bathurst Rail Museum that opened in February. Housed in the old Railway Institute in Havannah Street, its exhibits include a model railway track the size of a tennis court. It is set to be a big hit with kids as is the Australian Fossil and Mineral Museum with its centrepiece skeleton of a Tyrannosaurus rex.
Other museums that map the city’s rich past are the Bathurst District Historical Society Museum in the east wing of neo-classical Courthouse and Ben Chifley House, the early home of Australia’s 16th Prime Minister.
Museums also cater for high-octane addicts: there’s the National Motor Racing Museum at Mount Panorama and Ash’s Speedway Museum, the holy grail for motorcycle devotees.
Art lovers can join the Bathurst Arts Trail on the first weekend of every month, when galleries and studios open their doors for free, or visit the Bathurst Regional Art Gallery, which runs three to four exhibitions at a time and holds talks and workshops.
Where to stay in Bathurst
A city so rich in history naturally has several beautifully restored hotels and guesthouses. In the heart of town are the Mews Apartments in the heritage-listed Royal Hotel, which dates to the 1840s. The four apartments each have balconies overlooking Machattie Park and the Courthouse.
The swishest place to hole up, however, has to be Bishop’s Court Estate, a six-home boutique hotel occupying the former residence of Anglican Bishop Samuel Marsden. Each room has an alluring name – Serenity, Divinity and Harmony – and is painted in a colour reflected in bishop’s vestments. Owner and interior decorator Christine Le Fevre spent four years restoring the 1870-built two-storey manse that includes library, private chapel and sprawling gardens. Her labour of love has created the most stunning but relaxing space – grand but far from overwhelming. The stairs creak a little, and the fresh herbs from the garden and eggs from the resident hens create a homely touch.
For more accommodation, have a browse here.
How to get to Bathurst
We love a good road trip but if you’re more interested in the destination than the journey, why not dive straight into the action with a direct flight to Bathurst? Rex (Regional Express) operates multiple flights every week from Sydney to Bathurst. Experience their renowned country hospitality and start your Bathurst adventure on a good note. Book your flights at rex.com.au
Looking for more gems in regional New South Wales? Explore the Southern Highlands or enjoy a foodie adventure in Orange.