Bendigo had its first lucky strike with a gold rush that left a legacy of historic attractions and splendid architecture. Add to these its modern-day food and culture, and you have a compelling Central Victorian city to explore.
Sampling the food scene in Bendigo, Victoria
“I love chocolate, it’s always been a treat,” says Hayley Tibbett, owner of Bendigo’s Indulge Chocolates. “It only takes a little to give you that good vibe.”
For more than a decade, Tibbett has been creating fine Belgian-style chocolate in Bendigo CBD. I’m delighted to sample a few tasty items such as shiraz ganache and chocolates with salted caramel and sea salt.
Chocolate is only the start of the dining adventure in Bendigo, whose food scene has leapt upward in quality in recent years. Held twice a month next to the Bendigo Visitor Centre, the Bendigo Community Farmers Market is a guaranteed source of local produce. One stall to look out for is Vintage Kitchen Preserves. Owner Sue Gerdsen sells spreads made with the utmost attention to minimising waste – including the ‘Outback Chutney’, made from zucchinis grown ‘out the back’ of her house.
The city also has some great restaurants. Masons of Bendigo is a stylish space serving dishes with an emphasis on local ingredients within a former glass factory. In atmospheric Chancery Lane is smooth bar The Dispensary, with a great drinks list ranging from local wines to obscure European beers. And BendiGo Wholefoods is a local favourite, matching a specialist grocery with a café specialising in tasty wholesome dishes. My bowl of housemade falafel with creamy beetroot hummus and coconut labneh makes a great lunch.
Bendigo Art Gallery and Ulumbarra Theatre in Bendigo, Victoria
The city’s cultural pride and joy is Bendigo Art Gallery, which regularly hosts exclusive exhibitions with wide popular appeal. These shows have covered subjects such as Grace Kelly and Marilyn Monroe, with a recent blockbuster featuring portraits of British royalty.
Another cultural drawcard is the Ulumbarra Theatre, set within the walls of a former prison. The venue’s name means ‘meeting place’ in the language of the local Dja Dja Wurrung people, and it fulfils that function admirably with a diverse program of music and plays.
The gold rush and Chinese heritage of Bendigo, Victoria
Bendigo was swept up in the gold rush fever that struck Victoria in the mid-19th century. One of the best ways of learning about that era is to drop into the Central Deborah Gold Mine, an original structure that’s open for visitors to explore.
There are several tours available, but the top attraction has to be the Nine Levels of Darkness. The tour takes you 228 metres below ground, dressed in miners’ gear, to learn the traditional tricks of the trade: navigating tunnels, setting charges and operating a drill.
Another aspect of Bendigo’s past was the large number of miners who arrived from China, hoping to strike it lucky on the goldfields in the face of considerable discrimination. The Golden Dragon Museum tells the story of the city’s Chinese community via fascinating exhibits. The ceremonial dragons that give the museum its name include newcomer Dai Gum Loong, the longest in the world at 120 metres. Each year the dragons wind through the city streets for the annual Easter Festival.
Outside the museum is another highlight, the Yi Yuan, a ‘garden of joy’ based on the design of the gardens of the Imperial Palace in Beijing. Within its grounds are a Buddhist temple, and there’s a tearoom if you fancy a cup.
Bendigo Tramways and Bendigo Pottery in Bendigo, Victoria
A fun attraction that threads together city highlights is the tourist tram operated by Bendigo Tramways. One line remains from Bendigo’s original tram system which ran from 1890 to the 1970s. Today it plays host to a range of vintage vehicles.
At one end of the route is the Central Deborah Gold Mine. From here the tram heads east along High Street and Pall Mall past the elegant Alexandra Fountain. At its eastern terminus is Bendigo Joss House Temple, a Chinese place of worship surviving from the gold rush era. Tram tickets are valid all day and allow passengers to hop on and off at stops along the way.
An extra drawcard is the monthly Blues Tram, featuring live music and refreshment along the rails on a Saturday afternoon.
On the edge of town in Epsom is Bendigo Pottery, founded in 1858. There’s a museum showing off its historic wood-fired kilns, and displays of equipment used down the decades. Be sure to spend time shopping at the wide selection of tableware and cookware made on the premises, and galleries selling the work of local potters. The most enjoyable activity is to throw your own pot. Visitors can book a pottery class and be expertly led through the art of moulding a ceramic creation.
Quest Schaller and Balgownie Estate Wines in Bendigo, Victoria
My first night in Bendigo is spent at the Quest Schaller. It’s a sleek modern hotel near the CBD, which features the vibrant work of Melbourne artist Mark Schaller. Rooms are compact but bright and airy, with small balconies.
For my final night I swap city for bush, taking the short drive to Balgownie Estate Wines. In addition to a relaxed restaurant with views over the grapes, this winery offers upmarket tent accommodation on its grounds. My ‘glamping’ tent turns out to be spacious with a comfortable bed. It’s a delight to sit on the deck as the sun sets.
Rosalind Park in Bendigo, Victoria
After indulging in the foodie and cultural highlights of Bendigo, wind down with a stroll through Rosalind Park. This beautifully landscaped space lies between Bendigo Art Gallery and the Visitor Centre. Its grassy slopes are criss-crossed by paths and the Bendigo Creek. The park’s lookout tower is within an old mining frame. It’s the perfect place from which to take a parting photo of this memorable regional city.