An easy weekend getaway from Melbourne, Ballarat has a complex tapestry of history waiting to be unfurled.
Gold rush history of Ballarat, Victoria
If it weren’t for the cars lining the road, Ballarat’s Lydiard Street could still be in the late-1800s. The grand Victorian-era buildings adorning both sides of the street echo Ballarat’s place at the centre of Victoria’s gold rush, an era that saw it become one of the wealthiest towns in the world.
Ballarat, around 120 kilometres from Melbourne, was settled by graziers in the 1830s. But the discovery of gold here in 1851 changed everything. Within two months of the first gold strike in August 1851, 4000 people had rushed to Ballarat, hoping to strike it rich. Some prospered. Most failed. With the luck spread thinly, prosperity and poverty collided at Ballarat, leaving lasting stamps on Victoria’s third-largest city and shaping seminal moments in Australia’s history.
Ballarat tour guide Andrew Sharpe has meticulously researched the city’s colourful history and characters to devise his popular heritage and true crime walking tours.
“Only 5 per cent struck it rich on gold,” says Sharpe. “The people providing the goods and services to the prospectors made the real money. You knew who had money and who didn’t. In the face of adversity, some were entrepreneurial, and others were opportunistic.”
The gold rush created Ballarat’s architectural grandeur. A few blocks of Lydiard Street are widely considered to be the best-preserved Victorian-era streetscape outside of the UK. Gold also made Ballarat an aspirational city, a place the wealthy and famous wanted to visit.
“Behind the bricks and mortar, every building tells a story: sometimes good, sometimes bad,” Sharpe says. “That’s Ballarat. You’re never that far removed from the town’s history and all that’s happened here.”
Craig’s Royal Hotel in Ballarat VIC
Plenty has happened at Craig’s Royal Hotel, which is one of Ballarat’s most famous landmarks. It became a goldfields icon in 1867 when Queen Victoria’s son Prince Alfred, the Duke of Edinburgh came to stay. Its long guest list of celebrities includes other royals, author Mark Twain and Dame Nellie Melba, who once sang to an adoring crowd in the street below from the hotel’s reading room balcony.
A block away from Craig’s Royal Hotel, entrepreneur and philanthropist James Oddie – who tried his luck unsuccessfully on the gold diggings before making a fortune in real estate and banking – helped found the Art Gallery of Ballarat, Australia’s oldest and largest regional gallery in the 1880s. The gallery houses an expansive collection of Australian, British and European art, including works by a ‘who’s who’ of Australian painting from Streeton, Dobell, McCubbin and Heysen. Free guided tours are a perfect way to discover the gallery and its stories. Tom Roberts’ Charcoal burners (also known as Wood splitters) holds pride of place. The artwork was brazenly stolen in 1978, but it was recovered a year later after a ransom was paid.
Ballarat Botanical Gardens Victoria
In 1860, the city set aside 102 acres to transform into a lavish botanical garden. Today, just outside Ballarat, plump trees and ornate garden beds line the avenues. The Ballarat Botanical Gardens became famous for its collection of fine statues. Businessman Thomas Stoddard bought and donated its 12 Italian marble statues. Scottish-born Russell Thomson donated more pieces including a popular statue of William Wallace (aka Braveheart) in tribute to his ancestry.
Today the most popular statues in the Ballarat Botanical Gardens are the collection of busts lining the Prime Ministers Walk. It’s the only complete collection of Australian Prime Ministers we know of. But not all our former PMs found the honour particularly flattering. Paul Keating, whose bust looks uncannily cartoon-like (which could be because it was made by former cartoonist and Rubbery Figures creator John Nicholson), is said to hate it. Kevin Rudd, apparently, is also less than impressed with his likeness.
Sovereign Hill in Ballarat VIC
With the lasting impact of gold on the city’s architecture and culture, it’s no surprise that Ballarat’s most popular tourist attractions hero its gold rush heritage. Sovereign Hill is an entertaining and realistic outdoor museum. It showcases life on the diggings is from the perspectives of prospectors, shopkeepers, tradespeople, mine owners and Chinese immigrants.
There are plenty of opportunities to get hands-on, such as panning for gold, going bowling, touring a mine or watching artisans demonstrate their skills. New offerings at Sovereign Hill in 2019 include evening lamp-lit tours and an all-new $8 million sound and light show that explores the story of gold.
Yet for all the riches gold brought to Ballarat, for many prospectors, life on the diggings was dire. In 1854 miners rebelled against unpopular and expensive mining licences imposed by the government in Melbourne. The capital sent troops to quell the insurrection in an event we now refer to as the Eureka Rebellion. The quick but bloody battle saw 22 miners and eight soldiers slain. To understand the cultural impact of the gold rush and the fight for miners’ rights, head to the Eureka Centre. Here you’ll find one of Australia’s most famous historical relics, the Eureka Flag.
Places to stay in Ballarat VIC
Back on Lydiard Street, Craig’s Royal Hotel remains Ballarat’s premier accommodation. Extensive refurbishments in 2003 maintained its vintage opulence and heritage character.
Quality Inn Heritage includes part of the former Bank of NSW dating back to 1862. It features stylish and modern accommodation that champions the building’s heritage. A few doors down the street, The George Hotel Ballarat offers luxurious accommodation in a building that was Ballarat’s second licensed hotel in 1854. It has a mix of hotel rooms and fully self-contained accommodation options, ideal for families.
Places to eat in Ballarat VIC
Craig’s Royal Hotel also provides options for all-day dining. The Gallery Restaurant offers buffet breakfast followed by sophisticated lunch and dinner menus. A quick coffee and a snack are also on offer all day in Craig’s Café and Larder.
Knife Fork Spoon Kitchen and Espresso is the pick of the city’s cafés for breakfast and lunch. The popular and busy L’Espresso and Ballarista also have great coffee and breakfast. For a breakfast truly worthy of gracing your Instagram feed, Yellow Espresso is a must.
If you love pizza head to ever-popular The Forge Pizzeria for its delicious thin-crust woodfired pizzas. There are some pizza shop classics like Hawaiian and Capricciosa alongside a gourmet menu featuring trendy toppings like pulled pork, woodfire-roasted pumpkin and garlic prawns.
Want to learn more about Victoria’s Gold Rush history? Bendigo is another town that will take you back in time. It also has exceptional food! Check out our guide here.