As I wander around the Art Gallery of Ballarat I stop, taken with a painting by artist Albert Henry Fullwood from the 1880s. It’s titled Sturt Street, Ballarat and depicts the city during its gold-mining heyday – horse-drawn carriages trundling down the wide thoroughfare as women in petticoats and men in top hats chat in the shadows of the Victorian-era streetscape.
I have just wandered down Sturt Street myself and it’s a real treat to see how the modern city I’ve just arrived in looked more than 100 years ago.
History is everywhere in Ballarat, from the impressive architecture to the faithful re-creation of the region’s goldfields at Sovereign Hill and the numerous eateries around town, many with their own stories to tell.
Located just over an hour’s drive from Melbourne’s Tullamarine Airport, the Victorian regional city makes for the perfect weekend escape for a history lover like myself.
I start by checking into the Ballarat Premier Apartments and am immediately awed by my room’s high ornate ceilings, plush interiors and roaring fireplace. The heritage-listed building was first constructed in 1901, before becoming the Ballarat War Memorial Building and a hostel for service men and women during World War II.
Later, a stroll along Sturt Street leads to the historic Titanic Memorial Bandstand (erected in 1915 to commemorate the men who, as the legend goes, continued to play for terrified passengers as the ship went down), as well as the numerous sculptures and monuments that make up the grand six-lane thoroughfare. My walk brings me to Lydiard and Camp Streets, where I stop to take in the period architecture – I feel like I’m in Europe rather than an Aussie city.
I pop into Craig’s Royal Hotel for a drink. Built in 1862, as Ballarat’s first official licensed pub it hosted Prince Alfred, the Duke of Edinburgh on his visit in 1867, while Dame Nellie Melba famously sang from its balcony in 1908.
The next day, I take a quick drive out of town for a full day of gold-rush history. I start at Sovereign Hill, an outdoor living museum set on a former mining site that re-creates the sights and sounds of the digging fields, where men from around Australia and the world descended in 1851 to seek their fortune.
As I wander up Main Street, with its replica and original buildings depicting the homes and industries of Ballarat some 10 years after gold was first discovered, I pause in front of the United States Hotel. Redcoat soldiers, who were deployed to keep law and order, draw their muskets, their black boots kicking up dust on the dirt road.
Those of us waiting for the muskets to fire are told to place our fingers in our ears – and you don’t have to tell me twice, the loud pop from each gun barely muffled as the assembled crowd lets out a collective gasp and smoke shoots into the air.
Passing more women and men in period dress, I join the underground mine tour and climb aboard a steel tram, ready to descend 20 metres below ground to wander the labyrinth of tunnels that were dug and blasted out in search of the precious metal.
Our group travels for a minute in pitch black to allow our eyes to adjust and I’m glad for our guide as we pass tunnels that lead in all directions – it would be very easy to get lost! We learn that the miners worked long hours underground, often only by candlelight, searching for the nugget of gold that would change their lives. I’m disappointed when the tour ends, although can’t imagine spending hours at a time so far underground.
Make the guided tour a must-do on your visit, along with panning for gold at Red Hill Gully Creek.
Later, back in town, I take my grumbling stomach to The Forge Pizzeria. Brothers Chris and Tim Matthews opened the eatery in 2010 on the site of an old antiques and art gallery. The shop’s original sign and bell can still be spotted as you tuck into a tasty gourmet pizza.
The next day, history is also on the menu at Lola, The Provincial Hotel’s in-house restaurant. Named after goldfield character Lola Montez, who would perform her scandalous, underwear-flashing Spider Dance for the miners, Lola’s delicious smoked salmon eggs benedict is made all the more enjoyable while admiring the French provincial-inspired decor.
Fuelled up, I head to the Eureka Centre, the site of the Eureka Stockade in 1854, when men and women fought for miners’ rights at the goldfields. The museum highlights the events that led to the stockade, before revealing what remains of the Eureka Flag, one of our most iconic cultural objects. While segments of fabric are missing, gifted to visiting dignitaries, it’s not hard to imagine how impressive this symbol of defiance would have been when it was unfurled all those years ago.
And with my mind (and belly) full, I’ve come full circle on my weekend, with a greater appreciation for this captivating city’s golden past.
When to visit Ballarat
Ballarat’s Begonia Festival runs annually in March. View pop-up gardens and floral displays throughout the CBD and at the Ballarat Botanical Gardens.
Where to stay in Ballarat
- Ballarat Premier Apartments (ballaratpremierapartments.com.au).
- Craig’s Royal Hotel (craigsroyal.com.au).
- The Provincial Hotel (theprovincialballarat.com.au).
Where to eat in Ballarat
- Moon and Mountain, for delicious modern Asian (moonandmountain.com.au).
- Webster’s Market and Cafe, for great coffee and brunch (webstersmarketandcafe.com).
- The Highlander Bar & Bistro, for sensational grills (thehighlanderballarat.com.au).