From ghost tours to fine dining, and feeling like a kid again, Louise Southerden finds plenty to enjoy.
Australia's third-oldest city is best known as a gateway to Tasmanian beauties such as Cradle Mountain and the Overland Track, the Tamar Valley wine route and the Bay of Fires - when it's not being overshadowed by Australia's second-oldest city, Hobart. But spend a day wandering Launceston's heritage-listed streets (it's a short, scenic walk to anywhere in this riverside city) and you'll find there's more to love about it than its famous gorge.
Ask "Lonny" locals to name their favourite breakfast spot and chances are they'll say Fresh on Charles. Look for the armchairs and tiled coffee tables on the footpath outside, then walk through to this little oasis of retro at the back of the building. The decor could be described as homely meets hip, with white, Austin Powers-era swivel chairs and comfy couches beneath a wall mural of a Chinese woman circa 1955. The floor is polished concrete, the ceiling black, the coffee great and the food healthy - for you and the planet.
Fresh on Charles, 178 Charles Street, open
8.30am-3pm daily, except Sundays, when it's open 10am-2pm. Also open for dinner from 6pm on Thursday, Friday and Saturday. See freshoncharles.com.au.
Take the free Tiger Bus (everything in this part of Tasmania is thylacine-themed) across the river to Inveresk, an industrial suburb of Launceston that has become the hub of its arts district. It's also home to Queen Victoria Museum and Gallery (QVMAG), a museum-shaped time capsule set amid 19th-century railway yards. The main hall alone has everything from vintage boots, bicycles and bushwalking gear to long-extinct marsupial megafauna such as Zygomaturus tasmanicus (a hippo-sized wombat) and two stuffed thylacines. There's also a silent-movie theatre, a planetarium, an interactive science centre and a sporting gallery featuring the cricket-like game of "vigoro" (first played in Launceston in 1937).
Tiger Buses do 30-minute loops of the city from about 10am to 3.30pm weekdays. See launceston.tas.gov.au. QVMAG Museum at Inveresk and the newly renovated QVMAG Art Gallery at Royal Park are open daily 10am-5pm, free entry. See qvmag.tas.gov.au.
Between QVMAG and Launceston Tramway Museum, and in keeping with Inveresk's "steampunk" theme, Blue is the perfect proletarian lunch spot, with a dash of style. Inside, it's all concrete and glass and paintings by emerging artists. The food is fresh and organic and if it's possible to get a bad meal in Tasmania, you won't get one here. Try the roasted pumpkin risotto, the red duck curry, the pan-roasted trevalla or the goat's curd, baby beetroots, walnuts and truffle oil salad.
Blue Cafe Bar, Inveresk Railyards, 2-4 Invermay Road, is open daily from 8am and for dinner on Friday and Saturday nights. See bluecafebar.com.au.
For all things hops and barley, walk back towards the city along the North Esk River (which flows into the Tamar) to the James Boag & Son brewery. There's a beer museum and one-hour brewery tours in which you'll be issued with "beer goggles" (safety glasses) and introduced to the intricacies of brewing before facing a final challenge: four glasses of beer that are free for the tasting.
Boag's Centre for Beer Lovers, 39 William Street, is open 8.45am-4.30pm daily. One-hour discovery tours at 10am and 1.30pm weekdays cost $20, including tasting. See boags.com.au.
Fifteen minutes' walk from the brewery is Launceston's No.1 tourist attraction, Cataract Gorge, where Launceston locals go to run, climb, picnic and swim and where tourists go to ride across the gorge on the longest single-span chairlift in the world (457 metres end to end). Guaranteed to make you feel five again - with your legs dangling, a little canopy overhead, a safety bar across your lap - it takes you peacefully from the Victorian-era Cliff Grounds, with its daffodil gardens, band rotunda, peacocks and redwoods, to First Basin, the closest thing Launceston has to a beach, with its shimmering outdoor pool and grassy surrounds.
Cataract Gorge chairlift is open from 9am every day and closes at 4.30pm in winter, 5pm in spring and autumn and 5.30-6pm in summer. Tickets cost $12 one-way, $15 return. See launcestoncataractgorge.com.au.
Leaving Cataract Gorge, you'll pass a historic flour mill that houses one of Tasmania's best restaurants, Stillwater, and, on the top two floors, the Mill Providore Gifts & Gallery. The upper floor is an art gallery; the lower floor is a cornucopia of gourmet fare and lovingly crafted souvenirs: merino-wool clothes by Tasmanian brand Smitten, homewares made from Tasmanian wood, Tasmanian tiger tea towels, hampers with Tasmanian honey, olive oil, teas and chocolates, even lavender cheeses.
The Mill Providore Gifts & Gallery is open
8.30am-5.30pm Monday-Friday, 8am-5pm Saturday and 9am-4pm Sunday. Stillwater is open daily from 8.30am for breakfast and lunch, and for dinner from 6pm Monday-Saturday. See millprovidore.com.au, stillwater.net.au.
A short walk from the Mill, but on the other side of town, is Design Centre Tasmania. The only contemporary wood design museum in Australia, this purpose-built gallery showcases touchable art by Tasmanian artists. You're encouraged to smell the aromatic woods used in some pieces. The adjoining shop sells everything from wooden kitchen utensils too beautiful to use to Tasmanian blackwood and huon pine rocking chairs for $13,700. It's in a heritage-listed church hall with stained-glass windows and a vaulted ceiling.
Design Centre Tasmania, corner Tamar and Brisbane Streets, is open 9.30am-5.30pm daily. See designcentre.com.au.
A ghost tour is almost obligatory in a city founded in 1806, and Launceston is compact enough for a 90-minute walking tour down all its memory lanes and haunted alleyways. The city centre's Georgian and Victorian buildings look even more imposing at night than during the day, particularly when accompanied by a commentary of murder, mayhem and unexplained phenomena. Bring a camera in case you see something inexplicable.
Launceston City Ghost Tours cost $25 and depart at nightfall from the Royal Oak hotel on the corner of Tamar and Brisbane streets (across the road from Design Centre Tasmania). See launcestoncityghosttours.com.
Settle your nerves with a glass of Goaty Hill riesling, from the Tamar Valley, at the Mud Bar. It's one of seven restaurants in one of the newest parts of Launceston, the redeveloped seaport, which opened in 2002. Next door to the Mud Bar is the seaport's most popular place for a casual outdoor dinner, Levee Food Co. There are indoor tables for when the sun sets, the temperature drops and you suddenly remember how far south Tasmania really is.
Mud Bar & Restaurant, 28 Seaport Boulevard, is open from 11am daily. Levee Food Co, 27 Seaport Boulevard, is open 10.30am-10pm daily. See mudbar.com.au, leveefoodco.com.au, launcestonseaport.com.au.
Getting there Virgin Australia flies direct to Launceston from Sydney (1hr 40min) and from Melbourne (1hr 5min). See virginaustralia.com.
Staying there Peppers Seaport Hotel, in the new riverside dining and marina complex, has 60 deluxe rooms and suites (all suites have balconies) from $169 a night. See peppers.com.au/seaport.
More information See visitlauncestontamar.com.au, discovertasmania.com.au.
Louise Southerden travelled courtesy of Tourism Tasmania.