Ballarat travel guide and things to do: 20 reasons to visit

*1. WALK LYDIARD STREET Ballarat, just under 1½ hours' driving time from Melbourne, is a handsome former 19th-century gold-rush city which is today home to some of the country's most impressive heritage architecture and streetscapes. There's so much history here it virtually oozes from the cracks in the well-maintained footpaths. Lydiard Street, for instance, off the main street of Sturt, is regarded by some experts as being among the best preserved Victorian streetscapes outside England. It has also been used for locations for the popular ABC television series, The Doctor Blake Mysteries, which is set in Ballarat. See

2. STAY CRAIG'S ROYAL HOTEL A flawed gem from the gold-rush era, the 41-room Craig's Royal Hotel is Ballarat's answer to Melbourne's Windsor Hotel, which it preceded by 30 years. On Lydiard Street South, guests of the hotel, which opened in 1853, have included Dame Nellie Melba, Mark Twain and Prince Alfred, Queen Victoria's second son. It's the one accommodation in town to offer an authentic sense of what it must have been like to visit Ballarat during its rollicking heyday. The Craig's owners recently appointed Ian Curley, a noted Melbourne chef and restaurateur, to consult at the hotel's Gallery Bistro. See

3. DO MUSEUM OF AUSTRALIAN DEMOCRACY AT EUREKA (M.A.D.E) The Eureka Stockade in 1854 is considered by many historians to represent the birth of Australian democracy and, for that matter, a nascent republicanism. This excellent interactive museum is on the site of the bloody uprising by miners against the Victorian government's imposition of a draconian licensing regime. There is plenty to interest adults and children alike with the state-of-the-art museum also including SaltBush Kitchen, a cafe which specialises in authentic Australian bush flavours. The museum is notably home to the Eureka Flag, (see below), on loan from the Art Gallery of Ballarat. See

*4. SEE EUREKA FLAG No visit to Ballarat would be complete without a viewing of one of Australia's most famous flags, or at least what remains of it. The "Flag of the Southern Cross", or more commonly "Eureka Flag", was flown over the stockade site of the Eureka Rebellion in 1854 as a symbol of solidarity and defiance and has since been, from time to time, entertained as an alternative Australian ensign. Over the decades the flag, made from fabric similar to that used in the manufacture of 19th-century miners' shirts, has been depleted by the souveniring of patches of it. But it has been meticulously restored with more than enough of it left to gain a sense of what a powerful symbol it would have represented when first unfurled. See

*5. DRINK MITCHELL HARRIS WINE BAR Despite a population of 100,000 or so, Ballarat noticeably lacks a signature restaurant, with its nearest equivalent in The Age Good Food Guide being Catfish, a modern Thai restaurant. So thank goodness for Mitchell Harris Wine Bar, a pocket of Melbourne cool on Doveton Street, literally in the middle of "The Rat", as Melburnians somewhat disparagingly refer to Ballarat. Not just a wine bar showcasing local drops, Mitchell Harris, as befitting a wine bar, also offers a fine tapas-style menu in a casual though smart rustic setting. See

6. DO SOVEREIGN HILL Rightly regarded as one of the best outdoor folkloric museums in the world, Sovereign Hill is an uncannily faithful recreation of Ballarat during its 1850s gold-rush era when the city was home to as many as 150,000 fortune-seeking gold-diggers and other ring-ins from Australia and overseas. Each evening Sovereign Hill also hosts a multimillion-dollar spectacular, Blood on the Southern Cross, relating the story of the Eureka Rebellion on the Ballarat goldfields of December 3, 1854, in which 22 diggers and five troopers died. The show covers much of the 25 hectare site of the park, with participants ferried around in custom-designed "transporters". See

7. EAT L'ESPRESSO One of the first establishments to bring a taste of Melbourne's espresso culture to Ballarat, the cosy L'espresso remains as popular as ever. At weekend breakfast times it positively heaves with locals and visitors alike, with the staff remaining commendably unfazed. You'll find decent coffee, beautiful tin-pressed ceiling, red walls, and even a wide collection of CDs for sale with, as the name suggests, an Italian-flavoured menu. The cafe opens at 7am every day for breakfast and lunch and is open late on Friday. 417 Sturt Street. No website

8. SEE THE OLD COLONISTS CLUB Unless you're a member, "see" is all you can do from street level when it comes to one of Ballarat's oldest institutions, formed as a benevolent society to represent the city's gold-rush pioneers. But it is yet another gorgeous renaissance revival building on Lydiard Street. A favourite location for The Doctor Blake Mysteries, the origins of this exclusive gentleman's club, with its grand cast iron and timber verandah, date to 1869, with the building in which it is now housed built in 1887-89 on the site of the barracks and stables of the gold escort. See

9. WALK STURT STREET One of the grandest main thoroughfares in regional Australia, Sturt Street is also one of its widest, spreading across a lavish, and probably unnecessary six lanes, replete with statue-studded gardens, including one of Queen Victoria overlooking the Town Hall, running down the length of its centre. Don't miss one of Sturt Street's quirkiest features, a historic bandstand, just down from the corner of Sturt and Lydiard streets, that was erected by Ballarat musicians to commemorate their gallant colleagues on RMS Titanic. See


10. DINE HIGH TEA AT CRAIG'S ROYAL High tea at Craig's Royal has been a Ballarat tradition for more than a century, and what a venue for it. Served each Sunday afternoon for $59.50 a person in the ornate Grand Dining Room on the first floor, don't be surprised if the locals and visitors turn up in period costume, looking every bit like extras from a Doctor Blake Mysteries episode. Bookings, as you may guess, are essential. For a limited time, the hotel is also including special post-prandial guided tours of the hotel. See

11. WALK CAMP STREET After Lydiard Street, nearby Camp Street is probably Ballarat's next most architecturally impressive street. It was here that the despised government troopers of the gold rush days camped and here, too, from where they embarked on their march to the Eureka Stockade on December 3, 1854, in order to confront the rebel miners who had so dramatically defied their authority. The former police court and the old police station remain but perhaps the street's loveliest building is the old Trades Hall, dating to 1887. See

*12. SEE LAKE WENDOUREE The venue for the 1956 Olympics rowing competition, beautiful Lake Wendouree is one of Ballarat's best natural assets. The lake, which can walked, cycled or driven around, is lined with historic boathouses and some of Ballarat's most prestigious homes. Nearby, on the western shore of the black swan-studded lake, are the cool climate Ballarat Botanical Gardens, famed for the row of bust statues of all of the Australian prime ministers since Federation. See

13. EAT LITTLE BIRD CAFÉ Perch yourself at this new and popular breakfast and lunch spot just around the corner from Craig's Royal Hotel and opposite Ballarat's grandiose post office on the corner of Stuart and Lydiard streets. At the rear of the cafe, there's also an eyrie-like seating area where you can overlook the open kitchen and the comings and goings of customers. It's comfort food central, with ubiquitous cute retro touches and everything from pancakes to Cocoa Pops for breakfast. It's all complemented by free-flowing Allpress coffee from Sydney. 205 Sturt Street (no website)

14. DO ART GALLERY OF BALLARAT One of Australia's best and oldest regional institutions of its kind in Australia, the Art Gallery of Ballarat was established at the height of the goldrush in 1854. It's in a handsome building on Lydiard Street that dates to 1890. Aside from its impressive and sizeable, permanent collection (and a great gift shop), it will later this year host the touring exhibition of Sydney's famed Archibald Prize. One of the gallery's prized possessions – the Eureka Flag – now resides at the M.A.D.E Gallery (see above) where it is "on loan". See

15. EAT THE FORGE PIZZERIA The 200-seat Forge Pizzeria, in a cavernous old erstwhile antique shop on Armstrong Street in the middle of Ballarat's CBD, is one of the city's most popular haunts. The grandfather of the owners was a well known blacksmith in the Ballarat region, and, as they explain, at the heart of a backsmith's shop is a fire known as "the forge". Nowadays the forge is a wood-fired oven dispensing quality gourmet pizzas made from local ingredients. See

16. SEE ARCH OF VICTORY Ballarat's burghers of yore were certainly not into small statements when it came to the commissioning of edifices. One of the most imposing war memorials in Australia outside the capital cities, the Arch of Victory marks the start of a 22-kilometre-long Avenue of Honour, a moving, living memorial consisting of nearly 4000 trees commemorating Ballarat's First World War fallen. The first trees were planted in 1917 with the arch completed in 1920. See

17. DRINK FIKA COFFEE BREWERS A little corner of Scandinavian cool in the heart of Ballarat, even though the young owner confirms he has never set foot in a Nordic country, FIKA persuasively channels Sweden inside an appropriately minimalist blonde timber-clad cafe near Mitchell Harris Wine Bar (see above) on Doveton Street. It's a stylish place for breakfast or lunch though it's closed on Sundays. 36A Doveton Street. (No website).

18. SEE HER MAJESTY'S THEATRE It's a tribute to a regional city like Ballarat that the historic Her Majesty's, opposite Craig's Royal Hotel, has been in continuous use since it opened in 1875. It has even been rumoured that the soprano, Dame Nellie Melba, once used a tunnel under Lydiard Street to go from the hotel to the theatre in order to avoid adoring, though seething, crowds, before a performance. See

19. WALK BALLARAT HERITAGE TOURS Allow Andrew Sharpe, a local thespian and sometime Sovereign Hill performer, to bring Ballarat alive for you. A skilled tour guide, Sharpe vividly explains how gold transformed Ballarat in a few years from a basic tent-town to a grand Victorian city of brick and bluestone. Sharpe's 90-minute tours run on weekends and public holidays and by appointment at other times. See

20. SEE BALLARAT RAILWAY STATION Commuters waiting for the train to Melbourne in the midst of a freezing winter morning may not be so enamoured of it, but Ballarat Railway Station, which opened in 1862, ranks as one of Australia's most impressive heritage railway stations. At the far northern end of Lydiard Street, the beautifully preserved building features a distinctive domed roof over its tracks with the two platforms reached by a footbridge, which just clears waiting train carriages. See

* Traveller top choice

The writer was a guest of Ballarat Tourism and Craig's Royal Hotel.