One of the most famous gold-mining towns in the world – with beautiful gold rush-era Victorian buildings to prove it – Ballarat is known as the birthplace of Australian democracy. But you don’t have to be a history buff to fall for its charms. With rare wildlife encounters, nature adventures and even a medieval castle, this one-of-a-kind destination will win over the whole fam.
Before you hit the road, you’ll need to book your stay. Whether you want to pitch a tent or lodge in luxury – or something in between – NRMA Ballarat Holiday Park has you covered. In walking distance from some of Ballarat’s biggest draw cards, the park offers spa villas, budget cabins, and caravan or camping sites. Whichever you choose, you can enjoy an enormous solar heated pool and spotless amenities, thoughtfully designed for all ages and abilities (such as a wheelchair-accessible family room and a sensory room for kids on the autism spectrum).
On the road with the little ones? With a games room, kids club, trike hire and jumping pillow (even more fun than it sounds!), it’s got the makings of absolute kid heaven.
1. Go for gold at at Sovereign Hill
Get a glimpse of Ballarat in its boomtown glory with this open-air museum, just 300 m from your accommodation. Think characters dressed in old-world costumes, original mine shaft and equipment, and a strip with working shops and a theatre straight from the mid-1800s. The kids will love panning for real gold in the creek – and it’s finders, keepers!
2. Get cultured at the Art Gallery of Ballarat
The oldest and largest regional art gallery in Australia has walls crammed with significant works from artists like Sidney Nolan, Arthur Boyd and Clarice Beckett. If you’ve got kids, there’s a free-form activity space upstairs as well as regular workshops. Break for lunch at the stylish on-site cafe and pick up a memento at the gift shop, stocked with locally made jewellery and wares.
3. Enter a fantasy land at Kryal Castle
Cross the drawbridge over the moat to a medieval fantasy world, complete with knights, royalty, dragons and wizards. Get lost in a maze, see a wizard whiz up potions, or try your hand at archery. The Torture Museum is a fasinating look at the grizzlier side of human history (though not for the fainthearted, or kids under 13). Don’t miss the daily jousting tournament at 2 pm!
4. Wander through the Botanic Gardens
Stroll through 40 hectares of breathtaking floral displays in these tranquil gardens, stopping to pay tribute to the prisoners of war memorials along the way. Don’t miss the vivid begonias.
5. Have a day by the water at Lake Wendouree
You could spend all day by this urban lake, watching swans and cormorants duck under the water and fisherman reeling in rainbow trout. Pack a picnic and sausages and arrive early to fire up the barbie. Kids will love the epic multi-level wooden adventure playground, complete with forts and tunnels.
6. Go for a tram ride at the Tramway Musuem
Trams are to Victoria as yellow taxi cabs are to New York City, and this volunteer-run museum is a monument to this state icon. Explore their significance with vintage tramcars and films before hopping aboard a century-old tram for a scenic 20-minute ride around the bends of Lake Wendouree.
7. Buy fresh produce at the Bridge Hill Farmers Markets
Get an authentic taste of rural living at the bustling Bridge Hill Farmers Markets, run on the 1st Saturday of the month. Stock up on farm-to-basket produce from local growers, gourmet treats and freshly baked bread – making sure to pack a picnic rug to enjoy your goodies to the sounds of live music. With face painting and a bouncy castle, it’s a party for kids too.
8. Cuddle a koala at Ballarat Wildlife Park
Meet a host of native animals (plus more exotic species, like Sumatran Tigers) in this sprawling 37 hectare wildlife park – including free-roaming kangaroos, which you can feed from the palm of your hand. For an extra fee, Animal Encounters allow you to get up close and personal with some favourite animals. You can pat a meerkat, cuddle a koala, or – if you dare – have a snake draped around your shoulders.
9. Scare yourself silly with Eerie Tours
Steel yourself for these spooky night tours that explore the dark underbelly of life in Ballarat – AKA Australia’s most haunted town. Created by professional historian Nathaniel Buchanan, these award-winning tours delve into the uncanny goings-on around Ballarat from the grim (mass executions) to the supernatural (ghost stories). Be warned: even hardened sceptics are said to have emerged from these tours with a tremor!
10. Discover democracy at Eureka Centre
In 1854, gold miners staged a bloody rebellion against the punitive colonial authority – a move historians consider the birth of Australian democracy. This fascinating museum tells the foundation story of the Eureka Stockade through art, interactive displays and historical artefacts – including the original Eureka Flag. Beyond a tribute to the past, the museum also sparks the big questions about democracy today.
11. Taste beers at Hop Temple
Disappear down a laneway under a canopy of umbrellas to this bar in a converted stables, which boasts over 200 craft beers – one of the widest varieties in all of Victoria. But it’s not just for beer snobs. With an excellent menu for adults and kids alike (s’mores, anyone?), lively activities and live music on a Sunday afternoon, there’s something here for everyone.
12. Make friends with cockatoos at Ballarat Bird World
Walk through tranquil gardens and a waterfall at this bird sanctuary to admire majestic native birds, like the Gang-Gang, Major Mitchell and the red-tailed black cockatoo. The latter is a sociable fellow, happy to perch on visitors shoulders for a free meet-and-greet (sessions run at 11:00 am and 2:00 pm; BYO camera). Kids will love the life-like mechatronics dinosaur display and wooden maze with hidden stamps.
13. Have a field day at Maze House
Hop in the car for a 25-minute drive north to a rambling five-acre garden full of quirky charm. Its main drawcard is a meticulously manicured 28-year-old hedge maze, but there’s also a creek, orchard and veggie patch with gigantic sunflowers. As you meander through the grounds, you’ll discover nostalgic country carnival games like return bowling, the wind-up horse racing game, and spin the horoscope wheel. Fuel up with ice cream, chocolate brownies and coffee – and don’t fret if you forgot your keep cup. They serve their cuppas in op shop mugs you can keep or return to another op shop later!
14. Get your putt on at Gold Rush Mini Golf
Part mini-golf, part theme park, these two 18-hole courses offer fun for the family, no matter the weather. Discover the Ballarat gold mining boom as you navigate the outdoor course, complete with mine shafts, an old-timey township, and a flowing stream with an artificial waterfall. Or travel through the age of the dinosaurs, medieval castles and pirate hideaways in the neon-lit indoors course. The venue is licensed, so you can sip a beer while you putt.
15. Go mountain biking at Black Hill Reserve
Rent a mountain bike from Ballarat Bike Hire before heading to Black Hill Reserve. Once a mining site, this lush nature reserve is now favoured by adrenaline junkies. There are ten biking tracks – each named using mining terms, suiting different skill levels – that weave through a towering pine forest and down 85 m into an open cut gorge. Mountain biking not your thing? There are also several scenic hiking trails; pack your binoculars to glimpse rare migratory birds. If you stick around until dusk, a lover’s lookout gives stellar sunset views.