Recently Ballarat was featured in a national tourism top-ten list. My sister and I checked out the list and the 'what to do in Ballarat'. It had the usual stuff in there. Go to the museums that everyone goes to. Visit the theme park and the wildlife park that everyone goes to. While it was a nice list, it's the same list everyone has when promoting what Ballarat has to offer. It's the easy list. So in light of how my sister and I prefer to travel, I thought I would make my own list of how we would want to do Ballarat. So in a list that's by no means comprehensive or in any apparent order, this is how to do Ballarat like a local.
1. Look into the Gold MuseumFirstly, Sovereign Hill and the Gold Museum are rad, so if you've never been, then check them out. Most locals only go to Sov Hill once per year on their free entry Christmas shopping night. However, the Gold Museum is often over-shadowed by Sov Hill, its much flashier sister museum, with its costumes and horse poop and raspberry drop lollies. If you don't believe me, look at the fact that Sov Hill gets its own Facebook page, but also must be mentioned in the Gold Museum Facebook page title as though this magnificent museum is simply a Sov Hill gift shop. Don't be fooled by that impression. The Gold Museum is awesome on its own. While locals may not often visit Sov Hill, they will go to the Gold Museums exhibitions which are small enough to make for a nice quick visit, but also super interesting. If you do get tickets for Sov Hill, they should also get you entry to the Gold Museum which is an absolute hidden gem. What you want to look for there is not the fixed display about Gold, get out the back and look at the seasonal collection they have on. Currently, it's the awesome story of an old fabric house called Lucas which became so renowned in its day that their fabric was used by Pierre Cardin. They even made some underpants for visiting royalty, as well as funded the Arch of Victory and memorial avenue of trees for those from the region who died in the first world war.
I've also heard rumours of an upcoming Doctor Blake exhibition...
Also, I know this list is about doing Ballarat like a local, but I can't help a teenie little brag about how cool the attractions are here. See Kryal Castle below. Fire breathing. Fire swordfighting. Jousting. I wonder who has the OHS job there.
2. Visit the Arch of Victory
Speaking of the Arch of Victory, a great photo spot is this beautiful arch at the top of Sturt Street. For many locals paying their respects on ANZAC Day, this is the location of choice. The sun rises behind us, lighting up the arch if the sky is clear. The trees of the avenue will have begun to turn for autumn giving a striking visual reminder of the cycle life. At any time of year, it's still a sobering reminder of the very personal cost of war. There is a roll of all the names in the avenue at the arch, so you can also look for relatives and find out their tree number. Because of the direction the sun sets, the arch looks spectacular at sunset, especially in late summer. When my sister and I visited Paris, we learned there was a photo of the Arch of Victory at the Arc de Triomphe as part of their display of victory arches from around the world. This archway is an iconic part of Ballarat's skyline and often pops up in local art. If you're visiting the Arch, you may also want to consider the Prisoner of War Memorial at the Lake.
3. Check Out the Westpac Carpark / Local Street Art
Ballarat has a strong art culture that's been bubbling away for a few years while nobody has been looking. While the Hop Temple Laneway is the most visible of these, it's the tip of the iceberg as far as our street art goes. Definitely, check out the Hop Temple Queen (by Trav Price) and look at whatever installation is up in the laneway (as I'm writing this it's currently the red umbrellas), but the most famous piece in Ballarat is actually this Wu-Tang piece by local artist Cax One. You can find it in the carpark behind Westpac on Armstrong Street North.
This piece was done a few years ago and made it onto somewhere in the deep dark of Tumblr where it went viral. Every few months or so, someone else finds it and it expands its reach in a flurry of reblogs that also see it come across the official social media pages of members of Wu-Tang and associated accounts. As is terribly common with social media, when the photo is reblogged, the artist isn't usually credited, but his piece and he are well enough known that he'll usually wake up to a barrage of notifications as people tag him to let him know his piece is doing the rounds again. Beside this piece are a bunch of other pieces by local and national artists and a piece by international artist Bode. I'm going to do a post about where to find street art in Ballarat with locations and will post a link here once it's done if you would like a little tour.
4. Eat Good Food
Speaking of Hop Temple, knowing where to eat in Ballarat is critical to how much you enjoy your time here. While there are apps like Zomato to give you an idea, here's a quick list of my top places to wine and dine: L'esspresso, Mitchell Harris, Catfish, Vegas and Rose, Fika, Saltbush Kitchen at M.A.D.E, Little Bird, Forge Pizzeria, Websters, Tin Roof, Knife Fork Spoon, Il Picolo Gelato. I'm sure I've forgotten somewhere, but I'll also do a list in more detail later on.... WAIT! I've done the list. Here it is.
5. Catch a Movie
Sure, you can catch a movie anywhere, but if you're used to catching a movie in a modern cinema, you have to try out the Regent Multiplex just for the rad architecture and chandeliers. It's currently Ballarat's only cinema, so it's definitely how the locals do it. There have been multiple cinemas before, and another is planned for the other side of the city, but nothing is going to match those old school flashing bulbs of the REGENT sign at dusk. If you can, watch a movie in Cinema 1. It's a huge screen, heading into IMAX levels, and it seats around 600. Previously it was a theatre and Cinema 1 is the upper seating, with the downstairs Cinemas being the old floor level seating separated into smaller theatres.
6. Visit the Lake and Gardens
There are so many things to do at the Lake that it wouldn't be a full experience of the city if you missed it. There's a Tram Museum with vintage trams running the final stretch of tram track left in the city. There are cannons to climb all over and you should climb all over them because the oils from your skin help the council preserve the cannons for future generations. There's a 6km track around the outside of the lake which you can walk in about an hour and every section of it is distinctly different and interesting. You'll see weeping willows in some parts and tiny boatsheds in others. On Saturday afternoons, the yacht club take out their yachts and race. In the mornings, rowers practice on the old Olympic rowing track which has been part of Ballarat since the 1956 Melbourne Olympics.
The gardens are also worth your time. They've been around for over 150 years, but now the maze and zoo that used to be part of them are no longer around. There is an internationally significant collection of sequoiadendron giganteum trees which have been there since the gardens were founded and tower over the skyline. You'll have some fun standing next to these trees and feeling small. There's an avenue of busts commemorating every Australian Prime Minister. You can get a selfie with many iconic Australian ex PM's (but not the most recent two). Due to the chaos of recent Australian politics, the country has gone through Prime Ministers faster than the council can have the busts erected. There are often awesome events in the gardens, like Summer Sundays and the Ballarat Begonia Festival. The Begonia Festival was even visited by The Queen. Both events usually have great, pop-up food trucks and activities. On top of all this, it has a stunning collection of statues including one of William Wallace and, my personal favourite, Flight from Pompeii. If it's nice weather, take a picnic like a local. Get your picnic goods from Wilson's or Campana's, like a local.
7. See a Band or a Show
There are so many good bands and performers in Ballarat, there's always something on. Local, national and international acts usually share the stages of Karova Lounge or Suttons House of Music. There are often free public concerts or great touring acts coming through. This coming January is a great example of this with the Summer Sundays free events punctuated by a Nick Cave concert and wrapped up by a show with John Farnham and a bunch of other well-known Australian acts. Ballarat also has bands like Motor City Sounds, which has brass and bass and groove. Their shows usually sell out. There's also bands like The Second Sex, whose feminist punk antics never disappoint.
Ballarat also has a buzzing theatre scene. There are three very visible community theatre groups, two of which regularly put on impressive musicals with recent and future shows including Cats, Rock of Ages, Chicago, Mary Poppins, Phantom of the Opera and Wicked. Check out BLOC and Lyric to see if there is a show while you visit. There's also Ballarat National Theatre which just finished a micro-season of Little Women with their next show being Much Ado About Shakespeare. They usually run their shows during each holiday break. Not to mention there's an awesome university Arts Academy where the students doing acting or musical theatre often put on shows as they move through their degrees.
8. Come to Ballarat for an Event or a Season
Ballarat is rad all the time, however, if you want to experience the city when it's showing off, you should time your visit during one of the many fun seasons of activities. During summer Ballarat goes full Christmas with a big red Ferris wheel in the centre of the city, MYER Christmas window displays, big red bows on anything that is stationary long enough (which means anything over 100 years old), twinkling Xmas trees, giant floral Christmas ornaments, a Christmas street festival and a full set of reindeer garden sculptures with a sleigh you can sit in. This is obviously followed by Summer Sundays, the Ballarat Beat Rockabilly Festival and the Cycle Classic.
In autumn it's the Ballarat Begonia Festival followed by Heritage Month, which includes Clunes Booktown (not quite Ballarat but there is a train from Ballarat with actors reciting Shakespeare just for the event), Ballarat Heritage Weekend (OMG! Steam train!) and the Tweed Ride (there's also a non-heritage related bike ride called the Ballarat Autumn Day Ride). This year, there will also be White Night.
In Winter, Ballarat is arguably at its best because it embraces the cold. We call it Winterlude. We bring out the Christmas lights and put them back up. There's a pop-up ice skating rink next to the Town Hall. Sov Hill does it's Winter Wonderlights thing. Last year there was a 'pie and pale' comp where you could rate the best pie and beer combination on offer by local food spots, as well as a 24-hour art festival. The tree branches are all bare against the sky like a watercolour painting. The lake is often so still in the mornings as the fog touches the water that it looks like glass. Sometimes this jazz trumpet player busks in the Coles carpark in the city and the sound travels in the cold night air.
In Spring Ballarat arises from a winter cocoon, ready for warmer weather with a season of arts. The last 2 years this has included the Archies at the Art Gallery of Ballarat, with food trucks at the back of the gallery on Tuesdays. There are usually Wednesday food truck sessions at Hop Temple with fire barrels to keep warm if it's cold. There's also the Movie Garden cinema with fake grass, beanbags and a great selection of classic films. This year we also had the Melbourne Spring Fashion Week Regional Series.
Before your visit at any time of year, you should definitely check out the Hello Ballarat blog for a quick rundown of what is going on locally.
9. Get a copy of Ballarat Lifestyle MagazineIt comes out each season. It's what the locals do. Except we also do it with the BLM Bookclub. Also, it will look damn cute on your coffee table.
10. Shop Where the Locals Shop
Seriously, get out there and wander the streets for sweet small businesses with the local Ballarat stamp. I've literally left this until last because there are so many awesome places to shop in Ballarat and shopping really will depend on what your tastes are. It would be silly of me to send you to a clothing store if bike parts are your thing. So here is a non-comprehensive list of shops that are unique to Ballarat that may be interesting for you, or I just shop at often: Lark, Sweet Fern, Antipodean Love, Upholstery Gallery, Word from the Bird, Lana-Rose Fashion, Crafty Squirrel, Coach House Ale, Mitchell Harris (get some Sabre), That Little Vintage Shop, The Known World Book Store, and Heroes HQ.
Don't forget that once you're here, you can share it with us on social media with the hashtag #Ballarat, and we'll give you a verdict on how local you really are.