Dani Wright has no time to rest as she tracks down the best things to see, do and eat over 48 hours this creative city
The regional Victorian town of Ballarat is Australia's third-largest inland city. Its name has an Aboriginal meaning of "resting place" and it is famous for its gold rush era opulence, as well as the Eureka Stockade, an armed rebellion tax revolt. Today, it's gaining prominence for the creatives moving to the city, 90 minutes northwest of Melbourne.
ART ON THE MENU
Cafe Ballarista in the heart of the city is the perfect place to start a weekend in Ballarat. People-watch from the window seats over strong coffee, toasties and an art menu. On the menu is a thoughtful display of found and inherited images of an imagined family album by Scott Fredericks. Titled "What happens in Kalinga stays in Yarrawonga", it shows the commonality of images all families share, no matter their cultural background – birthdays, anniversaries, family celebratory dinners and the obligatory riding a camel on holiday.
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After breakfast, walk to the nearby Art Gallery of Ballarat , established in 1884 and Australia's oldest and largest regional gallery. Walk up the majestic staircase, welcomed by a wall of paintings in every genre, shape and size. It's an introduction to the transhistorical curation recently adopted by the gallery, inspiring visitors to look at art like an artist.
Classic realism by master painters of wealthy aristocrats sits comfortably next to artworks of colloquial life by self-taught immigrant painters when grouped by themes such as "Home", "Places", "Disruption" and "Family". Set out around town and you'll find more galleries and laneways filled with art.
LOCAL PRODUCE FOR LUNCH
Enter Kittelty's Cafe from the Art Gallery of Ballarat's lobby. Here you'll find produce from local coffee roasters, urban beekeepers, meat curers, heritage apple growers and jam producers. Its vintage feel complements the home-made food – pick up Dutch ginger shortbread or old-fashioned scones and take-home jars of local pickles or vegan salted caramel.
Spot the collection of Princess Diana teaspoons resting on Australia-shaped wooden holders lining the walls. Walk through the streets surrounding the cafe and see the heritage architecture.
GO LARGE WHEN YOU SHOP SMALL
Alongside the many antique shops in Ballarat are small independent stores offering the chance to shop for treasures. Start at Playing in the Attic , whose owner says is "a little shop for little things". Crammed into the tiny store are items from hand-selected artisan makers from across the globe.
Next door is Minerva's second-hand bookstore - let them know your budget and interests and they can curate a special selection.
Across town is Sweet Fern perfumery, run by a Kiwi expat, featuring a careful selection of intriguing boutique fragrances from around the world. Each has a special story and you can try the scents through perfume funnels, cleansing your nose by sniffing coffee beans in between each perfume, so as not to "be drunk on one smell".
Further out of town, The Crafty Squirrel features nostalgic crafts, vintage knitting needles and plenty to explore for young and old.
A BEAUTIFUL SLEEP
Rest easy at the beautiful Provincial Hotel, a historic hotel built in 1909 with the old-world charm making you think, "If only these walls could talk."
It has been carefully refurbished with contemporary fabrics and hand-picked items from the Ballarat antique shops by television presenter and owner Gorgi Coghlan. Eat in the European-inspired onsite Lola restaurant featuring share plates matched with local wines or classic cocktails. It's an elegant, yet homely experience and reminiscent of a bygone era when time seemed to move slower.
UNDER THE RADAR
Underbar is a 16-seat restaurant open on Friday and Saturday evenings for a special chef's tasting menu inspired by the season and surrounds. Chef Derek Boath worked at the three Michelin star restaurant Per Se in New York and has received a prestigious Good Food Guide chef's hat award two years in a row for Underbar.
Still looking for more? Head to The Lost Ones gallery basement bar for classic cocktails, live music or poetry, or just a game of scrabble and caramel popcorn.
WALKING OVER WATER
Head to Lake Wendouree for a morning walk or run along the 6km track past the 1956 Melbourne Olympic Games Memorials – erected to commemorate the rowing and canoeing events held here.
There's also the Ballarat Botanical Gardens, with seasonal floral displays in the conservatory, as well as the Ballarat Tramway Museum , where you can ride a 100-year-old tram. Stop for a jam doughnut or ice cream from the authentic Tramcar Ice Cream Co. van. Just remember your cardigan – Ballarat weather is cooler than Melbourne, thanks to its position above sea level.
STEP BACK IN TIME
Step through time at Sovereign Hill , recreated to be like the gold rush era. Tour an underground mine, watch gold being heated and cooled or just stock up on old-fashioned sweets in the lolly shop.
In winter, there's Christmas at Sovereign Hill, with snow pumped out on to the historic-themed street. A new show, AURA, tells the story of how gold revolutionised Australia. It's an immersive storytelling experience told with the help of hundreds of projections. Take in the show with a dinner experience in a 1950s setting or take a lamplight tour into the darker side of the goldfields.
Air New Zealand, Jetstar, Qantas and Virgin Australia all fly direct from Auckland to Melbourne.