In the heart of Victoria, Bendigo is the place to immerse yourself in gold rush heritage, local pottery, arts and surrounding wine country.
It’s only a 90-minute drive from Melbourne so the area is easy to include on a self-drive itinerary, staying for a couple of days or more to see behind the scenes.
Gold made Bendigo seriously rich! It was the seventh richest gold field in the world, producing more than nine billion dollars worth of gold between1850 and 1900, with more gold found here than anywhere else.
If thoughts of gold rush days conjure images of tents and shanty towns, you’ll be more than surprised to arrive in this grand 19th century city with wide streets, stately sandstone buildings dating from the Victorian era, wide streets and beautiful gardens.
Drop into the Bendigo Visitor Centre on Pall Mall and you’ll be standing inside the old post office, a very grand building built in the ‘Second Empire’ architectural style and listed on the Victorian Heritage Register.
Bendigo’s imposing Hotel Shamrock has hosted the crème de la crème of the Bendigo social scene since 1845 and today you can stay in style, appreciating the Victorian setting with all the contemporary luxuries.
There’s another surprising side to Bendigo, its Chinese legacy seen in examples such as the Joss House Temple, the Golden Dragon Museum and the Chinese Gardens.
The original homelands of the Jaara Aboriginal people, Bendigo was completely turned on its head when it became the epicentre of the gold rush of the 1850s attracting, among others, thousands of Chinese prospectors. The Chinese population alone in 1857 was said to be 26,000.
The Bendigo Chinese community is still thriving today and the Golden Dragon Museum is a cultural centre for Chinese arts and crafts. The permanent display features dramatic Sun Loong, the longest imperial dragon in the world, more than 100 metres long.
Bendigo’s colourful red timber Joss House, the Chinese house of Prayer, is the only surviving building of its kind in regional Victoria.
The Yin Yuan Classical Chinese Gardens, based on the Imperial Palace in Beijing, were completed in 1996 in a joint venture between the local community, state and federal governments and the people of the City of Baoding, Hebei Province, China.
Where did the wealth come from? At first from alluvial river banks but later from the quartz reefs on which Bendigo sits, reached by shafts up to 1,000 metres deep.
You can travel beneath the surface today at The Central Deborah Gold Mine on a Mine Experience tour, taking the 61-metre elevator trip down to follow a 400-metre circuit. For an even more hands-on experience, take the Underground Adventure tour to 85 metres, dressing in boots, overalls, miner’s hat and lamp to climb ladders, work a mine drill and search for gold yourself.
Back on the surface, take a scenic tour on Bendigo’s Vintage ‘Talking’ Trams with their one commentary which you can hop on and off to take a closer look at attractions or stop for a coffee break or lunch.
The tram system dates back to 1890 and the ‘Talking’ Tram Tour was developed In 1972 growing from just four to over 40 and you can see more being at the tram depot.
Trams are such a feature here that you can even dine on board one! Bendigo ninesevensix is a converted 1952 Melbourne tram combining tours with a four-course menu.
There are also self-drive and walking tours in the area with maps and guides as well as Podtours and films showcasing Bendigo, Castlemaine and the Maldon region with MP3 players for hire at Visitor Information Centres.
Arts and culture
The Bendigo region is particularly rich in art, attracting a wide range of artists working in mediums including pottery, paint, glass, metal and printmaking so there are many galleries and studios to visit all around Bendigo, Heathcote, Maldon and Castlemaine.
Bendigo Art Gallery’s collections span the 1850s to the present day and the collection of 20th century paintings, sculpture, prints and drawings showcases significant Australian artists and sculptors such as Walter Withers, Rupert Bunny, Grace Cossington-Smith, Arthur Boyd, Fred Williams, John Olsen and Margaret Preston.
The historic Bendigo Pottery is set vast old beehive kilns and today there’s a museum and domestic pottery for sale, fired in the old kilns. See a demonstration or try your hand at throwing a pot, guided by a potter.
Stay, wine, dine, shop
For accommodation in Bendigo there’s the Hotel Shamrock and a range of B&Bs, boutique suites and apartments. Fountain View suites are housed in a magnificent old building and the City Warehouse Apartment is pure New York style. Allawah Bendigo offer a range of apartments in historical locations and Spa Eleven has accommodation, day spa and a café.
Expect fine contemporary cuisine at Whirrakee Restaurant in the old Royal Bank building and head to Wine Bank on View, a bar and wine store for a range of dining options. Inspired by the gastrobars and pubs of Europe, Dispensary Enoteca has all-day dining in its hidden laneway location.
Like Melbourne, Bendigo has a network of laneways so go exploring to find boutiques selling things like lifestyle gifts, fashion, accessories, jewellery and glassware. Visit Myer in Bendigo for a taste of retail history as this Australian shopping chain began here in1899 when Sidney Myer and his brother arrived from Russia and set up shop.
The wine and food trail
Grapes came with the gold and the area’s first vineyards planted in 1856 and now the area produces Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling and Chardonnay to name just a few. Heathcote may indeed be a new seam of liquid gold for its distinctive, award-winning Shiraz, being compared favourably with the best of Australia.
Balgownie Estate at Maiden Gully was the first vineyard planted in the Bendigo district for more than 80 years marking the beginning of a new era for the central goldfields vineyards; Sandhurst Ridge has produced award-winning wines since their first vintage Shiraz in 1995; the Bress vineyard is managed biodynamically has a cider press and restaurant open October to May, utilising seasonal produce grown on the premises.
The Cellar & Store at Heathcote showcases current release wines of the regions and you can taste wine and shop for indulgent treats and Flynn’s Wines & Heathcotean Bistro opens at weekends with a seasonal dinner menu.
The Emeu Inn at Heathcote is 150 years old and offers B&B, a wine centre and restaurant with a regional focus with dishes such as a rustic hare terrine with peach paste and even emu on the menu. If you’d like to stay in the vineyards, Redesdale Estate Winery has two self-contained cottages and The Redesdale offers a slow food dining experience using produce from local suppliers.
At Tooberac Hotel & Brewery taste three beers made on the premises – a pale ale called Stonemasons, a stout, labelled Blacksmiths and an amber brew called Woodcutters.
All good reasons why you’ll love this destination. You might even say it’s good as gold!