Twenty reasons to visit Bendigo

LEE ATKINSON
Last updated 12:57 29/08/2013

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Bendigo's history as a gold rush boom town provides it with a rich architectural and cultural heritage.

1. GRAND ARCHITECTURE

Gold fever hit Bendigo in 1851 when word got out that a couple of shepherd's wives had been filling tins with gold found in a creek, sparking a gold rush.

By the 1880s the Bendigo goldfields were the richest in the world. The cashed-up locals decided to show off their wealth with a building spree and Bendigo has one of the finest collections of Victorian buildings of any inland city in Australia.

The wide streets are lined with majestic theatres, banks and shopfronts.

2. GOLDEN ANGELS

The grandest building of them all is the Bendigo Town Hall. It's impressive enough from the outside, with a colonnade and three towers, but inside is a fairytale confection of elaborate plasterwork, most of it hand-painted or covered in gold leaf.

Frolicking golden cherubs abound, as do bunches of flowers, feathers, birds, beasts and gargoyles.

Take a guided tour on Wednesday at 2pm or Sunday at 11am. Tours cost A$2.50 ($2.87). Book at the visitor centre in the (equally grand) old post office building on Pall Mall.

3. LIFE-SIZE GARGOYLES

Also worth a look inside is the Gothic Sacred Heart Cathedral on the corner of Wattle and High streets. You can't miss it: the soaring 87-metre-high spire is visible from almost anywhere in the city.

Look out for the magnificent carved bishop's chair, massive pipe organ and gargoyles as big as grown men.

4. HOTEL SHAMROCK

Another of Bendigo's architectural gems is the Shamrock Hotel. Legend has it that in the 1850s the grubby miners left more than just their cash at the bar.

The sweepings of the bar room floor are said to have yielded gold dust to the value of four pounds a day when panned.

Illustrious guests have included Prince Charles and Princess Diana, Lola Montez and Dame Nellie Melba, who famously asked for the post office clock to be stopped because the chiming kept her awake at night. Rooms start at A$140 a night ($160).

5. MINE FOR GOLD

More gold has been found in Bendigo than anywhere else in Victoria - a colossal 624,000 kilograms since 1851, worth about $9 billion by today's standards. Take the mine tour at the Central Deborah Mine, the last commercial mine to operate in the city.

Almost a tonne of gold was extracted from the mine before it closed in 1954. Tours include the four-hour "nine levels of darkness" tour, which claims to be Australia's deepest underground mine tour. central-deborah.com.

6. RIDE A VINTAGE TRAM

Take a ride back in time on a vintage tram. It's a hop-on, hop-off tour with recorded commentary and it visits all the major tourist attractions in the city including the tram depot, the oldest operating one in the country, where old trams salvaged from around the world are being painstakingly restored.

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Great if you've arrived by train from Melbourne and don't have a car. Trams depart hourly between 10am and 5pm.

7. PRAY TO THE GOD OF GOOD LUCK

Last stop on the tram tour is the Joss House Temple. Like most of the Australian goldfields, the Bendigo diggings attracted thousands of Chinese prospectors, who called Australia Tsin Chin San ("the Golden Mountain").

At the height of the rush there were hundreds of Chinese temples in the goldfields - today, only one survives. The bright red temple is dedicated to the god of prosperity - don't forget to rub the lion's head beside the door when you leave and roll the marble in his mouth three times for good luck. Open daily, 11am-4pm (Saturday to Wednesday in June and July).

8. HERE BE DRAGONS

Bendigo is home to five dragons, including Loong, the world's oldest Chinese imperial dragon, who made his first appearance on Bendigo streets in 1892, and Sun Loong, the world's longest imperial dragon at more than 100 metres long.

All five are displayed in the Golden Dragon Museum, which explores the Chinese history and culture of the city and surrounding goldfields. Open daily, 9.30am-5pm.

9. PLAY WITH CLAY

Established in 1858, Bendigo Pottery has been making acid jars, ginger-beer bottles and all manner of ceramic items on the same site for the past century and a half.

The museum, built around the old kilns, is well worth a visit, detailing the history of the pottery and the current production processes with an interesting display of old products.

Little kids can play with clay in the potters' workshops, older kids and adults can have a go at shaping a vase on the wheel under the expert eye of a master potter. There's a cafe, large antique centre and four art galleries. At 146 Midland Highway, Epsom. Open daily, from 9am to 5pm.

10. GET ARTY

The Bendigo Art Gallery on View Street houses an impressive collection of 19th-century Australian and European works, but has become known in recent years for presenting exclusive blockbuster art shows that draw people from all over the country.

The Grace Kelly: Style Icon exhibition last year attracted more than 150,000 visitors and the next big one, Modern Love: Fashion Visionaries, which will showcase 1980s and '90s avant-garde fashion, opens on October 26, until February 2.

11. SHOP TILL YOU DROP

Home to the art gallery, Visual Arts Centre and the Capital Theatre, View Street is a bit of an arts and culture hub, but it also has a good shopping strip.

Among the vintage shops, antiques and boutiques, cafes, restaurants and wine bars you'll find Jimmy Possum, the high-end Australian decor and recycled-timber furniture store that was started in Bendigo in 1995.

12. FOOD FOSSICKING

The fertile countryside that surrounds Bendigo produces an array of great produce, with everything from olives to apples and pears, beef, lamb and micro-herbs.

There are farmers' markets on the second Saturday of each month at the Rosalind Park end of Williamson Street, but if you miss those you can pick up a free Food Fossicking guide and use it to find the best bakeries, "farmgates" and local eateries.

13. FINE DINING

If you'd rather the chef do the food fossicking for you, there's no shortage of good places to eat in the city.

Top spots to dine out in style include Whirrakee Restaurant and Bouchon for local produce with a French twist, GPO for Mediterranean-style dishes, Masons of Bendigo for locavore dining and the Woodhouse restaurant for great steaks.

14. CHANCERY LANE

Bendigo might be known for its grand streetscapes but it also has its share of grungy alleys, some of which have been transformed into Melbourne-style laneways, complete with colourful graffiti and paste-up art and hole-in-the-wall cafes and wine bars. Chancery Lane (off Pall Mall between Williamson and Bull streets) is home to El Gordo Spanish cafe and the Dispensary Enoteca, which serves up great food in an old chemist shop along with 100 champagnes, 300 wines, 50 different gins and an extensive cocktail list. thedispensaryenoteca.com.

15. RED, RED WINE

Bendigo's long, hot days and cool nights are ideal for growing shiraz, and the region's rich, full-bodied red wines are renowned for their exceptional ageing qualities, so stock up the cellar at one of several cellar doors in the district - a favourite is Balgownie Estate off the Calder Highway a few kilometres west of the city, but there are 60 wineries from which to choose. Download a Bendigo Wine Map at bendigotourism.com.

16. NEW YORK STYLE

Many of Bendigo's grand buildings and historic miners' cottages have been made into accommodation.

For a more contemporary take on an old building, the City Warehouse Apartment is an ultra-modern New York-style loft apartment above View Street overlooking Rosalind Park.

It has two sleeping areas, miles of space, a huge kitchen area, undercover off-street parking and free Wi-Fi, but be warned, you'll have to climb a lot of stairs to get there. From A$270 ($310) a night.

17. MALDON

Forty minutes' drive south-west of Bendigo, Maldon is a town that time seems to have forgotten, and the shopfronts and old tin sheds along the crooked main street look like they have come straight from a movie set.

Most of the historic buildings now house cafes, galleries, bookstores and gift shops, and the town is very popular with browsing shoppers on weekends.

18. CASTLEMAINE

A further 20 minutes down the road is Castlemaine, another classic goldfields town with buildings much grander than you would expect to find in a place with a population of 8000.

The Art Gallery was one of the first art deco buildings to be built outside Melbourne and is home to a good collection of Australian art, with many of the big names such as Tom Roberts, McCubbin, Streeton, Margaret Preston and Jeffrey Smart on show.

19. BUDA HOUSE

This historic home and gardens on the edge of Castlemaine was built in 1861 and was the home of noted silversmith Ernest Leviny, but it was his five unmarried daughters who lived in the house until the 1980s that filled it up with stunning art and craft, much of which they made themselves.

The house is at 42 Hunter Street and open Wednesday to Saturday, noon-5pm; Sunday, 10am-5pm.

20. HAVE A GO AT SCALING THE GREAT STUPA OF UNIVERSAL COMPASSION

It's still under construction, but when it's finished the 50-metre-high Great Stupa of Universal Compassion at Myers Flat just outside Bendigo will be the largest stupa in the Western world.

It will include extensive gardens and be home to the world's largest jade Buddha, currently on a world tour.

The $20 million stupa won't be finished for a couple of years as it is dependent on donations, but you can see the building take shape from a viewing platform and there is a visitors' centre with a large collection of sacred Buddhist relics.
The writer was a guest of Tourism Victoria and Bendigo Tourism.

- Sydney Morning Herald

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