Six places to explore Australia’s history this long weekend

Old-style street signs. Photo: Visit Victoria

Larissa Dubecki

Posted January 21, 2021

From ancient Indigenous culture to the birthplace of Australian democracy, Victoria's historical sites chart the multi-layered development of our country.

While many of the usual festivities have been cancelled and gatherings restricted thanks to COVID, you can still embrace the 26 January public holiday as a great opportunity to explore another side of Victoria. These six historically significant places tell a compelling story about the nation’s multi-layered history.

Six places to explore Australia’s history this long weekend


First Nations culture at Budj Bim

The cultural significance of the Gunditjmara’s traditional lands in southwest Victoria is difficult to overstate. In fact, in 2019 UNESCO added the Budj Bim National Heritage Landscape to its World Heritage Register – the first Australian Indigenous site to be added exclusively for its cultural importance. (Plus, seven other World Heritage Sites you didn’t know were in Australia.)

An hour’s drive northwest of Warrnambool, the human history of the achingly beautiful landscape dates back at least 6600 years to when the Gunditjmara people used stones to build an elaborate series of channels and pools to harvest eels migrating from Lake Condah. They lived in permanent stone dwellings (dispelling the myth that Aboriginal people were nomadic), wove elaborate eel traps and traded the eels they smoked and preserved inside hollow tree trunks.

You can take a fascinating tour onto country with Indigenous rangers (tours run from 2.5 hours to four hours), who will explain the mesmerising country and their people’s role as the world’s first sustainable farmers and civil engineers. 

The Henty's at Portland

In 1834, English squatter Edward Henty sailed from Van Diemen's Land to Victoria's southwest, establishing a homestead and vast grazing properties on lands that had been occupied by the Kerryp-Tjmara people for thousands of years. The Hentys' unauthorised landholdings, near what is now the town of Portland, predated John Fawkner's arrival on the banks of the Yarra River in 1935, and is regarded as the first place in Victoria where Europeans established a permanent base.

Almost two centuries later, Portland has become an important port town as well as a magnet for tourists drawn to its palpable sense of history and the area's stunning natural beauty. 

Whale watching brings people to town between May and October, but back in the 1830s and 1840s the migrating whales were hunted to the brink of extinction. A visit to the Portland Maritime Discovery Centre is a must-do thanks to engaging exhibits that tell the story of the whaling industry and the notoriously dangerous ‘Shipwreck Coast’, including a 14-metre sperm whale skeleton and an 1858 lifeboat.

Grab the Portland self-guided Historical Buildings Walk map from the Portland Visitor Information Centre and take a walk around a staggering 200 National Trust-listed buildings, including what was once the home of Saint Mary MacKillop. Don’t feel like wearing out the shoe leather? Jump on board the historic cable tram that tootles along the foreshore. And when it comes to refreshments, we promise that the town’s modern-day cafes serve far better coffee than in days of old.

Chinese immigration in Bendigo

Gold fever hit Bendigo in 1851, bringing people flocking from all corners of the globe to try their luck. They included a significant number of Chinese prospectors and workers who called the new land Tsin Chin San (‘the Golden Mountain’) and whose story is documented at Bendigo’s Golden Dragon Museum. The Chinese Cultural Centre of Australia, it explores the Chinese history and culture of the city and surrounding goldfields. The colourful museum is home to five imperial dragons, processional regalia and other exhibits, as well as the Yi Yuan Gardens (Gardens of Joy) which were modelled on those at the Imperial Palace in Beijing.

Bendigo’s Chinese history doesn’t end there. Of the hundreds of Chinese temples that dotted the goldfields, the Joss House Temple is the only one remaining. Built in 1871, the bright-red temple is dedicated – naturally – to the god of prosperity. To increase your own prosperity, rub the head of the lion beside the door when you leave and roll the marble in his mouth three times for good luck. 

The Ballarat goldrush and Eureka Stockade

The gold trail finds its mother lode in Ballarat, where wide-spaced streets and regal buildings evoke the riches of its past. The 69-kilogram Welcome Nugget – the world’s second-largest ever found – was discovered at Bakery Hill in 1858. You’re not likely to strike riches near the now-inauspicious intersection of Mair and Humffray Streets, but it’s just a three-minute drive from there to Sovereign Hill. Built on a former gold mining site, this living outdoor museum and Ballarat icon features a wonderfully recreated goldfields town complete with gold diggings and an underground mine. Add to the experience with a ticket to the recently launched sound-and-light show Aura, which follows the story of gold from the Wadawurrung creation story to the current day. 

Another nation-building moment, the Eureka Stockade of 1854 saw Ballarat miners led by Peter Lalor rebel against the colonial government. At least 22 diggers and six soldiers were killed when troops attacked, creating a watershed moment in the development of Australian attitudes towards democracy, egalitarianism and freedom of speech that’s now memorialised at the Eureka Centre. This fascinating museum is built on the site of the stockade, and houses the original Eureka flag.

Kelly country 

Australia’s own wild colonial boy, Ned Kelly remains a hero to some and a villain to others a full 140 years after his untimely end at Old Melbourne Gaol. But whatever your stance on his legacy, a touring route of the Kelly Gang’s old stomping ground provides a captivating narrative to Victoria’s picturesque northeast.  

This pocket of Victoria is dotted with significant Kelly sites that bring history alive, including the township of Greta where Ned grew up, and where gang members Dan Kelly and Steve Hart are buried in unmarked graves, to the high-country township of Mansfield where a police memorial for the three officers murdered at Stringybark Creek sits on the roundabout in the centre of town. Definitely make time for Old Beechworth Gaol, where Ned (and his mum Ellen) spent time at Her Majesty’s pleasure. Finish, as Ned and his gang did, in Glenrowan, where they held their famous last stand in June 1880. 

The eight-hectare Glenrowan Heritage Precinct contains the key sites of the final siege including the original railway platform and the location of the Glenrowan Inn, which burned to the ground in the siege. You could argue that the six-metre-high statue of Ned in his suit of armour is overkill – but such is life.  

The Swiss Italians in Hepburn Springs and Daylesford

Word drifted back to the Swiss-Italian border in the second half of the 1800s that central Victoria was a home away from home. Their earliest pioneers had struck out to the southern hemisphere in search of gold, but ended up staying for the landscape. They reported back happily that it was remarkably reminiscent of home, minus the poverty and political upheaval.  

The Swiss-Italian legacy around the towns of Hepburn Springs, Daylesford and surrounding towns is immense. Italian surnames and street names abound, as do stunning Italianate villas (take a drive around Yandoit in particular for a dose of real-estate envy). You can also buy spicy bull-boar sausages, another cherished token of home (Newstead Butchers is credited as having the region’s best). Moreover, spa country’s very existence can be attributed to the Swiss Italians, who are credited with leading the fight to protect the springs and underground mineral waters from mining. 

Daylesford’s Swiss Italian Festa ran from 1993 to 2017 and is slated to return in October this year. But why wait? Lavandula Swiss Italian Farm owes its existence to the Swiss Italians and will transport you back to the Old Country via its trattoria and lavender fields. Or you can simply remember the Swiss Italian contribution when taking to the waters at Hepburn Bathhouse and Spa or Daylesford Day Spa.

*Due to COVID-19 restrictions, some bookings are restricted or temporarily suspended. Before heading off on your next Victorian adventure, phone ahead to check local opening times and ticketing availability.