Best historical experiences in Melbourne

sandstone mansion

Danny Baggs

Posted January 25, 2024

The Greater Melbourne area has a rich history ripe for exploration. Here are the best historical experiences in Melbourne to check out.

While Indigenous Australians have lived in the Melbourne area for over 40,000 years, Melbourne itself is quite young. Nevertheless, there’s a wealth of intriguing history to unearth around the city, from gold rush to Federation and beyond. These are some of the best.

The ultimate guide to visiting Pentridge Prison | RACV

Melbourne’s best historical experiences

Old Melbourne Gaol - Melbourne CBD

The Old Melbourne Gaol (1842-1929) has remained a formidable symbol of authority since it was built in the mid-1800s to hold dangerous criminals, petty offenders, the homeless and the mentally ill. Outlaw bushranger Ned Kelly was sentenced to death here in 1880 and hanged at the gaol’s gallows – just one of the gaol’s 133 total hangings.

Even after the gaol itself closed in 1929, its facilities remained operational. When felons were brought to face justice in Melbourne, they were delivered to the onsite City Watch House (1909-1994), then tried at the Old Magistrates Court (1911-1994), which sits on the site of the original Supreme Court of Victoria. In 1942, the Gaol briefly reopened as a detention barracks for Australian soldiers who went absent without official leave (AWOL), and it also housed several World War II prisoners of war (POWs).

Today, the Old Melbourne Gaol is a fascinating museum with a wealth of memorabilia, including Ned Kelly’s death mask, pistol and a replica of his famous armour. Join the candlelit Hangman’s Night Tour to hear chilling, gristly tales from the master of the rope – or, if you’re feeling extra brave, the separate ghost tour.

More: Everything you need to know about visiting the Old Melbourne Gaol


interior Old Melbourne Gaol

Old Melbourne Gaol is a fascinating museum. Image: Getty

Polly Woodside – South Wharf

Go aboard the three-masted cargo vessel Polly Woodside in Melbourne’s South Wharf to discover what life was like sailing the seven seas in the late 1800s. This ship was built in Belfast in 1885 by William Woodside – in the same shipyard as the Titanic. The vessel then travelled 1.5 million miles across the globe, carrying coal and wheat between England and South America until 1900 before transferring timber cargoes between Australia and New Zealand.

After competing with the rising popularity of steam ships and serving around New Guinea in World War II, Polly Woodside was due to be scuttled in the Bass Strait ‘ship graveyard’ in the 1960s. Instead, Australia’s National Trust bought her for one cent, restored her to full glory and dry-docked her in Melbourne’s Yarra River.

Polly Woodside is now the last three-masted bark in Australasia. Explore more of her history by booking in a guided tour or exploring the ship at your own pace. It’s host to an array of exhibits, displays, events, and even a motion room where you can experience the sensation of sailing on an old tall ship.


Polly Woodside ship in South Wharf

Polly Woodside is the last three-masted barque in Australasia. Image: Visit Victoria

Pentridge Prison - Coburg

These days, heritage-listed Pentridge Prison might be best known for the luxurious Pentridge Cinema – but this iconic bluestone facility was a severe prison riddled with suffering for almost 150 years between 1851 and 1997. For many of those years, prisoners were forbidden from talking, addressed only by their cell numbers and kept in their cells for 23 hours a day with only a horsehair sleeping mat, a blanket and a bucket. The final hour was spent in ‘airing yards’: wedge-shaped exercise yards placed around a central observation tower known as a panopticon.

Pentridge Prison began in December 1850, when 16 prisoners were marched from Melbourne Gaol to The Stockage at Pentridge. This stockade was merely a collection of moveable log hulks surrounded by inadequate fencing, and the local residents feared for their safety. Between 1857 and 1864, HM Prison Pentridge was properly constructed due to the gold rush’s massive prisoner surge. The Pentridge district’s residents, embarrassed of being associated with the prison, eventually changed their suburb’s name to Coburg – which it remains today.

Once Melbourne Gaol was closed in the 1920s, Pentridge became the main prison for the metropolitan Melbourne area. The ever-expanding prison complex housed Victoria’s most violent and dangerous prisoners in its maximum-security divisions, and in 1967 the last legal hanging in Australia was undertaken here.

Pentridge Prison is now available for tours, giving you the chance to finally look inside this infamous prison. Book in a tour through Pentridge’s B Division or H division to get a feel of prision conditions.

More: Everything you need to know about visiting Pentridge Prison


old brick cottage with ivy growing up one side

Cooks' Cottage was rebuilt brick by brick in Fitzroy Gardens after its relocation from England. Image: Visit Victoria

Cooks’ Cottage – East Melbourne

Cooks' Cottage, a charming, ivy-covered residence can now be found in the Fitzroy Gardens, but it was originally built in Yorkshire, England by Captain James Cook’s parents, James and Grace Cook. Constructed in 1755, it is the oldest building in Australia.

In 1934, philanthropist Sir Russell Grimwade bought Cooks’ Cottage and transported it, brick by brick, from England to Australia. Every brick was numbered, packed into 253 cases and 40 barrels, and shipped on board the Port Dunedin along with cuttings of the original ivy cover. Grimwade then donated the cottage to the people of Victoria for Melbourne’s centenary anniversary of settlement.

For under $10, you can still take part in a guided or self-guided tour at Cooks’ Cottage to learn about 18th century life and the cottage’s faithful reconstruction in Melbourne. If you’re on the hunt for other settlement-era cottages and homesteads, check out La Trobe’s Cottage, Altona Homestead and the Portable Iron Houses.


old convent building

Abbotsford Convent was once owned by The Sisters of the Good Shepherd. Image: Visit Victoria

Abbotsford Convent – Abbotsford

Today, the grand Abbotsford Convent is home to academics, arts collectives, not-for-profits, coffee bars, a local radio station and various other community-minded projects. Sprawling over 16 acres, the Convent is a gorgeous urban retreat. But the Convent has also been on Australia’s National Heritage List since 2017 in recognition of its long and rich history.

Abbotsford Convent was originally The Convent of the Good Shepherd, founded by The Sisters of the Good Shepherd in 1863 to house destitute or homeless women. In the absence of state care, the Convent provided food, shelter and education for thousands of women for more than 100 years. By 1901, the Convent was the largest charitable institution in the entire southern hemisphere. It continued as a working monastic site until 1974, after which the Good Shepherd Sisters sold it to Latrobe University as a campus. The Convent was then gifted to the community in 2001 after a successful campaign against a residential and golf course development plan, and has since been carefully managed and restored by the secular Abbotsford Convent Coalition.

Walk through the Abbotsford Convent’s Medieval French ecclesiastic grounds any day of the year with a self-guided audio tour from a former resident who worked in the onsite Magdalen Laundry. You can also join a weekly social history tour, shop at the farmers market or book into a craft class.


Labassa Mansion

Labassa has also been called Sylliott Hill and Ontario. Image: Labassa Mansion

Labassa Mansion – Caulfield North

This opulent Victorian-era mansion has borne several names since its original construction: Sylliott Hill, Ontario and Labassa. From 1862 to 1920, Labassa Mansion was home to a succession of prosperous enterprisers. The mansion has retained its rare trompe l’oeil ceiling, ornate stained glass, gilt-embossed wallpapers and mahogany timbers in its French Second Empire style..

In 1920, Labassa Mansion was subdivided into flats and became home to socialites, World War II refugees, bohemian artists and even the Australian-born silent film star Louise Lovely. The 2013 reunion of more than 135 former Labassa residents, owners and their descendants has prompted an ongoing research project into the building’s remarkable lived history, called Labassa Lives.

Labassa offers open days on the third Sunday of each month, with both guided and self-guided tours. If you like playing detective, book a ticket to Murder Mystery: Labassa Mansion to explore the rooms for clues and interrogate the suspects in a night of murder and mayhem. If you enjoy Labassa Mansion, you’ll also love visiting Como House, Rippon Lea Estate, Black Rock House and The Johnston Collection.

Werribee Park Mansion - Werribee

Step into this opulent mansion to discover the life of the wealthy Chirnside family, migrants from Scotland who made their fortune in wool across Victoria’s Western District. Their pastoral empire funded this 60-room Renaissance Revival mansion, complete with Corinthian pilasters, a Minton encaustic tiled floor, grand staircase, library, billiards room and much more. In the 1920s, the mansion was converted into a Catholic seminary called Corpus Christi College, where trainee priests studied until its closure in 1973. Since then, the heritage-listed mansion has been expertly restored, and its striking façade and interiors have even featured in Australian film and TV shows. Its estate includes bluestone outbuildings, an expansive manicured landscape, fruit orchard, intricate grotto, ornamental lake and the Victoria State Rose Garden.

More: The best historical experiences across Victoria, from Ballarat to the Murray River.


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