On my solo trip to Victoria, I stopped at Ballarat, a symbol of Victorian goldfields glory and only an hour and a half from Melbourne. I was on my way to Dunkeld, in search of some hiking in the Grampians but I needed a break and figured Ballarat would offer something of interest. Always the good tourist, I stopped at the information centre. They recommended I visit Sovereign Hill, an outdoor museum with 60 historically recreated buildings, depicting life in an Australian goldfields town around 1850. I was a little short on time, Dunkeld was another 2 hours away… I hesitated. But then I thought I wouldn’t have another opportunity to visit Sovereign Hill on this trip. I have selected 38 photos to inspire you to visit Sovereign Hill.
Sovereign Hill is an outdoor museum, spread over 25 hectares, on a site linked to the richest alluvial gold rush in Victoria. Some 60 buildings have been reconstructed according to photographs to depict life during the Gold Rush. Incredibly, Sovereign Hill is a functional township, with workshops and old-time stores. The township is complete with a Main Street full of shops, two hotels and a theatre, a Chinese camp, a gold-panning area and two gold mines.
Whilst the town is a tourist attraction, it is very lively and realistic thanks to the presence of staff and volunteers dressed in costumes, who work in the shops and workshops, and answer any questions visitors may have. It may sound daggy but in reality, it works really well. The staff and volunteers operate the many businesses in Sovereign Hill and the visit is a real experience, with hands-on demonstrations of old-time occupations such as blacksmithing, candle-dipping, wheelwrighting and many more. The people in the stores and workshops are knowledgeable and generally very happy to tell stories relating to the gold rush.
So, let me take you through the dirt roads of Sovereign Hill.
The first thing to notice about Main Street is that it’s a dirt road… Yes, no asphalt in 1850! The street is lined with all the relevant shops of the time and a number of operational workshops. The shops act as museums and displays, and some of them operate as restaurants.
Red Hill Photographic Rooms
In 1850, photography wasn’t as common and accessible as today. So, people had to go to a studio to get their picture taken. Here, you can do the same, in costume! But you need to book in advance, it’s a very popular attraction !
The Ballarat Times Office
There is a letterpress in there, and you can have your name printed on a Wanted poster. It’s interesting seeing the process in action: aligning the letters, inking and printing. For a little bit of fun, it’s nice to bring back a souvenir, and the manual letterpress is a fascinating machine !
Clarke Brothers, Grocers
An old time grocery store, with an impressive collection of pumpkins ! The tent maker next door is a typical business of the gold rush, selling gold prospecting equipment, which include tents.
The Post Office
The small group of town musicians are a very nice touch and the post office is fully functional, you can buy stamps and mail your letters or postcards from Sovereign Hill !
All the products sold there are made onsite, in a woodfire oven… And for an authentic touch, they don’t sell modern soft drinks, it’s more about lemon squash and ginger beer…
Rees & Benjamin, Watch & Clockmakers
With these two characters in costume, you wouldn’t think this is a contemporary photograph… There is a true authenticity in Sovereign Hill. I’ve seen it described as “Goldrush Disney” but it’s nothing like it. On the contrary, there is a genuine attention to detail and nothing is “in your face” or tacky.
Robinson & Wayne, Apothecaries Hall
There, you can buy old style candies and view the doctors’ room at the back. It is such a nicely recreated shop. I was half expecting to find arsenic for sale !
This shop makes and sells a range of horse-riding equipment. If you’re not a rider, you can select a fine handmade leather belt.
New York Bakery
The largest restaurant in town.
Charlie Napier Hotel
This is a hotel as they were in those days. It even has a Freemasons room and a scale at the front !
Some of the volunteers in costume sit in rooms and you can engage in conversation, and ask questions. To me, this is a very smart way of bringing the place to life.
The Waterloo Store
The Waterloo Store offers a broad range of clothing and everyday items. The little girl in me can’t help but be fascinated by the dresses, hats and petticoats of a bygone era.
Clark Brothers Tinsmiths
This is where you can buy tin and brass objects manufactured in the Soho Foundry up the road.
Ash & Dawson, Builders & Undertakers
In this shop, you can view the coffin-making workshop and the funeral carriage.
Hewett’s Yarrowee Soap & Candleworks
This is a very interesting workshop, showing the candle-making process by hand, where wicks are dipped in melted paraffin (or melted fat in the old days) layer after layer. Some of the machines are dated 1858 and were imported from the UK. At some point, the township of Sovereign Hill required the production of 10,000 candles per day. Here you can do your own candle-dipping.
Women operate the candleworks and they are very knowledgeable and passionate about the topic… The process is slow and fascinating to watch. I asked whether the candles were ever made of beeswax, but apparently the beekeepers didn’t like to give wax for this purpose, as it took too long for the bees to rebuild it. So the candleworks relied on animal fat, collected from farms and private homes. There are posters around town asking for fat, that’s what it’s for.
The Soho Foundry
This is an impressive workshop, where tin and brass objects are produced. You can even buy gold pans! Like many others in Sovereign Hill, this building houses a real business. Objects are produced and sold onsite, which makes the whole operation very purposeful. You may say that it’s only “for the tourist”, but it’s also a way of preserving a know-how.
The Empire Bowling Saloon
This bowling alley came as a huge surprise to me when visiting Sovereign Hill, but apparently, bowling was very popular during the Gold Rush. As I walked in, I felt it was such a step back in time, I couldn’t help but ask if women were allowed… And I was told that I was welcome so long as I wore pants… I was safe then! Everything is made of wood, including the ball, that you throw with both hands on a single rail. There are nine wooden pins to hit and no robot to pick them up after a strike. This is a great attraction, even for someone who doesn’t like bowling !
Brown’s Confectionery Manufactory
Boiled lollies are all the rage in Sovereign Hill and there are made right in front of you. I tasted the musk lollies, which have an old fashioned and peculiar taste, and I also learned that sugar can be as sharp as glass…
The Gold Mine
There are two gold mines in Sovereign Hill. One is a self-guided tour, the other is more involved visit underground, which includes a ride in a little train.
Gold Bullion Pouring and Gold Museum
There is a presentation of moulding gold bullion, impressive! However, it can be busy, so make sure you get there in time to get a good spot.
Next to the Chinese Camp, you can pan for gold. For real. In the pans made in the Soho Foundry, no doubt…
The Chinese Camp
Sovereign Hill has a recreated Chinese Camp, complete with a Buddhist Temple where you can make an offering of incense. Furthermore, there is an “Office of the Protector of the Chinese”, following the racial tensions common in those days.
The school was full of kids trying their hand at tracing letters with nibs and ink, which is another lovely surprise of Sovereign Hill. Indeed, it doesn’t get more real than that !
W. Proctor, Wheelwright & Coach Manufactory
This is a serious operation, manufacturing coach wheels. You can even buy a handcrafted wheel as a decor, for $500. Not enough room in my luggage, unfortunately…
This is a little eerie, a glimpse into people’s private lives, complete with a laundry, a kitchen, and a live cat sleeping on a bed !
Other things to do in Sovereign Hill
If you stay overnight in Ballarat, the evening sound and light show “Blood on the Southern Cross” depicts the Eureka Rebellion and should be worth a look.
Also, there are horse-drawn carriage tours to take you around the streets of Sovereign Hill.
How Long Should You Spend in Sovereign Hill?
You could easily spend a full day in Sovereign Hill, there is so much to do and experience. And to make the experience all worthwhile, you should take your time. Some attractions are quite popular, and you may have to wait in line. However, I only had 4 hours there and that was sufficient to get a good overview. Indeed, I had time to take lots of photos and to walk all over the village. So, I would say that a half day is a minimum, and if you have children, maybe allow a bit more.
Overall, this visit of Sovereign Hill was a blast. I’m always weary of tourist attractions but this was very interesting and enriching. I loved the handmade industries of Sovereign Hill. Whilst Sovereign Hill would be great for children, the enjoyment is accessible to all.
Therefore, I hope you liked my 38 photos to inspire you to visit Sovereign Hill. Do you have some stories about Sovereign Hill you would like to share? Please comment below, I would love to hear them !