A cruisy two-hour drive from Melbourne or a direct flight from Sydney, this buzzing regional city has a UNESCO-rated food scene, culture and award-winning wine. It’s the getaway Victoria has kept to itself for far too long. Here’s how to have the best country-meets-cool weekend this winter.
See the next best thing to Graceland
Diehard Elvis fans and anyone with even a general interest in pop history will get a kick out of Elvis: Direct From Graceland. Open until 17 July 2022, this glitzy exhibition explores the extraordinary life and legacy of The King through his costumes and other memorabilia. “It’s a world exclusive – the exhibition has been created solely for Bendigo Art Gallery in collaboration with the Graceland Archives and won’t travel on afterwards,” says gallery curator Lauren Ellis.
Get a close-up look at the bedazzled Vegas jumpsuits that have become icons of the 20th century. The more personal side of the star is revealed in pieces such as the crayon box he took to first grade and Elvis and Priscilla’s wedding outfits. A velvet suit tells a (crazy but true) story about the time The King met President Nixon in secret to ask about becoming a special agent in the fight against illegal drugs.
Treasures from Presley’s beloved Graceland home include the gold telephone that sat by his bed, the bongos Priscilla gave him on their first Christmas together and the bright red convertible 1960 MG from the movie Blue Hawaii.
Catch big names in historic surrounds
There’s no theatre quite like Bendigo’s Ulumbarra Theatre, a 1000-seat venue set into a gaol that was built during the 1800s Goldrush. In between these storied walls this winter, you can see some of Australia’s biggest stars, such as musicians Xavier Rudd (17 July) and Amy Shark (20 July) and comedian Jimeoin (15 July). To coincide with the Elvis exhibition, Australian performers will cover Elvis classics in the Burning Love series from 7 May to 11 June.
Explore hip laneways
Bendigo's answer to Melbourne's inner city, Chancery Lane is the place to check out street murals, drink and shop – without the city crowds. Find your fit on the designer fashion racks at Robe boutique and discover the five-page-long list of gins at cosy hangout The Dispensary.
To tour more historic streets, jump on a Vintage Talking Tram tour to see Sacred Heart Cathedral, one of Victoria’s most beautiful churches, and the old Central Deborah Gold Mine. The Dja Dja Wurrung Tram tour explores the story of Bendigo's First People and, while Elvis: Direct From Graceland is running at the Bendigo Gallery, you can ride the Shake, Rattle and Roll Cocktail Tram each Friday and Saturday night.
Hit the drinks trail
There are more than 60 wineries in the Bendigo and Heathcote regions, most family-owned and operated. New to the scene, St Anne's Winery, just south of Bendigo, serves pizza and live music on Sundays. Locally-made chardonnay, shiraz and cabernet sauvignon flows every day. Don’t miss the oldest working winery in the region, Balgownie Estate. Ten minutes from the CBD and overlooking vines and bush, it’s got the prettiest tasting room around. Sip old vine shiraz and cabernet sauvignon from 1969 plantings or a new Macedon Sparkling Pinot Noir Rouge and Chardonnay.
Bendigo is also one of Victoria's top craft brewing centres – taste the best of them at the annual Bendigo on the Hop festival on 27 August. Any time is a good one to try the 1700s-style Blacksmiths Porter at Tooborac Hotel & Brewery, the oldest National Trust-listed country pub in Victoria.
Eat UNESCO-rated food
It will all make sense that Bendigo was named a UNESCO Creative City Of Gastronomy when you eat your way around the Community Farmers Market. Passionate producers bring their best fruit and vegetables, cheeses, locally-raised meats, eggs and baked goodness to its buzzing stalls at the Bendigo Pony Club on the second Saturday of every month and The Good Loaf bakery and cafe on Hargreaves Street on Thursday afternoons (May to August).
At Bendigo’s newest foodie precinct – a section of the CBD’s Littleton Terrace dubbed Lyttle Eat Street – local food traders come together to offer everything from breakfast to Asian BBQ and Turkish food.
At dinner time, The Woodhouse cooks region-reared meat over local redgum trees for a unique smoky flavour. Masons of Bendigo might look industrial-chic but it follows a farm-to-plate ethos, with the ingredients for 95 per cent of its dishes coming from Bendigo surrounds.
Peppergreen Farm in North Bendigo, a social enterprise that employs people with disabilities to work the farm, is the spot for lunch. Dig into hearty fare at the cafe (set in an old tram), then pick your own veg from the garden and check out the oldest Chinese kiln outside Asia.
Find late drinks with good vibes
Catch the best free live music in the city on Saturday nights in a space where gardens grow at will. Handle Bar, on Mitchell Street, is a true ‘backyard’ watering hole. 30 locals put money in to create somewhere great to drink tap brews like Moondog Roadie Draught and Hawkers West Coast IPA with BYO food. It can be challenging to find but once you do, it’s harder to leave.
A more sophisticated experience with skyline views, Nimbus Rooftop is where to find margaritas made with El Jimador Tequila and martinis dosed with Naked Espresso Bar cold drip espresso.
Stay in country style
Langley Estate, one of the most stunningly restored Federation-era mansions anywhere in Australia, is only five minutes up the Midland Highway from the CBD but with charming suites, grand dining spaces and halls and a drawing room, feels like a romantic trip back in time. If you’re with the family, the Big 4 Bendigo Ascot Holiday Park has stylish new Glamping Miners tents that come complete with a queen four-poster bed, two single beds and all the mod cons.