It’s an easy hop, skip and jump to the Great Barrier Reef from Townsville but this North Queensland city has far more to offer than aquatic pursuits. This city in the tropics is the largest urban centre north of the Sunshine Coast and it’s the spot for culture vultures to seek out a different kind of arts festival; for adventure-seekers to hike and dive in pristine surrounds; and for those in need of a holiday to simply kick back, eat well and soak up the ample sunshine. Here’s how to get a taste of Townsville in a single weekend.
If you want... to take a bite out of the food scene
Forget what you think you know about Townsville’s restaurants, cafés and bars – a raft of new openings and stand-out stalwarts make it a surprising hotspot for the hungry. Jam restaurant is undoubtedly a favourite, thanks to a fresh seasonal menu showcasing local produce such as Townsville scallops and Magnetic Island prawns. The Ville Resort-Casino has some of the city’s most popular eateries and bars. The Palm House Pizzeria serves pizza made with hand-stretched dough and classic pasta dishes, while Miss Songs offers arguably the city’s best modern-Chinese food – think five-spice crispy pork belly and roast duck steamed buns.
Where to stay: Choose a tropical-chic room at The Ville and you’re only steps away from excellent restaurants and a dreamy infinity pool with a swim-up bar. Beautiful Magnetic Island, visible from the resort, is only a 20-minute ferry ride away.
If you want... to dive into the world’s most diverse aquatic ecosystems
Townsville has unrivalled access to the glorious Great Barrier Reef. From here, those keen to dive into the World Heritage-listed natural wonder are spoilt for choice – boats (and helicopter tours, for the extra-adventurous) leave regularly to nearby islands. The eagle-eyed can spot some of the reef’s 1500 fish species in the waters surrounding Orpheus Island and at the pristine, near-deserted Pelorus Island, you can snorkel among coral formations easily accessed from the beach.
Where to stay: Orpheus Island Lodge is a paradise of 14 beachfront rooms, suites and villas on a slash of reef-surrounded coastline. Visitors (just 28 at a time) can experience world-class diving and snorkelling in clear blue waters, picnic adventures to nearby islands and forest treks to the island’s national park interior to spot echidnas and bandicoots.
If you want... to immerse yourself in arts and culture
Image credit: International cabaret star Reuben Kaye will perform at NAFA this year.
Visit Townsville between 2 July and 1 August to experience some electrifying local and national performances, exhibitions and concerts – as well as two world premieres. This year’s North Australian Festival of Arts (NAFA) will take place throughout Townsville, with a line-up featuring singer-songwriter Tones and I, comedian Tim Ferguson and the magical Circus Wonderland: 100 Years Ago. Running alongside Pop Up North Queensland and the Australian Festival of Chamber Music, the festival brings Townsville to life with more than 400 shows – including cabaret, comedy, dance and music – showcasing local creativity and nationally-recognised acts. The Northern Fringe Festival, a series of daring, subversive and unexpected performances, will run alongside NAFA.
Where to stay: Right in the heart of Townsville on Flinders Street East, Rambutan is a boutique property with a mix of 45 airy self-contained villas and traditional hotel rooms within walking distance of the CBD. There’s a beautiful rooftop bar, pool and restaurant where guests can socialise after Northern Fringe Festival events.
“The North Australian Festival of Arts celebrates artists from across the country, as well as creatives who have honed their craft in Townsville,” says the city’s mayor, Jenny Hill. Plan your visit now at townsville.qld.gov.au/nafa.
If you want... to get in touch with nature
Image credit: SS Yongala, Townsville, North Queensland. Courtesy of Townsville Enterprise.
Would you stay indoors in a region that boasts more than 300 days of sunshine per year? We wouldn’t, either. Happily, Townsville offers countless opportunities for outdoor exploration. Reef-fringed Magnetic Island is a quick ferry ride from the city and visitors will find plenty of pursuits for every sort of adventure in the great outdoors. Animal-lovers can meet koalas; divers can search for sunken treasure at the SS Yongala dive site (pictured); and keen hikers can traverse the Forts Walk up to an incredible lookout.
Where to stay: Pure Magnetic offers 10 Balinese-style beachfront villas set amid tropical gardens overlooking Magnetic Island’s Nelly Bay. Each has two bedrooms, a full kitchen and laundry, a private courtyard with barbecue and a covered balcony – the perfect place to return to after a day of outdoor adventure.
If you want… to keep the whole family entertained
Image credit: Matt Curnock
There’s plenty for kids and adults alike to do in Townsville. The Museum of Underwater Art – the first of its kind in the Southern Hemisphere – is a series of spectacular sculptures in four Townsville locations. Ocean Siren (she’s most spectacular at dusk) can be seen from The Strand but the Coral Greenhouse (pictured) at John Brewer Reef, off the coast of Townsville, requires a two-hour boat ride and a snorkel or dive gear. Back on land but not quite dry, The Strand is a fabulous 2.2-kilometre beachfront promenade lined with palm trees, safe swimming beaches, picnic spots, playgrounds, restaurants and a slide-filled water park. Out of town, families will love the Paluma Range National Park, where Little Crystal Creek has waterholes for swimming and small waterfalls to play under.
Where to stay: Quest Townsville on Eyre has spacious and family-friendly one-, two- and three-bedroom apartments – complete with full kitchens, dining and living areas and laundry facilities – right in the heart of Townsville’s dining and entertainment precinct.
If you want… to explore Townsville’s history
Image credit: Jezzine Barracks, Townsville, North Queensland. Courtesy of Townsville Enterprise.
Townsville is more than a palm-lined pretty face. Jezzine Barracks (pictured), set on the Kissing Point headland, offers a glimpse into the area’s fascinating military history and the rich culture of the land’s traditional owners – the Wulgurukaba and Bindal people. The restored Kissing Point Fort, in use from 1885 until 2006, is part of the 15-hectare precinct, along with a walking trail complete with native plants and Aboriginal art installations. Also on site is the Army Museum North Queensland, which documents the history of the Australian Army in this region.
Where to stay: Ten minutes’ drive from The Strand foreshore, the Mercure Townsville is a resort-style stay with a gorgeous free-form swimming pool and 162 well-appointed rooms set amid 4.5 hectares of tropical gardens.
“NAFA will run in conjunction with Pop Up North Queensland (PUNQ) and the Australian Festival of Chamber Music this year, which will give visitors to Townsville real bang for their buck,” says the city’s mayor, Jenny Hill. Plan your visit now at townsville.qld.gov.au/nafa.
Top image credit: The view to Magnetic Island/Megan MacKinnon
This piece was originally published in 2019 and has been updated.