Things to Do in Daylesford, Victoria – Where to Stay, Cook, Shop, Stroll, Sip and Eat
Things to do in Daylesford range from browsing one of Australia’s finest regional art galleries and learning to cook with local produce at the legendary Lake House to indulging in spa treatments at nearby Hepburn Springs.
Just over a hundred kilometres northwest of Melbourne, the capital of Australia’s southeastern state of Victoria, you’ll find darling Daylesford, with its renovated weatherboard miner’s cottages with well-tended gardens and grand old pubs with intricate wrought iron balconies, set amidst gentle forested hills.
Settled during the 1852 gold rush by miners and Italian-Swiss immigrants, Daylesford oozes history and charm, and dishes up good food and wine, making it a perfect weekend escape from Melbourne. It’s close enough for a easy getaway for a couple of days, yet with its crisp mountain air, enchanting botanic gardens, and location in the Macedon Ranges at the foothills of the Great Dividing Range, it feels blissfully far from any cities.
Years ago when we lived in Sydney I took Terence on a surprise birthday long weekend to Melbourne where we collected our hire car and drove up to the heavenly Daylesford Hepburn Springs area. We indulged in the requisite Hepburn Springs spa experience, lingered over a hearty dinner in a grand old hotel with warming fireplaces, and on the drive back to the airport, stopped off for a picnic at Hanging Rock. (Sorry, I was studying film at the time.)
Some years later on our trips back home to Australia to visit my Bendigo based uncle and his wife, collectors of art and antiques, they’d occasionally drive down to charming Daylesford to browse the glorious Convent Gallery and a couple of times we accompanied them.
But it wasn’t until a rushed Daylesford visit updating an Australia guidebook, racing around the laidback little town ticking off sights, inspecting delightful accommodation options, and testing out buzzy cafés that I became quite smitten with Daylesford and wished we’d spent longer – so smitten I often found myself thinking it’s the kind of place I could live one day.
These are some of the things to do in Daylesford – and they’re some of the reasons I’m fond of this hilly Victorian town with its classic country pubs, fine restaurants, cosy cafés and bars, beautiful boutiques, fascinating galleries and markets, and nearby natural mineral spring spas.
Things to Do in Daylesford Victoria – Where to Stay, Cook, Shop, Stroll, Sip and Eat
Stay – Check into a Chic Boutique Hotel in Daylesford’s Heart
One of the first things to do in Daylesford is to check yourself into some stylish lodgings and Hotel Frangos is in the heart of historic Daylesford on Vincent Street, the town’s main drag, lined with restaurants, cafés, bakeries, boutiques, and galleries. Located in a handsome 19th century building, the chic boutique hotel has just fifteen plush rooms with high ceilings and balconies with French doors opening to reveal the kind of town and bush views that prompt sighs. Each of the cosy, welcoming rooms is individually styled in bright, bold colours, with quirky touches, and contemporary art enlivening the walls. The hotel is also home to a buzzy bar, restaurant and café, decorated with murals by local artist David Bromley, which dish up modern Australian food, including wonderful pizzas (order the potato pizza with field mushrooms, gruyere and truffle oil) and local wines and craft brews.
Our friends at Luxury Escapes have a fantastic offer – ending in 7 days! – for two nights for two adults for AUD $399 per room, with welcome drinks, daily breakfasts, complimentary desserts, and two AUD $25 Spa vouchers for Endota Spa. Click here to buy the deal now (valid 1 October 2018 til 30 September 2019) and if you don’t know when you want to travel select ‘Buy Now & Book (dates) Later’.
Absorb – Take in Art, Design and Sculpture at the Convent Gallery
For many (my artist uncle, for instance!) it doesn’t matter how many things to do in Daylesford there are as The Convent Gallery is reason enough to visit. Located above Wombat Hill Botanical Gardens with scenic views over town, The Convent Gallery is set in a sprawling Victorian mansion dating to the 1860s, which once served as the residence of the Gold Commissioner, before it was bought by the Catholic Church in the 1880s. It was used as a convent and boarding school for over a century, until it was purchased by artist Tina Banitska in 1989 who transformed it into this beautiful gallery. The space shows local, national and international art across a variety of mediums and styles in its eight different galleries. There are also retail areas selling exquisite jewellery, glassware, ceramics, and pottery, a light-filled atrium café, a cosy bar, and an art and sculpture park to explore outside.
Learn – Cook with Fresh Local Produce in a Lake House Cooking Class
The Lakehouse is a celebrated restaurant and a luxury boutique hotel with 33 rooms and suites with lake or garden views that is also home to the highly regarded Lake House Cooking School, set on a peaceful six acres of gorgeous gardens that skirt serene Lake Daylesford and the Wombat State Forest. A cooking class here is easily one of the best things to do in Daylesford. Lake House is owned by artist Allan Wolf-Tasker and Alla Wolf-Tasker, a long time champion of local produce and food communities, who also serves as Culinary Director. The cooking school offers a programme of small group (10 max) masterclasses by the award-winning Lake House chefs where students learn to make a three-course meal over three hours using seasonal produce from the region and then get to enjoy it over a sit-down lunch, including wine and refreshments. The school also hosts talks and classes by some of Australia’s finest chefs, bakers, farmers, producers, and winemakers.
Walk – Stroll Lake Daylesford and Wombat Hill Botanic Gardens
The walking possibilities are endless in hilly Daylesford and while I’d happily hike up and down the town streets, discovering the town’s secrets, two of the most popular things to do in Daylesford are walking Wombat Hill Botanic Gardens and strolling around Lake Daylesford, the town’s main attractions. At Lakes Daylesford, you can saunter around the Peace Mile Walking Track that skirts the perimetre of the lake; it takes around 30 minutes. If you’re visiting during the warmer months, you can do a spot of stand-up paddle boarding or row a boat. In the chilly winter you’ll probably be content sitting down with a good book at The Boathouse café on the banks of Lake Daylesford. Drop into Paradise Book Shop or Bookbarn for reading material before you head to the lake. Peckish? Order the Boathouse Grazing Plate with local goats cheese, house-made pork terrine, smoked trout dip, ocean trout, beetroot relish, and local charcuterie and olives.
You’ll hear ‘enchanting’ used a lot when locals recommend the Wombat Hill Botanical Gardens, established in the 1860s, which sprawl across an extinct volcano. The fairy tale botanic gardens top many visitors’ lists of things to do in Daylesford and are best combined with The Convent Gallery, above. The gardens are a real delight to explore and with their picturesque views over Daylesford, make for a wonderful picnic spot. Drop into Cliffy’s Emporium (30 Raglan Street) on the way and pick up some locally made cheeses and charcuterie, and one of their famous lamb pies. Alla Wolf-Tasker’s Wombat Hill House Café and Kitchen Garden in a renovated 1940s caretaker cottage is also completely charming with its whimsical forest murals on the walls, open fireplace, and heated pergola. The 2pm Afternoon Tea includes a glass of sparkling, cakes, sandwiches, scones with jam and cream, and of course tea or coffee.
Lunch – Graze on Sharing Platters of Fresh Seasonal Local Produce
Some of the best things to do in Daylesford are sip good coffee and wine, graze on local specialties or tuck into hearty comfort food at one of the casual cafés, pubs, and bistros. The Larder (57A Vincent Street) is a cheery place with bare brick walls, lots of recycled timber, local art on the walls, and footpath seating, that boasts of having the best coffee in town. The menu, of course, is seasonally- and locally-driven, featuring everything from sharing platters of cured meats, terrines, pâtes, and pickles to vegan ‘nourish bowls’ with quinoa, black beans, roasted pumpkin and cauliflower, fresh avocado, raw young kale, pumpkin and pepita seeds. Their panko and sesame crumble poached eggs with Asian fennel salad, house smoked trout and kewpie mayo is a winner.
The welcoming Farmer’s Arms, a classic Aussie pub dating to 1857, prides itself on its casual vibe and sense of community, yet its menu is a bit more sophisticated than the average country pub, with a modern Australian menu that serves up the likes of Sri Lankan braised beetroot and coconut dhal dumplings and Korean bibimbap hotpot with crunchy rice, vegetables, beef, egg yolk, Sriracha sauce and kim chi, alongside its pie of the day with chips and salad. The roasted beef marrow on the bone with char grilled octopus, bonito flakes and salsa verde straddle both worlds.
Helmed by owner-chef Matthew Carnell, who cooked at a Michelin 2-star restaurant in France, Bistro Terroir is the Daylesford take on an inviting neighbourhood French bistro, with exposed brick walls, wooden floorboards, and the kind of bistro furniture who’d find in Paris. Serving quintessential French bistro classics made with fresh local Aussie produce, means you can expect oysters in season, house-made charcuterie plates with cured meats, terrine, onion jam, cornichons and bread, beef tartare, pork and duck cassoulet, and a traditional Fondue Savoyarde with bread and salad. Best to book, as it seats just 22 at the tables and six at the bar.
Spa – Pamper Yourself at Hepburn Bathhouse and Spa
One of the best things to do in Daylesford for many of its visitors who check in for a night or two isn’t in Daylesford at all, but in neighbouring Hepburn Springs, a spa town centred in an area with Australia’s largest concentration of mineral springs. The main destination is the rejuvenating Hepburn Bathhouse and Spa. The Hepburn Mineral Spring Reserve was established in 1865 after local settlers, most of whom had come from spa centres in Europe, particularly Italy, Switzerland and Germany, appreciated the value of mineral springs and petitioned the government to protect them from mining. The historic bathhouse was opened in 1895, although it’s been remodelled several times since, and is now as sleek, scented and as silent as any world-class spa in Europe or Southeast Asia. Facilities include monsoon showers, a relaxation pool, spa pool, steam room, magnesium salt therapy pool, creekside pool, and spa couches submerged in mineral water, and relaxation decks. There are also an array of therapies and facial and body treatments – or you can simply soak in a private mineral bath.
Shop – Browse the Mill Markets and Daylesford Sunday Market
While the setting definitely is not as atmospheric as The Convent Gallery, an hour rummaging around the Aladdin’s Cave that is Daylesford’s Mill Markets (open 10am–6pm daily) is arguably one of the most fun things to do in Daylesford. The place is packed to the rafters with antiques, art, collectables, retro furniture and home décor, and vintage fashion, jewellery and accessories – and bizarre objects like life-size animal statues. If you’re in town on a weekend, the Daylesford Sunday Market (8am–3pm) is the spot for everything from fresh produce from the region to arts and crafts, secondhand books, and even car spare parts!
Upstairs at Alpha is home to three businesses: Empire Line for vintage clothes, jewellery and accessories; Junk Style for antique furniture, decor and textiles; and Helen Watson‘s quirky antiques and collectables, from paperweights to old-fashioned cigarette cases. Daylesford’s main street is also dotted with beautiful boutiques and spaces, such as Bokeh (10 Howe Street), which has pieces from over forty Australian artists, photographers, designers, and artisans, including stunning prints, jewellery, accessories, art, ceramics, sculptures, and carved wooden pieces, while Frances Pilley stocks natural, raw and handmade products, including scented soaps, aromatic oils and body products made from olives, ash and laurel, rustic handcrafted ceramics, and high quality leatherware.
Dine – Feast on Tasting Menus Showcasing Regional Produce
For food-lovers, some of the best things to do in Daylesford are eating and drinking. Most foodies are in Daylesford to dine at Alla Wolf-Tasker’s award-winning The Lakehouse, a locavore pioneer since she first placed an advertisement for local produce in 1984 and received a “lonely bag of potatoes delivered to the kitchen door”. Ever since, Wolf-Tasker has had open kitchen door policy, welcoming and nurturing local growers, foragers and artisans, although also making everything from charcuterie to baked breads on site. With organic farms located minutes from the restaurant, six acres of gardens at Lake House also providing herbs, salad greens, and fruit, produce is usually hand picked the morning of delivery, which means menus follow the seasonal calendar. Opt for the tasting menu with matching wines from the region and book ahead.
Also make a booking at Sault restaurant, set on a 125-acre lavender farm and distillery, in a splendid two-storey country house with picturesque vistas of a lake, lavender fields, and the Wombat State Forest. You could be forgiven for thinking you’re in the south of France (‘Sault’ draws its name from a French town famed for its lavender) until a kangaroo bounds from the forest to paddock to drink from the lake. The regionally inspired cuisine by head chef Hugh Maxwell, is also seasonal, relying on produce from their own kitchen garden and a long list of local growers and artisans, from Holy Goat cheeses and Kyneton Olive Oil to Newstead Bull boar sausages and Daylesford Meat Company. (Full list on their site). Go the whole hog and order the 7-course tasting menu.
Set in an utterly charming weatherboard house, dating back to 1864, Mercato is a casual fine diner with polished floorboards and white linen tablecloths that also prides itself on its use of regional produce in its modern Australian cuisine. The menu stretches from tapas for the grazers – marinated local olives, Jamon Serrano and Manchego cheese croquettes, ceviche of Tuki trout, sea salt and olive oil, and the like – served from lunch until 5pm to an a la carte menu featuring everything elegant, light appetisers to hearty, comforting mains, from a carpaccio of emu with shaved pecorino, baby herbs, thyme, and Kyneton extra virgin olive oil to eucalyptus-smoked kangaroo, beetroot, cumquat confit, Tasmanian pepper, and red sorrel. There’s also a degustation menu that requires that you leave everything in the hands of the chef, which changes day by day depending upon what’s fresh and in season.
Have you visited the region? What do you think are some of the best things to do in Daylesford? Feel free to leave tips for our readers, below.