Things to do in Echuca on the Murray River in Australia’s southern state of Victoria, include taking a cruise on a paddle steamer, learning about the trading history of the once-bustling river, and sampling fresh local produce at providores, farm gates, farmers markets, wineries, and distilleries.
Located on the banks of the Murray River, Australia’s longest river and the world’s 16th-longest river at 2,520 kms in length, Echuca is named after an Aboriginal word for ‘meeting of the waters’. A 3-hour drive or 3.5-hour train ride north of Melbourne, Echuca is at the centre of a sun-kissed region best known as Victoria’s food bowl.
Once Australia’s busiest inland port, Echuca remains the Australia’s paddle steamer capital, though these days travellers cruise the Murray for pleasure rather than business. You can do a paddle steamer cruise for anything from an hour to 3-4 days. You can also cruise the Murray River on a houseboat, follow the river’s course from Echuca to Albury by car on a road trip, or drive the region’s backroads on food and wine trails.
Before you venture off to discover the region, Echuca and its ‘twin town’ Moama, across the river in the state of New South Wales, have enough of interest to hold your attention for a day or two, especially if you’re a fan of combining activities in Australia’s great outdoors with delicious Australian food and wine experiences.
We love Australia’s country towns and regions and have been lucky to visit so many on family holidays as kids and as adults as guidebook authors updating Rough Guides and Lonely Planet Australia guidebooks and writing a first edition Australia road trip guide for Dorling Kindersley. We thought it time to share more of rural Australia with you.
Oh, and if you’re in the area or in Melbourne, Echuca’s Flavours on the Wharf Festival is on tomorrow, Sunday 14 April 2019, on the Historic Port of Echuca Wharf, showcasing the region’s culinary delights. Sample local food, wine, beer, and cider, watch a cooking demo, browse market stalls, check out historic cars, listen to live music, and enjoy a paddle steamer cruise.
Things to Do in Echuca, Victoria – Where to Stay, Cruise, Learn, Explore and Eat
Stay in a Central Hotel in Echuca’s Heart or on the Riverside
One of the first things to do in Echuca is to check into some convenient lodgings in the centre or on the riverside. There are plenty of motels in Echuca and across the Victoria-New South Wales border in Moama. However, in a town with so much history, we recommend one of the historic Echuca hotels. The four-star CocknBull Boutique Hotel has rather stylish suites and apartments in a heritage house on the riverside with a swimming pool and wine bar. Each room is individually designed – one has a vintage style, another is glam etc – and the apartments have superb kitchens if you pick up some wine and local produce and feel like cooking and dining in. The three-star Steampacket Inn is centrally located with charmingly old-fashioned rooms furnished with antiques and bric a brac in a two-storey inn built in the 1870s. For something more modern, The Quest Echuca is hard to beat and is perhaps the most comfortable accommodation in Echuca with spacious rooms and apartments with plush furnishings, carpets and cosy throws on the beds (Echuca gets cold in autumn and winter), and brilliant kitchens that will inspire you to cook.
Cruise Along The Murray River On A Paddle-Steamer
One of the most popular things to do in Echuca is a paddle-steamer cruise on the tea-coloured waters of the Murray River. Murray River Paddlesteamers operates three paddle steamers from the Port of Echuca, the PS Canberra, Pride of the Murray, and the wood-fired PS Emmylou, whose nine cabins recently received a stylish new fit-out. The leisurely multi-day cruises take passengers through pristine world heritage wetlands and the world’s largest red gum forest to places of historic, geographic and Aboriginal cultural significance, mooring to visit riverside wineries and local producers, and offering special food and wine experiences, such as the riverside dinner, above.
The Wharf to Winery experience combines a 30-minute cruise on PS Canberra or Pride of the Murray with a relaxing lunch and wine tasting at Morrisons Winery, and a glass on the return cruise to the wharf. They also offer a complimentary return shuttle to your accommodation. Alternatively, the Pride of the Murray – which began life in 1924 as a barge before being converted to a paddle wheeler, and is one of only three boats built in Echuca still operating today – will transport you to lunch at Restaurant C24, the boat’s original barge number. There’s a bar and kiosk on board and kids have the chance to steer the boat and get a free skippers certificate. If you’re tight on time, there’s a one-hour cruise (four times daily) on the PS Canberra, the oldest riverboat, which has been operating on the Murray, Darling and Murrumbidgee rivers since 1944.
Our friends at Luxury Escapes have an amazing offer for a 2, 3 or 4-night Murray River cruise from Echuca for two people from A$999 (valued up to A$1,708) on the luxurious PS Emmylou, with all-inclusive dining (breakfast, lunch, dinner, and morning and afternoon teas), two complimentary bottles of wine, an onshore guided eco-tour of World Heritage-listed Barmah Wetlands, a wine tasting and lunch at Morrisons Riverside Winery, two A$20 Echuca Distillery Gin Experience vouchers, and complimentary car parking and free wifi.
Absorb the Aboriginal History, Culture and Spirit of Yorta Yorta Country
One of the essential things to do in Echuca is to absorb the Aboriginal history, traditions and spirit of the place. Australia’s Aboriginal people have inhabited the Murray River continuously for tens of thousands of years. One of the main Dreamtime stories explains the river’s origins and how the Ngarrindjeri people’s ancestor Ngurunderi created the landscape during his journey to the Coorong as he chased the giant Murray cod toward the river’s mouth near Lake Alexandrina. As the fish darted here and there to evade Ngurunderi’s spear, the sweeping side-to-side movement of his tail created the river’s bends and turns.
Before European occupation in the 1830s, Echuca, Moama and the surrounding country was home to the Jodajoda indigenous peoples, also called the Bangarang (Bangerang) peoples, of the Yorta Yorta language group, these days known as the Yorta Yorta Nation. Their traditional tribal lands, Yorta Yorta Country, sprawled on both sides of the Murray River from Cohuna all the way to Albury-Wodonga, which includes towns such as Echuca and Moama, as well as Shepparton, Benalla, Corowa and Wangaratta north toward Deniliquin, covering some 20,000 square kilometres. It wasn’t until the 1920s that explorers passed through and then in the late 1830s that European pastoralists droving their cattle and sheep inland along rivers in search of grazing land settled in the area.
Echuca soon developed as a hub for steamships transporting wool and beef along the river. Today there are over 40 Aboriginal nations in the entire Murray-Darling River Basin. You can learn about the region’s Aboriginal history, Dreamtime stories and traditions on your paddle steamer cruise, at museums in Echuca, Moama and other riverside towns, such as Albury-Wodonga, Swan Hill and Mildura, and with an indigenous guide. Drop into the Echuca Moama Visitor Centre (2 Heygarth Street) for more information.
If you continue to explore the Murray River and make it 379 kms upstream to Mildura, Yorta Yorta and Barkindji guides run tours from there to significant local sites, while the award winning Mungo Aboriginal Discovery Tours are conducted by Mungo National Park rangers from three Aboriginal tribal groups. The World Heritage-listed site is home to Mungo Man and Woman, the oldest human remains found in Australia, dating back 42,000 years.
Learn About The History Of Echuca and The Murray River
After a paddle-steamer cruise, one of the most popular things to do in Echuca is to soak up the history of the town. There are a few ways you can do this. Firstly, you can do a self-guided walking tour of the old Port of Echuca, rejuvenated in 1974 following almost a century of neglect and part-demolition after construction of the Iron Bridge and the development of Victoria’s roads and highways and the shifting of the commercial town centre toward the railway station.
Like many tourist destinations, Echuca has a movie (or, rather a television series) called All the Rivers Run, filmed in Echuca in the 1980s and starring two of Australia’s biggest stars at the time, Sigrid Thornton and John Waters, to thank for putting the town back on the map. Historic buildings were restored to their 19th century glory, including charming shops, pubs and inns, and increased tourist numbers followed, leading to a revitalisation of the old High Street near the port.
Download this Echuca Heritage Town Walk PDF for starters and you can easily spend a leisurely hour or two strolling the streets and wandering the restored old wharf area, where you can watch blacksmiths at work and see craftsmen turning wood from the local red gums into furniture, chat to shipwrights restoring the paddlesteamers, or ride a horse-drawn carriage (fun if you’re travelling with kids though probably a bit cheesy otherwise). If you’re really into history, drop into the Echuca Historical Museum.
Next, visit the Port of Echuca Discovery Centre (74 Murray Esplanade; 9am-5pm) to learn about the history of Echuca and the Murray River pioneers through interactive exhibitions, including a sawmill display, working steam exhibits, access to the paddle steamers moored at Echuca Wharf, the cargo shed museum, historic kids games, and the Echuca Railway Station with its steam locomotive. The entry ticket (adults A$14, children A$8, families of two adults and up to four children A$45) includes a one-hour guided tour. The Port After Dark tour (A$19.50) reveals dark secrets on a guided lantern tour.
If you haven’t had your fill of local history yet, or you’re more inclined to Australia’s kitschier, quirkier and more nostalgic history, another couple of things to do in Echuca include visits to the National Holden Motor Museum (“a must” says the woman who once featured an old Holden in the gritty black and white road movie Come By Chance that marked her directorial debut) and The Great Aussie Beer Shed and Heritage Farm Museum (just the kind of place I would have taken my characters to had I made my film in northern Victoria instead of northern New South Wales).
Take in the Art of Echuca and the Murray River Region
The Echuca and Moama area and the Murray River have long inspired artists and been the subject of works of art by countless great Australian artists, such as Sidney Nolan, who beautifully captured the olive greens, browns and greys of the red gum forests in his Riverbend series of large-scale canvases; Hans Heysen, who undertook four paddle-steamer journeys from Murray Bridge in South Australia (he lived in the Adelaide Hills) upstream along the Murray River to give us more gentle and romantic representations of the river in watercolour and oil; Fred Williams, whose Murray River landscape lithographs and his Reflection Murray River gouache reveal stark textured portraits of flat dry lands; and Yorta Yorta elder Sharon Atkinson, who lived on the riverbank in Echuca and in her vibrant Murray River Dreaming 2 acrylic depicts a bold birds-eye-view of the river that indigenous Australians call Dhungala snaking through an arid land.
If you’re an art lover, taking in the art galleries and museums of the region is definitely one of the things to do in Echuca and the towns up and down the Murray River. Start at Echuca’s Alton Gallery (111 Hare Street, Echuca), ran by Echuca and Moama based artists and hosting art exhibitions throughout the year by both local and regional artists, including an annual show in September and October. Next, see what’s happening at the not-for-profit Foundry Arts Space, an Echuca Moama Arts Initiative aimed at raising the profile of arts in the area, located in the historic Port of Echuca precinct. This gallery, workshop and performance venue is located in the old Freeman’s Foundry on the site of Echuca founder Henry Hopwood’s original store. They also offer art classes and workshops for everyone from beginners to experienced artists.
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Have you been to Echuca, Moama and the Murray River region? What are some of your favourite things to do in Echuca?