At just on five hours' drive west of Melbourne via the Great Ocean Road (or three hours on the inland route), a visit to Warrnambool necessitates a stay of at least a couple of days. But you'll almost certainly find yourself wanting more time in this relaxed coastal retreat. Tick off these ten top things to do around town.
Warrnambool sits at the western end of the Great Ocean Road on Victoria’s South West Coast.
So depending on the direction of travel, it will either be your first or last stop as you cruise along the iconic coastal route. Consistently ranked one of the ‘most liveable’ regional cities in Australia by Ipsos, Warrnambool’s position on the edge of the mighty Southern Ocean provides plenty of scenic ‘wow’ moments. It’s also given rise to a host of historic maritime attractions.
Here are ten of the best things to do in Warrnambool.
1. Stroll the Foreshore Promenade
The long, shining curve of Lady Bay defines Warrnambool’s waterfront. This large natural harbour allowed the town to become an important trading port soon after it was established in the 1840s. But the bay had its dangers in the form of submerged reefs, and in time around fifteen ships found a watery grave here. Today, Lady Bay is devoted to recreational pursuits such as fishing, diving, surfing and swimming. A well-surfaced promenade hugs the shoreline for nearly six kilometres and is perfect for a scenic stroll. If you’re out early enough, you might even see local racehorses enjoying their morning swim!
2. Step back in time at Flagstaff Hill
Flagstaff Hill Maritime Museum and Village is Warrnambool’s top visitor attraction and offers three different ways to ‘experience the history’ of the region. The Lady Bay Lighthouse Complex preserves the original light structures built in the nineteenth century to help ships navigate this notoriously dangerous stretch of coastline. The vessels that didn’t make it — more than 200 of them — are commemorated at the Shipwreck Museum, which brings to life the personal stories of the sailors and immigrants on board. The museum also houses a fascinating collection of salvaged artefacts, including the priceless Loch Ard Peacock.
Meanwhile, the Maritime Village townscape, complete with cobbled streets and authentically restored period buildings, offers an immersive taste of life in this remote but thriving community 150 years ago.
3. Admire local landscapes at Warrnambool Art Gallery
Like so many regional galleries in Australia, the Warrnambool Art Gallery (WAG) is a gem. It owns thousands of artworks (not all of which can be displayed at the same time), including European, Australian settler, Indigenous and contemporary pieces. Highlights include both historical and modern depictions of nearby landmarks such as Loch Ard Gorge and Tower Hill. Seeing these artistic interpretations of local landscapes enriches the experience of visiting the actual places, and helps visitors appreciate the majestic scenery of Victoria’s southwest.
4. Get back to nature at Tower Hill
A unique natural environment represented in several artworks at WAG is Tower Hill, which lies about 15 kilometres west of Warrnambool. The twenty-minute drive there delivers you to another realm: primeval, silent, yet teeming with life. Two ancient volcanic eruptions produced this strange landscape, in which a massive maar (volcanic crater), one of the world’s largest, forms a nest for cone-shaped hills made by later fire fountains. The partly flooded crater holds an unusual mixture of wetlands and bushland, which is home to hundreds of birds, reptiles and insects, as well as some of Australia’s most iconic marsupials.
There are four walking trails to explore, each under two kilometres in length, or you can join a guided tour at 11am daily to learn more about Tower Hill’s wildlife, geology and Indigenous heritage. The outstanding Visitor Centre, managed by Worn Gundidj Enterprises, has high-quality interpretative displays alongside a great café and gift shop.
5. Do a day trip to Port Fairy
Continue for another 20 minutes on the Princes Highway and you’ll reach the charming town of Port Fairy. Admire the lovely stone cottages of the old fishing village, browse boutiques and bookshops, or drop into one of many artists’ galleries and studios. A short causeway links the southern end of town to Griffiths Island. Keep to the marked trails so as not to disturb the burrows of the estimated 30,000 shearwater birds that make their home here from late September to mid-April each year. You’ll be rewarded with magnificent beach and ocean views, the sight of Port Fairy’s own pint-sized lighthouse and, at dusk, the spectacle of thousands of shearwaters returning to their nests.
6. Enjoy family fun at Lake Pertobe
Back in Warrnambool, family fun awaits at the Lake Pertobe Adventure Park recreation precinct, located right in the town centre by the Foreshore Promenade. The park features not one but three lakes, and multiple playgrounds. Flying foxes, giant slides, tennis courts, mini-golf, paddleboats and an impressive maze are complemented by lakeside walking tracks and well-resourced picnic areas. This is one of Warrnambool’s most popular attractions and it’s easy to see why. It’s a bright, spacious outdoor area with something for everyone to enjoy.
7. Meet the maremmas
As told in the 2015 film Oddball, a world-first wildlife conservation strategy was successfully developed in Warrnambool centring around man’s — and now penguin’s — best friend. Local chicken farmer Swampy Marsh trained maremma sheepdogs to protect the little penguins living on Middle Island — just off the western end of the harbour — from predators such as foxes. The colony has since flourished.
To safeguard the penguins’ burrows, visitors can’t go to the island itself. However, Warrnambool Penguins’ excellent website provides plenty of information about the work of the maremmas and how you can support the project.
8. Go baby whale watching
At the opposite end of Lady Bay, just across the mouth of the Hopkins River, there’s another fantastic wildlife experience on offer. Viewing platforms above the sand dunes at Logan’s Beach make this the perfect place for winter whale watching. Between June and September, it’s a favourite calving ground for female southern right whales, so you might be lucky enough to see a mother-baby pair. One individual whale, recognisable by the piece missing from one side of her tail, has returned so regularly over the past three decades that locals (who’ve named her Wilma) eagerly watch for her each year.
If you’re not in Warrnambool during the winter months, Logan’s Beach is still worth visiting for its glorious, windswept views over the Southern Ocean and — for experienced surfers only — large waves.
9. Turn up treasure at the Fletcher Jones Market
Once upon a time, Warrnambool was home to one of Australia’s largest clothing manufacturers — Fletcher Jones & Staff. A visionary employer, Sir David Fletcher Jones provided jobs, profit-sharing opportunities and a sense of belonging for thousands of Warrnambool residents, as well as creating an iconic Australian clothing brand. Sadly, the factory closed in 2005, but has since been reimagined as an antiques market. Be warned, a trawl through this sprawling complex of shops and stalls is not for the fainthearted, but dedicated treasure hunters may well turn up some unique finds (the selection of vinyl records is especially good).
If fresh air and flowers are more your thing, you’ll find both in the adjacent heritage-listed garden.
10. Indulge in a visit to Cheese World
Warrnambool’s hinterland is prime dairy country and since 1888 the Warrnambool Cheese and Butter Factory at Allansford, a ten-minute drive away, has produced some of Australia’s best-known brands of cheddar cheese and a range of specialty varieties. Sample their wares at the cellar-door-style Cheese World, before stocking up on your favourites. Learn more about the region’s dairy industry at the small heritage museum, check out the gift shop, and don’t leave without trying a famous Sungold milkshake from the cafeteria.
Browse our full range of Victoria tours and experiences here.
Do you have any suggestions to add to our list of the best things to do in Warrnambool? We would love to hear from you. Please leave a comment below.
Additional images: Bigstock
About the writer
Roslyn Jolly is a freelance travel writer whose work has appeared in Escape (News Limited), Mindful Puzzles, Vacations and Travel, and Mindfood. In her former career as an English Literature academic, she studied and taught the work of great travel writers, such as Henry James, Herman Melville and Robert Louis Stevenson, and became fascinated by the history of travel and tourism. Two years at school in Wales and three years at university in England allowed Roslyn to travel extensively in Europe and North America, which she continues to do.