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Join Ryan Smith from The Access Agency as he gets a taste of Ballarat’s access-friendly cafes, restaurants, hotels and attractions.

On a crisp but clear morning, the Melbourne skyline is getting smaller in my rear-view mirror as I merge on to the M80.

As a wheelchair user, leaving the comfort of my backyard can be exciting and rewarding – but it’s not without some trepidation.

Curious caution gave way to excitement and relaxation as I meandered the city streets and ventured out a little further.

Join me as I explore Ballarat and discover 10 things that might work for you too.

We’ll stop in at places you might know and some that might be new to you – from the iconic and historic, to the sublime and luxurious….

Ballarat's Dee and Emma Banks are served breakfast at Hydrant Food Hall.
Ballarat’s Dee and Emma Banks are served breakfast at Hydrant Food Hall. Image: Mass Motion

Hydrant Food Hall

Hydrant Food Hall has quickly become a Ballarat staple and sits within the warehouse walls of a former fire hydrant shop.

The conversion lends itself to good access. With open spaces, a wide entry door, accessible toilet and range of tables and seating, there’s room to move around in an inviting contemporary feel.

On top of that, I found the staff really accommodating. Rolling up to and under my table, you could be forgiven for thinking you were in Fitzroy or North Melbourne. The coffee is on par too.

I dove into the tahini greens with avocado and yogurt – the perfect example of simple things done exceptionally well.

Take your pick from all-day breakfast and pastries, some main meals plus kids’ options. With the family-friendly vibe, I’m guessing the rainbow pancakes would be a crowd favourite!

The Access Agency's Ryan Smith and Ballarat local Christine admire some of the works on show at the Art Gallery of Ballarat
The Access Agency’s Ryan Smith and Ballarat local Christine admire some of the works on show at the Art Gallery of Ballarat. Image: Mass Motion

Art Gallery of Ballarat

The Art Gallery of Ballarat punches well above its weight.

For me, a gallery alone can be a reason to visit somewhere – but then I am an art tragic.

This gallery is deceptively expansive once you enter from Lydiard Street North. Come in, cast off your coat, grab a guide and dive into drawings, paintings, sculpture and arts – all the arts.

Strolling or rolling amongst some fine 19th-century landscapes and portraits, you’re invited to consider and reflect.

They’re juxtaposed with some powerful colourful abstract work. Meander through and you’ll no doubt find work that challenges and excites.

There is excellent signage, lifts and helpful staff on hand. There’s accessible parking too, directly out the front, plus the gallery’s website is bold and beautiful (and very accessible).

Ryan poses for a photo with one of Sovereign Hill's troopers on the diggings
Ryan poses for a photo with one of Sovereign Hill’s troopers on the diggings. Image: The Access Agency

Sovereign Hill

If you want to get a true sense of another time and place, Sovereign Hill has this in spades.

To be clear, the location poses some access issues for those with low mobility – the main street is steep and the surface might not be ideal for some visitors.

But you’d be wise not to let that discourage you – with some planning and help (I used a wheelchair power assist), you’ll find there’s plenty to get involved in at Sovereign Hill.

The highlight for me was a photo shoot at Red Hill Photographic Rooms. Getting to play a wealthy gentleman/landowner was not only super fun but something of an interactive history lesson too.

Wheelchairs are available for free hire, many (not all) of the buildings are step-free and there’s the night-time show AURA which caters for everyone.

Call up or check the website, align your expectations and you might just be surprised how much you enjoy visiting the 1800s.

A diner enjoying a slice of woodfired pizza at The Forge Pizzeria
A diner enjoying a slice of woodfired pizza at The Forge Pizzeria.

The Forge Pizzeria

The Forge Pizzeria is a Ballarat icon, serving woodfired pizza and pasta to hungry locals and visitors alike.

Here, they strike a great balance between affordability, comfort and quality.

The staff are friendly and show us to our table with thoughtful ease.

In case you were wondering, I’ll answer three questions upfront – there’s accessible parking nearby, two accessible toilets in the building and step-free access into the open, red-brick restaurant.

The dining area inside the accessible Lola Apartment at The Provincial Hotel
The dining area inside the accessible Lola Apartment at The Provincial Hotel. Image: The Access Agency

The Provincial Hotel

I’ve never seen an accessible bathroom with a spa bath until I discovered The Provincial Hotel’s Lola Apartment. In the name of research, I had to give it a try.

But let’s rewind a bit. The Provincial has made a name for itself as a luxurious, European-styled boutique hotel but it manages to stay approachable and charming.

The Lola Apartment has a thoughtfully considered accessible bathroom, an ensuite, two generous bedrooms and a full kitchen.

I’m rolling around easily, even transferring to the couch to enjoy a hot English breakfast tea when I realise it’s the little details that make this place feel stylish but also warm – the books, the paintings, the flowers. It’s the nuanced accessibility considerations that make this a winner for a special weekender or just because.

The European-inspired dining area at The Provincial Hotel's in-house restaurant, Lola
The European-inspired dining area at The Provincial Hotel’s in-house restaurant, Lola.

Lola at The Provincial Hotel

The Provincial’s ground floor restaurant, Lola, provides a breakfast experience in the best possible way.

The staff, the setting and the food (oh, the food!) all provided an easy and relaxing start to the day.

My perfectly-poached egg spilled out onto salty bacon and was mopped up with a toasted sourdough. Spinach and mushrooms were jabbed onto my fork and, before long, I was sitting back admiring the hints of blue in this traditional, European country-styled setting.

The elegant long wooden table in front of me was covered in smart magazines and newspapers, decorated with a vase of fresh flowers. I imagine it would be the picture-perfect setting for a family or friends to brunch.

Luckily, Lola is open for lunch and dinner too so your window to try this much-loved fare is open beyond the morning.

The entry to the Dementia Friendly Forest and Sensory Trail at Woowookarung Regional Park
The entry to the Dementia Friendly Forest and Sensory Trail at Woowookarung Regional Park. Image: The Access Agency

Dementia Friendly Forest & Sensory Trail

Just 10 minutes’ drive from Ballarat’s town centre, Woowookarung Regional Park is home to Australia’s first dementia trail.

Everyone can enjoy the 3km of pathways, including a boardwalk and wetlands.

Contemplate nature while looking through the six-foot wide ‘nature frame’ or use the QR codes to hear the calls of birds you might come in contact with.

There’s also the Welcome Wander trail, which is wheelchair accessible and invites visitors to take in the textures and scents of the bush as well as the sights.

The wide meandering pathway, frequent break areas and the stillness make this a great place to unplug and feel the renewing gift of nature.

Emma Banks peeks into the underwater penguin enclosure at the Ballarat Wildlife Park
Emma Banks peeks into the underwater penguin enclosure at the Ballarat Wildlife Park. Image: Mass Motion

Ballarat Wildlife Park

Even people who don’t tend to like zoos are fans of the Ballarat Wildlife Park.

Some like it because of the open setting, others because animal welfare seems to be a genuine priority. And others, well, maybe because they like to be around the 100+ free roaming kangaroos.

There’s a large number of Aussie favourites here – koalas, kangaroos, little penguins, meerkats, dingos, Tassie devils and a range of reptiles.

The setting is wide and flat and the access seems to be considered – it’s great to see the use of glass so everyone can peer into the enclosures.

There is also an undercover cafe and a souvenir shop on site, plus accessible parking and toilets.

A patron orders a drink from the bar at Hop Temple
A patron orders a drink from the bar at Hop Temple. Image: The Access Agency

Hop Temple

Accessibility is one of those things you don’t see until you need it. And when you have it, not only can you get around but you also feel welcomed and considered.

On a brisk Wednesday night, I joined a swelling number of people gradually crowding onto tables at Hop Temple for the regular trivia night.

I nabbed one of the low tables early and, peering up from my beer and brisket special, empty seats and bar stools soon got harder to find.

This place has the feel of a makeshift Texas bar/BBQ joint, pulled together with junk yard scraps by mates who want a place to hang out.

But don’t be fooled – access is well considered with a full accessible toilet, flat concrete floor and good space for manoeuvring around tables and stools.

Hotel Vera's Tourello Suite is a beautifully-appointed accessible room
Hotel Vera’s Tourello Suite is a beautifully-appointed accessible room. Image: The Access Agency

Hotel Vera

You might think that due to the décor, Hotel Vera is all about style. You’d be right, but it’s also about service (and access).

The Tourello Suite is the beautifully-appointed accessible room. The old circular servants’ switch sits across from the push button for the power-opening door – tradition next to stylish innovation, which is kind of a metaphor for this property.

The bathroom really is a masterclass in how style and access can not only co-exist but compliment one another. There’s even a light that softly radiates as the sensors find you in the bathroom at night.

Elsewhere, there’s a wide hallway connecting the ground floor rooms, a stairway with handrails and tactile indicators for visitors who are blind or low vision.

If you’re looking for a luxury, accessible stay in Ballarat, you’d be hard pressed to beat Vera.

Across Victoria’s Midwest, we acknowledge that we travel across the ancient landscapes of many First Peoples communities.

These lands have been nurtured and cared for over tens of thousands of years and we respect the work of Traditional Custodians for their ongoing care and protection.

We recognise the past injustices against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in this country. As our knowledge grows, we hope that we can learn from their resilience and creativity that has guided them for over 60,000 years.

As we invite people to visit and explore Victoria’s Midwest, we ask that alongside us, you also grow to respect the stories, living culture and connection to Country of the Ancestors and Elders of our First Peoples.