‘Three Bowie Sisters’ by artist Lisa King. Photo: @pottershoteltoowoomba via Instagram
Experience the youthful, creative-cool vibe sweeping through this grand old town
Toowoomba as street art capital. Who would have thought it? Like me, you might know Toowoomba as the big-hearted country town with a whiff of well-to-do thanks to its historic homes, prestigious boarding schools, and bountiful gardens. Three generations of my family grew up on its wide, tree-lined streets, so my affection runs deep. But nostalgia aside, a recent trip with my partner had me looking at Queensland’s Garden City with fresh eyes. Toowoomba is in a state of invigoration, led by a passionate new generation of locals who are bringing everything from street art and rooftop bars to boutique shopping and semi-sourdough croissants.
Don’t worry, you’ll still find lashings of country charm — but it’s the creative convergence of old and new that makes it such an exciting time to visit. In fact, with Carnival coming up, it’s the perfect moment to plan that breathtaking ascent ‘up the range’ for a weekend escape to the country.
Why & when to go?
An easy 90-minute drive west of Brisbane, Toowoomba is a very pretty city. At 700 metres above sea level, located on the crest of the Dividing Range, it does a good line in crisp mountain air, sweeping valley vistas, lavish parks and gardens, and a sense of rural luxe. For a romantic short break, Toowoomba delivers an idyllic setting. For a winter weekend away from Brisbane you can sip red wine by an open fire, wake to morning frosts, and experience the Queensland version of a ‘proper’ winter, while in spring and summer the elevation provides cool respite and the city is awash with blooms.
The annual Carnival of Flowers (https://www.tcof.com.au/) is a major drawcard and a lively introduction to the city for first-timers. After launching in 1950 as a three-mile-long street procession led by a team of bullocks, the September event now draws crowds of 250,000+ for a nine-day celebration of events, entertainment, and the iconic Floral Parade. Well worth a look.
Rainbow-hued gardens now share Insta-space with vibrant street art, part of a fresh energy that’s drawing a new demographic of Toowoomba visitors. The city is still feeling the overglow of First Coat, a 2014 festival which flowed into a major street art project spanning four years. Large-scale artworks funded by the local council make Toowoomba one of Australia’s largest outdoor galleries. Follow the map (firstcoat.com.au) and you’ll find a couple of honourable mentions at 3 Bowen St (Three Bowie Sisters by Lisa Kings) and in Gallery Lane (Elysha Rei’s ‘Geisha girl’).
Where to eat
For coffee & bakery treats: The Baker’s Duck
Superb coffee, artisan sourdough, and your favourite baked goods —with a twist. Experimental flavours and a made-from-scratch commitment (the croissants can take up to four days to perfect) have snagged The Baker’s Duck a cult following. If you love the offerings at Paddock Bakery on the Gold Coast, you’ll be in pastry heaven here. Think Nutella smores doughnuts, twice-baked Snickers croissants and strawberry cheesecake danishes. Just get in quick because they sell out fast! This cool little local is tucked away on Campbell St, not far from the Cobb+Co Museum, but if you’re looking for a coffee in the CBD, sister store Ground Up Espresso will sort you out. www.thebakersduck.com.au/
For a special occasion or afternoon cocktails: George Banks Rooftop Bistro
One of the city’s first rooftop bars, housed in an historic 1940s former bank building, is seriously luxe with a touch of whimsy. George Banks sets the bar for a sophisticated Toowoomba soirée, right in the heart of the CBD. The name was inspired by a Mary Poppins character (look out for the glittering umbrella installations inside) while the food focus is on shared plates with Mediterranean flavours which draw on seasonal local produce. Book one of the plush white booths or head out to the rooftop terrace for cocktails and sweeping city views. www.georgebanks.com.au/
For street food with an edge: Junk Asian Street Food
The urban renewal of the Walton Stores has brought new life to the CBD with a laneway dining culture not seen in Toowoomba before. Inspired by “the Junk Boats that travel the waterways of Asia, bringing the community local, fresh & authentic Asian Street Food” Junk is a standout for its fast and tasty snacks. www.junkboat.com.au/
What to Do
For a romantic stroll: Japanese garden ‘Ju Raku En’.
Toowoomba is blooming with beautiful gardens, but this traditional Japanese ‘stroll garden’ deserves special mention. Designed in Kyoto, its name roughly translates as “to enjoy peace and longevity in a public place.” Explore three kilometres of paths, created around a central lake and over 200 species of Japanese and Australian native trees and plants, looking out for the mountain stream and waterfall and Azalea Hill. Save a selfie for the photo-ready red bridge. Popular for weddings, the garden is a serene place to explore with your sweetheart, open from 6am until dusk with free entry.
For a scenic picnic: Picnic Point Lookout
Its position at the top of the Great Dividing Range affords Toowoomba cracker views over Main Range and Lockyer Valley. One of the best spots to take them in is Picnic Point Lookout. www.picnic-point.com.au/
For a hike: Tabletop Mountain
Up for a challenge? To reach the summit of Tabletop Mountain requires a short but steep two-kilometre climb/scramble. Listed as a grade 4, the climb takes about two hours, but the rewards are spectacular vistas and the chance to see the mountain’s peculiar plateau up close. The top is indeed quite flat — no trees grow here, and no one knows why!
For a show & art deco: The Empire Theatre
Now a firm favourite on the Queensland arts scene, the stately Empire Theatre has had somewhat of a dramatic history. First built in 1911, then rebuilt in the art deco style in 1933 following a devastating fire, the theatre fell into disrepair before finally being restored again in 1997. Now a full calendar of theatre, live music, and comedy keeps this grand old dame in tip-top shape. www.empiretheatre.com.au/
For a sense of history: The Cobb+Co Museum
Shining a light on the cultural history of Toowoomba and the Darling Downs, this museum is part of the National Carriage Collection. So, as well as checking out heritage trades such as blacksmithing, silversmithing, leadlighting and leatherwork, you can get acquainted with vehicles of the horse-drawn era. Great gift shop too. www.cobbandco.qm.qld.gov.au/
Where to Shop
For a leisurely rummage: antique centres & thrift shops
Delve into Toowoomba’s established antiques scene or well-stocked op shops and I challenge you to come out empty-handed. There’s a selection of fine purveyors to choose from but special mention goes to Lancaster’s Toowoomba Antique Centre on Railway Street, Range Antiques on Burke St (especially for quality estate jewellery) and the two-level Vinnies Toowoomba on Ruthven St.
For a touch of Byron Bay: The Bungalow & Basket
This coastal-inspired coffee shop on the main street (Ruthven St) of does a gorgeous sideline in gifts and jewellery.
For quirky and fabulous: Harolds Finishing Touches
A curated collection of stylish homewares and gifts with a nod to the tropics and colonial elegance. www.haroldsfinishingtouches.com/