Only got a couple of days to get to know a new city? Our Big Five City Guides can help. We break each destination down into culture, history, food, shopping and relaxation must-sees and dos. We call them our Big Five and they’re everything you’ll need to experience the essence of a new city. Here, local writer Len Rutledge shows us around fabulous Townsville in Queensland’s tropical north. With its palm-fringed waterfront, cosmopolitan culinary scene and Magnetic Island right on the doorstep, Townsville has all the ingredients for a top travel experience…
As the largest city in tropical Australia, Townsville combines federation and modern architecture with sophisticated restaurants, accommodation, events and shopping like no other Queensland regional city.
It basks in more than 300 days of sunshine each year and is surrounded by a myriad of natural wonders from the Great Barrier Reef and magical islands to the Wet Tropical rainforests and the gold mining centres of the Outback.
Here’s a city guide to the top things to do in Townsville.
Need to know
Base yourself: City centre, The Strand, South Townsville
Average hotel price per room/per night: $140
You can’t go wrong with: Seafood, Thai, Mexican, Modern Oz, pub grub
Great breakfasts: Jam, The Ville Resort-Casino, Stone’s Throw cafe and Bar, Betty Blue & The Lemon Tart
Awesome coffee: Juliette’s The Strand, Specialty Coffee Trader
Top spots for a beverage: Crown on Palmer, The Taphouse, Townsville Brewery
Must-dos: ReefHQ, Magnetic Island, The Strand, Billabong Sanctuary
Best times to visit
The tropical winter (April to November) is the best time to visit. Days are warm, nights are cool, and there is unlimited sunshine and very little rain. December to March is hot and humid and there can be rain periods which last several days. The advantage of this time of the year is that accommodation prices are low and most tourist attractions and tours still operate.
If museums, live theatre, local artisan and farmers’ markets, or visits to attractions are your style, then you’re spoilt for choice in Townsville.
Reef HQ allows you to explore the wonders of the Great Barrier Reef without getting wet. The world’s largest coral reef aquarium is home to thousands of fish, sharks, and turtles and, of course, a wide range of living corals. A highlight for some will be a visit to the aquarium’s Turtle Hospital where sick and injured turtles are cared for.
Billabong Sanctuary encourages you to get in touch with your wild side. This picturesque area allows you to hold a koala, cuddle a wombat, smile at a crocodile or wrap a python around your neck. There are animal talks and feedings throughout the day.
There always seems to be a festival or event happening in and around Townsville. Some of the best are the Australian Festival of Chamber Music, Strand Ephemera: the North’s Sculpture Festival, the Townsville 400 Supercars, and Magnetic Island Race Week.
Castle Hill is the perfect place for visitors to orientate themselves. The hill is just metres from the CBD and there is vehicular access and a number of popular walking tracks. Lookouts at the top provide stunning panoramas of Townsville, Magnetic Island and the Coral Sea.
Townsville was founded in 1864 as a port and remains a major import and export centre today, while developing into a university and research institute city.
To experience some of the city’s history, visit the award-winning Museum of Tropical Queensland where you can explore a shipwreck, visit a rainforest and discover the reef, all in one day. Then head outdoors to the 15 hectare heritage Jezzine Barracks precinct, which commemorates the military and Aboriginal heritage of the Kissing Point headland.
Another outdoor venue is the Cape Pallarenda Conservation Park, where the historic Quarantine Station is a highlight. Across the water on Magnetic Island, the Forts Walk leads to historic WWII fortifications and infrastructure. Lookouts along the way afford excellent views to the Palm Island Group and Bowling Green Bay National Park. Koalas are often seen in trees along the track. The walk culminates in 360 degree views from the top of the fortifications.
From award-winning fine dining to casual eats to suit every taste, Townsville offers an enviable range of cafes and restaurants.
You can enjoy Australia’s best breakfast at Jam on Palmer Street. That’s according to the Savour Australia Awards. While on Palmer Street, capture the essence of fine dining and international cuisine at Michels Restaurant or Ribs and Rumps.
Discover City Lane – a creative laneway bursting with dining options with New York flair, street art, funky decor and an atmosphere to match. Here you can travel the world without leaving town. Donna Bionda is an Italian restaurant, Sakana serves Japanese, Shaw and Co has burgers and more, while The Courtyard offers Americana-style street food. Also here is The Taphouse, North Queensland’s first self-pour craft beer bar.
For more chances to refresh with a locally brewed beverage or enjoy a great meal, head for the Townsville Brewery or the Cowboys Leagues Club in Flinders Street. Further east you’ll find an eclectic mix of restaurants, nightclubs, pubs and cocktail bars on Flinders Street East.
As North Queensland’s biggest urban centre, there’s no shortage of top things to do in Townsville that revolve around retail therapy.
Townsville is served by many of Australia’s popular department and chain stores but the real treats are in local boutique outlets. The Home Room in Gregory Street has locally crafted items like scented retro milk bottle candles or super cute sustainable bamboo tumblers for long-lasting memories of your Townsville visit.
The Strand Emporium on Flinders Street is a cool little coastal store with blue and white prints and seashell accents. Pop in for beach inspired decor, batik resort wear, accessories and homewares.
Stellar Moda on Palmer Street stocks edgy, bohemian and vintage styles from labels like Lucette, Kachel, Talulah and Mogil.
Magnetic Island, just 8km from Townsville, is a unique blend of national park, holiday paradise and small residential villages.
The island has some of the best beaches in Queensland and the lifestyle is relaxed and friendly. You can choose to jetski, sail, skydive on the beach, scuba dive, snorkel, fish, fly in the Red Baron seaplane, ride horses on the beach, play a round of golf or just relax in a peaceful bay.
The Strand is Townsville’s thriving beach foreshore. There is a 2.5km walkway with spectacular views, restaurants and cafes, BBQs, the popular Water Park, the Rockpool and plenty of places to chill-out under the palm trees.
Why not take advantage of the great weather and warm water to learn to scuba dive? Several operators on the mainland and on Magnetic Island can get you certified in a few days. For those with more experience, the Yongala wreck is considered Australia’s best dive site and is in the world’s top 10. The coral-encrusted structure attracts prolific marine life and is justifiably popular. Adrenalin Dive offers day trips and liveaboards.
Five tours we love
Explore the magnificent underwater world off the coast of Townsville on a custom-built snorkelling and diving vessel. Choose from an introductory dive with an experienced instructor, or two certified dives in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, which is UNESCO World Heritage-listed. You’ll journey out to Lodestone Reef for the chance to see reef fish, sea turtles and stingrays. A delicious lunch and your equipment for the day are included.
Townsville is considered the unofficial capital of North Queensland and has a rich history and culture to explore. On this afternoon tour you’ll get to experience many of the highlights, including a stroll along The Strand, stunning views of Magnetic Island from Castle Hill, and visit to the Jezzine Barracks precinct. Travel by air-conditioned minibus, and enjoy your local guide’s commentary. You’ll pick up plenty of tips for great places to eat during your stay.
The SS Yongala wreck is considered to be one of the best dive sites anywhere on the Great Barrier Reef. Enjoy a day trip out to the wreck site, including two dives, lunch and refreshments on board.
There has been a military presence in Townsville since the 1800s and this engaging military history tour will give you much of the back story. Led by a former member of the Australian Defence Force, tour highlights include Kissing Point Fort, the Royal Australian Air Force Museum, the Black Hawk Memorial and Lavarack Barracks. You can add a city tour that takes in many of Townsville’s scenic landmarks.
Get a bird’s eye view of Townsville and Cleveland Bay on a scenic helicopter flight. Choose from a shorter flight around Townsville or a longer flight that also takes you over stunning Magnetic Island. You’ll enjoy expert commentary from your pilot and breathtaking views of Castle Hill, The Strand, Townsville Port, Ross River and the Coral Sea.
Do you have any tips for top things to do in Townsville? We would love to hear from you. Please send us a message.
Additional images: Bigstock
About the writer
Len Rutledge has been travel writing for 40 years. During that time he has written thousands of newspaper articles, numerous magazine pieces, more than a thousand web reviews and around 35 travel guide books. He has worked with Pelican Publishing, Viking Penguin, Berlitz, the Rough Guide, and the Nile Guide amongst others. He has lived in nine countries and currently resides in Townsville. Along the way Len started a newspaper, a travel magazine, a Visitor and TV Guide and completed a PhD in tourism. His travels have taken him to more than 100 countries and his writings have collected a PATA award, an ASEAN award, an IgoUgo Hall of Fame award and other recognition. He is the author of the Experience Guides series of travel books – available as ebooks or paperbacks from amazon.com.