The small Tasmanian capital has quietly become art lovers’ Australian destination of choice, writes Catherine McGregor.
Once upon a time, not so far away, a fabulously wealthy and eccentric businessman hatched a plan. From his home within the vast building that housed his life’s work, he arranged for the distribution of hundreds of bars of chocolate, a small handful of which contained a golden ticket: an exclusive invite to a mysterious and magical place.
As you’ve probably guessed, the man was not Willy Wonka – though David Walsh, the reclusive millionaire owner of Hobart’s MONA museum, has never shied away from the comparison. He created the chocolate bars in 2017 to thank surrounding households for putting up with the disruption caused by the construction of the museum’s A$30 million Pharos wing; the 40 “golden tickets” were invites to the gala opening. “Not everybody likes MONA,” read a message from Walsh on the back of each “Walshie” bar. “But, in my experience, everybody likes chocolate. Please enjoy this small token of my appreciation. It’s literally the least I can do.”
The “Walshie bar” jape is emblematic not just of Walsh’s personality, but also the extraordinary edifice he created using proceeds from his eye-wateringly huge gambling winnings. It’s too reductive to say it’s an art museum for people who don’t like art museums – the art critics love this place – but Walsh has clearly gone to great lengths to make the often bewildering world of modern art as accessible as possible. That doesn’t mean it’s dumbed down, though. Instead Walsh and his team have created a visitor experience that respects the art while emphasising serendipity, sensation and surprise.
That sense of wonder takes hold before you even walk through the doors. While you can get to Mona by road, the best way to do it (if you’re able-bodied) is by the Mona Ferry, a private service that shuttles visitors up the River Derwent from downtown Hobart. You arrive at the base of a 99-step staircase built into a rockface, like a more perpendicular version of the Dragonstone stairs in Game of Thrones, and when you ascend to the top you see… not much. Almost all of Mona’s 6,000m² is subterranean, and your visit to the museum proper begins with an elevator ride deep into the Berriedale Peninsula’s Triassic-age sandstone.
Once inside, you’re free to wander. You won’t want to miss the most famous works, like Wim Delvoye’s Cloaca Professional (2010), a consumption and defecation machine that mirrors the human digestive tract complete with daily “poo”, and the Pharos Wing’s star exhibits by maestro of light James Turrell (the guy who inspired Drake’s ‘Hotline Bling’ video). But the museum is designed to encourage individual discovery, too. Pieces are arranged non-chronologically, with ultra modern art often juxtaposed with ancient artefacts. Everything is notably label and caption-free, leaving you to make up your own mind about the work – and, fair warning, it’s all but guaranteed that you’ll strongly dislike at least some of it – before turning on your GPS-enabled “O” device (or mobile app) to rejoin the audio tour.
It’s no exaggeration to say Mona has utterly transformed the way Tasmania’s once-sleepy capital is seen by the world. Tourist numbers have increased by 50% since Mona opened in January 2011, the pandemic years excluded, with one survey showing that more than a quarter of all visits include a trip to the museum. But the impact of Mona is about much more than the building itself. While the two Mona-run music and arts festivals – summer’s Mona Foma, curated since 2008 by Violent Femmes bassist Brian Ritchie, and the gothic-tinged midwinter version, Dark Mofo – are the gallery’s most prominent spinoffs, its influence has spread not just through Hobart, but across the entire state. After enduring decades of tired jokes about its insularity and unsophistication, lutruwita/Tasmania is now properly stylish, with all the trappings of a fashionable tourist destination, from boutique hotels to craft breweries to the de rigueur media label, “the new capital of cool”.
This is a very understated kind of cool, though. Australia’s second oldest capital city (after Sydney), Hobart is a place where 19th century sandstone and whitewash still dominate the historic downtown; the city, a skyscraper-free zone, appears dedicated to retaining as much of its history as possible. The European history of Hobart dates to the opening of a penal colony on the site in 1803; within a few decades it had grown into a world centre of sealing, whaling and shipbuilding. Today the buildings that supplied those early industries are home to hotels and restaurants, strung along the wharves like floats on a fishing net.
While Hobart is a great place to spend a long weekend, if you only stay in town you’re missing out. The most popular road journey takes you all the way up the coast on the spectacular Great Eastern Drive – a good four days if you’re doing it right – but there are plenty of day trips from Hobart that will give you a bite-sized taste of wild Tasmania.
Drive to the top of kunanyi/Mt Wellington, the peak that looms over Hobart, for magnificent views across the harbour and surrounding countryside (rug up, though – it gets properly cold up there, even in summer). Or head northwest from town, following the Derwent river, to Mt Field National Park. It’s an easy walk from the visitor centre through the rainforest to the tiered Russell Falls, where the waters fall like champagne over a tower of overflowing glasses. On your way you’ll pass by a stand of Eucalyptus regnans (aka swamp gum or Tasmanian oak), the tallest flowering tree in the world, and if you’re lucky catch sight of some uniquely Australian marsupials, including pointy-nosed striped bandicoots, cat-like spotted quolls and wallaby-adjacent pademelons. What you won’t see are any thylacines, better known as Tasmanian tigers. This wolfish carnivorous marsupial was once endemic to the area, but was culled to extinction in the early 20th century. The last known thylacine died at Hobart Zoo in 1936; visitors to the city’s Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery (TMAG) can watch black and white footage of Benjamin, the last lonely member of a species that lasted 2 million years.
The extinction of the Tasmanian tiger is a tragedy, but one that pales into insignificance when compared to the horrors inflicted on the state’s human population. While remnants of its brutal convict history are plain to see – including in Hobart’s fine civic buildings, built by prison labour, and at the notoriously harsh Port Arthur penal settlement nearby – the tragedy of Tasmania’s Indigenous population was for a long time almost invisible. For 40,000 years this land was home to the palawa people; it took less than a century for the entire population to be all but wiped out, the remaining handful palawa having been rounded up and abandoned to island exile in the 1830s. The last full-blooded palawa Tasmanian died in 1876.
For decades, the systematic elimination of the state’s Indigenous people was a shamefully under-acknowledged part of Tasmanian history. Speak to most adult Tasmanians and they will tell you they learned precious little in school about the traditional custodians of this land, and the genocide inflicted upon them, but that’s now changing. For visitors to Hobart, TMAG provides a good introduction to palawa culture and heritage, and contemporary perspectives on indigeneity in the state.
Below the historic neighbourhood of Battery Point, site of an early British garrison, whale blubber once bubbled in giant pots. The boil pots – used to render oil from whale fat – are gone, but rows of former shipping warehouses remain. On Saturday mornings this is the location of the Salamanca Markets, so popular that by mid morning there’s usually a queue to get in. This is the ideal place to try a scallop pie, a favourite Hobart snack since the late 1800s. Grab one from the Smith’s Specialty Pies van, or if they’re sold out, head over to Pacha Mama Burritos for a taste of their famous wallaby burrito.
For a small city, Hobart has a surprisingly thriving food scene. Or perhaps it’s not really surprising, given the ridiculously verdant farmland and vast array of artisan producers on its doorstep. Apples, honey, fish, oysters, lamb and cheese are among the island’s best food offerings, and its many micro-brewers and distillers make it one of Australia’s best places to drink. Hobart’s own Cascade is the big name in beer here (though its Launceston rival Boags is forever snapping at its heels), and is unique among major brewers in producing its own malt from locally grown barley. For fans of more unusual beers, Hobart has craft breweries galore, including the tiny Captain Bligh’s, Hobart’s oldest craft brewer, where the beers are still made according to the 19th century Colonial Laws which stipulated all beer ingredients had to be grown in Tasmania. Captain Bligh’s is only open one day a month, but their wares can be sampled at the Hobart Town Fine Beverages stand at Salamanca Markets.
If you’re looking for the harder stuff, Hobart has that too. Tasmania is home to more whisky distilleries than any other state, including Lark Distillery on Hobart’s waterfront, where Tasmania’s first barrel of whisky was distilled in 1992. The state is now officially obsessed not just with whisky but craft spirits of all kinds, from sheep’s whey vodka to small-batch gin. Forty minutes outside of Hobart, New Norfolk Distillery produces rum from a building that was once part of the Royal Derwent Hospital, built in 1827 to house invalid convicts and those considered mentally ill. The extensive hospital precinct, now known as Willow Court, has been brought back to life as a multi-purpose community facility, heritage site and attraction. Also on site is Agrarian Kitchen, one of Tasmania’s most acclaimed restaurants, housed in a former dormitory ward that has been transformed into a light-filled space with a view out to the restaurant’s own garden and farm.
When Air New Zealand launched its direct Auckland-Hobart route in the midst of the short-lived trans-Tasman bubble of 2021, a destination that had long been near but far – getting there necessitated a change of planes on the mainland – was suddenly readily accessible. Peaceful little Hobart has quietly become one of Australia’s coolest, quirkiest cities. And all it took was one eccentric millionaire with a very big dream.
Catherine McGregor travelled to Hobart courtesy of Air New Zealand.