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A Beginner’s Guide to the NSW Southern Highlands

You have decided it is time to explore the NSW Southern Highlands, but other than that the Highlands include a bunch of cute towns and waterfalls; you don’t really know much about them. Never fear, we have done the groundwork and today present a quick guide for anyone who wants to find the best experiences to include on your next day trip or getaway from Sydney.

Think of this introduction to the major towns as a good starting point for learning more about this fascinating region just south of Sydney. For each town, we have included the highlights and the basics of getting there.

Why Visit the NSW Southern Highlands

The Southern Highlands of New South Wales has both natural beauty and historic significance by the bucket load.

Rolling hills in shades of lush green and English-style villages with their quirky shops, pretty gardens and grand homesteads are big drawcards.

The highlands sit on the Great Dividing Range, the fifth-longest mountain range in the world. It stretches from Cape York to the Grampians in Victoria.

Added to that are seven stunning but less explored National parks, including Morton, Budderoo and Macquarie Pass, dozens of vineyards and a vibrant food scene, and you have more than enough reasons why this collection of towns and villages, just 90 minutes south of Sydney should be on the radar for your next city escape.

But first some history…

This is Gundungarra and Tharawal (or Dharawal) land; it extends from Camden to Goulburn; at one time, the Gundungarra people were referred to as the Bong Bong tribe, so if you have ever wondered how Bong Bong Street in Bowral came to be now, you know!

Wingecarribee, Burradoo, Mittagong, Bong Bong, Bowral, Bundanoon and Nattai are all Indigenous Australian words

By the time first settlers arrived, records suggest less than 100 indigenous people were living in the region. Some worked with the colonials as guides and translators, while others moved further south.

In 1802, when the explorer Francis Barrallier met the Gundungara people he noted in his journal that the Gundungara “themselves build huts for the strangers they wish to receive as friends.” 

It was not until the 1880s, the highlands became a popular place for city dwellers to escape the summer temps. With a landscape reminiscent of England, elegant retreats appeared shortly after that railway line opened. Inns and public houses appeared in number, and like Katoomba, it sprung to life with Sydney’s elite coming to stay.

Nellies Glen near Robertson

Top 6 reasons to visit Highlands

  • Chasing waterfalls – along with the trinity of Carrington, Belmore and Fitzroy Falls, there are several less known, spectacular waterfalls waiting to be discovered.
  • Hiking – An enormous variety of bush walks with tracks ranging from short family-friendly walks to challenging day walks to hone your navigation skills.
  • Wine tasting – (and of course shopping) – organic, vegan, handpicked, family-operated are popular words used to describe the award-winning wineries that produce a vast range of cool-climate wines.
  • Wildlife spotting – Koalas, platypus and kangaroos are in good numbers in the highlands. In fact, the area has the largest koala population in Southern NSW.
  • Garden visits – The annual Tulip Time festival in spring and the changing autumn tones draw Sydneysiders to these towns every year.
  • Antique and homeware shopping – Dozens of fabulous antique shops, op shops and stylish boutique homeware shopping.

The Main Towns in the Southern Highlands of NSW

Mittagong

The first town you come to if you drive down the freeway from Sydney, Mittagong is surrounded by walking trails, lookouts, and home to the beautiful Lake Alexandra.

Mount Gibraltar, the highest point in the highlands, is just a short drive away, and there are some lovely walks in the area.

What to see and do in Mittagong

  • Climb or drive to the top of 863m high Mount Gibraltar and check out the views from its three lookouts, Bowral Lookout, Mittagong Lookout and Mount Jellore Lookout
  • Picnic at Lake Alexandra – feed the ducks and take a walk around the lake after lunch. Excellent facilities and lots of space.
  • Take a tour of a working farm for only $20 at The Pines Pastoral.

Where to Shop

Where to Eat

  • The Shaggy Cow – great coffee and quality local treats
  • Gumnut Patisserie – the prettiest cakes and pastries in town
  • Paste Australia – Thai Cuisine Restaurant
Paste Thailand
Paste offers Thai food in a fine dining setting

Where to stay near Mittagong

Wine tasting near Mittagong

  • Artemis Wines – This dog-friendly, family-run winery was the first to plant Pinot Noir in the region.

Location: Google map link
Transport: Train from Central to Macarthur then change for the Moss Vale train – average travel time 2hrs 20 minutes.

Bowral

The largest of the Southern Highlands towns, Bowral is an excellent base if you want resort-style hotels and fine dining on your doorstep. It’s also a top choice for visitor without a car.

The town is home to many well known Australians with those from the arts best represented.

Take a selfie with the Don!

International Cricket Hall of Fame (aka the Bradman Museum) – Where a life-sized statue of Sir Donald Bradman greets you on arrival, and plenty of fascinating cricket memorabilia awaits inspection in the attached museum.

Bowral (originally Bowrall) is said to come from the Aboriginal word that means “high and large”

Things you should see in Bowral

  • Corbett Gardens – the centre of the action in late September for the Tulip Time Festival
  • Mansfield Reserve – a great place to spot koalas and stretch your legs
  • Retford Park – A stunning Italianate mansion managed by the National Trust
  • The Bradman Museum and International Cricket Hall of Fame – get the map and do the Bradman town walk too!
This lush green laneway sits between the Plantation and Dirty Janes

Where to Eat 

  • Bare Bites and Brews – vegan plant-based eatery
  • Eden Brewery – Craft beer and great burgers
  • Tractorless Wine and Bowral Brewing @ The Mill Bowral – The Mill complex is a must.

Where to Shop in Bowral

  • Dirty Janes Antique Shop – a well-known spot for fossicking for interesting pieces – they also serve high tea.
  • Lancelot Hill Antiques – Quirky layout and some great finds (closed Wed and Sun)
  • The Plantation – a cafe that sells some fabulous local food and household products
The Plantation
The Plantation is a great place to stock the pantry for a self catering stay

Stay 

Wineries in or near Bowral 

Location: Google map link
Transport: Train from Central to Macarthur then change for the Moss Vale train – average travel time 2hrs 25 minutes.

Berrima

This historic village is perfect for visitors looking for a day trip from Sydney that includes poking around the shops. Its name is said to mean southward” or “black swan”.

Berrima Gaol NSW
Australia’s oldest surviving gaol

This pretty Georgian Village is jam-packed with historic buildings that have barely changed since the railway bypassed the town in the 1860s. 

The town is full of historical significance, including the oldest continuously licensed inn in Australia. Convict labour was employed to build the Surveyor General Inn (1834) was built with convict labour.  

Visit in spring and you can see Canola fields along the way into town.

It’s home to Australia’s oldest surviving gaol, and its impressive courthouse is the site of the colony’s first jury trial in 1841.

See and do

Whitewall Art Berrima NSW
Whitewall Art Projects

Where to eat in Berrima

  • Berrima General Store – book or arrive early on weekends
  • The Magpie Cafe – a great spot for a long lunch
  • Gumnut Patisserie – the regions most popular place for cakes

Where to shop 

  • Berrima Village Pottery 
  • Sticky Beak’s Emporium
  • Hand Stirred Jam Company
  • Berkelouw Book Barn – books and dining just out of town
Sticky Beaks Emporium has an eclectic range of goodies and made us very nostalgic

Wineries in or nearby

  • Peppergreen’s Tasting Room is right in town
  • Bendooley Estate is on the road north to Sydney

Location: Google map link
Transport: Train to Moss Vale and then 812 bus (30 mins_

Moss Vale

One of the biggest towns in the highlands, Moss Vale, was the site of the first Southern highlands settlement. Once the railway arrived, so did settlers, and it became the hub of the region. The town is still very much a service centre for the highlands.

Well known for its English trees and gardens, Moss Vale is now developing a reputation for fantastic food and dining. There is plenty here to keep the food lover happy, you will not be able to fit it all into one weekend.

Leighton Gardens showing the end of autumn colours

Must See sites in Moss Vale

  • Throsby House – First permanent colonial resident to Moss Vale, Jemmy Moss, a herdsman was employed by the owner and worked at Throsby House.
  • The wetlands at Cecil Hopkins Nature Reserve will delight bird lovers

Where to Eat in Moss Vale  

  • Post Office Cafe – a great restoration right by the train station.
  • Southern Highlands Brewing & Taphouse – try to arrive for “Tappy Hour” 3pm – 6pm Fridays
  • Birch Restaurant – degustation and fine dining

Shop in Moss Vale

  • Mossy Store – homewares and handmade furniture
  • Bowerbird on Argyle – Design store with a fab range of homewares, gifts and fashion items.
  • Reviva at the Resource Recovery Centre – Reuse, recycle and upcycle at the social enterprise run centre. If you love to rummage around in charity shops, don’t miss this one.

Sleep 

Wineries near Moss Vale

Location: Google map link
Transport: Train from Central Station 2 hours and 30 minutes (Change at Macarthur Station)

Robertson

A small, quiet town that links the Illawarra coast to the highlands, Robertson is a dairy town famous for its cheese. It is also the largest potato growing area in NSW.

Hindmarsh Lookout near Belmore Falls

Numerous lookouts in the area offer green rolling hills and distant sandy beaches. This town, which feels much like a small English village, is a fabulous base for visiting the many waterfalls or hiking in Budderoo National Park.  

Many early settlers to the area came from Ireland, among them John Hanrahan, who planted the first potato crops in 1867.

Robertson makes a great base for exploring the national parks and waterfalls. There is plenty of food for the appetite you build after a day of hiking. It’s also a wonderful spot to relax and take in the views!

Natural Highlights near Robertson

  • Belmore Falls – named after the Governor of NSW and Earl of Belmore 
  • Carrington Falls and nearby Nellies Glen
  • Fitzroy Falls – also named for a NSW governor 
  • Remnant native Australian rainforest – take a walk, thought the 600m loop – great for kids 
  • Illawarra Fly – just 10 minutes from Robertson, take the treetops walk for fabulous rainforest views.
Roberson Public House
Pop in for a local brew or stay the night next door!

Where to eat in Robertson

  • Moonacres Kitchen – Well known for their sourdough, which we rate too!
  • Lucinda’s Pantry – we missed it this time, but locals were really adamant we try it next time.
  • Southern Rise Bakery / Robertson Pie Shop – Do a pie taste test and pick your favourite – Southern Rise won us.
  • Robertson Public House (1887) – the local pub and one of the oldest timber buildings in NSW

Shop 

  • Robertson Cheese Factory – way more than just cheese with antiques, fudge, and fantastic gelato.
  • The SHAC– Southern Highlands Artist’s Collective – an eclectic collection worth a look across the road from the pub.
  • The Cool Room – A Country Emporium – In the same building as the Cheese Factory

Sleep 

  • Robertson Hotel – Grand old hotel – with friendly service, and unpretentious style
  • Robertson Public House – pop up to bed after they call last drinks! Lovely rooms but share bathrooms may not appeal to all.

Location: Google map link
Transport: Train to Wollongong and then board the Moss Vale bus, which stops in Robertson. The full journey takes about 3hrs and 15 mins.

Bundannoon

Famous for its avenue of English trees and rolling mists in April/May Bundanoon is home to the annual Brigadoon Festival, which sees the population swell to celebrate all things tartan.

Aerial overlooking the town of Bundanoon in the Southern Highlands
Bundanoon in Autumn- Credit: Destination NSW

They will hold the next Brigadoon Festival 2 April 2022

There is also a very popular walk to the Glow Worm Glen, where you can see glow worms shine after dark. Sadly, it was damaged in the 2020 bushfires and is currently closed.

Finally, for something completely different, stop in at Sunnatarum Forest Monastery, currently only open on Sundays. You can take part in a meditation session and join the monks for lunch. You can also help in the garden in the afternoon.

Location: Google map link
Transport: Train to Canberra make a stop at Bundanoon. Limited services from the Southern Highlands line also make the journey

Smaller Southern Highlands towns we love

Burrawang Village

Just a short drive from Robertson and a good place to stop off after viewing nearby Belmore Falls. The Buranwang General Store and the Bunnawarg Pub are the two main places to search out a meal.

Great coffee at the Burrawang General Store

Kangaroo Valley

The southernmost town of the area, Kangaroo Valley, is a very popular town for a weekend away. Paddle the Kangaroo River, or take a swim under the historic Hamden

Plenty of great accommodation and a very good caravan park make this a popular weekend getaway spot.

Sutton Forrest

Country retreat for wealthy Sydneysiders in the 1880s and some pretty famous names today. A little over 5km from Moss Vale Sutton Forest once hosted NSW governors at Hillview Estate for their summer vacations. Make time, visit Red Cow Farm and its beautiful gardens. One look at their Instagram feed will convince you need to stop here.

Exeter 

Exeter General Store is the place to head for breakfast if you find yourself down this way at the right time of day. The town was named after an English town in Devon.

Joadja

A must for history lovers Joadja is home to an abandoned mining village and a distillery that produces a variety of spirits including single malt whiskey, gin, brandy and more. Book a distillery tour or visit the old town.

When is the best time to visit the Southern Highlands?

With four distinct seasons, there is no bad time to visit, as each offers unique experiences.

Visitor numbers swell in spring for the floral displays and, perhaps surprisingly, in winter when visitors flock to enjoy roaring fireplaces and fine food. June is actually the busiest time of year, and accommodation prices are at their peak. Summer is a close second.

Autumn is great hiking weather, and prices are most affordable then too.

How cold does it really get?

The average Sydneysider will need to pack a jacket year-round for a visit to the highlands – we are not used to cool overnight temps so you will probably reach for it come sundown.

Keep your camera ready for quick roadside shots
  • Summer – day time highs of 23-26 degrees celsius and 12-18 degrees overnight
  • Autumn – 12-18 degrees in the daytime to between 11-2 overnight
  • Winter – 11-13 day time highs and 1-3 degrees overnight
  • Spring- 16-23 and 4-10 overnight

May, July and August see the least rain, and there is only occasional snow in the region. The wettest months are February, June and November.

How to get to the Southern Highlands

Drive: From Sydney, you can approach the highlands via the M5 Motorway and Hume Highway or the M1 along the coast and then the Macquarie Pass to Robertson.

  • The Hume Highway is the best choice if you are planning to visit Mittagong, Bowral or Berrima.
  • To visit The Southern Highlands’s waterfalls and towns of Roberton or Kangaroo Valley, take the M1 and Macquarie Pass or Jamberoo Mountain Road.

The area is well suited to a loop trip, so return the opposite way if you plan to visit most towns during your stay.

Train: If you don’t have a car, you can still enjoy a break here. Trains travel from Sydney to Bowral, Mittagong and Moss Vale. Choose one of these towns as a base, and there is enough to keep you busy exploring for a couple of days.

Southern Highlands Train Station
You can reach the Southern Highlands easily from Central Station in Sydney.

Got a Question?

If you have questions, pop over to our Facebook group and ask a local for advice.

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2 thoughts on “A Beginner’s Guide to the NSW Southern Highlands”

  1. Such a beautiful part of NSW and Im grateful that I have visited a few of these places. However looks like there is much more to see. It has been a few years now since. I was living in Toowoomba Qld and we drove down to Melbourne via Sydney and the Southern Highlands. Thank you for a great post.

    Reply
  2. Hiking, wine tasting, and waterfalls? Sign me up! It seems like an amazing part of the country to explore. Hopefully I’ll be able to tour around it soon!

    Reply

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