Australia’s first inland port was formed on the lower Murray River in the 1850s.
The Goolwa Wharf is still intact today, allowing cargo to be transported along the Murray River without ships navigating the treacherous waters at the mouth of the river.
In the 1930s, a barrier system was built near the estuary to reduce the river’s salinity, and you can head to the Goolwa Barrage to watch the boats pass through the locks and admire the expansive skies and shimmering waters.
Modern Goolwa is an artsy place with a plethora of galleries in old heritage buildings.
In keeping with the historical theme, you can take a steam-to-steam journey on a 1908 paddle steamer, then take a steam train down the sandy coast.
1. Goolwa Quayside
The legacy of Australia’s first inland port is preserved at Goolwa’s riverfront wharf with independent shops, galleries and restaurants.
Here you can board a steamboat up the Murray River, take a guided tour of Coorong, or take the Cockle train to travel along the Fleurieu Peninsula.
With expansive green spaces and vistas downstream of the Murray, you can soak up the scenery with a beer in hand from the Steam Exchange Brewery, which produces IPA, American “steam”, stout beers.
There’s the popular twice-monthly market (more on that below), as well as “At the Pier,” which hosts live music and food gatherings on the last Friday of every month during daylight saving time.
2. Goolwa Beach
In Goolwa, the distance from the riverfront to the waterfront is negligible, and you can easily walk or bike down the beach road with stunning views of the Southern Ocean.
Goolwa Beach is huge, especially at low tide when it is separated from the town by high sand dunes.
You have to come at any time of year to see the waves rolling off the dune boardwalk, even in winter when the temperature barely reaches the mid-teens.
There’s a surf lifesaving club and a cafe on the dunes, as well as KingoSurfing, offering lessons for anyone looking to tame these waves.
3. Curong National Park
Goolwa is the closest large settlement to a national park of great ecological importance.
“Coorong” comes from the local Aboriginal word “narrow neck”, which describes the long fingers of the land here that protect the lagoon system.
A popular Ramsar wetland for bird watchers, it is a breeding ground for terns, swans, cormorants, ducks and Australian pelicans, and is visited by more than 230 migratory birds each year.
You can enter the park by boat, kayak, 4WD or walking trails to find salt lakes, breezy beaches, dunes and havens.
The Ngarrindjeri Aboriginal people have inhabited the area for thousands of years, with ancient ruins in the form of cemeteries and tombs formed from piles of shells discarded thousands of years ago.
4. Goolwa Barrage
Along the Murray River, you can see part of a huge water management project that has changed the character of the river hundreds of kilometers inland.
The Goolwa Barrage is a long barrier spanning the river between Richard Peninsula in the south and Hindmarsh Island in the north.
This was interrupted by a lock more than 30 meters long and 6 meters wide.
The purpose of this and four other barriers around the Murray Estuary is to reduce tidal induced salinity downstream.
Lower salt levels have been detected at Swan Reach 250km upstream.
Completed in the late 1930s, the Goolwa Barrage can be walked across and enjoy fantastic views of the Murray Estuary, especially in the morning and evening.
There are information plaques about the barrage, and close-ups of birds such as pelicans, swans, quails, black-shouldered kites, plover and sacred kingfisher.
5. Paddle Steamer Oscar W
A real wood-fired paddle steamer is docked at Goolwa Quay.
The Oscar W launched the steel top and red rubber hull in Echuca, Victoria in 1908 and continued to carry passengers on the Murray more than a century later.
Goolwa itself has a history of shipbuilding, assembling up to 60 paddle steamers and barges between 1853 and 1914. On a typical voyage on Oscar W, you will head to the Goolwa Barrage before returning to town to rattle under the Hindmarsh Island Bridge.
Before or after your trip, you must make time to visit the Goulwa River Boat Centre, which has information on Coorong, scale models of paddle steamers, historic photos of the marina, and old beam engines used to pull boats up the slipway .
6. Cockle Train
The second part of the Goolwa steam-to-steam experience includes a ride on Australia’s oldest railroad, dating back to 1887. The line was built to connect the port on the Fleurieu Peninsula with the mouth of the Murray River at Goolwa.
The last freight trains passed in the 1980s, and it wasn’t long before the line became a historic railway.
The 20-kilometer journey to Goolwa is a joy, and you can ride the historic Brill or Redhen trams along the cliff tops over huge beaches and dunes.
The line features steam and diesel locomotives dating back to 1913. During school holidays, every train is pulled by a steam locomotive and diesel engines at other times.
7. Goolwa Quay Market
The charming Quayside is home to a lively market on the first and third Sundays of every month.
Beneath the towering Norfolk Island pines, there are more than 80 stalls selling second-hand books, collectibles, crafts, textiles, fashion accessories and freshly made food and drinks, from spinach and feta pastries to cappuccinos.
There are also a number of fresh produce stalls where you can buy fruits and vegetables from growers, as well as merchants selling a variety of cakes, jams and pastries.
You can catch other markets every Sunday and Good Friday in January.
8. Bristol Smith Reserve
On the Murray River, Goolwa’s most popular local park has many amenities in the town centre.
The nature-themed play space is great for kids, with climbing nets, a water play area, stepping woods, basket swings and a restored old fishing boat 10m long.
The play space is also interspersed with sensory elements such as music and sound installations, interpretive art and sensory walls, which are funded by the Fleurieu Charitable Foundation.
The calm Murray Riverfront also has beach access, with boat ramps and marinas nearby.
9. Victor Harbor
There’s a lot to do as the Cockle Train pulls into the historic port and whaling station of Encounter Bay.
Granite Island needs to be your first destination.
Once occupied by whalers, this rugged site is known for its rock formations and habitat for little penguins.
Located a few hundred meters offshore, it is connected to the mainland by a causeway that you can cross on one of the world’s only remaining horse-drawn trams.
Meanwhile, from May to October, Victor Harbor is a nursery for southern right whales.
The species grows up to 18 meters and prefers the relatively warm winter waters of Encounter Bay, making Victor Harbor one of the best places in the world to spot whales from land.
10. Horseshoe Bend
Take a short drive to Port Elliot and you’ll find the hidden Horseshoe Bend, shaped exactly as its name suggests.
Granite reefs and parts of Lower Pullen separate the beach from the Southern Ocean.
This made the bay a good location for a port in the 1850s (the breakwater has survived since then), and the high lookout on top of Freemans Knob on the south side became a whaling station for southern right whale sightings.
You can still do this between May and October, when southern right whales calve close to the Fleurieu Peninsula.
The beach, meanwhile, is delightful, set off by Norfolk Island pines and crescents of soft sand at Commodore Reserve.
The waves are low and the water is transparent, but there are some tricky currents further afield.
11. Guwa Animal Farm
For an excursion sure to please the smaller members of the family, there is an open farm in the picturesque Fleurieu peninsula countryside, just outside Goolwa.
Children will have the opportunity to meet, feed and interact with goats, ducks, turkeys, alpacas, pigs, guinea pigs, chickens, wallabies, kangaroos and ponies.
Of course, there are also hugs that come seasonally, from baby goats to lambs and chicks.
Goolwa Animal Farm organises a plethora of side activities such as pony rides and tractor trailers, as well as play areas and peaceful garden areas.
12. Goolwa Motor Museum
A beautiful private collection of 45 vintage and classic cars is housed in a warehouse in the industrial suburb of Goolwa.
These dates range from the 1920s to the 1970s, include everything from muscle cars to quirky compacts, and are presented in near-perfect condition.
They all belong to one man, Michael Finnis, who is happy to share his knowledge.
Some options are 1948 Allard K1 Sports Type 71K, 1950 Jaguar XK 120 2, 1937 Morris 840 Tourer and 1960 MGA 1600. The vehicles come with plenty of posters, photos, flags, auto parts, helmets, goggles, models and toy cars.
13. [email protected] Inc
There’s a lot to love about this gallery/shop in the heart of Goolwa.
[email protected] Inc is housed in two historic buildings, the first one that greets you on Porter Street is National Trust, with a small museum next door.
This entry room is Bargeboard Cottage, built in the mid-1850s and moved here block by block from Goyder Street in 1986. Behind it is an old prefab building, the house of Barrage Paymaster along the river.
Now, the name [email protected] Inc refers to the collective of 25 local artists who display award-winning and purchasable work in this space.
They work in a variety of media, from mosaics to photography, wood, metal, glass, ceramics and textiles.
14. Artworx Gallery
Not far from the Docklands, this art space is housed in another historic building, a stone house built in the 1850s.
Artworx Gallery is known as the top contemporary gallery on the Fleurieu Peninsula, where you can taste the work of talented artists from South Australia and further afield, and buy things you will treasure.
Curated by long-time Goolwa residents Liz and John Francis, the gallery blends paintings with sculpture, ceramics and glass, as well as handcrafted scarves, bags and whimsical additions to your home.
15. Goolwa Visitor Information Centre
Many entries are made easier by visiting the pier’s visitor information center.
Here you can get tickets to PS Oscar W and get a permit to camp in Coorong National Park.
A wide range of tours and accommodation across the Fleurieu peninsula can be booked at the centre, as well as Sealink tickets to travel through nature-rich Kangaroo Island.
The souvenir and gift shop is stocked with handy field guides and books specific to the region, as well as postcards, mugs and locally made clothing and jewelry.
Where to Stay: Best Hotels in Goolwa, Australia
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