The city of Benalla in located 45 km (28 mi) to the southwest, and Albury-Wodonga in located 72 km (45 mi) to the northeast of Wangaratta. The city is located at the junction of the Ovens and King rivers, which drain the northwestern slopes of the Victorian Alps. Wangaratta is the administrative centre and most populous city in the Rural City of Wangaratta local government area. Colloquially, Wangaratta is called Wang.
Aerial view from the north-west, Hume Freeway bypass somewhere around top, One and Three Mile creeks meeting around the middle.
The first European explorers to pass through the Wangaratta area were Hume and Hovell (1824) who named the Oxley Plains immediately south of Wangaratta. Major Thomas Mitchell during his 1836 expedition he made a favourable report of its potential as grazing pasture. The first squatter to arrive was Thomas Rattray in 1838 who built a hut (on the site of the Sydney Hotel) founding a settlement known as "Ovens Crossing".
The Post Office in the area opened on 1 February 1843 as Ovens. The Ovens office, and the Kilmore office which opened the same day, were the fifth and sixth to open in the Port Phillip District and the first two inland offices. The name Wangaratta was given by colonial surveyor Thomas Wedge in 1848 after the "Wangaratta" cattle station, the name of which is believed to have been derived from an indigenous language and meaning "nesting place of cormorants" or "meeting of the waters". The first land sales occurred shortly afterward and the population at the time was around 200. The first school was established by William Bindall on Chisolm Street with 17 students.
The geographical layout of the city is unusual in that the business district is located at the north-eastern extremity of the urban area, with outlying suburbs extending only to the south and west. The reason for this arrangement is that the area beyond the rivers, to the north and east of the business district, was until the 1990s prone to flooding and so unsuitable for building. Levees were constructed in the 1990s to alleviate the flooding, however development in this area has been slow.
In local government, the Wangaratta region is covered by the Rural City of Wangaratta. The council was created in 1994 as an amalgamation of a number of other municipalities in the region with the council chambers located at the Government Centre in central Wangaratta. The City is represented by seven councillors elected once every four years by postal voting. The mayor is elected from these councillors by their colleagues for a one year term. In September 2013 the council was sacked by the state government. Victorian Local Government Minister Jeanette Powell said this was because "Council has failed to provide effective leadership and service for the community". The council will be replaced by an administrator who will serve until the 2016 local government elections.In state politics, Wangaratta is located in the Legislative Assembly district of Murray Valley currently held by the National Party of Australia.
In federal politics, Wangaratta is located in a single House of Representatives division—the Division of Indi. The Division of Indi was seen as a safe Liberal Party of Australia seat from 1977 until 2013, when the sitting member, Sophie Mirabella was defeated by independent candidate Cathy McGowan.
There are three Australian rules football clubs in Wangaratta, the Wangaratta Football Club, the Wangaratta Rovers Football Club (both competing in the Ovens and Murray Football League), and the North Wangaratta Football Club, which competes in the Ovens and King Football League. The close proximity of the Rovers and Wangaratta grounds reflects the historical sectarian split in membership of the clubs; Rovers membership being predominantly Catholic and Wangaratta being predominantly Protestant. The city hosted several games for the 2005 Australian Football International Cupevent, with several countries competing in the sport of Australian rules football.
Wangaratta has three secondary schools:
The Goulburn Ovens Institute of TAFE has two Wangaratta campuses. The Docker street campus offers a broad range of courses from business studies to music with a central area containing a cafeteria, library and student services.
Roads are the most used transport infrastructure in Wangaratta. The Hume Fwy (M31) bypasses the city to the south and east, while the C314 now forms the main road through it (as Murphy Street and Wangaratta Road). The city is located at the junction of several other major roads, the Great Alpine Road (B500), Wangaratta-Yarrawonga Road (C374), Wangaratta-Whitfield Road (C521) and Wangaratta-Kileera Road (C523). A city bus service runs every half an hour during the day on weekdays and on Saturday mornings on a route covering Wangaratta's West End, the business district, Yarrunga and more recently, Yarrawonga Road.
Rail transport services both passengers and freight. Wangaratta Railway Station is the city's only passenger train stationand is on the North East railway line—the main railway line between Sydney and Melbourne. It is usually served by the Albury-Wodonga V/Line rail service thrice-daily (however V/Line have operated reduced rail services with bus replacements due to the North East Rail Revitalisation project) as well as the Countrylink XPT service twice-daily in both directions.
Historically Wangaratta was the junction of several railway branch lines including the Yackandandah railway line, the Whitfield railway line and the Bright railway line, all of which have since closed. Another short branch line ran west to a wheat silo located on the north side of the Ovens River at Boorhaman. The Murray to the Mountains Rail Trail is a shared cycling and walking track. Wangaratta is also serviced by a small regional airport, Wangaratta Airport.