Exploring The Rocks in Sydney

Sydney Harbour Bridge

It’s difficult to picture what Sydney would’ve been like when convicts first arrived in 1788 but remnants of the city they helped to create can still be seen in the district called The Rocks.

And it would be the first stop on our exploration of the capital of New South Wales, and the first stop on our three-week holiday in Australia.

We’d arrived in the city the night before after a series of flights, from London to Helsinki and then to Doha and beyond on a Qatar Airways A380, a routing that allowed us to enjoy excellent business class seats and service at half the price we would’ve paid out of Heathrow. We were visiting primarily to spend Christmas with Graham’s brother and his girlfriend, who live down under.

Sydney Opera House
Sydney Opera House

We spent a good few hours eating and drinking with them in The Rocks after checking in to the Amora Jamison Hotel in the CBD, despite our body clocks being ravaged by the time difference. It was warm, even sultry, and yet just 24 hours earlier we’d been in a blizzard in the Finnish capital!

As we walked around the historic heart of Sydney that evening, we got our first sight of the iconic Harbour Bridge and the equally iconic Opera House. I couldn’t quite get my head around the fact that we’d arrived on the other side of the world.

Despite the jet lag I slept well but Graham didn’t, partly the consequence of having a horribly soft mattress at the Amora.

Sydney Customs House
Sydney Customs House

Our first task on our first day was to sort out a broken tooth I’d suffered on the flight, but as I wasn’t in any pain the dentist suggested leaving it be after an examination and x-rays. So off we trotted to The Rocks through the CBD. Not surprisingly, because this happens in most cities we visit, the centre was in some turmoil thanks the building of a new light rail line.

Otherwise, the commercial heart of the city reminded me in part of Hong Kong with its towers and narrow streets, creating shaded canyons and a feeling of claustrophobia. Office workers gathered around cafes, soaking up their coffee, joggers pounded the streets and tourists snapped away at the grand colonial buildings that have survived.

Surviving Victorian architecture in The Rocks
Surviving Victorian architecture in The Rocks

Much of The Rocks has been lost to development over the years but there are plenty of 19th century buildings left that give a flavour of what the old Sydney would’ve looked like, many of them in the local sandstone. We walked along narrow alleys, reading the excellent information boards that described the history of the area and buildings such as the old hospital. Back then the area would’ve been squalid and rank but now it’s all spruced up, home to fancy shops, bars and restaurants.

Graham went off to the cinema with his brother to watch the new Star Wars film so I had an excellent lunch of smoked barramundi and craft ale at the Endeavour Tap Rooms before visiting the modest Rocks Discovery Centre, a museum in an old 1850s warehouse that houses archaeological remains, images and stories from the area. It begins with the indigenous peoples, who were effectively kicked off the land by the Europeans back in the early days of the First Fleet.

Victorian homes on Lower Fort Street
Victorian homes on Lower Fort Street

Bang up to date, the museum covers the battle in the 1970s by locals to halt plans to demolish the district to make way for more towers and roads.

Sadly, some historic districts were lost in the early years of the 20th century when the Harbour Bridge and its feeder roads were built. However, I walked along neighbouring Lower Fort Street and discovered some beautiful old Victorian terraces with their shaded balconies and intricate ironwork. Away from the touristy area, it was quiet and attractive.

Looking back towards Circular Quay and the CBD
Looking back towards Circular Quay and the CBD

I walked down through Circular Quay, the horrid transport hub that links roads, trains and ferries and towers over the area, blocking views from nearby pubs towards Sydney’s greatest landmarks. This was tourist-central, with thousands flocking to the Opera House, the nearby souvenir shops and touristy bars.

Designed by Jørn Utzon in the 1950s, we’d had a quick look around the site earlier in the day. It’s an extraordinary building, a timeless design and no words can describe it adequately – it really has to be seen. What I didn’t realise was that the ‘sails’ are covered in tiles. I’d always assumed they were fabric of some kind!

The glorious BMA building
The glorious BMA building

I walked round the coast past the Opera House into Farm Cove, where the First Fleeters had set up their government farm, and up into the grounds of the Botanical Gardens. A welcome breeze cooled me down as I headed towards Macquarie Street, where some find old Victorian buildings stood alongside the elegant Art Deco of the BMA New South Wales building.

After stopping at our hotel for a shower, I got the train to Newtown to meet Graham and the gang for food and drink. Newtown is one of Sydney’s trendiest districts, full of vegan places, hipster joints and the like. Rainbow flags and posters celebrated the success of the recent vote in favour of gay marriage. Low-rise, Victorian, colourful, Newtown has character.

We spent the evening in the excellent Courthouse Hotel pub, relaxing in their expansive courtyard and consuming the excellent and locally brewed Newtowner pale ale. It was a busy venue, popular with dog owners and we were only made to move once by the presence of a hideous Huntsman spider!