Exploring Sydney’s Colonial Past
The Rocks is historical Sydney at its best. This self-guided walk will help you discover Sydney’s colonial history in just a couple of hours.
Let’s start with the name given to this western side of the harbour. Why is this are called The Rocks? Well, when the First Fleet arrived they moored here against the very rocky shoreline and the area quickly earned the nickname, The Rocks. In time the name caught on and began to appear on government maps.
The indigenous name for the area is Tallawoladah and recently have we begun to see street signs with this name. I am pleased this is happening, but I think it will take some time for this traditional name to gain popular use.
So let’s get walking, the route below explores my favourite parts of this area. Allow about 3 hours for a slow leisurely stroll although you could race around and cover it in a lot less. It depends on how often you stop for photos or beer!
Stop 1. Visit platform two at Circular Quay for the best train station view in the world!
Before we begin, you really should see this view. Even if you don’t come by train if you have an Opal card, you can tap on, go up to Platform 2, take a photo and then tap back out without it costing a cent.
Stop 2 – The Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA)
As you leave the station you are going to be walking to the left of the wharves, towards the park and large sandstone building; this art deco structure is the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA). Most of the exhibits here are free to visit.
Along with some fantastic modern art, there is also a rooftop cafe with very reasonable prices and great views. A perfect stop if you feel like you need some coffee or drink before you start off on your walk. My tip – Try the house made Rose Hip & Mint Fruit Punch, it’s my favourite!
Once you leave the MCA and the waterfront head left into the small park and Cadman’s Cottage
Stop 3: Cadman’s Cottage
Cadman’s Cottage is the oldest surviving residential building in Australia. It was originally right on the waterfront until the government reclaimed the shoreline to build Circular Quay. The cottage was once home to John Cadman, a coxswain in the colony, assigned to look after the ships. For many years it was an information centre but unfortunately, it is no longer open to the public. Walk up Argyle Street to the left-hand side of the building.
Stop 4: Visit the Rocks Discovery Museum
Cross George Street and head a little further along to the first corner, Kendall Lane, a little along the lane is The Rocks Discovery Museum. It is open daily from 9.30 am – 5.30pm and offers a free, small but impressive collection on the history of the Rocks from before the arrival of the first fleet. It’s a great place to get some context before you explore the back streets. It’s also really well set up for younger visitors with activity sheets to get them involved in the collection. Pick up a self-guided tour map while you are here in case you have trouble with my directions. Even if you are not one for museums, it’s an excellent example of the architecture of the time.
Stop 5 – The Rocks Square
Once you exit the Museum head back through the Visitors Centre and out onto Playfair Street. You are now in Rocks Square which is home to some takeaway food shops and a set of terrace houses built in the early 1880s. These days the terraces are home to shops and tour booking centres. At the George Street end of the square a sandstone sculpture First Impressions, which is worth checking out.
After you have finished shopping look for the narrow passageway that runs between the shopfronts at 25 and 27 Playfair St. This lead to our next stop, Foundation Park.
Stop 6 – Visit Foundation Park
Foundation Park is a bit of a secret gem, in fact, many Sydneysiders have never visited. The site is the remains of 8 terrace houses were built in the late 1870s. In the early 1970s, the area was preserved and turned into a park. You can see some photos of the original terraces here.
Stop 7 – Observatory Hill
Observatory Hill is a great spot to check out the western side of the Harbour. From up here, you can see Miller’s Point, Barangaroo and an alternate view of the Harbour Bridge. You will also find the Sydney Observatory, the S. H. Ervin Gallery and the National Trust. You can visit these buildings or just take in the view.
After you have finished exploring here, head back to the staircase to Cumberland Street.
Stop 8 & 9- Choose a pub on Cumberland Street and rest for a while with for a few drinks.
Decision time! By now you are probably in need of a short break. Cumberland Street boasts two excellent choices, The Glenmore Hotel, and The Australian Heritage Hotel.
The Glenmore Hotel has a lovely rooftop bar with affordable food and a great view of the Opera House.
The Australian Hotel does great beer paddles
The Australian Hotel is a good choice if you want to taste a couple of Aussie classics on a pizza. They have options with Kangaroo or Emu! They also do beer tasting paddles although partaking in one of these might see your walk come to an end 🙂
Stop 10 – The Big Dig site
The Big Dig excavation site is our next stop. Head south past the Australian Hotel till you reach the Sydney Harbour Youth Hostel.
In the mid-1990s over 75,000 artefacts were found on this site when 20 archaeologists uncovered the foundations of shops and residences dating back to the 1790s. A selection of the items is on display in glass cabinets viewable from the Sydney YHA foyer. From here walk through the walkway to Gloucester Street and directly across the road to your left you will find Susannah Place
Stop 11 – Susannah Place
I love Susannah Place. This Sydney Living Museums property features four homes in an original terrace building. Each home has been preserved as it was in 4 different decades. You can only visit on a guided tour. These run daily from 2 pm and cost less than $10. If you don’t have time to join one you can still visit the small shop on the corner. It sells a variety of items suited to the period and will give you an idea of the condition of rest of the property.
Once you leave Susannah Place walk down the stairs beside the shop and see the properties from the back – this site looks almost the same as it did 100 years ago. Continue down the stairs, officially called the Cumberland steps, to Harrington Street and turn left. Walk along the street a few hundred metres until you reach a small lane on the right-hand side of the road.
Stop 12 – Suez Lane & Nurses Walk
Officially called Harrington Lane this narrow walkway has been known as Suez Lane for over 150 years because of the water runoff that rushed down the lane after rain. It was also a hot spot of crime and passion (of the paid sort).
About half way along the street turn right into Nurses Walk. This laneway was the direct route that the nurses took to Sydney’s first hospital. Today it is home to gift shops and cafes the walkways feature signs for those wanting to know more about the history of this spot.
Now follow one of the passageways out to George Street and walk to towards the Harbour Bridge end of the street. Along the way do a bit of window shopping in the stores and cafes along the road. On weekends, there is a market that runs along the far end of this street.
When you get to the corner of George Street and Hickson Road, take Hickson Road and walk down the stairs to towards the water.
Stop 13 – The Campbell’s Stores
This beautiful old warehouse is called Campbell’s Stores and was built in 1839 to house tea, alcohol, sugar, and fabric. These days it’s home to upmarket restaurants and function centres.
Stop 14 – Dawes Point Park
From here you can follow the path around to Dawes Point and capture a shot of the Harbour Bridge and palm trees.
Stop 15 – Overseas Passenger Terminal Viewing Platform
Retrace your steps around Campbells Cove to the Overseas Passenger Terminal and take the elevator to the top floor. From the top floor where you will find a metal rotunda. Take the stairs up another level, and you have a bird’s eye view of Circular Quay and the Harbour Bridge.
The Rocks Self Guided Walking Tour Map
So there you are – you have finished your self-guided walk of the Rocks. On the Google map below you will find all the stops plus an extended walk covering another dozen stops. Open the map in My Maps to see the various options in detail.
If you prefer a guided experience, there are lots of tours available in the area including a ghost tour, a pub tour, an indigenous tour and one I have done and enjoyed the Sydney Photography Tour.
There is also a free tour with I’m Free every evening at 6 pm.
If you have some energy left and want more, continue under the Bridge to Walsh Bay and explore these old harbour wharves. Buses 431 and 433 head back to the city from the George St near Lower Fort St or keep walking around to the brand new Barangaroo Reserve and the restaurants of Warigal Walk.
I highly recommend you download the free Walking the Rocks app – this will give you information on all the main sites as well as great background details on the general history of Sydney.