Exploring Sydney’s Colonial Past
This Rocks self-guided walk allows you to explore a small part of “old” Sydney, the area that was home to the first buildings of the colony.
First up why is this are called The Rocks? Well, when the First Fleet arrived they moored here against the rocky shoreline and over time it earned the nickname The Rocks. Ultimately it caught on and started to appear on government maps. The indigenous name for the area was Tallawoladah and recently have we begun to see signs around the streets here referring to this. I am pleased this is happening, but I can’t imagine this traditional name will ever catch on.
So let’s get walking, below I have put together a route for exploring some of my favourite parts. The walk will cover only part of The Rocks but hits on what I think are the most impressive places. Allow about 3 hours to complete it although you could race through it in a lot less really it depends on the time you have available, your interest in history and how many of the pubs you stop to visit.
Before we start: Begin at Circular Quay
If you take the train to Circular Quay make sure you check out the view from the platform. Even if you don’t come by train if you have an Opal card, you can tap on, go up to Platform 1, take a photo and then tap back out without it costing anything. I am sure this has to be the best train station with a view in the world.
Now back on track, we are going to be walking to the left of the Quay. Walk past the ferry wharf and the large sandstone building; this is the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA). Most exhibits here are free to explore. There is also a rooftop cafe with very reasonable prices if you feel like you need some coffee or drink before you start off on your walk. My tip – try the Rose Hip & Mint Fruit Punch.
Once you are finished here, it’s on to “The Rocks” proper. The Rocks is historical Sydney at its best. It’s home to our oldest buildings, some great restaurants like Quay, Sake, Sailor’s Thai and Appetito and plenty of pubs. Once you leave the MCA and the waterfront head left into the small park and Cadman’s Cottage.
Stop 1: Cadman’s Cottage
Cadman’s Cottage is the oldest surviving residential building in Australia. It was originally right on the waterfront however over the years; until the government reclaimed the shoreline to build Circular Quay. The cottage was once home to John Cadman, an early coxswain in the colony, assigned to look after the ships. Unfortunately, Cadman’s Cottage is no longer open to the public.
Stop 2: Visit the Rocks Discovery Museum
Located on the corner of Argyle and Playfair Streets The Rocks Discovery Museum is open from 9.30 am – 5.30pm daily and offers a free, small but impressive collection that details 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 3 – Walk along Playfair Street
Once you exit the Museum head back through the Visitors Centre and out onto Playfair Street. Here you will find the Rocks Square and a set of terrace houses built in the early 1880s. These days they are home to shops and tour booking centres. At the George Street end 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 4 – 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 5 – Observatory Hill
Along with a great outlook over the Western Harbour and the Harbour Bridge, Observatory Hill is home to 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 6 – Choose a pub on Cumberland Street and rest for a while with for a few drinks.
I think it might be time for a short refreshment break. Here on Cumberland Street are two excellent choices, The Glenmore, and The Australian Hotels.
The Glenmore Hotel is a great choice for food with a view.
The Australian Hotel does great beer paddles
The Australian Hotel is a good choice if you have worked up an appetite and wanted to taste a couple of Aussie classics on a pizza like Kangaroo or Emu. They also do beer tasting paddles.
Stop 7 – The Big Dig site
The Big Dig excavation site is our next stop. Head south past the Australian Hotel till you reach the YHA. In the mid-1990s over 75,000 artifacts were found here when 20 archaeologists uncovered the foundations of shops and residences dating back to the 1790s. A selection of the items found is displayed in glass cabinets that are viewable from the Sydney YHA site. From here walk through the walkway to Gloucester Street and directly across the road to your left you will find Susannah Place
Stop 8 – Susannah Place
I love Susannah Place. It’s a Sydney Living Museums property featuring four homes in an original terrace building each as it was in a different decade. Tours are run daily from 2 pm. If you don’t have time to join one, consider checking out the small shop on the corner. It sells a variety of items suited to the period and will give you an idea of the 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 9 – Suez Lane & Nurses Walk
While it’s real name is 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 but the history is not lost, the walkways has signs for those wanting more history.
Now follow the 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 street. 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 10 – 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.
From here you can follow the path around to Dawes Point and the Harbour Bridge for some great photo ops.
So there you are – your self-guided walk of the Rocks. If you prefer a guided experience, there are lots of tours available in the area including a Ghost tour, a pub 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.
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.