The Rocks Self-Guided Walk Sydney
A visit to The Rocks shows off historical Sydney at its best. This Rocks 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 area called The Rocks? 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 Rocks is Tallawoladah, as you will see on new signage around the area. I am pleased this is happening, but I think this traditional name will take some time to gain widespread use.
We have answered Six Commonly Asked Questions About Aboriginal Sydney that you might find interesting.
So let’s get walking; the route below explores my favourite parts of this area. Allow about 2-3 hours for a 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, as long as 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 will walk to the left of the wharves, towards the park and large sandstone building; this art déco 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 superb views. A perfect stop if you feel you need some coffee or drink before you start on your walk.
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 initially 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.
It was an information centre for many years, 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 9:30am – 5:30pm and offers a free, small but impressive collection on the history of the Rocks from before the first fleet’s arrival.
This is a great place to get some context The Sydney Budget Travellers Bucket List 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. Sadly, it is not wheelchair or pram accessible.
Pick up a self-guided tour map while you are here if 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 to the Visitors Centre and out onto Playfair Street. You are now in Rocks Square, 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 is a sandstone sculpture, First Impressions, worth checking out.
After shopping, look for the narrow passageway between the shopfronts at 25 and 27 Playfair St. This leads to our next stop, Foundation Park.
Use our map to find some of Sydney’s most historic buildings
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 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.
From here, climb the stairs to Gloucester Walk and walk left along the street until you see the stairs that head up to Cumberland Street (they are next to the back of the Glenmore Hotel). Cross Cumberland Street and take another staircase to Observatory Hill.
Stop 7. Observatory Hill
Observatory Hill is a brilliant 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 sit awhile and take in the view.
After you have finished exploring here, head back to the staircase to Cumberland Street.
Stop 8 and 9. Choose a pub on Cumberland Street and rest for a while.
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 is an excellent 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 🙂
We have a detailed article on the Pubs of the Rocks if you would like to explore more of their fascinating history.
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 house 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 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 12. Suez Lane and Nurses Walk
Officially called Harrington Lane, this narrow walkway had 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 halfway 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 the passageway out to George Street and walk 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, a market 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 towards the water.
Stop 13. 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. The Stores and the surrounding area has recently been restored.
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 Campbell’s Cove to the Overseas Passenger Terminal and take the elevator to the top floor. From the top floor where you will find a metal dome. 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.
If you prefer a guided experience, there are lots of tours available in the area, including:
- a standard guided tour
- a haunted Sydney ghost tour,
- a very appropriate a pub tour, that is especially fun if you a solo traveller and fancy a night out,
- an indigenous tour and one I have done
- 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 George St near Lower Fort St or keep walking around to the brand new Barangaroo Reserve and the restaurants of Warrigal Walk.
If you prefer someone to show you around, check out one of these tour options.
About the author: Paula Morgan, a born-and-bred Sydney resident, has been sharing this city and its secret spots for over 15 years. She’s not just about the iconic landmarks; she’s all about the hidden alleys adorned with street art, and the joy of discovering a new café or a fabulous restaurant tucked away in a corner you never knew existed.
Whether you’re a first-time visitor or a seasoned local, her articles have that special touch that can only come from someone who truly knows and loves their city. She’s your go-to source for all things Sydney and the Blue Mountains.