Self-Guided Sydney History Walk

We have designed this self guided Sydney History Walk so that you can see many of Sydney’s most significant buildings in a couple of hours. While giving a great feel for the city’s colonial past, it will especially appeal to history buffs and those interested in architecture.

Highlights you will stroll past today include Hyde Park, the UNESCO-listed Hyde Park Barracks, Parliament House, Government House, the State Library of NSW, and the Royal Botanic Gardens.

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Starting Point: Hyde Park

This walk begins in Hyde Park, the city’s oldest official park. In 1792, the forward-thinking Governor Philip set this land for public recreation. In the following years, the 16 hectares of flat green space was used as a horse racing track and a cricket ground.

In the 1830s, the park was almost released for housing, but thankful a change in governor saw the idea quashed. The park is a favorite spot for city workers who want to escape their desks at lunchtime. As the weather warms up, the park hosts several festivals, including the Festival of Sydney every summer.

There are train stations at either end of the park, a Museum in the south, and St James at the north. The stations opened in the 1920s and retained most of their original features; you feel you have stepped back in time here with original 1920s-style ads gracing the billboards.

So now you are here, let’s explore the key sites in Hyde Park.

ANZAC War Memorial

At the southern end of the park, just off Liverpool Street, this pink granite art déco-style building was completed in 1934 to commemorate World War One. The memorial is open daily from 9 am-5 pm, and entry is free.

Anzac Memorial with the pool of reflection
Anzac Memorial and Pool of Reflection

Outside, the Pool of Reflection is an excellent spot for a late afternoon photo.


Along the memorial on the Elizabeth St side of the park is a large artwork, YININMADYEMI – Thou didst let fall by indigenous artist Tony Albert. These seven-meter-tall, 1.5-tonne bullets caused quite a controversy with Sydneysiders when they were unveiled.

Hyde Park Sydney Indigenous Memorial
YININMADYEMI – Thou didst let fall by indigenous artist Tony Albert

The sculpture acknowledges Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men and women who served in the nation’s military.

Related: Aboriginal Experiences in Sydney

Corridor of fig trees

The beautiful path lined with Hill’s Weeping figs runs the full two-block length of Hyde Park from the War Memorial to the Archibald Fountain. Sadly, several have been removed over the last few years due to decay, but it is still gorgeous, especially in the early morning light like below.

Hyde Park Sydney Avenue of Fig Trees
The corridor of fig trees provides respite from hot summer days

Sandringham Gardens

Hidden in the eastern corner opposite the Australian Museum, Sandringham Gardens were designed for the 1952 Royal Visit of King George VI. Sadly the tour was cancelled due to the King’s sudden death. The gardens are a great spot to escape when you feel the rush of the city getting to you.

Sandringham Gardens Hyde Park Sydney
My favourite spot to sit with a book and have a bit of time out

J F Archibald Fountain

I love discovering new things about Sydney. On researching possibly Sydney’s best-known fountain, I found the circle where it sits has the name ‘Birubi Circle’.  I doubt many locals have ever heard of it; we all say, “I’ll meet you at the fountain”.

Archibald fountain in Hyde Park
Archibald fountain in Hyde Park

The Archibald Fountain was unveiled in 1932 and is the work of French sculptor Francois Sicard. It was built as a memorial to the Australian and French cooperation in World War 1 and is named after the owner of Bulletin Magazine, who donated the funds for it to be designed and built. It features Apollo surrounded by three figures, Diana who brings harmony to the world, Pan watching over the fields and pastures; and Theseus fighting the Minotaur.

St Mary’s Cathedral

Another fun fact I uncovered researching this walk is the real full name of St Mary’s Cathedral’s. It is in fact The Cathedral Church and Minor Basilica of the Immaculate Mother of God, Help of Christians.

Hyde Park St Marys Cathedral
St Mary’s offers daily services.

Like all things in Australia, we have shortened, and it is simply St Mary’s. This Gothic Revival-style building is said to be based closely on the style of Lincoln Cathedral in England, and indeed, on the inside, there are many similarities.

The building appeared in stages, with the first being completed in 1900. The spires on the southern end were only completed in 2000 after many years of fundraising. St Mary’s is the largest cathedral building in Australia.

Learn more about Sydney on one of these walking tours

Read our beginner’s guide to the History of Sydney

Macquarie Street

Exit the park and continue walking straight ahead along Macquarie Street. The intersection where Macquarie Street meets Phillip and King Streets is known as Queens Square, named for the statue of Queen Victoria. Note the statue of her love Prince Albert Sitting opposite.

This street is named after one of the most significant of our former governors, Lachlan Macquarie. You will come across his work (and name) throughout the city. Macquarie helped to move Sydney from a penal colony to a free settlement. They originally built this street to provide access to the first purpose-built hospital in the colony. It is home to several significant buildings, so let’s explore some of my favourites.

Insider tip: See if you can find the mosaic on the ground outside the law courts that is a memorial to Francis Greenway, who was the architect of three buildings on this street.

Hyde Park Barracks

The first building on Macquarie Street is the World Heritage-listed Hyde Park Barracks. The barracks were designed by convict architect Francis Greenway and built-in 1819. They housed 600 convict men who spent their days in workgroups.

Hyde Park Barracks Sydney

After convict transportation ended, the building was repurposed as the Female Immigration Depot, designed to accommodate orphan girls sent to the colony to help reduce the gender imbalance created by transportation. After this, it became the Hyde Park Asylum, a home for destitute and mentally ill women.

If you only go inside one site we visit today, this is the one I recommend. It underwent a full renovation in 2021 and a self-guided tour that is one of the best ways to learn more about Sydney.

St James Church

The church opened in 1824 as an Anglican church and was designed by Francis Greenway. If you are here on a Wednesday, consider popping in for their free lunchtime concert at 1.15 pm. 

St James Church Sydney
Jardin St James, a cafe on the church grounds, is lovely

There is a lovely coffee shop called Le Jardin St James in the churchyard. It’s usually open Monday to Friday and is a pleasant spot for a coffee and a little people-watching.

The Mint

The Mint Macquarie Street Sydney
The Mint is now home to a general store and restaurant

The oldest public building was initially part of the Rum Hospital, but in 1855, it became the first branch of the Royal Mint outside of England. It operated for about 70 years as a mint before newer operations in Melbourne took over these duties, and the building became government offices.

These days it is the headquarters of the Historic Houses Trust. Entry is free. There is a bistro here if you fancy a coffee or lunch.

Sydney Hospital

The first hospital in the colony was located in The Rocks. When Governor Macquarie arrived in 1810 and saw the substandard facility, one of the first things he wanted to do was build a new hospital.

The British government would not provide funds, so Macquarie worked with local businessmen, offering them a monopoly on the colony’s very profitable rum trade to fund the building.

In the late 1860s, government officials approached Florence Nightingale to provide training to the city’s nurses. She sent five nurses whose teaching vastly improved health services in the county. There is a small museum here that is sometimes open to the public. Among the collection is Florence Nightingale’s sewing basket from the Crimean War.

Sydney Hospital Grounds and Fountain
A nice spot to appreciate the architecture of the city.

Head inside the main gates and take a look at the beautiful three-tiered cast-iron fountain featuring brolgas surmounted by black swans. A great photo op is looking back toward Macquarie St here with architecture from the various periods lined up behind the Nightingale wing.

Sydney Hospital Boar
Rub the boars nose for luck

Insider tip: Throw a coin in the fountain and rub the nose of the wild boar statue outside the hospital.

NSW Parliament House

This somewhat understated colonial building is where the magic happens or where the current government messes things up, depending on your political views. Initially, this building and its neighbour, The Mint, was the city’s main hospital, The Rum Hospital.

Sydney History Walk Parliament Houes
See where all the political action takes place.

Free public tours are regularly offered, and you can take your turn in the speaker’s chair. When Parliament is sitting, you can join Question Time from 2.15 pm.

The State Library of NSW

The State Library has six new gallery areas, so there is always something to see here.

The oldest library in Australia, the State Library, was first established in 1826 and opened in 1845. The library hosts regular free exhibitions that are often well worth the detour.  They also have cheap storage lockers on the lower levels if you want somewhere to leave your things while you wander around the gardens. If you are looking for books about Sydney, they have an excellent collection in the gift shop. There are also clean public toilets and great free wifi.

Just before you reach the front of the library, keep your eyes peeled for a statue of explorer Matthew Flinders and his little cat Trim. Trim accompanied Matthew Flinders on his voyages to circumnavigate and map the coastline of Australia in 1801–03.

State Library Trim the Cat statue
Can you find Trim the cat?

Cross the road and enter the Botanic Gardens via the Morshead Gate. Follow the main path through the gardens towards the Government House.

Royal Botanic Gardens

Spanning over 74 acres, Sydney’s Royal Botanic Gardens, established in 1816,is one of the oldest in Australia. If time allows use the map just inside the gate to visit some of the following features:

  1. The Calyx: A contemporary horticultural exhibition space with ever-changing displays of flowers and plants.
  2. Mrs. Macquarie’s Chair: A historic sandstone bench carved by convicts in 1810, offering panoramic views of the harbor.
  3. Australian Rockery: Showcasing native Australian plants and a stunning collection of colorful Australian wildflowers.
  4. Wollemi Pine Grove: Home to the rare and ancient Wollemi Pine, a “living fossil” dating back to the time of dinosaurs.
  5. The Gardens shop – a unique collection of gifts for gardeners and interesting souvenirs of Sydney.

Conservatorium of Music

Another Francis Greenway Building, Lachlan Macquarie commissioned this rather grand building as a stable for the new Government House building.

NSW Conservatorum of Music
The Conservatorium hold free concerts for the public – check their website for details.

Insider tip: The “Con”, as it is known locally, offers free lunchtime concerts often on Wednesdays – check this website for the current calendar of events.

In 1915 it was converted into the Conservatorium of Music. It sits on the edge of the gardens in Macquarie Street.

Government House

The official residence of the New South Wales governor Government House is a Gothic Revival style design that features castellated towers. The building was designed by Edward Blore, the same architect who worked on the British Houses of Parliament, Buckingham Palace, and Winsor Castle. 

Free guided tours are available on most Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays and take approximately 45 minutes.

NSW Government house in the Royal Botanic Gardens
The free tour is perfect if you have an interest in interior design.

If you don’t have time for a tour, you can still stroll through the garden. Exit the house towards the waterfront and continue around to the Opera House.

After you have seen the Opera House up close, stroll around East Circular Quay.

Circular Quay

Cahill Walk – Cahill Expressway Viewing Platform

After a short stop for a coffee or a drink at Opera Bar or East Circular Quay, continue walking toward the overhead railway tracks. You will notice a glass elevator that leads up to the roadway.

Cahill Walk Sydney lookout and viewing platform
Bit of a hidden gem, this viewing platform is a great spot for a selfie

This is called Cahill Walk, and it offers excellent views of Circular Quay and the harbour from above. There is some background information on the area presented under the shelter in the middle of the walkway if you have time.

View from the Cahill Walk Sydney
Be sure to walk to the far end of the Cahill footpath for the best views

Retrace your steps and go back down the elevator to the street. Walk under the rail overpass and cross Alfred Street to Customs House.

Customs House

Built in 1844, this grand building housed the NSW Customs service until 1990. These days it is home to the City of Sydney public library, several restaurants, and exhibition space. If you need a loo, there are toilets on the first and second floors of the library. There are also free PCs and wi-fi if you need to check your email.

Customs House Sydney Model
Pop into Customs House to view the free model of the city.

In the foyer is a 4.2m x 9.5m three-dimensional scale model of Sydney’s city centre viewed through a glass floor. It’s a great way to see where you have been and where you will go next.

City 3d model under glass
The model helps get an orientation of the city.

Exit and head left to George Street. If you are hungry stop into the Gateway Centre food court for a Messina Ice-cream or a Zumbo cake.

George Street Pub Crawl

Cross the road and walk along George Street – this area is known as The Rocks. In this stretch of George St, there are no less than five pubs, which seems like the perfect point to end this walk!

Check out our free Rocks walking tour for another great self-guided walk

The Rocks Sydney Budget Bucketlist
George St view from the Cahill Walkway

Here you can either follow my Rocks Self-Guided walk or wander up the street and into some of the old pubs, trying a few local brews as you go.

We have written a DIY Pub Crawl for you to follow

Sydney walking map

Open the map in Google Maps for easy-to-follow directions and a few extra stops that are not included here.

To complete our Sydney History Walk, allow about an hour and a half, not including any time you spend inside any of these buildings and museums. Along the way, you will discover the best of historic Sydney in half a day, making it a perfect addition to any short stay in Sydney. 

If you have questions about the walk or have tried it, I would love to know.

Need help to plan your trip to Sydney? Join our Sydney Expert Facebook Group, where you can ask questions, stay up to date with what’s happening in Sydney, and meet many friendly locals just waiting to share their advice!

10 thoughts on “Self-Guided Sydney History Walk”

  1. I’ve still yet to travel to Sydney, so this will be very useful for me when I go. I love the Corridor of Fig trees, so pretty, as is Cahill walk. One day I’ll get there.

  2. Sydney is so beautiful. I can’t wait to visit Australia, i’ve been wanting to for so long! The St Mary’s Cathedral is stunning & i’d love to do the George Street Pub crawl haha

  3. Very nice blog. We are planning a trip to sydney early next year. this post will come handy. thanks so much.

  4. I like the sound of a pub crawl 😀 Thanks for all these suggestions, I am planning to visit Australia and Sydney of course, next year during Christmas! I love the architecture of the buildings here, I’m sure the city will light up and come to life even more during Christmas time ?

  5. This is a really great list! I loved visiting Sydney! I wasn’t expecting to see so many historic sites but there were. I wasn’t able to do the George Street Pub Crawl, but the Rocks neighborhood was my favorite.

  6. I’m planning on a trip to Sydney in a couple of weeks. Can u give me a location as to where to start, where to park if driving. Any information would be great.

  7. Hi Teri
    It would be best to leave the car at home, especially if you are visiting on a weekday. If you really need to drive you could park at the Domain parking Station and take the moving walkway to Hyde Park – It comes out just near the northern edge of the park. You could also park at the Goulburn Street Parking Station at the Southern end of the park

  8. Sydney is on my list since long. I have so many plans coming year, but your post is tempting me to adjust my dates for hitting Sydney. I always prefer self-guided city walks and explore a place at my own pace. That’s the best part about this post. Thanks.

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