Self-Guided Sydney History Walk
The walk takes you past many of Sydney’s most significant buildings as it will appeal to history buffs and those interested in architecture.
This Sydney History Walk will take you 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 perfect for any short stay in Sydney.
Highlights include Hyde Park, UNESCO-listed Hyde Park Barracks, Parliament House, Government House, 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 spent time as a race 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
Located at the southern end of the park just off Liverpool Street, this pink granite Art Deco-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.
Outside the Pool of Reflection is an excellent spot for a late afternoon photo.
Learn more about the History of Sydney
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. The sculpture acknowledges Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men and women who served in the nation’s military.
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.
Check out our free Rocks walking tour for another great self guided walk
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 canceled 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.
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”.
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 post is St Mary’s Cathedral’s real name is The Cathedral Church and Minor Basilica of the Immaculate Mother of God, Help of Christians. Like all things in Australia, we have shortened it to just 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
- The Rocks 90-Minute Walking Tour
- Sydney Convicts, History & The Rocks 2.5-Hour Walking Tour
- Marrickville Breweries Walking Tour
Exit the park and continue walking straight ahead along Macquarie Street. This 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, in many ways, the most significant of our early governors Lachlan Macquarie. You will come across his work (and name) throughout the city. Macquarie was considered instrumental in helping move Sydney from a penal colony to a free settlement. This street was originally built 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.
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 into one of the sites 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 happen to be here on a Wednesday, consider popping in for their free lunchtime concert at 1.15 pm.
There is a lovely coffee shop Le Jardin St James in the churchyard. It’s usually open Monday to Friday and is a nice spot for a coffee and a little people-watching.
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.
The first hospital in the colony was located in The Rocks, and 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, Florence Nightingale was approached by government officials to provide training to the city’s nurses. She sent five nurses who 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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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
Conservatorium of Music
Another Francis Greenway Building, Lachlan Macquarie commissioned this rather grand building as a stable for the new Government House building. In 1915 the building was converted into the Conservatorium of Music.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Retrace your steps and go back down the elevator to the street. Walk under the rail overpass and cross Alfred Street to 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.
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.
Exit and head left to George Street. If you are hungry at this point, 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!
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
If you want to learn more about the pubs and the history of the Rocks area, there is an excellent tour called When Rum Ruled the Rocks that gives a great overview and includes a few free beers!
Sydney walking map
Open the map in Google Maps for easy-to-follow directions and a few extra stops that are not included here.
If you have any questions about the walk or have tried it, I would love to know.
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