This self-guided Sydney walk will show you the best of historic Sydney in half a day making it perfect for any history lover and an ideal way to see the sights on a short stay in Sydney.
The walk takes you past many of Sydney’s most significant buildings as will appeal to history buffs and those interested in architecture. Highlights include:
- Hyde Park
- St Mary’s Cathedral
- Parliament House
- Government House
- The Royal Botanic Gardens
- Historic pubs of the Rocks
- Starting Point: Hyde Park
- ANZAC War Memorial
- Corridor of fig trees
- Sandringham Gardens
- J. F. Archibald Fountain
- St Mary’s Cathedral
- Macquarie Street
- Hyde Park Barracks
- NSW Parliament House
- The State Library of NSW
- Government House
- Cahill Walk
- Customs House
- George Street Pub Crawl
- Sydney Self-guided History Walk map
Starting Point: Hyde Park
This walk begins in Hyde Park, the cities oldest official park. In 1792 this land was set aside by the forward-thinking Governor Philip 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. These days the park is a favourite spot for city workers wanting to escape their desks at lunchtime. As the weather warms up the park plays host to several festivals including the Festival of Sydney every summer.
There are train stations at either end of the park, Museum in the south and St James at the north. The stations opened in the 1920s and have retained most of their original features; you feel as though 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 1. The memorial is open daily from 9am-5pm and entry is free. Outside the Pool of Reflection is an excellent spot for a late afternoon photo.
Just along from 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-metre-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 over the last few years, several have been removed due to decay, but it is still gorgeous, especially in the early morning light like below.
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 to 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 actually has a name ‘Birubi Circle’,. I doubt many locals have ever heard of it, we all just 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 the 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 interesting gem I uncovered researching this post is St Mary’s Cathedral 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 spires on the southern end were only completed in 2000 after many years of fundraising.
Exit the park and continue walking straight ahead along Macquarie Street. Named after one of our early governors 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.
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 work groups. After convict transportation ended the building was repurposed as the Female Immigration Depot, designed to accommodate orphan girls who were 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. These days it is a museum that charts the buildings fascinating history. It is one of my favourite museums in Sydney and well worth a short visit.
NSW Parliament House
This somewhat understated colonial building is where the magic happens, or where the current government mess things up depending on your political views. Initially, this building and its neighbour The Mint were the cities main hospital, The Rum Hospital. So called because it was built after the governor at the time did a deal with a local merchant allowing him to import a significant amount of rum if he built the hospital. Read the full story here.
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 on this site 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 on Sydney, they have an excellent collection in the gift shop. Clean public toilets and wifi are also available.
Cross the road and enter the Botanic Gardens via the Morshead Gate. Follow the main path through the gardens towards 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.
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 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 great views of Circular Quay and the harbour from above. If you have time, there is some background information on the area presented under the shelter in the middle of the walkaway.
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 an exhibition space. If you are in need of 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 to me seems like the perfect point to end this walk!
Here you can either follow my Rocks Self Guided walk or just wander up the street and into some of the old pubs trying a few local brews as you go.
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 Self-guided History Walk map
If you have any questions about the walk or have tried it, I would love to know?
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