It's hard to believe now, but The Rocks in Sydney almost didn't survive the developer's wrecking ball in the 1960s and 70s. Saved by union green bans, today the heritage precinct has endless tales to tell. Tick off these ten must-sees and dos.
You can’t come to Sydney and not visit The Rocks — the site where the British first settled in 1788, and now one of the city’s most characterful enclaves.
This maze of narrow streets lined with 19th and early 20th century architecture has evolved into a bustling tourist mecca of galleries, boutiques, restaurants, and bars. However, its early colonial roots are still perceptible. The Rocks is an intriguing interplay of the old and the new, and hidden gems like Foundation Park and Susannah Place Museum make getting off the main thoroughfares mandatory!
Here are ten of the best things to do in The Rocks.
In this video we chat with tour guide Fiorella Gioia about the history of The Rocks and what guests can expect on The Rocks Walking Tour. We also reveal some of the heritage precinct’s hidden secrets.
1. Do a historical walking tour
Did you know that you can tell whether a building in The Rocks was constructed by convicts through scratches in the sandstone and remnants of seashells in the cement? Open your eyes to these subtle signs of yesteryear by exploring on foot with The Rocks Walking Tours. You’ll hear fascinating stories about the arrival of the First Fleet, the growth of the colony, the use of rum as currency, ‘shanghaied’ sailors, and a deadly rat plague. This immersive experience brings Australia’s early European history to life.
2. Shop, eat, repeat at The Rocks Market
Every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, throngs of shoppers weave their way through The Rocks Market. It features an eclectic range of canopied stalls selling artisanal wares, including jewellery, leather goods, handmade soaps, and even ‘next generation’ chess sets! Firstly, fuel up on international street food — everything from Italian-style pizza and Spanish paella, to Turkish donuts and Portuguese custard tarts. Now you’re ready to shop!
3. Visit the Museum of Contemporary Art
Exhibiting the work of living artists — both local and international/established and emerging — in its harbour-front Art Deco-era digs, the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia’s vision is ‘to make contemporary art and ideas widely accessible to a range of audiences’. The permanent collection of more than 4,000 pieces spans all creative mediums — from painting and photography, to sculpture, weaving, and the moving image — and includes an impressive cache of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art. It’s free to see. Head for the rooftop cafe and sculpture terrace afterwards to take in sublime views of the epic Sydney Harbour Bridge, Opera House, and comings and goings on the water at Circular Quay.
4. Seek out some of Sydney’s best bars
The Rocks is home to lots of great boutique bars and here are just two of our favs to seek out. Inspired by the Rat Pack glam of the 1950s and 60s, the lively Maybe Sammy cocktail bar on Harrington Street has won several international awards. Settle into one of the velvety banquettes — plush and pretty in shades of blush — or pop yourself on a stool at the marble-topped, forest green bar. Bar staff dressed in pale pink jackets serve jewel-coloured liquid concoctions and share-plates of cheese/charcuterie.
Situated right in the heart of The Rocks, The Doss House whisky bar occupies the basement of a 170-year-old sandstone terrace building — rumoured to have been an opium den back in the day. Choose your poison from the bewildering range of local and international whiskies, alongside other spirits, cocktails, wines, and beers. The setting oozes historical gravitas: it’s a classic case of ‘if these walls could talk…’.
5. Conquer the Coat Hanger
Get a new perspective on Sydney by scaling one of its most famous landmarks — the Harbour Bridge. Bridge Climb Sydney will equip you with a safety suit, harness, and experienced guide for the ascent up ‘the Coat Hanger’ (affectionately so nicknamed because of its arched design). You’ll be rewarded at the top with a 360-degree view of the cityscape and shimmering harbour, as motor vehicles and trains whizz by far beneath you.
The standard climb takes three hours to complete and will set you back around $300. If time is of the essence, or your budget is tight, simply head up the Bridge Stairs on Cumberland Street and walk across the Bridge (roughly 15 minutes each way). The views are still epic and it won’t cost you a cent.
6. Step back in time at The Big Dig
You’ll have learned a whole lot about colonial Sydney on your walking tour of The Rocks; now build on that knowledge at The Big Dig archaeological site. Tucked away between Cumberland and Gloucester Streets, and with a traceable history dating back as far as 1795, you’ll see the surviving foundations of convict cottages and an array of recovered artefacts. There are larger finds on display at The Rocks Discovery Museum.
7. Explore Barangaroo Reserve
The soaring, partly convict-hewn Argyle Cut tunnel links The Rocks with Millers Point and will lead you to magnificent Barangaroo Reserve. What was previously a heavily degraded industrial site is now a verdant six-hectare harbour-side public park packed with amenities. The Reserve is named after Indigenous Cammeraygal woman Barangaroo — who was reputed to be a strong and fierce leader of her people in the late 1700s. Barangaroo was married to another prominent Aboriginal figure — Bennelong — and both played pivotal roles engaging with the British establishment. Visitors to Barangaroo can take part in an Indigenous-led Aboriginal cultural tour, and utilise the Barangaroo Ngangamay app to access five short films about Barangaroo’s life and legacy.
8. See a show
For over 40 years, Sydney Theatre Company (STC) has been entertaining audiences with its high calibre program of Australian and international dramatic productions. STC’s home base — The Wharf — sits adjacent to Barangaroo Reserve and incorporates two recently renovated performance venues. Arrive early for a pre-show tipple at The Theatre Bar at the End of the Wharf, where you can also drink in panoramic views of the Harbour and watch passing water traffic.
9. Toast the past at a heritage pub
The Rocks is home to a number of history soaked public houses. Founded in 1841, the The Lord Nelson Brewery Hotel on Argyle Street is arguably the oldest — and continues to brew beer in traditional English style within its convict-quarried sandstone walls. It’s full of character and serves a surprisingly diverse dining menu (that said, don’t go past the classic beef pie with mushy peas and mash!).
Over on Cumberland Street (just up from The Big Dig), The Australian Heritage Hotel dates back to 1914 and stocks only Australian craft beers. The food menu also has a patriotic flavour; alongside typical pub grub like beer battered flathead and chicken parmigiana, you can order the ‘Coat of Arms’ pizza — emu, kangaroo, and lemon myrtle mayonnaise!
10. Check in to (or just check out) the Park Hyatt
Another prime possie for admiring the harbour, Opera House, and Harbour Bridge is the elegant Park Hyatt Sydney. With an interior of sparkling glass, polished marble, and a soothing colour palette of creams and dark wood, this luxury hotel is entirely befitting of its dress circle locale. However, there’s no need to spend squillions on a room to enjoy its hospitality or sweeping views. The bar and restaurants are open to non-hotel guests, and even a spur-of-the-moment meal can be hugely memorable.
Do you have any suggestions to add to our list of the best things to do in The Rocks? We would love to hear from you. Please leave a comment below.
Additional images: Bigstock
About the writer
Cindy Bingley-Pullin is a Sydney-based freelance writer, wanderluster, corporate bee, and happy homemaker. In between analysing spreadsheets in the office, she pursues her combined passions of travel and writing. Cindy’s work has appeared in Virgin Australia’s Voyeur magazine, International Traveller, Fitness First magazine, and the Sydney Morning Herald.