It's hard to believe today, 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 historic enclave effortlessly blends old and new. Here are ten amazing things to see and do around The Rocks.
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 captivating and historic enclaves.
The Rocks has evolved into a bustling precinct of galleries, boutiques, restaurants and bars. However, its colonial past is still very much on display. So, lace up your walking shoes and let’s hit the pavement!
Here are ten of the best things to do in The Rocks.
1. Do a walking tour
Did you know that you can tell whether a building was constructed by convicts through scratches in the sandstone walls, and remnants of seashells in the cement? Open your eyes to these subtle signs of early life in the streets and architecture of the area by exploring on foot with The Rocks Walking Tour.
Wander through cobblestoned alleyways and past heritage-listed cottages with a knowledgeable guide. You’ll hear fascinating stories about the arrival of the First Fleet, the establishment of Australia’s oldest European settlement, the use of rum as currency, ‘shanghaied’ sailors, and even a rat plague. This immersive and memorable experience is a must-do for anyone interested in our nation’s colonial history.
2. Hit the markets
Every Friday, Saturday and Sunday throngs of pedestrians weave their way through The Rocks Market, which features an eclectic range of street stalls selling artisanal wares. Firstly, fuel up on international street food — everything from wood-fired pizzas and seafood paella to Turkish donuts and frozen desserts. Now you’re ready to browse the canopied stands. Shop for jewellery and leather goods, soaps and spices, and even innovative ‘next generation’ chess sets!
3. Visit the Museum of Contemporary Art
Hosting world-class exhibitions by living artists — both local and international, established and emerging — the vision of the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia (MCA) is ‘to make contemporary art and ideas widely accessible to a range of audiences’. The permanent collection contains over 4,000 pieces by Australian artists, including an impressive cache of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art, created through a spectrum of mediums: from painting and photography to sculpture, large scale installations and more. Admission is free (although fees apply for some major exhibitions). The gift shop is worth a browse on the way out.
4. Propose a toast at Maybe Sammy
Inspired by the Rat Pack era of the fifties, this fun and lively cocktail bar has won several international ‘best bar’ awards. Settle into one of the velvety banquettes — plush and pretty in shades of blush — against a wallpapered backdrop of tropical palm prints, or pull up a stool at the marble-topped, forest green bar. Bar staff in pale pink jackets serve jewel-coloured liquid concoctions and share-plates of cheeses and charcuterie. During ‘mini martini hour’ (between 4:30 and 5:30pm daily), miniature versions of classic cocktails are just $5.50.
5. Conquer the mighty Coathanger
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 Coathanger’ (affectionately so nicknamed because of its arched design).
At the top you’ll be rewarded with 360-degree views of the cityscape and shimmering harbour, as motor vehicles and trains the size of ants whizz by beneath you. Depending on which climb you choose, it can take between 1.5 to 3 hours to make it to the top and back. Children as young as eight are allowed to join in, and the oldest person to complete the climb was 100 years of age!
6. Step back in time at The Big Dig
You’ll have learned lots about colonial Sydney on your walking tour of The Rocks; now step back in time at The Big Dig archaeological site. Tucked away between Cumberland and Gloucester Streets, and with a traceable history dating back as far as 1795, it’s fascinating to see these remnants of life for the earliest European settlers. Interpretative boards and displays of small recovered artefacts bring the site to life. There are larger finds on display at The Rocks Discovery Museum.
7. Dine in style at Quay
If you’re celebrating something special in Sydney, save up your dollars and splurge on a meal at this three-hatted eatery — it’s well worth it. Not only was Quay awarded three chefs hats for 18 years in a row, it achieved a spot on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list five years running, and has also been named Restaurant of the Year and awarded countless stars by other respected Australian dining guides. They’re some serious accolades!
Sadly, the restaurant’s ‘snow egg’ dessert — made famous on the TV series MasterChef years ago — is no longer on the menu, but there are plenty of other dishes that have the ‘wow’ factor. Choose from six or eight courses and go on a sensory journey through exquisite culinary creations such as poached marron with green almonds, pomelo and flowers, and duck with preserved cherries, black garlic, and pepper.
8. See a show
For over 40 years, the Sydney Theatre Company (STC) has been entertaining audiences with its diverse and high calibre program of Australian and international dramatic productions. Shows are staged at three venues in or around The Rocks precinct. The STC’s home base — The Wharf — has two theatres and has just been through a major renovation. Arrive early for a pre-theatre tipple at the onsite Theatre Bar at the End of the Wharf, where you can also drink in panoramic views of the harbour and watch the passing water traffic.
9. Enjoy a brew 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 is one of Sydney’s oldest pubs and the site of Australia’s oldest brewhouse. Constructed from convict-quarried sandstone and hosting a bar, restaurant, brewery, and onsite accommodation, you can taste their award-winning ales (crafted in the traditional English style) and feast on Modern Australian cuisine (or choose from the curry menu), before rolling into your bed for the night — all without leaving this atmospheric establishment.
Another of Sydney’s oldest pubs, The Australian Heritage Hotel stocks only Australian craft beers. You can work your way through all of them by taking up their Aussie Beer Passport challenge. The food menu also has a patriotic flavour. Alongside typical pub grub like beer battered barramundi and chips, and chicken parmigiana, you can try the ‘Coat of Arms’ pizza — a medley of emu, kangaroo, and lemon myrtle mayonnaise. Not up for eating the local wildlife? Go for ‘The Queenslander’ instead — a more conventional pizza combination of ham, roast tomato and pineapple.
10. Check in or just check out the Park Hyatt
Another prime possie for admiring the harbour, Opera House and Bridge is the elegant Park Hyatt Sydney. The hotel is befitting of its dress circle locale. The interior of sparkling glass and polished marble, and soothing palette of creams, whites and dark wood make for a memorable stay, but there’s no need to spend squillions on a room to come in. The hotel’s bar, restaurants and spa are open to non-hotel guests. Even a casual meal or cocktail at their all-day dining restaurant is a gracious experience. Alternatively, treat yourself to a massage at their serene spa.
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.
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.