Sydney is a beautiful and spectacular city, however, its colonial history is relatively recent. Although it’s not as recent as the colonial beginnings in Fremantle, the British Penal Colony at Sydney Cove was established by Governor Phillip in 1788. The colony first settled at the north end of what is now the Sydney CBD, on a rocky promontory. Indeed, The Rocks are an unmissable sight of Sydney and a very interesting visit, where the visitor travels back in time to the beginnings of colonial Australia. In a half-day, you can discover the history of Sydney through The Rocks self-guided walking tour.
Circular Quay & Museum of Contemporary Art
Start your Rocks self-guided walking tour at Circular Quay, where your bus, ferry or train will most probably take you. The Museum of Contemporary Art is housed in the art-deco style building of the former Maritime Services Board and houses artwork by Australian artists, including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island artists.
Cadmans Cottage is a small sandstone cottage near the Museum of Contemporary. As the first building on The Rocks shoreline, it gives a unique insight into the early development of the Circular Quay area. Erected in 1816 for the use of coxswains and their crews, it is a rare testimony of the first thirty years of the colony. The cottage bears the name of John Cadman, Superintendent of Boats from 1827 to 1845 and is one of the earliest dwellings you will encounter on The Rocks self-guided walking tour.
The Campbell Stores
Continuing along the cove past the Museum of Contemporary Art and the Ferry Passenger Terminal, discover the Campbell Stores. Initially established in 1839 as The Rocks turned into a hub of commerce and international shipping. After different changes over the years, the buildings now host restaurants and cafes. At the time of writing, the Campbell Stores are under renovation, looking to restore some of the initial architecture. The Campbell Stores are a testimony of Sydney’s past as a hard-working commercial hub.
Dawes Point Park
Dawes Point Park stands at the North Western edge of the CBD and is a great photo location. The views over the Sydney Opera House are stunning. The Aboriginals name for the area is Tar-ra or Tullagalla. It now takes its name from Lieutenant William Dawes, astronomer to the First Fleet. The Dawes Point Battery was established in the early years of the colony and manned until 1916. However, it was completely dismantled during the construction of the Harbour Bridge. The area underwent significant urban changes after the plague erupted in Sydney in 1901. Now, it is a beautiful photography spot, with views of the Harbour Bridge structure and over Bennelong Point.
In the early years of the colony, a windmill was built on this location. Whilst the windmill only lasted ten years, it gave its name to Millers Point nearby. The hill saw the establishment of the first signal station in 1825 and now hosts the Sydney Observatory. The hill towers over The Rocks and you get beautiful views over the Harbour Bridge and the harbour. If you get there later in the afternoon, you will get some gorgeous light and some beautiful memories of The Rocks self-guided walking tour.
No Australian tour would be complete without a stop at a pub and this is especially true of The Rocks self-guided walking tour. As a working-class suburb, The Rocks boast several long-standing pubs. The Lord Nelson is also a brewery and holds a reputable restaurant, while the Hero of Waterloo is a quaint (and possibly haunted) corner pub. True to its name, The Australian only serves Australian beers and the Glenmore Hotel has a roof terrace with stunning views over Circular Quay.
The Rocks have an interesting mix of architecture and it is worth paying attention to the stone cottages and Victorian terraces. Nowadays, there is still a large component of social housing in The Rocks, as a legacy of a working-class neighbourhood. Most of these dwellings are now empty and will be the subject of a long-overdue renovation. This is a contentious subject as some people had been living in The Rocks for a long time. Hopefully, this will revitalise the most interesting neighbourhood in Sydney.
Susannah Place has got to be my favourite place to visit in The Rocks. It is a block of terraces homes built in 1844 by Irish immigrants. In the space of 150 years, up to a hundred families lived in these small houses and a lot of it is documented. With tiny backyards, basement kitchens and outside wash houses, the place jumps back in time and holds fond memories of the working class community of The Rocks. The houses have survived through slum clearances and redevelopments, and have managed to retain their character, even though the last domestic occupants left in 1990. The buildings are now managed by the Historic Houses Trust as a Living Museum.
The block is complete with a corner grocery store, which was recreated from the memories of local residents. The small grocery store still sells food and household items and is now the entrance to the museum. A visit to Susannah Place will tell you genuine stories of life in The Rocks in the old days. It is a moving experience to catch a glimpse of days gone by and one of the most interesting visits on The Rocks self-guided walking tour.
Foundation Park is a very interesting remnant of colonial dwellings built around 1874-1878. You can access Foundation Park through Gloucester Walk. The houses are standing behind the row of shops on Argyle Terrace (or Playfair Street), partially in the sandstone cliff, on different levels. The houses were demolished in the 1940 and a collection of artwork has been placed in the tiny spaces. The artwork models the 19th century furniture: cabinets, chairs, a bench, and old dresser and a clock. This place often gets a mention as it is an open-air museum standing on some of Sydney’s most valuable land, however its value is very sentimental to Sydneysiders.
Foundation Park is a moving tribute to the early days of the colony and gives an idea of how simply people lived.
The Rocks Square/Playfair Street
At The Rocks Square, you will find some open cafes where you can rest your legs for a while. The colonial houses (circa 1875) along Playfair Street now hold a range of tourist shops. Hence, The Rocks self-guided walking tour visits both quite areas and much more commercial ones.
Suez Lane & Nurses Walk
Nurses Walk is a network of lanes and passageways in the back streets of The Rocks. It is actually a post-1979 creation, after the extensive renovation of The Rocks and the idea was to honour the convict nurses who worked at the hospitals established by the First and Second Fleet. There are plaques and information panels to tell the site’s history. I thoroughly recommend wandering those alleyways, they are very much part of The Rocks’ charm.
The Suez Canal is a very narrow alleyway leading to George Street. People-shaped information panels tell the story of the Rocks Push, a larrikin gang of the 1870-1890s.
The Rocks Discovery Museum
The Rocks Discovery Museum is a free and family-friendly museum, it tells the story of The Rocks area from the pre-European days to present times. The museum sits in the 1850s restored warehouse and offers a great learning experience. In this museum, you will find collections of artefacts, illustrations and photographs that will tell you the story of the traditional owners and the establishment of the English colony. More recently, the 1970s union-led protests called the Green Bans helped preserve The Rocks from destruction. The Rocks owe its preservation to its active working community, something that continues today.
The Rocks Self-Guided Walking Tour
A self-guided walking tour of The Rocks will tell you a lot about how the city’s beginnings and will provide countless photo opportunities. I always find a tour of this neighbourhood a nostalgic experience, and yet the area is bustling with life. The tourists easily mix with the office workers and local residents. In my opinion, the area is going to continue its development in a positive way.
If you have more time in Sydney, I recommend visiting
Have you had the chance to discover Sydney through The Rocks Self-Guided Walking Tour? Tell me about your experience in the comments below and let me know if I’ve left anything out!
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