The Rocks Sydney is a window into Sydney’s colonial past and a vibrant place to shop, dine, and drinks.
Before the arrival of the British colonists, The Rocks Sydney, was the traditional tribal lands of the Gadigal People of the Eora Nation and was known by the original inhabitants as Tallawoladah. In 1788, that changed when the First Fleet landed on the shores of Sydney Cove.
Its direct proximity to the Cove ensured The Rocks Sydney became populous early in the settlement’s history, starting with basic wattle and daub huts and gradually building into a precinct of sandstone cottages and warehouses. Its convict population, sailors, and women of the night made the area low-rent and dangerous. The Rocks’ reputation remained poor until the 1870s though it was then further impacted when the Bubonic Plague broke out in the area in 1900.
The Rocks Sydney has evolved from slums to an entertainment precinct
Today, its narrow, cobblestone laneways, historic pubs, old storehouses, and convict churches make it an intriguing place to step back in time and explore, with over 90 of its buildings heritage listed and protected. On the weekends, check out The Rocks Markets. They operate from 10 am to 3 pm on Friday and from 10 to 5 on Saturdays and Sundays, stretching from the paved streets of Playfair Street and Jack Mundey Place to George Street under the Harbour Bridge.
A classic Australian novel by Ruth Park, Playing Beatie Bow is based on a time slip that takes a teen from the modern era to The Rocks in the early 19th Century, capturing the sights and sounds in Park’s colourful writing. Not only is the book a time capsule of Sydney’s past, but its usage in the classroom curriculum has also ensured most Australian kids have grown up knowing the story.
The Museum of Contemporary Art, The Rocks Sydney
Not only is the Museum of Contemporary Art a place for art aficionados to explore with its focus on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art – its rooftop bar offers one of the most iconic views of both the Sydney Harbour Bridge and the Sydney Opera House. If you have champagne tastes and a beer budget, the Sydney Harbour YHA (Youth Hostel/Backpackers) has an equally awesome roof terrace where you can contemplate the vista and an ice cold drink. Plus, they have some of the cheapest, no-frills accommodation in Sydney.
Sydney Harbour Bridge Climb
For many, the Sydney Harbour Bridge Climb is the stuff of bucket lists but for some of us, the fear of heights has it down as the last thing we’d want to try. But don’t let our lily-livered spirits dent yours. The price for this foolhardy (but totally safe) memory is Adult: $248 – $408 depending on package and Child: $139 – $209.
The Argyle Cut and Argyle Stairs
It may look like an insignificant stone archway, but it’s the site of heavy toil and hard labour by early convicts that opened the Rocks to the adjoining Millers Point area. Prior to 1830s, Argyle Street was split in two by a natural cliff face, with a rough-cut staircase offering the only way to get to the other section. In 1843, convict overseer, Tim Lane forced his chain gang to work with the most meager tools saying, “by the help of God and the strong arm of the flogger, you’ll get fifty (lashes) before breakfast tomorrow!” Locals at this point didn’t agree with the abuse and eventually, the cut was complete using explosives and paid council labour in 1859.
The Garrison Church
The Garrison Church (officially known as the Holy Trinity Anglican Church and Hall is one of Sydney’s oldest churches, operating since 1840. It was called the Garrison Church as it was the local church for the troops from the Dawes Point Battery and the 30th Scottish Battalion, which used the hall as their headquarters. Along with celebrity weddings for Sydney identities like acclaimed Aussie cricketer, Glenn McGrath, it was also frequented by governors.
Sydney Observatory and Observatory Park
Dominating one of the highest points of The Rocks area is the Sydney Observatory (also known as Fort Phillip, Windmill Hill, and Flagstaff Hill) and Observatory Park. Built between 1857 and 1859 by Charles Bingemann and Ebenezer Dewar from William Weaver’s designs, the Florentine Renaissance-style building houses the oldest working telescope in Australia, a Schmidt-Cassegrain refracting telescope that dates to 1874.
Before it became an observatory, the hill was the site of an early windmill, made in 1796. In 1803, Fort Phillip replaced the windmill, along with a powder battery in preparation for a possible attack by the French or a more local threat, convict insurrectionists. The reference to Flagstaff Hill came from the fact it was a stand for semaphore signals that could be seen from out on the boats. Today, the observatory is a museum and offers one of the best spots for a photo of the Sydney Harbour Bridge.
Millers Point was once separated from the rest of The Rocks Sydney, accessible only along the waterfront or the Argyle Steps until the Argyle Cut offered direct passage to the area. Owned by Thomas Miller a Sergeant in the 73rd Regiment of Foot, who received the package of land as a grant, people associate it more with the mill built by an ex-convict, Jack Leighton – with it being known as Jack the Miller’s Point.
Like many inner-city suburbs, it went through a period of being derelict and slum-like, heavily impacted by the 1900s outbreak of the bubonic plague. Urban renewal and the arrival of yuppies in the 80s transformed the area into a hotspot for inner-urban renovations and today, its Georgian terrace houses fetch upwards of the $2Million mark.
Walsh Bay has been swallowed by the Rocks, but it still retains its identity due to the old docks, which are now the headquarters of the Sydney Theatre Company, where Cate Blanchett started her illustrious career.
Stop in for a “coldie” at The Lord Nelson Hotel, the oldest working pub in Sydney. The sandstone heritage-listed bar at 19 Kent Street was built in 1814 by Irish stonemason, James Dempsey with stone quarried from the base of nearby Observatory Hill.
If you’re thirsty for more history, the Hero of Waterloo, built in 1843, is Sydney’s second oldest surviving pub. This one has a little more of a juicy backstory, with rumors that the cellars contain a stone smuggler’s tunnel out to Darling Harbour.
WHERE TO DINE IN THE ROCKS SYDNEY
With its proximity to the water, expect to find quality seafood restaurants like Fish at The Rocks. Sadly, celebrity Executive Chef, Neil Perry’s Rockpool has moved on to be replaced by William Blue Dining, a student restaurant that is part of the Billy Blue college and Torrens University operations. It’s way cheaper, but not quite on par. Luckily Perry fans can find his fingerprints over Sake. Our favorite place to dine in The Rocks is Pony Dining The Rocks, which matches stylish ambiance with elevated local ingredients. It’s expensive but memorable.
WHERE TO DRINK IN THE ROCKS SYDNEY
Speaking from a few too many nights out in The Rocks, there’s no shortage of historic or novelty bars to enjoy. The Fortune of War is a classic Sydney pub that’s been popular since 1828 where it was responsible for many a drunken sailor. It’s been modernized and has quality pub grub and gaming. The Mercantile Hotel is a popular, unpretentious Irish bar frequented by advertising and marketing types in the daytime and young professionals at night. The Munich Brauhaus, The Rocks is a rowdy German pub with traditional fare and oompah pah bands that get the crowds rollicking. For craft beer snobs, try the Endeavour Tap Rooms on Argyle.
WHERE TO SHOP IN THE ROCKS SYDNEY
Whereas most of the top shopping experiences are in the Central Business District, there are some quality boutiques and quirky shops to discover in The Rocks Sydney. The British Lolly Shop will feed your sweet tooth as will the Guylian Belgian Chocolate Café, which offers amazing hot chocolates. For some Australian souvenirs with a difference, pick up some unique Ugg boots or outerwear at UGG Australia or discover Australia’s favorite modern artist, Ken Done, responsible for much of the iconic imagery during the Sydney Olympics.