Lured by culture, icons and a rich convict history, AT’s Cameron Blair, Liz Schaffer and Jess Thompson set out on an excellent adventure to find out what makes Sydney’s Rocks precinct so special.
While The Rocks is known today for its cosy bakeries, coffee shops and authentic Aussie pubs, it was once known as the roughest corner of Sydney, emerging as a spider’s web of pimps, thieves and marauding gangs. So come with us now as we explore Sydney’s dark past and some of the best things The Rocks have to offer . . . but where to start?

Cheers to new beginnings

There are many different ways to start your adventure in The Rocks, but today we’ve decided to enter from George St by way of the Fortune of War Hotel, Sydney’s oldest pub, for a bracing schooner to kick things off. The bartender has a great sense of humour; don’t even think of mentioning the words “light beer” to her or you may be in for some trouble. Next-door is Phillip’s Foote, an interesting traditional pub/restaurant that gives you the option of cooking your own cuts on the grills. Further down, on the corner of George and Argyle, sits Guylian Belgian Chocolate Cafe. The Rocks welcomes this chocolate shop with open arms because of its Mediterranean hazelnuts, West-African cocoa beans and heritage recipes. Keep an eye out for specials like the Breakfast Delight or decadent High Tea.

Right across the street and facing down onto sparkling Circular Quay is the MCA, Sydney’s foremost museum committed to collecting, exhibiting and understanding modern art from Australia and across the globe. Their continually changing program ensures all exhibits remain fresh and inspiring, while the museum shop, library and cafe have their own avid followers. They’ve also announced plans for a $50m redevelopment – perhaps in response to the growing dominance of Brisbane’s GoMA on the domestic modern art scene.

DETAILS // Fortune of War //, (02) 9247 2714. Phillip’s Foote //, (02) 9241 1485. Guylian Belgian Chocolate Cafe //, (02) 8274 7500. MCA //, (02) 9245 2400.

Sydney has laneways too

Our favourite part of any walk through The Rocks is the hidden alleyways. And our second favourite part is the number of quirky shops hidden inside. Take a right off Globe St and head north up Nurses Walk, a street dotted with cafes, pubs and specialty shops, including some neat antique and craft stores. In the 1700s, this laneway housed the first hospital to treat those suffering from scurvy and dysentery (built less than three days after the ships landed). Buttons Buttons Buttons is also here, a vintage button shop with more than 5000 different imported European buttons, owned by a lovely woman named Deborah. To de-button, venture further to the Bakers Oven Cafe with its comfortable umbrella-covered patio – a quiet place to have a offee and rest your feet.

The bartender has a great sense of humour; don’t even think of mentioning the words “light beer” to her or you may be in for some trouble.

One lane ends and the next begins; the Suez Canal laneway cuts east to west and, rumour has it, if you were standing here a century ago, you’d probably have been mugged. Continue left and hit the Farmers Market, the heart of The Rocks, held along Jack Mundey Place every Friday and Saturday. While they provide Sydneysiders with fresh fruit ’n’ veg, it’s in Danieli – hidden in Clocktower Square – that we find a much-needed coffee. It’s owned and operated by Ron Danieli, a nuggetty fellow who only roasts imported South American beans and loves a joke. When we order our flat whites, he yells: “What!? You calling me a fat white?”

Up the road we stumbled upon The Argyle. In true Rocks style it initially operated as a brothel and wool store before evolving into a vibrant and artistic watering hole that hosts five bars with eight local and imported beers. As night falls, the venue is taken over by the melodic tunes of the resident DJs. The soulful sounds and original sandstone and timber interiors make the Bavarian-inspired bar atmospheric to say the least. If that all sounds a little “youthful” for your tastes, the excellent and very mature Wine Odyssey Australia, with its amazing Aroma Room and Tasting Theatre, is just across the way – so purchase yourself a Wine Journey Room Card and dive right in.

DETAILS // Buttons Buttons Buttons // 25 Nurses Walk, (02) 9252 0833. The Bakers Oven Cafe // 121 George St, (02) 9247 9978. Rocks farmers Markets // Jack Mundey Place, Danieli //, (02) 9251 0755. The Argyle //, (02) 9247 5500. Wine Odyssey Australia //, 1300 136 498.

More cobblestones

Venturing down the worn, narrow stairs of one of Australia’s oldest colonial buildings, we stumble upon The Puppet Shop, owned and operated by veteran puppet maker Philippe De Meautis. This Rocks institution has been making puppets in the area for more than 20 years and their handmade designs share space with antique, preloved and new puppets from around the world. Puppet shows, however rare, are worth looking out for. Just off Kendall lane is The Rocks Discovery Museum. Nestled within three sandstone buildings dating from 1844 to 1854, the free museum unites interactive displays and archaeological artefacts and offers tours of the area with The Rocks Discovery Tour or onboard the HMS Discovery.

DETAILS // The Puppet Shop //, (02) 9247 9137. The Rocks Discovery Museum // Kendall Lane, (02) 9240 8680.

The northern end of town

Beneath the Sydney Harbour Bridge, the weekend excitement begins. Saturdays and Sundays see The Rocks’ cobblestone laneways come alive with emerging design talent eager to sell their wares beneath wrought-iron awnings. The Rocks Weekend Market is the perfect place to find innovative fashion, homewares and artworks while getting lost in Sydney’s convict past.

We’d like to think that Linda’s cheerful predictions are pinpoint, but only time will tell.

A short walk then leads us to The Rokit Gallery where you can find the perfect 1920s lace gown, complete with decadent antique accessories, or ’50s swing skirts. There are even dapper suits for the gentlemen. Then, within a heritage-listed terrace lining George St, we discover The Argyle Oracle. With an admittedly sceptical attitude and undeniable curiosity we sample a tarot reading (but turn down clairvoyance and aura options). We’d like to think that Linda’s cheerful predictions are pinpoint, but only time will tell. For those game enough, the shop offers classes, international telephone readings and even the chance to hire a gypsy!

To decode our readings and soak up some history, we pause at the Courtyard Cafe for a glass of fresh orange juice. This quiet haunt is small inside but has a wonderful, secluded courtyard hidden beneath Morton bay fig trees. The cafe is a favourite among tourists and locals and serves everything from smoked salmon to all-day breakfasts. Strolling along Gloucester Walk you can see how serene the setting really is. With our hunger refusing to subside, we forge on to Wolfies, a waterfront restaurant with a diverse menu of Australian delicacies (croc, ’roo, damper), spectacular grill creations and renowned Sydney seafood. Be warned, a panoramic view of the Bridge, Opera House and thriving Harbour make it difficult to focus on the food and friendly service.

DETAILS // The Rocks Weekend Market // Playfair and George St, The Rokit Gallery // Shop 1, 80 George St, (02) 9247 1332. The Argyle Oracle //, (02) 9247 4982. The Courtyard Cafe // 35 George St, (02) 9241 5557. Wolfies // Wolfies Grill, (02) 9247 5577.

High upon a hilltop

If you’re up for a climb after lunch, check out the Sydney Observatory to experience the light of the southern stars, mystery of the Aboriginal Dreaming stories, or to watch the galaxy come alive in the 3-D Space Theatre. Night viewings and the chance to name a star in the Sydney Southern Cross Catalogue must be booked in advance but are the only way to really get your name in lights. If you need more time to ponder the mysteries of the universe, head to Observatory Park and watch Sydney unfold around you.

Further down on Gloucester St is Susannah Place Museum, with its 1915-style corner shop selling goods from that era. From quiet Cumberland Street The Australian, with its forgotten tram flags and endearing, perfectly kitsch interior comfortably overlooks the everyday bustle of The Rocks. With 13 beers on tap and a selection of Australian culinary delights including emu and croc pizza, it’s ideal for a lazy afternoon lunch, evening drink or brief trip down memory lane. If one bar isn’t enough, meander down to the Glenmore Rooftop Hotel for its unbeatable views of the harbour. It’s an incredible – and rewarding – way to finish any Rocks tour.

DETAILS // Sydney Observatory //, (02) 9921 3485. Susannah Place Museum //, (02) 9241 1893. The Australian //, (02) 9247 2229. Glenmore Rooftop Hotel //, (02) 9247 9794.

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