Having spent days exploring Surry Hills with my little grandson means that the streets and laneways of this inner-city Sydney suburb are quite familiar to me. While Surry Hills is gentrifying, there is an edgy feel to the place.
What You’ll Find in Surry Hills
I am very fond of Surry Hills with its public art, galleries, great food, coffee and interesting street art. Shopping in Surry Hills is a very different experience from that of the Australian shopping mall. There are designer stores, vintage outlets and specialty stores. Come with me on a walk past my favourite places in Surry Hills.
Prince Alfred Park
Before heading up steep Foveaux Street from Central Station, I take a short diversion to Prince Alfred Park checking out the series of large murals, lining the brick station wall along the way. The murals depict workers and travellers over the years, celebrating 150 years of Railways in NSW and 100 years of Central Station.
Prince Alfred Park is a haven for local apartment living residents and visitors alike. There’s a swimming pool, tennis and basketball courts, a playground and plenty of grassy space. Elements in the playground reflect the circus pens of agricultural exhibitions held in an exhibition building here in the 1800s. There’s a hot air balloon and elephant for little ones to enjoy.
Across the road is an interesting granite building. The engraving over the door indicates it was the premises of the Amalgamated Engineering Union from 1851 to 1929. Now, let’s return to walk up the steep hill that is Foveaux Street and walk up and down Riley, Crown and Bourke streets.
Riley Street Surry Hills
Frog Hollow reserve, is another of the many green spaces breathing life into the City of Sydney. In the early 1900s the houses of Surry Hills were packed together in a warren of streets and laneways. Frog Hollow once “one of the most depraved areas of Sydney” has changed. Much is gentrified and there’s plenty of building and renovation happening.
Waterboard staff used to live in terrace houses in and around Reservoir Street where informative plaques explain that they worked in the water reservoir and pump house. Built in 1859, the Crown Street Reservoir still supplies water to the Inner City and is the oldest water supply reservoir still in use in Australia. If you are interested, another relatively nearby reservoir in Paddington has been converted into a great recreation space.
The Sydney Police Centre
As I walk past the stark Sydney Police Centre and Surry Hills Police Station I recall the night I spent in the cells here (supporting a client). Behind the Police Centre in Goulburn Street you’ll find The NSW Police Force Service Memorial. It recognises police employees (police officers and support staff) who were killed or injured and then died while on duty.
Behind the Sydney Police Centre is the dog friendly Harmony Park. From the low red tiled wall, I watch a couple of dogs chasing each other and then make a quick detour to The Paramount Coffee Project and the Golden Age Cinema and bar in Commonwealth Street. This is where you can watch a movie in the former screening room of Paramount Pictures.
Crown Street Surry Hills
A slow walk along Crown Street reveals a diverse range of shops. Shopping in Surry Hills is nothing if not interesting. At the Oxford Street end, you’ll find a cluster of vintage clothing stores and as you stroll further down the street you’ll find specialty shops and designer stores.
Local children have attended Crown Street Public School since 1849. Strict heritage guidelines mean that the school buildings are as they were way back then apart from The Lone Soldier Cenotaph which was built in 1919.
Over the road, a sign “Holy Kitsch” hangs outside premises where Paris de Bono will tell your fortune. Further along, is Bills (of Bill Grainger fame), a great place for breakfast (or lunch or dinner) and the well-known Gelato Messino.
I have spent many happy hours pushing my grandson on the swings at Shannon Street Reserve. What is more interesting though is the paved area. Look closely and you will see that pavers are laid in such a way as to represent the layout of surrounding streets with street names carved into the sandstone pavers.
Public Art in Surry Hills
A favourite public artwork is “Village Voices”, situated in a laneway next to 610 Crown Street. Created by Astra Howard it takes the form of a regularly changing short story posted on the wall in bold white plastic lettering. Local residents write the stories and often share quite personal experiences.
There is a wonderful mural “What Bird is That?” by Peter Day at the far end of Edgeley Reserve, Nickson Street. Take time to look for the little birds in the foliage. Opposite, street art on either side of a red roller garage door draws attention to The Pottery Shed, a place to learn or practice your throw pot making skills.
The Brett Whiteley Studio
Not far away, in a side lane, you can identify The Brett Whiteley Studio by the smaller version of the Brett Whiteley’s “Almost once” sculpture mounted beside the door. This gallery is well worth a visit. You can see the room where the artist worked as well as current exhibitions.
To find great street art, take a couple of side trips down laneways and explore for yourself. There are many examples in and around the area between the studio and our next stop.
Bourke Street Surry Hills
Work on the Light Rail has affected businesses in Surry Hills. Some shops have not survived. Bourke Street Bakery is weathering the disruption, and a long queue snakes out the door. Their pistachio ginger crème brulee tarts are to die for.
Bourke Street Public School is also heritage listed and dates back to 1884. I am fascinated by two circular entrances on either side of the main entrance. One is designated for girls, the other for boys. How things change. Over the road is the Police Lock Up which dates back to 1895.
Terrace Houses in Bourke Street
Now I walk slowly up Bourke street enjoying architecture and detail in the terrace houses. When I look up in Bennett Place look I am rewarded by seeing a large sculptured figure perched on the overhead bridge joining two buildings. The sculpture is “Bridget” by Gaby Porter, who had her studio in “The Warehouse” alongside the bridge where she created many iconic works. In Bennett Street itself, the cottages with matching wooden balconies remind me of times long gone.
Nearby McElhone Place is one of my favourite places in all of Sydney, never mind Surry Hills. Once a slum, this little lane demonstrates community in action. What started as a few pot plants outside one home, is now a lane overflowing with greenery with a large ginger cat sunning itself in the middle of the lane. Gardening on the footpath encourages people to meet and connect. As I wander through, a man greets me and says “there are worse ways to spend your time”.
Back in Bourke Street is Formaggi Ocello which sells an amazing selection of cheeses. If I was going straight home, I would get some for wine and cheese at our boatshed tonight.
Over the road is Mary’s Place where the brutal beating and rape of a lesbian woman is remembered by a lamp and inscription:
This is a lane with a name and a lamp in memory of the woman who survived being beaten and raped here. She happened to be lesbian. When the sun sets this lamp keeps vigil along with you who read this in silent meditation.
Resisting temptation, I walk past Christopher’s Cake Shop with its wonderful array of biscuits and pastries. Opposite, the 1847 Wesleyan church is now the Edward Egar Lodge which provides crisis accommodation. It is one of many services dotted around Surry Hills that supports homeless and other marginalised people.
In Taylor Square, the distinctive “always was always will be” artwork by Reko Rennie has been painted over. At least his “Welcome to Redfern” artwork featured on my Redfern post is still standing proudly.
Do Say Hello
Well, that’s a quick look at my favourite places in Surry Hills. If you visit on a Wednesday, you may see me there with my grandson. Do stop me to say hello.