Walk through The Rocks in Sydney

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When last did you visit Sydney’s Rocks area?

I’ve walked through a couple of times in the last few years, but it’s ages since I really explored the area. Staying at the Sydney Harbour YHA provides me with the perfect base to rediscover The Rocks (known by the Gadigal people as Tallawoladah).

A Self-Guided Walk Through The Rocks

I’ve combined two self-guided walks for my Rocks discovery. Before leaving Platform Two of Circular Quay Station, I look out across the wharfs to the Harbour Bridge and the Opera House. Sydney Harbour must be one of the most beautiful cities in the world.

Platform 2 is a great place for to photograph Sydney Harbour
Opera House from Platform 2
Detail of 'First Impressions' by Bud Dumas 1979
‘First Impressions’ detail Playfair Street

Walking through the Quay to George Street, I find myself in opposite The Fortune of War, Sydney’s oldest pub. It is surrounded by scaffolding, but signs indicate that it’s open for business. If it wasn’t too early in the day, I’d pop in for a pint.

A couple of doors down is the original police station, now a restaurant. A couple watch me from their veranda table as I read the information panels in the sidewalk. George Barrington was a pickpocket who became a Chief Constable at Parramatta. Other convicts became night watchmen and “many constables had been prisoners of the crown”.

The Rocks Sydney Heritage
The Original Police Station
Lanes and Walkways in The Rocks Sydney
Nurses Walk

Lanes and Walkways in The Rocks

An archway between the pub and the police station leads to Surgeon’s Court and the Nurses Walk. Little lanes and walkways lead off in all directions. It is well worth just following your nose and see where you end up.

I overhear another visitor asking her partner “Is this the way?” The Rocks covers such a small area and with the iconic harbour bridge visible most of the time it’s almost impossible to get lost.

Suez Canal Sydney was the home of The Push Street Gang
Shady Figure in Suez Canal
The Push Gang of the Suez Canal Sydney The Rocks
Wouldn’t want to meet him on a dark night

The shady characters depicted in silhouette on the narrow Suez Canal wall refer to The Rocks Push, a street gang that operated in the area. Fancy there being a Suez Canal here in Sydney. Apparently, it’s a play on the word ‘sewers’.

Soon I end up in Playfair Street.  Unfortunately, the Tea Cosy is closed today or I would stop for a cuppa with scones, jam and cream.

Foundation Park

Foundation Park is a new discovery. You might stumble across it in your wanderings or if you’re following my notes will find that 26 Argyle Terrace in Playfair Street leads to the fascinating park. 

Doorway to Foundation Park, The Rocks
26 Argyle Terrace
Terraces with Italianate details in The Rocks Sydney make up Argyle Terrace
Argyle Terrace Playfair Street

The preserved foundations of eight small houses built into the sandstone cliff in the 1870s give an insight into the crowded living conditions of the time. Nestled between other buildings and minimally ‘decorated’ with metal chairs, tables and even a grandfather clock, this heritage site is worth a visit.  

Remains of homes from the 1870s in Foundation Park, The Rocks
An Upper Section of Foundation Park
Overview of Foundation Park in The Rocks
Foundation Park

From Argyle Cut to Observatory Hill

From here, it’s an easy walk to the Argyle Stairs and down to the Argyle Cut. Initially convicts were set to work here to chip away the sandstone and create a tunnel linking Millers Point and The Rocks. Their progress was so slow that eventually paid labour and explosives were brought in to complete the job.

Walking down Argyle Stairs to Argyle Cut
Argyle Stairs
Argyle Cut links The Rocks with Millers Point
Argyle Cut

Through the tunnel and up the hill, Observatory Hill provides extensive views down the Parramatta River, across to Lavender Bay and the Harbour Bridge.

I’m too early to watch the yellow Observatory time ball drop two metres (this happens at 1pm). This visual time signal has informed mariners and city dwellers of the time for many years.

Looking across to North Sydney from Observatory Hill
View from Observatory Hill
Sydney Observatory Time Ball
Note the Yellow Time Ball

Views of Sydney Harbour

I could easily stroll across the Harbour Bridge from here and/or go up to the Pylon Lookout (a less expensive option than the BridgeClimb) for more harbour views, but leave that for another day. Should you choose to take that option, be warned: the Pylon Lookout is up a flight of 200 stairs.

Instead I make my way down to the harbour foreshore. First, I check out the Glenmore Hotel. This hotel has a rooftop area with Opera House views and a reputation for pretty good burgers. The nearby Australian Heritage Hotel is known for its ‘Coat of Arms’ pizza featuring kangaroo and emu meat.

Stairs from Observatory Hill to Sydney Harbour Bridge
Back to the Rocks
Cottages in Harrington Street
As seen in Harrington Street

A little further down Gloucester Street Suzannah Place Museum is still closed due to COVID. Comprised of four ‘two up two down’ terraces, this museum provides a glimpse into the lives of the those who lived here between 1844 and 1990.

The Big Dig

Opposite Suzannah Place is The Big Dig. Yesterday, as a guest of the YHA, I joined the free Big Dig tour and with no other takers, ended up having a personal tour.

Non-guests or guests who can’t make the Monday morning tours can do a self-guided tour during daylight hours using the interpretation panels on the ground floor. It’s another place worth more than a cursory look.

The Big Dig in the Rocks has uncovered over one Million artefacts from 1795 to 1901
Outside The Big Dig
Displays of artefacts and foundations in The Big Dig The Rocks
Artefacts and diggings

I meander through the back lanes to Dawes Point past the Harbour View Hotel (another with a rooftop terrace) and then begin to chuckle. 

In front of me is the decorative cast iron outdoor urinal or ‘pissoir’ which was relocated from Observatory Hill in the 1970s. A man wearing a Wallabies jersey tells me that “It is still operational. It’s a bit smelly though”.

The Museum of Contemporary Art

From there, I walk down to Campbells Cove with its row of Bond Stores, and on to Cadman’s cottage, the oldest building in the Rocks area.

Campbells Cove Sydney
Bond Stores at Campbells Cove
Cadman's Cottage on the Foreshore of Circular Quay
Cadman’s Cottage

Nearby at the entrance to the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA), I read more about an artwork I’ve passed many times but not looked at properly. The LED arrow points downwards, a drawcard to Instagrammers.

The work, Warrang, by Brook Andrew points to the colonial naval docks located beneath the work. Andrew says the poetry engraved on the forecourt “hints at lost or covered histories”.

Entry to the MCA is free and the café also has great views across the harbour.

More Harbour Views

For yet another but different harbour view, walk to the lift at the eastern end of Circular Quay which takes you up to the Cahill Expressway walkway.

Early Urinal in Dawes Point Sydney also called Pissoir
Walking up to the Pissoir

Exploring The Rocks is one way to uncover much of Sydney’s recent history. And it can be done without spending a fortune.

Note: I stayed as a guest of the Sydney Harbour YHA

Useful Information

Here are two other self-guided walks and helpful links:

You can download the NOTES that I used for my Rocks Discovery HERE

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Comments

  1. That was a really nice read, l too love the Tea Cosy. I am just wondering if you have done The Coal Loader, l vaguely think you did a Waverton walk. That is my favourite place at the moment.

    1. Author

      Thanks Fay. Yes, I explored the Coal Loader when I walked through Waverton. It was the first time I had been there – and I have been back more than once since.

  2. This post brought back happy memories of our visit to The Rocks. You covered it well and highlighted the rich history of the area including the fun pubs, food and shopping options. Thanks Jo

    1. Author

      Hi Bernadette, so pleased to bring back happy memories for you. You’ll have to come back!

  3. It is lovely to meander through this historic area.
    A bit congested on the weekends with The Rocks Markets.

    1. Author

      Yes, it is a lovely place to meander through. Right now, there aren’t too many people around, although it is getting busier.

      1. Another good read and I enjoyed the pictures too.
        One of the last Sydney walks I did entailed walking up to Observatory Hill for a picnic lunch. I didn’t know about the golden drop until you mentioned it.

        1. Author

          Thanks Christine. I’m pleased you’ve learnt something new.

  4. Lovely, I will share on my HSK Facebook page – great for school holidays.

  5. Reading this brought back memories of a 2012 visit to Sydney when we stayed in the same YHA. Great to explore the area with kids as you really do get a sense of history as you walk those backstreets. I recall going to the Susannah House Museum and one of the kids muttering in disbelief, ‘Did people really live here?’

    1. Author

      As you say, a great place to explore with kids. I love your child’s response to Susannah House Museum. We are so fortunate with our living conditions here in Sydney today.

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