The Rocks

Sydney Harbour Bridge, Tourism New South Wales

Once the haunt of pickpockets, prostitutes and sailors, The Rocks contains some of the city’s most important historic sites, and is one of Sydney’s most treasured attractions. Divided into two parts by the approaches to the Harbour Bridge, the area on the eastern side of the Argyle Cut is centred on the lanes north of George Street, while the area to the west takes in one of Sydney’s most beautiful parks and the gracious 19th-century houses of Lower Fort Street.

Sydney Visitor Centre

A visit to The Rocks should begin with a visit to the excellent Sydney Visitor Centre, where you’ll find all the detailed information you’ll need regarding accommodation, dining, shopping and sightseeing in the area.

Of special interest are the many guided tours available, including several walking tours, a ghost tour and a tour of the area’s historic pubs.

Cnr Argyle and Playfair sts; (02) 9240 8788; open 9.30am–5.30pm daily.

George Street – north

This was where whalers, sailors and ‘old hands’ hung out, and much of The Rocks’ previous character as a notorious seaport rookery can still be glimpsed in the winding streets and tiny lanes that run behind George Street.

There are quiet courtyard cafes and some unusual shops to be found here, including the enchanting Puppet Shop, with hundreds of exquisitely handcrafted marionettes hanging from the ceilings of four rooms.

77 George Street; (02) 9247 9137.

Museum of Contemporary Art

The museum occupies the old Maritime Services building – a brooding Art Deco structure that dominates the western side of Circular Quay.

But once inside, the large, open white rooms offer an ideal setting to showcase works by Australian and international contemporary artists. Visitors can expect an ever-changing display of innovative sculptures, paintings, photographs and video installations. Make sure to visit the gift shop.

The MCA just reopened after a large refurbishment that significantly expanded the gallery.

140 George St; (02) 9245 2400; open 10am–5pm daily; general admission free.

Cadman's Cottage

This charming little cottage has the distinction of being Sydney’s oldest surviving residence. Built in 1816, for many years it was the home of John Cadman, an ex-convict and boatman to Governor Macquarie.

Today it is the Sydney Harbour National Park Information Centre and the starting point for tours of the harbour islands.

110 George St; (02) 9253 0888; open 9.30am–4.30pm Mon–Fri and 10am–4.30pm Sat–Sun.

Playfair Street

The heart and soul of The Rocks, Playfair Street is the place to be, particularly on the weekends. There’s corn-on-the-cob, wandering street performers, endless live entertainment, and a fantastic vibe from the crowd that is constantly on the move.

Find a seat in Rocks Square and soak it all up. Not far away is Argyle Stores, a converted warehouse that now houses a collection of open-plan shops specialising in beautiful and unusual clothes. The main entrance to the stores is on Argyle Street, by way of Mary Reibey’s old bond stores.

As you pass through the arched gateway, spare a thought for this remarkable woman who arrived in Australia in 1792 at the age of 14 and is today remembered as one of the most successful businesswomen in the colony of New South Wales. Her portrait appears on the 20-dollar note.

Foundation Park

Hidden behind a row of souvenir shops in Playfair Street, the quirky and charming Foundation Park occupies the almost vertical site of three former dwellings that were built into the face of the sandstone escarpment.

A front door was situated at the top of the cliff, and a back door halfway down. All that remains now are a few scattered foundations among the grassy terraces of the park and a steep stairway or two leading nowhere, but here and there you can find a chair, a fireplace, a clock or a table, recalling those long-vanished homes.

Susannah Place Museum

From the top of Foundation Park, this wonderful museum is just up the Argyle Stairs and around the corner in Gloucester Street. Occupying four terrace houses, it affords a glimpse of what it was like for working-class people living in The Rocks at varying stages in its history.

The museum is extremely people-friendly, with visitors encouraged to linger among the exhibits and try the piano in the parlour of No. 64. Take a moment to look around the little shop before you go; re-created in turn-of-the-century style, it sells toys, sweets, soft drinks and other goods from that era.

58–64 Gloucester St; (02) 9241 1893; open 2–6pm Mon–Fri, 10am–6pm Sat–Sun and school holidays. Closes at 5pm in winter.

Sydney Harbour Bridge

With almost every view in The Rocks dominated by its soaring arch, it’s hard to ignore the presence of Sydney’s magnificent harbour bridge. With its longest span at 503 metres, it was completed and opened to traffic in 1932.

One of the best views of Sydney can be had from the Pylon Lookout, which contains an excellent exhibition detailing the bridge’s history. The Sydney Harbour Bridge Visitor Centre also contains an exhibition and cinemas showing how the bridge was built (free entry). The same entrance leads to BridgeClimb Sydney, offering unique and unforgettable tours to the very top of the span.

3 Cumberland St; (02) 8274 7777; office open 8am–5pm Mon–Fri, 9am–5pm Sat–Sun.

Argyle Cut

Work on the cutting connecting the eastern and western sides of The Rocks commenced in 1843, with chained convicts doing most of the hard labour. Initially much narrower than it is now, it was once the haunt of ‘pushes’ (larrikin youths who specialised in gang warfare and rolling the lone passer-by). In the heyday of the pushes, even the police went through the Argyle Cut in pairs.

Observatory Park

High above The Rocks stands what is perhaps the loveliest park in Sydney. It has an old-world ambience and stunning views of the western harbour. For stargazers, there’s the Sydney Observatory Museum , which hosts exhibitions on astronomy as well as talks, films and viewings of the night sky (bookings essential).

Bookings (02) 9921 3485; open 10am–5pm daily, start times of night tours varies.

Not far from the observatory, hidden by a curve of the Cahill Expressway, stands the old Fort Street School for Girls, now the headquarters for the National Trust. This is where you will find the S. H. Ervin Gallery , which is renowned for its innovative and unusual art exhibitions.

Upper Fort St, Observatory Hill; (02) 9258 0173; open 11am–5pm Tue–Sun.