View of the Rocks District from George Street, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

The Rocks – the Oldest Neighbourhood in Sydney, Australia

One place you won’t want to miss when visiting Sydney, Australia is The Rocks. This is Sydney’s oldest historical area, located directly under the Sydney Harbour Bridge, in the centre of the city… and well worth a visit on your Australia vacation. It was originally the site of the first European colony, established in 1788 when convict-bearing ships came from England to set up the colony of New South Wales. The name itself came from the original buildings which were made of sandstone.

From Slum to Gentrification
When first established, The Rocks harboured, what might be termed, low life, and was basically somewhat squalid in nature. It remained this way until 1900, when the bubonic plague broke out causing 3800 houses, buildings, and wharfs to be demolished. Later, several hundred more were demolished in the construction of the Sydney Harbour Bridge in the 1920s. Today, The Rocks has been restored for the most part, and is a thriving area with numerous cafes, restaurants, and a lively nightlife. It is also home to a number of craft and souvenir type shops.

Rocks District at Dusk, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia
Rocks District at dusk

I’m Free….
This is not an expression involving released convicts – they disappeared many moons ago. It is in fact the name of a series of tours available in Sydney. One of them is the “Rocks at 6pm tour” which, yes, departs at 6pm each evening. You can meet your guide, who’ll be wearing a bright green “I’m Free” t-shirt in front of Cadman’s Cottage. To quote the tour company, “Join us and we’ll delve deep into the history of The Rocks, the site of Australia’s first European settlement. We’ll explore its laneways, pubs and historical buildings and tell you its stories of murders, muggings and mysteries”. The tour is without charge but again to quote the tour company, “We want everyone whatever their budget to enjoy Sydney as much as we do. For this reason we don’t charge up front, instead we leave it to you to decide what you thought the tour was worth at the end”.

Rocks District in Sydney, Australia
Learn the mystery and history of The Rocks

Some of the Major Sites in The Rocks
Cadmans Cottage, mentioned previously, is the oldest surviving residential building in Sydney – having been built in 1816. It is heavily steeped in the history of Sydney, also claiming the title as the first building to have been built on the shoreline of The Rocks area.

Sydney Observatory, Rocks District, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia
Sydney Observatory

The Sydney Observatory is located on a hill known as Observatory Hill. The site evolved from a fort built on “Windmill Hill” in the early 1800s, to an astronomical observatory later in the century. It is now a museum, and if you go there in the evening, you can observe the stars and planets through a modern 40 cm. telescope and a historic 29 cm. refractor telescope built in 1874 – the oldest telescope in Australia in regular use.

The Rocks Discovery Museum is home to a unique collection of images and archaeological artifacts found in The Rocks. The exhibits are highly interactive using touch screens and audio/visual elements, bringing the history of the area alive. You can learn about the area’s traditional landowners, the establishment of the English colony, and the time when sailors, whalers, and traders made the area their home, right up to the 1970s union-led protests which was responsible for the preservation of this unique part of Sydney.

The Museum of Contemporary Art is dedicated to art from both across Australia and around the world. It is housed in an Art Deco-style former Maritime Services Board Building, on the western edge of Circular Quay.

The Argyle Gallery presents a collection of Australian and Aboriginal art and fine crafts. Interestingly enough, all works are sourced directly from artists and Aboriginal communities.

The Rocks District, Circular Quay West, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia
Circular Quay West

The Rocks Pubs are for Both Drinking and Enjoying the Atmosphere
If you only visit one pub, being the oldest continuously-licensed pub in the city, the Lord Nelson should be your choice. They brew their own beer here and claim the freshest pint in Sydney. During the week, this historic old pub is mainly popular with the business crowd, but on a Sunday afternoon, it is the place to observe the curious mix of well-heeled locals and visitors who have tracked down an authentic Sydney experience. Make sure you look at the picture-and-plaque-laden sandstone walls.

Should you be really thirsty let me list a few other pubs. There is the Fortune of War, which also claims to be the oldest pub, being the first and last port of call for generations of Australian soldiers involved in war action. Others in the area include the Observer, the Orient, the Mercantile, the Palisade, and the Hero of Waterloo – all dating back to Sydney’s colonial days.

Sweet Treats in the Rocks Street Market, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia
Sweet treats in the Rocks Street Market

While Walking Around The Rocks Don’t Miss…
The Rocks Market is a Sydney institution. Open every Saturday and Sunday from 10am to 5pm year round, it is home to more than 200 miscellaneous stalls where you can find fashion and accessories by emerging designers, locally-produced home wares, original photography, art, crafts, and jewellery.

On Fridays from 9am to 3pm, you can visit The Rocks Foodies Market. It is where you can pick up fresh fruit, crusty bread, chocolate, olive oils, and condiments. You will also be regaled by buskers plying their trade on anything from guitars to banjos.

Making a Flat White Coffee, Australia
Making a Flat White Australian coffee specialty

It’s All About Coffee
The Rocks Aroma Festival takes place during the month of July and is literally a festival devoted to coffee. To quote the organizers, “The Rocks Aroma Festival permeates the laneways of this historic precinct with an alluring line-up of events throughout July”. It is a true celebration of the coffee bean, with more than 50 coffee and gourmet food stallholders, vintage and specialty coffee carts, “latte art” competitions, demonstrations, and roving performers. Definitely not your usual Starbucks experience.

This fascinating, local district offers you everything from history to pubs, art galleries, street markets, and restaurants, plus enjoyable casual walks. The Rocks should not be missed on your next Australian vacation.

Suggested Itinerary:
4-Day Splendid Sydney

For more information on The Rocks, or for Sydney tour ideas, visit us at

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Robert Glazier
Robert Glazier

Contributing Writer - With over 40 years experience in the travel industry, and working for Goway for the last 19 years, British-born Robert Glazier has travelled to over 80 countries. “I have never met a destination which didn’t have something to interest me,” he says. His first foray abroad was from England to Switzerland on a school trip at the age of 14, and that was the start of a long journey. An avid runner, Robert’s favourite way of exploring a destination, is to don his running shoes and really get to know it on foot, even if it means sometimes getting lost! His advice to other travellers? Always wonder what is around the next corner!

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