Sydney Harbour might be a millionaires playground, but you don’t have to be rich to see the best of it, says Lee Atkinson, who takes a trip back in time in The Rocks. And better still, there is now a new YHA hostel right in the heart of this historic area - Sydney Harbour YHA.
There are almost a dozen historic old pubs in The Rocks, and they all offer good beer, fine food and lots of atmosphere and it doesn’t really matter where you go, you’ll be in for a good time.
But it wasn’t always like that. Times past, you had to be very careful where you drank in The Rocks. Certainly not the Heroof Waterloo, where rumour has it that there are secret tunnels that connect the pub to the harbour and unfortunate drinkers would be shanghai’d onto ships. Or the Whalers Arms Hotel where, according to urban legend at least, beer was brewed on site using water drawn from a well in the back yard. When the patrons complained that the beer tasted a bit off the publican drained the well to find the body of a decomposing prostitute at the bottom.
It’s stories like these that transform one of the most colourful suburbs of Sydney into one huge free outdoor museum. You can’t help but get a real sense of living history as you wander around the back alleys and laneways and down concave steps worn by the passing of countless feet. Modern day shiny Sydney may be just down the hill, but here is another world, where the past seems not that far away at all, and you can still see the old pulleys on the former bond stores, foundations of old workers cottages and the remains of public latrines built into the rock face that gave the suburb its name.
Until the late 20th century, when it became a gentrified tourist destination full of galleries and touristy shops, it was seen as a hotbed of vice, renowned for its debauchery, brothels, drunken sailors and other unsavoury characters. By 1900 the authorities viewed The Rocks as an overcrowded slum and they used an outbreak of bubonic plague (that actually only killed 3 people) to start to clear the area. However, the pendulum is now swinging the other way, with historians using evidence of social and economic life (including excavation on the site of the new hostel) as proof that the locals enjoyed a better standard of living that originally thought.
These are just some to the stories you’ll learn at the Rocks Discovery Centre, a fantastic free museum in a restored 1850s sandstone warehouse that focuses just on The Rocks, and at the nearby Justice and Police Museum, housed in the old police and court building near Circular Quay. The old cells, courtroom, prisoner docks and spiked gates are still there, and there’s usually an interesting, if not downright quirky exhibition showing, but what makes this place so wonderfully chilling is the array of confiscated weapons and forensic photographs of past crimes and bad guys, most of which was put together in 1910 as part of a collection used to instruct new constables in the wicked ways of the local criminals.
Life here was certainly mean and tough, and not just back in the 19th century. On Gloucester Street there is a row of four tiny terrace houses and a corner shop that were built in 1844. They were home to more than 100 families over 150 years, right up until 1990, quite astounding given the primitive and cramped conditions. It’s now a museum called Susannah Place, and the one-hour guided tour, coupled with the oral histories, bring the life and times of the tenants alive.
It’s one of the things that sets The Rocks apart from most tourist precincts in other cities around the world. Real people still live here. And not just rich people either. Take a walk down to Millers Point and you’ll see many of the terrace houses that were saved from demolition by the Green Bans in the 1970s, and despite being on some of the most expensive real estate in Sydney they are still public housing.
The Rocks is home to many great free events throughout the year.
The sparkling Sydney Harbour YHA in The Rocks joins seven other YHAs in and around Sydney.
Sydney is in many ways a city of precincts – a city where different suburbs and areas offer locals and visitors a diversity of urban experiences. The CBD is the business and shopping hub of the city, flanked by Central Station at one end and the harbour at the other. But tucked away on the harbour’s edge, in the shadow of the Harbour Bridge, is The Rocks – site of Australia’s earliest known European settlement.
Sydney Harbour YHA joined this network of hostels in 2009, with a unique location and property. Facing onto Cumberland and Gloucester Streets, and just behind the atmospheric Australian Heritage Hotel, the new hostel has been designed to not only allow for gob-smacking harbour, Opera House and city skyline views but also to preserve and interpret the early colonial history beneath it.
Raised up on pillars, the two main buildings are joined by a glass walk way over Cribbs Lane – one of two colonial laneways through the site that have been restored and reopened. The centre voids of the buildings look down over the remnants of early colonial houses, whilst interpretative displays explain the lively characters who lived there from 1795 to 1901. Artefacts from archaeological digs (which have given the site the name The Big Dig – now the name of the onsite Education Centre) allow a window into the lives of these early Sydney inhabitants.
Stay in either a 4 or 6 bed multi-share room, or choose a twin or double or family room. All have ensuite bathrooms, and many have great harbour views. With a generous lounge area, full kitchen, TV room, internet, tour desk and shop, Sydney Harbour YHA has all the communal facilities you would expect. But the roof top terrace, with its awe-inspiring view is likely to be the hub of the hostel. Come to snap the view, watch all the activity on the busy harbour or just chill out on a sun lounge.
There is a shuttle bus from the airport to Sydney Harbour YHA or use the airport train to Circular Quay (changing at Central).