Exploring Sydney: What to do in The Rocks
Convict History of The Rocks
There are almost a dozen old historic pubs in The Rocks, and they pretty much all offer good beer, fine food and lots of atmosphere. It doesn’t really matter where you pick to stop for a brew, you’ll be in for a good time.
It wasn’t always like that, though. In times past, you had to be very careful where you drank in The Rocks. You certainly wouldn't pick the Hero of Waterloo, where rumours of secret tunnels connecting the pub to the Harbour told of unfortunate drinkers being clapped in irons and bundled onto ships. Or the Whalers Arms Hotel where, according to urban legend, beer was brewed on-site using water drawn from a well in the backyard. When the patrons complained that the beer here tasted a bit off, the publican drained the well to find the decomposing body of a 'lady of the night' 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 a mere musket shot away, but here is another world – one where the past seems not that far away at all. You can still see the old pulleys on former bond stores, foundations of the old workers' cottages and the remains of public latrines built into the very rock face that gave the suburb its name.
Until late last century, when the galleries and sourvenir shops sprang up and the area became a gentrified tourist destination, it was long 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 begin to clear the area. These days, the pendulum is swinging the other way, with historians discovering remnants of social and economic life, including the excavation on the site under Sydney Harbour YHA, which prove the locals enjoyed rich and colourful lives, and a better standard of living that originally thought.
These are just some of the stories you’ll learn at the Rocks Discovery Museum, a fantastic free museum in a restored 1850s sandstone warehouse, as well as the nearby Justice and Police Museum, housed in the old police and court building near Circular Quay and where the old cells, courtroom, prisoner docks and spiked gates are all still there. The Justice and Police Museum usually has interesting, if not downright quirky exhibitions on show, but what really makes it so wonderfully chilling is its array of confiscated weapons and forensic photographs of past crimes and bygone villains – most of which were put together in 1910 as part of a collection used to instruct new constables in the wicked ways of the local criminals.
Life in The Rocks was certainly tough, and that was a prevailing theme for nearly its entire history. On Gloucester Street there is a row of four tiny terrace houses and a corner shop built in 1844 which 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 – Susannah Place; and the one-hour guided tour, coupled with its oral histories, bring the life and times of the tenants alive.
But one of the things that really sets The Rocks apart from most tourist precincts in other cities around the world is that real, everyday people still live here. 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, every brick bears testament to their rich history – even today.
What's on in The Rocks
The Rocks is home to many great free events throughout the year:
New Year’s Eve – The city celebrates with two mega fireworks shows, one at 9pm, another at midnight. It’s one of the largest public events on the planet, and Sydney Harbour YHA happens to have one of the best views in the city to see it!
St Patricks Day – Every year on the 17th of March, Brits, Celts and Gaelic folk congregate on the Rocks for a mad celebration of all things Irish. The level of revelry here puts Australian merrymaking to shame, but it's all in good fun.
Sydney Festival – Three weeks of theatre, dance, music and visual arts featuring free events across the city, including in The Rocks. Expect huge outdoor concerts where all of the festival’s major talent is on show for free.
Vivid Sydney – Stunning light projections that paint the sails of the Opera House, The Rocks and much of the city centre in a kaleidoscope of colours during the winter season.