Of all the moments in Australia’s history, I think it’s safe to say that the most pivotal was the day that the British sailor, Captain Arthur Phillip, arrived in Sydney Cove on 26 January 1788. (The date that the national holiday of Australia Day is now celebrated.)
He brought with him 11 ships full of convicts and settlers who had come to found the penal colony of New South Wales. The arrival of the First Fleet, as it is known, was the beginning of the country that you see today, after tens of thousands of years of Indigenous history.
This new colonial settlement of Sydney had two parts. On the eastern side of what is now called Circular Quay were the official buildings – places like the home of the governor, the parliament, the bureaucratic offices. (Some of these still exist and can be visited.)
The western side of the colony was where the convicts lived and the sailors drank. It was a ramshackle collection of homes, pubs, and warehouses.
This is the area that is today called The Rocks.
What is The Rocks?
From a historical point of view, The Rocks is one of the most interesting neighbourhoods of Sydney because it is the earliest part of the city and is full of significant heritage buildings. There’s certainly no shortage of things to do in The Rocks.
The narrow streets and alleys lead between the colonial sandstone buildings, many packed tightly together, with small bars and businesses hidden in nooks and around corners.
But don’t be fooled into thinking this is how the city would’ve looked 200 years ago. Because of the concentration of heritage in such a small area, The Rocks has also become one of the most touristy parts of Sydney. You need to look beyond the gift shops and overpriced restaurants to find the authenticity.
The Rocks is not a good representation of modern Sydney – but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t visit it. Just approach The Rocks as you might when you visit any other historical site that has shops and cafes aimed at tourists.
And, to be fair, many of the shops here represent some of Australia’s best brands, so it can be a good spot to pick up some presents or souvenirs (even if it’s a bit more expensive than you may find elsewhere).
If you know what to do in The Rocks, it’s a great place to learn about the history of Sydney and those early days when the colony was growing and Modern Australia was starting to take shape.
To help you do that, I’ve got some suggestions for the best way to visit The Rocks in Sydney.
Visiting the Rocks in Sydney
One of the best ways to visit The Rocks is just to wander through the small streets and try to imagine what they were like when Sydney was founded. (You have to assume they were kind of revolting – just think about all the convicts and drunk sailors that spent their days here. Thank goodness for the council cleaners these days!)
There are also some great tours that will show you around the best sites and tell you all the stories about the history of The Rocks. This is an area where you’ll get a lot more out of having a guide to explain what you’re seeing.
If you’re interested in a tour of The Rocks, I would recommend one of these options:
- This 90-minute walking tour of The Rocks covers all the main attractions with lots of fascinating commentary.
- For a slightly longer experience, this 2.5-hour walking tour goes into all the convict stories that makes The Rocks so interesting.
- The Rocks is famous for its pubs, and you can explore some of the best on this pub tour of The Rocks.
- Or you can see even more with this half-day Sydney tour that includes The Rocks but also goes to some other neighbourhoods.
To explore by yourself, I would suggest some specific things to do in The Rocks that will give you a good overview of the area. I’ve marked them on the map below.
The Rocks is a small enough area that there’s no need to follow a particular route, but I’ve put together a suggested itinerary that you can follow.
Dawes Point Reserve
Let’s start at Dawes Point Reserve, at the northern end of The Rocks. It was named after Lieutenant William Dawes, who was the First Fleet’s astronomer, because this is the area where the colony’s first observatory was set up.
It’s also where a gun battery was established to protect the colony from any naval attack, as well as other buildings. You can see the archaeological excavation of these original structures.
There is a cannon on the site but this isn’t one of the early ones from the First Fleet – this one was was built in England in 1843. Still, there’s some interesting things to see here (including a great view of the harbour).
From Dawes Point, walk around the water to Campbells Cove. This small cove was named after Scottish merchant Robert Campbell Senior, who loaded and unloaded his goods here.
The row of warehouses here called the Campbell’s Stores was built during the 1840s and 1850s and was originally used to store imports like tea, coffee, and sugar. Now they are used as shops and restaurants.
If it’s not out on the water, you’ll also be able to see the 1850s-style Sydney Tall Ship (that you can cruise on) moored here at Campbells Cove.
There aren’t many original buildings from the earliest part of Sydney’s history but one of them is Cadmans Cottage. It was built in 1816 and is said to be either the oldest or second-oldest house in Australia (depending on who you ask).
It’s built from sandstone and has been used over the years as a home for sailors, water transport headquarters, a water police station, and other things.
You normally can’t go inside but free tours are available from 9:45 to 10:15 on the first and third Sunday of each month.
Rocks Discovery Museum
The best spot to learn about this part of Sydney is at the Rocks Discovery Museum, a free museum in a restored 1850s sandstone warehouse.
It tells the story of The Rocks from pre-European days to the present and has a good collection of images and archaeological artefacts from the area.
Using audio, video and interactive exhibitions, the Rocks Discovery Museum focuses on the Indigenous heritage, the colonial period, the maritime history, and the transformation to a modern city.
The Rocks Discovery Museum is located at Kendall Lane, The Rocks, Sydney, NSW.
The Rocks Discovery Museum is open every day from 10:00 – 17:00. Closed on Good Friday and Christmas Day.
Entry to the Rocks Discovery Museum is free.
From the Rocks Discovery Museum, I would suggest heading to the next stop through Nurses Walk. This small alley got its name because it was the route that the nurses used to take to Sydney’s first hospital.
It’s got some interesting little shops and cafes – and there are also some signs to get a bit more information about the area.
Susannah Place Museum
Even after the early years of Sydney, The Rocks continued to be a part of the city where poorer people lived – in not always pleasant conditions. Picture working-class families with basement kitchens, tiny backyards, outdoor baths, and lots of rats.
The Susannah Place Museum tells their story. During the history of The Rocks, more than 100 families lived in these four terraces built in 1844. The museum gives you a great insight into their lives.
The Susannah Place Museum is located at 58–64 Gloucester Street, The Rocks, Sydney, NSW.
The Susannah Place Museum is open every day from 14:00 – 17:00. You can only visit with a tour, which run at 14:00, 15:00, and 16:00.
Entry to Susannah Place Museum costs $15 for adults, $12 for concession, and $38 for a family. Children under 5 are free.
Entry to the Susannah Place Museum is included with the Sydney Museums Pass.
The Big Dig at the YHA
Just around the corner is the Sydney Harbour YHA, one the best hostels in Australia (and with probably one of the best hostel views in the world). The hostel is actually elevated a large archaeological site that covers much of the block.
The excavations here have found foundations from the early years of Sydney, including 30 homes and shops from as far back as 1795.
The archaeological site has been dubbed ‘The Big Dig‘ and it’s mainly used as an educational centre for school groups. But you can visit for free and see some of it yourself.
To get to my last suggested spot, Observatory Hill, you’ll need to go under the Harbour Bridge, through the cool tunnel on Argyle Street.
Sydney Observatory was built here in 1858 and is a sandstone building surrounded by a lovely garden. You can walk around the grounds and see the basic exhibitions for free.
If you’re interested, you can also do tours during the day and after dark to use the telescopes to look up into the stars. This is normally aimed more at school groups and families, and there’s more information here.
Other sites around The Rocks
You’ve now come to the end of my suggestions for things to see in The Rocks. But don’t worry – there’s still more to do!
Of course, there are lots of other historical buildings that you can see from the outside, there’s heaps of shopping, and there are places to eat and drink. So you can explore a bit more by yourself.
You’ll also get a different perspective by taking a guided tour of The Rocks. As well as hearing from an expert, there are some interesting themed options. I would recommend one of these.
Once you’re done with The Rocks, from here there are some other important Sydney landmarks you can visit, so let me tell you a bit more about them.
From near the YHA, you can take the stairs up to the walking path that goes across the Sydney Harbour Bridge. From here, you can access to the Pylon Lookout.
There are 200 stairs to get to the lookout, which is 87 metres high. Along the way, there are three levels of exhibitions about the history of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, which is really interesting.
There’s an amazing view from the top of the southeastern pylon of the bridge and I think it’s worth going up.
The Pylon Lookout is accessible from the pedestrian pathway at the southeastern side of the Harbour Bridge.
The Pylon Lookout is open every day from 10:00 – 17:00. Closed Christmas Day.
Entry to the Pylon Lookout costs $19 for adults, $12.50 for concession, $9.50 for children aged 5-12, and children 4 and under are free.
You can also continue your walk along the Harbour Bridge for free. And back near the YHA is where you would start the BridgeClimb, if you are keen to do one of the city’s most iconic experiences!
Museum of Contemporary Art
On the edge of The Rocks, you’ll find one of Sydney’s best galleries – the Museum of Contemporary Art. It has an incredible collection of modern art from Australia and the world, presented in fascinating permanent exhibitions.
There are also temporary exhibitions that change regularly, plus a cafe with an outstanding view of the harbour and Sydney’s most iconic sights.
This is definitely one of Sydney’s best museums and I always love that fact that it’s free, so you can just pop in whenever you’re in the area.
The Museum of Contemporary Art is located at 140 George St in The Rocks, with entrances from George St or from Circular Quay.
The MCA is open Tuesday to Sunday, 10am – 5pm. It’s closed on Mondays.
Entry to the MCA is free but you may need to pay for some of the special temporary exhibitions.
After you’ve visited The Rocks, you can continue your Sydney sightseeing by heading into Circular Quay, over to the Opera House, into the Royal Botanic Gardens, and up Macquarie Street to see the State Parliament, Mint, and Hyde Park Barracks.
Or you might like to stay in The Rocks for lunch or dinner, because you can get a meal or have a drink right next to the harbour.
The best places to eat in The Rocks
I’ll be honest – as a local, The Rocks is not traditionally the first neighbourhood I would go in Sydney for a meal. The food can be great, but it’s generally overpriced and aimed at tourists.
But, having said that, things have improved a lot in recent years and, if you know where you’re going, you’ll find some great options here.
- The Glenmore: For reasonably-priced pub food, the Glenmore is an old favourite and has a great rooftop for sunny evenings.
- The Australian Heritage Hotel: Another popular pub, this one is famous for its pizza menu that has some unique topping combinations.
- William Blue Dining: This modern Australian restaurant serves excellent food – but it’s cooked by trainee chefs. For this reason, it’s much cheaper than similar places. For just $46.50, you can have a three-course set meal, for example.
- Sake Restaurant & Bar: An excellent Japanese restaurant with a cool interior design – but it’s not cheap.
- Quay: This is one of Sydney’s top restaurants, with a modern Australian menu and incredible views. The ten-course tasting menu costs $295 dollars (drinks extra).
The best places to drink in The Rocks
I know I’ve already mentioned a few times that The Rocks is quite touristy. But if there’s one thing that will bring the locals here, it’s drinking.
The Rocks has had pubs for more than 200 years and there are some cool new ones here. It’s quite a popular neighbourhood with nearby city workers for evening drinks.
Here are my suggestions for where to drink in The Rocks.
- Fortune of War: This pub claims to be the oldest in Sydney (there are a few that also say they are) and it’s not very big. But it’s an authentic experience that’s more heritage than style.
- Mrs Jones: If you want style, try Mrs Jones, which is a trendy modern bar with drinking and dining sections – and a popular terrace for summer afternoons.
- Harbour View Hotel: I like the Harbour View Hotel because it’s just outside the main part of The Rocks and is a bit quieter. As the name suggests, it has an incredible view of the Harbour Bridge.
- Grain Bar: This contemporary bar has an excellent selection of drinks (including whiskeys and cocktails) an is aimed more at the discerning drinker than the beer-swiller.
- The Argyle: This is the biggest and most famous bar in The Rocks. It’s enormous and you’ll find groups of office workers here during the week and serious party types on the weekends.
The best places to stay in The Rocks
When it comes to choosing the best area to stay in Sydney, The Rocks is actually quite a good option. It has a wide variety of accommodation from a hostel with a view to one of the city’s best luxury hotels.
Staying in The Rocks puts you amongst a fascinating neighbourhood full of history, but you’re still within walking distance to the city centre. You’re right next landmarks like the Opera House and the Harbour Bridge, and there’s easy public transport to other suburbs.
THE BEST ACCOMMODATION IN THE ROCKS
You’ll find whatever you’re looking for in The Rocks, from backpacker to luxury, from historic to modern.
For backpackers (and anyone, for that matter), the best hostel is the Sydney Harbour YHA, with incredible views.
Most rooms aren’t cheap this close to the harbour, but the Mercantile Hotel is comfortable and has good rates.
When it comes to luxury, one of the most famous hotels in Sydney is right here in The Rocks – the Park Hyatt.