There was a time when Thirroul was overlooked (perhaps quite literally) by people travelling down the coast from Sydney. Most traffic went along the highway at the top of the escarpment, and this sleepy town stayed almost the same as it had been for decades.
However, there’s been a huge transformation in recent years and there are now lots of new things to do in Thirroul. As well as being an easy day trip from Sydney, it’s actually become a popular spot for Sydneysiders to move to – after all, getting from Sydney to Thirroul only takes about an hour.
The coast is still one of the main focuses in Thirroul. The beaches, the pools, and the walking paths between them create a laidback South Coast charm that is more commonly found further away from the city, beyond Wollongong. The fact there’s a little pocket of it here is quite a treat.
The other defining feature is the Illawarra Escarpment, the huge cliff that rises up to the west of Thirroul, with sheer rock topped with verdant Australian bush. It’s less than two kilometres from the coast to the escarpment (and even narrower at nearby beaches like Austinmer and Wombarra), which has created a barrier to the physical expansion of the town.
So the size of the town has not changed much, but there has been an evolution when it comes to what to do in Thirroul. Trendy cafes fill the main street, surely with some of the highest ratio per population in the Illawarra. There are boutique shops, hipster restaurants, and even a couple of art galleries.
Laidback coastal vibes, yes. But also a trendy edge that keeps the newly-arrived residents from Sydney happy. Long gone is the traditional working-class community that once led to this stretch north of Wollongong to be dubbed ‘the coal coast’ when mining was the main industry.
How do you get to Thirroul?
If you’re coming by car, it takes about an hour to drive from central Sydney to Thirroul along the main highway. A more scenic drive is to turn off the highway at Helensburgh and drive the coastal route, known as Lawrence Hargrave Drive. This includes the very photogenic Sea Cliff Bridge.
It’s also very easy to reach Thirroul by train from Sydney. Thirroul is on the Eastern Suburbs line (which starts at Bondi Junction) and it takes about 1h 20m from Central station.
What is Thirroul famous for?
Thirroul was once known as a coal mining town but, historically, Thirroul became famous as the place English writer DH Lawrence wrote his novel Kangaroo in 1922.
These days, Thirroul is known as a popular coastal town for commuters to Sydney, and for an influx of wealthy residents seeking a seachange from the city.
Is it worth visiting Thirroul?
Yes, it’s definitely worth visiting Thirroul. This charming coastal town has become much busier and trendier in recent years and has great cafes and restaurants. Naturally, it’s a beautiful part of the Illawarra and Thirroul is an excellent day trip from Sydney.
Whether you’re staying for a few days, or doing a day trip to Thirroul, there’s plenty to keep you busy. Don’t expect big attractions and famous tourist sights – it’s more about slowing down and relaxing into the coastal lifestyle. That being said, there are quite a few things to do in Thirroul, so let’s have a look at the highlights.
It’s one of the main attractions, so let’s start at the beach. Thirroul Beach is about one kilometre long, a glorious stretch of golden sand with decent surf but not so much that it would turn away families on a nice summer day.
In the middle of Thirroul Beach is the Surf Life Saving Club, one of the first to be founded outside Sydney, in 1908. During the season, surf life savers patrol on the weekend, while the council life guards are here during the week.
Next to the club is the Thirroul Beach Pavilion, where you can get some great food and coffee with views across the water. There are also parks and picnic facilities if you’ve brought your own food.
Just south, over some rocks that are easily navigable at low tide, is McCauley’s Beach. It’s not patrolled and can be a bit dangerous, so swimming might not be advised, but it is a dog-friendly beach.
As I mentioned, the surf is decent on these beaches north of Wollongong, and there are spots for beginners and experienced surfers.
The Illawarra Surf Academy has a location in Thirroul where you can hire surfboards or get lessons from the professionals. It’s a fun activity for adults and kids.
If you’re looking for a swim away from the beach, luckily the pool at Thirroul is one of the best on this stretch of the coast. Right next to the Thirroul Beach Pavilion, the Thirroul Pool is Olympic size and filled with saltwater. It’s open air and is glorious on a sunny day.
Anyone can use the pool and one of the best things is that entry is free. Even if you’re keen to get in the surf, the calm waters of the pool are great for doing some laps. There’s also a toddler pool here for the little kids.
Just a short walk to the north, over a small headland, are the rock pools at Austinmer. These saltwater pools are fed directly from the surf and are cut into the stone at the edge of the beach.
The pools at Austinmer are open to the elements with no direct supervision, so feel free to jump in and do some laps whenever it’s safe.
Hiking from Thirroul
To work up a sweat before a swim, why not try one of the region’s hikes. A bit like many of the things to do in Thirroul, the best walks involve either the coast or the escarpment.
Although not an official trail, one walk you can do is just to follow the main road – Lawrence Hargrave Drive – along the coast as far as you like. Starting from Thirroul, the best option is to head north, passing through small towns and beaches like Austinmer, Coledale, and Wombarra.
Have a swim, stop for a coffee, enjoy the views. When you’re tired, just get the train back. If you make it all the way to Stanwell Park, that’s an impressive 12 kilometre hike!
Heading up into the Illawarra Escarpment, the most popular hike is the Sublime Point Walking Track, which begins just up from Austinmer train station. It’s not long – only 700 metres each way – but it’s very steep going up. You’re basically just doing steps the whole way and there are even some stretches where you have to climb ladders. It’s worth it for the views, though.
To extend the hike once you reach the top of Sublime Point, you can continue along the Forest Walk, which takes you north along the edge of the escarpment and then down into Stanwell Park, from where you can get the train back to Thirroul. It’s 14 kilometres one way.
When it comes to the history of Thirroul, the most famous thing is that it was where the English writer DH Lawrence stayed in 1922 when he wrote his novel Kangaroo. The coastal town features prominently in the book and there are some wonderful descriptions that capture the atmosphere here.
One such quote is “And so the great tree-covered swoop upwards of the tor, to the red fume of clouds, red like the flame flowers, of sunset”. It’s on the small plaque at DH Lawrence Reserve, leading down to the water on the street where he lived.
The bungalow, called Wyewurk is at 3 Craig Street. It’s now a private residence and you can’t see much from the street, but at least the heritage has been retained, unlike the large modern mansions that have popped up around it.
Another little slice of history in Thirroul is Anita’s Theatre, which was built in 1925 and originally called the King’s Theatre. It was used as a cinema, and then for roller-skating, but has since been renovated and today hosts concerts and other live performances.
Anita’s Theatre is a local icon and if you can get along the a show, that’s one of the best things to do in Thirroul, I reckon.
Shopping in Thirroul
The shopping scene in Thirroul is thriving at the moment and the main street is full of boutique stores with local products and interesting items that have been sourced from across the world. Taking a stroll and doing some window shopping is a fantastic way to spend some time in Thirroul.
Pop into Thirroul Collective, a shopfront shared by about 30 small local businesses, selling a range of products including food, clothes, homewares and crystals.
A few other shops in Thirroul that I would recommend in particular are:
- Nest Emporium for homewares and interior design.
- Plume for boutique fashion.
- Wombat for antiques and other retro items.
- The Egg & Dart for art in a constantly-changing gallery.
Best cafes in Thirroul
There is no shortage of cafes in Thirroul and if you randomly chose to walk into a shopfront on the main street, you’d probably have a 50 per cent chance of finding coffee inside.
Regardless, it’s always nice to have a recommendation for where to get a good flat white or long black, so here are my tips for the best cafes in Thirroul.
- Finbox is a cafe located in a surf shop, where the coffee is great and you can get the lowdown on the local waves.
- Buck Hamblin is named after the cobbler who opened his business here in the 1940s, with many heritage features retained.
- Honest Don’s has good coffee, but it’s the excellent food that makes this a local favourite.
- Wilde Cafe is close to the train station with specialty coffee and fresh simple food.
Where to eat in Thirroul
For a small town of about 5000 people, there is a very impressive selection of places to eat in Thirroul. From your usual coastal takeaway, to casual lunches, and even a few fine dining options.
The cafes I’ve mentioned all do lovely casual food, with Honest Don’s probably your best bet if you’re after a full meal. Here are a few other suggestions for good food in Thirroul
- The Hungry Monkey does breakfasts and burgers, with an emphasis on fresh local ingredients.
- South Sailor is my top tip for Thirroul, with sophisticated seafood but a fun and casual atmosphere.
- pará sends out Mediterranean vibes with a relatively small menu but a lot of care on every dish.
- José Jones has a tapas-style menu with local organic ingredients turned into small masterpieces.