The reinvention of Newcastle in recent decades from industrial heartland to cultural hub is just one of the many reasons to plan a visit to New South Wales' second city. Tick off these ten must-sees and dos.
It’s Australia’s eighth-largest urban centre, but Newcastle is still a big country town at heart.
That’s what makes it such an appealing place to visit — especially as a short break destination from Sydney (drive time: 2.5 hours). Great walkability, breathtaking coastline and beaches, intriguing historical attractions, a plethora of waterfront cafes and restaurants, and a thriving contemporary arts scene all add up to a fabulous few-days-away.
The CBD sits by Newcastle Harbour in the mouth of the mighty Hunter River. Base yourself on the harbourfront or over at Newcastle Beach.
Here are ten of the best things to do in Newcastle.
1. Explore the city’s creative side
The saying goes that crisis is another word for opportunity. The economic downturn that followed BHP’s departure from Newcastle at the turn of the millennium was the catalyst for the city’s cultural renewal. Today, Novocastrians are justly proud of their city’s new standing as an artistic centre. Newcastle Art Gallery houses a superb collection of Australian paintings, including iconic works by Brett Whiteley, Margaret Preston and William Dobell. Downtown, a nineteenth-century sandstone police station and holding cells have been turned into The Lock-Up Art Space, which offers changing exhibitions of experimental contemporary art.
Both galleries are featured on Visit Newcastle’s self-guided Artist’s City Way walking tour. The walk will take you around three hours to complete and showcases a number of the murals and public sculptures that decorate the city.
Plays, ballet and concerts are performed at the historic Civic Theatre and the equally charming City Hall, which are situated side by side in the downtown Newcastle Cultural Precinct. The city’s venerable live music tradition lives on at venues like The Small Ballroom, The Cambridge, Lizotte’s, Bar Petite, 48 Watt Street and Bar on the Hill. Check the Newcastle Gig Guide or Newcastle Live for details of who’s playing during your stay.
A great way to explore Newcastle’s artisanal scene is to time your visit to coincide with The Olive Tree Market. Stallholders gather at Civic Park to display their handmade jewellery, clothing, paperware and ceramics.
2. Take a spin back in time on the Famous Tram
Convicts, coal-miners, sailors and steelworkers are the main characters in the fascinating (and often unruly!) history of one of Australia’s oldest cities. For an overview of Newcastle’s history through the past 200 years, take the 70-minute city tour on Newcastle’s Famous Tram. The tour includes major historical sites, with a full commentary on the development of the city from its convict origins to its current post-industrial identity.
3. Connect with the region’s convict past
Convicts shaped Newcastle — literally. Their labour built the causeway between the mainland and Nobbys Head, resculpting the mouth of the Hunter River estuary and the topography of the city centre. Designed to make entry into Newcastle Harbour safer for ships, the causeway also led to the creation, through natural sand deposits, of Nobbys Beach. To learn more about the convicts’ endeavours, do Visit Newcastle’s self-guided Convict and Industry Walk by day or a guided ghost tour by night. You’ll hear stories of the darker side of life in what was a notoriously harsh penal settlement.
4. Get the BHP backstory at Newcastle Museum
During most of the 20th century Newcastle’s fortunes were tied to those of BHP, at the time Australia’s largest company. From 1915 to 1999 the BHP steelworks dominated the social and economic life of the city. The Fire and Earth exhibition at Newcastle Museum tells the story of the BHP era and includes a theatrical multimedia experience of the steelmaking process.
Despite the loss of the steelworks, Newcastle remains the largest working port on Australia’s east coast. The exhibits and interactive displays at the Newcastle Maritime Centre chart the rise of the shipping industry.
5. Tour Fort Scratchley and pay your respects
History buffs will love a visit to Fort Scratchley. This cliff-top battery overlooking the Pacific Ocean was built in 1882 to defend the port against possible enemy attacks. It came into its own in June 1942 when its guns returned fire during a Japanese submarine strike on Newcastle. Book a guided tour of the site to see its network of underground tunnels.
Further down the coast past Newcastle Beach, the Newcastle Memorial Walk was constructed to mark the ANZAC centenary in 2015. It honours the men and women of the Hunter region who served in World War I. The elevated 450-metre-long walkway offers incomparable 360-degree views and displays the names of thousands of soldiers and the battles in which they fought.
6. Dine by the water
Waterside dining is one of the great pleasures of a visit to Newcastle, so be sure to sit down to a meal or three by the beach, harbour or river. First up, head for Honeysuckle — a redeveloped industrial port precinct that’s now home to around 30 restaurants, bars and cafes. You’ll enjoy a wide choice of cuisines and uninterrupted views of Newcastle’s working harbour.
Sandwiched between the Convict Lumber Yards and historic Customs House in Newcastle East is the delightfully atmospheric Paymaster’s Restaurant. Set back a little from the water, it nevertheless has a lovely outlook across Foreshore Park to the mouth of the Hunter River. With an extensive menu of meat, seafood and vegetarian options, there’s something for everyone at this gem of a restaurant.
For casual coastal eats, Swell Kiosks offer a range of breakfast dishes, fish and chips, burgers, tacos and great coffee. Check out their Nobby and Bar Beach locations.
It’s worth tearing yourself away from the waterfront to splash out on a special meal at hatted Restaurant Mason in East Newcastle, or Subo in Newcastle West. The latter serves a fabulous seasonal set five-course menu.
7. Enjoy the cafe culture
Is coffee the new coal? You’d be forgiven for thinking so, based on the number of cafes springing up across Newcastle. The top picks for serious coffee drinkers are Welsh Blacks and One Penny Black. If you’re exploring further west, try Baked Uprising at Maryville or Dark Horse at Wickham.
8. Hit the beach or picnic in the park
Newcastle is home to four of the finest city beaches in Australia — Nobbys, Newcastle, Bar and Merewether — and they all draw crowds of happy holidaymakers. Surf, swim, stroll, or just wiggle your toes in the sand and soak up the salty setting.
Two lovely spots to enjoy a picnic are Foreshore Park in Newcastle East (with its adjoining harbourside promenade for cyclists and walkers) and King Edward Park, which sits on high ground to the south of Newcastle Beach.
9. Do a cruise
It’s a five-minute ferry ride from Queens Wharf across the harbour to the suburb of Stockton — seemingly, another world. Idyllic fishing spots, seafront parks and cycleways, and the 32 kilometre-long Stockton Beach make this an ideal day trip for those in search of quality ‘me-time’.
To spend longer on the water, consider booking a sightseeing cruise. Coast XP operates a 2.5-hour coastal trip, where you’re likely to spot resident dolphins, turtles and other marine life. Whale watching cruises operate from June to November.
10. Meet furry and feathered locals
For short bushwalks and close encounters with native Australian animals, pay a visit to the popular Blackbutt Reserve in the suburb of Kotara. The kids will love this. Also check out the Hunter Wetlands Centre — a once polluted swamp/now stunning bird sanctuary just 10 minutes’ drive from the CBD.
Roslyn Jolly is a freelance travel writer whose work has appeared in Luxury Travel, Get Up & Go, The Sunday Telegraph and The Australian. In her former career as an English Literature academic, she studied and taught the work of great travel writers, such as Henry James, Herman Melville and Robert Louis Stevenson, and became fascinated by the history of travel and tourism. Two years at school in Wales and three years at university in England allowed Roslyn to travel extensively in Europe and North America, which she continues to do.