Start your exploration of The Rocks in Sydney by joining The Rocks Walking Tour. This absorbing 90-minute guided walk departs daily at 10.30am and 1.30pm, and represents excellent value for money. Immerse yourself in more of the precinct’s history by booking a stay at the YHA Sydney Harbour. Located at the top of The Rocks, the YHA incorporates The Big Dig archaeological site. You can book a guided tour of the dig.
Best price guarantee: If you find this tour elsewhere at a cheaper price, we will beat it by 10%. Some conditions apply. There are no booking or credit card fees when you book this tour with The Big Bus tour and travel guide.
As you stroll through the atmospheric laneways and cobbled backstreets of The Rocks in Sydney, it’s almost inconceivable to think that in the late 1960s and 70s, the City of Sydney had plans to demolish the historic precinct to make way for rapacious development.
Union activist Jack Mundey is generally credited with saving The Rocks, along with other historic Sydney enclaves, including Woolloomooloo and parts of Potts Point. In the defence of the City of Sydney councillors, it was a time when attitudes to our past were very different. Unlike today, it certainly wasn’t cool to be convict kin.
The halting of the bulldozers is just one aspect of the fascinating history of The Rocks that’s revealed during The Rocks Walking Tour. At $32 per person, this has to be one of the best bargains for visitors to Sydney. While the 90-minute stroll isn’t enough time to learn everything there is to know about The Rocks, you’ll certainly pick up the basics — and along the way you’ll discover lots of nooks and crannies to pay further attention to later during your stay.
I meet my guide and around ten other participants at the Clocktower mall in bustling Harrington Street, and we head off at a leisurely pace. We stop at regular intervals as our knowledgeable guide shares historical snippets about what was once Sydney’s most dangerous and overcrowded locale. There are plenty of surprises too — even for an Aussie who’s been hearing the tales of Sydney’s colonial yesteryear since he was knee high to a grasshopper.
Did you know for example that the convicts weren’t confined in the early colony? I had always assumed they were kept under lock and key somewhere in or around The Rocks, but apparently not. It stayed that way until the construction of the Hyde Park Barracks over on Macquarie Street (on the eastern side of the colony) in the early 1800s. When you think about it, where could they go? The entire continent was one giant prison.
The Hyde Park Barracks complex (now a fabulous museum) is an enduring monument to architect Francis Greenway — the convicted forger whose mug adorns the Aussie $10 note. Transported to the colony in the early 1800s, Greenway went on to design several of Sydney’s surviving colonial structures, including St James’ Church and the Supreme Court of New South Wales. They are all worth seeing as you explore the wider city.
Down towards the harbour’s edge, we come to Cadmans Cottage — rumoured (no proof existing as yet) to be the work of Greenway. It was constructed by convict labour in 1816 to house the government’s dockyard supervisor. Today the cottage is a good 100m or so back from the water, but at the time of building it was right on the water’s edge. It illustrates how land has been reclaimed over the years for the construction of Circular Quay.
The revelations continue throughout the tour and I finally part company with the group at Jack Mundey Place off Playfair Street — the site of Mundey’s green ban demonstration of October 1973 to save a row of terraces occupied by blue collar workers from demolition. The square still seems to echo with shouts of demonstrators, the earlier hubbub of the colony’s notorious slum, and perhaps even the soft speech of the first people — the Gadigal. Australian history certainly lives right here on this spot.
From there I make my way to my digs for the night — an apt description in more ways than one. Sydney Harbour YHA is located on Cumberland Street in The Rocks and encompasses The Big Dig archaeological site and education centre — an excavation of colonial remains between Cumberland and Gloucester Streets. The Big Dig has uncovered structures dating as far back as the 1790s, and more than a million artefacts. The award-winning Sydney Harbour YHA literally straddles the site.
Staying at the Sydney Harbour YHA is another revelation in The Rocks. It’s a bit of a hike uphill from the harbour front (less so if you are coming from Wynyard train station), but just like The Rocks Walking Tour it is superb value. The hostel offers shared and private rooms, all with ensuite facilities, for significantly less than you would expect to pay at one of the locale’s big name hotels. At the time of writing, a shared room costs from $41 per person, per night, and a private room from $145 per night. Anyone can stay at the facility. You’ll automatically become a YHA member when you check in. The rooms are modern, clean and comfortable.
The Big Dig is visible from the central atriums of the accommodation wings, which adds to the experience — as do the artefacts on display around the hostel. Free Wi-Fi is provided in the communal recreation area, which also features a fully-equipped shared kitchen. The views of the bridge, Opera House and city from the rooftop deck and BBQ area are mind-blowing.
There’s certainly plenty of history for visitors to discover in The Rocks — and it doesn’t have to cost a lot to do it.
Additional images: Bigstock
Adam Ford is editor of The Big Bus tour and travel guide and a travel TV presenter, writer, blogger and photographer. He has travelled extensively through Europe, Asia, North America, Africa and the Middle East. Adam worked as a travel consultant for a number of years with Flight Centre before taking up the opportunity to travel the world himself as host of the TV series Tour the World on Network Ten. He loves to experience everything a new destination has to offer and is equally at home in a five-star Palazzo in Pisa or a home-stay in Hanoi.