Australia’s seventh-largest city is still a big country town at heart.
That’s why Newcastle is such an appealing place to visit. Short distances, easy drives, a free public transport zone and great walkability make the city so easy to explore. Add in breathtaking beaches, intriguing history and a thriving contemporary arts scene, and you have something really special.
Experience it now, before the new cruise ship terminal opens in 2018 and the world discovers what may be the east coast of Australia’s best-kept secret!
Enjoy this city guide to the top things to do in Newcastle.
Need to know
Base yourself: City, Waterfront, Newcastle Beach
Average hotel price per room/per night: $120 AUD
Best breakfasts: Darby Street, beaches
Great coffee: East Newcastle, Newcastle West
Top spots for a beverage: Hunter Street, Waterfront, Merewether
Must-do: Coastal walk, whale watching cruise
Best times to visit
Newcastle shines in summer when the city’s beach culture is at its most vibrant, although the largely temperate climate makes this a great year-round destination.
Temperatures in summer average in the high 20s. In winter it can get pretty chilly at times, so pack accordingly. Spring and autumn are generally mild and lovely times to visit.
Novocastrians are justly proud of their city’s standing as an artistic centre. Whether you’re into high art or street art, there are cultural things to do in Newcastle to suit every taste.
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 feature in the self-guided Artists’ City Walking Tour which also takes in many of the public sculptures that decorate the city.
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. Since 2008 Renew Newcastle has been finding homes for new creative enterprises in the empty buildings of the under-utilised CBD. The result – a hive of idiosyncratic studios and galleries on the cutting edge of modern art and design.
Murals are big in Newcastle! You can discover the world of Novocastrian wall art on a two-hour Street Art Walking tour.
Meanwhile, Newcastle’s venerable tradition of live popular music lives on at venues like Lizotte’s, Bar Petite, 48 Watt Street and Bar on the Hill. Check the Newcastle Gig Guide or Newcastle Live for listings of what’s on.
Convicts, coal-miners, sailors and steelworkers are the main characters in the fascinating (and often unruly!) history of Australia’s second-oldest city.
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. Newcastle Museum has a permanent exhibition called A Newcastle Story which goes all the way back to Aboriginal life in the area before European settlement.
Convicts shaped this city – literally. Their labour built the causeway between the mainland and Nobbys Head, resculpting the topography of the city centre. Designed to make shipping safer, the causeway also led to the creation, through natural sand deposits, of the famous Nobbys Beach.
To discover more about Newcastle’s convict heritage, take the self-guided Convict and Industry Walking Tour by day, or a guided night-time Heritage and Ghost tour, where you’ll hear stories of the darker side of life and death in the notoriously harsh penal settlement.
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.
BHP may have left but Newcastle continues to be a busy working port, the largest on Australia’s east coast. Exhibits and interactive displays at the Newcastle Maritime Centre showcase the city’s history as a shipping hub.
One of the top historical things to do in Newcastle is a visit to Fort Scratchley. This cliff-top fort 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. Today you can admire the heavy artillery while enjoying spectacular views of the city and coastline. Tours of the site and its network of underground tunnels are also available.
The Newcastle Memorial Walk, constructed for the ANZAC centenary in 2015, honours the men and women of the Hunter region who served in World War I. The elevated 450 metre walkway offers incomparable 360° coastal and city views as well as recording the names of thousands of soldiers and the battles in which they fought.
Waterside dining is one of Newcastle’s great pleasures, and you shouldn’t leave town without having a meal or three by the beach, harbour or river.
Honeysuckle is the city’s newest dining precinct, a redeveloped industrial and port area that’s now home to around 30 restaurants and cafes. Enjoy uninterrupted views of Newcastle’s working harbour while you savour Modern Australian, Asian or pub-style food.
In a heritage building in Newcastle East, sandwiched between the Convict Lumber Yards and historic Customs House, is the delightfully atmospheric Paymaster’s Restaurant. Set back a little from the water, it nevertheless offers a lovely outlook across peaceful Foreshore Park to the mouth of the Hunter River. With an extensive vegetarian menu in addition to meat and seafood options, there’s something for everyone at this gem of a restaurant.
Swell Kiosks serve breakfast, fish and chips, burgers, vegan muffins and great coffee in unpretentious surroundings with world-class ocean views. Check out their Nobby’s and Bar Beach locations. The latter makes a satisfying end-point to the Memorial Walk mentioned in the history section of this guide.
If you can tear yourself away from the waterfront, you’ll discover more upmarket dining options at hatted Restaurant Mason in East Newcastle and Subo located just behind the Honeysuckle precinct in Newcastle West, which serves a fabulous set seasonal five course menu.
Is coffee the new coal? You’d be forgiven for thinking so when you look at the array of cafes springing up like mushrooms all over the city. Best 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. Meanwhile, for those who prefer leaves to beans, The Tea Project leaves nothing to be desired.
Art, fashion, design and vintage are the hot trends in Newcastle shopping, and there are plenty of options for a spot of holiday retail therapy.
Darby Street in Cook’s Hill is the city’s most established area for clothes shopping. Both high-end and alternative boutiques thrive here, including the unique artisanal clothier High Tea with Mrs Woo. Darby Street is also great for gifts and homewares, and there are plenty of places to quench your thirst and satisfy your hunger along the way.
A great way to experience Newcastle’s artisanal scene is at The Olive Tree Market. Local stallholders gather fortnightly at Civic Park to display their latest creations in jewellery, clothing, paperware and ceramics. Once a month you can also shop food, flowers and crafts at Hunt and Gather Markets in Pacific Park.
Four beautiful and easily accessible beaches – Nobbys, Newcastle, Bar and Merewether – provide plenty of relaxing things to do in Newcastle.
Whether you choose to surf, swim, stroll or just soak up the scenery, you’ll be enjoying some of the finest city beaches in Australia.
Two lovely parks for picnics 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 and commands sweeping views of the Pacific Ocean.
Five minutes on the ferry from Queen’s Wharf will take you across the Hunter River to the suburb of Stockton and, seemingly, another world. Idyllic fishing spots, seafront cycleways and renowned bird-watching sites make Stockton an ideal retreat for those who enjoy quieter forms of relaxation.
If you’d like to spend longer on the water, Nova Cruises offers a range of harbour, river and ocean trips, with whale-watching a specialty.
For short bushwalks and close encounters with native Australian animals, don’t miss the popular Blackbutt Reserve in the suburb of Kotara. You can also explore beautiful bushland and rainforest habitats at the Hunter Wetlands Centre – a fabulous bird sanctuary, located just 10 minutes’ drive from the CBD.
Check out the stylish post-industrial ambience of The Edwards for a relaxing drink at the end of the day. There’s even a vinyl record store and launderette on site, so you can sip a craft beer while you sample long-lost sounds and wash your clothes for the next day’s sightseeing!
Do you have any tips for top things to do in Newcastle? We would love to hear from you. Please send us a message.
Additional images: Bigstock
About the writer
Roslyn Jolly is a freelance travel writer whose work has appeared in Luxury Travel, Get Up & Go, The Sunday Telegraph (Escape) and The Australian (Travel & Indulgence). 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 her to travel extensively in Europe and North America, which she continues to do. On a trip to Borneo in 2015, her eyes were opened to the wonders of Asia. Her most amazing travel experience so far was looking into the eyes of a Bornean gibbon spotted in the rainforest canopy in Brunei. Dream destinations for the future include Antarctica, Mongolia, Bhutan, Namibia, Iceland and Greece – and seeing more of Australia’s north and west.