Only got a couple of days to get to know a new city? Our Big Five City Guides can help. We break each destination down into culture, history, dining, shopping and relaxation must-sees and dos. Roslyn Jolly checks in from Wollongong...
Situated just an hour south of Sydney along the beautiful Grand Pacific Drive, ‘the Gong’ (as it’s known locally) is the third largest city in the state of New South Wales.
Attracted by the beach-and-park lifestyle and relaxed seaside vibe, increasing numbers of Sydneysiders are choosing to settle in Wollongong, while travellers and weekenders also flock here to revel in the outstanding beauty of the region’s coastline and hinterland.
Must-dos: CBD Heritage Trail, surfing lesson, Wollongong to Thirroul bike ride
Best times to visit Wollongong
What’s the best time of the year to visit Wollongong? That’s easy: all year round! Rock the beach in the summer months, or hit the hiking trails during the mild winter season. Spring is a great time to appreciate the fresh blooms at the Wollongong Botanic Garden or Illawarra Rhododendron Gardens.
Wollongong for history lovers
Coal, surf and civic pride have shaped the history of Wollongong — in ways that are still visible in the material fabric of the city today.
A good place to start is the Wollongong Heritage Trail — a two-hour self-guided walking tour around the historic heart of the city. The trail takes in Gothic-style churches, Victorian-era civic buildings such as the heritage-listed Courthouse, and historic shops and residences. The former Post and Telegraph Office now houses the Illawarra Museum, which offers glimpses of the past through its stockman’s hut, historic schoolroom and blacksmith’s shop.
Wollongong’s pretty harbour was once the linchpin of the city’s coal-exporting industry. Now it’s all about picnic spots and recreational boating, but you can still see the two graceful lighthouses (from 1871 and 1937) which testify to the city’s historic importance as a working port.
It’s a scenic one-kilometre walk from here along The Tramway to the North Beach Precinct. You’ll be following the line of the old rail cutting that used to transport coal from the Mount Pleasant mine to the harbour. There are two historic ocean swimming pools along the way — the 1920s Continental Baths and the much older and wilder Gentlemen’s Bathing Place (established in the 1870s), also known as North Wollongong Rock Pool. The path ends at the heritage Bathing Pavilion and Kiosk — both monuments to the vibrant beach culture of Wollongong in the 1930s.
Top cultural things to do in Wollongong
For cultural things to do in The Gong, there’s no better beginning than the Wollongong Art Gallery.
Like so many of Australia’s regional galleries, it’s a treasure-house of art from the colonial to the contemporary, with strong showings of Asian and Indigenous Australian works. Look out particularly for the wonderful beach paintings, regional landscapes and industrial scenes that capture the essence of Wollongong life.
Music and theatre lovers are well catered for with two outstanding venues. The Illawarra Performing Arts Centre in downtown Wollongong, managed by the Merrigong Theatre Company, presents a year-round program of drama, dance and comedy. Twenty minutes’ drive to the north in peaceful Thirroul, the sumptuous art deco surroundings of Anita’s Theatre lend an air of fantasy to the eclectic calendar of live music and cinema events.
Wollongong is home to some other unique cultural experiences. Nestled incongruously into the light industrial suburb of Berkeley is the Nan Tien Temple — the southern hemisphere’s largest Buddhist temple. Here you can learn about Chinese Buddhism, join a meditation class, or simply admire the beautiful pagoda, shrines and gardens. You can contemplate the universe in a different way at the University of Wollongong’s Science Space. Take a tour of the night sky during a planetarium show or watch science fiction movies at the indoor starlight cinema.
Great places to eat in Wollongong
Wollongong’s dining scene has flourished in recent years.
Serious foodies will want to check out Keira Street — the city’s main dining hub. The high concentration of restaurants here includes fine dining at Caveau (the city’s only hatted eatery), wood-fired pizzas at Da Orlando, clean lines and modern Australian cuisine at Rookie Eatery, and well-priced, reliably good Asian food at Balinese Spice Magic.
For a taste of Wollongong’s burgeoning wine-bar scene, check out the artistic quirkery of Moominn, or slide through the secret door at the back of Creamies Gelateria into the speakeasy-style Black Cockatoo.
Where to shop in Wollongong
Crown Street Mall is the retail heart of Wollongong.
The Mall is just a short walk from the beach, and is home to the usual mainstream brands.
For unique shopping experiences, visit Lee and Me or Emporium on Swan. While both present a similar combination of food, furniture and fashion, the atmosphere at each is completely different, with the former specialising in shabby-chic charm, and the latter offering wonderfully eccentric collectibles.
Catering devotedly to a niche market, Ever After is one of Australia’s premier romance bookstores. Australian writers are strongly represented, new international titles arrive weekly from the United States, and the staff pride themselves on offering ‘friendly, non-judgemental service’.
The recent opening of Collins Booksellers Thirroul shows that a love of the printed word thrives in the Wollongong area. This vibrant bookshop is housed in an attractive heritage building.
Also in Thirroul, Nest Emporium is the place to shop for beautiful homewares in a mellow seaside setting.
Ways to relax in Wollongong
Wollongong’s enviable outdoor lifestyle offers many ways to relax while enjoying fresh air, exercise and glorious scenery.
It’s no wonder surfing has a long, proud history in The Gong. There are so many fabulous beaches — both in the city itself and along the nearby coastline. Bring your own gear, or take an individual or group lesson with Australian Surf Tours at City Beach in downtown Wollongong. Australian Surf Tours also offers classes on the north side at beautiful Bulli Beach, and at ‘The Farm’ — a highly regarded surf spot within Killalea State Park.
If you prefer wheels to waves, the 17-kilometre Wollongong to Thirroul Bike Track is a great ride for all ages and abilities. The outlook from the bike path includes beaches, lagoons, forests and islands, and there are plenty of places along the way to refuel with a coffee or ice cream.
Options for bushwalking abound along the Illawarra Escarpment — the 500-metre high sandstone cliff that towers above and behind the city, defining its landward boundary. Iconic walks include the steeply forested Sublime Point Walking Track and the highly scenic Mount Kembla Ring Track. The escarpment’s height also makes it an ideal place for hang-gliding, with Stanwell Tops and Bald Hill Reserve among the favoured launch sites.
Do you have any tips to add to our Wollongong travel guide? We would love to hear from you. Please leave a comment below.
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 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.