Sassy’, ‘wicked-sexy’ and ‘happ-a-NIN’.
None of these terms is likely to have been used to describe Adelaide — certainly not by anyone who lives here. The city’s 1.2 million residents have always regarded their city as a wallflower, ignored by visitors who prefer the long-legged hotties in the eastern states.
One word you will hear, however, is ‘lifestyle’. Adelaide is a relaxed city, whose people aren’t slaves to work schedules, traffic snarls and parking frustration. They enjoy an easy Mediterranean climate, not to mention uncrowded beaches and lofty, wine-producing hills. You can go from sea to vineyards in under 50 minutes, experiencing a climb of 2,000ft (and a drop of 3C) without leaving the metropolitan area.
The centre is easy to explore, thanks to its sensible grid of 175-year-old roads and ring of parklands, while visitors have long enjoyed North Terrace — the boulevard of Victorian-era houses that offers an intense cultural hit. Here you’ll find the sublime Adelaide Botanic Garden (1857), the Art Gallery of South Australia (1881), the Southern Australian Museum (1847), the Mortlock Wing (1884) of the State Library of South Australia — all free to enter.
Elsewhere, visitors also tick off the cheerful 140-year-old Central Market and disappear into ‘eat streets’ for languorous meals on thronging pavements.
But it’s in the adjacent River Precinct where the return visitor is astonished to find the city is reinventing itself through a A$3bn (£1.5bn) investment programme. At its heart is the new Adelaide Oval, the hallowed cricket ground now cleverly transformed into a 52,000-capacity stadium and host to South Australia’s other great sporting passion, Australian Rules football. The effect has been instant, energising the Central Business District (CBD) and kick-starting a bar-restaurant scene among hitherto ho-hum laneways.
Where to eat
For sheer around-the-world-in-80-plates variety, stroll along the lively Gouger and Rundle Streets. In Gouger, the Spanish tapas at Mesa Lunga is peerless, while Saturday mornings are all about Yum Cha (Chinese tea and dim sum) in one of the many outlets on this street. Rundle is home to excellent Restaurant Orana, which does contemporary bush tucker such as mud crab and smoked kangaroo tail. In the Adelaide Hills, Aldgate Providore & Cafe serves well-priced Mexican food with flair.
There’s no shortage of fine dining in Adelaide. At Penfolds Magill Estate Restaurant, you can sample the peerless Penfolds Grange, with city views to match, while at Hill of Grace Restaurant, famed Henschke Hill of Grace wine is served inside the Oval, overlooking the pitch that was like a second home to legendary Aussie batsman Don Bradman.
Elsewhere, in the CBD, are neighbouring Leigh and Peel Streets, both of which have blossomed with cafes and wine bars in recent years. Try Bread & Bone for burger exotica — its soft-shell crab patties in a bun have clearly been sent by god. There’s a great little bar in the basement, too, while Rigoni’s Bistro, on Leigh, is an Italian-food institution.
Finally, two local faves: Adelaide Central Market, home to the likes of the Smelly Cheese Shop, Mushroom Man’s Mushroom Shop, and Taldy-Kurgan — for tip-top Polish dumplings; and a lapful of fish and chips, best eaten on Glenelg Beach as the sun sinks into the Gulf St Vincent.
Adelaide is home to an almost unbelievably stuffed programme of art, music and sport from mid-February to March. Much of this is under the umbrella of the Adelaide Festival (27 Feb-15 Mar), the largest annual arts showcase in the Southern Hemisphere — a magnet for top musical and theatre productions from around the world.
It includes the Adelaide Fringe (13 Feb-15 Mar), second in size only to its Edinburgh counterpart, and an open invitation to all manner of comedic and varietal lunacy.
Plus, it incorporates the Adelaide Writers’ Week (28 Feb-5 Mar), drawing top names from around the globe to share wit, wisdom and words in a genteel parkland setting.
This cultural jamboree creates a series of city ‘hubs’, formed through the reinvention of Victoria Square, the Festival Centre grounds and Rundle Park (the latter turned into the Garden of Unearthly Delights for the Fringe).
But that’s not all. World music festival WOMADelaide is held in Botanic Park between 6 and 9 March. Plus, the city changes gear with the Clipsal 5000, an annual racing car event (26 Feb-1 Mar). Despite much grumbling at having many of the main city streets given over to howling V8s and 270,000 spectators, this petrolhead fiesta is a neat counterpoint to all the highbrow stuff happening in the Adelaide Festival.
Finally, February/March sees some extra madness, courtesy of the ICC World Cup being hosted in Australia, with four of the cricket matches to be played in Adelaide.
The big news however is the rise and rise of the small bar; since liquor laws were relaxed in 2013, Adelaide has seen dozens of inventive enterprises pop up on odd corners. For a taste, head to Peel and Leigh Streets and imbibe into the wee hours with the like of Udaberri (tapas bar), Clever Little Tailor, and Casablabla (a cocktail lounge that also teaches Latin dance). Other hot properties include Apothecary 1878, on nearby Hindley Street, a bar fashioned from a period pharmacy.
Bars and pubs have always been integral to Adelaide’s music scene (AC/DC have their roots here). Try the much-loved the Wheatsheaf Hotel, in Thebarton, or the Edinburgh Castle Hotel, on Currie Street, and the Gov, on Port Road, for emerging bands. Four Doors Plus One, on Hindley Street, is a bar where hipsters are transported back to the 1970s. The bars on this notorious old pleasure strip are a mix of the good, the bad and the ugly. As a rule: reliably cool before midnight, with the clubs turning feral at weekends.
One of the big surprises is just how well ordinary South Australians know their wine — as they probably should after 170 years of making the stuff. To see what all the fuss is about, head to the far end of Rundle Street, where you’ll find bar-restaurant Street ADL, the very lovely Botanic Bar, new wine bar Mother Vine (hosted by some senior industry players) and the Tasting Room. Of course, you can instead choose to go straight to the source: the Adelaide Hills region is home to 50-odd ‘cellar doors’ (vineyard tasting rooms), including the Lane Vineyard, Shaw + Smith and Hahndorf Hill Winery, the latter a knot of commendable vintners in gorgeous country behind the German village of Hahndorf.
Top 10 local tips
02 While you’re here, check the gumtrees for koalas; more intimate koala encounters can be had at Cleland Wildlife Park.
03 Book accommodation for the Adelaide Festival months in advance.
04 Pick one of Tourabout’s city tours and guided walks, which include the ‘From Grape to Glass’ tour of the Barossa Valley wine region.
05 When someone asks you ‘How y’going?’ it’s usually a friendly enquiry, not a formality to be skipped over. Small talk counts!
06 Visit the Migration Museum for a fascinating overview of a key issue in Australia, past and present.
07 Keep tabs on the city’s lively pop-up scene on the Splash Adelaide website.
08 Adelaide artisans and artists can be seen at the Jam Factory on North Terrace.
09 The tram is free in the CBD from Victoria Square to North Terrace. Unlimited bus travel for three days costs A$25 (£13.23). adelaidemetro.com.au
10 To be properly local, you’ll need to try bung fritz (a sausage), a Balfour’s frog cake (not made with frogs), bienenstich (a German cake, also known as ‘bee sting cake’) and a pie floater (a pie in thick pea soup). Over to you…
Adelaide, by Kerryn Goldsworthy. RRP: A$25.55 (£13.52). (University of NSW Press)
The Boys Are Back (2009). Drama starring Clive Owen with plenty of the city to view (if you’re not blubbing into your hankie).
Published in the April 2015 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)