The lazy shorthand version of Sydney is pretty appealing: pootling about on the harbour, taking that bridge and opera house snapshot then plonking yourself on a beach — it’s not a bad way to spend a few days. But behind Sydney’s easy-going, eye-catching facade lies a more interesting beast. Few visitors expect the prissily cute and near ubiquitous Victorian housing, for example. Or the wild national parkland just a few minutes’ walk from major tourist hangouts. Or the extensive Asian influence. Not to mention the burgeoning craft brewing scene, the transformative architecture and speckled remnants from the time before Europeans arrived on the scene. Even in the most well-trodden neighbourhoods, a little prodding unveils a totally different story. And, in others, furiously paced overhauls have torn up the script.
‘Where’s Chippendale?’ An acceptable question for an outsider, but one, until recently, you might even have heard from the mouth of a local.
However, things have changed, and Chippendale is no longer a nothing suburb, passed through unknowingly en route from the central business district (CBD) to the hipster enclaves of the Inner West.
The transformation began with the White Rabbit Gallery. Opened in 2009, this private collection of modern Chinese artworks — whose only common theme is that they consistently weird out anyone looking at them — has become the figurehead for a burgeoning artistic community. Dig into the lanes, courtyards and crumbling houses nearby and you’ll find small galleries, studios, workshops and collectives merrily doing their own thing.
The metamorphosis continued with the opening of The Old Clare Hotel on the site of the former Carlton & United Brewery: a knowingly cool five-star joint with rooftop pool, fashion shoot lights in the rooms and industrial-chic bare walls. Next to it is One Central Park, designed by French starchitect Jean Nouvel: two plant-clad residential towers with a flower bed on each floor, shopping mall on the lower levels and cantilevered penthouses at the top — the overall effect: ultramodernity being reclaimed by the jungle.
A key part of why this all works is that the new and the old seem well blended. Wandering the narrow streets and laneways around the big shiny projects doesn’t feel like strolling through a hermetically sealed bubble.
Spice Alley is a tremendous example of this; a U-shaped laneway has been turned into an Asian street food hub, with simple stools and tables crowding the pavement. Korean, Malaysian, Thai, Japanese and Vietnamese dishes are served up from joints that are curious food stall-restaurant hybrids; a garishly painted tuk tuk guards the entrance and Chinese lanterns hang overhead.
Chippendale is no longer just a hotspot for casual dining either; Automata is one of the city’s new tasting menu-only hotspots, with an open-plan kitchen and a predilection for bold, palate-challenging flavours. Mustard oils, vinegars and fermented vegetables are among the twists that make virtually every dish arresting.
The question is no longer ‘Where’s Chippendale?’ but ‘Where in Chippendale…?’
‘He appears to have been ambivalent regarding which side of the law he operated on,’ reads the sign tucked away in one of those impossible-to-rediscover alleys that spring up throughout The Rocks, a tourist precinct and historic area. It’s telling the story of George Cribbs, a 19th-century convict and butcher-turned-landowner whose slaughterhouse is now part of an archaeological dig site. Perched on stilts above a decent chunk of it is the remarkable Sydney Harbour YHA – The Rocks. Small wire-frame horses and cockatoos, inexplicably attached to a fence over the road, add an art installation touch.
This isn’t The Rocks that many visitors see, largely because they don’t know to look for it. Sydney’s most historic neighbourhood tends to act as a grazing paddock for mooching tourists who amble along the waterfront or along George Street, covering the well-trodden postcard-shot territory between the Sydney Harbour Bridge and the cruise ship terminal.
Delve into the lanes, staircases and tunnels, however, and a very different picture emerges. Joggers puff and pant up the steps leading to the Harbour Bridge walkway; rainbow lorikeets and ibises flit around Observatory Hill Park; gorgeously past-their-prime houses with subsiding verandahs and corrugated iron roofs spread out below. They’re an indicator that people still live here, on land developers would love to get their hands on.
Feistily ramshackle Millers Point morphs into the incongruous Walsh Bay, where old wharves now house creative agencies and luxury apartments with status-symbol yachts outside. Cafes churn out espressos, but The Rocks is definitely more of a beer kind of place. It has a greedy concentration of pubs, most of which seem to have some sort of claim on being the oldest in town.
The best, however, have another trick up their sleeve besides longevity. Long before Sydney cottoned on to the craft brewing craze, The Lord Nelson Brewery Hotel, for instance, was brewing its own. Its Three Sheets — a robust 5% pale ale — is likely to induce a warm, fuzzy indifference to this ale-house one-upmanship, even after only a couple. Then, there’s the Australian Heritage Hotel, a pub that offers visitors the perfect fix of Australiana. The benches outside fill up as soon as work is finished for the day, and the half-emu, half-pepper kangaroo Coat of Arms gourmet pizza soaks up the beers a treat.
Tables are a precious commodity on Sunday mornings at Harry’s. Those who do get lucky lazily chat their way through such breakfast delights as eggs, avocado and kale. Some are on pavement tables, others on stools at the counter, gazing through the big open windows.
There are dozens of cafes like this in Bondi, the beach suburb that takes Sydney’s brunching obsession to its zenith. It’s Australia at its most Southern Californian — everyone looks sickeningly fit and beautiful, the dogs on leads are always tiny and surfboards take to the ocean.
New developments have added to that vibe — Bondi has undergone a considerable sprucing up in the past few years. The Bondi Pacific apartments complex, on Campbell Parade, which hosts the airily hip QT Bondi hotel, is clearly aimed at those with both serious money and designer inclinations.
The North Bondi Surf Life Saving Club’s revamp has turned it into a modernist architectural statement; celebrity chef restaurants such as former MasterChef Australia judge Matt Moran’s North Bondi Fish are muscling out down-at-heel joints; indie boutiques boast eye-catching dresses with eye-watering price tags.
It all comes with a big dose of diversity, too. North Bondi is one of Sydney’s premier gay hangouts; Thai massage joints sit happily alongside Brazilian churrascarias, Portuguese chicken shops and gelaterias so good they have permanent queues outside; the backpacker and Orthodox Jewish communities are also both large and visible.
Of course, the real draw of Bondi isn’t the streets, it’s the beach. On summer Sundays, the half-mile swathe of sand is crowded with bodies. More still are bobbing between the flags, trying to catch the waves and bodysurf back to shore. And, throughout the day, thousands of somewhat unnecessarily lycra-clad walkers strut off around the clifftops on the four-mile Bondi to Coogee Walk.
Yet when the day breaks, there’s a calmness and raw beauty, and Eugene Tan will be there to capture it. His Aquabumps photographic gallery is the result of a quixotic passion for the ocean and the surf that’s seen him take pictures of Bondi at dawn every day since 1999. In his shots, the lone swimmers, the pink skies and the waves crashing into the saltwater pools strip Bondi back to its core.
When in Sydney
Every Sydneysider has their favourite beach. Bondi, Coogee and Manly are the best-known to visitors, mainly because they’re easier to reach. They’re also the busiest, whereas those north of Manly are no less spectacular but often quieter — try Narrabeen, Bilgola or Palm Beach.
If you’re after duck-pond placidity rather than crashing surf, there are several big outdoor pools, from the showy Andrew ‘Boy’ Charlton Pool next to the Royal Botanic Gardens and the giant rock pool-esque Wylie’s Baths in Coogee.
Spice it up
In Sydney, cheap Thai joints are plentiful, while Indian food is patchy and pricey. Many of the Thai restaurants — especially in the Inner West — adhere to a BYO booze policy for a corkage fee.
New South Wales doesn’t really do pints; the main measurement here is the 375ml ‘schooner’ (sensible due to the warm climate). The new fad for ‘schmiddies’ (355ml glasses popular at craft beer establishments), however, has divided opinion among locals.
Australians love a barbecue. And thankfully, you don’t need the full kit to join in. Coin-operated public barbecues in beachside parks are one of the country’s crowning achievements.
Lonely Planet Pocket Sydney. RRP: £7.99.
Published in the June 2017 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)