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The Rocks, Sydney

The absolute best things to do in The Rocks, Sydney

I’ve spent a lot of time wandering around The Rocks while living in Sydney, both as a local and as a photography tour guide.

This area has a ton of colonial history and I find it to be incredibly scenic, with multiple locations that have great views of the city.

While researching a story for my university journalism class, I decided to use the opportunity to find out about the reliance on tourism in The Rocks.This popular inner-city neighbourhood sits next to the Overseas Passenger Terminal, where a grand portion of the cruise ship visitors passing through Sydney once came through. Businesses in the area were heavily invested in the tourism industry pre-pandemic, so in early 2020 when the flow of international visitors abruptly stopped, local workers were left without customers.

Visitor survey data from Tourism Research Australia shows that The Rocks received 2.9 million annual visitors in 2019 with overseas tourists representing roughly half. Most of the foreign guests hailed from the USA, China, UK, and Japan. Their disappearance during the pandemic had a significant impact.

Some locations that were crowded such as the waterfront cruise terminal, souvenir outlets, and historic attractions now seem ultra quiet without the steady chatter of international accents. However, when you look closely, it’s obvious that there are people working hard to revive The Rocks despite the fact that no cruise ships have docked here in over a year.

The Rocks is in the process of changing. In spots like the newly cordoned-off outdoor dining space along George Street, the air is buzzing with patrons and music making it feel even more lively than it did before. The whole area looks pretty different to what it did two years ago, but in my opinion, the change is absolutely for the better.

Here’s a video interview I did with Michael Collins, Tour Guide at The Rocks Walking Tours, to find out how his business is serving sightseers (as of May 2021) despite international border closures.

When I contacted Amy Leanfore, Senior Marketing Manager and spokesperson for the NSW government website therocks.com, she told me that a calendar of COVID-safe events including live music programs, weekend markets, public art, and free yoga and pilates was established to draw in a more local audience from within NSW and interstate. The creation of outdoor venue spaces was also arranged to promote the area as a dining district.

“The highly successful alfresco dining initiative has seen a number of retailers open their doors and spill out onto pedestrian areas, attracting many more customers to The Rocks to experience one of the most historic and beautiful parts of the CBD,” says Leanfore.

I also spoke to Steven Speed, General Manager of the WDS Hotel Group,while researching the impacts on venues in the area. He told me how the Fortune of War Hotel and other food and beverage businesses in The Rocks have adapted throughout the pandemic. Take a listen below.

While the cruise industry is temporarily halted and the Overseas Passenger Terminal sits empty, I found out that the Port Authority of NSW is using the time to undertake maintenance projects with minimal disruption. This will ensure the terminal can continue processing international tourists when cruise lines are given the green light to return to Australia (which will hopefully be soon!).

Government officials haven’t yet made a decision about when to reopen Australia’s borders, but as Sydney is a major gateway into the country for foreign visitors, many of these businesses in The Rocks are hopeful that it will be one of the first destinations in Australia to start receiving tourists from abroad.

“The Rocks is one of Sydney’s oldest and most-loved entertainment precincts and whilst the CBD has been severely impacted by COVID, it’s future is bright.”

Amy Leanfore,Senior Marketing Manager for therocks.com

The Rocks activities map

The Rocks map guide:

  • T – Circular Quay (train station)
  • C – Overseas Passenger Terminal (cruise port)
  • 1 – The Rocks Walking Tours
  • 2 – Observatory Hill
  • 3 – Hickson Road Reserve
  • 4 – The Rocks Markets (Playfair Street)
  • 5 – The Glenmore
  • 6 – MCA
  • 7 – Fortune of War
  • 8 – Pylon Lookout

Things to do in The Rocks, Sydney:

If you’ll be visiting The Rocks once our state and international borders reopen, then you’re in for a treat.I really think that this area is a great place to spend a day in Sydney! I’ve compiled a list of all my favourite activities in the area, so here’s my suggestions for the absolute best things to do in The Rocks:

Public art found in The Rocks, Sydney
Public art found in The Rocks

Take a walking tour

The Rocks is quite compact and full of small hidden laneways, which makes it a perfect place to see on foot. Ideally you should take a walking tour as the area is best appreciated when you really need to understand the history of the area to truly appreciate it. The Rocks Walking Tours offer daily guided tours which last 2 hours and take you to the important locations such as Cadman’s Cottage and the Nurse’s Walk.

Sydney, Australia
Views of the Harbour Bridge from Observatory Hill

See the views from Observatory Hill

Technically Observatory Hill is just outside of The Rocks, but I think it’s close enough to count! This is by far one of my favourite spots in Sydney, and it’s also one that is less busy than other tourist spots as the 10 minute uphill walk from the waterfront deters people who aren’t willing or able to exercise. The small hill features a working observatory and weather station surrounded by a large grassy park. From up top, you’ll get a fabulous vista of the Harbour Bridge!

The Sydney Harbour Bridge as seen seen from Hickson Road Reserve in The Rocks
Sydney Harbour Bridge as seen seen from Hickson Road Reserve

Take photos at the waterfront

I used to take photography tours around this part of the city, so I can attest that The Rocks has some of Sydney’s best photo locations. Hickson Road Reserve at the base of the Harbour Bridge is one ofmost popular as you get an up close view of this impressive Sydney icon. Follow the waterfront around the corner and stand in front of the Park Hyatt Hotel for another great photo spot which overlooks the Opera House.

If you’re interested in doing some more serious camera work in the area, book a photography tour of The Rocks where a professional guide will show you where to find all the best vantage points and teach you the best ways to capture them on your camera.

The Rocks Markets on Playfair Street, Sydney
The Rocks Markets on Playfair Street

Snack on street food at the markets

The weekend markets are a staple in The Rocks. Although they’re currently on hold due to COVID restrictions, these markets will be back soon with stalls along George Street, Playfair Street, and Jack Mundey Place from 10AM-5PM every Saturday and Sunday.

A new addition to the markets is Friday night trading which happens from 4PM-9PM each Friday evening. This is a great time to grab some street food in a variety of cuisines at a time when there are more locals around.

Beer on the rooftop of The Glenmore in The Rocks, Sydney
Beer on the rooftop of The Glenmore in The Rocks

Head up to The Glenmore rooftop

In my opinion, The Glenmore is one of the best pubs in Sydney because of its killer rooftop bar! From here, you can look over the top of buildings in The Rocks towards the Opera House and admire the view with a beer in hand. Just don’t go up there when there’s a large cruise ship in port at the Overseas Passenger Terminal because those monstrosities do a great job of blocking the view. Grrr!

Indigenous artworks at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA), Sydney
Indigenous artworks at the Museum of Contemporary Art

Get your art fix at the MCA

The Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) is my favourite of Sydney’s museums and galleries. It’s free to enter and has both permanent and temporary exhibitions (though some of the temp ones are ticketed). There are also some cool art installations outside on the promenade.

One underrated thing about the MCA is the view from the cafe on the top floor as you can look north towards the Overseas Passenger Terminal and Harbour Bridge. I’ve never ordered the food or drinks though so can’t vouch for that – I just head in for the free art and views!

Outdoor dining along George Street in The Rocks, Sydney
Outdoor beer gardens along George Street in The Rocks

Visit Australia’s oldest pub

The Fortune of War claims to be Sydney’s oldest pub, however, this fact is contested as there are a few pubs in The Rocks that were founded at approximately the same time. Whether it’s actually the oldest is not really important though, as the cosy interior with its historic wooden bar is a genuinely good place to grab a drink.

You can also take your beverage outside to be seated in the new outdoor dining area along George Street, pictured above. Alternatively, hop on a historic pubs tour and you can visit all of the quaint old pubs in The Rocks over one evening!

Pylon Lookout, Sydney Harbour Bridge, Australia
Views from the Pylon Lookout on the Sydney Harbour Bridge

Visit the Pylon Lookout

At the south end of Sydney Harbour Bridge, visitors can climb one of the massive stone pylons to get a 360 degree view of the harbour from the top. Although it costs $19 AUD to enter, I really love the vista from thePylon Lookout and the fact that the observation deck is in the open air (no obtrusive fences!) make it yet another great photo spot in The Rocks. There’s also a small museum featuring info on the construction of the bridge on the inside of the structure.

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