For many years the Australian port city of Newcastle, a two-hour drive north of Sydney, has been on the brink of big things. Coal, steel and timber was once this city's lifeblood but the cultural, the gastronomical and the creatively entrepreneurial have been on the rise for a long while. Newcastle's time has finally come.
Today Australia's second-oldest city is punching well above its weight. Superb surf beaches, historic architecture and a sun-drenched subtropical climate are only part of the city’s charms. There is fine dining, hip bars, quirky boutiques, and a diverse arts scene. And did we mention the easy access to the delights of the Hunter Valley wine country and incredible coastline of Nelson Bay and the whale watching at Port Stephens? You’ll be surprised just how much variety you can jam pack into a 48-hour itinerary.
If you have just driven up from Sydney you will be in dire need of some caffeinated goodness and Newcastle delivers. There are some real gems including One Penny Black (onepennyblack.com.au) with BlackStar beans from Brisbane and knockout cafe food, or you might want to try Sprocket Roasters (sprocketroasters.com.au) for a feel-good, carbon neutral (the roaster runs on biofuel) buzz. They also do terrific tea!
Once fuelled up, head to the super slick Newcastle Museum in the Honeysuckle Precinct on the foreshore, which tells a tale of the city from Indigenous Awabakal land to the thriving metropolis it is today. Look out for special exhibitions and events, and if you’re travelling with kids, you won’t want to miss out on Supernova, the fun, hands-on science centre.
The city’s cultural renaissance has been fuelled in large part by Renew Newcastle (renewnewcastle.org), an initiative that aims to invigorate the central business district by lending vacant or derelict spaces to artists and community groups. Wander down Hunter Street Mall to check out some of the boutiques and studios revitalising Newcastle. Definitely drop in to Emporium, located on the ground floor of the former David Jones department store. The boutiques and galleries are filled with a treasure trove of locally made art, fashion, furniture and design. If this has inspired you to keep shopping, there are some really sweet (non Renew) boutiques to pop into on Darby Street such as Blackbird Corner, High Tea with Mrs Woo and Honeybee selling a tightly edited selection of clothes and homewares.
If you’ve shopped up a bit of a hunger (or thirst) visit The Edwards for a lunch and a game of ping-pong. If new Newcastle had a beating heart, it would be found at this happening bar-cafe-diner in the west of the city. Co-owned by Silverchair bass player Chris Joannou, this fabulous industrial space used to be a drive-through dry cleaners (you can still throw your dirty clothes in the coin laundry) but now it’s the place to be at all hours from yummy egg breakfasts to share plates from the wood-fired oven and late night bar snacks. A happy snap in the vintage black and white photo booth is a great souvenir.
Time to check into Crown on Darby for two nights, a contemporary apartment complex on Newcastle’s hippest eating and shopping strip, before grabbing your swimmers for a dip at the art deco Newcastle Ocean Baths – refreshing in the warmer months and absolutely head clearing at any other time of the year!
For dinner make sure you have booked in advance at Subo, an innovative, highly lauded restaurant serving light, exquisite tasting food with a contemporary French influence. If you didn’t manage to get a seat in their tiny dining room, fear not, there is more highly creative French dining to be had at the nearby Restaurant Mason. End the night down the street, with drinks at the classy Reserve Wine Bar, a former bank, where the wine list runs to 350 different wines with many a drop from Newcastle’s Hunter Valley backyard.
Kick start the day by walking (or jogging, if that’s your thing) the spectacularly beautiful Bathers Way coastal path from Nobbys Beach to Glenrock Reserve. A quintessential Newcastle experience, this scenic 5km walk takes you past incredible swathes of beach and fascinating historical sites like Fort Scratchley, the only fort in Australia to have fired on an enemy vessel during World War II. Definitely bring your swimmers and towel, as the beaches and sea pools on the way are hard to resist.
By the time you reach the end of the walk, you’ll have earned a relaxed brunch at Merewether Surfhouse, a swanky promenade cafe offering lavish breakfasts. If it’s a little later in the day, the restaurant on the top level, with its floor-to-ceiling windows, nails surf-and-turf at fine dining prices. Once you’re done, pop across the road to check out the Merewether ‘Aquarium’, a pedestrian tunnel which has been transformed into a pop art underwater world by local artist Trevor Dickinson.
It’s hard to believe the beautiful Hunter Wetlands (wetlands.org.au) are only a 10-minute drive from the centre of Newcastle. Transformed from a dumpsite and abandoned sporting fields to a magnificent conservation sanctuary, the 45 hectares centre is home to over 200 species of birds and a huge diversity of animal residents including magpie geese, freckled ducks and egrets. Extensive walking and bike trails criss-cross the site or you can hire a canoe and paddle along picturesque Ironbank Creek. The popular segway eco tours are also a fun, safe way to explore the ecosystem and quietly view the animals.
Back in town, you might want to refresh with a cold one at The Grain Store (grainstorenewcastle.com.au) in Newcastle East, which boasts 21 eclectic Australian-brewed craft beers. Follow this up with the catch of the day at Scotties, just down the road. Sit outside under the palms and strings of colourful festoon lights, and hoe into a plate of fresh Port Stephens flathead, hand cut chips, mushy peas and caper mayo. If you still have wind in your sails, there are plenty of pubs to catch some live, local rock’n’roll. Try the Lass O’Gowrie, Cambridge and Great Northern (thegreatnorthern.com.au) hotels; who knows you may be seeing the next big thing! Hometown heroes Silverchair started out here. Alternatively, the lovely old Cinema Regal (regalcinema.com.au) in Birmingham Gardens has been restored and shows art house flicks every weekend.
Newcastle is two hours drive north of Sydney and is accessible from the M1, Pacific Highway, New England Highway and the Golden Highway. There are multiple daily train services (2.5 to 3 hours) between Newcastle and Sydney’s Central Station.