Four Ways to Experience The Rocks
The Rocks may be Sydney’s oldest neighbourhood, but it’s also one of the city’s most happening, packed with buzzing restaurants, sleek bars, vibrant live music venues and inspiring cultural attractions.
The Rocks area, hugging Sydney Harbour, is full of stories, whether millennia-old and detailing Indigenous culture and heritage or centuries in the making as the first point of contact for European settlers arriving in Australia back in 1788. These histories are respected and retold throughout the neighbourhood today, but they’re accompanied by a good dose of modern sensibility in the form of forward-thinking restaurants and bars, live music venues and cutting-edge galleries.
Here are four ways to immerse yourself in the precinct.
Eat your way around the world
Dining out in The Rocks is like taking the multicultural pulse of Sydney. Begin your culinary globetrotting at Saké Restaurant & Bar, a mod-Japanese dining room that still heroes the glorious sandstone walls and original wood beams of its former incarnation as a woolstore. The indecisive should order the omakase menu and let the chef plot the course of the meal. Otherwise, a la carte options range from miso-glazed toothfish and popcorn shrimp to soft-shelled crab rolls.
Stay in Asia at Sergeant Lok, set in a heritage-listed former police station. While the Chinatown district is now in Haymarket, its hub was once The Rocks, a history Sergeant Lok celebrates in its innovative menu that presents Asian flavours with a twist. The 18-course yum cha degustation, for example, features the likes of prawn ravioli and duck croquettes, while the seasonal menu highlights dishes such as abalone tarts and tamarind-glazed lollipop chicken.
The heady flavours and aromas that mingle at Tayim transport you straight to the Middle East. Share plates range from slow-cooked lamb with tahini and puffed freekeh to spice-cured wild kingfish atop labneh and apple. Begin your evening here in the outdoor gin garden.
Tex-Mex favourites served inside El Camino Cantina include margaritas that are both super-sized and super-charged, and food as fun as the neon-lit atmosphere. Choose from a dozen taco varieties, plus perennial favourites nachos, guacamole and fajitas.
Moving on to consider the nouveau-Australian offerings, shiny waterside dining room Quay draws harbour-view-seeking visitors and awards in equal measure. Head chef Peter Gilmore not only appears on TV, writes cookbooks and consults at global culinary festivals, but also uses “rare and beautiful” ingredients from hyper-local suppliers to craft Quay’s eight-course menus, with each bite better than the last.
Chefs at nearby Pony Dining – fronting Sydney’s oldest laneway – prepare everything over a wood-fired grill, from the flatbread to the dry-aged rib eye to the bountiful vegetables, with a long communal table on the patio offering glimpses of the atmospheric neighbourhood. Nearby at William Blue Dining, up-and-coming hospitality students run every aspect of this restaurant, delivering food and service beyond their years.
Cheers to history – and to the future
Occupying an 1840s heritage underground space, The Doss House delivers a taste of yesteryear in its moodily lit, distinctly themed spaces: Un Quoy’s Den is inspired by 19th-century Chinese opium parlours; in The Boot Maker’s you can sink into chesterfields by the fire; and The Sailor’s Garden features an outdoor terrace with high-top seating. On offer are more than 150 whiskies, which you can sip neat, on ice or in cocktails, paired with a tasting platter of native delicacies including kangaroo prosciutto, wild boar salami and bush chutney.
Sporting equally dreamy decor is Maybe Sammy, an art deco-inspired lounge dressed in dusty-pink velvet, tropical wallpaper and brass. Dapper waiters shake and stir behind a marbled bar, or you can summon the martini cart for a sofa-side Gibson, inside or outdoors in the sunshine. While the focus is the drinks, you can also order decadent snacks: truffled-cheese toasties, anyone?
Established long before those two trailblazers, The Australian Heritage Hotel has been welcoming thirsty punters for over a century. A whopping 130 different Aussie beers await sampling, along with distinctly Down Under dishes – think emu and kangaroo pizza or beer-battered barramundi.
Just as storied is the Glenmore Hotel, which rivals many a taller Sydney establishment for the best rooftop patio in the city with its broad views extending over the Sydney Harbour Bridge and Sydney Opera House. Celebrating 100 years of beer pouring and socialising in 2021, the legendary multistorey establishment is made even sweeter by the fact that its million-dollar views don’t come with a hefty drink price tag.
Prepare to get loud
Australia’s early European settlers were a thirsty bunch, with one – convict Samuel Terry – taking the initiative to build the Fortune of War pub back in 1828. Today, this Sydney institution still draws crowds, for the live music as much as the cool beverages. The beer garden plays host to the sounds of performers most nights of the week, whether soulful renditions of classics or original rock from talented local artists.
Around the corner, heritage-listed The Argyle occupies even older buildings (circa 1820) – its six spaces for wining and dining were once used for port storage. The main bar spills outside into a cobblestoned courtyard, regularly packed with punters grooving to live tunes provided by DJs and bands.
The Push also boasts a notable history, built in 1887 as the Port Jackson Hotel to entertain visiting seamen and the local working-class population. Today, things are rather more convivial, with nightly live music in the piano bar and cocktails on the menu. But the establishment stays true to its working-class roots with classic pub-style fare and a great assortment of local beers and wines by the glass.
The Mercantile mixes things up with everything from Friday acoustic sessions to lazy Sunday chill-out music, with perhaps a roast lunch and pint of Guinness on the side – a staple since the place opened in 1915, and best enjoyed on outside tables while people watching. Meanwhile, The Orient Hotel hosts bands every weekend in a handsome space chiselled from rock in 1844 – first used as a laundry, then as a butchery, then as a base for a shipping company. Head to the alfresco terrace for cocktails in the sun.
Uncover culture & tradition
Few Sydney postcards fail to include a picture of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. For good reason – this landmark not only tells a story of engineering ingenuity, but also affords visitors a glimpse of the city’s history, from its early settlers way back to its Indigenous custodians. You’ll discover both on a 'Burrawa' BridgeClimb, which not only offers insights into the construction of this mighty steel arch – with incredible views over the harbour and beyond – but also reveals intimate stories about Sydney’s First Nations peoples, as told by your Indigenous guide.
Learn more about the history and culture of Sydney’s Aboriginal communities and their connection to Sydney Harbour on The Rocks Aboriginal Dreaming Tour, a heartfelt and revealing excursion around the waterfront, with hosts identifying sites of indigenous importance along your route and recounting fascinating stories about the Dreamtime.
Your tour – spanning tens of thousands of years – ends on the doorstep of one of Australia’s foremost creative institutions: the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA). Across a labyrinth of gallery spaces, you’ll be inspired by photography, sculpture, painting and moving images from Australian artists at all stages of their careers. End your visit at the MCA Cafe on level four, popular for its sweeping views over Circular Quay.
The museum’s highly curated gift store stocks covetable curios from Aussie makers, as does the weekend Rocks Market, with stalls selling everything from Aboriginal art to handcrafted jewellery, artisanal produce, fashion and more – plus there’s always a good dose of food and live entertainment. A fitting exposition of all that makes The Rocks rich with variety – old and new, East and West, upscale and accessible, ephemeral and enduring.