Sydney’s eclectic neighbourhoods, legendary parties & small bar revolution

8 May 2012

It doesn’t matter how jetlagged you feel, the moment you land in Sydney you’re already contemplating where to go and what to wear that evening. Or maybe it’s just me, finding it hard to break the habit after years of living in Los Angeles and New York City.

But whatever the case may be, traveling to one of the world’s most iconic cities is reason enough to slip on a pair of strappy high heels and hit the town.

Small bars dominate Sydney’s drinking scene, with a resurgence of energy causing purveyors to seek evermore outlandish ideas for bars. With a nod to a hipster vibe, thriving music scene, and edgy style, Sydney is a place of constant reinvention.

Once known primarily for its bronzed-surfer beaches of Bondi and Manly, and iconic harbour views at Circular Quay and The Rocks, now vibrant neighbourhoods like Surry Hills, Darlinghurst, Paddington, and Potts Point are gaining their fair share of the spotlight.

Like flashy bookends, my trip to Australia began and ended in Sydney.  Providing me with ample opportunity to explore the adventurous side of the city, meander through the lively neighbourhoods, dine at some hot list restaurants and, of course, let loose when the sun sets.

Which of course begs the question, “where better to enjoy a sunset cocktail than the Island Bar on Cockatoo Island?” Just a short ferry ride away from Circular Quay, the Island Bar is a funky industrial, outdoor bar in Sydney Harbour that’s run by some lively Italians.

Complete with leisurely deck chairs and a scenic view, this unconventional and rather gritty island escape was once a shipyard and former prison. Not your typical bar, by any stretch of the imagination, this popular outdoor venue now boasts waterfront views on a World Heritage Site, alongside campers and urban wanderers.

Continuing the small bar, trendy pub-crawl I headed to the Shady Pines Saloon on Crown Street in Darlinghurst. With no signage to mark its existence, finding Shady Pines can be its own adventure. But once inside, you’re transported to a rather unusual mix of a kitschy Americana – Wild Wild West watering hole that’s somehow more reminiscent of a 1920’s Prohibition-era speakeasy.  With its tasty drinks and party-going atmosphere, this candle-lit basement bar was one of my favourites.

Armed with recommendations from Sydney locals, and still more nightlife to discover, I visited Darlinghurst’s stylish and discreetly hidden Eau de Vie bar, the classy upstairs Sticky gin joint, Hinky Dinks twisted tiki bar, and the Bucket List in Bondi Beach.

More notables on the Sydney small bar scene include the pop art, graffiti laden Pocket Bar on Crown Street in Darlinghurst, the Baxter Inn subterranean swill house of whisky, wine & beer, the relaxed loungy vibe of Bar 302 aka Low 302, another popular haunt on Crown Street, and the Guatemalan style Tio’s tequila bar in Surry Hills.

With so many choices, it’s easy to have a good time.

But I’d be remiss not to mention that one of my first initiations into Sydney’s nightlife and uniquely Aussie party scene was participating in the city’s legendary Mardi Gras. Completely different from the Mardi Gras celebration we’re familiar with in New Orleans, Sydney’s party is fabulously unconventional and intensely fun.

Mardi Gras party - Image by John O'Nolan

The carnival lasts two days, with avant-garde events kicking off the festivities at the world famous Bondi Beach and continuing with a ‘see and be seen’ all-night, let loose celebration in Darlinghurst. With a tradition that’s lasted a third of a century, Sydney Mardi Gras is an annual event that draws as many as 300,000 spectators from all over Australia and around the world.

Kelly Harmon