Sydney's early convict days live on in the Rocks, a jumble of cobblestone streets and cul-de-sacs just five minutes from Circular Quay. You only have to step off the harbour foreshore to find the sandstone terraces and cottages and some of Sydney's oldest pubs. This historic precinct also draws both visitors and locals with its museums and galleries, lively weekend markets and hotels with harbour views. The past and present collide in the best way in the Rocks, home to both ghostly tours and some of Sydney's liveliest celebrations.
The steep, higgledy-piggledy streets of The Rocks sprawl out to the western side of Circular Quay and the imposing steel arch of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Start your explorations wandering around the harbour foreshore, from the iconic Opera House on one side to just beneath the bridge. Visit the Pylon Lookout, or for even better views, climb the span of the bridge with an organised group.
The pubs here are some of the oldest in Sydney, and you can join a walking tour to learn about their colourful history. Listen to live music or taste a locally-brewed pint in bars where sailors, soldiers and stevedores celebrated and drank away their sorrows in the 1800s. A guide can help you imagine the lives of these larrikins, who struggled with poverty and grim, disease-ridden conditions. Immerse yourself in their stories as you wander between the pubs, historic Playfair Street terraces, storehouses and workman's cottages.
Today these house elegant boutiques and galleries, where you can shop for an up-market souvenir or see the work of Australian artists. In the popular Saturday markets you'll find everything from stylish, hand-crafted jewelry to gourmet bush tucker condiments. Afterwards, have a tarot card reading in an esoteric bookshop or grab lunch in a patisserie or café with a colonial courtyard.
The Rocks is also at the hub of some of Sydney's best-known artistic attractions. At nearby Walsh Bay, you can see a performance by the Sydney Theatre Company or join a dance class with the Sydney Dance Company. Fronting Circular Quay is the Museum of Contemporary Art, showcasing cutting-edge exhibitions from across Australia and the world.
For a historical experience, head to the Justice and Police Museum, once a court house that processed criminals from Sydney's rowdy waterfront. Peer into the old remand cells and imagine the restored 1890s police charge room. To delve deeper into the dark side of early Sydney, join a ghost tour round the Rocks. Listen to grisly stories as you walk through tiny alleys by lantern light.
The spirits may love these cobblestone streets, but you're more likely to meet international tourists or city office workers having a drink in one of the heritage hotels. You may also find yourself caught up in riotous crowds during some of Sydney's biggest celebrations. Listen to live bands and soak up the atmosphere on Australia Day on 26 January or see fireworks explode over Sydney Harbour on New Year's Eve. Don't miss The Rocks, where Sydney's past and the present collide in the best way.