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Australia’s coolest coastal town

Newcastle is making a name for itself as an innovative global city of the future – here’s why you should visit right now. 

By Georgia Rickard
Published: 21 March, 2017

As well as being a global forerunner in urban renewal, a local travel hotspot and home to one of Australia’s biggest booming property markets, Newcastle has just been named one of the world’s smart cities for 2017 by National Geographic. Spend a few days here and you’ll see why: this is a forward-thinking place with a promising future, set against a backdrop of some remarkably beautiful beaches.

But there’s more to the story than that. It wasn’t long ago that Newcastle was a different place, with streets that were all but empty. Today, its revolutionary approach to metropolitan redevelopment is being adopted across the globe. Visit and you’ll not only experience one of Australia’s hippest travel experiences but get a glimpse of one of the global cities of the future.

Newcastle’s clever renewal

Newcastle, New South Wales

Newcastle was traditionally an industrial hub, producing coal, steel and copper for Australia and export. But slowing demand led to economic downturn over several decades. By the time of the global financial crisis, it was a town of empty shopfronts and office buildings.

But Australians have a culture of creative problem solving (it’s a by-product of living on an island) and one day a local by the name of Marcus Westbury had an idea: what if those buildings were offered to young, creative start-ups – for free? After all, that empty space was only going to waste. At least putting people into them would bring some life back to the city. The Renew Newcastle initiative, as it became known, soon attracted adventurous and talented Australians from across the country. Within a few short years the newly busy streets had attracted business back to the area, giving the city an air of purpose and promise and rebooting the local economy. The initiative was not just deemed successful; it was held up as a global example of success, and has since been rolled out in cities in Portugal, the Netherlands, Denmark, Canada and the US, to name a few.

Unique shopping

Hunt&Gather Markets, Newcastle, New South Wales

The Renew initiative gave young entrepreneurs the space to take risks that they mightn’t otherwise have taken. As a result, countless artisans have found exposure and success for their fascinating wares, especially at The Emporium, where you’ll find everything from upcycled industrial furniture and delicate bespoke lace to surprisingly sophisticated millinery. It’s housed in a heritage Victorian building that was once a department store. Shopping in Newcastle is a distinctly local experience: the slick Darby Street precinct offers a mix of modern fashion boutiques and beautifully curated homeware collections alongside vintage record stores and Australian designer labels. Hunt&Gather, a relaxed Saturday market, serves up handmade fine jewellery, unusually scented hand-poured soaps, fresh flower arrangements, excellent coffee and more, to the tune of original songs by local musicians, all under the fragrant shade of enormous fig trees. 

Making smart moves

Newcastle is almost unrecognisable since the Renew initiative was instigated. The city has invested heavily in technology and education, redeveloping its urban centre, commissioning a new university city campus and planning digitally connected and interactive public infrastructure, as well as wi-fi throughout the central business district. Stroll through Newcastle’s streets and you’ll see why this city is home to increasing numbers of Australian start-ups, co-working spaces and clean-tech companies, as well as a largely youthful population of students, innovators and creative entrepreneurs.

The local tastes of a global city

The Edwards, Newcastle, New South Wales

Naturally, the city has also become a playground of buzzing restaurants and quirky bars, and there are several must-stop places to eat and drink. Start at The Edwards, a restaurant, bar, shop, laundromat, vinyl store and motorbike workshop by Chris Joannou (member of legendary Australian rock band Silverchair), and book ahead for dinner at Subo, a multi-award-winning fine-dining experience. Have at least one organic brunch at Blue Door, take your pick from the bars lining the waterfront Honeysuckle precinct (we especially like The Landing), and end at least one evening with a drink at Coal and Cedar, an underground speakeasy set in the reinforced bunker of a heritage bank. Don’t forget to visit Sydney while you’re here (it’s a two-hour south drive) – if you can fit it into your timetable.