On the Greatness of Walking Tours: Seeing Sydney by Foot

Part 2 of the Great Sydney Caper


I have written before about my love of walking tours. Guided walking tours are great since you get to learn some of the local history; we have done all three of Visit KL’s excellent (and free!) walking tours and learned a lot about our host city. But a self-guided tour can also be great because you get to move at your own pace and spend as long as you want smelling the roses, as it were…or having a drink in a historic pub. The trick is finding a map or guidebook or something to help you get as much out of your stroll as you can. Before we moved to KL, we picked up the Lonely Planet guide to Malaysia as well as to Kuala Lumpur specifically. I was familiar with this series as a brand, but I hadn’t traveled with them before. I quickly discovered how closely our general philosophy of life- shop local, eat local, find the options with the most “bang for your buck”- aligns with this series. If you aren’t familiar with Lonely Planet, it was originally started by a couple who had traveled around Europe and Asia on a shoestring budget; they are committed to providing “insider information” so travelers can have an amazing experience without spending an amazing amount of money. My favorite thing about the series is that they provide suggestions for self-guided walking tours. (The only downside is that sometimes their maps aren’t as detailed as one would like, so it is helpful to take the time to scout the route on a full map as well. Or have access to a detailed map/GPS on your phone.) Having enjoyed some of the walks in KL, we knew we wanted to try some of the Sydney walks as well.

If you are unfamiliar with Sydney, it has many different neighborhoods. It actually reminded me of Boston a little in this way. In Boston, there’s Beacon Hill, Cambridge, Dorchester, the North End… each with it’s own history and flavor. Sydney’s neighborhoods are the same way. For each different section of the city, Lonely Planet had a walking tour to highlight some points of interest. There were some we definitely wanted to do, some we thought looked interesting given enough time, and some that we actually did by accident.

The first tour we did by accident on our first day. We had plans to meet a friend of mine who now lives in Sydney for lunch around 12:30, but we got to our hotel around 8:30am. After we stored our luggage and had breakfast, we still had about two hours to kill. Since we hadn’t slept much the night before, due to our over night flight, we decided walking around was our best bet to keep ourselves awake! Our hotel was in the Pyrmont neighborhood, very close to Darling Harbour. Doing some local scouting to see what was close to our hotel seemed like a reasonable plan. It was still on the early side of the day so there were very few people out and about and we definitely got to know our surroundings. The only downside was that we felt like zombies and it was raining, otherwise it was a really nice walk. After lunch with my friend, we were finally able to get into our hotel room for a rest. I picked up the Sydney guidebook to read about our area, and turns out we had done most of the walk they recommended!

We walked along the waterfront, through Pyrmont Bay Park, and by what I can only assume to be some very expensive condos. We passed The Star casino and joked about going in to enjoy some of the oxygen-saturated air to rejuvenate us. (Apparently there is a “Welcome Wall” near here, to celebrate immigration, but if we saw it we didn’t know that’s what it was.) We also walked over the harbor on a pedestrian bridge, which turned out to be the Pyrmont Bridge- the world’s first electric swing bridge.  I don’t believe it swings anymore, but whether that is because the function doesn’t work or because it’s not necessary, I don’t know. On the opposite side of the bridge along the harbor front, there were lots of restaurants and bars, as well as some tourist attractions like Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum and the Sydney Sea Life Aquarium.

That first day we had also found Circular Quay and The Rocks and knew we wanted to explore that area more. So that’s exactly what we did on Monday, our first full day in Sydney. The walk Lonely Planet recommended was about 4 kilometers and we knew we wouldn’t get through the whole thing, based on the fact that we had a leisurely start to the day and we had scheduled our Opera House tour for that evening. We also know from experience that their suggested time (2.5 hours in this case), doesn’t work for us because we sometimes like to take more time at the points of interest. This walk included the Botanical Gardens, which we thought we would see a different day (turns out we never made it there), so we skipped that half and focused on the half on the Western side of the harbor. We like to think that we are rebels sometimes, so we picked up the trail somewhere in the middle and walked it backwards. The walk took us through some of the oldest areas of Sydney, and the book provided a brief history of the area and the landmarks we walked by. It was a great “first thing” to do in the city.

We started in Circular Quay at Cadman’s Cottage, which was built in 1816 and is the oldest house in the inner city. When it was built, it was on the beach at the edge of the harbor. Now, it’s a good ways back from the waterfront. From here, we walked through some of Sydney’s oldest roads in The Rocks area. We saw Garrison Church, the colony’s first military church, and the Argyle Cut. The Argyle Cut is where the road passes through high walls of sandstone. Lonely Planet calls it “canyonlike.” It’s significant because it was excavated by convict laborers. Work began in 1843 with hand tools and completed in 1867, at some point near the end of excavation, dynamite was apparently used as well. Seeing it’s modern day form, it was remarkable to think of people carving through the rocks with only hand tools. No wonder it took over twenty years! Near here is Foundation Park, which is basically the “preserved ruins” of 1870s houses- the foundations of the houses, as it were. The houses were essentially built right into the cliff face. There is a display of over-sized furniture to highlight the cramped living conditions families here experienced. Next we made our way to the top of Observatory Hill, which was supposed to be the starting point of the tour, and then on to the Lord Nelson Brewery Hotel. From here, we walked back towards our own hotel through Argyle Place, a “quiet, English-style village green lined with terraced houses,” and Miller’s Point.  It turns out that a lot of the Miller’s Point area is public housing now. There is apparently some talk of the city selling it to developers and pushing public housing farther out of the city. I’m not at all surprised by this as it was a very quaint area in a great location.  I was pleased to see a lot of protest signs in the area, I hope the residents are successful.

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We spent a significant amount of time at Observatory Hill, because it had wonderful views of the Sydney Harbour Bridge and the older neighborhoods. Plus, it was a nice park and a nice day. Another area we really enjoyed and spent a lot of time exploring was The Rocks. The first Europeans to settle in Australia landed in Sydney in 1788, when England made Australia a penal colony. They landed near what is now Circular Quay (where the Opera House is), and set up shop there because there was a fresh water stream. The convicts got the land on the west side of the stream and the soldiers and government officials got the eastern side. The convict side became known as The Rocks…because there were a lot of rocks. And we’re talking huge cliffs and ledges, not a few rocks in a field. It would have been a very undesirable piece of land for new settlers. Of course the British gave this area to the convict colonists and took a nicer area for themselves. Today, The Rocks has a lot of historic buildings that house shops, restaurants, and galleries. It was a fantastic place to poke around, even if it was really hilly! We ended our day with a drink stop at the Lord Nelson Hotel & Brewery. It boasts that it is the oldest hotel in Sydney, and is one of two or three places that claim to be the oldest pub in Sydney (and therefore Australia since Sydney was the original settlement). We intended to check out the other “oldest” pubs, but ended up not having time. Lord Nelson’s was pretty great though; it was easy to imagine British colonial soldiers at the tables. And any place that brews their own beer is a place worth trying, in my book.

The second tour in the “by accident” category was a tour of the Central Business District. Downtown Sydney, or the CBD, has a mix of historic and modern buildings. The Lonely Planet walk, about a mile long, pointed out highlights of the historic buildings. We walked through here several times on our way between our hotel and various other activities. Unfortunately, we never stopped to take pictures, but the historic buildings tucked between skyscrapers were always something to marvel at. There are also a lot of small and large parks and green spaces throughout the city, including in the CBD, which gave the city a wonderful feel.

Though not officially on a Lonely Planet approved walk, we also explored the Kings Cross, Potts Point, and Paddington areas. We did this on a photo tour, which I thought would be a bit more tourist-focused based on the Trip Advisor reviews. It was more properly a photo class that happened to be in Sydney. I think we were the only tourists, actually! It turned out to be great because we learned a lot more about our own camera and different techniques for taking (much) better pictures. It was also great because we saw some neighborhoods that we would never have explored on our own. These areas were more residential neighborhoods, so it was really nice to explore a less touristy part of the city. In preparation for writing this post, I went back to the guidebook to see if we hit any of the highlights, and we actually did!  Looks like we hit about three or four of the points of interest, out of about ten, on two different tours.

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The other LP-endorsed walks we did will be covered in Natural Sydney, the next blog post in this epic series. (I won’t say when to expect it, because sometimes my actual job takes time away from blog writing time, and I don’t want to disappoint you by promising something I can’t deliver. Let’s just say “soon”!) The Manly Scenic Walk and the Bondi Beach to Coogee Beach Cliffs Walk really deserve their own post, anyway. Both were excellent.

Sydney felt very familiar to us. In fact, we were talking to one of our cab drivers about living in KL and really feeling at home in Sydney in a way we don’t in KL. He said something to the effect of, “well Sydney is basically like any other city in the US.” And that was very true. We could have easily been in Seattle or San Francisco or Boston. It reminded me a lot of Boston, actually, not only for the various neighborhoods of the city, but because the shared colonial history has left similar marks on both cities. In Boston, we like to think that our forebears were noble people, looking for a place to worship their chosen religion, free from persecution (never mind the fact that the Puritans in the Mass Bay Colony openly persecuted any non-Puritans they could find). This is certainly true, but the colonies also housed a fair number of convicts who had been “relocated” from England. The only difference is that Boston had both convicts and free people, where as Sydney originally just had convicts. Sydney has a lot of buildings that date to it’s founding that are still in use, many of them are in close proximity to modern skyscrapers. Boston has the same mix of historic and modern. And, in the “really obvious” category, Sydney-siders and Americans share the same language, and many of us have shared ethnic backgrounds as descendants of UK-born ancestors, so the people also look physically familiar.

Along with being in a place that just felt familiar, it was really nice to be back in a place where we shared the cultural norms. Much nicer than I would have expected. Before we left for Sydney, I would have said that we have adjusted pretty well to life in KL. But after only a week away, coming back felt like we had to adjust all over again. I am still enjoying the experience of living in a very different place, but there are a lot of things I am just “over.” It was really nice to walk into a café and know that there wouldn’t be a language barrier to negotiate. It was really nice to spend time in a place with a really low population density (372 people per square kilometer) instead of a really high population density (about 6,700 people per sq. km in KL). (For comparison, Dallas has 1,340 people per sq. km, Boston has 4,700 people per sq. km, and Austin has 1,009 people per sq. km.) Sydney has a lot of green spaces and parks, even in the heart of the city. In KL, green spaces are few and far between (though we are lucky to live a short walk away from a nice, though small, park). Sydney seemed cleaner and appeared to have less pollution. And, even though Sydney was very hot, it was nice to be out of KL’s oppressive humidity for a bit. The idea of “personal space” in KL is also very different than in the States, so it was nice to have a little bit more of a personal bubble in Sydney as well.

Coming up next: Natural Sydney. Our explorations of the Sydney Harbour National Parks and the amazing Bondi Beach to Coogee Beach Cliffs Walk.

3 thoughts on “On the Greatness of Walking Tours: Seeing Sydney by Foot

  1. Pingback: There & Back Again: Traveling to and from Australia | adventure pengembara

  2. Pingback: The Sydney Master Post | adventure pengembara

  3. Pingback: Exploring Natural Sydney | adventure pengembara

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