Hidden and Local Gems of Newcastle, Australia
What can I say about Newcastle?
For years after an earthquake wreaked havoc across the place (in 1989), the city seemed to sit rotting in its foundations.
Fast forward thirty years and the seventh biggest city in Australia is certainly one of the country’s most underrated places to visit.
It’s only “up the road” in Australian terms from Sydney and feels like a mini-Melbourne at times – but with decent beaches (sorry Melbourne, everything else about you is nice, but your beaches suck).
Something for certain – there are plenty of things to do in Newcastle, NSW – some of which are touristy, others known mostly to locals.
These activities are all quite varied. Yes there is the ocean, but there are also hip cafés, restaurants and bars. There’s art, history and culture hidden around every corner, for those who are less beach-inclined.
And if you do indeed fall into this camp, I highly recommend visiting the nearby Hunter Valley for a day trip – or even a weekend!
So, I’m going to spill the beans on a few of the city’s best spots – some well-known, others that tend to be frequented by locals only. Either way, you’re pretty much guaranteed to have a good time in this city, no matter what it is you end up doing.
Merewether Ocean Baths
Have you ever swam in ocean baths? If not (and presuming that you actually like the ocean/swimming), I advise you to make it an immediate priority in your life.
When I lived and worked in Newy, I’d finish up each work day in the summer with a dip in the baths, swimming a few lazy laps, or hanging out at the edge of the pool, staring off into the sea and thinking about life. They are days I look back on, fondly and I try to head back to the baths for a dip whenever I’m in town, even in the winter months!
The Stockton Ferry
Stockton is a suburb of Newcastle that is separated by the harbour itself. To reach it, you can either drive the long way around through Newcastle’s industrial estates, or simply hop on the Stockton ferry, which can take you across the harbour in a handful of minutes.
Sometimes, when heading into the city, I drive to Stockton and dump my car there, before catching the ferry across. Parking in Newcastle can be quite expensive, so I save myself a bucketload of cash by doing so.
Plus, the ferry is fantastic fun. Who doesn’t enjoy a good boat ride now and then? No one, of course, because they are good for the soul.
The Big Penis (aka The Queen’s Wharf Tower)
If you do catch the ferry into Newcastle, you can kick off your day there by climbing the Queen’s Wharf Tower.
The 30-metre tall tower offers 360° views of the city, although you have to squint some to see them, as local hooligans have thoughtfully left their mark on the viewing platform by scratching their initials and the like into the glass. It’s great that you “was ‘ere” in 2005 “Wazza” – but you’ve destroyed my view.
The Tower is affectionately and simply known as the “Big Penis” amongst locals and you can’t deny that its shape is decidedly phallic.
Edit: Queen’s Wharf Tower is no more – it was pulled down in September 2018, after local council rejected the $1.6 million bill for much needed maintenance. Although scrapped, it will forever live on in the minds and hearts of Novocastrians – those who loved it most and slagged it off best.
The Breakwalls (Stockton and Nobbys, respectively)
To get a good scope of the city, why not walk along one of the two breakwalls around the harbour and breathe in that fresh, sea air?
Nobbys boardwalk will take you down past the iconic lighthouse, along the boardwalk itself, where you can stare out at the sea (I’ve seen dolphins from here), or enjoy the view of the sprawl of the city behind you.
I found Stockton’s boardwalk (also known as Shipwreck Walk) to be a bit sad, in comparison. It’s littered with plaques commemorating dearly departed locals of the area, as well as the various ships that were wrecked within Newcastle Harbour (200-odd vessels all up).
There’s even a preserved ship, The Adolphe, which was wrecked on Stockton breakwall in 1904, existing now as a local attraction.
The Regal Cinema
The Regal Cinema is run by husband and wife duo Jo and George and is definitely the best cinema in Newcastle and quite possibly the whole of Australia (but then, I am prone to hyperbole).
The couple are film enthusiasts, with the cinema being a longtime dream of Jo’s. For $8-$10 you not only get a ticket to one of their carefully programmed films, but you will be fed and watered with an array of edible delights. The couple and their helpers work hard to ensure all patrons take their seats laden down with goodies of a sweet, savoury and alcoholic nature, which can change depending on the genre of film, or simply day of the weekend. A French film will call for champagne and Saturday is cheese and port night, which happens to be my personal favourite.
The Regal is open Friday-Sunday and it’s best to book your tickets in advance. It is particularly popular amongst pensioners, but all ages are welcome!
If you’re a history buff (or simply enjoy lovely views of the ocean), then Fort Scratchley is the place for you.
The Fort is perhaps the most historically important site within Newcastle, as it is the only place in Australia to have fired heavy guns at hostile vessels, from coastal defences.
You want to hear the story, right? Of course. Well. During WWII, Japanese forces sent a submarine (I-21) into Newcastle Harbour, where it fired 34 shells upon the city. Luckily, few exploded and minimal damage was caused.
Fort Scratchley fired four rounds at the submarine, before it escaped. Interestingly, the fourth may have very well hit, but a civilian ship was heading to port at the time and her smoke obliterated the Fort’s target.
I could go on about the Fort for quite some time and may very well do so in a future blog post. All you need to know for now is that the army vacated the premises in the 1970s and it was eventually restored. Entry to the museum and the Fort itself is free and for an inexpensive fee (of around $12), you can go on a guided tour of the tunnels below.
If you do plan to see the Fort, try to time your visit so that you’re there at 1pm, when a gun is fired, per tradition (not so much during the summer months, as it’s usually put on hold due to the fire-ban that is enforced in the peak of the season, for fear of bushfires).
The Press Book House Cafe
After more culture, or perhaps a good cup of coffee?
Look no further than the The Press Book House Cafe – where you can grab a cup of char or joe, while having a browse of their collection of secondhand and Penguin books.
Some would say nothing beats the stench of coffee – but for this bibliophile, it’s all about the smell of books. Yum.
The shop is located midway down Hunter Street, Newcastle’s main road. It’s worth popping into if you’re ever in the area and having a stroll down through town.
The Bogey Hole
The Bogey Hole is one of Newcastle’s oldest attractions – a pool that was cut into the cliff rocks by convicts in 1819, for the personal use of Lieutenant-Colonel James Thomas Morisset, who was Commandant of Newcastle at the time.
Now the pool is open to all patrons (after a recent refurbishment) and perfect for those looking for a quick dip in the ocean, without the threat of waves. Unless it is a particularly windy day, in which case the waves will be breaking hard over the rocks and I’d advise you strongly to linger at the back.
Newcastle has two streets that are best frequented for both restaurants and nightlife – Darby Street in town and Beaumont Street, in the suburb of Hamilton.
Beaumont St. is easily accessible, as it’s where the train station terminus is now located, with shuttles running frequently from Hamilton Station into town. It’s my favourite of the two – I find there to be a better range of restaurants and pubs.
Darby has more of a cafe scene, making it the better choice for lazy weekend brunches, before heading off to the beach.
Blackbutt Nature Reserve
Fancy seeing native Australian animals? Head straight to Blackbutt Nature Reserve.
The reserve is free to enter (although you do have to pay for parking) and is an excellent place for families to congregate, celebrate birthdays, or simply throw a few slabs of meat onto any of the available BBQs.
Don’t have any kids? Neither do I, but I still enjoyed it immensely. Wander around, say hi to the local inhabitants, feed a kangaroo, or go for a bushwalk around the area.
Where to Stay
So, have I managed to convince you that Newcastle is the bomb diggity? I certainly hope so!
You’d do best to spend at least a weekend in the city, although you’d need a few days to really show the area justice.
Here are some options, for every type of budget.
For a luxury weekend – Rydges Newcastle
Located right in Honeysuckle on the foreshore, this hotel is close to restaurants and bars and has beautiful harbour views.
Click here for availability and prices.
Mid-Range Accommodation – Clarendon Hotel
The Clarendon is situated in the centre of town, a short walk away from the very hip Darby St, which is a popular brunching spot.
Click here for availability and prices.
Budget in the city – CBD Hotel
CBD Hotel is located on Hunter St, the main street in Newcastle and is close to both the Newcastle Museum and Civic Theatre.
Click here for availability and prices.
Have you been to Newcastle? What were your favourite sights?
PS. All prices are in AUD and this post contains affiliate links.
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