In 2011, Lonely Planet surprised the majority of Australians by whacking Newcastle, a small city 150km north of Sydney onto its top ten cities list.
“Duh,” said the 300,000 odd strong population of the city. “We’ve been telling you all for years.”
I was lucky enough to grow up half an hour away from Newcastle as a teen and moved to the city itself for University. Once ambivalent about the place, I now have nothing but affection for this town and everyone in it.
Is Newcastle Australia’s most underrated city? I certainly believe so and there are many reasons supporting this claim. I’ll even go so far as listing them for you.
It has a top class University
One of the best things about growing up in Australia is that up until recently, there was little to no snobbery in regards to where you chose to undergo your tertiary education. Simply, you went to the University that was the best for your degree and for me, that was the University of Newcastle. I am more than proud to be an alumni of this fantastic institution and look back on my years there with the fondest of memories. Since I graduated, UoN has continued to go from strength to strength, opening up a campus in the CBD, earning worldwide acclaim for its research and coming in at number 30 on the Times Higher Education 100 under 50 list. This is a list of the top 100 Universities under 50 years old in the world.
One of the more charming aspects of the University of Newcastle, is that it was perhaps somewhat misguidedly built right near the local wetlands. It has subsequently been suggested by students that the coat of arms be changed from a Hippocamp to a mosquito rampant. If you find yourself on the Shortland campus for whatever reason, do not skimp on the insect repellent.
It has a very, erm, distinctive foreshore
In 1988, Queen Elizabeth II opened the Queens Wharf Tower during her second visit to Newcastle. It is an observation tower that links to the city mall and offers stunning 360° views of the town, from the city centre, to nearby Stockton.
Of course no one ever actually calls it the “Queens Wharf Tower”; it is simply known around town as the “giant penis”. There is no arguing that there is something delightfully phallic about its structure.
Choose from two sets of ocean baths and one man-made swimming pool
Not a beach fan? Really? Well, then venture down to either one of the Ocean Baths, located in the suburbs of Newcastle East and Merewether. Both are popular with locals and tourists alike. Swim laps, or simply lay back and float around to your heart’s content.
If you don’t like sand, the Bogey Hole may be for you. This man-made pool was cut out of ocean rocks by convicts in 1819, for the personal use of Lieutenant-Colonel James Thomas Morisset, who was Commandant of Newcastle from 1819 to 1822. The name comes from an indigenous word, which means “to bathe” and is generally inundated with swimmers in the summer.
It boasts the biggest KFC in the Southern Hemisphere
I actually wouldn’t tout this as a highlight, but it bears a mention for more than one reason. This Kentucky Fried Chicken was built on the site of the former Palais Royale, once a cultural landmark of the city. The Palais, whose heydey lasted from 1939 to 1957, was famous throughout town; as a ballroom, then a dance hall and finally a nightclub.
The building was originally erected in the 1880s and underwent many renovations. After severe storm damage in 2007, it was declared structurally unsound and demolished the next year.
As the site was prepared, archaeologists discovered 5,700 aboriginal stone tools which dated back some 6,500 years. Unfortunately, the report in question wasn’t released until after construction of the KFC was completed.
It’s a mecca for history buffs
Did you know Newcastle once had the largest tram network in Australia? Move over, Melbourne! The network was dismantled in 1950, yet Newcastle’s Famous Tram (on wheels) is still running around town, offering a one-hour tour to visitors.
Fort Scratchley, located in Newcastle East, was built in 1882 and acted as a coastal defence base. Its guns were not fired in defence until the 8th of June, 1942, at a Japanese submarine that was attacking Newcastle. The Fort was vacated by the Army in the 70s and is now a museum, which welcomes visitors who wish to take a paid guided tour. If you are on a budget or tours aren’t your thing, you are free to explore the site above ground at no cost.
To commemorate the 100 year anniversary of the Landing at Gallipoli and the Anzacs who fell that fateful day, the Anzac Memorial Walk was opened in Newcastle earlier this year. The walk spans 450 metres, including a 160 metre bridge. It boasts stunning views of the beaches and the city to the west. At each end of the bridge are silhouettes of returned services personnel, featuring the 3859 family names of those Hunter men and women who served during WWI.
It’s the only city in Australia that can put a positive spin on an environmental disaster
It’s hard to forget the storms of June 2007, which devastated the town and surrounding areas. Two friends of mine were living in America at the time. I had the following exchange with them over Skype…
Me: “There’s a giant tanker on Nobbys Beach.”
Them: “We don’t believe you.”
Me: “I wouldn’t either. But it is a thing that has happened.”
A 77,000-ton cargo ship, the “Pasha Bulker”, had washed up onto one of Newcastle’s main beaches. It sat there for a month, drawing spectators from all over the state, before being towed back to Japan. The street leading to the beach was renamed “Pasha Way” and a sculpture featuring a section of the ship’s rudder was installed to commemorate the occasion.
Start-Ups can afford to operate in the CBD
With two giant shopping centres located in the city’s outer suburbs, the CBD has become somewhat of a ghost town. Enter Renew Newcastle, an organisation which has the aim of transferring empty buildings into work spaces for community groups and creative businesses.
Walk into any building in the mall and you are sure to find a collection of innovative young professionals, striving to take their businesses and start-up ventures off the ground. Their presence is slowly breathing life back into the once decaying city centre.
Life’s a beach
You cannot talk about Newcastle without making some mention of its beaches. The city boasts a total of nine beaches, two ocean baths and the aforementioned Bogey Hole. Each beach is stunning in its own regard and are famous world over for their surf.
Travelling to Newcastle and want to make the most of your time there? Here are the top ten things to do in Newcastle.
Shout out to The Newcastle Herald, which was an invaluable source for fact checking when writing this post.