Four ways to get a serious hit of culture in Newcastle
As the largest port in New South Wales, Newcastle life understandably revolves around the water, whether you’re swimming in gem-like ocean pools, surfing reliably good waves, or just gazing out over the harbour from a scenic waterside perch.
Head for the Hill
The bohemian inner-city suburb of Cooks Hill is a perennial magnet for art aficionados, if only to while away a day in the standout Newcastle Art Gallery, the largest of its kind in the city, with a collection of more than 6,000 works. It’s also a magnet for other creatives – walk the surrounding streets to discover an eclectic precinct celebrating diversity and culture in all forms.
The main thoroughfare is leafy Darby Street, along which you’ll discover grand Victorian terraces and heritage timber cottages now home to achingly cool restaurants, boutiques and design stores. Like Abicus, which is stocked with a covetable range of fashion and footwear as well as hard-to-find vinyl and books on music.
Or pick up handmade stationery, framed art and obscure curios at Blackbird Corner, which represents a number of exclusive makers, then drop into Willow’s Home Traders for the type of furniture and homewares you’d expect to see in a glossy interiors magazine. Pappa Sven is likewise a shrine to design, but with a distinct Scandinavian twist, from limited-edition Nedre Foss ceramics to eye-popping Marimekko fabrics.
Smaller purveyors of art have long seen the potential in the area, including Cooks Hill Galleries, which has been hosting exhibitions and events on these streets since 1975. Cooks Hill Books has been around almost as long (since 1985), the establishment legendary in these parts for its floor-to-ceiling shelves weighed down with second-hand books and records spanning every topic and genre.
Step back in time
Newcastle today has a zippy lipstick-red light rail network, but wind back the clock to the late 1800s and the city was serviced by rickety trams. By the 1920s, they came with gleaming maroon carriages and polished wooden seats, as you’ll experience when you step aboard Newcastle’s Famous Tram – an exact replica of one that rambled around town in 1923, except on wheels rather than rails.
Your chariot departs from Queen’s Wharf, taking you around town to discover beaches, parks and historic sites, including Fort Scratchley, Newcastle’s first line of defence for almost 100 years. Make note to come back here after your tour ends – it’s now home to a fascinating museum where you can explore a network of underground tunnels and grab a photo with the fort’s cannons, still standing guard.
There’s a pause in the commentary when you reach Strzelecki Lookout – a clifftop walkway was constructed here on the 100th anniversary of the ANZAC landing at Gallipoli in 1915. Apart from acting as a memorial to pay homage to those who served during the war, it’s a glorious place to soak up vast coastal vistas, not to mention spot migrating humpback and southern right whales frolicking offshore during the whale season (May through November).
See culture in the making
More than 50 hectares of disused industrial land is now prime real estate along Newcastle’s waterfront – the Honeysuckle precinct will prove a sweet spot whether you’re an art and culture lover, an outdoor enthusiast or a gourmand. Better yet if you’re all three.
For a slice of the past, stop at Newcastle Museum, which hosts dozens of eye-catching exhibitions (many of them interactive) including a gallery dedicated to the history of the city, from early Aboriginal life to times of war and recent pioneers who have gone on to make their mark around the world.
Outside, you’ll get a taste of the city’s dramatic architecture, from the distinctive EJE Architects-designed glass-and-timber building belonging to the University of Newcastle – more such creations are slated to fill out this new campus – to the Honeysuckle Hotel, taking pride of place on a 1910 wharf originally built with cargo sheds for the port.
A long foreshore promenade links the neighbourhood’s attractions and parkland, with plenty of public art along the way; be sure to check out the Matthew Harding sculpture outside the (now closed) Maritime Centre when it’s set aglow at dusk, as well as a larger-than life interactive mural by Trevor Dickinson, just begging you to snap a selfie in front of it.
Extend a branch
Newcastle locals are a creative bunch, and if you’re here on the first Saturday of the month, you’ll have the chance to peruse their talents at the epic Olive Tree Market. This is not your usual community gathering of stalls – you won’t find any lavender pouches or white-bread sausage-sizzles here. Everything has been carefully curated to highlight the city’s (and country’s) standout makers, whether emerging and established artists, designers, ceramicists or artisan producers.
Among the 130 stalls set up in Civic Park for the event – just a few blocks back from Honeysuckle – you may find the likes of Jika, whose jewellery is handmade using recycled gold, silver and brass; The Salty Crown, selling covetable hats crafted from biodegradable and renewable wool, felt and local leather; Merchants of Nonsense, known for their eye-popping graphic designs on everything from calendars to cards; and Wolf Bear Collective, which makes stylish eco-friendly fashion. Brands and offerings rotate between recurring market days, adding to the anticipation of the event.
Like most visitors you might want to make a day of the markets – spread out a picnic rug and listen to live music or perhaps participate in a meditative singing bowl session – entertainment and activities are always diverse. As are the culinary offerings, with Newcastle crowd Sprocket Roasters making a regular appearance to brew morning essentials. Pair it with an offering from Choux Patisserie, whose bakers make fruit-topped éclairs that are almost too pretty to eat. Almost.