The Rocks, Sydney - review by Rusty Compass
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The Rocks, Sydney

| 06 Jan 2023
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The Rocks, Sydney
The Rocks, Sydney - access from Circular Quay
06 Jan 2023

The Rocks was the first British convict settlement in Australia and the place where the long dispossession of Australia’s First Peoples began. When the First Fleet threw down anchor in Sydney Cove in January 1788, the Rocks became the ramshackle settlement for the convicts. As the prison colony transitioned to a colonial economy, the area became an important port settlement. Today, The Rocks is one of Sydney’s most popular tourism destinations. Some of the best remnants of Sydney's colonial history and heritage are found here. Explore old cobblestone lanes, lined with 19th century and early 20th century buildings. Grab a drink or a bite in an historic pub, and soak up some of Sydney’s best views. The city’s most famous landmarks - The Harbour Bridge and the Opera House are close by. For an experience of The Rocks beyond the tourist bubble, check our guide below.

Note: The information provided in this review was correct at time of publishing but may change. For final clarification please check with the relevant service

Spend at least half a day exploring The Rocks if time allows. Mix up your wandering by visiting the museums - Museum of Contemporary Art, The Rocks Discovery Museum, the Susannah Place Museum and the Sydney Observatory.

There are a number of companies offering walking tours of The Rocks. Our sister company Old Compass Travel operates The Rocks - An alternative walking tour most mornings.

Architecture - The Rocks, Sydney
Photo: Mark Bowyer Architecture - The Rocks, Sydney

A casual walk around the heritage highlights of Sydney's Rocks district

This casual walk around The Rocks landmarks will put you in touch with the history and evolution of the place.

Start at Cadman’s Cottage, right by the Museum of Contemporary Art on the harbour foreshore. Use maps to find these places in whichever order you choose. A little aimless wandering in The Rocks is a joy.

Cadman's Cottage

Cadman's Cottage dates back to 1816 and is the oldest surviving residence in the centre of Sydney. Once the home of coxswain and emancipated convict, John Cadman, in the mid 1800s the house became the headquarters of the Water Police. At the time, the harbour foreshore was just metres from the front of the house.

Cadman's Cottage, The Rocks Sydney - one of the oldest buildings
Photo: Mark Bowyer Cadman's Cottage, The Rocks Sydney - one of the oldest buildings

MCA Museum of Contemporary Art

Sydney's premier museum of contemporary art overlooks the harbour from a 1940s art deco building.  Before its conversion to a museum and gallery in 1991, this was Sydney’s Customs House. Prior to that, the colonial Commissariat Stores (1809) building was located on this site.  You'll need a few hours to properly explore the MCA.

The MCA’s rooftop cafe has cracking views of Sydney Harbour across to the Opera House. It’s a great spot for a morning coffee or a light bite. For more on the MCA, click here.

Museum of Contemporary Art - The Rocks, Sydney
Photo: Mark Bowyer Museum of Contemporary Art - The Rocks, Sydney

Cobblestone lanes

Take a detour off the main streets down some of the narrow cobblestone lanes of The Rocks, you'll get a real sense of the vibe of The Rocks and a perspective on some of the historic architecture. Head West off George St or North of Argyle St down any lane and you’ll likely be on cobblestones that date back to The Rocks’ early years.

The Rocks Discovery Museum

Just off Argyle St, this small free museum is surprisingly informative. Stop by for a look at the history of the area from Gadigal Indigenous times to the present. There are some interesting old courtyards along this cobblestone lane too.

Nurse's Walk

Sydney's first hospital was located in The Rocks. It would have been a place to stay well clear of. There are few if any remnants of the old hospital but the Nurse's Walk remembers those who took care of convicts and others in the colony until 1816 when the Rum Hospital opened on Macquarie St.

Susannah Place Museum

The 1840 Susannah Place museum is a set of old workers cottages and grocery store that is now open (infrequently) as a museum. It provides an excellent insight into life in The Rocks over the decades. Unfortunately it is rarely open at present. The building and its neighbourhood are worth a look even if closed.

Susannah Museum - The Rocks, Sydney
Photo: Mark Bowyer Susannah Place Museum - The Rocks, Sydney

Argyle Stores

Built between the 1820s and the 1870s, the Argyle stores are some of the earliest old stores on the harbour. They're now used for offices, bars and dining. Pop your head in for a look. You might grab a drink or a bite.

Argyle Cut

Designed as a route between the east and west of Argyle St, the Argyle Cut was started by convict labour in 1840 and then abandoned. It was resumed and completed in 1859.

Argyle Cut, The Rocks - built by convicts
Photo: Mark Bowyer Argyle Cut, The Rocks - built by convicts

Argyle Stairs

Head up the early 20th century stairs for some spectacular views across The Rocks, The Opera House and Sydney Harbour. Construction at the north end of the walk reduces some of the views. The rooftop at The Glenmore Hotel is a good spot for a drink with a view.

Garrison Church

The 1856 Garrison Church - Church Hill Anglican Church, is among the oldest in the centre of Sydney. It was known as the Garrison Church because it served regiments from the nearby garrison.

Garrison Church, The Rocks
Photo: Mark Bowyer Garrison Church, The Rocks

Observatory Hill and Sydney Observatory

Head up Observatory Hill for some of the best best views across The Rocks and Sydney Harbour. At the top of the hill, Sydney's old observatory is a museum worth checking out. From Observatory Hill, spend some time exploring around Windmill St and Lower Fort St for some fabulous old Rocks heritage houses and warehouses.

The Sydney view from Observatory Hill
Photo: Mark Bowyer The Sydney view from Observatory Hill

The foot of the Harbour Bridge - Dawes Point

Walk down Lower Fort St towards the harbour at Dawes Point. The view of the base of Sydney’s Harbour Bridge is a nice contrast to the better known views from the top. It’ll take you further into this historic neighbourhood. Head back up the hill and you can get on to the bridge to walk across if you wish.

Beneath the Sydney Harbour Bridge, The Rocks
Photo: Mark Bowyer Beneath the Sydney Harbour Bridge, The Rocks

Rocks cultural walking tour

Our sister business Old Compass Travel has a new tour; The Rocks - an alternative walking tour. Our walk takes a fresh look at Sydney's oldest neighbourhood - the place where the dispossession of First Nations people began in 1788. For more, head over to Old Compass Travel - The Rocks.

Colliding colonial architectural styles - The Rocks, Sydney
Photo: Mark Bowyer Colliding colonial architectural styles - The Rocks, Sydney

Marrinawi Cove - a dip at The Rocks

In January 2023, a new Sydney swimming spot opened right by The Rocks at Marrinawi Cove. If you feel like a dip after exploring the historic streets of The Rocks, this is a great spot. It's on the small side and way off being Sydney's best harbourside spot for a dip, but it's the closest to the centre of the city and it's right by pubs of The Rocks too. It's perfect for cooling off on a summer afternoon.  You can catch a downtown Sydney harbour sunset nearby at Barangaroo too.

Marrinawi Cove - right by The Rocks, is Sydney's newest harbour swimming spot
Photo: Mark Bowyer Marrinawi Cove - right by The Rocks, is Sydney's newest harbour swimming spot

For our other recommendations for a Sydney beach dip - both in the ocean and in the harbour, check out our guide to Sydney beaches of the harbour and the ocean here.


Historic pubs and bars of

The Rocks

The Rocks is home to some of Sydney’s oldest pubs. The earliest of them date back to the 1840s. Some of the old heritage spaces of The Rocks have been converted to whiskey bars, cocktail bars and craft beer rooms.

For pubs, I prefer the more mellow, old-world atmosphere and setting of those located towards Miller's Point. They include the Lord Nelson, the Hero of Waterloo and The Palisade.

Lord Nelson Hotel

The 1841 Lord Nelson is a great old pub right by the Observatory. It's the "oldest continuously licensed pub in Sydney" and the interiors are mostly original. It's a good spot to take a breather.

Hero of Waterloo

Another cracking old Rocks pub is the 1840s Hero of Waterloo. It’s around the corner from the Lord Nelson and worth stopping for.

The Orient

The Orient, another 1840s pub on the site of the original convict hospital,  is a big venue on George St and the busiest of these three historic pubs.

Boutique Bars in The Rocks

The Doss House

A whiskey bar that's also good for a glass of wine or craft beer, The Doss House is located in an 1840's underground heritage space. Part of an old bond store, different bits of the bar have hosted an opium den, gambling parlour and various Victorian-era commercial ventures. It's a fabulously atmospheric spot for a drink.

Hickson House Distilling Company

Located right by the Park Hyatt Hotel, Hickson House Distilling Company has a distinctly upscale vibe. These guys distill their own gin and whisky on-site and they also have an extensive stock from Australia and around the world. Good spot for a more fancy heritage drinking experience. These guys also run distillery tours.

The Doss House has history - The Rocks, Sydney
Photo: Mark Bowyer The Doss House has history - The Rocks, Sydney

The Doss House has history - The Rocks, Sydney
Photo: Mark Bowyer The Doss House - underground sandstone whiskey bar - The Rocks, Sydney



Mark Bowyer
Mark Bowyer is the founder and publisher of Rusty Compass.
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