Sydney Cove has been attracting new settlers and visitors for centuries. Aboriginal people from all over Australia came, presumably, to be closer to water and abundant fishing. A ship packed with Britain’s convicts and cast offs known as the “First Fleet” brought the first wave of European immigrants in 1788. Not long after, Chinese immigrants came seeking their fortunes during Australia’s gold rush. These settlers and many more to come would survive a rough and tumble past to create the Sydney we know today — a diverse, world-class city known for its arts, food and architecture along with a culture all its own.
The historic area running along the Sydney Harbor facing the Opera House is downright chic, certainly not uninhabitable as the outlaw colonialists from the First Fleet found it when they arrived. The early settlers named the growing town “The Rocks,” for its rocky terrain and maybe for its hardscrabble life where they literally had to carve an existence from stone. Some surviving buildings remain as signposts of this rough past. The oldest of these is Cadman’s Cottage, an old government building named for the pardoned convict turned government official that lived there. Take a walking tour to step back in time and visit a young city stricken by plague and a roving band of well-dressed criminals who terrorized the population in the 1900s. To get the authentic feel of old-time Sydney, stay in one of its historic hotels, the Orient or the Russell, which is rumored to be haunted by a restless sailor. If you prefer more modern pursuits, definitely take a stroll down George Street to peruse its shops and open-air market or stop in one of its many restaurants for a fusion food experience.
While walking around The Rocks, you could stumble across one of more than 2,000 ancient Aborigine rock carvings in the Sydney area featuring native wildlife like fish and kangaroos. Carvings have been spotted around Castle Cove Beach and the Bondi Golf Course. They may have been a part of the sacred ceremonies of a people closely tied to nature. A tour through the Royal Botanic Gardens led by an Aborigine guide could be a nice way to get a better understanding of the Aborigines’ relationship to plants and nature and to experience their ceremonies through music and dance. Try catching a performance by one of the many Aborigine dance companies in the area like Descendance.
Sydney’s museums also do their best to represent an indigenous past that was almost completely destroyed by decades of intolerance and systematic discrimination against Aborigines. The Rocks Discovery Museum features the culture and community of the Cardigal people who settled in Sydney before European settlers arrived, while the Australian Museum covers the importance of fishing for these indigenous people and the Aboriginal origins of place names in and around Sydney.
Sydney’s original Chinatown dates back to the 1860s, and it was actually outside the city limits. It moved to its current location along Dixon and Hay Streets in the 1930s and always served as a home to merchants, fisherman and artisans initially lured to Australia by the gold rush. When their numbers grew too fast for some, legislation was enacted to stop Asian immigration from 1901 to 1966. With the immigration ban lifted, Chinatown blossomed with new immigrants from Southeast Asia and other Asian nations. Today, the area is the destination for some of the best food in the city from cheap eats to high-end eateries along with boutiques, art galleries and theaters. Walk down Little Hay Street to experience “In Between Two Worlds,” an outdoor art installation featuring ethereal lighted figures that represent Chinese and Aboriginal spirit worlds. And, if you want to be transported to an oasis of peace, visit the Chinese Garden of Friendship with its decorative gardens embellished with lakes and waterfalls.