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Sydney, A City of Lights

Published 30 September 2011   

Sarah D takes FRV Travel readers on a stroll through her home town – one that has grown but not lost any of its charm.

Photos by Roslyn Sharp

“Campbell lane,
And thru’ the window curtain rain,
Long night gone, yellow day,
The speed shivers melts away.
Six o’clock I’m going down,
The coffee’s hot and the toast is brown,
Hey! street-sweeper, clear my way,
Sweethearts’ breakfast the best in town.”
– Don Walker lyrics, Cold Chisel.

Sydney is brash, loud and showy. Scratch the surface and she can be bland, suburban and even tacky. Age has failed to mellow her and yet, like a beautiful woman, when its time to party, she steals the show. Take New Year’s Eve for example; there are few more extravagant sights than the fireworks above a gathering of yachts on the glittering harbour under a starlit sky.

There is more to her than her looks, but you have to know where to look, and the brochures sure won’t tell you. Sydney is divided geographically; north, south, east and west. It is then further divided into suburbs and neighbourhoods, which spread further north, south and west each year. The sprawling harbour is the jewel in the city’s crown. From the white silhouette of the Opera House to the coat hanger harbour bridge, the ferries, cruise ships, cargo boats and private boats of all sizes create a constantly changing canvas.

“There are parts of Sydney where I feel the city envelope me in a warm, fuzzy blanket and lull me into acceptance.”

I have always had an uncomfortable relationship with the city of my birth. At times feeling like the proverbial round peg in the square hole and yet the older I get, the more I feel at home there. Like an old doll with only one eye, a torn dress and tufts of hair remaining, she seems somehow more precious to me now. There are parts of Sydney that I have a real relationship with and in those places I feel the city envelope me in a warm, fuzzy blanket and lull me into acceptance. My Sydney lies east of the city and encompasses Kings Cross, Bondi, Watson’s Bay and lots of expensive suburbs in between.

My first stop when I arrive is a fairly nondescript coffee shop in the rough and tumble neighbourhood of Darlinghurst. Sydneysiders love good coffee. One of the first Italian coffee shops, Bar Coluzzi, opened on William Street, Kings Cross before moving to its current site on Victoria Street in Darlinghurst. It revolutionised the way Sydney drank coffee and still stands as a monument to immigrants and their influence. The Tropicana down the street is nothing much to look at, nevertheless, an endless stream of customers order pasta, salads, cakes and Italian-style sandwiches throughout the day and well into the night. Like many of the coffee shops on this strip, it has hard-core regulars. Make a friend here and you have instant entry into a local scene.

Sydneysiders take their coffee seriously, this tiny café occupies an Elizabeth Bay corner.

Kings Cross is Sydney’s most infamous area and has a decidedly chequered past. Although somewhat gentrified it is still home to strip bars and drag shows, and the El Alamein fountain, which was commissioned as a memorial to soldiers who died in 1942 during the Second World War in Egypt. A fitting monument as just down the end of the street lies hidden away the main base for the Navy Fleet on Australia’s East Coast. Kings Cross is filled with locals and the loonies and dealers nod to the older residents. The area has always attracted artists of all kinds and the Saturday food market brings them all together, rain or shine. Once a bastion of rock and roll clubs thrived beside the seedy bars but now most of them have gone and the gangsters are wearing Zegna suits and driving Ferraris. Breakfast At Sweethearts after a night of clubbing is little more than the lyrics of a song to this generation of party animals.

Stroll a few metres beyond Kings Cross and the real estate prices increase dramatically. You’re now in Potts Point where fabulous art deco apartment buildings sit beside towering modern apartment buildings, and boutiques sell labels from New York, Paris and London. Some of the city’s best cafes, including Fratelli Paradiso and the unrelated Fratelli Fresh are hot spots for foodies and celebrities.

This area leads out to Elizabeth and Ruschcutter’s Bays to the east, Woollomooloo to the west, Darlinghurst to the south. The area is one of the most densely populated areas, and it has great character and allows glimpses of a more graceful era and a slightly sinister past.

First stop is a catch up with family and friends at the Tropicana in Darlinghurst. Zorica Purlija Photography.

Walking is one of the best ways to see Sydney and heading from The Cross down across Wollomooloo, past the art gallery towards the Opera House is a great way to experience Sydney. The eastern suburbs of Sydney are where some of the world’s most expensive real estate is found and yet, it is still possible to enjoy the views for free. Neilson Park in Vaucluse, easy to access by bus, is a perfect setting to enjoy a Sydney-scape. A green park shaded by old Moreton bay fig trees leads to a golden sand beach that opens up to the harbour. Everyone from families who have traversed the bridge weighed down with picnic food, glitzy locals, models and movie stars congregate to paddle in the clear green water and parade the boardwalk.

Neilson Park is the end, or the beginning, of one of my all time favourite walks, the Hermitage walk, that traces the harbour through bush, over rocky cliffs through the front yards of mansions to Rose Bay. It’s a great way to pretend you’re rich. Halfway along this walk is Strickland House. Once a private mansion, then a hospital and now sitting idle, occasionally posing as a film set. Nearby is Milk Beach. The surrounding parkland offers one of the most spectacular views of Sydney, the city and the harbour.

The most famous of Sydney’s walks is the Bondi to Bronte. Away from the harbour, overlooking the deepest blue sea, is another well-worn track of the rich and famous – and the ultimately ordinary as well. On any one of these walks, it is absolutely possible to stop, awestruck and scream, ‘Oh my God, is this the most beautiful place I’ve ever seen?’ It may well be.

“It is absolutely possible to stop, awestruck and scream, ‘Oh my God, is this the most beautiful place I’ve ever seen?’”

Sydney also loves good food; from the Turkish ladies making fresh gozleme in the markets; Neil Perry’s fabulous bar and grill in the city; Kylie Kwong’s Bille Kwong restaurant in Surry Hills and the geographically splendid Icebergs overlooking Bondi Beach, you don’t have to travel far for good tastes. Australia’s many migrants have brought their food cultures with them and the city has embraced them all. Sydney is ablaze with markets. From the monthly Good Food market at Pyrmont, which is a hotbed of gourmets and gourmands, to the many weekly markets scattered around the city, it’s a great way to spend a sunny day. Clothing markets at Paddington, Surry Hills, Bondi and Glebe are a perfect way to soak up Sydney life.

Of course there are the beaches, and while some favour the surf, the harbour beaches are stunning and the water incredibly clear considering the traffic. Most of all Sydney is a city that loves to be outside; at the merest hint of a sunny day barbecues are fired up, picnics are packed, trainers are strapped on, cafes set up tables outside, the markets grow incrementally and the city comes to life.

All you need to enjoy Sydney in the summer is a smile on your face, she’ll happily throw another snag (wagyu, of course) on the barbie, invite you in for a coldie and encourage you to take a pew and listen to a yarn. At heart, Sydney hasn’t changed that much.