Only two hours north of Sydney, Newcastle has seen a few reincarnations over the years. Described as “The Steel City” by some (locals, ex–BHP workers and fans of Bootmen), “Dubbo by the Beach” by others (people from regional NSW), and “Somewhere I’ve Never Been” (anyone from Sydney or Melbourne), the city has suddenly transformed into one that’s totally worth a look — although, Novocastrians wouldn’t call it sudden.
Locals have been quietly brushing off coal dust for over a decade to reveal an actual city that sits on an actual harbour that is not, actually, Sydney. Given a leg up by the Renew Newcastle project, the centre of town has evolved into a full-scale destination of choice for foodies, vintage shoppers, market hoppers and culture vultures alike. There are surfers, panel vans, groms and every other ’90s surfer town cliche imaginable, too, but with one distinct difference – they’re right in the city.
That’s because the CBD sits between an expansive harbour on one side and beaches on the other. The buildings that jut out from the steep hills are relatively intact and give the city a historical element. If you visit Fort Scratchley, you can learn all about the Japanese sub that let off some shells in the harbour during WWII.
The local Awabakal and Worimi peoples also have stories of a giant Kangaroo hiding on Nobby’s Island, thumping his tail – said to be a reference to the earthquake fault line that Newcastle sits upon.
You don’t have to go far to find a decent cuppa in Newcastle. The amount of new and established cafes in the area is mind-boggling (just download the hunterhunter app and see for yourself). The local staff are the standard hipster barista variety, but with a surprisingly friendly attitude. Dudes take their beans, slow-drips, filters and cold-pressed varieties seriously, though.
Worth a visit is local favourite One Penny Black, in the Hunter Street Mall, and the casually cool Good Brother Espresso Shop on King Street. Welsh Blacks in the chic inner-city suburb of Cooks Hill also make a decent drop. Honourable mentions go to The Locomotive in Mayfield and Rolador at Hamilton Station.
To Market, To Market
On any given weekend, there are a range of handmade and fresh food markets to visit in Newcastle.
The Olive Tree Markets have been running since 2008 and upgraded to a bigger location at Civic Park (right near the Newcastle Art Gallery). Usually held on the first Saturday of the month, this art and design market is the go-to for crafty handmade wares.
Hunt&Gather Markets is where young creative types flock to thrive in their native environs. Add some gourmet food trucks and live music and all your morning needs are sorted. Bring a picnic blanket and nab a spot on the hill for ultimate weekend bliss.
On Sundays, the Newcastle City Farmers Markets take over the showground with local and seasonal food and wine. Located a bit further out in Broadmeadow, producers from across the Hunter Valley set up shop here from 8am to 1pm.
Take A Dip
In the warmer months, it’s easy to wander from market to the ocean in five to 10 minutes. For a nearby, inner-city swim, head across to Newcastle Beach and set up on the sand for the day. For calm waters, visit the impressive Merewether Ocean Baths, which were recently renovated. It’s the perfect spot to people-watch the hours away. The Bogey Hole at the base of King Edwards Park is another scenic spot for a dip in a natural ocean swimming hole shielded from the waves (look out though – when it’s rough they do jump over the edge).
If surf is more your vibe, head to either Bar or Merewether Beaches – and while you’re at it, venture up to the Memorial Walk for a breathtaking 360-degree view of the city. There are a lot of stairs, so tackle this before you settle in for that afternoon cider.
For a post-beach pick-me-up, The Hood Milk Bar is the spot for tasty burgers and gelato (usually served by the aptly named “Hot Gelato Guy”). Or try one of the delicious green juice or salad options if you feel like saving room for dinner.
If you’re in the CBD, head to former laundromat-turned-bar The Edwards, not far away in the hip Newcastle West precinct. Owned and operated by Chris Joannou of Silverchair fame, you’ll often catch him behind the bar, pretending no-one knows who he is. But his rockstar past is easily overlooked with a quick glance at the food and wine menu (you’ll want to Instagram your lunch and the light fixtures fo’ sho).
Or pop over to The Junction, where the salted caramel donut from Doughheads is mandatory.
Shop Up A Storm
If all that shopping has made you thirsty, pop into late-night establishment Coal and Cedar. The Prohibition-style whiskey bar is the perfect place for cocktail with an extra side of flirting with a handsome man in a bow tie.
The best time to visit Newcastle is spring and summer, but the social season really kicks off every year on the long weekend in October, when the city plays host to the annual This is Not Art Festival. Coincidently, this is when the water is beginning to get warm enough for a swim, so it’s a win-win really.
Madeleine Allen is a writer from Newcastle, NSW. She has worked at several media organisations including SBS and ABC TV, but now prefers to spend her time sitting on the beach thinking about travel, philosophy and pop culture. Sometimes she even writes about it.