WHICHEVER WAY YOUR FEET TAKE YOU THERE’S ALWAYS SOMETHING MARVELLOUS TO SEE, EAT OR DO AT DARLING HARBOUR
Standing at the edge of Sydney’s Darling Harbour with eyes half closed, it’s hard to imagine how this scene would have looked thousands of years ago. Today the views are marred by massive infrastructure, wharves, boats and buildings, while its walkways are hounded by hundreds of holiday makers and white collar workers.
Members of the Wangal and Gadigal clans of the Eora Nation once fished in the abundant waters of the harbour, trading and meeting in small groups. They called it Tumbalong, or “a place where seafood is found”, which is still appropriate today, especially if you include the famous Sydney Fish Market in nearby Blackwattle Bay.
There’s a strong maritime theme that runs through this busy waterway now called Darling Harbour. In colonial times it was known as Long Cove and Cockle Bay. It was New South Wales Governor Ralph Darling in 1826 who insisted the name be changed to his, perhaps a missed opportunity to revert to the Aboriginal name as a gesture of goodwill. Thankfully times have changed and today there is a dedicated five-hectare precinct called Tumbalong Park.
The whole area is a walking wonderland stretching over three distinct western, southern and eastern precincts. You can whiz your way around or cruise comfortably over a couple of days, if you have the time, to delight in the culinary and cultural attractions.
The dominant feature on the west side of the harbour is the Australian National Maritime Museum, an impressive space on land and on water, where more than 10 historic ships including destroyer HMAS Vampire and submarine HMAS Onslow lie at rest and are open to the public. The main feature is a stunning replica of Captain Cook’s Bark Endeavour, launched to much fanfare in 1994 and now berthed at the museum when not on expeditions around the Australian coast.
Inside the museum, there are so many exhibits you could spend a whole day browsing the story of the First Australians, the discovery of the continent by Dutch, French and British explorers, the beginnings of settlement and various landmarks that have led us to today. An important exhibit also features the role of the Royal Navy in its defence of the nation.
The Harbourside Shopping Centre is your fast pass to fun with its bowling alley, laser skirmish and jet flight simulator. There are also the inevitable tourist shops, of course.
More up-market is the Star Casino and Entertainment Complex with opportunities for you to splash cash in more ways than one, from bars and spas to exclusive events and big brand boutiques.
Not to be missed before its relocation to Parramatta next year is the Museum of Applied Arts and Science (Powerhouse) with fascinating interactive exhibits and temporary presentations such as the Apollo 11 exhibition in June.
A short walk around the International Convention and Exhibition Centre brings you to the south side, a recreational area where you’ll find the legendary Paddy’s Market, the Chinese Garden of Friendship in Chinatown and a thriving foodie scene around a recent addition, Darling Square (don’t miss the marvellous gelato shop). A good place to noodle around while resting the legs.
Apart from the parade of restaurants at Cockle Bay Wharf and Tumbalong Park, the main attraction on this side is the SEA LIFE Sydney Aquarium where you’ll find the largest variety of sharks in Australia on display … 13 species in all. For thrillseekers, there’s now Shark Dive Xtreme where you can experience these apex predators up close. No cage, just you, your instructors and some incredible sets of jaws. You’ll meet grey nurse sharks, Port Jackson sharks, wobbegongs, sea turtles, huge stingrays, and hundreds more amazing sea creatures. Best of all, Shark Dive Xtreme requires no previous diving experience.
To complete your walk around the east side, there’s also Madam Tussaud’s and Sydney Wildlife World as part of the Sea Life Aquarium complex.
WHERE TO STAY
There are many accommodation choices, but two favourites are Ovolo 1888, which is close to the Maritime Museum, and Vibe Darling Harbour, a short walk from Chinatown and the Aquarium.
Ovolo 1888 is a quirky boutique-style hotel with just 90 rooms and a buzzy bar and restaurant, Mister Percy, popular for its social hours from 4.30pm to 6.30pm (free if you book a room direct). Chef Luca cooks up a treat with share plates, Italian-ish mains and house-made pasta. There’s a great list of cocktails, craft beers and wines by the glass.
Newly opened VIBE Darling Harbour is close to transport at Town Hall and offers great service with reasonable rates for a prime location. There’s a hip rooftop pool and bar where you can hang out.
Sussex Store is a ground floor restaurant with a small but interesting menu mix – an oasis in the midst of Asian-dominated eateries all around.
The Maritime Museum’s major project for the year is called Encounters 2020. This is a 14-month program marking 250 years since Captain James Cook sailed the Endeavour along the east coast of Australia in 1770. Encounters 2020 will include a range of activities – exhibitions, film and digital educational resources and a voyage by the Endeavour replica around the coast of Australia, looking at Australia’s earliest European history from dual perspectives: from the ship and from the shore.
MORE: Visit sea.museum