Tour unearths Sydney’s semihidden gems
Culture Scouts guides you to the cool places ‘where your best friend would take you’
SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA— I’ve found an underground country bar, Shady Pines Saloon, where the only giveaway of its presence is a lonely doorman standing at a white garage door in an otherwise empty alley on Crown St.
I’ve been to shows at the Sydney Opera House, most recently a performance of Othello. Shakespeare in Australian accents is just as disturbing to this Brit as American “soccer” chants.
Having lived in Sydney for five months, I’ve hit the tourist hot spots and uncovered a few semihidden gems.
Today, I’m doing a four-hour walking tour with creative space connoisseurs Culture Scouts to find out what I’ve missed, but first I’m ticking off the last touristy thing on my list — Sydney Fish Market.
It smells exactly as I imagine a funeral home for more than 100 species of seafood should. The market floor looks like a Las Vegas sports book. Spinning auction wheels run on three cinema-sized screens and around 1,000 boxes of fish sell each hour.
Market guide Alex Stollznow explains what buyers look for in each species, from tiny prawns to giant tuna. Generally, the eyes tell no lies. If they sink in, no good. If one is cloudy, that could be OK, it might have rested on ice. The gills should be blood red, not black, brown or grey. Stollznow is a self-confessed “awful” restaurant customer and his tips will make you obsessive about seafood quality, too.
The tour embraces the daily grind and doesn’t try to “Disney” the experience. A worker hurriedly stacking sloshing polystyrene boxes of dead fish deftly (and accidentally, I think) lobs chunks of ice down my rubber boots.
My tour of the Sydney suburbs Chippendale and Redfern with Sophia de Mestre of Culture Scouts is a little more elegant.
Sydney is a social media city. The beaches, the food, the people are preened, ready to be posted online. Our starting point, the Old Clare Hotel, is clearly aimed at Instagrammers and Airbnb travellers, people seeking superficially quirky but comfortable and clean experiences. It’s a former brewery building spliced with a traditional community pub. The new bar retains original fea- tures, such as the former pub’s gaudy wall tiles, but bartenders now strain cocktails instead of pulling pints.
The hotel’s sleek rooftop pool looks to another refurbished Carlton & United Breweries property, One Central Park. Its name is a nod to Manhattan, but the area has received the “Brooklyn” treatment of industrial reimagining. The One Central Park building, a vertical forest that claims to house 250 Australian plants and flowers, is second only to the Opera House for eye-catching ingenuity.
Both the Old Clare Hotel and One Central Park are owned by Singaporean developers, and the street outside, Spice Alley, mimics the food of Southeast Asian hawker stalls. It’s changed days from the infamous “White Australia” anti-Asian immi- gration policy.
Mestre’s tour challenges another historical legacy, the idea that Melbourne is Australia’s foremost arts destination and Sydney its sporty older brother.
We visit small art studios, public work spaces mimicking Silicon Valley startups, a Viennese restaurant, an outdoor Aboriginal art display and an antiques store celebrating the resourcefulness of 1950s Australia.
Mestre says Culture Scouts aim to go “where your best friend would take you.” That sounds great, except my best friend likes wrestling and chicken wings. At the White Rabbit Gallery, a former Rolls-Royce factory turned into a contemporary Chinese art house, I’m really going down the rabbit hole.
The “Vile Bodies” exhibit includes 3D-printed figures of human parts jutting from buildings, like a 21stcentury version of Picasso’s Guernica. There’s a metallic cylinder with spiky oars moving. I’m not sure why. I struggle with modern art.
One exhibit has a note from artist Zhu Zi, saying he can’t explain his art, we need “to feel it” ourselves. I know exactly what he means. Except, I feel that way about the mid-range jumper of Toronto Raptors’ guard DeMar DeRozan. That, to me, is art.
To Mestre’s credit, I don’t feel out of place, and even with another five months in Sydney, I doubt I would find some of this stuff myself. The city needs someone to reveal its best parts, because unlike a city like Adelaide, Sydney was never planned. It just keeps expanding, new spots sprouting in suspect places.
It’s like the sprawling mess of Los Angeles without the movies. In the latest self-congratulatory Hollywood flick La La Land, they mock the mash-up of a samba tapas bar. Sydney has a champagne fried chicken bar that sells sneakers.
Even the most “hidden” country bar wants to be found, but if you’ve come to Sydney to see something more artistic than a DeRozan jump shot, you might need to enlist your own location scout. David Bateman was partially hosted by New South Wales Tourism, which did not review or approve this story.