7 Things You Must Do in Newcastle, Australia

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While it’s true that Newcastle has only been my home for two brief occasions (in 2005-2006 and again for a few months in 2010) – I’ll always consider Australia’s steel city to be a home away from home.

Newcastle’s shaded streets and heritage buildings give it a certain old world charm. Photo by Susan Rowley.

Why I Love Newcastle

Growing up, my family moved all over the state and rarely stayed in one place for more than a year or two. The one constant part of my home life was my summers in Newcastle visiting the extended family.

I’ve got fond memories of pool parties at my Aunt Marie’s house; of late night horror movie watching with my cousin David in the basement  of his house; and of countless stinking hot summers spent in front of the fan in my late grandmother’s Rathmines home.

As I grew older, Newcastle got to play host to some of my first forays into the world of clubs, pubs, and other such nonsense. Learning the importance of ‘the circle’ at the long since closed Surf City or shelling out the princely sum of $14 for alcoholic slushies from (the also now closed) Frostbites are amongst my first night life experiences.

I lived in Newcastle for two pretty good years in 2005-2006; got my first post college job there; and even had a few ill fated romances. I started the Knights Crusade, made a lot of great friends, and fell more in love with a city that I already had a great deal of fondness for.

Why You’ll Love Newcastle

  • Amazing beaches
  • Neighboring wine district
  • Untouched wilderness
  • Rich history as Australia’s second oldest city
  • Beautiful foreshore area around one of Australia’s most active ports
  • Heritage architecture
  • Amazing food

And did I mention the amazing beaches?

Just a regular summer day in Newcastle. Nobby’s Beach is quite popular due to its proximity to the city centre.

Seriously. Redhead, Dudley, Merewether, Bar Beach, Nobby’s Beach, and Newcastle beach are all pretty stunning. While most who think of Australia probably leap straight to Bondi, I’ll always have Newcastle beaches leagues ahead of those in Sydney.

Last year, Lonely Planet listed Newcastle as one of the Top 10 Cities for 2011. My initial reaction was a mixture of pride as a former Novocastrian and then, sadly, it was confusion. I wrote more about this matter when I talked about Newcastle’s unfulfilled potential.

But don’t go read that yet. Read on!

As I said, there are a lot of great reasons as to why you should visit Newcastle and below you’ll find eight of the things I think you must do to really experience Newcastle or ‘Newie’ as it is known by the locals.

So grab a bus or train up from Sydney and treat yourself to one of Australia’s hidden gems.

The Big Seven

#7 – Picnic at King Edward Park

Thousands on hand to watch ‘Up!’ at King Edward Park in early 2010. Photo by Fallon Fehringer.

King Edward Park might just offer one of the most striking picnic locations in New South Wales. Nestled in a naturally occurring bowl leading down to a stunning cliffside view of the Pacific Ocean – King Edward Park is populated by evergreen trees and decorated in Victorian Style to create a truly English feel without the associated bad weather.

Perfect for a mid afternoon picnic, King Edward Park is perhaps my favorite part of Newcastle. It’s often used for birthday barbeques and weddings, but also offers up open air movies in the summer that give the family a nice way to spend a warm evening out.

#6 – Sample the food on Beaumont Street and Darby Street

The industrial history of Newcastle perhaps belies that fact that it’s fast emerging as a kind of foodies playground. Darby Street in Newcastle city and Beaumont Street in Hamilton both offer some of the best that Australia and the world have to offer.

Darby Street, stretching from Newcastle city and up towards Merewether and Bar Beach is a wonderfully upbeat street lined with cafes, coffee shops, bookstores, and boutiques. Plenty to keep you occupied for an entire afternoon.

A bit of delicious Indian food. Photo by Vig

With food ranging from Indian (try Raj on Darby) to Vietnamese to good old fashioned Aussie pub fare – Darby Street is a short walk from Civic Train Station and easily reachable by bus.

Beaumont Street is a little further afield in Hamilton, but certainly worth a look on its own. Just like Darby Street its packed full of cafes, bookstores, and boutiques – but by night it has a really charming atmosphere as its pubs open, its dinner theatres kick into gear, and the city’s residents come out in search of a delicious bite to eat.

Beaumont Street offers a broader range of food options, with the suburb’s website boasting 42 different restaurants and cafes in operation. There’s the obligatory Italian, Indian, and Vietnamese – but there are a few more unique options as well.

A few of the colorful characters from the Kavon.

Two of these are the Kavon Theatre Restaurant (former employer of this writer) and the Lockdown Theatre Restaurant – offering viewers dinner and a show in horror and prison theme respectively.

Definitely a fun night out. And I’m not just saying that because I was once the Mad Hatter in their lineup.

So while Sydney and Melbourne are still the undisputed lords of food in Australia, don’t discount industrial Newcastle. There’s some great tucker there.

#5 – Attend a Newcastle Knights game

The Knights Crusade on the Central Coast following a 2007 game against South Sydney.

Second only to coal in the hearts and minds of the locals, the Newcastle Knights have been a local institution since they joined the NRL (National Rugby League) in 1988. For the longest time, the battling Knights stood for the equally battling locals in the face of recession and the closure of local employers such as BHP.

These days the Knights aren’t quite the institution they once were, but there’s still something to be said for seeing a game live with some of the most fanatical fans in the world.

Hunter Stadium, located a short walk from Broadmeadow Station, plays host to Knights games through autumn and winter. Tickets are pretty affordable, starting at $23.00 for general admission (seating on the grassy hill) and ranging up to $38.50 for a seat in the newly constructed Andrew Johns Stand.

A day at the footy is an experience all of its own. Get there early to watch the young guns play, grimace through the low rent pre-match entertainment, eat some Aussie fare such as the Chico Roll or meat pie, and watch some hard hitting footy. You won’t regret it.

#4 – Spend a day on Lake Macquarie

Newcastle might be better known for its beaches, but it also plays host to Australia’s most picturesque lake. That doesn’t sound like much of an achievement in a country as dry as Australia, but Lake Macquarie stands up to the lakes I saw during my travels in the United States quite admirably.

Lake Macquarie is a saltwater lake that is surrounded on three sides by the ever growing city of Lake Macquarie (often mistaken for Newcastle) and is connected to the Tasman Sea by a small channel.

Twice as large as Sydney Harbour and, in my eyes, every bit as striking – Lake Macquarie is a mecca for picnickers, sailing enthusiasts, fisherman, and wildlife lovers.

A boat at dock in Lake Macquarie near Valentine.

Every summer the surface of the lake is covered with speedboats, fisherman in dinghies, and would-be sailors out enjoying the sun. The shores, lined with parks and bike tracks, are similarly abuzz with activity.

By night there’s plenty of reasons to love Lake Macquarie as well. After it’s played host to perhaps the most beautiful sunset you’ll ever see, there are countless cafes and sailing clubs that offer great food and ridiculously cheap beer. My personal recommendations would be the clubs at Swansea or Valentine.

Lake Macquarie, more than Newcastle’s beaches, is the area’s playground. It is, unfortunately, just not as accessible. While a variety of buses service the lakeside suburbs, you’ll find that Newcastle’s trains won’t get you particularly close.

#3 – Go on a Hunter Valley wine tour

Aside from its beaches and waterways, Newcastle’s other big draw card is the neighboring Hunter Valley region. With nine wineries offering tours and literally dozens of others than can be visited – wine lovers are going to be on cloud 9 as they explore this lesser known alternative to the Barossa Valley in South Australia.

It’s not just wine tours either. There’s the chance to soak in the rolling green hills in a horse drawn carriage; restaurants and cafes offering a range of foods for different budgets; beautiful bed and breakfasts to spend a cool weekend in; and even the chance to get up close and personal with some iconic Australian wildlife at the Walkabout Wildlife Park.

Simply put, the Hunter Valley is one of New South Wales’ rapidly developing tourist regions. While not technically Newcastle (the city lies in the Hunter Valley) – its close enough to do a day trip and be back in time for a bite by the water.

Hot Tip: This tour in particular looks very enticing.

#2 – Get up close with the native fauna at Blackbutt Reserve

Posing with a koala at Blackbutt Reserve in 2010.

It’s true that you can’t cuddle with a koala in New South Wales. Only Queenslanders have the pleasure of being able to pick up our iconic plush marsupial friend.

But Blackbutt Reserve, located just 6km from the heart of the CBD and within walking distance of a train to Kotara Station, lets you get pretty bloody close!

Blackbutt offers up a variety of picnic spots and idyllic bushwalks, as well as being host to a small wildlife refuge offering a chance to get up close and personal with some of Australia’s more famous residents.

The thrill of feeding an emu proves all too much for this American tourist.

There’s a small zoo for Australian animals on site boasting a variety of birds, reptiles, and smaller marsupials. You can hand feed an emu, snap photos of lazy kangaroos, and pat a koala after posing for a photo with it. This last does cost a little extra, but $4 is worth it.

You can also book private encounters for $45. That sounds a little suss, surely?

The reserve is maintained by the Newcastle City Council and staffed mostly by volunteers. Any money you can see your way towards spending or donating at the reserve goes a long way towards improving facilities.

#1 – Walk the Bather’s Way

The iconic Nobby’s Headland. The breakwall was built by convicts. Photo by Fallon Fehringer.

It was tough to think of my #1 must not miss feature of Newcastle, but I eventually settled on the beautiful Bather’s Way. I’m cheating a little here and extending it into the city some – but this day long walk is guaranteed to give you a newfound appreciation of Newcastle.

Starting at Newcastle Station (the last stop on the line) – you’ve got a few food options. Historic Customs House is directly across the road and offers a range of beers and fancier fare, but if you’re on a tight budget you’ll find there’s more affordable options a short walk away on the foreshore.

Queen’s Wharf Tower (known locally as the Penis Tower) offers stunning views of th e harbour. Photo by Susan Rowley

With the skyline dominated by the phallic Queen’s Wharf Tower, Newcastle’s foreshore offers a unique view of the city’s very busy harbour. A quick climb up the tower offers even more stunning views, but be warned – the structure does tend to sway unnervingly in the breeze blowing in off the ocean.

Down below, Scratchley’s on the Wharf charges Sydney prices for their food – but you’re also paying for a great view of the harbour. The Brewery offers up cheaper pub fare, and there’s various seafood and pizza places along the way as well.

For me, a cheap fish and chips is always the best option before taking the Bather’s Way walk – and you can get away with a good feed for under $10.

The foreshore heading down towards Nobby’s Beach.

From there, walk down the foreshore towards Nobby’s Beach. The beach itself is a stunning windswept expanse with the Bather’s Way starting at the crumbled remains of the Soldier’s Baths and the famous Nobby’s Headland in the opposite direction. A walk out along the headland on a stormy day is something to be experienced, and there’s plenty of art and graffiti along the way.

The remnants of an old rail line leading from the city to Nobby’s Headland. Photo by Susan Rowley.
A bit of sad graffiti painted onto the rocks that comprise the breakwall. Photo by Susan Rowley.
The water crashes over the wall around the crumbled remains of Soldiers Baths. Photo by Fallon Fehringer.

The actual Bather’s Way starts at the Soldiers Baths though, and you’ll see the shattered shell of Newcastle’s first public baths on the very edge of Nobby’s Beach and underneath the watchful eye of Fort Scratchley. While it’s possible to walk along the path overhead, braver walkers might kick off their shoes to walk across the knee deep pool and see a few sea creatures.

The Newcastle Baths offer a welcome chance to cool off along the way. Photo by Susan Rowley.

The trail continues on past the Ocean Baths and Square Hole before coming to the Newcastle Baths. It’s at this point that it might be necessary to stop and cool off, and you’ll be pleased to know that there’s no cost involved in leaping into these old seawater pools. The Newcastle Baths are another local icon, and it’s not unusual to see a pair of newlyweds on hand to get some photos done.

Just married! This happy couple chose the Newcastle Baths for their wedding photos.

All along the walk you’ll find signs full of information and interesting stories – not only about the walk – but also about Newcastle’s maritime history and the brief encounter between Newcastle based soldiers and the Japanese during World War II.

The path winds on past Susan Gilmour Beach and Bar Beach with plenty of cliff-top views and rock pools to keep photographers occupied.

The entire walk takes about two hours and finishes off at Merewether Beach, where you can see more of Newcastle’s famous saltwater pools in the form of the Merewether Pool and Ladies Pool. Perfect place for a dip on a hot summer day.

The ads say that the walk takes two hours or a month full of Sundays, and I can certainly believe that. There’s so much history and natural beauty on the walk that it would be impossible take it all in one walk. Treat yourself to a weekend in Newcastle and take your time.

 In Closing…

The obvious tourist stops in Australia are obvious. Cairns, Townsville, Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne, Perth, and Uluru leap out at you the moment you mention Australia. But you’d do yourself a great disservice to completely overlook Sydney’s northern neighbor.

The laid back inhabitants, natural beauty, and rich history make it an awesome adventure just waiting to happen.

A train to Newcastle from Sydney will set you back around $8 and take approximately 2.5 hours. Newcastle city is serviced by buses and trains with tickets at around $4.

Hostels in Newcastle include Backpackers Newcastle, Backpackers on the Beach, and YHA Newcastle.

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