Discovering the Hidden History of Sydney

Dr. Jessie Voigts's picture

One of the most visited cities in the world, Sydney, Australia boasts many landmarks and interesting things to see and do. Perhaps you’ve always wanted to climb atop the Sydney Bridge, or take a ferry to Manly and explore. Be sure to see the Sydney Opera House from a boat - it’s an incredible experience. Or, skip the seven bridges walk for a more interesting (and leisurely) three bridges walk.

But there’s so much more to Sydney than the usual haunts for visitors - especially if you love history. Take a look at my favorites…

Discovering the Hidden History of Sydney

It’s All About the Water

Sydney’s early history as a penal colony settled by the military is an important history. In 1788, Captain Phillip searched for a viable location for this new colony, and discovered a small, freshwater stream flowing into Sydney Harbor. Aptly named Tank Stream, for the tanks that were dug alongside the stream to expand the availability of fresh water, this water source was an important part of early Sydney history - and still is a functioning stormwater drain. Follow the stream's path from above by following the blue markers in the street as part of the Sydney Sculpture Walk - it’s public art by Lynne Roberts-Goodman. History comes alive, yes? Take a walking tour to discover not only the water (and plague, and quarantines), but conflicts, rebellion, and more.
Tank Stream Public Art, City of Sydney Archives. From Discovering the Hidden History of Sydney
City streets from Alfred St to the Pitt St Mall. Part of the set of images recording this public art work by Lynne Roberts-Goodwin, part of the Sydney Sculpture Walk. City of Sydney Archives: NSCA CRS 904/B004

Speaking of Water…

Tired of crowded beaches? Me, too. Luckily for us, Sydney has over 100 beaches - here’s a list of the best. Some of my favorites include Clifton Gardens Beach, which boasts a unique coffeeshop, and, if you like to snorkel or dive, tiny seahorses; Quarantine Beach, a former quarantine station where you can see carvings on sandstone, made by quarantined passengers, or take a ghost tour; and Gordon's Bay, located south of Clovelly Beach, which has an underwater nature trail (.4 miles) for scuba divers and snorkelers. How cool is that?
Clovelly Beach. From Discovering the Hidden History of Sydney

Travel Through (Film) Time

If you love old movies as much as I do, you'll want to head to the Powerhouse Museum. There's a permanent exhibit I think you'll love: the King's Cinema. It features a compilation of architectural features from demolished cinemas, including from the King's Cinema theater chain. But one of the most interesting things of all the fascinating items on display is a Fotoplayer, a player piano PLUS. It was a piano roll-based player piano, but with side frames that had a variety of options for more sound. The talented operator could make a variety of sounds, including bird song, wind, gunshots, thunder, and more. What a genius way to make seeing old films, without sound, even more of a special event!
Piano Player Rolls - you'll see these at the King's Cinema Exhibit at the Powerhouse Museum. From Discovering the Hidden History of Sydney

Visit Wendy’s Secret Garden

Perhaps you're looking for a quiet respite from the busyness of the city? Head to Wendy's Secret Garden, one of the most beautiful spaces in the city, a green oasis with extraordinary views. You'll also find seating areas (bring your lunch!), sculptures, plenty of paths, staircases, and, just maybe, a few fairies, if you're lucky. It is a public space, so no charge (thank you, Wendy Whitely and the North Sydney Council!). Bring walking shoes, your camera, and a sense of wonder at the importance of art, love, and space in Sydney’s more recent history.
Sunset view of Sydney Harbor. From Discovering the Hidden History of Sydney

The Final Ride

As part of funeral customs in the 19th century, Sydney transported the recently deceased via train to the Rookwood Necropolis. You can see Mortuary Station (now called the Regent Street Railway Station), located next to Central Station - it was built in 1868. Alas because it is now closed, the Magic Mortuary was a pancake restaurant from 1986-89, and took diners around the former final ride, while eating. Still, you can wander around (bring your own pancakes?) and imagine riding the rails to the cemetery.
Cemetery in Sydney. From Discovering the Hidden History of Sydney

Reimagined Gardens - and Yet Another Historic Water Supply

Formerly a parking garage, reservoir, and gas station, Paddington Reservoir Gardens showcases the changing faces of Sydney's history. Much of the original architecture is still in place at this state heritage-listed garden. You'll find gardens, graffiti art, and a lovely, calm, historic place.

Take an Historical Scavenger Hunt

Love treasure hunts? Urban Hunt and Sydney Living Museums offer three new free scavenger hunts throughout the Museum of Sydney, the Mint, and Hyde Park Barracks Museum, utilizing facebook messenger (so be sure to enable data). Museum entry is an additional cost, but it's worth it to learn the history of the area - and the incredible individuals who helped make up the city's history. Other scavenger hunts (some have a fee) include history in the rocks, sneaky streets and hidden treats, magnificent Manly, Macquarie streetscape, and more. This is fantastic.
Museum of Sydney - part of an historical scavenger hunt! From Discovering the Hidden History of Sydney

Our Recommended Resource for Learning about Historical Sydney

Have a specific set of interests, or prefer to take your own walking tour? Sydney Culture Walks is a free app that shares public art, historical sites, and interesting things to learn about the city of Sydney, created and brought to you by the city. You'll also discover over 400 secret spots, including (our favorites) historical places. 
Discovering the Hidden History of Sydney


What are your favorite places to learn Sydney’s hidden history?