Lonely Planet has declared the laid back Australian city of Newcastle one of the top 10 cities to visit, among names such as New York, Delhi and Tel Aviv, the announcement sent the inhabitants of nearby large cities of Brisbane and Sydney into fits of jealousy.
Why Newcastle? As a Sydney-sider I found it rather odd that the sleepy industrial port could beat the great harbor city into international tourism stardom. I had to go have a look.
Newcastle is approximately 2.5 hours train ride from Sydney central, making it an easy destination for a day trip. I stepped off the train with the mission to prove the experts at Lonely Planet wrong, but a mere twenty minutes walking aimlessly around the city centre, I was converted.
It’s not that Newcastle is specifically interesting, nor does it have more exciting history to claim. It was the general atmosphere, the laid back attitude, and the diverse style and personalities that makes this city a great place to visit.
I started my expedition at the well known Nobby’s Beach and worked my way around. In the distance, cargo ships waiting to be escorted into the harbor forms a dotted line across the horizon; the surf was up and the crowd gathered to watch as pros and amateurs show off their skills. With another beach better for swimming just down the road, Nobby’s was pleasantly busy yet un-crowded.
I followed the coast line and reached the more family friendly Newcastle beach. The increased popularity of Newcastle is evident here with the recent development of modern hotels and apartments. Sitting sat down in a café, resting with a chilled glass of wine from Hunter Valley, and watched bathers enjoying themselves in the rock pools. On our right is a walking path lead to a lookout where whales can often be seen in the distance breaching with acrobatic moves during the June to November season; today however we were content in people watching.
Working my way into the city centre, I pass numerous heritage sand stone buildings, a stretch of factory outlets on Hunter St and come to the base of the local attraction, Fort Scratchley, where guns fired at Japanese submarines during the height of WWII, making this the only fort in Australia to have engaged enemy in a maritime attack. A helpful guide took us through the tunnels and told stories of military life, family and hardship. I lingered after the tour, around the top, where I admired the panoramic view of Newcastle, before descending to the city again in search of dinner and a few twilight drinks.
Upon local instructions, I caught the excellent free bus network in the city and headed for Darby St in the suburb of Civic, the centre of Newcastle’s café and restaurant culture, and where you can shop in boutique stores and second hand book shops. To work up my appetite, I walked the length of the strip and visited each and every store, finding nice little skirts, quirky stationary items and stumbling upon the odd cat stretching out on the pedestrian path. For a good half an hour I was trying to figure out what it is about Newcastle that was so familiar. Then it clicked. With the excellent beaches on its forefront and the quirky boutiques lining its suburbs, it is like being wedged between Sydney and Melbourne all in one go, giving this city, the best of both worlds.
I really could now see why Lonely Planet had chosen it to be part of its Top 10 places to visit. It’s Sydney and Melbourne less the crowds and the expensive price tag. Should you ever feel pressured by the continuing rivalry between Australia’s large cities, come to Newcastle, and surprise yourself how much you might just enjoy it.