G’day everybody. Last week, I shared my must-do things in Lake Macquarie, so I thought it only fair that I give Newcastle some love this week with my Best of Newcastle self-guided walking tour.
Just in case you aren’t sure, Newcastle is located on the Hunter River about 1.5 hours north of Sydney and is just to the north of Lake Macquarie (so close many Lake Mac suburbs are often mistakenly thought to be in Newcastle).
First established in 1804, Newcastle city centre is quite old. In spite of this heritage and many historic buildings, as the city has sprawled west and south around shopping malls, the old centre became less popular to visit. Shops closed and it turned into one of those places that looks and feels dirty and unsafe with graffiti-covered walls and boarded-up buildings.
Fortunately, along with the new light rail, Newcastle city centre has been undergoing a revitalisation and now has a gorgeous, historic heart that is worth taking the time to explore. Yes, there is still graffiti and boarded-up buildings, but these are becoming just another piece of the story that is Newcastle.
In my opinion, a walking tour is an awesome way to take in the key historic and modern sights, especially since the CBD is quite compact and the light rail does give you an easy option to reduce the walking if you get tired.
If you are just here for a short stay, you can pick a hotel (personally, I’ve stayed in the Newcastle Travelodge and definitely recommend it, but it is slightly further away from this itinerary and you only get 100mb wifi data included 🙁 – if I was to stay in Newcastle again, I reckon you can’t go past the new Rydges Newcastle for location and comfort) and see some of the key sights in a day. You could also cover these sights pretty easily on a day trip from a cruise ship, or arriving by train at the Newcastle Interchange.
Visit Newcastle has put together some really great self-guided walking tours around art, architecture, the shoreline, and swimming. A number of guided walking tours are also available on Viator to suit different interests. These are very comprehensive, but they are very focused in on each of their niches, art, architecture etc so you miss out on getting a good cross-section of the city.
Having covered all of the ground in all of Visit Newcastle’s walking tours, I thought I’d put together my own 1-day “Best of Newcastle” self-guided walking tour.
Now, I just want to be clear upfront, this doesn’t cover everything and you will miss out on some other iconic parts of Newcastle, like Fort Scratchley and the Newcastle Ocean Baths. That’s ok though, this itinerary is just one day and has been designed around the city centre. If you have a second day, I’d do a foreshore walk along the river, check out the fort, around the baths, down to Newcastle Beach, head to King Edward Park… However, that’s for another blog post.
The point is, don’t expect to cover everything in this walking tour, Newcastle wasn’t built in a day and you can’t see everything in a day either. I’ve focused in on what I think are some of the best sights in Newcastle including some art, some architecture and some beach.
1-Day Best of Newcastle Self-Guided Walking Tour
You can start this walking tour at any point, but I personally like to start at Nobbys Beach, Horseshoe Beach or the Newcastle Foreshore Park, mainly because there is free parking in this area, and it’s on the route anyway. Parking presumably won’t be relevant to you if you are starting from a hotel, the train station or a cruise ship, so just pick the point of interest closest to you and start there.
Customs House Hotel
The old customs house is now a hotel and forms the first architecture sight on this walking tour.
Unfortunately, on every visit, I seem to have only taken extreme close-up photos of parts of the Customs House architecture, so here it is on Street View instead of a photo. Sorry about that. I don’t know how that has happened…
Nevertheless, the Newcastle Customs House building was designed in Italianate Renaissance Revival Style by New South Wales Colonial Architect James Barnet and construction was completed in 1877. Standing at the edge of Foreshore Park, Customs House is very prominent with a 32m tall clock tower with a lantern and an intact (though no longer functioning) time ball.
The hotel that now operates from Customs House has a great outlook across the park towards the river, and while I’ve never eaten there I’ve often thought it would be a good spot. At the time of writing, it is rated very well on TripAdvisor so if you are here for a bit longer, it could be worth trying.
Right now though, we don’t have time for unnecessary dilly-dallying. Onwards!
The Old Police Lock-Up
Once, the old police lock-up was a place to avoid. Now, these old cells are an art gallery, and in a way, have become part of the carefully curated experience. Completed in 1861 and operating for more than 100 years until it’s closure in 1982, the lock-up has seen and heard a lot of Novocastrian history.
Entering the cells today, the lighting is almost surreal and perhaps not too dissimilar from the minimal lighting that may have existed in bygone eras. As you take in the unpleasant, dark, dirty, and terribly cramped cells, you are met with more than just graffiti and stone etchings.
Each cell holds a limited number of artworks, sometimes only one, beckoning you to enter, and daring you to question your surroundings.
Watch your head, the cell doors aren’t tall. Oh, and maybe don’t use the toilets here…
Like most things in the Hunter region, (Hunter River, John Hunter Hospital, etc) Hunter Street is named for one of my relo’s and is the main road through Newcastle’s heart. This end of Hunter Street is narrower and it is lined with old buildings. So you can take in much of Newcastle’s historic architecture as you meander leisurely along.
No doubt, before you even entered the Lock-Up, you already spotted the heritage-listed T&G Mutual Life Assurance Building on the corner of Watt & Hunter Streets, completed in 1923.
Brunch or Lunch
There are so many choices of cafe’s and other eateries along this itinerary, but last time, we decided to get a bite to eat at The Three Bears Kitchen for lunch. This is just before we had a coeliac diagnosis, so the choices we made were not exactly gluten-friendly like they would be now.
I grabbed the Moroccan Eggs as it seemed the most unusual and interesting to me.
I loved it. Spicy, warm and delicious. It’s a kind of vegetable stew, I suppose, with poached eggs in it. Perfect if there is a bit of chill in the air.
Tammy went for the smashed avo and a side of potato rostis.
She loved the rostis but was disappointed with the “smashed” avo because the avocado was very hard (presumably why it was served sliced instead of smashed).
Food aside, it’s an interesting place to eat with a quirky mix of bear and steam-punk inspired styling.
See what other people think about the Three Bears Kitchen on TripAdvisor.
Evolution 1 Sculpture
Where Hunter Street joins Scott Street, you’ll find five cast bronze figures, four that represent the migrants who came to Newcastle from the four corners of the earth, and one representing the Aboriginal people who were already here.
Created by Sandra Minter-Caldwell in 1998.
The Camel aka The Adaptable Migrant
As you meander around the outside of Newcastle Museum, headed towards the entrance, you’ll find a sculpture that resembles a metal camel. This detailed beast called “The Adaptable Migrant” was created by Suzie Bleach and Andrew Townsend.
Inside, the sculpture contains more miniature sculptures inside it and is intended to resemble the migrant past of Newcastle and the many pieces of history that have formed the city that exists today.
Say hi on your way past, you know you want to 🙂
I don’t know about you, but personally, I find that if I’m short on time museum’s are one of the first things to get cut. Why? Because they can take up a lot of time. Museums can be fascinating, but at the same time, they can be extremely boring and you never really know what the exhibitions are going to be like and how engaged you will be until you are inside. Fortunately, Newcastle Museum isn’t like this (in my opinion).
Entry to the Newcastle Museum is free and I reckon it should be on every best of Newcastle list. Why? Because it is divided into a few different sections that focus on different aspects of the regional history, including an interactive section on coal mining and steelworks called “Fire and Earth”.
This kinetic engagement really does it for me, especially as a kinetic thinker. To be able to touch and feel different tools, walk among spaces intended to mimic being in a coal mine or steel factory, and also see a live-action demonstration of pouring steel pulls at all of the senses.
So, it’s probably also great for children, but as an adult, I thoroughly enjoyed it all.
Then there is “Supernova”, a hands-on scientific explosion aimed at kids, but frankly, I loved this too – I lifted a car!
Of course, there is “A Newcastle Story”, a fascinating and curated look into the many other stories that have made Newcastle beyond mining and steel.
Check out the Newcastle Museum website for a current list of permanent and special exhibitions. I’ve only covered my personal favourites of the permanent exhibitions.
Newcastle Civic Theatre
Built back in the year 1929, Civic Theatre is one piece of the Newcastle facade that doesn’t really jump out to you. Unlike some of the other architecture in this walking tour, Civic Theatre doesn’t feel like a big, grand building, though it does cover quite a large plot of land. Nor does it scream out to you what it is. Sure, there are plenty of advertisements in the windows, but there aren’t really any prominent signs or names on the building itself like there tend to be on most buildings of this age. At least, not from the street side – there is a sign on the Wheeler Place side, but it isn’t particularly prominent from the road.
I’ve never actually been inside, but I’m told that’s where the best examples of “Picture Palace” design are.
The University of Newcastle
Universities are tourist attractions in other cities, so why not in Newcastle? Ok, to be fair, the University of Newcastle doesn’t have a big sandstone walled “Great Court” like the University of Queensland or cloisters like the University of Glasgow (fun fact: I almost went to the University of Glasgow as an exchange student), nor does it have a particularly long history, but, the city campus definitely warrants being on the list from an architectural perspective. I love the juxtaposition it creates in the city.
Plus, you are walking past it anyway.
The city campus of the University of Newcastle has formed an integral part of the CBD revitalisation with a modern building sporting sharp lines, unusual angles, and a blend of the old-style sandstone buildings with new materials and subtly placed, vibrant colours. It juxtaposes the new with old, adjacent to Civic Theatre and backing onto our next point of interest, NESCA House.
NESCA House was the home of the Newcastle Electricity Supply Council Administration. Construction was completed in 1938 and it was designed by Emil Sodersteen, the very same Emil Sodersteen that designed the Australian War Memorial in Canberra.
The design was intended to complement the neighbouring City Hall, but there is definitely some art deco inspiration showing through.
Nowadays, it is part of the University of Newcastle and is known as University House.
Newcastle City Hall
If you only ever drive through the main street of Newcastle, Hunter Street, you might actually not have ever seen City Hall before. Except maybe the tower. Granted, I’d been to Newcastle many times over the years before moving to the area, and the times that involved a city visit never brought me back one block. I don’t recall ever even seeing the tower of City Hall. A very grand hall it is though!
Construction of Newcastle City Hall was completed in 1929, the same year as Civic Theatre, which it actually backs onto. The building was designed by architect Henry Eli White and contains a concert hall capable of seating 844 people.
If you are driving by City Hall or exploring Civic Park, you just might miss this bronze sculpture. It’s located outside City Hall on the Wheeler Plaza side.
The “Corm” is 1.5 metres tall and was given to Newcastle City Council by BHP Pty Ltd in 1979 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the opening of City Hall. It is inspired by the fleshy stem in plants and links the man-made city with nature.
Newcastle City Council
Unlike City Hall, I’ve never missed the city council building. Although I must admit, I never knew what it was until I moved here. The unusual round building towers above most of its neighbours and became the new administration centre for council in 1977 as the various council departments outgrew City Hall.
Chances are, you saw this earlier as you passed Wheeler Place before Civic Theatre.
Newcastle Civic Park
Across the road from Newcastle’s administrative centre is Civic Park. This green, peaceful oasis contains Memorial Grove, a memorial to fallen soldiers from both World Wars, as well as a prominent cenotaph that stands directly opposite City Hall. In front of the cenotaph ‘burns’ Newcastle’s unique eternal flame.
Behind the cenotaph, but still directly opposite City Hall sits the Captain Cook Memorial Fountain.
This unique sculpture combined with water show is a brilliant spot to sit in the shade, relax and contemplate those that have fallen in service to our country.
Also, if you brought your own picnic lunch, it’s the perfect spot to enjoy it by the fountain pool.
Newcastle Baptist Tabernacle
Behind the Cook Memorial Fountain and across the road, more architecture and art border Civic Park. There are many old religious centres in the area, and you get pretty close to a lot of them on this walking tour. The Baptist Tabernacle stands out though with its neo-classical Corinthian design.
OPTIONAL: Newcastle Art Gallery
Wander on past the Newcastle War Memorial Cultural Centre, home to the public library, conservatory and a few other things, and you’ll be at the Newcastle Art Gallery. If you have time, and the gallery is open, you might like to browse. You can see what the current exhibits are on their website.
If you do choose to do the gallery you almost certainly won’t have time to visit Christ Church Cathedral.
Fun fact: My year 12 major art project was exhibited at the Newcastle Art Gallery. It was also my first major self-driven road trip to see the exhibition opening. Just in case you were interested.
See what people think about the Newcastle Art Gallery on TripAdvisor.
OPTIONAL: Christ Church Cathedral
Ok, I’m going to say this right now. If you’ve followed this walking tour so far, you have potentially been on your feet for a while. This is a warning because if you go to Christ Church Cathedral, it is an uphill walk and you lose the opportunity to take the light rail back to Foreshore Park. If you skip Christ Church Cathedral, you can cut back across to Hunter Street and jump on the tram outside Civic Theatre.
If you do go to Christ Church Cathedral though, you can climb the tower on days where there are not events (just in case you haven’t already walked uphill enough.
I’ve personally not done the climb and I think you would be struggling to fit it into one day. However, if you do, you should have the best views in Newcastle. It is $10pp by donation to climb the tower at the time of writing and you can find out more on their website.
Christ Church Cathedral has an interesting history. This Anglican cathedral took a century from the start of construction to consecration and towers over the city of Newcastle as the largest cathedral in NSW and the third largest in Australia. Even if you don’t visit it on this walking tour, chances are, you’ll see it in the distance.
Should you make the walk, you will probably also pass the Newcastle Hebrew Congregation, just in case you’re interested.
Regardless of which way you go, this walking tour brings you back to Foreshore Park where you’ll find sculptures, ponds, gardens, and of course, the old rail yard.
Continue on though, we’ve just a few more things to squeeze in!
Nobbys Beach is forever etched in my memory as the place where the Pasha Bulker coal freighter ran aground in 2007. Most likely because it happened just before the art exhibition I mentioned earlier, and the ship was so prominent on the beach. Every time I see the beach or think of it now, I see this ship, stuck on the sand. For others though, it’s probably better known for the brilliant white sand and salty sea breeze. It’s a pretty popular swimming location in Newcastle.
I was sure I had a photo of the Pasha Bulker lit up at night that I was going to put in here, but, I can’t find it and it seems some foolish wanderer has never actually taken a picture of Nobby’s Beach. 🙁
So, here’s Google Streetview instead:
Continuing past Nobbys Beach, sitting up on the headland is Nobbys Lighthouse, the third lighthouse constructed in NSW back in 1854. The photo below is looking back towards the lighthouse from the breakwall.
Continuing past the lighthouse, you can walk all the way out to the end of the Newcastle Breakwall. Chances are good that you’ll see at least one ship entering or exiting the river while you are on the walk. I’ve done it a few times now and have seen at least one ship each time.
From here, or neighbouring Horse Shoe Beach, you just might get a brilliant sunset looking back over the Hunter River to Newcastle itself.
Best of Newcastle Self-Guided Walking Tour Map
I’ve put together a map with my “Best of Newcastle” points of interest and a suggested walking route for you:
What do you think?
So, that’s it! that’s my 1-Day best of Newcastle self-guided walking tour. Did you get through it all? Is there something else that should be on here? Let me know in the comments below!
For those that want some more, here are more walking tours on TripAdvisor.
Pin me baby, one more time!