This article was first published in the September 2012 issue of BBC History Magazine
Despite lurid reports of Sydney in the London press, European travellers are increasingly praising the unexpected charms of this beautifully situated harbour city.
When to go
The Sydney climate is blessed with glorious sunshine year-round, but if Christmas without snow is attractive, plan a December arrival.
What to take with you
Take reliable servants, and letters of introduction from English patrons. It’s difficult to find the former here, while the latter are essential if you want an invitation to the governor’s grand balls at Government House – the social highlight for the ‘Fancy’, as the local elite are collectively known.
It’s advisable to lock up your servants overnight, to ensure you don’t lose them to the temptations of Sydney’s easygoing lifestyle.
Costs and money
A room at a respectable inn will cost a few shillings a night. A bottle of French wine can be had for two shillings, or a snack of cakes and ginger beer for half that. All that luxury and utility require can be purchased in the city’s many stores, which rival London for variety. But imported goods naturally cost more than an Englishman is accustomed to paying.
Sights and activities
Highly recommended is a visit to Sydney’s handsome botanical gardens, which are kept at public expense. Puzzle at the strange flora and fauna, and take in a breathtaking panorama of Sydney’s harbour, where the entire Royal Navy could anchor.
A boat will take the visitor west, upriver, to the outlying township of Parramatta. The scenery is increasingly attractive when the Blue Mountains provide the western backdrop. Vessels making this journey aren’t as unwieldy as the barge first used, which the convicts who operated it called the ‘Good Ship Lump’.
There is a tavern or hotel on every Sydney street corner, with rooms aplenty, but the overseas visitor might wish to stay at the more salubrious 100-room Royal Hotel on Pitt Street, the Regent Street of Sydney. But, be warned, wherever you stay, you’ll be awoken by a dawn chorus that is distinctly un-European, and raucously Antipodean.
As New South Wales is growing rich on the sheep’s back, with sheep here far outnumbering humans, mutton chops head every breakfast menu and roast lamb is consumed nightly at dinner. The greatest gastronomic surprise – and treat – for visitors is provided by the oyster bars on every city block, where freshly shucked (opened) Sydney rock oysters are downed by all classes with a glass of champagne, followed by a Havana cigar.
Horse-drawn omnibuses abound for the lower classes, but a gentleman can easily hire a hackney carriage. Or, borrow a gig from any hospitable local merchant by promising him your custom.
Dangers and annoyances
Sydney’s crime rate is considered lower than London’s. This is attributed to the city’s active commissioner of police, William Augustus Miles, who is known to go about in disguise and to raid suspect houses in the middle of the night.
Using informants and spies, Miles maintains a registry of villains that lists all known criminals according to their speciality: Flash Men (fences and pimps), Turf Men (bookmakers), Lock Men (housebreakers), Packet Men (forgers), Leger de Main Men (sleight of hand artists), and Hocus Pocus Men (confidence tricksters).
Do the wrong thing here, and Commissioner Miles will add you to his registry, and arrange a harbour-side room for you in Sydney’s charmingly named Cockatoo Island Prison.
For visiting sporting enthusiasts, horse racing, dog baiting and cockfighting abound. Prize fighting has also taken hold, while gentlemen schooled at Eton or Rugby, where the handball game of Fives is played, will be surprised to find a Fives court in the heart of the city’s waterfront Rocks district.
The Victoria Theatre on George Street is Sydney’s answer to Drury Lane. Built to house 2,000 patrons from pit to gods, it frequently welcomes more, with plays and opera performed by local and visiting companies.
Some optimistic locals predict that Sydney, this city of 50,000 inhabitants, will one day have an opera house all of its own – one that will be known around the world. But that seems highly unlikely.
Stephen Dando-Collins’s latest book, Mistaken Identity: The Trials of Joe Windred (Random House Australia, 2012), is set partly in Sydney in the 1840s. www.stephendandocollins.com
Stephen Dando-Collins describes a city enjoying an unsurpassed natural setting, with an ever-growing collection of man-made attractions to rival anywhere in the world. That pretty much sums up Sydney in 2012, a fully paid-up member of the great cities of the world club. Sydneysiders, as locals call themselves, can (and do) look anyone who doesn’t live here in the eye and ask, “why?”
There are, of course, two world-famous additional features of the city: the Harbour Bridge (completed in 1932) and Opera House (opened in 1973). It’s impossible to imagine Sydney today without them, even if their engineering and design miracles would seem astonishing to the most far-sighted Victorian. Visitors today can climb to the top of one for an unusual view of the other.
For all that, Sydney lacks one thing: capital status. That honour was bestowed on Canberra in 1927, the newly created city that inherited it from Melbourne, which had held it since federation. When you’re sitting by the harbour with a glass of something chilled in your hand, it’s likely that that won’t trouble you, or Sydneysiders, one bit. Remember to book ahead though – this is one popular place to visit.
If you like this…
If you’re looking for another great harbour city then look no further than Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. For another Antipodean treat but with fewer crowds then Auckland, New Zealand is a marvellous alternative.
Tom Hall, editor, lonelyplanet.com. You can read more of Tom’s articles at the website