A scenic and free self-guided walking tour of The Rocks is the perfect introduction to Sydney for first-time visitors to the harbour city. The Rocks is a suburb with a colourful history and a stunning location on the banks of Sydney Harbour. You don’t want to miss The Rocks in Sydney and a walking tour is the best way to discover the area.
If you’re wondering what to do in The Rocks, you can stroll along the cobbled laneways built by convicts and frequented by whalers and early settlers. There are museums, galleries, art and craft markets, historic pubs, outdoor cafes and parks where you can relax and enjoy the beautiful Sydney Harbour scenery and the ambience of the city’s oldest suburb.
I’ve lived in Sydney for most of my life and I love the history of the area. I’ve put together this self-guided walking tour of the Rocks to help you explore the city’s most interesting and scenic places. This easy self-guided itinerary takes 1.5 – 2 hours without stops and is perfect if you’re visiting Sydney alone and will work just as well if you have company.
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About The Rocks in Sydney
The Rocks area of Sydney is the oldest in Australia and is high on the list of places to see on a Sydney itinerary. With charming heritage buildings, historical sites, and a cutting-edge art scene, The Rocks is a fascinating part of the city to visit. When you explore The Rocks on foot, the Sydney Harbour Bridge and Opera House appear unexpectedly from behind buildings and around corners.
The location on the banks of Sydney Harbour is stunning and exploring The Rocks is one of the best things to do in Sydney alone. Strolling along the Promenade by the waterfront near Circular Quay is one of my favourite things to do in the city because it delivers one of the best harbour views in Sydney.
If you’re looking for the best places to stay in Sydney, you can’t beat The Rocks’ with a prime waterfront location in the heart of the city.
TIP: Join a specialist local guide when you visit The Rocks to hear stories about the early days of the British Australian settlement and how it has shaped modern Australia on a 90-minute guided walk.
Where is The Rocks?
The Rocks sits right next door to Circular Quay on Sydney Cove. It’s on the southern side of the Sydney Harbour Bridge and the famous Sydney Opera House is just across the water on the other side of the Cove. A walking tour of The Rocks area of Sydney offers beautiful harbour views and many photo opportunities along with a glimpse into the fascinating colonial history of Australia.
Visiting The Rocks is one of many great day trips in Sydney.
History of The Rocks
Although The Rocks is the oldest suburb in Australia, Indigenous Australians lived there for thousands of years before the British arrived. The Gadigal people called The Rocks Tallawoladah.
The first convict ships arrived in 1788 and landed on the rocky shores of Sydney Cove. The area now called The Rocks was one of the first campsites for the new arrivals. It became a low-class residential area for the dock workers, sailors, and riff-raff near the wharves at Circular Quay. Life was hard for the prisoners and ex-convicts who lived here, and the history was colourful.
The sandstone cliff ledges in The Rocks created a barrier that shaped the early dwellings, and you can see the remains of working-class terrace houses from the 19th century built into the cliff face. The area was built by convicts and the sandstone bricks used to build houses, walls and other structures still have pick marks made by the tools of the convicts who cut the sandstone.
Self-Guided Walking Tour of The Rocks
This historical and scenic walking tour of The Rocks area of Sydney begins at Circular Quay and takes about 1.5 – 2 hours to complete without stops. Allow an extra hour or two to stop at the museums and galleries or for lunch along the way.
If you want to explore the area further, I’ve included an extension to the walk that will take you across Millers Point, from Observatory Hill past some of Sydney’s oldest pubs and restored working-class cottages. It will add an extra half hour or so to the walk but it’s worth it for the historical interest and the gorgeous harbour views.
The extension takes you around Barangaroo Reserve with lovely harbourside scenery and a superb view of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, returning to Circular Quay via Walsh Bay, the centre of Sydney’s dance and theatre scene. The path passes underneath the Sydney Harbour Bridge and there are incredible harbour and Opera House views as you head back to Circular Quay.
1. Circular Quay
This walking tour of The Rocks begins at Circular Quay. If you arrive by train, take a moment to appreciate Sydney’s stunning harbour from the train platform. You’ll get a thrill as you take in the magical views of the bustling Circular Quay with ferries coming and going, glistening blue water, and the famous Sydney Harbour Bridge and Opera House as a backdrop.
Circular Quay is a public transport hub for buses, trains and ferries, and is usually busy. There are often buskers entertaining passers-by and this adds to the experience.
2. MCA Museum & Café
The Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) is the first stop on this walk around The Rocks in Sydney. The Museum is located right on the waterfront next to Circular Quay and exhibits the works of Australian and International Artists. Inside the museum, the MCA Café has a great view of the Sydney Opera House & Circular Quay and is a good place to stop for a coffee or an inexpensive meal.
Entry to the MCA Gallery is FREE.
3. Cadman’s Cottage
The Heritage-listed Cadman’s Cottage is just a 2-minute stroll from the MCA and it’s the next stop on this walking tour of The Rocks. Cadman’s Cottage is one of Australia’s oldest houses and dates back to early colonial times when the first settlers arrived at The Rocks in Sydney. Built in 1816 the small sandstone dwelling was once a sailor’s home and later became a police station.
Cadman’s Cottage is open for guided tours with very limited hours on the 1st and 3rd Sundays of the month.
4. ASN Co Building
The Australian Steam Navigation Building or ASN Co, is a well-known heritage-listed building on Hickson Road in The Rocks. It’s located in the maritime precinct opposite the Cruise Ship Terminal on the Sydney Harbour Foreshore. The restored office block and warehouse date back to 1884 and contribute to the historic character of The Rocks area of Sydney.
It’s a local landmark when viewed from the harbour and now houses the Ken Done Gallery on the lower level. Ken Done is a famous Australian Artist known for his brightly coloured original paintings and popular designs. Ken Done’s naïve and colourful style portrays the Australian landscape and the Gallery shop has a good selection of souvenirs, gifts and cards.
The Ken Done Gallery can be found at 1 Hickson Road, The Rocks in Sydney. And is open from 10 – 5:00 pm daily.
5. Weekend Art & Craft Market at The Rocks
The Rocks in Sydney hosts a popular art and craft market from Friday to Sunday each weekend and it’s a great place to shop for gifts and souvenirs. Browse the stalls for locally designed fashion, jewellery, art, homewares and home-made beauty products. The Rocks Market is fun to visit, and you can enjoy the bustling atmosphere with live music and delicious street food in a historic location near the Sydney Harbour waterfront.
6. The Rocks Square
Nearby, The Rocks Square is an open space in the heart of The Rocks with a unique character and a great selection of cafes and pubs. If you’re looking for somewhere to eat, stop for a coffee and a cake at La Renaissance Patisserie in The Rocks Square. Or if you’re here on the weekend enjoy some street food and wander through the market stalls and quaint shops and galleries on Playfair Street.
7. Playfair Street
Just around the corner from The Rocks Square, Playfair Street has a selection of small galleries and shops in a restored row of Terrace houses. The Argyle Gallery showcases a fine collection of Australian Art, Aboriginal art, and crafts like woodwork and glass art. If you’re looking for souvenirs or gifts, the gallery shop has a good selection. In the nearby Spirit Gallery, you can see a collection of Didgeridoos.
If you wander through the shops you’ll find a hidden gem at Foundation Park, an archaeological site located on the cliff face behind Playfair Street.
8. Foundation Park – off Gloucester Walk
Hidden behind the shop fronts of Playfair Street is Foundation Park, a significant cultural heritage site that gives insight into the history of The Rocks area of Sydney and how people lived during the 1800s. Foundation Park contains the remains of a row of terrace houses that date back to the 1880s built into the sandstone cliff face. The historical site was transformed into a public space to preserve the site and is only accessible on foot.
9. The Rocks Discovery Museum
From The Rocks Square, turn left onto the cobblestones of Kendall Lane and you’ll soon come to a restored 1850’s warehouse and inside is The Rocks Discovery Museum. Here you’ll find exhibits that tell the story of The Rocks from pre-settlement days, through colonial times to the present day.
Entry is FREE from 10-5:00 pm daily.
If you feel like a coffee break, stop off at The Fine Food Store at the end of Kendall Lane.
10. The Big Dig
No history tour of The Rocks in Sydney is complete without visiting The Big Dig, an archaeological excavation site located underneath the Sydney Harbour YHA. The Big Dig reveals some of the stories of the people who lived in Australia’s oldest colonial neighbourhood in 19th-century Sydney.
The YHA building is designed around The Big Dig archaeological site and has won awards for heritage conservation and tourism. You can stay at The Rocks Youth Hostel in the historical precinct of The Rocks. The hostel also has a fabulous harbour view from the rooftop.
The Big Dig is open to visitors but is no longer an active excavation site.
11. Suez Lane & Nurses Walk
Returning to The Rocks Square head towards Suez Lane. A redlight district in early Sydney, the cobblestone Laneway was named the Suez Canal for the water runoff that flows down the narrow passageway when it rains. Walk halfway up the cobblestoned Suez Lane and turn left onto the Nurses Walk. Take the stairs to the right and you’ll come to Susannah Place.
12. Susannah Place
Next on this historical tour of The Rocks is Susannah Place. Built by Irish immigrants in 1844, Susannah Place is a museum in a series of 4 terrace houses. The terraces have basements kitchens, outside washhouses and tiny backyards. Surviving the slum clearance and redevelopments of the last century, Susannah Place tells the story of the working-class people who lived near the harbour and worked at the waterfront in the 19th century.
Susannah Place Museum is open Thursday to Saturday from 10:00 AM to 5:00 pm and guided tours take 60 minutes.
13. Argyle Cut
Carved out of the hillside, Argyle Cut is a heritage-listed Archway cut into the cliffs on Argyle Street in The Rocks. The Argyle Cut connects The Rocks to Millers Point at the base of Observatory Hill. When you walk through the archway at The Argyle Cut, look out for the convict-made pick marks in the sandstone cliff face and stonework of the structure.
14. Observatory Hill
On the other side of the Argyle Cut, climb the stairs or walk up the road to Observatory Hill. Sitting above the sandstone cliffs of Argyle Cut, Observatory Hill has sweeping views across Millers Point to the Harbour Bridge. It really is a lovely place to visit. Wander around the remains of the fort, a historic military post and lookout point from colonial days and relax on the lawns in the shade of the magnificent old Morton Bay Fig trees.
Observatory Hill has been the site of The Sydney Observatory since 1858. Set on the highest hill in the area it was the perfect place for star gazing. It’s the oldest observatory in Australia and was designed to watch the skies of the Southern Hemisphere. You can observe the night sky from the 3D Space Theatre at the Observatory if you make a booking.
Finish your self-guided walking tour of the Rocks here and head back to Circular Quay
OR continue to Barangaroo Reserve.
Extension – Walking tour of The Rocks
This extension to the walking tour of The Rocks takes a longer, more scenic route back to Circular Quay and is definitely worthwhile if you have the time. It adds around half an hour to this walking tour but I think it’s worth it. You’ll pass restored cottages and terrace houses in Millers Point and enjoy stunning harbour views along the way.
15. Barangaroo Reserve
From the Observatory, continue down the hill along Argyle Street past some of Sydney’s oldest pubs. At the bottom of the hill continue along the pathway into Barangaroo Reserve. Wander through the parklands and enjoy the stunning harbour views from this waterfront green space in the inner city.
There are views across the water to the Glebe Point Bridge and as you head around the point, you’ll have a beautiful view of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Barangaroo Reserve offers water views to the east and west and it’s a great spot for relaxing on the lawn with boats and ferries sailing past on Sydney Harbour. It’s also a great place to watch the sunrise and sunset in Sydney.
Exit the Barangaroo Reserve in Walsh Bay and stroll along Hickson Road towards the Sydney Harbour Bridge.
16. Walsh Bay, the Piers & the Arts Precinct
Walk along Hickson Road on the waterfront past the Piers where the Sydney Dance Company and the Sydney Theatre Company rehearse and perform in The Wharf Theatre. A historical Port on Sydney Harbour, Walsh Bay has become a leading performance precinct in Sydney.
17. Sydney Harbourside Promenade
Stroll back to Circular Quay along the Harbourside Promenade enjoying a sea breeze and unbeatable views of Sydney Harbour Bridge and Opera House. This walking tour of The Rocks takes you directly underneath the Harbour Bridge near Dawes Point Reserve and along the harbourside path to Campbells Cove where the Tall Ships dock. The Tall ships are replicas of the sailing boats that brought convicts and early settlers to Australia in the 18th century, and they are beautiful reminders of Australia’s maritime history.
Set sail from Campbell’s Cove on an authentic tall ship cruise on stunning Sydney Harbour. Help the crew set sail, or sit back and enjoy the harbour sights, such as Harbour Bridge and the beautiful Sydney Opera House.
18. Campbell’s Cove
In Campbell’s Cove on the way back to Circular Quay you’ll pass a row of warehouses built during the 1840s called Campbell’s Stores. Originally the warehouses stored imported goods but now there’s a row of waterfront restaurants.
The last stop in this walking tour of The Rocks is the lookout at the Cruise Ship Overseas Passenger Terminal. Make your way up to the Observation Deck on the upper level for a perfect view of Campbell’s Cove and the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Then head back to Circular Quay.
More things to do in the Rocks in Sydney
Harbour Bridge Pylon Lookout & Museum
The Harbour Bridge Pylon Lookout offers panoramic 360° views of Sydney, the harbour and the Opera House. On a clear day, you can see all the way to Homebush Bay and further west to the Blue Mountains. There are 200 steps to the very top of the pylon and an entry fee of A$25 is charged for the Pylon Lookout and Museum.
NOTE: There is no entry from the base of the Pylon in Dawes Park. Access is via the pedestrian pathway near the Bridge stairs (near Observatory Hill) or the pedestrian lift on Cumberland Street in The Rocks.
Sydney Harbour Bridge Climb
If you’re looking for an adventure, the Sydney Harbour Bridge Climb is one of the best things to do in Sydney and it’s an experience that you’ll never forget. Climb more than 1300 stairs on the upper arch of the Sydney Harbour Bridge for unrivalled views across the city from the top of the bridge. I can personally recommend the Sydney Harbour Bridge Climb. I loved it and it’s not as hard as you might think.
How to Get There
To get to the Rocks in Sydney, head to Circular Quay, a public transport hub for trains, light rail, buses, and ferries. The Rocks is an easy 5-minute walk from Circular Quay. If you’re in the city, catch a bus down George Street or walk from Wynyard or Martin Place.
It’s also possible to drive to The Rocks via Millers Point and Observatory Hill. Street parking is limited, and expensive parking metres make public transport the best option for visiting The Rocks, especially during the daytime.
Where to eat in The Rocks
Where to Eat Lunch in The Rocks in Sydney
The MCA Café inside the Museum of Contemporary Art near Circular Quay has a fabulous view of the Opera House and the Sydney Opera House. It’s a great choice for an inexpensive lunch on this walking tour of the Rocks.
La Renaissance Patisserie is another attractive cafe that serves cakes, desserts, and French pastries. It’s the perfect place to stop for a coffee in The Rocks Square at the heart of the historic part of The Rocks area in Sydney.
The Fine Food Shop is a trendy coffee shop in The Rocks at the end of a cobblestone laneway. Stop here for brunch and a beer, or coffee, cake, and sandwiches on your walking tour of The Rocks.
Where to Eat Dinner in The Rocks in Sydney
The famous Fortune of War Hotel is Sydney’s oldest pub. Popular with sailors and soldiers since it was built in 1828, the Fortune serves hearty pub food in a welcoming atmosphere. It’s a good place to grab a beer and a meal.
The heritage-listed Harts Pub is another good choice for craft beer and a pub meal in an old-style corner pub in the Rocks in Sydney.
The Keel is a cocktail and rum bar with a maritime history and seasonal menu.
A brewhouse and restaurant, The Squires Landing is a modern space with harbour views that tells the story of James Squires, a convict on the First Fleet. The Squires Landing is located at the northern end of the Cruise Ship Overseas Passenger Terminal. And you can call in at the end of your walking tour of The Rocks.
Seargent Lok serves Chinese food in a restored heritage building that’s full of colonial character. In the 1880s in Old Sydney Town, it was a police station.
In the past, the Doss House had a shady character as an opium den in the alleyways of The Rocks. These days it’s a luxurious basement bar that serves fine wines, whisky, and bistro bar food. The rooms are cosy with original fireplaces, convict-hewn sandstone walls and a snug terrace.
Hotels near The Rocks in Sydney
Budget: Sydney Harbour The Rocks YHA combines tourism with the history of The Rocks in Sydney. Built above The Big Dig archaeological site in the city’s oldest suburb, The Rocks Youth Hostel is an award-winning heritage conservation project.
The location of The Rocks Sydney Hostel in the heart of the city is ideal. It’s close to all the main attractions, with easy access to Circular Quay and public transport and there are fabulous harbour views from the rooftop. Private rooms are available.
Mid-Range: The Harbour Rocks Hotel and Rendezvous Hotel in the Centre of The Rocks offer easy access from Circular Quay station and are ideal for solo female travellers. The location is perfect for exploring the harbourside suburb and is close to all the main attractions.
The Rocks Tours
Guided tour: Join a specialist local guide and visit The Rocks on a guided tour to see some of the oldest colonial buildings in Sydney and some of the best views of the Harbour Bridge and Sydney Opera House. Hear stories about the early days of the British Australian settlement on a 90-minute guided walk and how it has shaped modern Australia.
Ghost tour: Discover the haunted side of The Rocks on a Ghost Tour and venture back to historic Sydney, a time when prisoners and ex-convicts ran amok and public executions were commonplace. Join this tour in search of the lost souls lingering in hidden Sydney. This ghost tour includes a 90-minute walking tour with trained guides to help you see and feel the great history of Sydney. You’ll also get the chance to visit a haunted site, not open to the public.
Pub Tour: This 2.5-hour walking tour visits the great historic pubs of ‘The Rocks in Sydney‘. Retrace the footsteps of famous convicts, larrikin gangs, and local celebrities as you share a drink in 4 of Sydney’s oldest pubs. Learn the secret behind which of the 4 claims to be Sydney’s oldest pub, and enjoy a complimentary beer, wine or soft drink in each.
In the very heart of Sydney, The Rocks has a fascinating history and a stunning location on the banks of Sydney Harbour. A self-guided walking tour is an ideal way to explore the area, soak in the charming ambience and enjoy the many photo opportunities.
For more information on the best things to do in The Rocks area of Sydney, pick up a free orange map of The Rocks or download the Sydney Culture Walks App.
Why is The Rocks in Sydney called The Rocks?
The Rocks in Sydney are named after the rocky landscape of Sydney Cove where the ships of the First Fleet landed in Sydney in 1788.
When is The Rocks Market on in Sydney?
The Rocks Market in Sydney is a weekend market and it’s open from Friday to Sunday. Stalls at the market sell arts, crafts, clothing, jewellery, beauty products and homewares. It’s a fun place to visit on weekends to shop for gifts and souvenirs. There’s live music, lots of street food and a great atmosphere near the waterfront in The Rocks in Sydney
What is The Rocks in Sydney?
The Rocks is Sydney’s oldest suburb near Sydney Cove on the banks of Sydney Harbour. It’s the place where the First Fleet landed in Australia and set up camp in 1788. As the settlement grew, The Rocks became a working-class slum area near the docks at Circular Quay.
Today The Rocks is a place of history, art and culture at the heart of Sydney. The suburb is a stunning waterfront locality that sits beside the Sydney Harbour Bridge and is just a short walk from the Sydney Opera House.