The once hardscrabble heart of NSW’s coal country has been transformed by hip bars, quirky cafés, cool boutiques and unique accommodation.
It may be the second-largest city in NSW but Newcastle has traditionally struggled for attention next to its prettier neighbours: the fertile wine country of the Hunter Valley to the west and the laid-back beach towns of the Central Coast and Mid North Coast. When you’re best known for steel and coal, it can be hard to get a date.
But Newcastle has had a makeover. While everyone was busy sipping chardonnay in Pokolbin and soaking up the rays on Avoca Beach, this city of hidden charms was quietly shaking off the dust, wiping away the grime and moving its famously creative DNA into the sunlight. (Some of the country’s most renowned musicians and artists, including rock band Silverchair and painter William Dobell, hail from the city.)
Today, it’s alive with restaurants, cafés and bars that make the most of the region’s fresh produce. Locals enjoy freekeh salads and iced tea in the cafés on Darby Street in Cooks Hill or sip Hunter Valley wines in the breezy restaurants on the harbourfront. In beachy Merewether, dogs with panting grins wait outside the surfhouse while their owners, sporting swimmers and salt-scrunched hair, grab takeaway coffee. And in the centre of town, music trickles out of alleyway bars that you need to walk past twice to find.
Thankfully, the city’s heritage has remained intact. Its harbour continues to hum with coal ships and tugboats. Streetscapes are still dominated by Victorian terrace houses and grand early-20th-century pubs, though today they’re likely to be housing an interior design business or hosting a pop-up whisky tasting. A light rail system, set to open early this year, will tie popular precincts together and breathe new life into the city centre.
The Hunter Valley still has top-shelf food and wine; the coastal towns have their beaches. But Newcastle has found its niche with a combination of both, plus a generous dollop of cool. Its days as a drive-by dot on the map are over. Now it’s exactly where you should go.
Eat and drink
On weekends you might have to queue at this warehouse-style bakery in a suburban street in Maryville but odds are you’ll need that time to decide what to eat. The crew here makes bread, pastries, pies and sandwiches, plus you can take home jars of watermelon and strawberry jam, dukkah and piccalilli. If you’re paralysed by indecision, opt for the luscious brandy-soaked, twice-baked croissant with almond filling.
At this neon-signed Brazilian- style barbecue restaurant in Honeysuckle, close to the harbour foreshore, co-owner Mitch Steel sources beef, chicken, pork and lamb from top suppliers and treats it with restraint. That said, when you order the $55 signature churrasco, it keeps coming… and coming.
Popolo Artisan Gelateria
The pistachios are sourced from Sicily and the hazelnuts come from Piedmont but the on-point creaminess of the gelato is entirely homegrown at this inner-city store. The syrupy sour cherry is our pick of the delicious flavours.
Hidden down a dark, graffitied alley, Ginger Meg’s is a two-storey venue with green velvet banquettes and exotic artworks. On the plates are eats from every corner of South-East Asia created by chef Jordan Muhamad (ex-Chin Chin and Spice Temple), paired with inventive cocktails. The Indo-Malay chicken with sticky sambal is a standout, as is the sandwich-like play on Chinese prawn toast. “It’s an escape to a completely Asian experience in the centre of Newcastle,” says co-owner Marc Allardice.
Claiming the largest collection of whisky in NSW outside Sydney, Babylon is designed for slow drinking and long conversations, with cocktails and craft beers rounding out the drinks menu. It’s the latest venture for Philip Elsley, who also runs craft-beer bar The Blind Monk in the Newcastle suburb of Hamilton. Babylon is in the centre of town, housed in the early-20th-century former Central Methodist Mission, and Elsley has chosen a sympathetic Prohibition-era fit-out to complement the building’s heritage.
Despite The Koutetsu’s rather soulless main-road location (555 Hunter Street, Newcastle West; 0431 760 025), it’s worth an evening trip to this dimly lit dive bar for killer cocktails and gyoza served with the glow of tea candles reflecting off black walls and moody murals. During the day, the adjoining hole-in-the-wall takeaway, Little Castro (0497 706 243), sells Cubano sandwiches (pork, Swiss cheese and pickles) and other Caribbean specialties.
Hunt for homewares
When former magazine editor Lauren Powell and designer Brigita Millard discovered an industrial-warehouse space on the city’s fringe in the up-and-coming suburb of Maryville, they knew it was the perfect spot to open their homewares and lifestyle store House of Lita. Pop in for Moroccan cushions and rugs, bedding and sleepwear from In Bed, women’s fashion by Nice Martin and children’s apparel from Millard’s label, Little Indahs. The store is tucked away in a quiet suburban street with little foot traffic but Powell says it’s these relatively hidden gems that are part of Newcastle’s attraction. (Uprising Bakery and Equium Social café are not in the main retail hubs either.) “It’s so easy to get around Newcastle that anyone can explore these little pockets,” she says. “You can even jump on a bike and ride to them.” Australia’s first electric- bike hire stations, dotted across the city, are a great option for visitors.
Bend before brunch
The sister café of perennial favourite Talulah in The Junction, Equium Social has a breezy, open-plan layout and light-but-lush menu worth the short trip out of town to Mayfield East. Before brunch, catch a class next door at Earthie Yoga studio then replenish any lost calories with a braised cabbage, beetroot relish and mozzarella toastie and chilled spearmint and hibiscus tea.
Shop a local label
High Tea with Mrs Woo is an artisanal women’s fashion label owned by sisters Rowena, Juliana and Angela Foong. Their store has been operating on Darby Street in Cooks Hill since 2004 so buying one of their original garments made with natural fabrics means you’re taking home a piece of the city’s story.
Visit the markets
Because of Newcastle’s proximity to the Hunter Valley, the city’s farmers’ market, held on Sunday mornings at the Showground, features exceptional regional wines and fresh produce, including Mill Creek Vineyard shiraz and riesling and Johnson’s Farmgate Over the Moon Jersey milk. On the first Saturday of each month, The Olive Tree Market in Civic Park showcases the works of more than 150 local contemporary artists and designers, including ceramics, fashion and photography.
See art in a jailhouse
There are arguably few things creepier than a disused jail. The Lock-Up, where Newcastle’s ne’er-do-wells were incarcerated from 1861 to 1982, is particularly grim with its preserved padded cell and windowless exercise yard etched with desperate graffiti. Today, the prison hosts artworks instead of inmates, its ever-changing mixed-media installations often designed to make a confronting statement against the backdrop of the building’s history.
Walk the coastline
The Bathers Way walking path stretches six kilometres from Nobbys Lighthouse to the foot of Glenrock State Conservation Area and takes in almost every inch of Newcastle’s coastline. Aside from sweeping ocean views, highlights include the Newcastle Memorial Walk, which was built to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the landing of the Anzacs on Gallipoli. It’s an excellent vantage point for whale spotting between June and November, particularly in the middle of the day when the water is least reflective. Keep an eye out for seals on Nobbys Beach and the monument to the beaching of the coal ship Pasha Bulker in 2007.
A 140-room hotel is set to open near the harbour on Honeysuckle Drive in 2020. But for now, the pick of the traditional accommodation options is the airy guestrooms, some with ocean views, at Novotel Newcastle Beach. Step outside the light-filled foyer and explore the bars and restaurants along King and Hunter streets, as well as the beach and foreshore.
What the city does particularly well is boutique accommodation. Airbnb property Hayes House is a luxurious three-bedroom Victorian home filled with local treasures, including Clay Canoe ceramic kitchenware, photos by James Stephenson and toiletries from Savant Apothecary. It’s an easy walk to the cafés and shops on Darby Street, Cooks Hill.
Nearby is Flourish on Bull, a stunning loft-style apartment with a dramatic arched window, located above the studio of Flourish Interior Design. Its new sister apartment overlooking the Cowrie Hole near Newcastle Beach is just three metres from the water.
Also in Cooks Hill is Pappa Sven’s Summer Cabin, which is owned by Libby Helinski, who lived in Sweden for a year and now runs Scandinavian homewares store Pappa Sven, a short walk away. The charcoal-and-white weatherboard cottage is fitted out with Nordic textiles and furnishings and has had its “authentic Swedish-ness” verified by the ambassador of Sweden to Australia, Pär Ahlberger, who stayed here with his wife, Hélène.