The Rocks, Sydney - Region Information

Sydney was first settled by the British as a penal colony on January 26 1788 when 400 settlers and 750 convicts arrived on the First Fleet of 11 ships. The convicts had been sentenced to transportation for crimes as minor as stealing food - though there were hardened criminals among them.

More convicts arrived from England, and later Ireland. These and the soldiers sent to guard them were settled in the area named "The Rocks". They built huts of unseasoned timber or mud reinforced with twigs from trees. None remain.

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Convicts were put to work under the harshest conditions to erect public buildings and homes for government officials and free settlers. Substantial early structures were built of hand-made bricks or blocks of sandstone. The oldest remaining building in Sydney is Cadmans Cottage at The Rocks opposite the main cruise ship berth at Circular Quay. Completed in 1816, it was built for a convict who had gained his freedom and became keeper of the governor's ships. It is now the Sydney Harbour National Park Information Centre.

The Rocks has the biggest concentration of historic buildings in Sydney. Most have been 'recycled' and house shops, restaurants, art galleries, and the like. Some terrace houses (strings of two and three storey houses built side-by-side and sharing common dividing walls) survived and are now much sought after as places to live. The area is dotted with pubs, including the Lord Nelson which has traded since 1842 and the hero of Waterloo since 1845. The 'Hero' was notorious as a source of unwilling crewmen for ships which were short-handed. Men were made drunk and dragged off by 'press gangs' through a tunnel which ran under the hotel to a house across the street from where they were taken to the nearby wharves.

The Garrison Church, near the Argyle Cut which convicts had been forced to try to cut through rock by hand to make a road, was consecrated in 1844 and is still in use. The Garrison Historical and Military Museum next to the church traces the history of the English soldiers sent to control the convicts, frequently with great brutality. Sent to serve in the farthest corner of the British Empire as little more than prison guards with little reward and no glory, many of the soldiers were worse than the convicts under their control. The Argyle Cut itself proved an impossible task for convicts with hand tools. It was eventually completed by non-convict labour using explosives.

One of the best introductions to the area is The Rocks Self-Guided Walking Tour following a map and commentary produced by The Rocks Visitors Centre at 80 George Street. The walk takes in the most significant historical sites and explains the enclave's colourful and often violent past. Guided tours are also available.

There are plenty of restaurants including top establishments like the Rockpool in George Street North and Bilson's in the cruise terminal building at West Circular Quay. The popular Waterfront seafood restaurant and the up-market Imperial Peking Chinese share a convict-built three-storey stone woolstore almost on the waterfront opposite the Opera House with several others. There is a wide choice of others to suit most budgets, along with cafes and pubs, which serve meals.

Ten minutes walk from the Central Business District, The Rocks is easy to get to and offers plenty of variety. Boutiques sell Australian souvenirs, clothing, jewellery, art and craft. There is an all-day market on weekends selling a wide range of Australian products from confectionery to wood carvings and glassware. They are set up on the roadway at the end of George Street and are under cover. Thirsty shoppers who like Irish music should try the Mercantile Hotel at the end of the market strip. It gets very crowded but it worth the push for an excellent Guinness.

One of the best views of Sydney is from Observatory Hill on which stands the original Sydney Observatory built in 1858. It still has its optical astronomical telescope which was once a key to the scientific study of astronomy in the Southern Hemisphere. The Observatory is now a museum by day, but still conducts occasional explorations of the sky by night - bookings essential. Though it almost next to the southern roadway of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, access is from Argyle Street in The Rocks.

The park around the observatory offers an almost 360 degree panoramic view of Sydney Harbour, which stretches from Darling Harbour to the historic and now 'trendy' inner western suburb of Balmain, up the Parramatta River, over the water to the Lower North Shore, over the Harbour Bridge, up the harbour to the east, and back to the city skyline. Though nearby parking is scarce, it is a great picnic spot. You can drive - slowly - around the observatory if you just want to enjoy the view.

The National Trust, which governs the listing and preservation of historic buildings, has its headquarters, a gallery featuring historic art and architecture, and a cafe almost next to the observatory.

The Rocks area, which almost fell victim to a massive modern high-rise redevelopment plan in the 1960s, is now controlled by a quasi-government authority which manages the area in order to preserve its historic character.