Where to eat, drink and stay in Newcastle

Determined to see what all the fuss was about, Sydneysider Bernard O’Shea travelled two hours north to visit the 'new' Newcastle.

By Bernard O'Shea
For a long time now I’ve been saying “I must go and visit Newcastle”. Lonely Planet put it in its top 10 destinations in 2011, cruise ships pull into its harbour for visits, much of its waterfront has been revived with trendy eateries, and it’s meant to be a hip and happening place.
Yet, like many Sydneysiders, I’ve never really paid much attention to the place.
Just 160 kilometres north of Sydney, it just doesn’t seem far away enough for a getaway.
My only visits have been quick pit stops while on the way to somewhere else – scenic spots further up the NSW coast or to the Hunter wine region.
Still, I have always admired it for its beaches and seaside pools (the Merewether Ocean Baths are the largest in the southern hemisphere), and have been lucky to have spotted whales from its cliff tops.
Recently, though, I was able to spend a weekend in the city. I enjoyed it, and my car must have done so too, for on the day of departure it refused to budge, and I had to spend an extra two days in Newcastle getting it fixed when I should have been back at the office in Sydney. How lucky is that!
Newcastle has glorious city beaches, and a fine harbour on the Hunter River. Image supplied.
I had always perceived Newcastle as being rather English – it reminded me of some of the resorts along on the English coast where I used to visit my grandparents in my long lost youth – but my travelling companion likened it to a mini San Francisco. In reality, it is Newcastle just evolving in its own way.
And you can tell it’s doing something right simply by listening to the tales of the 20- to 30-something Novocastrians who left it in their late teens, swearing they would never return, and now here they are back home and loving it.
So what’s the attraction? After languishing in the doldrums for years, the CBD is coming to life again, slowly but surely.
Vacant shop spaces are being leased or put to good temporary use, trendy restaurants and bars have sprung up, the arts scene is thriving, and the Anzac Memorial Walkway along the cliffs, which opened last April, has added an exciting dimension to the city’s coastal promenades.
The lifestyle is alluring and affordable.
Still, it’s not all hunky dory. Newcastle’s evolution is really only at the halfway stage; parts of the city centre still have a vacant feel to them at times, and a big question mark hangs over its now disused railway corridor.
Amid much controversy, the last 2.5 kilometre section of the rail line was shut down in December 2014 (the view being that it was doing more harm than good by cutting off the city from the waterfront), to make way for a commercial, cultural and residential hubs and a light rail, but the NSW government’s right to do this is being tested in the Court of Appeal.
On the plus side, though, a key part of the “revitalising Newcastle” plan is well on track.
The University of Newcastle – now the city’s largest private employer – is developing a campus in the heart of the city. Due to open in 2017 with 3500 students and 400 staff, it will breathe life into the Civic theatre and City Hall precinct.
Still, don’t wait for all this to happen.
My advice would be to see it now, to savour it for its old-fashioned charms, then come back again in a year or two to see how it is evolving. For like many an underrated mid-size city, it has a lot to offer.
Here are the highlights:
Nobbys Beach and the lighthouse on Nobbys Head, Newcastle. Image supplied
Fort Scratchley: The fort on Flagstaff Hill is one of the shore excursions for passengers on the cruise ships that pop into Newcastle harbour. The fort may be of limited interest unless you are really keen on military history, but what you are coming up for here really are the 360-degree views – there are none better to be found in the vicinity. For more information click here.
Nobbys Beach and Lighthouse: The breakwater to Nobbys Head, which was once an island, makes for an easy (1.5km), enjoyable walk, and if you can do it on a Sunday, all the better – it’s the only day that the grounds of the lighthouse on are open to the public (from 10am to 4pm, and access is free).
The beach is a popular spot, the water looks sparkling, and even if you don’t swim, at least get a coffee or ice-cream from the pavilion café.
Tantalising soaps in the Thirty Three Degrees South Soap Factory outlet in the Emporium. Image: Bernard O'Shea
The Emporium: This is a fascinating and eclectic collection of pop-up shops, housed on the ground floor of the former David Jones store in the Hunter Street Mall.
Here you can buy everything from bespoke millinery, bohemian-inspired fashion, ceramic jewellery, hand-crafted leather goods and various arts and crafts.
The Emporium is a key site for Renew Newcastle, a not for profit company that cleans up vacant buildings and matches them with artists, cultural projects, and community groups needing to display their wares.
It’s likely that this iconic building will be converted into new apartments in the future, so you should explore this “arcade of boutique artisans” while it is still there! For more information click here
Darby Street: This is Newcastle’s most cosmopolitan and bohemian spot, boasting art galleries, bookshops, gift stores, fashion and jewellery boutiques and the like, and it’s conveniently within easy walking distance from the civic precinct and the Newcastle Art Gallery.
Shopping is no fun on an empty stomach, but don’t worry – there are more than 20 cafes and restaurants along the strip.
Olive Tree Market: Held once a month in Civic Park (usually on or around the first Saturday of the month), this very popular market is the showcase for Newcastle’s artisan community and purveyors of gourmet produce, but offers live entertainment and educational seminars too. For more information click here.
The tasty fare at The Landing, Newcastle harbour. Image supplied.
Newcastle has an enticing array of restaurants and cafes, and a happy, relaxed atmosphere seems to pervade its eating establishments.
The food is generally good, with an emphasis on fresh local produce, and the servings are noticeably generous and good value. Sydney restaurateurs, take note! Darby Street (see above) is a popular haunt, but there are many other engaging options.
Fine dining:
Restaurant Mason at 3/35 Hunter Street is a good choice – owner Chris Thornton was named Young Restaurateur of the Year in the 2015 Electrolux Appetite for Excellence awards – as is Subo at 551D Hunter Street, owned by Beau Vincent, the 2006 Lexus Young Chef of the Year, at 551D Hunter Street.
The Honeysuckle precinct:
Once the terrain of derelict warehouses, cargo sheds and railway workshops, the area overlooking Newcastle Harbour and the Hunter River is now spick and span, and who can resist waterside dining?
Among the many enticing options are Silo Restaurant and Lounge and The Landing, where the views over the harbour's tranquil stretch of water lift the spirits and stir the soul. These are places to linger and savour.
The Dockyard at 13/1 Honeysuckle Drive is a popular waterfront pub.
Hunter Street Mall:
Cazador, a stylish tapas bar and restaurant, is the top pick in the Mall (it’s at No. 148). It's colourful, classy yet casual, and gives the rather jaded mall just the pep it needs.
Most interesting:
Tell anyone that you are going to the The Coal and Cedar, a New York-style speakeasy located withing 380 Hunter Street, and their eyes will light up with enthusiastic approval.
The place has a great ambience – flickering candle lights, extoic taxidermilogical objects and photos on the wall – and lots of great whiskeys.
It’s kind of hidden and to get in you have to SMS the password of the day to the bar stuff (it’s on a note pasted to the building’s main entrance), which is fun and makes you feel like you are a privileged guest secretly in cahoots with bootleggers, but it’s perfectly legitimate! For more information click here.
Best brunches:
At 363-365 Hunter Street but set back from the road in a pleasant square is the Blue Door Café, which is popular with young and old alike. It's a good spot for a brunch or lunch date!
Tasty offerings are also to be found at Saluna Kitchen + Coffee on 137 King Street, which seems to have a loyal local following - always a good sign when you are after a decent bite to eat.
Former police holding cells make for great exhibition space in The Lock-Up Gallery in Hunter Street, Newcastle. Image supplied.
The Newcastle Art Gallery, perched on a hill overlooking Civic Park, boasts one of the finest collections of artworks outside of Australia’s capital cities – more than 6100 works in total.
The only problem is the gallery’s premises, at 1 Laman Street, are not big enough to hold it all. (The quest for new or enlarged premises has been a long-running and frustrating saga in local politics).
Still, it’s well worth popping in for a look at the permanent and temporary exhibitions.
The Newcastle Museum, now housed in the Honeysuckle Railway Workshops, proudly boasts that it has “things that click, whirr, sing and shout, puff, grind, fly and roar”! Give it a whirl.
If you like alternative, daring, thought-provoking exhibitions, The Lock-Up gallery at 90 Hunter Street is for you.
Housed in the former CBD main police station and lock-up (which closed in 1982 but the claustrophobic cells are well preserved and put to better use now), it’s a prime example of Newcastle’s current cutting edge.
With the harbour, Hunter River, and many beaches at hand, there are plenty of activities for those who like excitement and adventure, from skydiving to whale and dolphin watching.
Or if you fancy something more sedate but enjoy being on the water, there are harbour cruises, lunch and dinner cruises, and even bingo sessions afloat from the likes of Nova Cruises and Moonshadow Cruises.
If you are a good walker, it’s possible to see much of the central area’s attractions on foot.
If not, don’t be disheartened – the city has a fare-free zone on its buses daily from 7.30am to 6pm, so hop around at your own leisure and at someone else’s expense!
For views of Newcastle harbour and easy access to the Honeysuckle precinct, go for the Crowne Plaza Newcastle on the corner of Meredith Street and Wharf Road.
If you are a beach lover and want easy access to Newcastle’s city beaches and ocean baths, the Novotel Newcastle Beach at 5 King Street is a good option.
If you prefer a good quality, homely serviced apartment with self-catering facilities, Quest Newcastle at 575 Hunter Street is popular with both tourists and visiting business executives
The writer stayed in Newcastle partly as a guest of Visit Newcastle and partly at his own expense, and was hosted by some of the establishments mentioned in this article. For more information, click here.

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