“If you’re in the mood for a vintage shopping spree followed by a vegan lunch and an artisan coffee, then look no further than Newtown,” recommends rugby league journalist and Newtown Jets volunteer Steven Russo. “This quirky little suburb is perfect for those tourists looking to nourish their inner hipster… just look out for fixies.”
The fixed-gear bicycles that plaster the pavement aren’t Newtown’s only obstacle. The neighbourhood’s cooler-than-cool reputation has priced out many of the university students and long-time residents that generated Newtown’s personality, while red tape binding the inner city’s nightspots have forced party-seekers into the inner west on weekends. Once a vibrant patchwork of old-school pubs, casual cafés and independent retailers, these changes have altered what King Street represents.
“To me, it’s fun and colour,” says Camilla Schippa, CEO of The Social Outfit, a fashion label that introduces refugees to the Australian workforce through their King Street boutique. “But we need people to support the area, so it can keep its vibe and not just disappear into shawarma shops.”
Despite the challenges, Newtown remains Sydney’s most colourful quarter – and these are the top things to see and do in the area.
The first thing that smacks visitors in the face when they get off the train in Newtown – only a six-minute journey from Sydney’s Central Station – is street art. Juilee Pryor and Andrew Aiken’s I Have a Dream mural has been a King Street icon since 1991, pairing Martin Luther King Jr with the Aboriginal flag in a statement for Indigenous rights. Fintan Magee, also known as the Australian Banksy, tackles the issues of gentrification and housing affordability – check out Falling Sky in King Lane and The Housing Bubble on Enmore Road.
Dog-lovers cannot miss Camperdown Memorial Rest Park – one of the inner west’s few off-leash dog parks, always well populated with canines seeking new admirers. And the entertainment continues at the Dendy – perhaps Sydney’s premier art-house cinema – and the Enmore Theatre, a 2,500-seat live music venue that’s welcomed the likes of The Rolling Stones and Oasis to its stage since opening in 1910.
But Newtown’s most quintessential experience is watching the local rugby league team run around on a Saturday afternoon. Founded in 1908, the Newtown Jets are the oldest rugby league club in Australia, and stepping into their cherished home ground Henson Park feels like entering a time capsule of another era.
“There isn’t a more pure rugby league experience than a Jets game at Henson Park,” club volunteer Steven Russo explains. “With its wooden benches, big grassy hill and reasonably priced sausage sandwiches, it’s the perfect day out for footy fans wanting to relive the good old days.”
Newtown’s diversity is most obvious through the prism of food. A stroll down King Street passes restaurants dishing up Vietnamese, Portuguese, Thai, Lebanese, Japanese, Italian, Indian and cuisine from almost anywhere else foodies could point to on a map. Old-school eateries like the legendary Clem’s Chicken Shop sit just down the road from new-age vegan joints such as Green Gourmet and Lentil as Anything. And the burgers at Mary’s have a genuine claim to the crown of Sydney’s best.
“The food scene here is dynamic, interesting but very grounded,” says Emma’s Snack Bar owner Anthony Sofy, a Middle Eastern eatery tucked away on Liberty Street. “Our venue has been around for over 20 years, is family-run, and we provide real home-made Lebanese food that makes you smile.”
Newtown also boasts some of the city’s most innovative contemporary Australian restaurants, such as Hartsyard in the thick of the Enmore Road action.
“It’s never boring – one day you can have Italian for dinner, the next day switch to Indian or Asian and, of course, you will also find a modern Australian restaurant like us,” says Dorothy Lee, director of Hartsyard.
“Our food and wine is delicious, but our focus and support on Australian produce should be taken into consideration. People should think about that when they go out, by choosing to dine here they are supporting small businesses across Australia.”
Newtown is dotted with decent cafés including Erskineville’s Fleetwood Macchiato and O’Connell Street’s Brewtown, which is known for its cronuts and excellent house-roasted beans. That said, most serious coffee drinkers catch the 423 bus down Enmore Road into Marrickville for brews at Coffee Alchemy, Two Chaps or Voodoo Coffee Company.
Instead, Newtown’s favourite drink is beer, poured by the neighbourhood’s many excellent pubs. Lock-out laws in the inner city steered many revellers into the inner west for their night out – and not all locals were keen on the influx of late-night party animals – but pubs such as the Courthouse Hotel on the corner of Camperdown Memorial Rest Park and The Marlborough Hotel, or Marly Bar, on the north end of King Street Hotel retain their appeal.
“Walking from the top to the bottom of King Street on a weeknight or weekend, you’re presented with a different destination to drink at almost every turn,” says Nick Cerone, a member of the Marly team.
“There’s something for everyone at the Marly, every day of the week. We’re proudly dog-friendly, too – we love meeting new patrons and their four-legged mates!”
Microbrewery Young Henrys pours craft beer directly from the source at its Wilford Street taproom, while small bars like Earl’s Juke Joint, The Midnight Special and She Loves You mix mean cocktails. Newtown is also one of Sydney’s most queer-friendly suburbs, and the rainbow streak shines brightly at Erskineville’s Imperial Hotel, made famous by the drag queens at the start of The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.
“Every single café has a queer flag in it; it’s just a very forward-thinking place,” says Matt Folino from The Imperial, which benefited from a big-money makeover by The Sydney Collective in 2018. “They invested a large sum of money and really transformed it into a modern, unique space… but it’s maintained its historic LGBTQ status.”
King Street is a revolving door of second-hand stores. Cream on King and The Collective Ensemble were two of Sydney’s hottest vintage boutiques until they closed down, replaced by an ever-growing list of thrift shops headlined by Real King Vintage, U-Turn and Good Times Vintage. For ethical brand-new threads, try the refugee-made garments of The Social Outfit, the refined Milk and Thistle, and the kaleidoscopic Made590.
“Unfortunately, a lot of shops are closing down and are being replaced by restaurants,” explains Camilla Schippa from The Social Outfit. “But I have a feeling that Newtown will always change and always stay the same somehow.”
And King Street’s boutiques aren’t limited to clothes. Better Read Than Dead is a literary landmark; T Totaler is Sydney’s original tea bar; The Flower Room is a charming boutique florist; and Egg Records curates one of the most formidable collections of new and used LPs, CDs and memorabilia anywhere in the city.
“Having been born in Newtown, I have seen many changes over the years,” says Egg Records owner Baz Scott. “There is always something that you will see that will amaze you, make you smile, make your day. I hope it stays that way.”