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Queenscliff Tunnel at sunset
Photograph: Destination NSW

The nine best-kept-secret spots in Sydney that you probably didn’t know about

Let us spill the beans on these often overlooked corners of the city

Maxim Boon
Written by
Maxim Boon

When you think about Sydney, it’s the big stuff that springs to mind: our mighty Coathanger over the harbour, our world-famous Opera House, our hundreds of golden beaches, vast national parks and the staggering, epic, larger-than-life beauty of it all. But be careful not to overlook the small stuff. Hidden throughout the city, these little-known hideaways have some big secrets to share.

In search of more secret discoveries in Sydney? Check out the city's best hidden bars and speakeasies.

Shhhh, it's a secret

  • Museums
  • Chippendale

It may look like just a pleasant Victorian cottage, but this ornate, gothic facade is hiding a sinister secret. Built in 1869, Mortuary Station (otherwise known as Regent Street Station) looked after Sydney’s dead as they made their way to their final resting place at Rookwood Cemetery. Thousands of corpses have sat within its walls, awaiting their connection to the great beyond, but the building has also served a wild array of other functions since the Rookwood rail hearse was decommissioned in 1948. From a parcel dispatch station to a dog and horse loading bay and bizarrely a pancake restaurant, Mortuary Station has had a vibrant past, earning its heritage-listed status. Today, it’s mainly used as an occasional function venue, but spooky, after-dark tours also offer the public a chance to explore the space and its morbid history.

While you’re in the neighbourhood: After a night of ghost hunting, you’re likely to have worked up an appetite. Spice Alley is just a stone’s throw from Mortuary Station, serving up Hawker-style Asian eats that’ll bring you back to the land of the living.

  • Shopping
  • Grocers
  • Redfern

To the casual observer, this small convenience store on the corner of Redfern and George Streets looks fairly unremarkable. In reality, it’s a lolly-lovers paradise and an Instagram sensation with more than 24,000 followers. Owner Hazem Sedda was encouraged by friend and Channel Nine presenter Ben Fordham to share the vibrant, sugar-laden shelves of his store on social media as a way to attract new customers, back in 2015. In the five years since, the store has become a magnet for those in search of American candy, limited edition snacks, and the double-tap-worthy shots to go with them.

While you’re in the neighbourhood: Once you’ve loaded up on all the treats you can carry, take your haul to Redfern Park, just two blocks north, for an alfresco feast. Then, if you’re looking to take your sugar high to truly stratospheric heights, head to one of Sydney’s best gelaterias, Ciccone and Sons, on Regent Street.

  • Things to do
  • Queenscliff

Affectionately known as the ‘Manly wormhole’, industrious fishermen chiseled the 40-metre Queenscliff Tunnel through the headland rock more than a century ago. Connecting Queenscliff and Freshwater beaches, this wind-worn passage is still the most direct route between the two seafronts (if you want to avoid cutting through any suburban streets), but you won’t find any signposts or boardwalks to help you reach it. While it may be a bit of a challenge scrambling over the rocks north of Manly Beach to discover it, your efforts are soon rewarded with stunning views of Freshwater Beach and bragging rights for finding one of the city's most historic secrets.

While you're in the neighbourhood: After an afternoon traversing Manly's rocky shores, you deserve a special treat. Pilu is not only one of Freshwater's swankiest restaurants, specialising in Sardinian-centric Italian fare, it also has some of the most spectacular ocean views in the area.

  • Shopping
  • Bondi Junction

The backroom of a small tobacconist is probably the last place you’d look for a high-end specialist shop, but this is precisely where Joelie Zhou decided to open a traditional Chinese teahouse selling some of the priciest leaves money can buy. Welcome to the Taishan Tea Club. Located out the back of a convenience store on a humble strip mall in Bondi Junction, just beyond the usual rows of refrigerated soft drinks and snacks, visitors will discover a decorative wooden archway drawing them into an altogether different space. As you pass through, there is a perceptible change in the ambiance: the lighting softens, the noise of Oxford street fades behind you, and a long wooden table beckons. Here you can sample a range of Chinese tea served in the traditional manner, as Zhou plays the guzheng, a classical Chinese instrument. If you’re feeling flush, you can invest in the shop’s most precious brew: an aged pu-erh tea brick priced at $8,888.

While you're in the neighbourhood: After your tea, maybe you'll be in the mood for a little brekkie? The best in the area can be found at Holly, a cute-as-a-button café serving up plates that look as beautiful as they taste, plus top-flight coffee with your choice of either espresso, batch brew, cold filters or pour-over options.

  • Things to do
  • La Perouse
  • price 1 of 4

At around 12:45am on the morning of May 8, 1937, the coal collier SS Minmi, buffeted by rough seas and hampered by heavy fog, struck the rocks of Cape Banks on Bare Island near La Perouse. The vessel was smashed in half, forcing the 20-man crew to abandon ship; tragically, one shipmate was lost in the rescue efforts. Today, some 83 years later, little remains of the SS Minmi, save for the rusting remnants of her hull, still clinging to the rocks where she ran aground. The spot has become popular with photographers and beachcombers over the years, who come seeking the strange beauty of this decaying hulk, as it slowly but surely succumbs to the briny waters of Botany Bay.

While you’re in the neighborhood: If you're considering a visit to Bare Island, make the journey on a Sunday and join one of the weekly heritage tours. You'll learn all about the island's history and get to explore the elaborate 1880s-built fort here, which once played the backdrop for high-octane action thrillerMission Impossible II.

  • Things to do
  • Dawes Point

You’ll probably be aware that located in front of the famous Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in the heart of Hollywood, is a footpath bearing the handprints and signatures of the some of cinema's biggest stars, dating all the way back to 1920s. What you’re probably unaware of, is that Sydney had a crack at a similar celebrity venture, back in 1983. Dubbed, ‘the footpath of fame’, it features a collection of cement slabs inscribed with the marks of luminaries from the worlds of entertainment, sport, politics, and even make-believe. Not that many of them are likely to be on the tip of your tongue – the likes of Broken Hill artist Pro Hart, deceased racehorse Gunsynd, F1 racer Jack Barbham, and Aussie Olympian Betty Cuthbert among them – although Sesame Street’s Big Bird and Santa Clause (who, as it turns out, has suspiciously small feet) are more familiar.  Unlike its LA counterpart, this starry street isn’t crawling with tourists. Located behind the Pier One Hotel in the Rocks, by its outside dining terrace, the footpath of fame largely goes unnoticed by the majority of passersby.

While you’re in the neighbourhood: Pick up a cocktail at the Pier One Hotel’s bar and grab one of the cosy cabanas by the harbour’s edge. It’s a great spot to enjoy a sunset over the water with the Harbour Bridge and twinkling lights of Luna Park in the distance.

  • Things to do
  • St Ives

In a city that’s far from shy about showing off its natural beauty, it’s a surprise that one of its prettiest corners may well be one of its best-kept secrets. Adjacent to Ku-Ring-Gai Chase National Park in Sydney’s North, there’s a whopping 123 hectares of wildflower gardens surrounded by Sydney sandstone bushland. Every plant found here is native, although not necessarily local – these colourful blooms have been sourced from across Australia, including 18 threatened species of flora. There’s also a wildflower nursery where you can pick up some beautiful Australian plants to take home, and a visitor centre where you can learn more about the garden’s history and get information on guided bushwalks and other events.

While you're in the neighbourhood: Some of the most beautiful nature spots in New South Wales can be found in Ku-Ring-Gai Chase National Park. We hate to play favourites, but if we had to choose, the America Bay bushwalk is a must.

  • Things to do
  • The Rocks

While it may be one of the most internationally recognised symbols of Sydney, the Harbour Bridge still has some secrets up its sleeve, or to be more precise, up its pylon. Located in the southeast leg, a free-to-enter, multi-level museum and viewing platform lets visitors explore the history of the bridge’s design and construction. While you won’t quite reach the Bridge's full 134-metre peak at the Pylon Lookout, the panoramic, open-air viewing platform will get you to a very respectable 87 meters above sea level, delivering stunning views of the Sydney Opera House and harbour waters that you’d be hard-pressed to beat anywhere else in the city. The viewing platform is currently closed to the public but is due to reopen in October 2020.

While you're in the neighbourhood: If you're in search of an even more thrilling encounter with this wonder of the industrial age, the BridgeClimb now allows visitors to scale the full length of the famous iron arches. And should you be left wanting for even more high times, you can simply head to Luna Park, just north of the bridge at Milsons Point, for a ride on its famous Ferris wheel.

  • Attractions
  • Parks and gardens
  • Eveleigh

Hiding on the roof of a tower block in the Inner West is a little oasis of calm quite unlike anything else in Sydney. Throughout the First Nations-run Yerrabingin Rooftop Garden, you'll find planting boxes full of finger limes, warrigal greens, saltbush, rivermint, native raspberries and sea figs. This is Sydney’s first native plant rooftop farm, which started out with 2,000 plants and over 30 species in 2018. Yerrabingin means ‘we walk together’ in Muktung, the language of the grandparents of garden-founder Christian Hampson. It's also free to visit, but only accessible by private tour and pre-booking is essential.

While you're in the neighbourhood: Arts and culture hub Carriageworks is less than ten minutes walk away and well worth a visit, particularly on Saturdays when the popular Farmers Market gathers together some of the best culinary artisans and produce sellers in the city. A brand new public art installation, the Interchange Pavilion, by celebrated artist Chris Fox, has also just been unveiled in the area. 

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