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Town Hall Lane at Parramatta Lanes
Photograph: Jason Nichol

A local's guide to Parramatta

Where to eat, drink and make merry in Sydney's geographical heart

By Juliana Yu
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Parramatta sits at the intersection of rich history and rapid development. The ‘place of eels’ is home to one of the earliest sites of ancient Aboriginal communities in Sydney, with the Burramattagal people, a clan of the Darug, having first settled along the upper reaches of the Parramatta River around 60,000 years ago.

It’s also the site of Sydney’s second European settlement. In search of fertile farming land, colonists arrived here just two months after landing in Sydney Cove in 1788, and as a result, the area is thick with significant heritage buildings and vital archaeological sites.

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EAT DRINK COFFEE THINGS TO DO SHOPPING

What’s Parramatta known for? 

These days, it’s the booming geographical centre of Greater Sydney and has become a city in its own right. In the space of a few decades, it’s gone from a typical suburb to a commercial hub, with high-rise residential developments now shooting up faster than you can say ‘DA’. However, despite rapid growth, the suburb has retained plenty of local character. Parramatta has long been one of the most diverse areas in NSW, with over 70% of the population speaking a language other than English, and that diversity is well reflected in the local economy and cultural calendar – there are few places where annual events like Diwali and Lunar New Year are celebrated in as much an official capacity as Christmas.

Why do the locals love it? 

Because it embodies “live, work and play”. The suburb is home to high-tech state schools, a shiny Western Sydney University campus and dozens of government agencies and major companies, but also a thriving small business community including family-run shops that have been open for generations. Opportunity is abundant, but just as importantly, so is leisure. Expansive and well-kept open spaces provide ample opportunity for rest and recreation, while a rich (and rapidly growing) restaurant and bar scene means there are plenty of places to have a good time after dark. Here you can shop all day, eat all night, watch live theatre, go for bushwalks and swim in lakes. And for better or worse, our loyalty to the Western Sydney Wanderers and Parramatta Eels – who play at the revamped Bankwest Stadium – gets the blood pumping like few other things can. 

How do I get to Parramatta?

Getting to Parramatta (at least from the city) is faster than you think. Hop on the T2 line and you’ll be there in less than half an hour from Central, while the spiffy new Westconnex makes driving quicker than ever. In the years to come, public transport will only get better, with a light rail project underway and a future Metro station planned.

What’s nearby? 

If you’re in search of a good feed, you’ll want to scope out Parramatta’s southern neighbour Harris Park, a veritable 'little India' where the main strip is lit up with dozens of delicious eateries. Every night of the week you’ll see folks snacking on sticky jalebi and saucy chaat from street stalls, spilling out of the mega-popular Chatkazz, and settling in for belly-busting banquets at lively family restaurants. Northern Indian, Southern Indian, vegetarian and even Indo-Chinese cooking is all represented. 

Map of Parramatta

If you only do one thing…

Not enough people know that you can take a ferry from Parramatta Wharf all the way out to Circular Quay – it’s one of Sydney’s most wholesome and cheap pleasures. Referred to as the RiverCat after the class of catamaran than runs on this route, the ride is more of a smooth glide than the at times choppy hop you get on traditional ferries out east. That means you can take a book or podcast with you to pass the leisurely journey (and at up to 90 minutes, it’s definitely not for those in a rush). Pop out onto the deck for sun and breeze as you watch the scenery slowly change, from thick foliage and forests of mangroves to manicured bayside properties, before opening up to the spectacle and drama of glittering Sydney Harbour.

People sitting at tables in front of a glowing mural
People sitting at tables in front of a glowing mural
Photograph: Supplied/Lilymu

Eat

High, low and around the globe – Parramatta’s food scene does it all. Temasek (71 George St) is both a local institution and a pilgrimage spot for lovers of Singaporean-Malay cuisine, and the no-frills dining room is always jammed with tables diving into with some of the city’s best expressions of Hainanese chicken rice, laksa and rendang. At almost 30 years old, it’s matched in longevity only by Pho Pasteur (137 Church St), a beloved old school Vietnamese joint still slinging non-stop bowls of pho every day of the week. 

The Holy Basil (5/330 Church St) outpost here is just as wildly popular as the Canley Heights original, dishing up fresh and zingy Lao and Thai cuisine to a raucously packed out dining room nightly. However, we’ve got just as much love for the decidedly more lowkey Eatdustry Thai Café (2A Charles St), where former Chat Thai chef Goff Thani is cooking addictive regional specialties you don’t expect to see outside of Thaitown, from creamy khao soi and fragrant boat noodle soup to brow-moppingly hot jungle curry .

If you’re looking to feast, Sahra by the River’s (2/76 Phillip St) eye-popping Lebanese spreads prove quantity is no impediment to quality. You’ll be satiated by the time mezze’s over but push on you must, and make sure to order the eggplant fatteh – it’s an all-time great vegetarian dish.

While the old favourites thrive, players from the east have also been making their moves out west. Maurice Terzini’s cool-casual Italian restaurant CicciaBella has recently landed (153 Macquarie St), while former Mr Wong head chef Brendan Fong and the team behind Nour have opened modern pan-Asian diner Lilymu (153 Macquarie St). On the more laidback end, BL Burgers (3/188 Church St), fried chicken-and-sneaker purveyors Butter (3/140 Marsden St) and beloved gelato shops Messina (283 Church St, Parramatta) and Rivareno (4/12 Darcy St) have also found happy homes out west.

And finally, in other essential information – the best pork rolls are at Xcel Roll (52 Macquarie St).

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Making cocktails at Uncle Kurts
Making cocktails at Uncle Kurts
Photograph: Ryan Stuart

Drink

Historically, Parramatta hasn’t had much of a bar scene but that’s slowly changing. Nick and Nora’s (45 Macquarie St) is the first Western Sydney enterprise from the Speakeasy Group (Eau De Vie, Mjolner) and they’ve gone all out with a 26 floors venue channeling old-world glamour with a swanky fitout and sophisticated cocktails. 

On the other end of the spectrum is grungy small bar Uncle Kurt’s (Horwood Pl), where they’re slinging equally creative drinks from a graffiti-adorned car park. Here you can knock back a Penicillin and a pastrami bagel at the same time while tapping along to hip hop beats. For big group boozing, riverside venue Alex & Co (4/330 Church St) provides a party-starting ambiance and tropical cocktails.

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Outdoor dining at Circa Espresso
Outdoor dining at Circa Espresso
Photograph: Anna Kucera

Coffee

With thousands of students and workers milling through the suburb every day, there’s always plenty of places to cop a decent flat white during business hours, while specialty coffee and brunch culture are steadily making inroads. 

When Circa Espresso (21 Wentworth St) opened in a tiny laneway 10 years ago, it put Parramatta on the map with innovative brunch dishes and coffee that was as you’d find in the best cafés in Surry Hills. A decade on and their signature Ottoman Eggs and wide range of specialty brews are still worth travelling for. 

Meraki Merchants (5/111 George St), a Middle Eastern-influenced café opened by one of Circa’s former chefs, has also made its mark. The sunny corner spot has a devoted following for their single origin coffee and luxurious toasties – the slow-roasted lamb, chargrilled eggplant, hummus and mustard seed number is a must try. 

On sunny days head to farmhouse-inspired Lil Miss Collins (13 Wentworth St) or Georgie Boy (O'Connell St) in Parramatta Park for alfresco brunching, while for a quick latte and pastry on-the-go Bourke Street Bakery (190 Church St) always delivers.

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Riverside Theatres Parramatta
Riverside Theatres Parramatta
Photograph: Destination NSW

Things to Do

Start the day off right with a leisurely bushwalk around Lake Parramatta Reserve, then cool off with a dip in the lake itself – secluded and tranquil, you’d hardly believe it was minutes’ drive from towering office blocks. Another worthy picnic spot is Parramatta Park, a UNESCO World Heritage-listed site that contains vast sporting fields, a charming rose garden and historic sites including the Old Government House to meander by.

This area is rich in history, and there are many ways you can explore it. The Parramatta Heritage Centre organises cultural walks where you’ll spend time on country with an Aboriginal traditional custodian while learning about connections to land, plant uses, tools, hunting and other aspects of local culture. You can also hear about the area’s history of land dispossession, through illuminating stories of trade, friendship and conflict and how they impacted Aboriginal peoples’ lives.

Many significant examples of colonial architecture are also open to visitors including Elizabeth Farm (70 Alice St) – a 1790s-built estate that is the oldest surviving European dwelling in Australia. Managed by Sydney Living Museums, they’ve created fascinating resources for learning about the architecture, lifestyles and politics of the day.

The Riverside Theatre (Market & Church St) is a major venue for the arts out west, hosting hundereds of productions both large and small throughout the year. Catch some of our best rising and established talent in plays, musical theatre, opera, cabaret, contemporary dance and more. Alternatively, get on stage yourself with a beginner’s acting class at the Parramatta Actors Centre (47 Gore Street), where you’ll learn the basic rules of acting – presence, connection, vulnerability – before learning both monologues and scene work.

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Parramatta Farmers' Market
Parramatta Farmers' Market
Photograph: Destination NSW

Shopping

Retail in Parramatta is dominated by the mammoth Westfield complex at its centre, but there are still plenty of independent shops throughout the suburb worth visiting. The chirpy open air Parramatta Farmers Market (Centenary Sq) held every Friday is a hub for gourmet goods – think small batch honey, artisanal bread, cheese and charcuterie alongside fresh produce and flowers. Food lovers can continue their shop at Tatra (5/20 Victoria Rd), a legendary Polish deli that supplies Eastern European specialties like smoked mackerel, herring and pastrami alongside homemade dumplings, doughnuts and strudel.

Parramatta’s got several big op shops worth rifling through for vintage finds (with hint: less competition and better prices than shops in hipster neighbourhoods). Strike out on your own or follow a sustainable shopping tour to get the inside word on responsible retail therapy. If you’ve ever wanted to try your hand at making your own clothes, a visit to My Hung (278 Church St) will show you a world of possibility with their rows upon rows of fabrics in every colour, texture and print.

Music lovers should also visit Beatdisc (181 Church St), a longstanding independent record store that’s likely the last one remaining in Western Sydney. For 25 years they’ve been selling new, used and rare vinyl, CDs, DVDs and music memorabilia, and you can easily spend hours flicking through the treasures within their shelves. From time to time, the tiny store also hosts intimate gigs from both local and touring acts.

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Laneway eating area at Parramatta Lanes
Laneway eating area at Parramatta Lanes
Photograph: Parramatta Lanes

Mark Your Calendar

Parramatta Lanes is an annual, weeklong festival that takes over the suburb with food, art and music. Around a dozen streets and laneways are closed to traffic and instead lined with public art, pop-up performances, and stalls hawking food from both trendy restaurants and street food favourites. The density of the festival creates a spectacular buzz, with every corner revealing a breathtaking light installation, quirky one-man soliloquy, boisterous drag performance, or all three. 

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