On the southern fringe of Sydney’s CBD, you’ll stumble across the suburb of Surry Hills: a gritty, creative and foodie-filled enclave. It’s arguably the creative heart of Sydney, and a mandatory pop-in for anyone visiting the harbour city.
The Polly Pocket-sized suburb is home to fashion designers, creative agencies and tech start-ups, along with professionals, young hipsters, the drug-addicted and homeless.
Once a notorious hot bed of crime, Surry Hills is now well-and-truly gentrified (a two-bedroom apartment here sells for minimum $1 million). While the grubbiness of the past has largely been cleaned up, the area is still a little rough around the edges.
There are more characters in Surry Hills than an episode of Orange is the New Black.
Brothels, drug dens and housing trust aside, the streets are conversely made up of quality bars, boutiques and restaurants. Old Victorian terrace houses sit alongside warehouses converted into New York-style apartments; while the gluten, dairy and carb-intolerant are all welcomed with open arms.
Surry Hills has a duck-tonne of personality, it’s vibrant and delicious. Sydneysiders will no doubt hate me for saying this but it’s a slice of Melbourne in Sydney.
Here are some of my favourite things to do in Surry Hills:
(Be prepared that most of these circle around eating and drinking).
1. Join the cue out the front of Bourke Street Bakery. This itsy-bitsy bakehouse – that has legendary status in Sydney – can barely fit two people inside but does a strapping sausage roll. The lemon tarts and various flavours of organic sourdough bread are equally as famous. Try the fig and cranberry.
2. Do as a true Surry Hillsian would do and eat Gelato Messina for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Go crazy and order a two-scoop cone of poached figs in marsala AND white chocolate hazelnut.
3. Order a coffee from Reuben Hills – it’s as close as you get to Melbourne-grade coffee north of the border. But, just be prepared, at $5 a cup that’s smaller than your hand, the moment is over before you can say ‘latte art’.
4. Then traipse the block to The Reformatory Caffeine Lab for another coffee. The baristas here also froth a mean Melbourne-esque cup of caffeine. Which isn’t a surprise given owner Simon Jaramillo is a fourth-generation coffee farmer from Columbia – he knows his shit. If you’re a matcha tea drinker, forget it, this place is single-mindedly about the coffee bean. It’s also stand-up only, so the legs need to be in good working order to enjoy this place.
5. Play spot the brothel. There are more red lights than traffic lights in Surry Hills.
6. Walk Riley Street and imagine the underground battles that were nightly rituals here during the 1920s and 1930s. During this time, queen of the underworld, brothel owner and sly grog mastermind Kate Leigh lived at 104 Riley Street. Now it’s just another million-dollar residence.
7. Bring your dog. Like I said, everyone is welcome in Surry Hills, including your canine friend. You’ll often find dogs in the suburb’s beer gardens and happily sitting out the front of just about any café. The Carrington Hotel even offers a dog menu, including steak tartare for $5.
8. Rave for days about the Pad Thai from Spice I Am – one of Sydney’s most lauded Thai restaurants.
9. Pull on those drinking boots and discover Surry Hills’ assortment of intimate, colourful and theme-happy bars. There’s Rosie Campbell’s for rum cocktails and a taste of Jamaica; Button Bar for pirate-themed vibes; and Surly’s for American football, draught beer and chilli cheese fries; plus a whole host more.
10. Wash down the hangover from the previous night’s bar exploration with a ‘boozy brunch’ and bottomless mimosas at The Dead Ringer. Available Saturday and Sunday only.
11. Throw down the picnic rug and lap up some sunshine in one of Surry Hills’ parks. There’s Ward Park, Frog Hollows Reserve (once a notorious slum) and Shannon Reserve, plus other smaller patches of green. Just keep an eye out for used needles.
12. Get a burger from Chur Burger – it could be the best burger you’ve ever had. Chur Burgers are now found around the country but the craze started here on Albion Street. Burger aficionados also rave about Brooklyn Depot a few streets away.
13. Visit The Winery on Crown Street. You can’t come to Surry Hills without discovering this top-notch house of eating and drinking. There’s a fairy light-lit garden, a playful drinks list (that isn’t just wine, although the wine list is pretty bloody good), a food menu to match and weekly specials. My favourite is Friday’s ‘carafternoon’ – carafes of wine for $22 from 3pm.
14. Crawl from pub to pub practising the art of beer-drinking. It feels like Surry Hills has more pubs than people – on every corner you’ll find a pub of some sort. Some are as old as Captain Cook; some are charmingly scuzzy and smell of decades’ old beer; and some are renovated, ultra modern and filled with beautiful people. For an authentic Surry Hills pub experience you can’t look past the Shakespeare Hotel, Cricketer’s Arms Hotel and Hollywood Hotel.
15. Roam the boutiques on Crown Street. With cute little stationery shops, bookstores and holes in the wall that sell on-trend fashion, this is boutique shopping at its best.
16. Meet Surry Hills’s only ‘hill’. If you’ve ever walked from Central Station to Crown Street your thighs will know all about it.
17. People watch. Walk down Surry Hills’s main drag, Crown Street, and you’ll see an eclectic bunch of people: fashionistas, the uncouth and maybe even a celebrity or two. No suburb attracts quite the contradiction of characters.
18. Speak to the guru of wine (ex-Icebergs’s wine king James Hird) at The Dolphin Hotel’s Wine Room. The wine list is pant-wetting. But if that doesn’t impress, there’s three levels of avant-garde pub to explore. With paint-strewn tarps, plastic-wrapped furniture and a few oddly bare walls, you could be fooled into thinking that they’re mid-painting and re-decorating. They’re not.
19. See for yourself why Surry Hills is considered one of Sydney’s best palate-pleasing suburbs. My favourite restaurants in the 2010 postcode are Toko (Japanese), Mille Vini (Italian) and El Loco (Mexican).
20. Unscrew your arty side at Brett Whiteley Studio Museum. The former warehouse home and actual studio of Australian artist Brett Whiteley has, since his death in 1992, been turned into a shrine to his work. Entry is free.
21. Line up for days to get a sandwich from City Edge Café. Mind you, it’ll be a bloody good sandwich. The chicken and pumpkin soup will also make you go weak at the knees.
22. Break out some box-step on one of Surry Hills’ heaving, sweaty dance floors. Personal favourites are upstairs at The Beresford Hotel (downstairs is nearly as good), The Cliff Dive (where drinking a pina colada out of a pineapple is a must) and The Soda Factory.
23. Witness Surry Hill’s village atmosphere and creative heartbeat on full display at the Surry Hills Market, which is held on the first Saturday of every month. There are antiques, hand-made beauty products and home-grown fashion, among other finds. Then there’s the annual Surry Hills Festival, which is all this on steroids – put 23 September 2017 in your calendar.
24. See a show at the Belvoir Street Theatre. A flourishing breeding ground of up-and-coming acting talent, Geoffrey Rush, Cate Blanchett and Judy Davis have all graced the stage here.
25. Educate yourself on the ways of whisky in The Clock Hotel’s Whisky Room. This upstairs, wood-panelled hidey-hole houses 100+ whiskies and offers flights, boilermaker specials and whisky cocktails. If that doesn’t float your barrel, The Clock also has a lively beer garden, downstairs public bar, upstairs terrace and a lot of wall clocks (no chance of losing track of time here).
What have I missed? Share your favourite things to do in Surry Hills below.