For various reasons, I’ve spent a lot of my Sydney life over the ‘other’ bridge in the inner-west suburb of Balmain. And, I find the area utterly charming.
Despite being only six kilometres from the Sydney city centre, the Balmain Peninsula feels like another world, one that’s endearingly peaceful. Cute little terrace houses stand side-by-side, gangs of cats roam the streets pleading for a pat, and there’s an abhorrent over-concentration of cafes and pubs.
A history as rich as Gina Rinehart oozes from the brickwork in Balmain. In the 1800s, the area bounded by Victoria Road was the industrial hub of Sydney, home to coal mines, shipbuilding, engineering, metal works, boilermaking and soap factories. It’s also where the Australian Labour Party was formed in 1881 (although is now a Greens heartland). After a hard day’s work, the working class population would go home to their tiny cottages (that now fetch a cool coupla mil), but not before swigging a pint at the local pub. By the 1920s, it was a notoriously rough and rowdy part of Sydney.
Boy, how times have changed!
Here are some of my favourite things to do in Balmain (including bits of Rozelle and Birchgrove):
1. Eat avo like a boss at any one of Balmain’s MANY cafes. You could spend all 365 days in a year trying a new one and still not get through them all. They’re small, cute and exceptionally friendly. My favourites are Charlotte’s Café (for the Charlotte’s poached egg special), Contessa (for seriously good coffee and a boozy brunch) and Mr Café & Bar (for food too pretty to eat).
2. Dive off the pier at Australia’s oldest pool – the Dawn Fraser Baths – which was built in the 1880s. This harbour pool, located in Elkington Park, is (quite clearly) named after Australian swimming legend and long-standing Balmain resident Dawn Fraser. (Side note: Rose Byrne is another famous Balmainian).
3. Have a pint at one of Balmain’s ridiculously high head count of pubs. Deciding which one is a serious first world problem. There’s the Cat and Fiddle, Dry Dock Hotel, Cricketers Arms Balmain and the list goes on…
4. Then have another beer at the Riverview Hotel, for three reasons. Firstly, our mate Dawn Fraser was the licensee from 1978 to 1983. Secondly, the food is legit, with both a bar and gastropub menu. Thirdly, there’s a view of the river. Didn’t see the last one coming, did you?
6. Fall in love with Elkington Park. With its fig trees and harbour views you’re going to want to make a tapestry of this one.
7. Then once you’re smitten with Elkington Park, visit Mort Bay Park – Balmain’s ugly step-sister. While this park may not have any glass slippers, there’s a lot of grass, a playground and ferry terminal. Useless fact: the area was once a dry dock and shipyard, with Mort’s Dock playing a prominent role in the two World Wars.
9. Play peekaboo with the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Balmain has some of the best views of the Sydney city skyline, and it seems anywhere you look there’s ‘The Coathanger’ peaking out from above a terrace house or tree.
10. Enjoy a sugar high at Zumbo. Our man Adriano needs no introduction and his Balmain patisserie is where it all began 10 years ago. Only come here if you’re prepared to gorge on lemon meringue tarts, croissants and macarons (or Zumbarons as the die hards call them).
11. Enjoy some sunshine, a picnic and views of the Sydney Harbour Bridge at Ballast Point Park. This historic site – which was once a quarry for ship ballast and more recently the home of lubricant production for Caltex – was given a complete makeover in 2009. The result is an urban sanctuary that honours the site’s working history.
12. Explore Balmain Market. Every Saturday, the grounds of St Andrews Church is overrun by stalls stocking handmade arts and crafts, jewellery, giftware, fashion, homewares and lots of food finds. If you’re market obsessed, the Rozelle Collectors Market are the next suburb over, and the place to go for pre-loved fashion, recycled books and antiques.
13. Join the queue out the front of Victorie Boulangerie’s Citroen Van, parked on Darling Street (opposite gift shop Zjoosh and out the front of BWS). Every day the nearby Rozelle bakery brings authentic French kwos-sants and sandwiches to the hungry hoards of Balmain.
14. Learn about Balmain’s history, and see the once working class culture and architectural heritage for real on a walking tour of Balmain. Historical sites worth visiting include Ewenton House, Balmoral House, The Old Balmain Post Office, The Presbyterian Church and The Balmain Town Hall and Courthouse, plus a bunch more.
15. Catch a ferry to any of Balmain’s three ferry terminals: Balmain, Balmain East and Birchgrove. It’s hands-down, the best way to get here. Even if it’s going out of your way. A ferry to Balmain beats piling into the 441 bus – and smelling someone’s armpit as you crawl over the Anzac Bridge – any day of the week.
16. Treat yo’ self to a ring of baked dough from Nutie Donuts’s new, permanent home in Beattie Street. Their doughnuts and sweet treats are organic, gluten-free and so good you’ll be crying like the first time you watched The Notebook.
Share your favourite things to do in Balmain below.