Lee Atkinson taps into the art beat and coffee scene of this industrious coastal city.
Great coffee, good restaurants and an exploding creative arts scene, combined with a string of beaches within walking distance of the city centre, make Newcastle a fantastic place for a city break.
What it's known for
Newcastle is one of the biggest coal-exporting ports in the world and the city has always been best known for its hot and heavy industry, including steel-making. Grab a stool at one of the riverside bars or cafes in the Honeysuckle precinct and watch the massive freighters being guided in and out of the harbour by tugboats. You can get up close to the action on the new Harbour City Sights and Sounds cruise (moonshadow.com.au). Newcastle Museum also has a good display on the city's industrial heritage, including a (very noisy) sound and light show that features molten steel being poured from a furnace. The museum is open from 10am-5pm daily (except Monday) and entry is free. newcastlemuseum.com.au.
What you didn't know ...
Newcastle may be famous for its hard-as-nails working-class roots but it has a thriving arts scene, producing more ballerinas for the Australian Ballet Company than any other city. The Newcastle Art Gallery has one of the largest collections of art in the state outside Sydney and is soon going to be even bigger (it's due to close in about August for up to 18 months for a massive redevelopment that will see it double in size). The city centre is a hive of artistic creativity, thanks to Renew Newcastle, a non-profit program under which emerging artists and designers can set up a pop-up gallery or shop in an empty building. Many have gone on to open permanent galleries and studios. See renewnewcastle.org for the latest map.
The new Stockton cycleway starts at the Stockton Bridge and follows the harbour around to Stockton Breakwall. It's nice and flat, so great for families, and if you want to shorten the ride, you can catch the ferry across the river to Stockton (bikes travel free). Head out along the breakwater and you'll see the rusted remains of various ships that came to grief, including the Adolphe, wrecked in 1904.
You're never very far from the beach in Newcastle. Follow the waterfront promenade and walk along the convict-built breakwall up to the lighthouse on Nobbys Head at the harbour entrance for some great views. Nobbys is linked to the string of beaches to the south by Bather's Way, a five-kilometre coastal walk. Stop for a swim at the art deco Newcastle Ocean Baths, or head to the Bogey Hole at the southern end of Newcastle beach. It was carved out of the cliff face by convicts in 1819. There's another ocean pool at Merewether - the largest in the southern hemisphere - and most of the beachfront parks along the way have barbecue and picnic facilities.
Where to eat
Newcastle has a flourishing cafe culture and most cafes take their coffee very seriously. A favourite is Sprocket Roasters on the corner of Hunter Street and Watt Street in the city centre. Not only do these guys serve the best coffee in town, they also roast the beans on site using a fluid-bed roaster that uses bio-fuel from the cafe (such as spent coffee grinds) so your morning fix is environmentally friendly. It's open from 7am, Monday to Saturday. A great option for lunch or dinner is The Landing Bar & Kitchen in Honeysuckle. The beer garden and cocktail lounge have a view over the working harbour. 1 Honeysuckle Drive, (02) 4927 1722. For fine dining, try Bacchus at 141 King Street. There's a French-inspired menu from Tuesday to Friday and a degustation on Saturday night. (02) 4927 1322.
Where to stay
At the Novotel Newcastle Beach, most rooms have balconies with great views overlooking either Newcastle beach or Nobbys Head and the harbour entrance, and it's an easy walk into the centre of town. Doubles start at $249 a night. 5 King St, (02) 4032 3700, accorhotels.com.au/hotel/novotel-newcastle-beach. A great family option, Stockton Beach Tourist Park, is a five-minute ferry ride from Newcastle's CBD. New two- and three-bedroom cabins feature full kitchen, living room, laundry facilities and deck. Park facilities include outdoor electric barbecues and playgrounds. Overnight stays in a two-bedroom cabin (sleeping six) start from $145 a night outside holiday season. 3 Pitt Street, Stockton, (02) 4928 1393, stocktonbeach.com.
How to get there
Newcastle is 160 kilometres north of Sydney, about a two-hour drive via the F3 Freeway, or a 2½-hour train trip from Sydney's Central Station. cityrail.info.