A new era has dawned for Newcastle. Built on the back of convicts and forged by fire and steel, NSW's second largest city is midway through a mighty metamorphous from industrial port to contemporary, thriving metropolis.
Tug boats hustle freighters on the briny harbour, students stream in for classes at the vertical university building, cafes serve up single origin brews, surfers jog home barefoot from a morning wave.
Along the main street, light rail whisks passengers past an ever-expanding gallery of striking street art while cranes reach for the sky filling in the city's jagged skyline.
Best known for coal, steel and the band Silverchair, you could easily fail to recognise the former industrial city that once again stands on the cusp of a certain greatness at a time when small cities have special appeal.
Newcastle is Australia's seventh largest urban centre with a population of 440,000. It has undergone massive upheaval in the first two decades of the 21st century with billions of dollars worth of new infrastructure and private development being either completed or under way – giving the historic city a much-needed facelift.
The old rail line which once cut the city off from the working harbour has been replaced by a new public transport interchange. Then there's the $95 million CBD campus for the University of Newcastle (a second campus is nearing completion) while Japan's Nihon University is building its first offshore campus in the former heritage-listed law courts. And in what is been hailed as a major coup, Newcastle's magnificent beaches will soon be broadcast globally with the city having snatched the first round of the World Surf League Championship Tour from its usual venue, Bells Beach, Torquay.
For visitors, three new luxury hotels including Crystalbrook's Kingsley, QT Newcastle and Doma Group's Little National will open this year and next.
The 106-room QT Newcastle will occupy part of the former 112-year-old David Jones building. Retaining the landmark building's heritage facade, QT Newcastle will open towards the end of 2021 in the revitalised East End precinct.
Meanwhile Crystalbrook has transformed Newcastle's landmark Roundhouse, the former Council Administrative Centre, into a luxury hotel set to open mid-year. Housed in a brutalist-style building, Newcastle's first five-star hotel is named Kingsley, a nod to the city's heritage and earlier name Kingstown dating back to 1804.
Embracing the shifting landscape, Kingsley aims to celebrate Newcastle's past and its extraordinary future positioned in the city's cultural heart - the City Hall, Civic Theatre and Art Gallery are on its doorstep.
Kingsley general manager Carl Taranto says the hotel occupies a unique building with a strong identity and connection to the city.
The 130-room luxury hotel will feature a striking rooftop space with restaurant and bar, interiors that mimic the building's linear structure and a colour palette inspired by the Black Canary, a homage to the region's coal mining history.
"Some exciting collaborations are planned with artisans and producers to showcase what Newcastle has to offer," Taranto says.
Newcastle's tourism manager Georgia Lazzari says the city's compactness makes it easy to navigate on foot, light rail or by car with excellent connections by road or from Newcastle Airport.
"Newcastle has all the amenities that you would expect from a capital city yet extends welcoming hospitality to visitors and allows space to breathe," says Lazzari.
So why not jump in the car from Sydney and head up the M1 or fly directly to Newcastle Airport? Have a drink at one of the burgeoning small bars and stay in a boutique hotel or Airbnb to see the transformation for yourself.
Try a locally made gin or craft beer and dine at one of the many fabulous eateries – proof Newcastle's food scene has undergone a revolution all of its own. Of course, you'll need this special Traveller zone-by-zone insider guide to a small city that's big on attractions.
THE ZONE: THE BEACHES AND HARBOUR
Merewether Surfhouse, Newcastle. Photo: Daniel Boud
Newcastle is one of the world's few cities hemmed by beaches, stretching from Stockton to Merewether. It is home to a national surfing reserve, Australia's largest surfing festival (Surfest) and soon the inaugural WSL event in April. Rugged cliffs and bluffs tumble down to golden stretches of sands, rolling waves, rock pools and sheltered inlets until the coastline grasps the heathland where Nobbys Lighthouse stands guard at the harbour entrance.
Newcastle's Bathers Way is a coast-hugging six-kilometre walk from Nobbys Lighthouse to the coastal wilds of Glenrock Reserve and early coal mining sites. Notable landmarks include Fort Scratchley, the only Australian fort to have engaged the enemy in a maritime attack (canons are fired daily at 1pm) and Nobbys breakwall built by convict gangs. Have a dip in the spectacular Bogey Hole, also convict built, and take in 360-degree vistas from the clifftop Anzac Memorial Walk. At walk's end make for Merewether Surfhouse for sundowners or head for Honeysuckle (Newcastle's equivalent of Darling Harbour) on the harbour foreshore. Have a pre-dinner drink at the Rum Diary with its shipwreck theme and boozy rum cocktails then take an alfresco seat at Nagisa where elevated Japanese bites are served with a theatrical twist. Be sure and try the smoked salmon carpaccio and Nagisa's award-winning "Amato" gin as yachts sail home from twilight racing.
ONE MORE THING
Most of the 175 rooms at the Rydges Newcastle hotel offer front row viewpoints to the passing flotilla, the pick being harbourside balcony suites. See rumdiarybar.com.au surfhouse.com.au nagisa.com.au rydges.com newcastle.nsw.gov.au
THE ZONE: THE CBD AND EAST END
Join locals steaming in from the beach to cool bars like the Falcon, take an alfresco seat with white tablecloths flapping in the breeze at Restaurant Mason or order an "East End Ice Tea" inspired by Newcastle Beach on a summer's day at the new Saints Gin Bar. Co-owned by passionate young bartender Jackson Dunlap, Saints offers a menu of 50-plus gins and is one of a growing wave of small bars cropping up across the city. Tiki inspired rum bar Blue Kahunas is yet another. Good coffee meanwhile can be found at Xtraction, Good Brother and New Slang.
Newy Rides' cycle tour, Essentials X The Burbs, starts with a glass of locally made Dirt Candy wine at Nobbys Beach, skirts the harbour and takes in street art from last year's inaugural Big Picture Fest including Fintan Magee's large-scale Shadow at Museum Park. "Here you can see the changing face of Newcastle with the melding of old and new - contemporary architecture juxtaposed with heritage buildings surrounded by a vibrant street-art precinct," says Newy Rides owner and operator Ben Ogden.
Participants ride on to the harbourside village of Carrington for a craft beer tasting at Styx Brewery and finish with authentic Texan BBQ served up from an orange bus.
ONE MORE THING
Visitors can utilise Newcastle's almost three kilometre-long light rail for an unofficial bar crawl, alighting and disembarking along the six stops to explore the city's burgeoning bar scene from east to west. See restaurantmason.com thefalconnewcastle.com.au bluekahunasbar.com saintsbar.com.au newyrides.com.au newcastletransport.info
THE ZONE: THE INNER CITY
Covered in Crumbs.
Newcastle's food scene continues to expand from its two most famous strips - Darby Street, Cooks Hill and Hamilton's Beaumont Street which saw the city's first wave coffee movement. Islington, Maryville, Tighes Hill and Mayfield are exploding - not only with fabulous cafes but vintage and antique stores, sourdough bakeries, food trucks and distilleries. Try the egg kasundi at Clyde Street Café in Hamilton North, grab a coffee at local favourite Praise Joes in Tighes Hill or cross the coal tracks for house-made crumpets at Equium Social in Mayfield, one of the city's fastest growing suburbs. Nearby, locals are flocking to the adorably named Covered in Crumbs (open Thursday to Saturday) owned by former fine dining pastry chef Gareth Williams. His sugary creations include the lime curd and coconut cake, canelé and sourdough and baguettes made from scratch.
Base yourself at Flourish on Bull, a luxury two-bedroom loft apartment above the owner's interior design studio in the leafy terrace lined streets of Cooks Hill.
ONE MORE THING
Explore the nearby Newcastle Art Gallery, boutiques, bars and cafes along Darby Street then perch yourself at Flourish on Bull's dramatic arched window and soak up the historic streetscape, glass of wine in hand. See coveredincrumbs.com.au flourishinteriordesign.com.au nag.org.au visitnsw.com
THE ZONE: THE BURBS
Newcastle's outlying suburbs are home to the city's beating green heart. Encounter native wildlife, be dwarfed by soaring gums and listen to a cacophony of bird calls at Blackbutt Reserve. Later grab a coffee at Little Lane Espresso or one made from a 1963 Faema lever machine at sister café Corner Lane in neighbouring New Lambton. Alternatively explore bush and beach on walking and mountain bike trails in Glenrock State Conservation Area.
New life is being breathed into the burbs. The historic suburb of Lambton with its 19th century rotunda is now home to both Matchbox Expresso, a tiny café punching above its weight, and Rosa Bar delivering authentic Spanish tapas and stellar cocktails. Book one of Rosa Bar's cosy leather booths and let the friendly staff guide you through a menu including empanadas with chimichurri, spiced roasted cauliflower salad and cochinitas, sticky marinated pork belly served in lettuce cups.
ONE MORE THING
THE ZONE: BEYOND THE CITY
Brokenwood Winery. Photo: Kevin Chamberlain
Explore Australia's largest coastal salt water lake, follow the "Humpback Highway" to Port Stephens or sip and sup your way through the Hunter Valley, Australia's oldest wine region. All three destinations are an easy day trip from Newcastle. There's arguably no better place to sample a crisp glass of Hunter Valley Semillon, deemed "Australia's great gift to the world of wine", than the terrace of Brokenwood's striking cellar door. Taste the Hunter's signature varietal as well as its distinctive shiraz accompanied by a menu showcasing the region's best while taking in sweeping valley vistas. In Port Stephens, climb Tomaree Mountain.
Visit the historic town of Morpeth, Australia's second oldest river port in the lower Hunter Valley. This quaint river-side town – a 35-minute drive from Newcastle – offers old school pubs, local artisans, cafes, the historic Arnott Bakehouse and a rare timber truss road bridge which spans the Hunter River. Sample signature varietals paired with fresh, local produce at Boydells Restaurant and Cellar Door housed in an 1850s slab timber building.
ONE MORE THING
FIVE MORE SMALL AUSTRALIAN CITIES WE LOVE
DARWIN, NORTHERN TERRITORY
The bustling, multicultural harbor-side city (population 161,500) with its tropical, laidback feel, is closer geographically to three overseas capitals - Dilli, Jakarta and Port Moresby – than to Canberra.
Explore the distinct Georgian warehouses, historic pubs, markets, a cutting-edge art scene and stellar restaurants and cafes in Tassie's harbourside capital, home to about 250,000 Hobartians.
Far more than museums and monuments (although they are worth exploring too), Australia's capital offers world class food and wine, a thriving arts and culture scene and boutique hotels to boot.
The gold rush may well and truly be over, but Bendigo packs plenty of treasures waiting to be unearthed. Soak up the history, art and culture of this beautiful regional city with its wide streets, historical buildings and outstanding art gallery.
One of Australia's oldest cities, this city of nearly 67,000, is the gateway to the Tamar Valley and Pipers River wine regions – has undergone an evolution from sleepy country town to a cultural and foodie hotspot with a calendar of homegrown events including Mona Foma.
FIVE SMALL OVERSEAS CITIES WE LOVE
WELLINGTON, NEW ZEALAND
Claimed to have more bars, restaurants and cafes per capita than New York, the nation's self-styled "world's coolest capital" city with a population of close to 217,000, is home to several Kiwi celebrity chefs including Monique Fiso whose elevated Maori fine diner is booked out months in advance.
QUEBEC CITY, CANADA
This compact yet stylish city of 832,000, is one of only three lived-in UNESCO heritage sites in the world. The cradle of French America, it's also the only fortified city on the continent north of Mexico. Stroll through cobblestone streets and soak up its magnificent heritage, storied past and European charm.
While many travellers come to Liverpool (population 906,443) on a Beatles pilgrimage, the rejuvenated 800-year old port city also offers magnificent architecture, a fascinating maritime history and an unrivalled music and sporting heritage.
Home of Mozart and The Sound of Music with a picturesque backdrop of snow-capped Alps, Salzburg, home to 157,000, offers charming cobblestone streets lined with medieval and baroque buildings, palaces, concert halls and monasteries.
GEORGE TOWN, MALAYSIA
With its crumbling, colonial-era straits architecture, quirky street art, trishaw rides and some of south-east Asia's best hawker food, the island of Penang's walkable World Heritage capital Georgetown, with a population of more than 700,000, offers a glimpse into a fast vanishing old Asia.