Twenty reasons to visit Wollongong

1 TOP VIEWS

You don't need beer goggles to be seduced by the views from the beer garden at the Scarborough Hotel (383 Lawrence Hargrave Drive, Scarborough). Perched on cliffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean, the hotel has been watering thirsty visitors since 1886. A touch-up by billionaire owner Bruce Gordon, who owns the WIN television network, has banished the pokies, improved the menu and broadened the beer offerings. The hotel also hosts the Matthew Gillett Gallery. See thescarboroughhotel.com.au.

2 WHAT GOES UP

Practise your social climbing at Hangdog Climbing Gym (130 Auburn Street) with Wollongong's most upwardly mobile. The gym offers more than 100 climbing routes, colour-coded for difficulty, ranging from gentle inclines to seemingly impossible overhangs. There are also bouldering walls to practise those tip-toed pirouettes and tricky one-fingered holds. Safety harnesses and climbing shoes can be hired and there are guided outdoor climbing trips to Thompson's Point, near Nowra. See hangdog.com.au.

3 MUST COME DOWN

Skydiving instructor Paul Phegan never tires of the view from his office - 4570 metres above North Wollongong Beach. On a clear day, you can see the Royal National Park to the north - or the golden beaches south to Nowra. But soak it up quickly because Phegan wastes little time in tightening safety clasps and leaping out of the plane. His advice is to relax, smile and remember to breathe - no easy feat when you're free-falling at more than 200km/h for more than 60 seconds. Once the parachute is released, the descent slows to a gentle drift towards a soft landing by the beach. See skydivethebeach.com.au.

4 BREEZIN' IN

Bald Hill (Lady Wakehurst Drive, Stanwell Park) is one of Australia's best spots for hang gliding. Onshore breezes bounce off the Illawarra escarpment providing ideal conditions to catch a breeze and soar above the ocean, beaches and the Royal National Park. Companies including Warren Windsports, HangglideOz and the Sydney Hang Gliding Centre offer tandem flights and instruction, year round so long as the wind is blowing.

5 EASY RIDERS

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Harley-Davidsons are not just for bearded, beer-bellied outlaw types with a disdain for the law but fondness for leather. Just Cruisin' Motorcycle Tours offers chauffeured trips in a sidecar or trike along the scenic Grand Pacific Drive and South Coast. Getting a leg over the Harley's gleaming wide body requires flexibility, but feeling the wind whip past as you cruise along the asphalt makes for a far more exciting trip than driving a Honda Civic. See justcruisintours.com.au.

6 A BRIDGE TOO FAR

It's hard to top nature, especially when it's as ruggedly beautiful as the steep cliffs that plunge into the ocean north of Wollongong. But the Seacliff Bridge, the scene for countless advertisements, comes awfully close to beating nature at the beauty game. Opened in 2005 after rockfalls closed a section of Lawrence Hargrave Drive, waves crash beneath the bridge as it snakes around the cliffs between the coastal villages of Coalcliff and Clifton. A cycleway and walkway means the thrill of travelling over the ocean can be shared by everyone.

7 BEACHES

The Illawarra is blessed with some of the finest surf beaches on Australia's East Coast. Starting from Stanwell Park in the north, the coastline is strung with beaches and coastal villages separated by rocky cliffs. Easily accessible by train along the South Coast line that winds towards Wollongong and the South Coast, the beaches are patrolled by lifeguards and lifesavers and are ideal for swimming, surfing and soaking up the sun.

8 CATCH A WAVE

Walking on water, if only for a few moments, does not require divine attention - just a surf board and a few tips from a professional. Pines Surfing Academy offers lessons in surfing and stand-up paddleboarding at North Wollongong Beach, Shellharbour and Killalea State Park. The waves are gentle, the water as warm as Sydney and the beaches uncrowded so there's less people to laugh when you bellyflop off the board. See pinessurfingacademy.com.au.

9 A PEACEFUL RETREAT

Follow the Middle Way at Nan Tien Temple (180 Berkeley Road, Berkeley), Australia's largest Buddhist temple. The main shrine features the five Buddhas of confidence, longevity, wisdom, inner beauty and peace together with 10,000 smaller statues of the enlightened one. Activities range from prayer chants to tai chi, calligraphy and baby blessing at the temple, which also has a teahouse and vegetarian restaurant. Or reflect on life by the lotus pond in the temple's lush gardens planted with Bodhi trees and natives. See nantien.org.au.

10 MUSIC TO THE EARS

The mock Tudor facade and ornate art deco interiors of Anita's Theatre in Thirroul (Lawrence Hargrave Drive) make it one of the most impressive buildings in the Illawarra. But it's the top performers who play the 87-year-old theatre that makes it one of the best live music venues in the region. Paul Kelly, Bernard Fanning and the John Butler Trio have all played gigs at Anita's Theatre. Touring acts also make regular pit stops at the Towradgi Beach Hotel, the Heritage Hotel in Bulli and the WIN Entertainment Centre in Wollongong.

11 STANDING GUARD

In the late 19th century, fear of invasion led to the construction of the Flagstaff Hill Fort. Tunnels were dug into the hill and cannons placed at Flagstaff Point, between City Beach and the harbour and North Beach, as deterrence to would-be invaders. Two lighthouses at Flagstaff Hill and at Wollongong Harbour's breakwater provide further reassurance for nervous visitors - the only point on Australia's east coast that has two lighthouses.

12 CAFE CULTURE

Bacon and eggs with the sound of waves is the quintessential Australian breakfast, and it's hard to top the view of North Beach from Diggies (1 Cliff Road, North Wollongong). Inspired by the cafe culture of Sydney's eastern suburbs and named after their brother, Stan and Aaron Crinis opened the cafe to bring Wollongong's coffee up to the standard of its beaches. Next door, North Kiosk offers bacon and egg rolls, burgers and baristas for people on the go. See diggies.com.au.

13 ARTISTS' EYES

Many artists call the Illawarra home so it makes sense to see the region through their eyes at Wollongong City Gallery (corner of Kembla and Burelli streets). Housed in the old council administration building, the gallery has an extensive collection of colonial, indigenous and contemporary art, with many works depicting the landscape and people of the Illawarra and NSW coast. The gallery owns works by Charles Blackman, John Olsen and Bill Henson.

14 THE WORLD'S A STAGE

The Illawarra Performing Arts Centre (32 Burelli Street) has three theatres that host touring companies from Sydney and beyond, as well as performances staged by the Merringong Theatre Co. One of Australia's most vibrant, innovative performing arts companies, Merringong has developed many new works including The Table of Knowledge, based on a local council scandal. See merringong.com.au.

15 CALMER WATERS

Wedged between the ocean and the escarpment and fed by fresh and salty water, Lake Illawarra is a tranquil alternative to the surging waves of nearby beaches. More than nine kilometres long, the lake has 13 boat ramps and is a top spot for sailing, water sports and fishing for bluefish, parore and whiting. It attracts birdlife including pelicans, cormorants, black swans and herons. Its shores are also dotted with caravan parks and nature reserves as decades of ecological harm are slowly reversed.

16 STEP INTO THE PAST

Walk through two centuries of European settlement in 90 minutes along the Wollongong Heritage Trail. The trail takes about two hours to complete and includes 23 historic sites in the city centre, starting at the Old Wollongong Court House, built in 1858. See the city's remaining examples of 19th-century architecture including churches, schools and private residences as well as the site of Charles Throsby's stockman's hut, which began European settlement in 1815.

17 HIGH-FLYERS

Fly by the seat of pants and feel the wind in your face as pilot Chris Clark takes off from Illawarra Regional Airport in a 1943 "Lily Warra" biplane. The Biggles headgear and open-cockpit hint at the adventure that lies ahead on a flight with Southern Biplane Adventures. Sedate flyers can opt for a gentle sightseeing cruise over Lake Illawarra and along the coast, while the adventurous can experience G forces as Clark twists, turns and tumbles into aerobatic tricks. See southernbiplanes.com.au.

18 WHAT LIES BENEATH

The Illawarra coast is dotted with a number of scuba diving and snorkelling sites including Bass Point Reserve near Shellharbour Village. Bushranger's Bay features a reef of soft coral sponges, while the nearby Gravel Loader is home to a fisherman's basket of marine life including octopuses, gropers, puffer fish and sea dragons. The protected, crystal-clear waters of the bay are also ideal for snorkelling. There are also a number of shipwrecks in the area for intrepid divers.

19 YOUR SHOUT

Imagine a small bar scene that's achingly cool, but does not come with the surly attitude. Like Sydney, Wollongong's nightlife has been radically transformed with the arrival of bars that serve more than schooners of Toohey's New. Sundays at His Boy Elroy (1 Globe Lane) feature live music and friendly barmen showing off the latest in hipster hairstyles, while Dagwood (19 Market Street) creates some mighty tasty plates and drinks inspired by Japanese and Mexican cuisine. Red Square (108 Keira Street), meanwhile, dishes out vodka like a Russian sailor.

20 EAT STREETS

Wollongong is a long way from the warm waters of the Mediterranean, but its flavours can be found at Lorenzo's Diner e Bar (119-121 Keira Street). Chef Lorenzo Pagnan dishes up traditional Italian dishes using Asian produce to give new life to classic pasta, carpaccio and saltimbocca dishes. Italian favourites star in the wine list, while the bar offers an alcoholic smorgasbord from negronis and martinis to Lorenzo's latte (espresso martini with milk and cream) for guests planning a long night. See lorenzosdiner.com.au.

The writer was a guest of Destination Wollongong.