Still reeling from the Vivid Sydney festival, Amanda Pressner ventured off the beaten path to explore the goings-on beyond the city center.
There are certain cities that can be reasonably explored in a day or two, maybe a long weekend, but Sydney isn’t among them.
Sure, visitors could probably tick its iconic highlights (the Opera House, Harbour Bridge, Bondi Beach, Circular Quay) off their checklist in a matter of hours, but they’d almost certainly overlook the destinations that make Australia’s most populous city so funky and diverse.
Like its contemporaries—San Francisco, London, Paris, New York, Buenos Aires, etc.—the real allure of Sydney lies not in its landmarks, but its neighborhoods.
This city may have transformed from a colonial convict settlement to an ultra-modern metropolis of 3.5 million in a matter of two centuries, but even now, it’s still a network of small villages, each one with its own endearing eccentricities.
In fact, Sydneysiders will be the first to say that visitors can’t truly understand what makes this town tick until they actually leave the city center. I took that advice to heart.
Once I’d gotten my fill of the lighting installations, musical acts and cultural offerings at the city’s three-week Vivid Sydney festival (my official excuse for heading Down Under) I hopped in a cab and hightailed it to the nearby neighborhood of Surry Hills.
It was at the corner of Oxford and South Dowling that I met Victoria Moxie, my local guide and founder of “Urban Walkabout,” a series of free pocket guides to Sydney’s seven most popular suburbs. While Moxie is originally from Argentina and has lived in Sydney for around seven years, she is arguably more in the know about the city’s café, shopping and design culture than most lifelong residents. In fact, she’s known as “curator” of sorts, culling listings of the cities finest stores, galleries and eateries, and publishing them via the maps and online.
As I arrived at our appointed destination in Surry Hills, Moxie shared a bit of back story on the posh-looking district of Surry Hills. Until recently, this “inner city” suburb immediately southeast of the Central Business District used to be one of the city’s most notorious slums: Gangs ruled the narrow streets and lanes; the working-class neighborhood was massively overcrowded; seedy bars and brothels were as common then as coffee shops and designer boutiques are today.
Now, “Slurry Hills” as the locals still wryly refer to it, has been completely revitalized, and transformed into one of the city’s chicest and most desirable neighborhoods: a place where emerging designers and artists put out their shingle, and a true foodie destination, with dining options reflecting the area’s melting-pot heritage—Cajun, Lebanese, Russian, Mauritian, Thai, and Singaporean restaurants are all within a few blocks of each other on Crown Street, the artery that bisects the neighborhood.
We opted to focus on the neighborhood’s thriving fashion and design scene. Compared with nearby Paddington, which features ultra-high end, international labels, Surry is a rather bohemian district, with an eclectic mix of off-beat designers and vintage clothing stores, homewares, fabrics, collectables, and designer furniture shops.
We stopped first to check out the collection at Bianca Spender, daughter of renowned Aussie designer Carla Zampatti. After designing for several years under her mother’s label, Spender opened her own brand-new Surry Hills shop where she showcases pieces that are modern, well-tailored and more youthful than Zampatti’s line.
As we walked along Oxford Street, Moxie shared the fact that the area is known as “Little Melbourne,” as it attracts several labels from the slightly more edgy, funky city to the South. Shag (vintage/secondhand), Alphaville (streetwear) and Gorman (eco-friendly, sustainable labels) have all set up outposts here.
Sydney is a city obsessed with color, so walking into Assin felt a little like switching from HDTV to a black-and-white set. In this stark, industrial space, everything comes in shades of grey, onyx and alabaster. Here, we find several well-edited (and expensive) collections from Lanvin, Dior and Demeulemeester. Most rely on irreverent details and notions—a misplaced zipper on a sleeve, a bejeweled beetle marching down a strap—for interest.
It was all a bit too high-concept for my tastes, so I was a little relieved when we turned off Oxford and routed ourselves down a shady side street lined with two-story Victorian homes. This is where Moxie’s local expertise came in handy.
“Most people stick to Crown when visiting Surry Hills, as that’s where the vast majority of the shops are located,” she said. “But there are still so many hidden gems to be found off the beaten track.”
We walked up a flight of stairs at Foveaux and Bourke Streets and found ourselves in Somedays, a Nordic clothing retailer and photography gallery housed in a former sheepskin factory. The owners travel twice a year to Sweden, Denmark and other European destinations on the hunt for cool, offbeat labels to stock in their shop. As they also host photography exhibitions several times a year, every rack has been designed to be moved quickly to create a gallery space.
Another cool spot to explore design: Object Gallery, a not-for-profit showcase space and retail outlet that stocks all manner of über-chic homewares downstairs (in a space called “Collect”) and works created by up-and-coming artists and craftsmen upstairs. Strolling through, I wasn’t sure whether I was in a store or an ultra-cool modern art museum. Either way, I found my mood uplifted as I pored over the contemporary jewelry, blown glass and a series of brightly colored bowls created from coconut husks.
We ducked into the famed Bourke Street Bakery for lunch, a handkerchief-sized eatery that has since spawned four separate locations (the newest, located in nearby Merrickville, has been open less than a month).
It happened to be raining that Wednesday—otherwise, the line for Bourke’s fresh baked breads, sausage rolls, flatbread pizzas and sandwiches would have been out the door and down the block. We were lucky enough to score one of the few tiny tables inside and I ordered up a warm lamb and goat cheese sandwich, fortifying myself for an afternoon investigating more nooks and crannies in this offbeat little neighborhood.
Below, you’ll find a listing of my favorite Surry spots (found with Urban Walk assistance, of course) and a few others worth exploring.
FASHION AND ACCESSORIES
Bianca Spender – Spender’s designs are strong with bold colors (think hues of orange, violet, hot pink and dashes of black) and directional shapes with a classic feel. www.biancaspender.com
Assin – With its window overlooking Oxford Street, an entrance tucked around the corner and labels Christian Dior, Lanvin and Anne Demeulemeester, this impressive Sydney boutique of Melbourne institution Assin represents the essence of cool high-end fashion. www.assin.com.au
Somedays – Representing Scandinavian fashion, this Fitzroy Street store combines art and fashion in a loft-style gallery. www.somedays.net.au
Jason Moss Jewellery – Moss is a studio-based silversmith who creates original contemporary accessories from precious metals and jewels. Rings etched with cryptic symbols and numbers actually represent important dates and significant events known only to the wearer. www.jasonmoss.com.au
Metalab – This diminutive shop on Fitzroy Place is a gallery space dedicated to exhibiting local and international talent and showcases strikingly unusual and thought-provoking jewelry and objects. Its on-site workshop also runs classes throughout the year. www.metalab.com.au
FURNITURE AND HOMEWARE
Ici Et La – Prepare to feel a bit like Alice in a oversize French antique Wonderland, with two locations on Nickson and Bourke Streets. Vibrant striped canvas deckchairs, 19th-century garden furniture and a multitude of upholstery fabrics—old and new—highlight this store with a distinct French flavor. www.icietla.com.au
Object Gallery – A world of modern design, art and craft where vaulted ceilings and a light-saturated gallery highlight continuously evolving collections. In-house store Collect sells work by Australia’s best designer-makers. www.object.com.au
Bourke Street Bakery – This neighborhood institution draws long lines of customers eager to get their hands on fresh baked breads, meat pies and tasty sweets.
Coffee, Tea or Me – A charming café on Crown Street where old books, comfy furniture and framed movie posters share the space with tea quaffers, coffee lovers and a collection of Polaroids featuring the neighborhood pooches.
To learn more about Urban Walkabout tours, visit www.urbanwalkabout.com.
By Amanda Pressner for PeterGreenberg.com. Visit Amanda and the other “Lost Girls” on the Web at www.lostgirlsworld.blogspot.com. Their debut book, The Lost Girls, will be out from HarperCollins in 2010.
Read previous entries in our Destination Sydney series:
Learn how you can get to Australia for less in Budget Travelers Rejoice: Competition Makes Australian Airfares Cheaper Than Ever.
Learn more about traveling to Australia & New Zealand, with one of our newest destination-specific sections of PeterGreenberg.com. For example, you’ll find our Off the Brochure Guide to Australia.
If you’re spending some time in Sydney, find out if the SydneyPass tourist discount card is a good deal.