Historic Buildings Walking Tour, Sydney

Historic Buildings Walking Tour (Self Guided), Sydney

One of the Australia’s largest cities, Sydney is also the country's oldest metropolis. It has no shortage of impressive historical buildings, some dating back as far as the early 19th century. Many of the local landmarks, such as Sydney Town Hall, Queen Victoria Building (QVB), Hyde Park Barracks and others, are wonders in their own right and fit to delight any history buff.

One can spend a good 30 minutes to an hour taking in the Town Hall’s peaceful and grand aura. Built towards the latter part of the 19th century, it is protected under the National Heritage List. With the Queen Victoria Building Shopping Centre nearby, there is no excuse for missing it!

Shrouded in grandeur and an air of solemn history, St. Mary’s is foreboding in size and feel. Following in the tradition of Europe’s great cathedrals, it dominates its surroundings, sitting next to the Hyde Park Barracks and within a short walking distance of other sights like the historic Sydney Mint and the Parliament House.

Further along, there’s lots to like about the Customs House, including the newspapers, history murals, and library inside – but best of all is the miniature Sydney under the glass. Absolutely fascinating, and really gives you a nice perspective of the scale of the city’s buildings and harbors.

If you wish to visit these and other heritage sights in Sydney and to learn the city's story, embark on our self-guided walking tour.
How it works: Download the app "GPSmyCity: Walks in 1K+ Cities" from Apple App Store or Google Play Store to your mobile phone or tablet. The app turns your mobile device into a personal tour guide and its built-in GPS navigation functions guide you from one tour stop to next. The app works offline, so no data plan is needed when traveling abroad.

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Historic Buildings Walking Tour Map

Guide Name: Historic Buildings Walking Tour
Guide Location: Australia » Sydney (See other walking tours in Sydney)
Guide Type: Self-guided Walking Tour (Sightseeing)
# of Attractions: 10
Tour Duration: 2 Hour(s)
Travel Distance: 3.1 Km or 1.9 Miles
Author: nataly
Sight(s) Featured in This Guide:
  • Sydney Town Hall
  • Queen Victoria Building (QVB)
  • Saint Mary's Cathedral
  • Hyde Park Barracks
  • Sydney Mint
  • Parliament House
  • The Justice and Police Museum
  • Customs House
  • Susannah Place Museum
  • Cadmans Cottage
Sydney Town Hall

1) Sydney Town Hall

The ornate sandstone building on the site of a former cemetery, the Sydney Town Hall houses the offices of the Lord Mayor and city councillors. Before the inauguration of the Opera House, it was Sydney’s Concert Hall and many notable music performances took place here.

The Town Hall was built between 1868 and 1889. The foundation stone was laid by Prince Albert, the Duke of Edinburgh. Upon its completion, it was the grandest public building in the British Empire. The original structure was designed by architects Wilson, Bell & Bond. The architectural style is Grand Victorian Second Empire Italian Renaissance. The clock tower was built in 1881 and the clock was installed in 1885.

Following extensive repairs and refurbishment to suit modern requirements, the renovated Town Hall building was opened by Queen Elizabeth II in 1992.

The Centennial Hall at the centre of the building has the largest pipe organ in the world, which uses tubular pneumatic action. The interiors hold a wealth of carved figures, mosaic floors, and stained glass. A 20-minute tour takes visitors around the building explaining the history of the City. The surrounding square is also great in summer when the City Council puts out deck chairs for the public to use and relax in the sun or just eat lunch.

Try to visit during one of the free organ recitals held every month, as nothing beats hearing the organ in operation.
Queen Victoria Building (QVB)

2) Queen Victoria Building (QVB) (must see)

The Queen Victoria Building is a large shopping mall in the heart of Sydney. The hundred-year-old structure has been recently restored and its ornate façade and interior displays carefully preserved.

The QVB was designed by architect George McRae. The architectural style is Romanesque Revival and it was built to provide employment to jobless skilled workers during a recession. The building was opened to the public in 1898 and named after the reigning British monarch, Queen Victoria. A statue of the queen greets visitors at the entrance. At the time of its inauguration, it contained cafes, showrooms, and a concert hall. Later it housed the central library and government offices. Between 1984 and 1986, the Malaysian firm, Ipoh Garden Berhad, leased the run-down and neglected Queen Victoria Building and restored it to its former splendour.

A notable architectural feature is the large central dome with glass on the inside and copper on the outside. There are four floors and stained glass windows allow light into the interiors, patterned floor tiles, and ornately wrought iron balustrades. Today, it has over 200 shops selling high-end products including fashion, jewelry, and traditional Australian crafts.

The renovations are very respectful to the era of the original build and everything about this building oozes sophistication. If not for the high-end boutiques, you can still enjoy a stroll through and marvel at the two beautiful clocks that still hang from the ceilings. It's also lovely to sit on the 2nd or 3rd levels at one of the cafés looking out at the unique clocks.

Sydney was built over tunnels and underneath the QVB are two levels of tunnels for additional shopping.
At night the building is beautifully illuminated, the shops are closed and you can wander through and gaze at ease.
Saint Mary's Cathedral

3) Saint Mary's Cathedral (must see)

The mother church of Australian Catholicism, Saint Mary’s Cathedral, is the largest church in Australia. It is a functioning place of worship and an important landmark in Sydney.

The cathedral's foundation stone was laid in 1821 and the structure was completed in 1835, only to be destroyed by a fire in 1865. Father McEnroe, the then Archdeacon, commissioned the building of the present church designed by architect William Wardell in the Gothic Revivalist style. Although generally completed in 1882, work on the church continued after its dedication and improvements have been continually made to embellish the building. In 1930, the church was given the title of a minor basilica by Pope Pius XI and was the focus of World Youth Day in 2008, when it was visited by Pope Benedict XVI.

Saint Mary’s Cathedral’s exterior is clad with dressed Pyrmont stone. It has twin towers facing south and a cruciform design with a central tower where the nave and transepts meet. The interiors have windows with picturesque stained glass, intricate sculpture, and a poignant monument to fallen soldiers.

The impressive flight of stairs leading up to the entrance and the two slender spires pointing to the sky make this elegant minor basilica amazing, chiefly when the walls glitter in gold light in the sunbeams.

The best view of the сathedral is probably from College Street. Pick your visiting time carefully because of the regular services and the irregular but very frequent weddings. NOTE: during the weddings, you can't walk in to see the сathedral inside.
Hyde Park Barracks

4) Hyde Park Barracks

Nowadays a museum, the Hyde Park Barracks once housed the large convict population transported to Australia from Britain.

The barracks were designed by emancipated convict architect, Francis Greenway, and built by convict labour between 1817 and 1819 as the first permanent shelter for convicts. The latter roamed the streets and the crime was rampant as a result before that.

Located at the centre of a walled compound of 2.16 hectares, the building has three floors. Other buildings inside the walls included a cookhouse, a bakery, and quarters for soldiers.

Since its closure in 1848, the property had many uses. It served as a dormitory for emigrant women awaiting the arrival of their families, an asylum for destitute women, and was later converted to government offices and courts of law.

In 1981, the Hyde Park Barracks became a museum run by the Historic Houses Trust of New South Wales. The first floor recreates the arrival of the first fleet of convicts and the life and times of the early convicts, including a confinement box and leg irons. The second floor recreates the history of the building after it ceased housing convicts. The top floor recreates barrack rooms with hammocks showing the dwelling place and conditions of convicts at the time.

The incredible levels of detail and unique displays throughout, mixing modern technologies with the old atmosphere and stories, enable you to understand more about Sydney's past – either on your own or with the aid of an excellent audio guide that helps bring the stories to life. The staff at the gift shop and the reception area are very friendly and informative. Set on beautiful grounds, the area is also beautiful to stroll around.

There is a cute little restaurant right outside the museum that serves great lunch and drinks – it's fun to eat in the courtyard with ivy climbing up the walls behind.
The bathrooms are also located outside and behind the main barracks building which requires you to return your audio guide on the way out and recover it when you return.
Sydney Mint

5) Sydney Mint

The Sydney Mint functioned as a "rum" hospital for convicts and the poor from 1816 to 1854. Between 1855 and 1926, the building served as a Royal Mint branch, minting 1,200 tons of gold into 150 million sovereigns. From 1926 to 1997, the building hosted government offices including courts and various departments (over 20 in total).

"Bullion Bar and Dining" is an on-site French Bistro. The local chef has Parisian training that gives their food an authentic feel. At the same time, Australian produce helps provide a localized feel to the dishes. As an extra treat, the restaurant also hosts a daily High Tea.

The Caroline Simpson Library & Research Collection gives visitors the most in-depth look at how the space inside the building has been utilized over the years. The site is open to self-guided tours, allowing you to explore everything at your leisure.
Parliament House

6) Parliament House

The Parliament House Sydney complex – home to New South Wales Parliament – is a World Heritage Site. The oldest part of it, a mix of Georgian and Neo-Gothic architecture, dates back to 1816. The front verandah colonnade makes the facade particularly impressive.

The Legislative Assembly building is where the lower house meets. A Speaker's chair and ceremonial mace on its table are some of the highlights. Seating areas for assembly members flank the Speakers' chair, and there is also a gallery where members of the press sit. The Legislative Council Chamber, for the upper house, contains a vice-regal chair made from red cedar. Seven busts of former Council members are also in this chamber, four of which are depicted wearing ceremonial dress and three – Roman-style togas.

One of the most accessible areas to the general public is the Fountain Court, an exhibition spot with a fountain. The small theatre here for 166 seats is quite snug. There is even a roof garden above the theaterette.

Free guided tours are available every day and the guides are very knowledgeable. You can learn a lot about the history of the building and Australia.

If you're interested in seeing the NSW democracy at work, you should go on sitting days when the Parliament is in session. NOTE: while you can listen to the debates, you will see less because the visits on these days are restricted to the Visitors' Galleries only. On non-sitting days, both historic chambers can be visited.
The Justice and Police Museum

7) The Justice and Police Museum

The Justice and Police Museum is dedicated to this history of law and order and crime fighting from the arrival of the convicts to the twentieth century. It is housed in a building that was used by many law enforcement agencies throughout history.

The building had several uses before it became a museum. It served as a Water Police Court, a Water Police Station, a Police Court and Traffic Court. The rooms have an array of displays about crime fighting, famous criminal cases and heroic policemen. There are also many photographs and crime fighting equipment on display.

The Justice and Police Museum contains many interesting exhibits for visitors. There is an intact prison cell in the building, an original front desk area that formed part of many police stations, a collection of weapons used by the police down the ages, a well preserved courtroom where visitors can sit in the judge’s chair or take the witness stand and a torture chamber for misbehaving prisoners. One of the rooms contains many objects and pictures to pay homage to the policemen fallen in the line of duty. A recent display called Sin City showcases the history of crime in Sydney from the time the city served as a prison colony to the present.
Customs House

8) Customs House

The Customs House in Sydney has been open since 1845 and is one of the city's most famous heritage buildings. This building has traditionally served as the entry point for all kinds of goods. There are many exhibits to help visitors learn more about what has gone on at the Customs House in the past. Exhibitions have included a photographic exhibition focusing on 1900 to 1920, exploring the city using cryptic clues, and an outdoor interactive display available all the time.

There is also a scale model of Sydney's downtown area, easily accessed by climbing the helix staircase. The miniature versions of some of the city's most famous sights give you a great idea of how to spot them in your travels. Fiber-optic lights come on at night to illuminate the scale model, a wonder for all ages.

One of the fascinating aspects of local history that the Customs House highlights is how British settlers initially encountered the Eora or Aborigines. The nearby seashore outside the building is host to shell middens that are evidence of how these early inhabitants lived.
Susannah Place Museum

9) Susannah Place Museum

Situated within the former slum and rugged neighborhood of the Rocks, Susannah Place Museum highlights the lives of Sydney's working class from 1844 to 1990. Comprising four sandstone residences, it stands as the remaining vestiges of the once abundant sandstone architecture. Erected in 1844 for Edward and Mary Riley, these homes, along with an adjoining corner shop, have sheltered numerous working-class families across generations. Notably, the museum's restoration efforts have focused solely on ensuring structural safety, leaving all other elements untouched.

Within these dwellings, layers of paint and peeling wallpaper unveil a narrative spanning 150 years, featuring an antique lounge, an 80-year-old kitchen, and a century-old bedroom. From brick-type toilets to modern flushing mechanisms, the evolution of sanitary practices in the city is vividly portrayed.

Likewise, the backyard showcases the progression from tub-based washing to the adoption of washing machines within the working-class neighbourhood. Complementing this immersive experience is a brief DVD presentation on the Rocks' history and archival photographs illustrating the pre-Harbour Bridge landscape. The corner shop, adorned to capture the vibrancy of working-class community life, offers 19th-century goods reminiscent of its bygone era.
Cadmans Cottage

10) Cadmans Cottage

Cadmans Cottage is one of the few remaining buildings that go back to Sydney's early colonial years. Some of the highlights of this building's history include having been a water transport station, a home for sailors, and a water police station, in addition to other essential functions.

This cottage still features the original sandstone design. The home's architecture is very typical of buildings from the era. Restoration work that has occurred in recent years has helped to restore the building to its early appearance. Some of the noteworthy changes include the harbor's boundary being 100 meters from its original location due to Circular Quay's construction.

One of the cottage's highlights is its status as a Heritage site, presenting its importance in the life of New South Wales. Guided tours of the home's lower story are available. These tours also include visits to the grounds, which have been well-preserved over the years.

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