Just 6 km across Sydney Harbour from the CBD (Central Business District) lies the genteel suburb of Balmain. The area has come a long way since its pre-colonial use as a kangaroo hunting ground, a nineteenth century working class industrial hub, and the birthplace of the Australian Labor Party. Workers cottages and terraces are now highly sought after residences of the professional middle classes and command harbour-view prices in one of the world’s most expensive cities.
The easiest way to get there is by Sydney Ferries from Circular Quay – just one stop on the Cockatoo Island line. The short trip past the Sydney Opera House and beneath the girdered behemoth of the Harbour Bridge is possibly one of the best six dollars (and one cent – with an Opal card) a tourist can ever spend.
A steep ascent up Thames Street takes you to the main strip, Darling Street, with its village feel- a perfect place to browse the bookshops, peruse the gift shops, flounce in designer boutiques, or spend a leisurely morning with coffee and the paper. Fine wine shops and fine traditional pubs abound, ensuring the residents and visitors never get too thirsty.
We nipped into the Unity Hall Hotel, a pub that more represents Balmain’s working class and activist roots than its present poshness, for a pre-lunch refreshment. The price of a schooner (in New South Wales that’s the bigger measure) of beer and a cider matched the decor, but then you can pay much more in a bar with cleaner windows.
Lunch was at the London Hotel with its beautifully retro wooden interior. The high verandah offers a view of the Harbour Bridge – well it would if the neighbours trimmed their olive tree a bit. Drinkers and diners wishing to enjoy the view also have to accept the tractor-style seating, but otherwise it’s a perfect place for a mid week leisurely lunch with decent pub grub, and to watch the world, and classic and sports cars go by. Balmain doesn’t posses the trend-defining cool of Surry Hills, or the urban edge of Newtown, and certainly not the sleaze and grease of King’s Cross, but it has charm and style, and a distinct lack of tourists. An idyllic place to live and a welcome escape from the madness of downtown Sydney.