The Rocks, immediately beneath the Harbour Bridge, is the heart of historic Sydney. On this rocky outcrop between Sydney Cove and Walsh Bay, Captain Arthur Phillip proclaimed the establishment of Sydney Town in 1788, the first permanent European settlement in Australia. Within decades, the area had degenerated into little more than a slum of dingy dwellings, narrow alleys and dubious taverns and brothels. In the 1830s and 1840s, merchants began building fine stone warehouses here, but as the focus for Sydney’s shipping industry moved from Circular Quay, the area fell into decline. By the 1870s and 1880s, the notorious Rocks “pushes”, gangs of “larrikins” (louts), mugged passers-by and brawled with each other: the narrow street named Suez Canal was a favourite place to hide in wait. Some say the name is a shortening of Sewers’ Canal, and indeed the area was so filthy that whole streetfronts had to be torn down in 1900 to contain an outbreak of the bubonic plague. It remained a run-down, depressed and depressing quarter until the 1970s, when there were plans to raze the historic cottages, terraces and warehouses to make way for office towers. However, due to the foresight of a radical building-workers’ union that opposed the demolition, the restored and renovated historic quarter is now one of Sydney’s major tourist attractions and, despite a passing resemblance to a historic theme park, it’s worth exploring. It’s also the best place for souvenir shopping, especially at weekends when The Rocks Market  takes over the northern end of George and Playfair streets; also on Playfair Street, Rocks Walking Tours provide excellent guided tours of the area.

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