Western Sydney's hidden history in a city you thought you knew

Uncle Kurt's, a Brooklyn-style bar on the ground floor of a parking garage, is part of a new vibe in Parramatta. Pictures: Michael Turtle
Uncle Kurt's, a Brooklyn-style bar on the ground floor of a parking garage, is part of a new vibe in Parramatta. Pictures: Michael Turtle

If it wasn't for Parramatta, the rest of Sydney might not exist. After the First Fleet landed in 1788, the new arrivals struggled to grow crops around Sydney Cove. When Governor Arthur Phillip discovered the perfect agricultural land at Parramatta a few months later, he ensured the survival of the fledgling British colony.

Parramatta (or Rose Hill, as it was called until 1791) was 20 kilometres away, making it officially the second European settlement in Australia. Over the past 232 years, Sydney has expanded so much that Parramatta has not only merged with the original city but is now the geographic centre of it. Bright and bustling, with a reputation as a vibrant food and cultural destination, it's a far cry from its origins as a farming outpost.

Many international visitors to Sydney focus just on the east - the beaches and the harbour. But for domestic travellers, the west offers a new experience in a city you thought you knew - a fascinating colonial heritage, influences of generations of immigration, and a new renaissance.

From the CBD, I catch a ferry along the Parramatta River, gliding past the bays of waterfront mansions, that gradually turn into housing estates, then mangroves. Parramatta wharf is under renovation, so I get off the stop before. Although a replacement bus is waiting, I stroll the final few kilometres along the river walking path.

The Parramatta River leads to the city centre.

The Parramatta River leads to the city centre.

It's here I find the Baludarri Wetlands, a small protected inlet of greenery named after an Indigenous teenager who became a translator for Governor Phillip and traded fish with the colonists until he died at the age of 17 - probably from smallpox. It's a reminder of the millennia of heritage that exists here, some of which is covered by Indigenous tours offered by the city council.

The most obvious historic sites these days are from the decades after British colonisation. Near the wetlands is Elizabeth Farm, the house that wool pioneer John Macarthur built in 1793, making it one of the oldest remaining residences in the country. Nearby is Experiment Farm Cottage, built in 1835 on the land where James Ruse proved self-sufficiency was possible.

Experiment Farm Cottage was where James Ruse proved self-sufficiency was possible.

Experiment Farm Cottage was where James Ruse proved self-sufficiency was possible.

I had always thought of The Rocks as the most historic part of modern Sydney yet, on the other side of Parramatta, there's Old Government House, the oldest surviving public building in Australia. At the top of a grassy hill, surrounded by trees in the peaceful Parramatta Park, it's now protected as part of a World Heritage Site.

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At the park's entrance is the Gatehouse High Tea Rooms where you can have a classic sandwiches and scones experience. It may be a throwback to the English heritage of the site, which was built in 1887, but owner James Wilkinson sees a similarity with the city today.

"I always like to go and look at all the old historical buildings, and you can see they've got the 1880s on them and obviously that was a huge period in the colonial Parramatta in Australia," James tells me.

The Gatehouse High Tea Rooms offer high tea in a World-Heritage-listed building.

The Gatehouse High Tea Rooms offer high tea in a World-Heritage-listed building.

"But now I see an almost similar kind of boom because you look around, you've got the big Meriton plazas going up, these huge residential blocks, a lot of government buildings, and it's almost like another renaissance for the area."

Parramatta's skyline is defined by cranes at the moment, an obvious symbol the city is changing. But it's been evolving for decades. A magnet for immigration, it is in some ways a microcosm of Sydney's multiculturalism. Walk down Church Street, also known as Eat Street, and you'll see most of the world represented - Vietnamese, Lebanese, Laotian, Italian, and dozens of other options.

This foodie strip is also now home to some of Sydney's biggest names like Gelato Messina, Bourke St Bakery, and Coco Cubano, part of an effort to offer an alternative to the CBD or inner east, where these brands first emerged.

There's no doubt that Parramatta holds its own as a foodie destination and actually most of the local favourites are in the side streets around the main precinct, like the coffee at hole-in-the-wall Mr Phillip's, the Malaysian cuisine of Temasek, the fresh sushi at Kanzo, the family-run Greek restaurant Kouzina Greco, and the intriguing Meraki Merchants which serves a Middle Eastern and Aussie cafe fusion (anyone fancy a jaffle with sujuk sausage, olives, and capsicum relish?).

 Arriving by ferry past the mangroves of the Parramatta River.

Arriving by ferry past the mangroves of the Parramatta River.

It's these new establishments pushing the boundaries that I find so interesting in Parramatta, changing not just the physical landscape but the cultural. There's the decadence of cocktail and champagne bar Nick and Nora's that holds an enviable position on the 26th-floor rooftop of the new V by Crown development. And then there's the small 'secret' bar of Uncle Kurt's that is literally on the ground floor of a parking garage and evokes a Brooklyn vibe with its graffiti and Reuben sandwiches.

Uncle Kurt's has become a neighbourhood favourite and manager Sasha Berdyshevski thinks the community is one of the reasons she's seeing more people spend time in Parramatta these days.

"Places like the CBD, they are so over-produced and fast-paced, it's missing that connection where, for example, a bartender or a café-owner actually sits with you and goes that extra step. Everyone who works here has an individual story and a passion."

Right next door is a perfect example of this. It's where Liza Chehade runs a cafe called Homage, which is a tribute to her brother-in-law Sam who passed away from brain cancer eight years ago. She brought the coffee machine and some artwork from his Melbourne cafe and set up here, trying to replicate that focus on speciality coffee.

Liza Chehade opened her cafe Homage in honour of her brother-in-law who passed away from brain cancer.

Liza Chehade opened her cafe Homage in honour of her brother-in-law who passed away from brain cancer.

"It was based in the northwest of Melbourne, again an area that lacked good coffee, and it was a destination. It was a hidden space that nobody knew about and you'd slide the door open and be pleasantly surprised by a happy smile and people who are passionate about what they do."

Over two centuries ago, the first British settlers came to Parramatta to grow the food to sustain the colony of Sydney. These days, the food is doing more than just helping the city survive. It, along with a renaissance of culture and infrastructure, is now central to the soul of the city.

What to do:

  • Visit the oldest remaining building in Australia at Old Government House (reopening June 30), which has been designated as part of a World Heritage Site.
  • While you're at Old Government House, have a stroll through the 85 hectares of Parramatta Park, which was the Government Domain until it was opened to the public in 1858.
  • Visit Elizabeth Farm, one of the oldest remaining residences in Australia (reopening soon). It was built by wool pioneer John Macarthur in 1793. Nearby, you can also visit the heritage sites of Hambledon Cottage (reopening soon) and Experiment Farm Cottage (reopening June 30).
  • Take a guided tour with Parramatta City Council, which runs regular walks showing different aspects of the local area, including Indigenous heritage and hidden gems (currently suspended).
  • See a show at the Riverside Theatre, which usually hosts an excellent variety of theatre and cinema (currently closed).

Where to eat:

Where to drink:

  • For a special occasion (or just a fun experience), have a classic high tea in the heritage-listed building at Gatehouse High Tea Rooms.
  • For the best coffee in Parramatta, head to Circa Espresso, Mr Phillip's, or Homage.
  • On the ground floor of a carpark, the award-winning Uncle Kurt's has recreated a trendy Brooklyn neighbourhood bar.
  • The most stylish place for a drink in Parramatta is probably the cocktail and champagne bar on the rooftop at Nick and Nora's.

Where to stay

  • The new Meriton Suites is the highest accommodation building in Western Sydney and there are great views from its riverfront rooms.
  • In the new V by Crown complex, which also has excellent bars and restaurants, Skye Hotel Suites offers a luxury experience.
  • With an emphasis on design and Art Deco-inspired furnishings, The Marsden is a stylish boutique hotel.

Michael Turtle will be bringing you a new idea each week for a trip within Australia. You can see more details on his Travel Australia Today website for things to do in Parramatta.