Sydney is renowned for her coastal beauty, but there’s far more to this scenic city than what it is given credit for. The beautiful harbour, world-famous icons and sunny disposition are only a tiny part of the sum of Sydney’s appeal.
Uncover the fascinating, quirky and unexpected side of Sydney’s character, and learn more about her history with this guide to my favourite ten random facts I found during my research.
1. Ancient and Indigenous Origins
Australia is regarded as a fairly young country on the world stage, having reached nationhood status in 1901. As far as European settlement goes, Sydney’s dates back the longest of any Australian city (closely followed by Hobart), as the First Fleet unceremoniously settled it in 1788.
Equally fascinating are the ancient origins of the land. Australia is believed to be the world’s oldest landmass, fittingly inhabited by the oldest surviving culture in the world, the Indigenous people. In fact, radiocarbon dating suggests that the Sydney region has been inhabited by Indigenous Australians for at least 30,000 years. Not bad for a ‘young country’, huh?
2. What’s In a Name?
It’s hard to imagine now, but the city was originally going to be called Albion until it was decided that Sydney, after British Lord Sydney, was more appropriate.
The moniker ‘Albion’ was not totally forgotten, however. Indeed, Sydney’s Albion Street, spanning from Elizabeth Street to Flinders, boasts an impressive number of historic buildings along its humble one kilometre length. I can’t wait to check out one of my favourite travel sights – architecture. Wikipedia has a a great list to start with!
3. The Coat Hanger
‘The Coat Hanger’ is the affectionate nickname for famous landmark, the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Standing 134 metres above the world’s deepest natural harbour, it is the world’s largest – but not longest – steel arch bridge and I want to climb it! Surprisingly, the top of the arch changes height by about 180 millimetres due to changes in temperature!
It was officially opened in March 1932 amid much fanfare, although sadly up to 800 families had to be relocated to make way for the Bridge, without any compensation, and sixteen workers died during its construction.
4. The Opera House
In 1973, the eponymous Harbour Bridge finally met its match with the opening of the Sydney Opera House, its design famously reminiscent of ship sails on the harbour. While the budget blowout is well-known – it exceeded its projected budget by over fourteen times, and was completed ten years behind schedule – what perhaps many people don’t realise is its sheer scale. At 185 metres long, 120 metres wide, it has roof sections weighing up to 15 tons and over a million tiles on its dazzling roof.
5. Size Matters in Australia
Sydney is Australia’s world city and, with 4.6 million people, the country’s largest city. It is also the largest economy in Australia, accounting for over a quarter of Australia’s total economic activity. Indeed, the suburb-come-satellite city of Parramatta is the country’s sixth largest CBD, bigger than some state capitals.
6. Multicultural Hub
Sydney is also one of the most multicultural cities in the world, with up to 31.7 of its population born overseas compared to 22.2 percent of Australia overall. Over half (58 percent to be precise) of its population are first or second generation immigrants, from all corners of the globe.
The city’s western suburbs are particularly diverse: in Parramatta – the unofficial capital of the western suburbs – half the population speak a language other than English at home.
7. Go West
Speaking of Sydney’s west, it tends to be ignored while the city centre and beautiful beaches to the north, east and south hog most tourists’ attention. The oft-neglected western suburbs are, in fact, booming.
So vast is Sydney’s western component, in fact, that the city’s geographic centre is, technically, the suburb of Granville – which is 22 kilometres west of the central business district. The region is also vast demographically speaking: one in every eleven Australians resides in Sydney’s west.
8. Sydney’s Underbelly
Perhaps unsurprisingly for a city originally settled by convicts, Sydney’s inner city has witnessed many a crime and mystery. Its golden period of crime, so to speak, was the 1920s and 1930s, when two women ruled the proverbial roost of organised crime: the infamous Tilly Devine, with an extensive network of brothels throughout Kings Cross and Darlinghurst, and her formidable rival, Kate Leigh, known as the queen of Sydney’s underworld.
However, these days Surry Hills has changed. The former site of Kate’s initial base in Surry Hills, then a slum called Frog Hollow, is today a pretty inner city park, while its Surry Hills surrounds is a thriving business district and a trendy urban precinct of boutiques, galleries, weekend markets, quirky bars like the Absinthe Salon.
9. Morbid Railway
Like London, nineteenth century Sydney had a ghostly railway service in operation whereby funeral trains would transport coffins and their associated mourners from the fittingly named Mortuary Station, near what is today Central Station, to Rookwood Cemetery. This was the case from 1867 onwards, when the city’s cemeteries became increasingly full, requiring transportation to burial plots further afield.
10. The Waters Underground
The Tank Stream is renowned as a vastly important fresh water source that kept the fledgling colony going for a few dry years. Today, the stream is basically just a stormwater drain buried beneath the Sydney streetscape, explored only by the select few who are lucky enough to win the highly contested ballot to survey its course underground.
It is far from Sydney’s only underground water source, however. Australian magazine Inside History explained that beneath St James railway station lays a submerged lake of the same name. The underground lake is about a kilometre long and ten metres wide, flowing through an abandoned railway tunnel from the 1920s, with surprisingly clear waters.