You don’t have to stroll far to experience the old charm of Sydney. From bars to banks, the secrets of Sydney are hidden in its historic buildings.
A few years ago, I went to the Westpac Bank in George Street to sign some loan documents.
It was then, sitting on the second level looking down into the grand lobby at the marble looking columns and warm timber writing tables that I experienced a defining moment.
I felt proud to be a customer of an establishment that had chosen to link its daily activities so closely with a piece of Sydney’s history.
In Victorian Sydney during the 1800s, grandeur and elegance was the theme and the city’s architects created landmarks that reminded them of London.
Many of Sydney’s old buildings have intricate designs and carvings that would have kept an army of sculptors and stonemasons employed for decades.
Secrets of Sydney
1- Sydney Town Hall
I once attended a black-tie charity ball in the grand hall.
It was a grand feeling to step out of a limousine onto the red carpet and into the limelight of a horde of gawking casually dressed Saturday night bar-goers and curious tourists.
This grand Victorian building is the unofficial meeting point for young and old.
Groups of international students scour the crowds for their friends, young girls lean by the sandstone wall chatting, office workers sit on the steps eating their lunch.
But it’s the tourists that actually walk into the building to gape at the magnificent wood-lined concert hall with its 8000-pipe grand organ and exquisitely crafted stained-glass windows.
Shipped to Australia in 1890, the organ was the largest in the world at the time.
Don’t be fooled into thinking that this magnificent centrepiece is only used for gatherings and parties.
It is actually the seat of the city government where meetings of the City of Sydney Council are held.
Best kept secret: The bar tucked away on the ground level of the building has high ceilings and stylish décor that is a reminder of the colonial era.
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2- Queen Victoria Building
In 1898, what is now affectionately known as the QVB replaced a livestock and farming produce market in that location.
Built during a time when Sydney was in severe recession, out-of-work craftsmen – stonemasons, plasterers, and stained window artists – found work building this elaborate Romanesque architectural masterpiece.
Grand arches, mighty pillars, curving balustrades and the intricate tiled floors reverberate with the artistry of a bygone era.
Glorious stained glass windows stretch towards the sky and an original 19th-century staircase sits alongside the dome.
An original 19th-century staircase sits alongside the dome and works of art hang on the walls.
These days, Sydney’s QVB is the gathering spot for shoppers and people who hang around to the clock run through its hourly routine.
Sydney’s coat of arms – a beehive (business), a sailing ship (trade), and dolphins (the harbour) – grace a cartwheel stained glass window.
With over 170 stores filling three floors over an entire city block bound by four streets, the QVB is now one of the most recognisable Australian landmarks.
3- Strand Arcade
The silent walls of this genteel old building reverberate with the memories of swinging jazz bands, and colourful parties; Sydney’s Strand Arcade bustled with fashionable and colourful patrons during the roaring twenties and thirties, when the Ambassador nightclub was the place to be seen.
Named after London’s smart theatre-hotel-shopping street of the early 1900s, this charming three-storey building is a pleasure to walk through and collects a lot of foot traffic between Pitt and George streets.
It lived through the bleakness of two depressions, the tears of two World Wars and licked its wounds through the ravage of a major fire.
In 1892 it was the fifth and last arcade built in Victorian Sydney and today is the only one remaining in its original form.
Its original magnificent cedar staircases at each end of the arcade lead to the second and third level galleries which house smart designer dress shops linked by a central bridge.
Best kept secret: Traditional shoeshine under the stairway, near George Street.
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4- Post Office
The carved faces in the street outside the building represent either a continent, country or an Australian State.
There is a sage that represents fatherly Europe, a fresh-faced Russia wearing a bear’s skin, a squared-jawed America with stars across her brow, and the classical beauties of Germany, Italy, France, Belgium and Austria.
The stern-faced women of WA, QLD and Victoria glare at the lovers holding hands in the street while Australia is represented by a bearded Aborigine.
When Italian sculptor Tomaso Sani carved the panels above the Pitt Street colonnade, it created a stir.
One newspaper described the carvings as “repulsive caricatures of contemporary life which grin and ogle from the perch on the Post Office”.
In his banking panel, a clerk counts out coins while the boy in the corner cries because he has lost his money on the way to the bank.
However, it was the post office panel that caused most offence because it depicted a young woman ogling a postman.
What would the newspapermen of the Victorian Sydney have said about the young couples today that sit beneath these carvings kissing passionately?
The Sydney Westin Hotel occupies part of the heritage listed redevelopment of the General Post Office, originally constructed in 1887.
The former postmaster’s residence is now the Heritage Long Suite.
At 186 square metres, it features a four poster bed, dining table for six, ornate entry foyer and the original postmaster’s writing desk from 1874.
Best kept secret: The basement hides parts of Sydney’s first water supply, the tank stream.
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5- State Theatre
From the first motion picture “The Patriot”, to newsreel screenings of the war, to the romantic days of Hollywood when golden celluloid stars like Cary Grant and Joan Crawford filled its screens, this ornate show house still ticks.
Today, the modern sounds of UB40, Kasey Chambers and Natalie Cole fill its palatial interiors.
The rich gold and red lobby is lavishly decorated with cast plaster figurines, carved patterns and grand staircases sweep up from the foyer to the galleries.
Best kept secret: The Koh-I-Nor cut crystal chandelier is the second largest on earth, weighing over four tonnes.
The State Theatre has partly been converted into QT Hotel. Watch a video here:
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6- The Glasshouse Centre
In April 1895, the Australian Star reported “there is no more popular resort among businessmen for lunch or among ladies in town shopping for afternoon tea.
In the middle of the day always and frequently in the evening, the place is crowded with city men, merchants, agents and many members of Parliament.”
The Star referred to the Loong Shan Tea Rooms at 137 King Street where the crème of Sydney society sampled fine and exotic tea from China.
Ladies were served dainty refreshments of pastries, scones and pies in the Ladies’ Reading Room on the first floor while hungry gentlemen fed their appetites with hearty dishes like hare in port wine sauce.
Today, in the very spot where the Loong Shan Team Rooms once stood, you will find the beautifully restored building is home to the Glasshouse Centre.
My favourite shop is the Sydney Tea Centre – a quaint establishment with rows of 180 different teas sitting in mysterious tins just waiting to be opened.
Delicate aromas from all around the world waft through the warm timber interior as busy white-collared office workers are reluctant to leave their exotic blends to return to the humdrum routine of a grey cubicle.
Best kept secret: Sydney Tea Centre serves Chinese Silver Needles Tea, at $100 for 50g; it’s for the serious tea connoisseur.
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