Newcastle, NSW is located about a two-hour drive from Sydney. It’s most famous for attractions like Nobby’s Beach Lighthouse, the Art Deco Ocean Baths and the interactive Newcastle Museum – but there’s also some less well-known fun and unusual things to do in Newcastle – and as ever, we went to find them on our recent trip.
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Our 19 Fun and Unusual Things to do in Newcastle
1. Tin City and Stockton Sand Dunes
Seeing pictures of this amazing community of tiny tin shacks located in the middle of a sea of sand sealed the deal on going to Newcastle in the first place – and we were so glad we took the tour to go and see it as it was the highlight of our trip.
Not only did we find the trip to Tin City amazing, but we also got to go sandboarding and learned all about the lifecycle of the amazing dunes.
If you want to see more about what happened on our day trip, check out this post.
If you already like the idea of going to see things for yourself, then you can book a tour with Sand Dune Safaris.
The tour starts at Anna Bay about a 55 minute drive out of Newcastle.
2. Listen to the Big Headphones
Visiting these give you a chance to tick one of Australia’s iconic Big Things off your list, but also, when you walk between the headphones you actually trigger them to start playing – and they play songs from local artists which is pretty cool.
You’ll find them on Darby Street close to the Newcastle Art Gallery. Which also brings us to…
3. Admire The Brett Whiteley Egg
Located outside the Newcastle Art Gallery, you’ll find Black Totem II by famous Australian artist Brett Whiteley.
He’s also the talent behind The Big Matchsticks in Sydney and also the stimulus for the creation of the pretty Wendy’s Secret Garden on Sydney’s North Shore. See more about both of those here. if you haven’t explored them yet
It’s free to visit the rest of the Art Gallery so head inside too if you have time.
4. Book a Mystery Picnic
These are a superfun way to learn about the foodie scene in a city – whether it’s your home town, or you’re just visiting.
You’re basically given a set of clues to follow each of which takes you to a different cafe or food store in the city.
There you’re handed one of the ingredients for your picnic.
We tried it in Sydney and ended up with heaps of food (that’s it in the picture above – and there’s another dessert not in that picture!).
You can also choose the boozy option if you feel like kicking things up a notch!
See more about the picnics here – just click on the Newcastle page when you get there.
5. Get Scared in The Lock-Up
This is sold as an art gallery located in an old prison. The works are displayed in the old cells and exercise yard and I was pretty excited to go and have a look around.
What I wasn’t expecting was to come the closest I think I’ve ever done to seeing a ghost!
I’m not sure if it was because the exhibition that was showing the day I was there was shown in dark rooms, and I was the only person there, but from the minute I walked in the place I felt slightly unnerved.
I didn’t like going in to the cells at all and stayed at the edge of the door and then, when I was looking in one cell which was displaying an art work based on a jacket, a black shape moved across the back of the cell behind the exhibit.
That was it for me – I was out of there faster than you can see ‘I’m seriously freaked now’.
I actually found this place scarier than the ghost tour I went on at Sydney’s Q Station a few weeks later.
Getting back to my hotel, I looked up the Lock-Up and saw that yes, apparently it is haunted by two ghosts, a small child called Mary and a police officer. Even more freaked out at this point!
You’ll find it at 90 Hunter Street.
Try A Tour
Not surprisingly, The Lock-Up features as part of the True Crime Tour which aims to give you a view of the dark side of Newcastle.
If you’re there on a weekend evening you’ll want to add this to your list.
Sadly, I wasn’t but I’ve tried their tours in Sydney and learned heaps about how not to dispose of a body (it seems that sharks do not make good cover up partners).
6. Feed an Emu
I was very excited when I heard that you could feed emus at Newcastle’s Blackbutt Reserve.
I had an image of them wandering around gently nibbling snacks from your hand.
When I got to Blackbutt and found the aforementioned birds behind a fence, I was a bit disappointed.
Still, I had bought my ice cream cones full of hay and pellets and so they were going to an emu.
I placed it up to the edge of the fence and, then nearly lost a finger as the demonic beaked-one savagely pecked away at the cone until they managed to get enough of it between their beak to wrench it out of my hands.
Thanks for shattering my cuddly emu fantasy guys and thank to the fence for saving my hands!
Despite that though, this was one of my favourite trip moments!
Blackbutt Reserve is also on the list of ‘free things to do in Newcastle’. That’s right – admission to the reserve and the animal exhibits, including visiting the pecky ones, is free.
Parking is $4 an hour and an hour is about long enough to see the small animal park and feed the emus. Make sure you bring change though, if you pay by card it seems you get charged the maximum rate of $12 on the machine. You buy emu food at the snack stand at the front of the park.
7. Find the Pillar People
Newcastle is famed for its street art and there are large murals all over town from a lot of famous artists – but the thing I liked most was the pillar people that spring up on the bollards that hold the telephone wires across the city.
Created by artist Rebecca Murray, they take many forms – from brides and bouncers to kangaroos and koalas – and some of them even have names and reflect the shops they stand outside.
How many will you find in your trip?
I saw plenty along Hunter Street, particularly around by the university building. Apparently, they also appear along Beaumont Street in Hamilton which is full of restaurants.
It gets to the point that when you see a boring grey bollard you’re like ‘oh, where’s its person?’
8. Drink Newcastle Wine
Yes, there is a winery right in the middle of Newcastle.
Inner City Winemakers located at 28 Church Street, Wickham, buy grapes from the nearby Hunter Valley and other NSW regions such as Orange and then winemaker Rob Wilce uses them to make their own wines in the vats in the winery at the back of their shop.
You can go in for a wine tasting in their comfy Cellar Door, or just pop in and buy a bottle to try later – their:Lucille Blanc de Blancs is one of the nicest Aussie sparkling wines I’ve had so far.
Before or after your visit take some time to wander around the side streets and alleys behind the winery. They’re full of street art – an initiative first started by Rob’s partner, artist Janine (her beautiful birdcages line the walls of the tasting rooms).
When they first moved here this was kind of a rough area, but by bringing in artists to liven up the walls with colourful murals they started to change the tone of the place. As Janine told me ‘we used to have junkies out the back, now we have people taking their wedding photographs.’
Check opening hours and find out more details of the wine if you don’t want to do a full tasting, here.
Talking of Wine… Don’t Forget
If you’re into wine, Newcastle is a short drive from the Hunter Valley wine region. Or, a better idea, take a wine tour and have someone else do the driving so you can do the tasting.
This tour leaves from Newcastle and includes the trifecta of happiness, wine, cheese and chocolate.
9. Jump Out of A Plane
If you fancy hitting the heights of Newcastle, why not skydive over it! Skydive Australia have four sites in New South Wales and Newcastle is one of them.
You can book a tandem skydive that’ll definitely make your Newcastle trip something you don’t forget in a hurry!
10. Wander Round the Fairy Garden
Totally adorable story alert.
The Fairy Garden was created by a local man Merv Moyle for his daughters to play in when they were little. Now it’s open to anyone who wants to visit.
Full of statues, plants, and memorials to pets gone to the Rainbow Bridge, little kids will love it. Big kids will wish their dad had made one of these for them.
It reminded me a lot of the secret gnome garden near Cottesloe in Perth.
Sadly, Mr Moyle passed away in 2018 at the ripe old age of 94, but he has a memorial bench in the garden.
It’s pretty small, but if you love quirky things, it’s definitely worth the short drive out of the city (you also go past it on the main way in and out of Newcastle from Sydney if you don’t want to take a detour).
Make sure you bring your letter to post to the Fairy Queen and your wish might be granted – or, at least you’ll get a reply saying that you’re too old to have a fairy garden (or is that just me?).
Warning – the fairies are friendly, but the mosquitoes are evil. Wear repellent.
The Fairy Garden is located in Australia Road, Broadmeadow.
11. Examine Constance the Camel
Located outside the Newcastle Museum, Constance is actually a work of art in honour of the migrants that make Australia their home.
Inside her belly you’ll find items that represent items that people bring from their home countries – peer in and you’ll see things like a thistle, a sewing machine, and a ukelele.
11. Have a Scoop of Michael Jackson
Admittedly, of all the popstars in the world you could name an ice cream after, this wouldn’t be my first choice – but, over at Monella on Darby Street, they have no such qualms. They also have a Queen B which guessing is named after Beyonce.
The team at Monella know their stuff when it comes to gelato as they went to Gelato University to study how to make it.
Other than their popstar flavours, also look out for some of their revolving specials – Homer Simpson combines cinnamon gelato, raspberry coulis and doughnut chunks while the PB&J sounds like my happy place as it combines peanut butter gelato with peanuts and raspberry jam!
You’ll find them at 149 Darby Street. They did tell me they might be changing their name soon, but if it’s at that address and looks like the picture you’re in the right place.
12. Go the Merewether Aquarium
Don’t get too excited fish fanciers, there are no living fish in the aquarium.
Instead, this is the name for the fun, painted tunnel that runs from Henderson Parade to Merewether Beach in the seaside suburb of Merewether.
Local artist Trevor Dickinson painted the tunnel, and it’s full of cute aquatic details; I’m just going to show you the entrance so I don’t spoil it.
Dickinson is also responsible for the photo walls around the Newcastle Museum where you can line up to be part of Newcastle’s Most Attractive Couple, or, in my case, the luckiest person in Newcastle.
Sadly, I didn’t have a photo buddy to make the most of my shot and my phone was upside so it’s kind of backwards! But hey, it takes some special skills to manage to muck up a photo so effectively…. I think it adds to the fun!.
Admittedly my photographic skills can often be somewhat lacking – see why it took me five years to get a selfie with a quokka on Rottnest Island near Perth here.
13. Explore The Res
Also known as Newcastle Reservoir No1 this underground space used to supply the city with water.
Normally it’s open for tours that you access via a ballot system, but I went in 2020 when nothing was normal and the tours were suspended.
It does look super cool though and I’m hoping it’ll be open next time I go to Newcastle.
To check if you’re luckier than me, visit their webpage to see more details.
14. Find the Secret Room at Rum Diary
The second outpost of an incredibly popular Melbourne bar, I was a bit worried when I turned up in my ‘exploring trainers’ to Rum Diary on a Wednesday night. I thought they might be going to be snooty, but they couldn’t have been nicer.
And the cocktails were pretty good too!
This place is huge with two floors but try for a seat upstairs if you can. I think the decoration is more interesting and, you’ll get the chance to find the secret door to the back room. (Hint, there’s a clue in the photo above)
Technically this is the smoking area so you might not want to spend your evening in there, but hey, it’s a hidden room so I’m excited by it.
15. Get Buzzed by the Fighter Jets
When we were on our Tin City tour, there was a sudden roaring overhead – and then, three fighter jets shot over our heads in formation.
Turns out, Stockton Sand Dunes is on the flight path of the nearby Williamtown airbase.
Next to this is the cool airplane museum Fighter World which, if you have an aviation geek in the family is a must see.
There’s two hangers full of old planes and associated gadgets and gizmos to wander around.
Top tip though, be there around 12.45ish and head to either the observation deck, or a seat in the cafe. The fighter planes have a break for lunch and normally start flying again at 1pm which means you get an amazing view of take-off.
If you don’t want to go into the museum, make like the locals many of whom were parked up along the fence to watch the planes fly over.
16. Relax at the Queen’s Wharf Hotel
There’s nothing quirky or odd about this place – that I could find. But, of all the pubs in Newcastle we visited (and there were a few) this was the one we went back to twice so it deserves a mention.
With tables directly on the water, a super cheap lunch menu, pints of certain beers (Mr Differentville is allergic to small glasses) and a really nice atmosphere, you won’t go far wrong having lunch or sunset drinks at this one.
Other stand-out pubs included The Ship, which we stumbled upon as it doesn’t seem to be on any maps that does a most excellent Shepherds Pie.
I admit, I was tempted by the Roast Dinner pizza at the Brewhouse, but I ran out of days!
Why Not Try a Pub Tour?
If pubs are your thing, you might also want to do this pub tour that takes you to a few places I haven’t mentioned.
It starts at lunchtime, takes you off for a bit of a tour and drops into a number of Newcastle hostelries on the way – with tastings!
Sounds like a great way to spend an afternoon to me!
Also, try and fit in dinner at The Signal Box.
It’s recently opened and is owned by the same team at Nelson Bay’s Little Nel restaurant (which is loved by locals) and the chefs include Dan James from Little Nel and George Mirosevich former chef from The Ledbury London and Restaurant Mason in Newcastle.
Oh, and Brits – if you want a decent curry, try Surtaj on Hunter Street. It’s pretty good for an Aussie curry house!
18. Go Vintage Shopping
Mr Differentville was in his happy place when we got here.
Planet Islington on Beaumont Street in the Newcastle suburb of Islington, is an enormous old cinema heaving to the gills with secondhand crap, I mean vintage treasures!
Himself was rummaging around old cassettes, marvelling at old stereos, and emerged clutching a broken 1970s calculator – the restoration of which has kept him quiet for days.
Other people were topping up their wardrobes from some amazing vintage clothing. There are heaps of other vintage shops around here so if you love tat hunting, you’ll easily spend half a day here.
If you do, and need to refuel head up the road to the Smokin Hot & Saucy food truck which has the most delicious Texas BBQ. The bargain $15 pulled pork sandwich kept us full until dinner – choose the spicy BBQ sauce.
Now, if you say you’re going to Islington to people who haven’t been to Newcastle for a while they might look worried. It used to be a very bad part of town, but, it’s cleaned up its act a lot.
We didn’t see anything particularly worrying there during the day – although someone did tell me not to walk through the park on my own (I don’t know if that’s a valid statement or not as I decided it was best not to find out the hard way – if you’re reading this from Newcastle, please comment below if you think that’s good advice or not).
19. Head to Fort Scratchley at 1pm
Another one of those things that we couldn’t do because it’s 2020, but normally, come 1pm, you can head to Fort Scratchley to watch the time cannon fire.
Back in the olden days, this was used so any ships in the area could set their clocks correctly. The firing of the cannon coincided with the dropping of what’s known as a time ball on the top of the Customs House building.
And the Fort still do the ceremony today.
20. Try a Firey Cocktail at Blue Kahunas
I wanted to visit this Tiki Bar on Hunter Street because I’d seen a cocktail they had in a cute koala cup – on the night I went though, I ended up drinking from a firey tiki glass instead!
It wasn’t the strongest cocktail I’ve ever had I have to admit, probably because most of the rum in it had burned off, but it was fun! And, that is why we’re here!
Where to Stay in Newcastle
We picked the Terminus Apartments on Scott Street as we like our space and it looked like it offered the best value for money of all the hotels in our area – and it was fantastic.
We originally wanted a Harbour View apartment, but they had sold out on our dates, so we booked a one-bedroom with balcony – but when we got there we discovered the team had upgraded us to a two-bedroom Harbour view room which was fantastic.
Definitely go for the Harbour View if you can manage it, one of the other fun things to do in Newcastle is to sit and watch the massive cargo ships sailing in and out of the harbour – and this gives you the chance to do that from bed (or your balcony). Look at that view!
As well as the two bedrooms, you also get a full kitchen and laundry – plus a large lounge and dining table.
Every apartment in the building is slightly different but the one bedroom apartment also had the same features it’s just slightly smaller (but still 60 sq metres so you’re hardly going to be touching the walls!). Even the Cozy Studio is 45 sq metres!
There were other people on our floor but we didn’t hear a peep out of them – which is always a sign of a good hotel in our eyes.
There’s also a lovely lounge on the ground floor if you don’t feel like going out but with so much on your doorstep I’m not sure why you wouldn’t!
We’d definitely stay there again. If you like the sound of it too, then check out prices and availability here.
One last top tip, go just around the corner to Cirque for breakfast. They do great bacon and egg rolls – and their full English breakfast would feed about six!
What to Read Next
Port Stephens is a relatively short drive from Newcastle and it’s one of the best places in Australia to swim with wild dolphins. The attraction is different as the dolphins choose if they’re going to come to you. See more about it here.
We also talk about a few other fun things to do in this area in our Tin City post, so if you haven’t checked that already, and are travelling up the coast from Newcastle, check it out now.
Who Writes Differentville?
My name is Helen Foster and I’m a journalist and author living in Sydney.
My travel articles have been published in titles including The Australian, Body & Soul at the Sunday Telegraph, RAC Horizons, Jetstar magazine and more.
I like the weird, the wonderful and anything that makes me jump and down with glee like I’m about three. That’s what you’ll find here.