Little wonders: the bushwalks, bars and beaches you don't know (but should)

Little wonders: the bushwalks, bars and beaches you don't know (but should)

Think you know the East? Lara Picone challenges you to dig out these gems hiding in plain sight. Main image of Elizabeth Bay House at winter solstice.

You live in the East, you love the East, but how well do you really know this terraced, wave-lapped collection of suburbs? It’s no revelation to anybody that we’re often trapped by our own routines, revisiting the same-old haunts. So, to shake up ingrained habits, we’re recommending some lesser-known gem s for you to unearth in your neighbourhood. Consider it a treasure hunt. Some are hidden in plain sight, some you may know, some you may never have heard of, and others may be collecting dust in your memory. Whatever the case, the next time you’re at a loss for something to do, accept this challenge and discover yet another reason why you live where you do.

Cooper Park

You wouldn’t know it from the early morning exercise groups punishing their quads on the steep sandstone stairs leading down to Cooper Park, but this almost 18-hectare public reserve is a veritable FernGully. This idyllic, fern-fringed corridor is bisected by a naturally flowing creek that follows the line of a Jurassic volcanic dyke, and runs from Victoria Road in Bellevue Hill down to Manning Road in Double Bay. Follow the creek from the Bellevue Hill end, and just when you think you’ve descended into fairyland, you’ll hear the thwack of balls at the tennis courts. 

Cooper Park. Image courtesy of Woollahra Council

Cooper Park. Image courtesy of Woollahra Council

McKell Park

This charming little harbour-hugger of a park was officially opened for public use in 1985. It sits at the end of Darling Point Road in Darling Point, and the tiered gardens, manicured lawns and heritage-listed Canonbury Cottage all have something of the Jane Austen about them, even if the view is most identifiably Australian. Before this pretty parcel of land started playing host to weddings and wandering weekend families, it was home to the Birrabirrgal people. Since European occupation, its roll call of owners has included a knight, a theatre entrepreneur, and the Australian Jockey Club, who used the cottage as a hospital for returned servicemen. 

The Ian Potter Children’s Wild Play Garden 

Let your wild things loose in this magical garden that will enthral toddlers to teens. This incredible playground features dry creek beds, an artesian water play area, tunnels, turtle mounds, a bamboo forest that’s fun even for full-size humans, treehouse and a giant slide that looks like something Peter Pan’s Lost Boys might erect. Grab a coffee from the on-site van, park yourself in the sun, and watch little imaginations go into overdrive. 

Centennial Parklands Equestrian Centre

Image courtesy of Centennial Parklands.

Image courtesy of Centennial Parklands.

There aren’t many inner-city parks that offer horse riding. But we have one. The stables were once managed by the Royal Agricultural Society as part of the former Sydney Royal Easter Show site and can house up to 197 horses, with three arenas, a lunge yard, and five resident riding schools. Take your pony-loving charge along to get acquainted with all things equine. No doubt the scent of leather, the clink of a brass bridle, and the flick of a mane will reconnect you with your own childhood love of horses.

Elizabeth Bay House

Holding court over boats bobbing in the bay is this heritage-listed building, once considered the finest home in the colony. It was built by former NSW Colonial Secretary Alexander Macleay at “considerable expense” and a visit to the Greek Revival-style villa will captivate with the story of how its founder’s passion for position and property, spoiler alert, ended in financial ruin. The gardens across the road, complete with carp ponds, are a lovely spot to sit and ponder such ambition.

Victoria Barracks
Victoria Barracks, built using local sandstone between 1841 and 1849, hides in plain sight. Come spring, its sandstone frontage on Oxford Street, Paddington is glimpsed behind iridescent jacaranda flowers. And while most locals know of its existence, few are aware you can actually visit. The on-site museum is open on Thursdays and the first Sunday of each month, so step inside to absorb some of Australia’s fascinating military history. While you’re here, stop by Gipps Street, Prospect Street and surrounding streets to see the 1840s-era homes that served as accommodation for workers who built the barracks.

Camp Cove

You’ve seen the harbour from its many incredible vantage points but have you explored it from this largely undiscovered corner of Watsons Bay called Camp Cove? As our cover image reveals, this lovely pocket beneath South Head has not only calm turquoise waters and untold nooks to explore but spectacular views of the city skyline. There’s also snorkelling spots, beautiful zones for picnics and a great kiosk. Even in this wintry months, the gun-barrel vistas are with a visit alone.

Kutti Beach
This Vaucluse beach is just one in a collection of tucked-away stretches of sand in the East, but it makes our list given it’s a true locals’ haunt. A steep, narrow staircase lead down to this sweet spot between Gibsons Beach and Parsley Bay, but that makes it all the more fun. File it away for summer. 

Will & Co, Bondi
Bondi’s Hall Street is busy flinging flat whites all day, every day. And, as one of the best places to be seen in the East, most businesses here make sure their clientele is street-facing and visible, just the way they like it. But this little local secret keeps a low profile down a lane and up some stairs. Excellent Will & Co coffee and a concise menu makes it a very good spot to sip in peace.

The Roosevelt
This Kings Cross bar has some serious historical cred, having originally opened toward the end of World War II in 1943. It was also Abe Saffron’s first nightclub, with the likes of Sinatra and Sammy Davis brought in to perform. Today this dimly lit den feels like a portal to 1950s New York. Throw on your best faux-fur stole, have a martini brought over, and embrace the illusion.

Charlie Parker’s

Charlie Parker’s. Image by Elise Hassey.

Charlie Parker’s. Image by Elise Hassey.

Of course, everyone is down with Fred’s upstairs, but this speakeasy-style cocktail bar in the basement below the feted restaurant flies a little more under the radar. Stop by for seasonal cocktails and bar snacks from Danielle Alvarez’s kitchen. 

 Unearth more gems

Three off-the-radar bars worth getting to know 

Love, Tilly Devine: A small Darlinghurst bar with staying power.
Eau de Vie: A moody speakeasy hidden in the depths of Darlo’s Kirketon Hotel.

Black Bottle: Another Darlo bolthole, this one with Mediterranean snacking and great, affordable wines. 

Walk this way for architecture and history

Waverley Cemetery: Roam this pretty resting place for famous residents: poets Henry Lawson and Dorothea Mackellar, author Henry Kendall and Olympic swimmer Fanny Durack, among them.

Rose Terrace: This picturesque Paddington strip is an Instagrammers’ delight.

Albion Avenue and Napier Street: A network of lovely landscaped laneways in south Paddington.Camp Cove

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