Are you in Sydney and looking for a great budget weekend getaway, but don’t have your own transport? Newcastle is a great option as it is easy to reach by public transport, and there are plenty of free and cheap things to do once you arrive. Here are some great ideas to help you plan that weekend in Newcastle NSW (not to be confused with the English city).
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Getting to Newcastle
Taking public transport to Newcastle from Sydney is really simple – just jump on the direct train from Central station to Newcastle Interchange. It runs roughly once an hour on Saturday mornings, and I would recommend catching the 8:18am train (correct as of March 2022, but you can check the current timetable here).
The train trip takes around 2.5 hours, and stops at limited stops inside the Sydney metro area.
Payment can be made by Opal Card or by simply tapping on and off with a Visa, Mastercard or Amex credit/debit card as you get on and off. The prices depend on a few variables, but as an indication, my full adult fare for a trip that included bus-train-tram using an Opal Card was $6.77AUD.
If you prefer, it would also be possible to catch the train to Newcastle on Friday evening so that you can get in a full day of exploring on Saturday.
Once you arrive in Newcastle, transfer to the adjacent (you can’t miss it!) light rail which will take you through the most popular parts of the city centre to the beach.
Where to Stay in Newcastle
During our stay, we stayed at Honeysuckle Executive Apartments. We chose them because my husband and I were travelling with our adult daughter and needed a place to suit three adults. Location was important since we were relying on public transport, and also knew we would only be in the room to sleep, so I was happy with a basic room. These rooms would also be good for those with a family or those who want access to a kitchen and laundry. The property does also have a gym and pool.
For a true budget stay, try the YHA Newcastle Beach. They were booked out during our stay or we would have stayed there. My daughter has stayed there before and was happy to go back again. It’s an easy walk from one of the light rail stops.
If your budget can stretch a little further, the Rydges Newcastle is perfectly located right in the centre of town and offers standard 4.5 star accommodation. For a funky place best reached by car (or Uber/taxi), I just have to mention the Junction Hotel.
Things to do in Newcastle on a Budget
If you take a train from Sydney on Saturday morning, you will arrive in Newcastle just in time to drop off your luggage and head out for lunch. I recommend trying one of the many places along the wharf area.
This trip we wanted fish and chips and we ate at The Kingfish. The meals were tasty, and not too expensive. A real drawcard for me was the vegan “Phish & Chips” option (it really did taste like fish!). Another seafood restaurant we have enjoyed before is Scratchleys, who also offer some takeaway fish and chips which you can enjoy on the nearby grassed areas.
If fish is not for you, there are plenty of other options in the area too. Perhaps try one of the gourmet hot dogs from Harry’s Cafe de Wheels, best known for their famous cart in Woolloomooloo, which has attracted all sorts of celebrities over the last 80 years.
After lunch it’s time to head to the beach! You can either walk to Newcastle Beach, it’s not very far, or you can catch the light rail to the final stop for a much shorter walk.
As you approach the beach, look out for the tunnel under the road where you will be able to view possibly the most iconic street art in the city. The “Newcastle” street art was painted by Trevor Dickinson, and as you explore the city, you will come across his distinctive style regularly. (If you happen to get to Merewether Beach, he is behind the “Merewether Aquarium” too. And no, there are no live fish in this aquarium!)
Once at the beach there are plenty of options to keep you occupied. You could simply sit and enjoy the beach, or if you are a surfer, this is the place to go for a surf if the weather is right.
If you don’t want to relax on the beach all afternoon, then take a walk instead. As you arrive at the beach, turn left and head to the north. First you will see the Canoe Pool, a large shallow ocean pool with a sandy beach area leading into it. This would be a perfect place to paddle in the shallows if you are in Newcastle with kids.
Right next door is the historic Newcastle Ocean Baths where you will find a deep ocean pool, perfect for swimming while protected from the waves – except if you visit soon, because they have just closed for a major refurbishment, with an expected reopening date of mid-2023.
As you continue along the seafront, you will see Fort Scratchley on top of the hill to your left. We will get to that a little later in our walk.
Continuing north you will see the Nobby’s Beach, popular with families and those preferring to swim in calmer waters. Walk along the sand, or walk on the breakwater out to Nobbys Lighthouse. Keep an eye out on your walk for the local dolphins that are regularly spotted in this area.
Turn around now, and head back the way you came, but instead of sticking to the Nobbys Beach side of the hill, go towards the right, where you will find the road up to Fort Scratchley.
Fortifications on this site overlooking the mouth of the Hunter River were first in place from 1804. Today visitors can learn all about the history at the museum, admire the sweeping views from atop the hill, and even take a guided tour through the tunnels (bookings required).
You will find Fort Scratchley open from Wednesday to Sunday, 10am – 4pm.
After Fort Scratchley, you have some options depending on the time and your stamina.
You can simply make your way back through the Foreshore Park to the centre of town. If you are interested in the convict history of Newcastle, take a short detour to see the Convict Lumber Yard between Scott and Bond streets.
Alternatively, you can make your way back to Newcastle Beach and continue further south for a little over a kilometre to the Newcastle Memorial Walk. This walk will take around half an hour, and can be quite hilly as you walk along the clifftops. There are some great views from lookouts along the way, some historic buildings (such as Shepherds Hill) and another small ocean pool, the Bogey Hole.
After all this walking, it is time to check into your accommodation (assuming it was too early for the formalities earlier) and rest a little before heading out again for dinner.
You can find lots of places to eat dinner on a Saturday night in Newcastle. One of the popular areas is Honeysuckle Wharf, and this is where we chose to eat, at Honeysuckle Social. On a past visit we had a good pub meal at the Honeysuckle Hotel. There are other options here too, such as The Kingfish recommended earlier, The Dockyard or Larnna Thai.
If you would like to head out to a bar after dinner, take a look at some of the places along Honeysuckle Wharf – The Dockyard looked particularly inviting during our visit. Alternatively, you could try The Rum Diary Bar Newcastle, a cocktail bar awarded the Best Regional Bar 2021 title by Australian Bartender Magazine. If beer is your poison, then go to the FogHorn Brewery to try the local craft beer.
Day Two in Newcastle
Start today with a good breakfast, there is more walking to be done as you explore some more. We ate at Ground Floor Cafe, but another option that looked popular was One Penny Black.
Once you have eaten, make your way to the Newcastle Museum. Entry is free and it opens at 10am, so you have plenty of time for a leisurely meal.
Spend around an hour here learning about the history of Newcastle and some of its famous people and products. Did you know Arnotts Biscuits originated in Newcastle? If you have kids with you (perhaps even the big variety) then they will love the hands on area where many of the theories of science are tested and explained. Who can resist trying to lift a car single-handedly!
After the museum, head to The Lockup. This building was the Newcastle Police Station back in the 1800s. Today it serves as a contemporary art gallery, displaying art in the old gaol cells and exercise yard. My friend Helen (from Differentville) swears she saw a ghost during her visit here, but I’m a huge sceptic, and have to admit I didn’t feel a thing. She’s not the only one though, so perhaps you too will feel haunted during your visit.
As you walk around the streets, take a look at any street art you pass. Keep your eyes open for all the “pillar people” – decorated electrical hubs – throughout the city. There are also some other utility box-type things that line streets, decorated with a little mouse, and some others that depict and explain historical events or points of interest.
Next on the list is the Newcastle Art Gallery. Unfortunately during our visit the Art Gallery was closed for “Re-Imagining”. The website does not give a re-opening date yet, so make sure you check before planning to visit. It’s worth walking past and taking a look at the huge egg out the front, which is a sculpture by Brett Whitely, one of New South Wales’ most acclaimed artists.
Continue back around the corner and along Darby Street, stopping into Cooks Hill Books & Records to browse their eclectic collections.
Just a little further up the street, admire the Big Headphones. These were originally built to promote local artists and they would play their music if you stood in between them. They weren’t working during my visit, but perhaps you will have better luck.
Eat lunch at one of the many cafes and eateries here if you are hungry (which will certainly be the case if the Art Gallery is open). Leave room after lunch for dessert at Monella Gelato, just so you can try a flavour called “Michael Jackson”! If that doesn’t appeal to you (according to my family it is delicious though) then you could opt for Queen B instead. There are also vegan options for those who cannot have dairy.
Start to make your way back towards the waterfront. We were already carrying our backpacks (we only had small ones for the overnight trip) but if you need to pick up your luggage, now is the time to do it. As you walk back through the streets, again keep and eye out for the fantastic street art along the way.
Depending on the time, it could now be time to make your way to the train station for the trip back to Sydney. If you still have a little time and enjoy street art, visit the Wickham area just north of the train station to explore some more. In this area there is also the Inner City Winemakers where you can taste some of the Hunter Valley wines before jumping on the train.
And with that, your short break in Newcastle is over. You have cheaply explored and experienced some of what the city is about. Hopefully you have enjoyed this taste, and you will soon be back for more.
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