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Sydney’s Historic Pubs, Sip by Sip

Any Sydneysider can map the city by its historic pubs. These atmospheric watering holes (officially called hotels because they once offered rooms as well as beer) provide a hedonistic key to exploring Australia's most beautiful city. They range from venerable sandstone relics to elegant Victorian bars and boisterous 1920s workingmen's pubs rich in art deco flourishes. After several decades of neglect, lavish facelifts are making these antique pubs the height of Sydney fashion. Many now have top-notch restaurants, others spectacular views. But each offers a bar-side window onto Australia's past, which, as Mark Twain observed after a 1895 visit, "does not read like history, but the most beautiful lies."

After the gold rush of 1851, Sydney became one of the jewels in Queen Victoria’s crown, its grand Imperial architecture reflecting its new status. The most opulent bar of the era was the Adams Hotel, built in 1893 in Renaissance Revival style with funds gotten by George Adams from his private club for horse-racing enthusiasts. Today the Marble Bar is a miraculous survivor: Before the original building was torn down, in 1972, the main bar was dismantled and reassembled in the basement of the new Hilton Hotel. Visitors tend to gasp in amazement at the lavish display of carved cedar, stained glass, richly veined marbles and paintings by Australia’s Julian Ashton (1851–1942). The mood can be hushed and reverential, but live music brings the bar to life on weekend nights.

Hilton Sydney Hotel, 488 George St.;

The oldest Sydney pubs lie in the waterfront district called the Rocks, where the British first landed, in 1788, to establish Australia as a penal colony. It wasn’t long before visitors were shocked by the proliferation of “grog shops;” rum was even legal tender for a spell. Those wild days can best be imagined at the Hero of Waterloo, built in 1843 from sandstone blocks that convicts had carved by hand. In the barracks-style interior, ale is served beneath a portrait of the Duke of Wellington. If the publican (owner) is in the right mood, you may even be offered a tour of the ancient cellar, one room of which once doubled as a lockup for securing prisoners after hours and whose tunnel was used to spirit involuntarily recruited sailors to the docks.

81 Lower Fort St.;

Australians were once ashamed of their convict past, but now embrace it with pride. The lively Lord Nelson, in the Rocks, prominently displays a framed passenger list from the first fleet of ships bringing prisoners to Sydney, in 1788, and many a customer has eagerly searched it for family names. The 1841 stone pub has been renovated into a posh, comfortable establishment with a microbrewery; try the dark porter called Nelson’s Blood, along with a range of ales. The kitchen serves fresh “damper” (campfire-baked bread that was a staple of pioneer life); modern Australian delicacies, like spaghettini with fresh crab and chili; and the quintessential Sydney pub-lunch fare—beer-battered catch of the day.

19 Kent St.;

Sydney’s pub culture lost its respectability in 1916, when a riot by World War I soldiers led to laws that forced all bars to close at 6 p.m. In the 1920s, Sydney workers finishing at 5 p.m. would try to drink as much beer as they could before closing time—a rite referred to as the six o’clock swill. As in Prohibition-era America, criminal gangs became involved in “sly grogging” (bootlegging), and many pubs were frequented by toughs and prostitutes. Today the era’s shadiest pub, the Tradesman’s Arms, has been renamed the East Village Hotel, and its trendy ambiance could not be further from its wicked past: A complete renovation has revealed an airy art deco dining room and a rooftop bar. Few remember that Tilly Devine, a notorious Sydney madam, once managed her empire of 30 brothels from a bar stool here.

234 Palmer St.;

Many Victorian pubs were graced with wrought-iron balconies referred to as iron lace. The majestic 3-story Exchange Hotel still presides in the harbor front neighborhood of Balmain, easily reached from the city center aboard one of Sydney’s yellow-and-green public ferries. As it has a pub on almost every corner, Balmain is ideal for a pub crawl, with the Exchange as its pleasant ultimate goal. The affection of generations of locals for the heritage-listed edifice has not been dimmed by its latest renovation. The pub now has a chic upstairs bistro with a breezy veranda whose upholstered banquettes may be the perfect place to while away a summer evening.

94 Beattie St.;

Built for dockworkers high in Millers Point in 1913, this charming pub is another with an improbable gangland past. In 1956, for example, a certain John William Manners was shot dead on the doorstep before the eyes of patrons. Inside, the original saloon-style doors and etched signage evoke a century of memories. But these days, the young professionals thronging the outdoor seating every night are more focused on which gourmet pizza to order. The pub’s Aussie-Asian-fusion selection is famous: Among the toppings are kangaroo, barbecued tiger prawn and saltwater crocodile marinated in Thai herbs and a spicy coconut broth.

100 Cumberland St.;

Sydneysiders know that you don’t have to leave the city to get to the beach. The Harbour has dozens of sandy coves, and one of the first to become popular with day-trippers was Watsons Bay, near South Head, the spectacular sandstone bluff that frames the Harbour’s entrance. The Watto Pub, as the Watsons Bay Hotel is known, has been an added attraction since 1937. Its huge outdoor beer garden is still Sydney’s favorite place for sweeping sunset views of the city skyline, across the water. As you drink your Crown Lager ale (or “Crownie”), you can watch the yachts and water taxis arrive with diners for the famous seafood restaurant Doyle’s, next door.

1 Military Rd.;

Woolloomooloo Bay (from an Aboriginal word for “kangaroo”) was the site of navy dockyards. Today its long wharf houses luxury residences for the likes of Russell Crowe, but the antique pub still has the prime location. The upstairs restaurant offers the best views; the downstairs bar is a haven for sports fans. Stop by Harry’s Café de Wheels, parked right outside. For more than 70 years, the truck has served meat pies to sailors, clubbers and celebrities from Frank Sinatra to Kylie Minogue.

2 Bourke St.;

For the best pub view in town, visit the sleek cocktail veranda of the beautifully renovated Harbour View Hotel. An art deco masterpiece from the 1930s, it’s squeezed beside an enormous stone pylon of the Harbor Bridge, nicknamed the Coat Hanger. The perspective of the massive iron bridge, as it soars across the blue sky, could not be more dramatic. While you sample the famed Sydney rock oysters and chilled Sauvignon Blanc, you can wave to the teams of nervous climbers heading off with safety ropes to ascend via internal stairs to the very summit of the bridge. If you’re tempted to join them, note that the climb is best made sober.

18 Lower Fort St.;

NOTE: Information may have changed since publication. Please confirm key details before planning your trip.