Before freeways and paved roads, Parramatta was only accessed by the river. Now at 19km away from Sydney it’s not as remote as it once was and is the perfect’ new’ city to explore and uncover the secrets of good food, good architecture – old and new and good times.
The city of Parramatta was originally established as a city in 1861 when it was to be the lifeline for Sydney – the proverbial food basket for the fledgling colony. And just look at her now!
Parramatta of the 21st century is a vibrant city that a population of 250,000 people of all ethnic backgrounds proudly call home. It is the seat of many government departments, has a shopping centre to rival a pile of towns, an extraordinary new Parramatta Square that is architecturally splendid and a restaurant scene that reflects the many nationalities’ cuisine offerings. And the mighty Light Rail will have a transformative effect on ‘Parra’ that will change the game of the city.
Work is currently underway – Church Street to Macquarie and Market Streets (including Eat Street) dining strip has reopened following completion of this section. Work is continuing. The Light Rail is expected to be completed in 2024 connecting Westmead to Carlingford via the Parramatta CBD and Carmellia.
Stay to play
But play here for more than a quick day visit, you need a basecamp. SKYE Suites Parramatta, on Hunter Street is a splendid building that houses apartment and hotel suites that give off the vibe of an urban resort. Well, walk out of one of the meeting rooms downstairs to a grassy area and peek over to the pool – go chill!
The SKYE Suites are unusually spacious, a bonus in our crowded lives. Stylish and light-filled, the suites have full facilities – we’re talking a modern, fab kitchen, a living room to eat, work and chill. Beds impress with amazing mattresses and dreamy pillows and linen. For a few days stay, the suites work their magic for leisure pleasure seekers.
A cool way to arrive at Parramatta is to catch the river ferry or ‘cat’ from Circular Quay which gives you a Tiki tour of the suburbs and industry along the way where river settlement changed the face of Sydney. The train from Central takes less than 30 minutes and it used to take three days for the early pioneers. And to drive from the inner west – and in 25 minutes you’ll be there!
Arriving in Parramatta by river, you’re close by to a lineup of eating places. Eat Street is the place to run the gourmet gamut of the city. Just follow your nose!
Aside from many historical attractions, Parramatta is no lightweight in the cultural forum. The Riverside Theatres is a splendid complex of buildings that promotes fine theatre, drama, comedy, music, educational classes, and cinema.
Festivals and annual events happen in Parramatta Park – one of the best being one that was once a local secret but is now an extravaganza to be reckoned with – Parramasala!
Celebrating all things Indian and inclusive of other cultures, this three-day event displays the diversity and colour that represent Parramatta’s personality.
Hundreds of performers entertain the crowds and there’s food, art, food, craft, food, music, food, Bollywood dancing and . . . food.
And to compete in the cultural stakes, The Greek Festival has come back to town! Lamb on spits, folk dancing, honey sweets and all things ‘Opah!’
A good start to the day for partners is to be taken on a food tour by Lesley Unsworth, founder of Taste Tours. One of her local tours is to walk to the neighbouring suburb of Harris Park (1.1km), famous for all types of Indian Food. Little India is blessed with aromas and tastes to make you squeal with delight. Our first taste was at Chatkazz where a giant masala dosa. was presented – and happily eaten.
Then tour along Station Street and into Wigram Road to count the many restaurants that are on the invite list for the next trip.
A slow walk back to the hotel and ready yourself for a meal at the bright and shiny Willo in Smith Street Parramatta. A lovely space for dinner.
After breakfast in The Shed (the cafe tucked in at Skye Suites) it’s a walk to Old Government House in rambling, lush Parramatta Park.
Old Government House is a Georgian two-storey elegant residence, built for the governors in 1799; a place was a refuge from the rough and tumble of the outside world. Officers in their scratchy serge uniforms, worn in the middle of a Sydney summer, drinking rum and wine (no sparkling mineral water then), making decisions about the new colony – who wouldn’t have liked to be a fly on the wall?
Lachlan’s Government House – this was the result of the older, original government house being renovated in 1809 by Governor Macquarie after the Rum Rebellion in Sydney Town. The building is in fine repair these days and as a restaurant in the Garrison Building, history takes second place to the experience of the menu. Eat on the verandah and enjoy the ambience. High tea is served on the verandah and private rooms are available for small groups,
It’s hip to be Square
But the biggest news in Parramatta since the advent of the Light Rail is the opening of Parramatta Square, a precinct of splendid and innovative architecture – almost a corporate, leisure campus – but oh, so much more. A city within a city, the inspired architecture has set a benchmark for offices for high profile organisations. Dining in the ‘square’ has taken on a new dimension. Book into the following for a grand gourmet experience: Lilymu (South East Asia and Chinese dishes); CicciaBella Trattoria – guess the cuisine!;Ruse bar and Brasserie: best seafood and meat on the grill.
PHIVE, 5 Parramatta Square is the city’s state-of-the-art building which extends over the original heritage-listed Town Hall. The sweeping orange building is filled with natural light and offers a range of activities and spaces for all the meet, lounge, collaborate and create experiences.
To finish off the mini-stay in Parramatta the place top be and be seen is Nick & Nora’s, a very special, stylish 1920-style cocktail bar offering cocktails natch! Champagne, canapés on a rooftop terrace.
This beautiful space has several areas that can be privately booked for groups (up to 16) to take on cocktail making lessons – birthday gatherings, gals night out and family celebrations. The staff is exceptional and the ambience is top notch – or maybe we can say sky high!
Nick & Nora’s is on the 26th floor of Skye Suites.
There’s a wealth of history – famous and infamous in and around Parramatta, check the following out:
- St John’s Cemetery: Australia’s oldest surviving European cemetery (1790). The final resting place of Dicky or Didjidiji (son of Bennelong Bennelong and wife Barangaroo Barangaroo – there’s a pretty hefty first people’s pedigree here. Bennelong and more than 50 First Fleeters’ were buried at this cemetery too.
- Female Factory: The Parramatta Female Factory is now part of the Cumberland Hospital and NSW Institute of Psychiatry. The site is listed on the New South Wales State Heritage Register. There is only a small section to visit these days and the original on this site was designed by convict architect Frances Greenway – who left his distinctive design mark on many early Sydney buildings.
- Hambledon Cottage: part of the Harris Park Heritage Walk, the cottage is a throwback to colonial days when life was simpler – and harder. Farms worked back then took fortitude and survival skills. See the magnificent trees shadowing the house – age has not wearied them.
- Female Orphan School Institute: was originally the Female Orphan School, the first welfare institution to be established in NSW. It was a sad fact that these orphans lived a wretched life and were in constant ‘moral danger’ in Sydney. The orphanage functioned from 1801 to 1850, then became a psychiatric hospital and is now part of the University of Western Sydney Campus.
The Sydney Cove orphanage could accommodate up to 100 orphans and was located next to a public works depot and it was feared that the girls’ close proximity to workers and to other influences in Sydney town put them at risk of ‘moral corruption’. The remote Parramatta site was preferable because of its distance from these corrupting influences. One member of the committee managing the Orphan School wrote:
“…the children are to be entirely secluded from the other people, and brought up in habits of religion and morality”.
Ah, Elizabeth Farm in nearby Camden. The dry side of history names this as the residence of the entrepreneur, soldier and businessman and wool pioneer John Macarthur – one of the the colony’s famous or infamous sons. This is where the grand history of wool production, and the introduction of the merino breed to Australia’s, which became the country’s primary industry. Elizabeth Farm is a wonderful place to discover the past and the domestic side of life for the gentry.
BUT here’s the rub! Elizabeth Macarthur was streets ahead of her cranky, trouble-making husband who took the credit for everything. Because he was instrumental in inciting the rum rebellion he was sent back to England to repent at leisure for eight years. In that time Elizabeth worked the vast and ever-growing estates and stock in various locations with her daughters (the sons had been sent to England to be educated), and basically ran the business. She is noted for her fastidious diary writing, but do they tell the real story? Genteel ladies of the time only reported the good and godly news.
And did you know that when the farmhouse began to expand over time as the family business became more success they acquired a butler. The name of the butler was Mr Butler.
Parramatta’s history is complex and the characters in starring roles have powerful stories to tell. It’s worth digging around in a library for extra research or Mr Google has the goods.
The mighty Parramatta river has been host to humans, marine life and has basically ‘seen it all’ since around 40,000 years ago. The Burramatta people, a local indigenous clan of the Darug Nation, lived on the river banks feasting on yams, mullet, oysters and eels. The word ‘Burramatta’ is loosely translated as ‘the place where eels lie down’.
Today, the Buramatta people are the traditional custodians of the area.
Back in the day, looking for fertile ground to grow food and host livestock, Australia’s first governor, Captain Arthur Phillips cruised up the Parramatta river in 1788 and rocked up with the obligatory equipment – guns, disease, ignorance and a lust for land. Cultural and violent clashes occurred and the stage was set for settlement.
AND . . . Indigenous themed murals on the Parramatta River Foreshore Reserve interpret the early scenes of invasion. These are creations by Ngemba artist Jamie Eastwood. You can also retrace Governor Phillip’s journey via a 3.5km long, signposted walk.