I love a good, freebie and so when I saw a write up in my Lonely Planet: Australia for I’m Free walking tours of Sydney, I starred the entry. I’m Free general walking tours are offered at 10:30 and 2:30 everyday and operate on the idea that you should experience the tour first and then pay what you feel it’s worth. When I went to the Sydney day tour, there were around 100 people who met in the plaza between Town Hall and the Episcopalian cathedral. We were divided up into groups of say 25 and got our guide. In all my 3 I’m Free tours the guides were born in the city and had a thorough understanding of their city, past and present. The Sydney day tours cover a lot of ground starting at the area near Town Hall, going to the Queen Victoria Building, pointing out the beautiful Victorian and modern buildings in the CBD (Aussie for Central Business District, i.e. “downtown” for Americans), taking in the flora and fauna in Hyde Park before winding up at the harbor where the iconic Sydney Opera House graces the scene.
I learned a lot. First of all I learned that before England sent convicts to Australia, the American colonies were used as a dumping ground. Fifty thousand convicts were sent to those colonies. Wonder why we don’t learn that. Anyhow, after the U.S. gained its independence that safety valve was shut off. So the Brits figured the new lands which James Cook explored in 1770 would suit the purpose. In 1778, over 800 convicts were shipped down under led by Governor Arthur Phillip.
What I particularly enjoyed were the off-the-beaten-path stops. Like many 18th or 19th century cities, Sydney has a network of tiny lanes or alleyways. Cars can’t fit down them so what do you do with them? Sydney’s imaginative solution was to create art installations in them. Sadly, most installations were temporary but a couple still exist including “Forgotten Songs” which consists of numerous bird cages hanging over the walkway. These cages play recordings of native birds and depending on the time of day, you’ll hear different birds singing. On the ground there are the names of the different birds which were once (some still) around the area.
Another use of these lanes was to permit small, secret” bars to open. While these aren’t truly speakeasies, they offer a pseudo-speakeasy feel, which is entertaining.
The three hours flew by and gave me a good grounding in Sydney helping me decide where to explore in more detail. The morning tour also piqued my interest in the 90 minute evening tour of “The Rocks.”
The Rocks is a rocky area where convicts and low income settlers lived, while the more wealthy settlers got the better land. Isn’t that always the way it goes? Small homes, tenements really, where built and colorful lives were lived out. Here we saw Miller’s Point, a neighborhood full of the government owned row houses where current residents are fighting to keep their homes as the city, hungry to cash in by selling to developers, relocates them. We saw Execution Hill where citizens would go to watch the many frequent hangings. (Seems our current low brow TV programming isn’t a new low.) We got a perspective on current development and how the activism in the 1970s known as the Green Ban, when builders cooperated with locals to stop the bulldozing of old buildings.
The guides earn a generous tip and the program allows travelers of all budgets to connect with the city.