What makes the Sydney CBD (and its surroundings) so good again? Many things – you just have to know where to look

It could have been the exhilaration (or disorientation) of watching an actual movie in a movie theater (the latest James Bond; I enjoyed it), but as I left the George Street multiplex and got up town along the CBD’s main thoroughfare, I had a thought : “Wow, it has the city really changed.”

And I’m not talking about the quieter streets or the less busy shops that Covid has heralded. I was struck by the beauty of George Street. Yes, George Street – the once noisy, traffic-clogged, heavily exhausted road that we used to muffle out with headphones. But it does not look like more.

While most of us have worked from home or have not entered the CBD in the last (almost) two years, the major infrastructure projects that are underway have become a reality.

The big obvious one is George Street, which has been transformed into a peaceful pedestrian oasis. Bus people give the street a soundtrack, flower beds add color, and people parade as if they are in an Italian coastal town. Its serenity is only marked by sliding trams and their occasional sweet “ding”.

Then there are the stylish new stores centered around King Street (like Sneakerboy) – and what’s happened to Wynyard Station? Walk down the George Street escalators to the slick underground train station and your descent is illuminated by elaborate golden lights

Not far away, a neon light, hip hop and enthusiastic talk radiates from Dan Hong’s new Southeast Asian eatery, Mumu. Next door, people drink Negronis at outdoor tables at another Merivale eatery, the newly renovated Bar Totti’s. It has now been given much more space, serves its signature pastas and is open until 6 p.m.

Continue further north along George to The Rocks, and one lane has been turned over to pedestrians. Visit on a balmy evening and you will find tables with people eating and drinking under umbrellas. There’s a real vibe here, and the once primarily tourist center feels like it has a moment. This revitalization is led by some of the best Sydney operators, including the team behind other excellent CBD sites, The Duke of Clarence and the Barber Shop. They have transformed a 100-year-old warehouse into Hickson House Distillery, a magnificent venue serving an impressive 600 spirits.

There are more drinks at the new Frank Mac’s, the original Rocks pioneer Maybe Sammy, and in April, the fun pop-up of The Baxter Inn and Restaurant Hubert team, 101 George St. as a European wine bar. It’s going to be called Le Foote, named after the former occupant of the listed building, the bar and restaurant Phillip’s Foote, which has been there since the 1970s.

On the food side is the groundbreaking Greek-Australian chef Peter Conistis (Alpha has also moved into the area, in the evolving Campbell’s Stores eatery by the water. Visit the Ploos for spanakopita-inspired dumplings and harbor views. And Bay Nine Omakase, too, joins Sydney’s budding omakase scene.

But this new urban energy is not contained in The Rocks and George Boulevard (should we consider a name change?). Theater Royal has just reopened after a makeover, and the season of the critically acclaimed musical with Bob Dylan songs, Girl from the northern country, has just been extended. Royal’s renovation was part of the MLC Center area makeover. It will eventually have about 30 eateries and some retailers with restaurants overlooking Martin Place. Among those you should be aware of are Aalia (by the Nour and Henrietta team) and a Japanese eatery from the team behind the Nikkei-style Canberra restaurant Inka.

Other major CBD developments that you may have missed include the ambitious multi-venue Shell House. Think of a rooftop bar, restaurant and a sexy cocktail lounge under the building’s bell tower.

It’s the story of old-things-is-new-again in Hinchcliff House. The former wool shop is now an Italian-inspired eatery Grana and a very excellent (and underrated bar) Apolloni. It anchors another development site for restaurants and shopping, the beautiful Quay Quarter – see how its discreet track area flourishes.

Lots of other life happens from old favorites like SILY, which holds monthly events called Cocktails and Crime Stories, where a historian reveals infamous 19th- and 20th-century Sydney yarns (like Gin City – Sin City in February). The State Library has even opened a rooftop bar, blockbuster exhibits (we look at you Art Gallery of NSW’s Mattisse, and have you been walking around Darling Square for a weekend? A lot is happening.

Sure, Sydney’s CBD and its surroundings may not be as thriving and predictably busy as it once was. But it’s not because things are not happening – in fact, it’s the opposite. You just have to know where to turn. And sometimes that place is really obvious.

This article is produced by Broadsheet in collaboration with Destination NSW. More info here

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