Balmain is a suburb located 6Km West of Sydney CBD, a peninsular jutting out into Sydney harbour; home to many residents and the home to Darling Street, a vibrant 5-6 block commercial strip.
How to get there? Balmain is a short (approx. 15 min) bus trip from the CBD, departing from York Street (behind the Queen Victoria Building). The 442 bus will get you there, making multiple stops along Darling Street (Adult Opal fare $2.20 each way).
On the last day of 2018 we started our day trip to Balmain by making the short walk to the York street bus stops, or better known as the back-side of the Queen Victoria Building (or these days better known as the side of the building not impacted by the light rail construction). Walking down the line of bus stops, look for signage for the 442 bus, this bus performs a continuous loop into Balmain and surrounding suburbs before looping back around to the City.
Within 5 mins our 442 bus arrived, and a fair few people boarded (this was around 10.30am on a Monday), so much so that we probably got the last 2 seats on the bus.
The bus ride over to Balmain is surprisingly quick, as soon as the bus pulled out it must have gotten all the green lights; so that the first time we stopped we had already made it over the ANZAC bridge and we were already in Rozelle (the suburb just before Balmain). The final 1.5Km into Balmain was slower though, stopping to drop off passengers at each stop and navigating narrow residential streets. But soon enough we were at the start of Darling Street (the Rozelle end), where we got off the bus and continued on foot.
Darling Street is the main strip which runs from one end to the other end of Balmain, with intersecting streets branching off the spine of the suburb like ribs. In all directions you end up going, i.e. walking down the length of Darling Street to the east end, you’ll eventually reach the water. And if you went left or right down the streets which branched off Darling Street, you’d eventually hit water as well due to Balmain’s peninsular make-up (I’m sure some streets will culminate in a dead-end, but water does surround most of Balmain). For this reason Balmain is an affluent suburb, the small terrace homes valued in the millions, thus these days Balmain is home to professional couples who make the short commute into the City for work.
**Note: The historical demograph of Balmain was quite different in the past, the original residents were blue collar workers who used to work on the ship yards and wharves. And these humble beginnings are still evident in present day Balmain with the large amount of historic pubs, and the modest architecture of all the shops which line both sides of Darling Street (narrow but deep 2 story commercial spaces).
On this day we were catching up with friends for lunch, so we had planned to arrive in Balmain an hour in advance to leisurely check out Balmain before we caught up with them. As we had hopped off the bus at one end of Darling Street, our plan was to walk down the left hand side and then walk back up on the other side of the street and that would take us to lunch-time.
As we walked, we took in the shops, my initial assumption of Darling Street was that the majority of stores would be independent boutique-ie type stores. However we did find some national chain stores like Flight Centre and Chemist Warehouse along the way. The majority of stores along Darling Street can be grouped into the following categories: Food & Beverage (many cafes, ethnic cuisines, butchers/bakeries, and pubs); Fashion and Beauty (clothing stores, nail salons, beauticians, and hairdressers); and Health (pharmacies, medical centres, and massage parlours) catering for the local residents.
After 5-6 blocks the shops start to thin out, where the shop facades and overhead shelter ended and where the blazing sun beating from above started. After reaching this point, walking down another 8 blocks to the shore-line seemed less attractive (once again, our Sydney-sider mentality was showing through, how we’re not much of an outdoorsy bunch as soon as temps get into the 30s). So from that point we decided to turn back and we crossed to the other side of the street to re-trace our tracks. Along the way, we ditched off several times to check out Gladstone Park near the heritage listed Balmain Hospital (and stand under some glorious shade), a tiny arcade, and then a rando spot where we could just sit and people watch. Most people who were out and about seemed to be locals, people doing their grocery shopping, presumably before a New Year’s Eve party. Parents jogging after their kids who were on scooters. Or neighbourhood teens catching up over their summer holidays (we heard a few UAC conversations).
And unfortunately we were confronted with the reality of Zumbo Patisserie’s demise. I can still remember the time when we purposefully travelled to Balmain for Zumbo back in 2010, where I stood in-line with my folks for 45 minutes just to get inside of their front doors. And now it’s all over! A shame!
And then it was lunch time, and although a portion of restaurants were closed (don’t do lunch trade) or were closed until the New Year; there was still plenty of choice and we elected Kafeine. It was pretty crowded but the tables were turned over pretty quickly, thus the wait wasn’t long before we were seated in the cool air-con.
As we waited for our dining companions to arrive, we ordered some refreshments as we were pretty hot and sticky after walking up and down Darling Street. With a wide selection of fresh juices on offer, I had the Hangover Recovery (freshly juiced beetroot, carrot, watermelon, apple, and orange) and my wife had the Clear Skin (Freshly juiced beetroot, carrot, celery, spinach, cucumber, and orange) – I was pre-empting a big NYE night, while my wife didn’t really need hers as she already has pretty clear skin.
It was great to catch up with friends over good healthy food, Kafeine was known for its healthy and vegan options. My wife ordered Mushroom Goodness, I had the Corn Fritters, my mate had the Samurai Burger (fish burger), and his wife the Lunch Bowl with tofu and soba noodles (their 15 month old ate bits from both of their dishes, and snacks from her lunch-box. Awwww cute!).
My corn fritters was sweet from the corn kernels, sour from the cherry tomatoes, healthy feeling from the leafy greens, substantial because of the large piece of grilled ham, and texturally interesting as the fritter had a crunchy baked top. All very tasty, while being healthy and hitting the spot.
After lunch, it was pretty much time to head back home; as we wanted to beat the crowds back before everyone started to head into the city for a prime spot to see the fireworks.
Getting back, you just need to catch the 442 again, but this time on the opposite side of the street from where you had originally gotten off. The wait for the bus was around 10 mins, and once you’re on the bus, the trip into the city is just as quick; in moments you’re on Market Street and free to get on with your day. Or alternatively there is a scenic option, you can catch a ferry from one of several wharves, which will transport you to Circular Quay (a nice option if you have the time).
What else can you do in Balmain? If you’re young enough (while old enough) you could do a killer pub crawl, there are many, I mean MANY pubs/historical hotels in Balmain for you to try! Get ready for the list (unfortunately some have stopped trading): Cat and Fiddle Hotel, Cricketer’s Arms Hotel, Dick’s Hotel, Dry Dock Hotel, Exchange Hotel, Fourth and Clyde Hotel, Kent Hotel, London Hotel, Mort Bay Hotel, Norfolk Pines Hotel, Pacific Hotel, Riverside Hotel, Royal Oak Hotel, Ship Rites Arms Hotel, Star Hotel, Town Hall Hotel, Unity Hall Hotel, Volunteer Hotel, and the West End Hotel (the names alone already hint at Balmain’s colonial and working class history). And if your liver is still operational, and you can focus with a full bladder, you might be able to ask around and find some historical points of reference to the Australian Labor Party? As the ALP first started in Balmain back in the 1890s.
If you have kids who are keen cyclists or pushers (what do you call one who rides scooters?), perhaps drive to Balmain and pack the bike/scooter. As Mort Bay Park has an idyllic path suitable for the young-ones to safely cycle/push around. While the ones old enough to appreciate a good vantage point, may enjoy the incredible views of the back-side of the Harbour Bridge (a spot many flock to during NYE to view the fireworks).
And there are plenty of restaurants/cafes in Balmain, according to Zomato, Balmain alone has 103 places to eat and drink at. Some notable restaurants are Contessa (Modern Australian); Efendy (Turkish); Nutie Donuts Balmain (Desserts); Riverview Hotel (Pub); Euforia (café); and The Cottage Bar and Kitchen (Wine bar).
Final thoughts, Balmain is a quaint suburb to visit, a great location to catch-up with friends over brunch/lunch/dinner as a mid-way meeting point. Perhaps there is not enough to see and do in Balmain to keep you entertained for an entire day, but for a feed and perhaps an hour on either side of your meal, there is plenty to explore in Balmain. Let me know in the comments section if you ventured to the Peninsula, and/if you visited any of the historical hotels and gave your liver a work-out…or a beating. Haaha.