Exploring- Balmain

Darling St, Balmain

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.   

Hangover Recovery (left) and Clear Skin (right) fresh juices

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.  

Exploring- Chatswood

When you’re on holidays overseas, you do your research and pinpoint areas where you want to go, restaurants you want to eat at, and time your visits to maximise what you can see and do. But why can’t we extend this same level of preparedness to visiting a suburb in our own fair city? Turn a regular weekend into an inexpensive weekend adventure? Become a tourist in our own ‘backyard’?

So here starts our monthly exploration of suburbs in and around Sydney, starting with the City in the North, Chatswood!

Chatswood is located 10Km North of Sydney CBD, and is a major commercial and retail district for peeps in the North Shore. A go-to for shopping, entertainment, restaurants, and a hang-out place for locals in the North Shore area…And with the soon to be completed Hills to Chatswood Metro train line, an alternative destination for those living in the Hills District if they want a change from their current go-to shopping and entertainment precincts.  

How to get there? Chatswood is only a 20 minute train trip from Town Hall train station. Trains depart frequently (no more than a 10 minute wait at most). Catch the train on the T1 North shore line ($4.40 adult Opal fare each way).

On this summer’s day we set out during the hottest part of the day and it was noticeably warmer in Chatswood, compared to Sydney CBD. Stepping off the train and walking down Victoria Avenue, you were reminded that Chatswood is a City in its own right, but it is also set in the suburbs. The sounds of cicadas chirping in the heat, an odd combination to the otherwise city feel of Chatswood.

Arriving by train, the vast majority of shops and restaurants are located along or just off the main strip of Chatswood which is Victoria Avenue. So as you walked to wherever you’re aiming for, there is much to see and many distractions (good distractions) along the way. For example, on Thursdays and Fridays there are the Melody markets (food and craft stalls along the pedestrianised portion of Victoria Ave – otherwise known as Chatswood Mall). Although today was a Thursday, unfortunately the stalls were not set up due to that weird time in between Christmas and New Year’s. But from previous visits to Chatswood, we remembered the mall being lined with food and craft stalls, good to experience if you can time your visit to Chatswood right.

On this visit to Chatswood, in my mind I’d dubbed this visit a ‘Chatswood mall crawl!’ The aim was to duck in and out of the 8 shopping centres/Malls/Arcades located within the Chatswood CBD to take in what each centre had to offer. So with a list, we began our Mall crawl. **Musings: If an individual who hangs-out all day long at a mall is known as a ‘Mall Rat’. Then being promiscuous and seeing many malls at one time, will we be known as a ‘Mall Cat’? If so, that’s fitting, considering Chat is French for cat! …… I’m channelling my inner Jonathan Goldstein with that musing.

Mall 1: Chatswood Chase- We first went to the furthest of the shopping centres with the aim to work our way back towards the train station for our departure. Chase is the second largest mall in Chatswood, and used to be known as the ‘classier’ mall, with the higher end clothing stores. But I’m not sure if it’s changed over time, or perhaps I’m just older and the brands don’t wow me anymore, but the brands now all seemed like your regular run-of-the-mill chain stores. So 4 stories to the top, and a basement food court at the very bottom,  it was a nice stop along the way and small enough that we could easily walk the length and breadth of each floor. On a sensory level, the air con was nice and cold (revitalising us) and oddly the whole entire centre was fragranced by the same perfume (they must’ve piped it into the air ducts), so the entire place smelt very pleasant indeed.

Chatswood Chase Shopping Mall

Mall 2: Westfield Chatswood- A short walk in the direction back towards the train station and on the other side of the street (still on Victoria Ave) is the much larger Westfield Chatswood. It’s so large that getting in and out you’d always appear and reappear from a completely different entrance/exit, needing to walk around kind of lost for a bit trying to regain your bearings. By far Westfield was where everyone was; don’t get me wrong, Chase had a fair few people but Westfields had many many more. There was just a hub-bub of many people moving and talking at the same time. Westfield has 5 levels, each level quite large so we didn’t do a circuit of each. But we caught the escalators all the way up to the top floor, and by that time we already got a little bit hungry and gave in to our rumbling tummies and we made our way all the way back down to the ground floor food court.

A couple of years back Westfield installed Hawker Lane, a corner of the   food court devoted to Asian eateries. The stalls lined up one-after-the-other with seating down the centre. So we made our way to this part of the food court and found stores from all your usual Asian cuisines, e.g. Malaysian, Vietnamese, dumplings etc. And after making a round, we actually opted for Indian (Chachu’s). On their menu they promoted their Signature Roll, and being a sucker for trying what a restaurant is known for, my wife and I both opted for a roll and for an extra $4.50 we made our rolls into a meal (includes drink and a side). I opted for a Crispy chicken roll, fried chilli potato and apple juice (yeah, I know….. I’m consuming processed sugars again after being off it for 7 months); while my wife had the Saffron roasted chicken roll, garlic naan and Mango Lassi (for an extra $1.50 on-top-of-the meal price).

Hawker Lane at Westfield food court

Armed with a buzzer (that was great! As it suggested that our food was made to order), we sat on high stools in the centre of Hawker Lane. And after a short wait, we were called back for our food. We didn’t know what to expect with our ‘Indian rolls’, methinks it’s naan-traditional? (get it…..naan-traditional, as opposed to “non-traditional”? Yes/No?!?). But we were pleasantly surprised that it was like a wrap, the wrap being a thin tortilla which had been pan fried so that the outside was blistered and flaky! My crispy chicken bits were well-sized, lightly battered, tender chicken tenders, which reminded me a bit of a chicken wrap from KFC, i.e. lettuce, and a mayo-like sauce, but having tasty Indian flavours, and additional Indian herbs/spice fillings. My wife was pleased with her roll as well, it was spicy but not just a ‘hot’ spicy, but a ‘tasty’ spicy. Although our sides were a bit hit and miss. The spicy potato was interesting enough, it was a potato mash, with all sorts of spices mixed into it, but then it was re-shaped back into a potato shape, and then deep fried. So the outside was nice and crunchy, while the inside was soft and melty. It came with a chilly dipping sauce, but it was tasty enough without it. But the garlic naan was a miss, it was stale so we gave up on it (but we were already quite full by then). And lastli, the Mango Lassi was really tasty, not like a smoothie (as a smoothie is watered down with juice), but the Lassi was more like a yoghurt but liquid enough that you could drink it with a straw. Very tasty, refreshing and filling at the same time. So when we were done eating we were very satisfied, and satisfied to kick onto the next mall on our list.

Our neatly packaged lunch from Chachu’s

Mall 3: Mandarin Centre- By this time when we re-emerged from Westfields (from another completely different exit) it had gotten hotter again, so the prospect of hunting around for the 6 other smaller arcades seemed a little less appealing now. What can I say? Sydney-siders only enjoy the great-outdoors when the weather is in-between 20 and 28 degrees, anything more or less, and we’re more than happy to remain indoors. So we just walked past Victoria Arcade and made a beeline to the Mandarin Centre (the third largest of the malls in Chatswood).

Mandarin Centre

One thing about me, is that I’m predictable and bound by routine. So for the past few years, always at this time in-between Christmas and New Year’s, I’d come out to Chatswood> Mandarin Centre> Trade Secret to buy a new pair of jeans, adding it to the “jean rotation”. While saying that, last year we must have skipped our annual Jean Day as in the interim Trade Secret had been taken over by TK Maxx, and European chain which did something similar i.e. offered designer brands at a discounted price. But unfortunately the store wasn’t quite the same, yes the stock was now more orderly, but there were less things on offer. In the past there were so many designer jeans to choose from, you could narrow down your search by size, cut, brand, and then colour. In past years, I’d have 5 pairs to try on, to select the best fitting one. But this time they only had 2 racks in total, and no surprise I couldn’t find even one pair in my size. Boo! So we left empty handed, so I guess after years of scoring designer jeans for half of the RRP, its back to General Pants Co for full-priced jeans. *Sad look*.

But when leaving the Mandarin Centre, this image did cheer us up though!  

Giant panda at Mandarin Centre

Mall 4-8: Chatswood Interchange, Lemon Grove, The Gallery, Victoria Plaza, and Orchard Arcade. Unfortunately we didn’t have the stamina to locate and walk the 5 smaller centres/mall/arcades. But maybe you can continue where we left off? Tell us all about it in the comments section below.

After the Mandarin centre, we started to develop separation anxiety from our beloved Sydney CBD, so we went home. Haaha.

What else is in Chatswood? If you drove, you can visit Windsor Gardens and Seven Gables (both heritage listed sites).

And there are plenty of restaurants located in the centres/malls/arcades and on the street level for you to try. According to Zomato, you have 301 bars and restaurants to choose from in Chatswood alone! Some notable restaurants are Manpuku (Japanese/Ramen); Burger Patch (Trending Burger Joint); Kho Pla (Thai); Mamak (Malaysian); or Chimichuri (café), and many many more!

Final thoughts, Chatswood is like any other major central business district, but still worth checking out if you haven’t been recently. And if you’re looking for something in particular (retail wise) and willing to hang around for both lunch and dinner you can most definitely turn a visit to Chatswood into a whole day trip! Enjoy!