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Woolloomooloo Travel Guide

Woolloomooloo: History, location and things to do

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The horseshoe-shaped valley that is located just east of Sydney and stretches from William Street to the Harbour is known as Woolloomooloo. Once a swampy hunting ground for the Gadigal people, Woolloomooloo was not one of Sydney’s most desirable early settlements. Although the valley was eventually drained, which left mudflats in the wake of the swamps, the area was still largely impassable when the creek ran high. The more disreputable members of society tended to congregate here and often waylaid unwitting travellers.

Although the wetlands may not have initially been attractive, they were quite fertile. The early settlers struggled to farm the new land in the unfamiliar Australian climate, but Woolloomooloo was ideally suited to farming. Commissary General John Palmer built a home and a farm here after being given a land grant in 1793, and his fruit trees and tobacco crops proved extremely successful. The valley was originally christened Wallabahmulla, but Palmer called his home by the creek Woollamoola House, a name that eventually inspired rhymes, poetry and children’s ditties.

By 1822, Palmer had sold his home and property to Edward Riley, who had begun to develop a large estate in Surry Hills. Sydneysiders soon discovered the allure of Woolloomooloo’s naturally enclosed swimming area, the Fig Tree Baths. Governor Ralph Darling soon began to offer land grants to those of high status and encouraged the building of homes that could meet specific standards along the higher lands along the ridge. The lower land began to be subdivided in the mid-19th century and was used to build smaller cottages.

Woolloomooloo enjoyed a brief period of popularity and was considered to be quite a fashionable suburb, but by the late 19th century, its heyday was over. As the wharf expanded, the population deteriorated. The finer houses were left to crumble, and Woolloomooloo became overcrowded, dirty and cluttered with brothels and pubs that serviced the sailors that came in and out. Once-pretty, well-regarded Woolloomooloo was now left in tatters with an increasingly rough population and a dire housing situation.

The suburb could have been left to itself, but in the mid-20th century, a new day began to dawn for this little valley. The State Planning Authority cleared the way for high-rises, and a section of railway was designed to travel overhead across the Domain. There were plenty of naysayers who assumed that Woolloomooloo could never be brought back from the edge, and the population fled in droves. However, developers continued to buy property with plans to redevelop it in the hopes of recreating this forgotten suburb while many others fought to save the culturally and historically significant places. An agreement was finally reached in 1975 that allowed land to be used for public housing, preserved the heart of Woolloomooloo and still allowed for specific revitalisation efforts.

Today, Woolloomooloo offers close access to Sydney’s CBD and top attractions, such as Darling Harbour, Chinatown and the various markets. Woolloomooloo Wharf has been restored and continues to be a favourite location for visitors who seek its incredible views of the Sydney skyline. Woolloomooloo is also home to Finger Wharf, the largest wooden structure in the world. Its dining options include a variety of ethnic restaurants ranging from Asian to Italian, and visitors can enjoy a quick meal before heading off to the historic Old Fitzroy Theatre for a show.

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