Once known for its steelworks industry, port activity and relatively young university, over the past eight years, Wollongong has become recognised for its small-city coastal feel. And for its focus on wining and dining.
What many love most about “The Gong” is how the mountains meet the sea. The city’s long stretch of coastline has Mount Keira, Brokers Nose, Mount Kembla and Mount Ousley as its backdrop. It’s all a 10-minute drive from the beach.
Just over an hour’s drive south of Sydney, Wollongong is attracting more and more Sydneysiders, with its less-expensive housing, renowned schools and a slower-paced lifestyle.
Wollongong also has something many other places don’t – it has maintained its small-city feel in the midst of large building developments.
The most obvious transformation to the central business district is the major addition to Crown Street Mall. Completed in 2014, the new six-level shopping centre was designed by Port Kembla-born architect Susanne Pini to reflect the history and landscape of Wollongong.
But before this obvious aesthetic development there was a subtle shift in the culture of Wollongong, headed up by a boutique-cafe hybrid Lee and Me when it opened in 2008. University students flocked to the well-designed coffee shop that hinted at a more “Melbourne” way of eating out. Now Wollongong is dotted with independent cafes, specialist restaurants and small bars.
If you wander through Crown Street Mall on a Thursday night, you’ll find yourself among south-coast food lovers at the Eat Street Markets. Turn a corner and you’ll find Globe Lane: a hub of restaurants, bars and an occasional food truck. A coastal bike track is less than 10-minutes drive away, where you can weave your way up through the northern suburbs of Coledale, Thirroul and Austinmer. You’re never more than 15 minutes from the beach in Wollongong.
His Boy Elroy By the same people behind Lee and Me, His Boy Elroy is just up the road and is a little more grunge, but with a stellar cocktail list. One of the four owners, Naomi Hudson, says that initially when they were dreaming up the idea of their first establishment, they couldn’t go past Wollongong for a location, “We have spent most of our lives in Wollongong, and love it.”
When it came time for change, His Boy Elroy grew out of the four owners’ appreciation of Sydney’s bar scene. “The cafe market was already well covered, and there was definitely a gap in the market for small bars in Wollongong. We found ourselves trekking to Sydney to experience a bar scene that was both innovative and classic at the same time.”
The industrial fit-out, with dim lighting and soft tunes accompanies the dirty dogs, hot wings and chili-cheese fries on the menu. Open from breakfast until late at night, we recommend the Porky Pig: a burger with pulled pork, barbeque sauce, slaw and American cheese.
The local craft beers on tap sit next to a wide range of whiskey options and nine interesting cocktails. 1 Globe Lane, Wollongong (02) 4244 8221
Sifters Sifters is a co-op in a car park. The cafe, Sifters Espresso is in a shipping container. Owner Mel Cox says Wollongong’s location was a major drawcard when opening her coffee shop. “You’re so close to the beach, the mall and so many other great cafes, restaurants and bars.”
Turning Wollongong into a food destination was partly what drove Cox. “I wanted to stay here to be a part of making Wollongong a place we would normally travel to see. Now people are making the trek to see what we have to offer.” Single Origin Roasters made the blend served here. On Fridays and Saturdays from 12-2pm you can pick up a “Pitt Smoked Boston Butt” (pork neck) or delve into a barbecued meat roll with slaw and miso ranch dressing at their kitchen, Son of a Gun. The kitchen is open daily for breakfast and lunch. 82 Market Street, Wollongong 0437 886 900
The Throsby Erick Zavallos and Maddie Sullivan handle their menu of wine, cheese and salumi simply, yet elegantly. “What Wollongong lacked five years ago was a really good bar scene, but people are moving back from travelling overseas because Wollongong’s such a great place to live,” says Sullivan. “They have experienced really exciting cities and want the same in Wollongong. It’s become more of a dining-out culture.”
Allow the staff to pair your drink with proscuitto, bresaola, finnochiona and Sonoma sourdough, served with quince paste and local summer honey. Try the extensive menu of white-mould, washed-rind, blue or hard varieties of cheese. 2/88 Kembla Street, Wollongong (02) 4225 8053
Also worth checking out are:
Mount Keira Lookout You can drive up to the lookout or walk via the Mount Keira ring track, but whichever path you take, you’ll end up with a view of the Illawarra. The lookout is accessible seven days a week during daylight hours. Mt Kiera, Wollongong
Eat Street Market Crown Street Mall comes alive every Thursday night with food stalls and music. Head here for food made from fresh local produce.
Crown Street Mall, Wollongong NSW Thursday nights 5pm–10pm
Dagwood With its assortment of tacos, fried chicken and steamed buns, Dagwood has raised Asian-South American fusion to another level. Join the communal benches and sit among the sugar skulls and oriental posters lining the walls. Taco, fancy-bun and fried-chicken nights happen regularly.
19 Market Street, Wollongong (02) 4228 6850
Lee and Me: The Store The boutique cafe that kicked off Wollongong’s cafe surge recently partnered with local woodwork makers Huddle & Co and local florist Floral Pines Design Co. The new additions are in the boutique space upstairs, above the cafe, meaning you can get a Campos Coffee; a plate of dukkah eggs; green and grain salads; a bunch of natives; and a sleek wooden gift all in one visit. 87 Crown Street, Wollongong (02) 4244 0695
To explore the suburb in more detail, visit the Wollongong suburb profile at realestate.com.au.