Wollongong, affectionately known as ‘The Gong’, sits south of Sydney on a narrow coastal strip between a chain of surf beaches and a rainforest-covered hinterland.
From its stunning harbour precinct to the summit of Mount Keira, nature is always close at hand. Balance this with a vibrant public art program, an edgy laneway culture, and an explosion of cool eateries. Now is the time to visit, as New South Wales’ third largest urban centre transforms from ‘steel city’ to ‘contemporary cultural metropolis’ – while continuing to maintain pride in its industrial heritage.
Here are some ideas for how to spend a weekend in Wollongong. Book your stay with Choice Hotels.
8am: Dig in at Diggies
There’s no better way to start your day than with breakfast by the beach. And if that breakfast includes a spicy chorizo burrito (or a summer fruit bowl, if that’s more your style), all the better. Housed inside a 1930s Art Deco kiosk, just footsteps off the sand of North Beach, Diggies serves seasonal food with a cool, coastal vibe. Pull up a pew beneath the open windows for panoramic ocean views. Or just grab a takeaway coffee from North Beach Kiosk (Diggies’ little sister) for your coastal walk.
9am: Walk or cycle along the coast
Blessed with more than 120 kilometres of shared pathways, Wollongong has a bike or walking path to suit all paces. For a leisurely stroll, head south from Diggies towards Wollongong Harbour for the start of the two-kilometre Peace Mile. Follow signage explaining aspects of local history as you move through a historic tramway cutting and alongside tidal bathing pools to Flagstaff Point – the only point on the eastern coast of Australia that has two lighthouses. If you’re up for it, the Wollongong to Thirroul Bike Track is a 17-kilometre paved route, which passes beaches, lagoons, rock pools and woodland. Don’t miss a fruit smoothie at Bulli Beach Café.
11am: Enjoy a bird’s eye view from Mount Keira
If this is your first trip to Wollongong, there’s no better way to appreciate the natural beauty of the Illawarra coastline than from the summit of Mount Keira. Known as Geera to the local Wadi Wadi people, the flat-topped mountain soars just on 464 metres above the city. On the way, make a detour to Brown Sugar Espresso Bar to pick up some of the tastiest cakes and pastries in the city. From here it’s a ten-minute drive to the lookout, which offers sweeping views all the way from the northern beaches to Jervis Bay in the south, and across to the famed Five Islands off Port Kembla. Stretch your legs on the 5.5-kilometre Mount Keira Ring Track or simply soak up the views while nibbling your sweet treats.
12.30pm: Grab a snack at Sketch Coffee and Art
It’s that time of the day when you need a quick (yet tasty) bite before an afternoon at the beach. Drive down the mountain to Sketch Coffee and Art in Towradgi. It’s a bustling café that doubles as an art gallery and gift store. Our go-to favourite is a toss-up between the sketchy fritters served with haloumi, and the house-made Towradgi burger. There are plenty of gluten and vegan-friendly options, and even fur babies have their own menu (yes, you heard right).
1.30pm: Do some lazy laps in the Towradgi ocean pool
From Sketch, it’s less than a two-minute drive (or an easy ten-minute stroll) along Towradgi Road to Towradgi Beach. On a coastline boasting more than a dozen stunning beaches, Towradgi takes the holiday trifecta: a three-kilometre arc of sandy beach, a playground and kids’ pool, and an ocean pool for swimming laps. Built into a rocky outcrop that separates Corrimal and Towradgi beaches, this saltwater sanctuary offers respite from the wave and swell action of the ocean. Come for a dip, stay for the afternoon.
5pm: Explore the small bar scene
After a day that has catapulted you from the mountains to the sea, it’s time to explore the city’s booming small bar scene. Freshen up then head to The Throsby, a bright and breezy wine bar with a good selection of Australian and Italian wines served with antipasto snacks. From here it’s a short walk to the Night Parrot, well known for its extensive drink list and Asian-inspired street food, while a few steps further along Crown Street is the Howlin’ Wolf Bar, home to 260 whiskies as well as beers, burgers and plenty of top shelf banter.
Served in a bar that feels a bit like your best mate’s shed, try a tasting flight of gins at South Coast Distillery. Tucked away inside an industrial unit in the suburb of Mount St Thomas, the cellar door is open every Friday from 4pm and Saturdays from midday, and there’s even a rotating roster of food trucks. Just don’t tell the locals we’ve disclosed their secret hangout!
7.30pm: Dine at Steamers
Finish your day at Steamers Bar and Grill, an oceanfront restaurant with stunning views over City Beach and Wollongong Lighthouse. The industrial-style décor is a nod to the city’s steamship era, when local produce was sailed to Sydney to feed the growing population. From small plates of wood-fired chilli salted calamari to churrasco dry aged rump, the menu is a reflection of the region’s bounty.
9am: Have breakfast in a terrace house
Dive deeper into Wollongong’s urban culture with breakfast and coffee at Lee and Me, a bare-brick café and clothes store that occupies an 1890s terrace house. Their slow-cooked brisket tacos, with cream cheese mustard, rocket, black bean salsa and chimichurri is sheer breakfast genius.
10am: Marvel at murals
Directly behind Lee and Me you’ll find the Arts Precinct, the open-air cultural hub of Wollongong. There’s plenty of gritty street art along the dog-legged Town Hall Place, which is tucked in behind the Illawarra Performing Arts Centre. Other street art-emblazoned hot spots include Globe Lane, Keira Lane, Pig Alley and the Wollongong Railway precinct. Don’t miss Woman with Red Lips by Rone on the north end of Keira Street.
11am: Visit the Wollongong Art Gallery
Dressed in bridal white, the curvaceous, three-tiered Wollongong Art Gallery is the belle of the Arts Precinct. With a collection of over 3,000 works, including contemporary, Aboriginal, Asian and colonial artworks, it’s one of the largest regional art museums in Australia. Free entry, a junior art trail and program of school holiday workshops make this a great family-friendly outing.
1pm: Seek holiday enlightenment at Nan Tien Temple
From the city centre it’s a ten-minute drive to Nan Tien Temple, one of the largest Buddhist temples in the Southern Hemisphere. Open to the public (closed Mondays) the complex comprises an eight-storey Chinese-style pagoda, two prayer halls, a museum, and extensive gardens. Time your visit for a vegetarian lunch served in either the Dining Hall or the Dew Drop Inn teahouse. The spicy laksa alone is worth the trip.
3pm: Tour the Towri bush tucker garden
Keep the Zen feeling going with a visit to the Wollongong Botanic Gardens at the foot of Mount Keira. Open daily with free entry, the 30-hectare space features native and exotic plants from around the world. Learn about traditional Aboriginal use of plants for food and medicine on a tour of the Towri bush tucker garden. Summer sees the gardens transform into the popular Sunset Cinema, while kids will love the all-abilities playground and nature-based school holiday program.
5pm: Feast on pub fare at Pepe’s
It’s time to finish your short break where it began, with a salty sea breeze and ocean views, this time at Pepe’s on the Beach in North Wollongong. With its whitewashed interior, large-scale open windows and bi-fold doors, the chilled atmosphere encapsulates the laidback Wollongong lifestyle. The all-day bar menu offers everything from coastal pub classics to blackened fish tacos.
Need a place to stay?
Comfort Inn Towradgi Beach is situated just a few minutes’ drive from the beachfront and offers lots of great amenities. Relax with a drink in the beer garden and dine at Oscar’s Grill Restaurant. The neighbouring Quality Suites Pioneer Sands offers modern apartment-style accommodation and complimentary Wi-Fi.
About the writer
Kerry van der Jagt is a freelance travel and feature writer, whose articles appear in a range of newspapers, magazines and online sites. With a background in biology and environmental science, she has a special interest in nature-based, responsible travel and Indigenous tourism. Kerry is based in Wollongong and her favourite place for a swim and snorkel is the northern end of Port Kembla Beach, when the swell is low and the tide is high. She can always be relied upon to sniff out the best taco in town.
Cover image: Sea Cliff Bridge. Image: Dee Kramer Photography