Queer Girl City Guide: Sydney, Australia

After a four-year stint in Autostraddle’s top American lesbianish city (the incomparable Northampton, Massachusetts), I thought I had developed impossibly high queer-friendliness expectations for every future place I’d inhabit. Then I found Sydney. Indeed, the land of adorable marsupials, rugged and beautiful beaches, and (almost) constant great weather is also a magical land of lesbians. Added bonus: many of them have cute accents and enjoy surfing. Of course, Australia shares the U.S.’s regional disparities on queer acceptance and many people, particularly in the country’s vast rural interior, are very socially conservative. Gay marriage remains illegal here. Nevertheless, it’s tempting to forget that any queer-unfriendliness exists when you’re in Sydney’s Inner West: a group of neighborhoods right outside downtown where lesbian couples often seem more the norm than heterosexual ones (okay, that may be slight hyperbole, but you certainly don’t have to think twice about walking hand in hand with your partner).

Of course, like any city, the Sydney lesbian scene has its drawbacks. I’ve heard many complaints about the disconnect between young and older queer populations. Because the legal drinking age is 18, you’ll come across lots of baby dykes at most girls’ events, and by their mid-20’s, many women have burned out on the scene. Although some events are designed specifically for slightly older women, these are dominated by the 30-plus crowd and it can be difficult to find women in their mid- to late-20’s. The perennial complaint — that it’s impossible to meet anyone at a club — still rings true. But I’ve found that options for meeting women are varied and plentiful here if you look hard enough: the party rages on Oxford Street and at many monthly girls nights and a few low-key events also cater to those who prefer to socialize over a cup of coffee rather than tequila shots. Even the online lesbian community is active and welcoming. Although I have only called Sydney home for a year, I can confidently proclaim this among the top lesbian-friendly cities in the world and certainly worth a visit for far more than the Opera House.

But first things first: it would just be wrong to begin any description of Sydney without mentioning the number one activity you just have to do as soon as you arrive here. Take the ferry from Circular Quay (pronounced key) to Manly. At 30 minutes and $7 one-way, there’s no better way to see (and photograph) the Opera House and Harbour Bridge from every angle. You’ll end up in the delightful, if touristy, suburb of Manly, where Aussie surfing culture is plentiful and beautiful tanned people abound. To escape the crowds, do some bushwalking around Sydney Harbour National Park (59-61 Goulburn Street) and discover elevated points with some of the best views of the Sydney skyline. If you can manage a ferry trip during sunset, even better. I’ve been on the ferry dozens of times now and views of the stunning skyline get me teary-eyed every time.

Okay, now back to (queer) business.

+

The Best Lesbian Neighborhoods

With a central business district that is surprisingly small and at times devoid of character (besides, of course, the spectacular harbor and surrounding area), Sydney’s charm lies in its surrounding neighborhoods (or suburbs, as they’re called here, despite being totally urban). Fortunately, there are just way too many gay-friendly neighborhoods to describe without expanding this post into book-form. I’ll highlight a few of my favorites, but the list is by no means exhaustive.

+

Newtown/Enmore

The local mecca of lesbians, Newtown boasts weekly girls nights (see below), funky coffee shops, organic markets, several independent theaters (live and movies), some of the best Thai food in Sydney and all-around queer-friendliness. Although it’s just a 10-minute train trip or bus ride to the city’s center (the central business district or CBD) and under half an hour to some of the city’s most famous beaches, it’s tempting to never leave this virtually perfect neighborhood.

King Street serves as Newtown’s major artery, beginning at the line of St. Peters (another queer-friendly, but not as exciting area), and ends just before the University of Sydney. On it — and the streets that shoot off it it — you will find everything a lesbian would ever need. You can drink the night away at one of the many pubs, grab a “recovery” brunch (Thick Aussie bacon, eggs, toast, and chips — french fries) at one of the cute cafes the next morning, take your dog to Camperdown Park (Federation Road) dog park (frequented by many an attractive androgynous lesbian), take in a movie at the Dendy (261-263 King Street), and just about anything else. Newtown has a distinctive alternative and hipster flare, so it’s also a fabulous place for people watching.

Among my favorite haunts are Berkelouw Books Café (6-8 O’Connell Street): part new and used bookstore, part café (with some of the best coffee in the area) and part ramen bar. Live jazz on Wednesday afternoons always draws a crowd. Newtown Thai (177 King Street) serves up some of the best Thai in the Newtown (for just $6.50 for a heaping mound of noodles or stir-fry during lunch). Gould’s Arcade (32 King Street), near the top end of King Street, is a monstrous warehouse-sized used book store that requires a full day to fully experience. King Street is also home to Vinnie’s (187 King Street), the op shop of the St. Vincent’s society, where it’s possible to find many hidden gems in with the dowdy stuff (if you’re on a budget, buying used is one of the only ways to avoid Australia’s ridiculously high prices on items such as clothing and books). There’s also more hipster clothing than you could possibly ever need. Ever.

No fewer than 15 pubs, each with a unique culture and patronage, line the 2-3 km expanse of King Street: some are dives that mostly play host to seedy older men who enjoy daytime gambling (or the pokies, as they’re called here), others are more hip and hold weekly trivia nights and cocktail happy hours (which are necessary in such an expensive place). Most see their fair share of queers. Right off King Street, The Courthouse Hotel (202 Australia Street) has one of the best outdoor beer gardens in the area, is home to weekly crab racing on Wednesdays and is usually full of lesbians. It also serves up a great pub meal. For a good drink in a fun and more intimate atmosphere, steer clear of the pub and head to Jester Seeds (127 King Street), Kuleto’s (157 King Street), or Corridor (153a King Street).

Adjacent Enmore is more alternative than Newtown, but I’ve lumped it in here because, like it or not, it’s also gradually losing its edge. Here you’ll find the best cheap Indian food in Sydney at Faheem’s Fast Food (194-196 Enmore Road), where cabbies line up late at night after they finish their shifts. Enmore is also home to some of the best artisan gelato in the city: at Cow and Moon (181 Enmore Road) there’s a gelato-making lab in the back and they switch their flavors often. If you’re looking to impress a date, take them to the swanky Green Room (156 Enmore Road), where bartenders get creative with dozens of funky and tasty cocktails (be prepared to spend about $20 a pop, though). There’s usually live music going as well.

+

Erskineville

Newtown’s neighbor to the South, Erskineville (referred to as Erko by people in the know) serves as home to many older lesbians and those seeking a more subdued pub scene with small-town charm. Although its center is less than a 10-minute walk from busy King Street, Erskineville feels like a world apart with relaxed cafes that spill out onto streets and bars that tend to close much earlier than their Newtown counterparts. Its small one- or two-bedroom homes make it a family friendly locale.

The Erskineville Pub (102 Erskineville Road) serves up some of the best pub grub around and has several tragically hot queer bartenders you can lust after while waiting for food. Erko is also home to the famous Imperial Hotel (35 Erskineville Road), featured in the cult movie Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. It’s a three-floor gay venue that’s frequented by lesbians and hosts a monthly girls night on the basement dance floor, complete with stage and stripper poles. Although the Imperial is far past its golden days (it used to be the Sydney party spot for gay men), it can still be a fun night out, even if it’s not as busy as one might like.

Imperial

+

Darlinghurst

The neighborhood that is home to the gay club hub, Oxford Street, is expectedly dominated by gay men. Although the Oxford strip itself is lined with pubs, clubs, sex shops, and late-night kebab stalls and not especially pleasant in the daylight, some of Darlinghurst’s residential areas are beautiful. Its proximity to the city and nightlife make it a highly sought-after and quite expensive area. It can get a little seedy at night, however, especially at its border with Kings Cross: Sydney’s notorious red light district. Increasingly, queers are abandoning Darlinghurst in favor of the Inner West as Oxford Street venues become increasingly mixed and straight yuppies move in.

Darlinghurst

+

Marrickville

Marrickville is everything that Newtown used to be, namely (fairly) affordable, artsy, alternative and ethnically diverse. Though it’s farther West than Newtown and Enmore, and therefore less convenient to the city, it comes highly recommended by many lesbians. A small Portuguese enclave serves up some of the best food in the city, and the main strip is reminiscent of Newtown’s. The Marrickville Organic and Farmers Market (142 Addison Road), held every Sunday, is among the most popular in Sydney and full of delicious produce.

+

Leichardt

The former Newtown, and affectionately called Dykehardt, Sydney’s Italian quarter has seen better days. The major strip is a short section of Norton Street, which, in my view, doesn’t have much worth recommending. There are still plenty of lesbians around, but they tend to be older.

As for the rest of Inner West — you really can’t go wrong, it’s all gay-friendly.

Next: Nightlife, Pride, bookstores and more!

Pages: 1 2 See entire article on one page

Profile photo of Jen

Jen has written 1 articles for us.

39 Comments

  1. Thumb up 1

    Please log in to vote

    I grew up a looong way from Sydney and can still remember the first time I went to Newtown… I was wide eyed with wonder at this magical place where it was safe to walk around holding hands in public, where businesses hang up rainbow flags, where women flirt with you on the street.

    My own Newtown food picks are Black Star Pastry – http://www.blackstarpastry.com.au/offerings/ – and a place I know only as “the vegan yum cha joint on King Street”.

    Sydney is a weird and wonderful place. Thanks for posting, Jen :D

  2. Thumb up 1

    Please log in to vote

    Just a heads up, Chicks with Picks is actually held at The Clare Hotel not the Abercrombie…they are a few blocks apart (same street though!). The Girlthing Fair Day after party was held at the Abercrombie though.

  3. Thumb up 0

    Please log in to vote

    I really wouldn’t say it’s carte blanche on hand holding. When my girlfriend and I lived in Forest Lodge it was fine, but you need to have quite an amount of willful ignorance to ignore the old men staring at you in Leichhardt.

    • Thumb up 0

      Please log in to vote

      True that. Most places in Sydney tend to have a considerable number of double-takes for any out-of-place couple. If you’re the kind of person that pays attention to that sort of thing, it can get disheartening. That being said, having queer gals events does do wonders for one’s ability to cuddle in public and feel loved by the whole room.

      • Thumb up 0

        Please log in to vote

        I’ve seen plenty of double-takes in Sydney too – sometimes it’s me! I live in an area with a very low number of lesbians (or so it seems to me anyway) and when I spot people holding hands I double take and smile. I’m like score!! – more for this area! Melbourne was amazing when I went, I found so many people gave me this cheeky smile like they were saying “good for you girls!”..the gf and I were so excited.

        • Thumb up 0

          Please log in to vote

          I was living in a, well, more country area of Australia (I got egged outside the one gay bar once!!) then moved to Montreal. First lesbian couple I saw (as soon as it got warm enough to tell what gender people were on the street!), I did a big double-take (‘cos I was like “how cool!”) and got a nasty look. Newbie mistake. That particular area of Montreal was pretty much “anything goes”, and pretty awesome.

  4. Thumb up 0

    Please log in to vote

    Shades also has a website: http://www.shades.org.au/ I used to be on their executive (woo University clubs!) and providing a space for women was a big deal. It’s incredibly easy to get gay men to show up to anything, but fostering a welcome atmosphere for all queer people was really important. It was a lot of fun to see the number of women at events increase. Not just because hey, more attractive women!

    Also, USyd is it’s whole own suburb. I’m pretty sure Nursing is on Mallet St. It’s all a bit big an complicated, I’ve been there for nearly six years and have barely cracked the wonders inside.

  5. Thumb up 1

    Please log in to vote

    For people who want to meet other people without having to deal with the crazy nightlife, I definitely suggest hitting the Sapphic Sydney forum. Chances are you’ll go to an event and then you’ll meet up with a group of lesbians which will introduce you to more, and then your lesbian circle just grows and grows :D

    Yeah at UNSW, most of the lesbians I met there all said that they can’t be bothered to join the queer group meetings because of the predominantly gay male population of the group. From what I’ve heard, the UTS (University of Technology, Sydney) has a really good queer group. They’re also right in the downtown area, a block or two away from Sydney Uni.

  6. Thumb up 1

    Please log in to vote

    Wow, great piece! I want to move to Sydney more than ever. I’m fascinated by Australia. That probably sounds weird to you all who live there. Of course, everyone I talk to is fascinated by Alaska, while I can’t wait to get out of here.

  7. Thumb up 0

    Please log in to vote

    This is pretty much spot on so I’m looking forward to making use of the other city guides when I head to the US at the end of the year! A few things crossed my mind while reading this piece:

    1. I had never heard of a number of the book stores and cafes/restaurants mentioned so thanks for the recommendations, I’m feeling like a fail Sydneysider right now.
    2. I haven’t actually bothered checking out the Sly since Birdcage started as I assumed it’d just be dead but I might do so now out of curiosity.
    3. I thought Moist finished? I had no idea it had just moved location. That being said, it was always a bit too derro for my liking.
    4. Leichhardt has two H’s (it’s a common error). I live there and have never really noticed many lesbians before but Bar Italia is definitely worth a mention because their gelato is AMAZING.

  8. Thumb up 1

    Please log in to vote

    The University of Sydney doesn’t actually have an address, it’s an entire suburb and you can miss it… Regimental Crescent, The University of Sydney NSW 2006, if you wanna get specific though.

  9. Thumb up 0

    Please log in to vote

    So I used to live out west (and I mean OUT WEST, we were in freaking Penrith) and I currently work out west (Bella Vista). To be honest, I haven’t had that many problems as an out queer person in those areas. My other half and I got more double takes when we lived on the North Shore.

    I wouldn’t exactly recommend Penrith as a great place to live, mind, but that’s more to do with its remoteness and skeeziness.

  10. Thumb up 0

    Please log in to vote

    Marrickville also has the Red Rattler – an awesome performance/event space owned by a group of queen women that hosts all sorts of great performances, events, parties, Camp Betty (Sydney’s go at a radical queer sexuality festival), and all kinds of things. Two of the owners also run seminal queer women’s mag Slit.

    There’s also the queer burlesque nights at The Oxford run by Fancy Piece but I’ve forgotten the name…

  11. Thumb up 1

    Please log in to vote

    Thanks for the guide! Might come in handy if I ever move back to Sydney. It is still too conservative for my tastes but the quality of life is something I envy.

    I also agree with some of the other replies; hand-holding will evoke a double-take in most parts of Sydney. Unfortunately, this includes the prettiest places: beaches, harbour etc.

    Public transport is something that should also be mentioned. It is possible to do without a car but if you are used to good public transport system, Sydney will come as a rude shock!

    Lastly, “increasing poverty the farther West you go” is an extreme view that seems to be held by many who have never spent any real time in the western suburbs. True, it`s not the best place to be holding hands, but some of the best Italian, South American, Asian and Arabic food is to be had out west and there are heaps of hidden cultural gems.

Contribute to the conversation...

You must be logged in to post a comment.