PETERSHAM, SYDNEY – sights for a stay-at-home traveller

Luis Geraldes' wall of tiles, Petersham.

Since I’m not going anywhere exotic for a while, I set myself a little challenge. Can I treat my own Sydney suburb as a tourist destination? Has familiarity bred contempt and blinded me to its charms? Are there worthwhile sights, fascinating stories and must-do experiences on my own doorstep? Lonely Planet fails to mention Petersham. Can I put it on the map?

When the first international visitors arrived from Europe and looked at the area where our house now stands, about five miles from their Sydney Cove landing site, they liked what they saw. Trees – good for boat-building. Mr Thomas Moore snapped up the timber rights, since the Cadigal people who were the traditional owners didn’t seem to be using the forest for anything important as far as he could see.

The first house in Petersham was built on this site in the 1820's, surrounded by a deer park. Parramatta Rd has changed a bit since then.

Then in 1824 the flamboyant barrister Dr Robert Wardell arrived in the new colony, bought 800 hectares of land around our place and built himself a grand house on the site that became Fort St High School. Now it’s sandwiched between Kennard’s Self Storage warehouse and Rick Damelian car yards.

Wardell Rd runs from the Georgiou’s Chocolate Factory down to the golf course at the Cook’s River, where Dr Wardell used to take guests to hunt the deer he’d introduced. They must have been good shots, because the deer are all gone now. Dr Wardell himself was murdered by runaway convicts in 1834, while he was out for a Sunday ride on his estate. The Cook’s River is rather safer these days, and one of my favourite Sunday rides is along the cycleway.

Georgiou’s, on busy New Canterbury Rd, is Petersham’s most popular tourist attraction. It’s an untidy block of a building, but on weekdays buses line up outside it and people on organised shopping tours spill out to buy cheap choccies. Inside it’s a Willy Wonka’s Wonderland of teeth-rotting confectionery from around the world.

New Canterbury Rd, Petersham

New Canterbury Rd is Petersham’s main drag, choked with buses, trucks and cars, overhung with power lines and too narrow to allow much in the way of trendy trattorias. This is a pity, because there are some fine 19th century buildings and small cafes, delis and cake shops which like to seat customers outside. Most manage a small table or two, but the traffic fumes and noise make them unpleasant places to linger.

Over the past couple of decades, Petersham has become Sydney’s Little Portugal. If there’s any reason for visitors to include Petersham on their itinerary, it’s the Portuguese cuisine.

Gloria's Cafe - Little Portugal in Australia

Gloria’s in Audley St is a Petersham institution. The first Portuguese cafe in town, it still attracts the local Portuguese and Brazilian community, mainly men, who sit outside drinking coffee or beer or both, at any time of day.

Several cafes sell the ‘belem’ custard tarts for which Portugal is renowned. Honeymoon Cafe used to have the best ones, until Sweet Belem opened across the road and offered serious competition. If you don’t know these tarts, you must try them. When we first moved here we quickly became addicted to the Frango’s chicken, butterflied, spit-roasted and brushed with chilli sauce.

The restaurants seem to play musical chairs on an annual basis. The proprietors of our favourite, O Pescador, moved back to Portugal last year, so their rivals Costa Do Sol jumped across the road into the gap they left, while Cafe Brazil zipped around the corner from Audley St to take over the vacant Costa premises. When we want a more up-market meal, we go to David Tsirekis’s excellent Greek restaurant Perama. The Sydney Good Food Guide has given David a hat, so the prices are up and bookings are needed, but David deserves his success. For quick cheap takeaway or home delivery, the Turkish pide down New Canterbury Rd is hard to beat.

Charlie’s Deli is the best known place to buy Portuguese ingredients, notably chorizo sausage and bacalhau, dried salt cod.

Mark cuts my hair. His place is not a salon and he doesn’t do coiffure. He’s not a ‘hairdresser’; he’s a barber, he cuts blokes’ hair only, and you can be guaranteed of a joke and a chat about the cricket and the footy. Mark and I always know better than those stupid team selectors.

To celebrate the Portuguese-ness (or Portugosity?) of the area, the local council commissioned a wall of tiles (photo above) below the Down Under petrol station, designed by Luis Geraldes. Luis was born in Portugal, then grew up in Angola until being forced to flee by the civil war and coming to Australia as a refugee. Nobody seems to know what his wall means. Luis says he’s influenced by the ‘metaphysical and the spiritual’, but who ever understands artists when they talk about their work? Let the art speak for itself, I say. At least it’s different and too slippery for graffiti to adhere to.

Things to do in Petersham: Does anywhere else in the world still have a roller skating rink? Well, Petersham doesn't either - this one has been closed for years.

Petersham railway station

If New Canterbury Rd is one of Sydney’s less picturesque spots, there is pleasant Petersham architecture a little to its north. The original Petersham railway station building has been superceded by a more modern platform, but is still there, now serving as a training centre for railway workers.

Petersham Oval - The Don Woz Here

Petersham Park is a green oasis squeezed between the railway line and busy Parramatta Rd. What used to be the simple outdoor ‘Petersham Pool’ is being upgraded and is now the Fanny Durack Aquatic Centre, named after the remarkable Sarah ‘Fanny’ Durack, Olympic gold medallist (100 metres, Stockholm 1912) and holder of every world swimming record, from 100 yards to the mile, during the late 1910s. She spent the last years of her life in nearby Douglas St, Stanmore.

Cricket tragics, self included, will wish they’d been at Petersham Oval in 1926 when a slight 18 year old made his way to the centre for his grade cricket debut. Don Bradman (still the greatest cricketer the world has seen) scored a century and took three wickets.

So that’s Petersham, perhaps not so strong on sights and activities but it has a bit of history, a murder and plenty to eat.

Oh...and don't miss the water tower!


GETTING THERE: Petersham is 11 minutes from Sydney Central by train (Inner West Line) or 19 minutes on bus 412 or 428.

EATING THERE: Just walk down New Canterbury Rd and Audley St and you won’t starve.

STAYING THERE: Well, we can’t have everyone at our place…


Filed under Travel-Australia

26 responses to “PETERSHAM, SYDNEY – sights for a stay-at-home traveller

  1. bagnidilucca

    I do know those Portugese tarts – and I want one now!

    • BdL, you’ve inspired this post yourself. I love the way you can get a little story out of anything at all in your local area.

      Of course to an Aussie it seems more exotic and enviable when you’re writing about Italy, but you do a good job on Brisbane too.

      Thanks, and hope you find a belem tart soon.

  2. fiona

    hmmm, you almost….almost made it seem interesting

  3. michael

    Richard, it’s got to be ‘Portugosity’. It has a certain elegance. ‘Portugeseness’? – Yuk! Are belem those delicious crispy-pastry-&-gooey-egg-custard tarts you get in yum chah restaurants? Here in BKK there’s an old Portuguese sector, which I haven’t explored yet. I really must get a bike – always had one in Oz. They’re becoming quite popular here now, although busy roads are incredibly dangerous. We have 2 and 3-tier roads & they go almost all night.

    • Michael, those sound like the belems, though I can’t believe the yum cha versions would be up to the standard of what is on offer in Portugal (as every roadside cafe for about 30cents) or in Petersham (for about $3).

      Cycling in Bangkok would naturally give you serious bragging rights, but should you manage to source some belem tarts, you’ll need to start riding to counteract the damage done.

  4. Frances

    Someone should re-open the rollerskating rink don’t you think? Could really put petersham on the map (or in the lonely planet!) But liked your efforts to describe the different charms of our suburb – don’t ever forget the unusual site of the water tower which can be viewed from every point! Frances (PS my dad Robin forwarded me your article as sometimes I have a little whinge about living in petersham – but i get over it quickly after a tart!)

    • Good point Frances…I can’t do much to open the rollerskating rink, but I can show everyone that water tower. It’s there now.

      Thanks for the visit and the comment and all the best with the new life you’ll have very soon!

    • Paul

      I used to go to the rollerskating ring as a kid for sport. They always used to play Live It Up by Mental as Anything and Living Doll by Cliff Richard and the Young Ones.

      I went to school at Wilkins Public School and some of the stuff you write about brings back memories. 🙂 We used to do swimming lessons at Petersham pool. If you want to learn about local history, visit Marrickville library.

  5. I’m sold on the suburb after reading, how can a person resist the ‘Portugosity’!… Makes me want to look at my own suburb through different eyes.

    • Thanks CHFG,

      Someone once said that one good thing about being a writer is that it makes you pay attention to the world around you, forever trying to notice details others may miss.

      I’ve certainly found this and I’m sure you have too. The same could be said of being any sort of artist of course…or gardener, naturalist, cook…

  6. Most people would be annoyed by this, but it makes me laugh how Sweet Belem seems to choose its own hours. It opens when they feel like it! Their portugese custart tarts are indeed TO DIE FOR so you’ve got to forgive their randomness!
    Awesome post, I love the inner west.

  7. shawjonathan

    Great post, Richard. If only you’d done it a month earlier it would have been perfect for the New Yorker guest of a friend of mine who had two days in Sydney and wanted her hostess to show her the sights but not take her ‘anywhere there were tourists’. She took her to Manly, explaining that the milling crowds were all locals. Since my friend lives in Dulwich Hill it would have been so much easier to do Petersham with your notes as guide.

  8. jackei

    How lovely! Thoroughly enjoyed this post. I lived in Petersham for a while (crystal street) and it has since had a special place in my heart. I used to pop to the fruit and veg shop ‘Borsellino Brothers’ for some good banter and vast array of fruits and dried fish (I’ll never forget that smell!). I will return one day…one day. Jackie. UK

  9. So what’s there to be seen in Little Portugal?
    Do they have good restaurants and wine?

  10. Oops, sorry, commented before reading everything :0).

    Didnt know the tarts were so famous, I wounder if they taste the same.

    BTW, “Frango” means chicken.
    Thanks for all the great info, i’ve always wondered about the portuguese community in Australia.

  11. I painted the sign ‘Roller Skating’ all those years ago…It lasted at least 3 decades and I would have a look when I was in the area… I believe the building has been renovated and the sign may now be history…(but it is still findable on the net)…!!!!

  12. Peter Sinclair

    The big rollerskating sign has been removed from the top of the building but it has been placed inside thee foyer to the apartments, saw it last night 🙂

  13. Weekend visitor

    Hi, does anyone know where I could get my hands on a book about the history of petersham or dulwich hill at all

  14. Weekend visitor

    Hi, does anyone know where I could get my hands on a book about the history of petersham or dulwich hill at all?

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