We’ve discovered so many things to do in Newcastle for kids since moving to the city from the UK with our two-year-old in 2016. One of the reasons we moved to Newcastle, New South Wales (NSW) was that our Little Man has always been an outdoor explorer type, and that the warm, sunny climate would give him the chance to spread his wings more than he had been able to in the UK. We have been proved right, but we’ve also discovered many things to do in Newcastle with kids and family attractions that don’t need sunny weather.
Newcastle is a former steel city two hours up the New South Wales coast from state capital Sydney, surrounded by some outstanding beaches and coastline. It’s Australia’s second oldest city, founded as a coal-mining penal colony in 1797, and it’s also the second largest city in New South Wales, Australia’s most populous state. It’s also within easy reach of the Hunter Valley wine growing region and the dolphin capital of Australia, Port Stephens, both of which are around an hour’s drive away. It’s changed massively since its heavy industry closed down, and has been busy re-inventing itself as a cool cultural destination over the last decade or so.
The result is a great range of fun things to do in Newcastle, NSW, and it’s a great destination for families to visit from Sydney, and if you’re in Australia on a long haul holiday, it’s a great place to spend a few days, indulge in some of the local laid-back lifestyle, and enjoy some of the brilliant things to do in Newcastle for kids.
Best Things to do for Kids in Newcastle – the Beaches
Newcastle beaches are top of many visitors’ lists of things to see in Newcastle, NSW. There are seven beaches within a few minutes of the centre of the city, and many more to the south along the Lake Macquarie shoreline, as you head down towards the NSW Central Coast. There’s also the vast Stockton sand dunes, which begin just across the Hunter river and run 32 kilometres east to Birubi Point in Port Stephens.
The two beaches nearest the city, Nobbys Beach and Newcastle Beach, are prime surf beaches, and safe for younger ones to explore. Nobbys is one of the most iconic sights in Newcastle, a sweep of sand culminating in a lighthouse tower on top of a small hill. A breakwater runs behind the beach, and out beyond the lighthouse, and makes for a lovely walk or easy flat scenic bike ride, and a great place to watch the huge ships entering and leaving the harbour. There’s also a small beach on the river side of the breakwater, the one beach in Newcastle where dogs can run off leash.
Newcastle Beach is another favourite with our little fellow – it’s big enough for a run-out, and at the northern end the Canoe Pool is normally calm and shallow enough for a safe paddle. And he knows exactly where to get his ice cream from – the café near the Ocean Baths entrance.
The next run of beaches starts about 2 km south of Newcastle Beach, below the clifftop Memorial Walk. One stretch of sand is divided into four beaches. The first and quietest, Susan Gilmour Beach, is tucked away beneath the cliffs and car park, and shallow waters of the northern end of Bar Beach are wonderful for paddling. The next stretch of beach is Dixon Park Beach, which has a fine wide open playground just behind it, before you reach Merewether beach, which has recently been named the best city beach in Australia. Like all the Newcastle beaches, it’s a fantastic beach, it always attracts people, but the beaches are rarely crowded. Just beyond the Ocean Baths, at low tide there are some wonderful rockpools to explore, and our little fellow always makes a beeline for these.
Beyond Merewether, the beaches of the Glenrock State Conservation Area are all great, but not patrolled. And then there’s our ‘local’, Redhead beach, seven miles of exquisite Pacific sand stretching all the way to the channel linking Lake Macquarie with the sea.
Newcastle Ocean Baths
Newcastle has two wonderful ocean baths complexes, both of which are very child-friendly.
Newcastle Ocean Baths consist of two pools cut into rock, fronted by a gorgeous cream-coloured 1930s Art Deco façade, and they’re hugely popular with families. Parents with children new to the water should start at the aforementioned Canoe Pool between the Baths and the Beach is the perfect place to introduce them to it.
Merewether Ocean Baths are the largest ocean baths in the southern hemisphere, and a simply brilliant place to take the kids. We regularly take Little Man there in summer, and he’s really in his element there. One pool is for kids, very shallow, perfect for paddling or learning to swim, while the other is for proficient swimmers. There are also several cafes on the promenade above the beach, and also a small pizzeria with a great view out to sea.
The other place we take our Little Man to the water is at Granny’s Pool, a gorgeous tidal pool created by a small gap in the breakwater on the north side of the channel linking Lake Macquarie to the sea. It’s very sheltered and shallow, perfect conditions for little ones to enjoy and splash around. The path to the small beach has recently been paved, making access with strollers much easier than it was.
Newcastle Museum is one of our Little Man’s favourite museums, because the exhibition and display areas are so varied and different, and he loves to wander between them. ‘Fire and Earth’ is a recreation of life in Newcastle steelworks, and ‘A Newcastle Story’ tells the much wider history of the area, from Aboriginal hunting grounds to the 1989 earthquake that struck the city, and on to the present day. Little Man’s favourite part of this exhibition is the old city tram, in which he loves to travel on imaginary trips around the city streets. The setting, in old railway sheds, is very atmospheric, and he loves the sense of space the height of the ceilings gives.
Most kids gravitate to the Supernova and Mininova sections, in an area to the left near the main entrance. The latter is a soft play area, and the former a hands-on science discovery centre. This really blew him away, especially learning about magnetic fields and being able to lift a car. With a little help, of course.
Blackbutt is the place to visit in Newcastle if you want to show your children some native Australian wildlife. The grey kangaroos and emus have a large fenced-in area in which to roam, and you can rock up to the daily koala feeding up in the enclosure area a few minutes’ walk away – you get a great vantage point but don’t get to touch the animals. This section has a series of boardwalks which also takes you to the wombats, reptiles and birds – the layout is great if you have to push a stroller around.
The rest of Blackbutt is also a great place for a family day out. The playground is one of the best in the Newcastle area, with slopes to climb and slides to descend. There are also several barbecues available – some need to be pre-booked for parties. Our Little Man’s favourite place to explore is a dried-up boulder-strewn creek bed which he likes ride down on a tricycle. Goodness only knows what he’ll be doing by the time he’s twenty.
Parks in Newcastle NSW
Kids are spoiled for choice when it comes to parks and green spaces around Newcastle. One of our favourites is King Edward Park, which hosts the city’s Christmas concert every December. It’s a great place to run, and also has a climbing rope bridge that Little Man adores, going up and down the hill over and over again. The ornate wrought-iron pavilion and gardens at the bottom of the hill are a lovely picnic spot. He also loves Civic Park, between the City Library and City Hall, in this instance for getting soaked by the fountain and climbing the trees. Another of his favourites is the partly shaded Gregson Park in Hamilton, where he spends his time on the swings, slides and ornamental cannons. We also recommend the small playground at Dixon Park, overlooking the beach.
Newcastle Art Gallery
Our little fellow always enjoys his visits to Newcastle Art Gallery, and he tends to make a beeline for the corner upstairs where he can get busy creating his own artworks. He still prefers to do this rather than look at anyone else’s, although this is slowly starting to change. We just give him the materials and let him try things out. He also really enjoys Maitland Regional Art Gallery, a short distance away up the Hunter Valley.
Next door to Newcastle Art Gallery is Newcastle City Library, overlooking Civic Park. We often combine a visit to the Park with an hour or so in the library. The library reopened last year after a refurbishment, and one of the best things about it is the new kids’ library space, which Little Man loves. They have a large room to themselves, and they’re free to play without enforced silence, often building castles, houses, boats or submarines out of the many cushions there. There are also some interactive games, and a good selection of books for children of all ages. We often end up reading through several books in one sitting with the little fellow, and he’s always keen to discover more.
Fort Scratchley is a small military fort on a strategically important hill looking out over the coast in one direction and the city and Hunter river in the other. It saw action in 1942 when it fired on a Japanese submarine trying to make an incursion into Newcastle harbour: it beat a hasty retreat after this episode. The Fort makes a great vantage point, especially over Nobbys beach below. Much of the site is wide open, and when I’ve taken our Little Man up there, he has gravitated towards the summit, alternately running around, making up stories and studying the artillery guns up close. At his age – three and a half at the time of writing – this is the best bet for him. The tunnel tour, much of which runs through confined space, will be suitable for him when he’s a bit older.
Newcastle Memorial Walk
The Memorial Walk, often referred to by locals as the Anzac Walk, was opened in 2015, to commemorate the centenary of the Gallipoli landings by Australian and New Zealand servicemen. It’s a moving memorial, with outlines of figures, from soldiers with backpacks and rifles to their grieving widows, on either side. Its appeal for younger kids lies in its spectacular setting, on a steel bridge built above a cliff, with great views over the coast – it leads from Strzelecki Lookout to Bar Beach – and the city. For older kids there’s the added interest of learning something about Australian history.
On the last Sunday of every month except December, the Lake Macquarie Live Steam Locomotive Society run their miniature trains around a bushland site near the suburb of Edgeworth. Trains normally start at 12.30, running until 3.30. It’s very popular with families, and you often find birthday parties being hosted there, with picnics and barbecues aplenty. We’ve taken our Little Man there a few times, and he loves it. The longest train rides tend to last around ten minutes. The engines are tiny, but must be pretty powerful to pull as many passengers as they do. A great family day out.
Hunter Wetlands Centre
Newcastle Wetlands are also located out in the suburbs, this time out in the west of the city at Shortland, and they’re another great place to take kids to discover nature. The Centre is community-run and does an amazing job conserving this habitat for a multitude of bird species. It’s a brilliant place to introduce kids to birdwatching, and they can also go fishing for tadpoles and tiddlers in the lake outside the main building. The site has some pleasant walking and cycling trails to explore the different habitats. You can also join the reptile talks on weekend days at 12.30, meeting a snake, or perhaps a turtle or baby crocodile. We also recommend the coffee and cakes in the café.
Getting to Newcastle
Newcastle Airport (NTL) is across the Hunter River in Williamtown, 15 km from Newcastle
Jetstar, Virgin Australia and QantasLink all fly direct to Newcastle, from destinations around Australia including Brisbane, Gold Coast, Melbourne and Adelaide.
FlyPelican also operate direct flights to Newcastle from Canberra, Adelaide, Dubbo and Byron Bay.
The M1 motorway from Sydney and southern New South Wales passes the outskirts of Newcastle – from there it’s a short drive on the A15 Newcastle Link Road to the city.
The coastal A1 Pacific Highway is the best approach from the north, while the A43 New England Highway is the best route for travellers from inland NSW.
By Public Transport
The train from Central Station in Sydney takes two and a half hours to reach Newcastle Interchange at Wickham. In early 2019 this will be the starting point for a light rail service into the city centre, and we’ll update the site when this goes live.
In the meantime, the best way to reach the city centre by train is to get off at either Broadmeadow or Hamilton and catch a connecting bus from there.
Greyhound buses also connect Newcastle with Sydney and Melbourne.
David Angel is a British writer and photographer who has been travelling and photographing the world for over 25 years. His work is regularly featured in worldwide media including the BBC, the Guardian, the Times and the Sunday Times. His images are frequently used throughout the world by tourism bodies such as Visit Britain and Visit Wales.