Parramatta Park's 85 hectares of grasslands, mature trees, gardens and river frontage provide a leafy, idyllic escape from the CBD. For about 40,000 years before the arrival of Europeans, this fertile stretch of land was central to the lives of the local Burramatta people, its traditional custodians. In 1788, it became the site of New South Wales's second British settlement, serving as country residence to the colony's governors until 1858, when it was handed over to the public, as parkland. The Park receives over 2 million visits each year and is one of the 11 historic places that together form the Australian Convict Sites World Heritage property.
A 3.2-kilometre long loop, dedicated to cyclists, runs around the western half of Parramatta Park, skirting the Parramatta River on one side and the park's periphery on the other. It's a relaxing, scenic ride on its own, plus there are several options for making it longer. One of the most popular is the Parramatta Valley Cycleway, which travels alongside the river to Morrison Bay Park, Ryde and passes significant landmarks such as the Riverside Theatres, historic 19th century Lennox Bridge and Parramatta Wharf. Cyclists can divert into the CBD and jump off their bike for a coffee at one of Parramatta's many cafes or explore a piece of Australia's sporting history in Sydney Olympic Park.
Visit a Grey-Headed Flying Fox camp
Visitors usually hear Parramatta Park's grey-headed flying foxes before they see them. After all, five or six thousand creatures can make a heck of a lot of noise. Their camp takes up one hectare of land in the park's north-eastern corner, on the banks of the Parramatta River. Passersby are welcome to watch as long as they like, provided they don't disturb the bats, which are a threatened species. Another 140 species of wildlife can be spotted wandering, swimming and flying around the park, including longfin eels, eastern long-necked turtles, eastern water dragons and blue-tongue lizards.
Turn Back Time
Built in 1796, The Dairy Cottage was home to George Salter, an ex-convict turned cattleman. In the early 1800's the cottage was converted to a diary with sunken milk-processing room constructed alongside. The milk room still remains today and can be viewed beneath the adjacent Ranger's Cottage. Now on the World Heritage list, those wanting to learn about one of Australia's oldest colonial sites can go on a guided tour on the second Saturday of each month. Run by the Parramatta Heritage and Visitor Information Centre, tours can be booked on the Eventbrite website.
Wander through a Rose Garden
In the park's southeastern corner lies Rumsey Rose Garden, home to one of the biggest collections of heritage roses in Australia. Even for rose experts who know their blooms inside-out, there's a chance of seeing an unfamiliar variety. The brightest explosions of colour happen in May, October and November. However, that's no reason to stay away the rest of the year: the lovely, central lawn is made for picnicking and sunbathing anytime, and, just nearby, Macquarie Gatehouse Tea Rooms serve a scrumptious high tea, with or without sparkling wine.
Take a walk through history
Given the land's rich and varied history, Parramatta Park is crowded with interesting sites. While some visitors choose to wander at will, making discoveries as they go, others opt for a self-guided tour. There are three walks, each focused on a particular subject. The first, the Burramatta Aboriginal Landscape Trail, covers the indigenous relationship with the land, including bush tucker, medicinal plants and fire management. The second, called Colonial Rose Hill, transports walkers into the late 18th century, when the British settled here, cultivating New South Wales's first farm, a convict camp and town plans, including a grand, 70-metre wide avenue. The third, Parramatta Park Monuments and Sites, takes in 19th century gatehouses, a ruined bathhouse, a Boer War memorial and a colonial dairy cottage.
Visit Australia's Oldest Public Building
One of the most-visited spots in Parramatta Park is Old Government House, the oldest remaining public building in New South Wales. Constructed between 1799 and 1818, this majestic, two-story residence is a well-maintained example of Old Colonial Georgian architecture. Ten governors used it as their country dwelling, including Lachlan Macquarie, who, with his wife, Elizabeth, preferred Parramatta to grimy Sydney Town, and added major extensions to the building. To see inside, visitors can purchase a ticket and view the property at their own leisure, with volunteers in the house to assist them.
Old Government House is open Tuesday to Sunday, 10 am-4 pm (last entry 3.30 pm). Closed Mondays.
Main image credit: Mark Bowyer