Politicians and tourism operators are calling on New South Welshmen to “holiday here this year”. You don’t have to tell us twice; especially when there’s a World Heritage-listed region of wilderness right on Sydney’s doorstep. The Blue Mountains has long attracted active travellers looking to hike, run, climb and explore. More recently, culture trippers have descended upon the region’s blossoming restaurants, villages, and vineyards just an hour and a half from the Sydney CBD. Do your civic duty and explore our stunning backyard with this guide.
A handful of charming villages dot the Great Western Highway through the Blue Mountains. Katoomba, Leura, Wentworth Falls and Blackheath are the most popular places to stay due to their proximity to incredible views, restaurants, charming bakeries, walking trails and cafes.
Katoomba is an historic mining town that developed into the “capital” of the region and is where you’ll find Echo Point with its world-famous view to the iconic Three Sisters rock formation. There are plenty of convenient hotels and Airbnb options but be warned: the town can become overrun with Sydney day trippers on weekends.
If you want to get close to the action while relishing the serenity of the mountains, pick a hotel in Leura – the quiet sister village just five minutes’ drive from Katoomba. The Fairmont Resort and Spa Blue Mountains occupies prime real estate on the edge of Leura golf course, just 10 minutes’ drive from Katoomba’s Three Sisters view, and a short walk to its own aptly named Sublime Point Lookout. This is the best choice for active families, with indoor and outdoor pools, tennis and basketball courts, a gym, luxe spa and massage centre, morning yoga, and walking or running trails on the hotel doorstep. Travel in the time of corona requires you to book your breakfast slot and there’s no buffet, but we all know fresh poached eggs trump sloppy bain-marie scramble anyway.
The Blue Mountains has everything you want in a post-lockdown personal trainer: good-looking, no chit chat, quickly forces you into a sweat, harsh but fair. The region is famous for its spectacular bushwalks that will have you gasping, not just for breath but at the incredible scenery surrounding the Jamison Valley. Fitness fanatics can take the trails on at speed by mountain biking or trail running – simply choose an adventure that suits the terrain.
The gentle Three Sisters Walk is a good place to start, with a family-friendly stroll from Echo Point Visitor Centre to a lookout offering the best views of the three sandstone turrets.
Take the Prince Henry Cliff Walk for a scenic 7km trail connecting Leura to Katoomba around the escarpment, or the Grand Canyon Track from Blackheath for a bush escape through waterfalls and sandstone cliffs. And for a real quad burn, hit each of the 998 steps on the Giant Stairway as you clamber down the escarpment from Echo Point to the Honeymoon Bridge – which connects to the first of the Three Sisters.
Serious hikers will need three days to conquer the famous Six Foot Track, a centuries-old horse track originally carved to take tourists from Katoomba to Jenolan Caves. But if you’re super fit, you can run it during the Ultra-Trail Australia (UTA) marathon festival in October, which moved from its usual March dates in 2020 due to COVID-19.
All that hiking and trail running requires fuel (a fact local restaurants are reminded of each year when starving marathon runners descend on their premises during the UTA festival). Fortunately, Black Cockatoo Bakery has a scrumptious array of carbs and caffeine; its crunchy, custardy pastries are well worth the calories.
Avalon Restaurant and Cocktail Bar occupies the space of a former 1930s theatre – with tables dotted across the levels of an old dress circle. The place may have a quirky retro vibe, but every dish on the polished Australian menu is a masterpiece. Steak lovers should choose the eye fillet with rustic potato chips ($38), which needs little more than a butter knife to slice the tender muscle.
Leura Garage is a trendy café-come-restaurant decorated like a car workshop, with tyres and engine pieces rimming the walls. The red-wine braised Osso Bucco ($35) is a warm hug on a winter evening. If you prefer to stay in your trackies on the couch, try the team’s new COVID takeaway menu featuring pizzas ($20-25) or even a slow-cooked lamb roast for two ($95).
The apparently casual menu at 8Things in Katoomba might be limited to – you guessed it – eight options, but choosing a favourite is not easy. Chef Misha Laurent takes street food up a notch with dishes from around the world like spicy Malaysian noodles or crackling “KFC” (Katoomba fried chicken). All look great and taste better, and for reasonable prices (under $20).
The Megalong Valley might be the Blue Mountains’ best-kept secret. Its surprising beauty is hard to fathom when you spot it from the heights of Leura and Katoomba (Megalong is the stretch of grassy plains on the hills below the escarpment). Undoubtedly the best way to appreciate it is from the porch of Dry Ridge Estate, where weekend wine tasting overlooking the rolling vineyards costs just $10 for splashes of six locally grown wines. Buy a wine at the end and you can take that $10 off your purchase price. It’s worth ordering the generous ploughman’s platter to get cosy for the afternoon, take in the views, and devour a mountain of cheeses, cured meats, fancy chutneys, nuts and olives.
Further along the valley are the popular Megalong Tea Rooms, which have served refreshments to bush journeymen and women since 1956. Scones are the order of the day; the secret recipe has been perfected over decades. If coffee is more your thing, Anonymous Café up the hill in Blackheath is renowned for some of the region’s best beans.
Bar NSW at Echo Point lookout offers unsurpassed sunset views of the Jamison Valley from Katoomba. All beers, wines, ciders and spirits on the menu are NSW-grown and branded, so sinking a sundowner here is one easy way to support local businesses.
Ramp up your adrenaline levels by rock climbing, abseiling or canyoning through the mountains’ craggy heights. Companies like Blue Mountains Adventure Company offer guided tours for all levels of experience, as well as popular corporate team building days that you can embark on from Sydney. What better way to take “remote working” to new heights than by belaying your boss down a cliff face?
Experience the magical light show put on by glow worms in Glow Worm Tunnel walking track in Wollemi National Park, about an hour north of Katoomba. This is an easy 2km return walk through an historic tunnel lit by thousands of glow worms. Wear sturdy shoes and bring a torch – the ground is slippery, and the tunnel is completely dark. Also keep the chatter to a minimum as glow worms can be intimidated by sound.
The limestone caverns of Jenolan Caves, about an hour and a half from Katoomba, are regarded as some of Australia’s most impressive underground cave systems. Stay at heritage-listed hotel Caves House for a step back in time to Victorian architecture and grand dining that has hosted travellers since the late 1800s. Unfortunately, the caves remain closed for now due to COVID-19 restrictions (it is hard to maintain social distancing underground), but operators are taking the opportunity to restore them to be ready for action when tours can run again. A highlight to put on your post-COVID bucket list.