Newcastle is a two hour drive north of Sydney on the F3 freeway which starts at Hornsby on the North Shore. The freeway is in excellent condition and driving is normally not difficult. However, as a large number of people commute to Sydney daily from the Central Coast and even Newcastle, travellers driving north during the evening peak (5pm to 7pm) will encounter heavy traffic, as will anyone travelling on Christmas Eve, Good Friday, or the Friday evening before other long weekends, as the road will be full of people leaving Sydney for holidays.
Sydney's Central, Strathfield, Epping and Hornsby stations have hourly Cityrail trains to Newcastle via the Central Coast. Travelling time is about three hours -- there is a faster express service called the "Newcastle Flyer" in the evening peak.
Several Countrylink services pass through Newcastle's Broadmeadow station daily. These trains are a lot more expensive than Cityrail services and tickets must be booked in advance, but they are somewhat more comfortable and are also faster.
Shortland Wetlands Centre (Wallsend Rd Sandgate, 4951 6466). 7 days, 9am-5pm. A regenerated 45 ha wetlands area adjacent to Hexham Swamp. There are walking trails, a bicycle trail, a canoe trail, picnic and barbeque facilities, and a visitors' centre.
The Newcastle Region Art Gallery (Laman St, Newcastle) is well worth a visit. The gallery houses a high quality collection of works by Australian artists and also stages its own and travelling exhibitions.
Von Bertouch Galleries (61 Laman St, 4929 3584).
Newcastle Regional Museum (787 Hunter Street Newcastle West, 4974 1400).
Festivals: The "This Is Not Art" festival is held in late September/early October each year during the long weekend. This festival showcases the talents of young and emerging artists, writers, media makers and electronic musicians from around Australia. The Mattara festival is held during the same weekend, and features a grand parade, concerts, family entertainment and market stalls. http://www.mattarafestival.org.au/
See some live music. The TE Guide provides weekly entertainment listings and appears in Wednesday's Post newspaper in print and online. The online version is not always kept up to date, so it is best to get hold of a print copy. Alternately, look for Uturn streetpress, which is widely distributed to shops and libraries around town.
For locally made clothing with a quirky, hip look, try High Tea with Mrs Woo at 74 Darby Street, Cooks Hill (4926 4883). Darby Street is also a good place to browse in the boutiques, although the options here aren't cheap.
Retro/Second-hand clothing: Newcastle has a range of interesting second-hand stores, some of which are priced very competitively when compared with their Sydney counterparts.
Record stores: Patsan Dance Music Specialist (301 Hunter St, 4925 3996) and Three Sixty Sounds (78 Darby St Cooks Hill, 4929 5631) are dedicated dance/electronic/hip-hop stores. Beaumont Street Beat (4962 5939), in Hamilton, offers a good selection of new and second-hand titles. JB Hi-Fi (30 Northcott Drive Kotara, 4956 2588), is a popular and very large store, also a good place to go for DVDs.
The Honeysuckle Markets, held every Sunday from 9am-3pm, feature produce, art and crafts from the Newcastle region. Merewether St, Newcastle (4927 5366). http://www.honeysucklemarkets.com.au/
Wickham Park Markets (Wickham Park, Albert St Wickham), morning of the last Sunday of every month.
Most of the city's restaurants and cafés can be found along the two main eatery strips: Beaumont Street in Hamilton, and Darby Street in Cooks Hill.
For Yum Cha (lunch only), The House of Peking (Hotel Jesmond, Jesmond) is excellent value (typically $10-$15/head).
Café 16 (16 Watt St, Newcastle, 4927 5622) is a café by day, Moroccan-style restaurant in the evening (mains $15-$22). Easygoing service.
There are numerous options along Beaumont St and Darby St. At Three Monkeys (Darby St Cooks Hill) coffee can be ordered by the bowl. Some of the best coffee in town can be found at Suspension (3 Beaumont St Islington). Euro Patisserie (68 Orchardtown Rd, New Lambton, 4957 7188) is deservedly popular for their award-winning cakes and pastries.
The Queens Wharf Brewery on the foreshore is a popular spot for a drink. The pub sells its own beers and has harbour views. During the day and M and Tu nights the atmosphere is relaxed, whilst W-Su evenings can get very busy. There's also entertainment (generally DJs, top 40 cover bands, R&B soloists) on W-Su evenings.
Silo Lounge Bar is located in the new Honeysuckle development on the Harbour. A drawcard is the selection of Belgian beers available.
The Northern Star Hotel (112 Beaumont St, Hamilton, ph 02 4961 1087) is an Irish pub in the middle of Hamilton's restaurant strip. The Northern Star regularly functions as a music venue - check the blackboard out the front to find out what's on.
The Kent Hotel (59 Beaumont Street, Hamilton, ph 02 4961 3303) is a busy pub on Hamilton's restaurant strip. Check out the popular trivia night (each Wednesday, starts at 7.30 pm). http://www.thekenthotel.com.au/
Motel-style accommodation: Bimet Executive Lodge (121 Union St, The Junction) is an affordable option, and close to the restaurants and shops of Darby St.
The University of Newcastle is one of the major regional universities in New South Wales. Its academic program is quite broad and includes many liberal arts courses. Their undergraduate medicine degree is very highly regarded.
The Hunter Valley is Australia's oldest wine-producing region. The town of Cessnock, adjacent to the Lower Hunter wine region (including the Pokolbin district) is a 40 min drive from Newcastle.