Wollongong Local: The Beginning

Have you ever heard that expression, ‘the grass is always greener on the other side’? Well, this Wollongong local is about to tell you where the grass is the greenest, and the good news is, it is in our own backyards.

I didn’t grow up in Wollongong, or even the greater Illawarra area. My younger days were spent in the Sutherland Shire; long before it became the monstrosity, it is now. At the time, my only experience with the region was summed up by a handful of bike rides and a dance exam when I was 10. Little did I know that one day I would call this magnificent city my home.

In 2003, my husband and I were looking for a house when we realised that we’d been priced out of the market. Our eyes shifted further south to this mysterious place that felt sleepy and far away.

That was where we found an affordable little home to call our own.

Photo by bayley clark

The drive to visit family or go to work was dull and lengthy, but it didn’t take long before that frustrating commute transformed into the most exciting part of the day. After a straight-forward run south through the National Park, you emerged on the other side in a secluded form of paradise; separate to the rest of Sydney, with a pace and culture all of its own.

We realised that this was the best decision we would ever make in our lives.

Our home, nestled in the foothills of the mountainous escarpment that borders the northern suburbs, felt protected from everything we had left behind. What was this place we had found ourselves in where you could park at most of the sprawling beaches at any time of the day? Where you could get a Saturday-night reservation at your favourite restaurant the day beforehand and where people didn’t feel the need to one-up each other, instead sincerely caring about one another?

It surely wasn’t the Shire.

Photo by Caleb Semeri

After our wedding reception in the ocean-facing function rooms of the Novotel North Beach, we were lucky enough to be gifted restaurant vouchers to experience the places we couldn’t yet afford to go thanks to a newly-minted mortgage. We began to explore, and what we discovered was a city that had everything to offer, wrapped up in a modesty that gave it character and flair. A place that wasn’t trying to be anything else, just happening upon its own unique beauty.

The streets of Wollongong are lined with culinary experiences. Some are landmarks of the area, like Lagoon Seafood Restaurant or Habourside Seafood Restaurant, both popular with tourists and weddings. Others, like Kneading Ruby and Kurtosh, tucked into the folds, known from local word-of-mouth praise and found only on back streets and alleyways were best-kept secrets should remain.

As a society, we keep our friends close and our coffee even closer with cafes, packed to the brim daily, playing host to the tables full of people that we have chosen as our family. Wollongong is a city that loves to be social and often incites an old-school way of thinking that the company of those closest to you needn’t be reserved only for special occasions. We come together over breakfast flat-whites at Diggies, quick lunch dates at Lettuce B. Frank or after-work drinks at Heyday.

Photo by Jez Timms

Speaking of those after-work drinks, Wollongong is home to many specialty bars and breweries. The Juniper Gin Bar and the Howlin Wolf Whisky Bar, are two newer local businesses that know their stuff, welcomed by a niche market that embraces their talents. With an undoubtedly thriving Beer culture, we are no slouches when it comes to home-grown brewing either. Local favourites such as Five Barrel Brewing, Reub Goldberg Brewing Machine, Coal Coast Brewing, The Illawarra Brewing Company, and the newly opened Resin Brewing, all exude a true appreciation of the craft; allowing for a family-friendly atmosphere that combines the finer things in life with the modern family lifestyle.

As our families grow, so too do our lives and our needs within the community. That is part of why Wollongong is so special. It’s a city filled with an abundance of small businesses, each one contributing to our lives with passion and expertise. We can shop locally for everything we need, supporting the family-owned and operated businesses of those around us. Everything from our favourite florists (like Twig and Bo or Brilliant Blooms) to our children’s therapy services like (Unique Kids Clinic, North Wollongong Physio and Fusion Speech Pathology) are created and managed by our fellow residents. Our friends.

What could be more extraordinary than a city whose economic cycle is propelled by the residents that give back to each other? It’s the small-town mentality driving the 10th biggest city in the country, and it works.

The Illawarra is a region where families thrive, where interests flourish, and passions are encouraged. Our children have access to some of the best activities in the country such as nippers, circus, gymnastics, dance, sports, and arts; we are a city of diversity, even for the young.

Photo by Jake Hailstone 

Picturesque views, rainbow-painted crossings, elaborate beach-side children’s parks, all built on the back of what our communities need and value. Our coastal living encased by nature, providing us with all the adventure we can handle. Surfling Lessons, Zip Lining, Hiking, Sky Diving, Paragliding, Mountain Biking, your wish it this city’s command.

When it rains, we turn to indoor entertainment where imagination is all that limits what businesses can be created. A round of ten-pin bowling or taking in a movie might be what some would anticipate. Here in Wollongong, we take that excitement one step further with indoor mini-golf, arcades, laser tag, trampoline parks, indoor skate parks, escape rooms, water slides, and go-karting.

Travellers love to come and visit for a stroll around the harbour, a visit to Nan Tien Temple or a look at the now-famous Sea Cliff Bridge, as well as nature-based attractions like the Illawarra Rhododendron Gardens in the hills of Balgownie, the Wollongong Botanic Gardens or the Cathedral Rocks of Kiama. Music fans flock to our shores for festivals like Yours and Owls, Viva La Gong and Folk by the Sea, that echo in the hills for all to enjoy.

Photo by Silas Baisch

Market lovers buy & sell their creations and produce at the annual Spring into Corrimal event or regular weekend/night markets held around the city like Eat Street, Puckey’s Night Markets and the Foragers Market where the artists of this city have the floor. At the same time, our favourite pop-up food venues bring sustenance with food trucks offering some of the most loved dishes from their restaurant’s menus.

The commute to Sydney’s outer suburbs may only be an hour; however, the difference in mindset might as well be a world away.

We live in a city of perpetual hope where we celebrate our differences, our strengths, and our opportunities to improve. In times of crisis, we cross our fingers and hope for the best, but also prepare to support each other through the worst at the same time. The last six months alone have seen us pull together as a society. We’ve adapted to the struggles of smoke inhalation, flooding and isolation. We’ve thanked our lucky stars for being one of the least affected areas from the 2019/2020 bushfire season, rejoiced at the sound of those first drops of rain, and sheltered in place to avoid a pandemic.

In the seventeen years that we have called Wollongong home, we have built much more than a life here; we have lived one. This city, now dotted with memories, has bestowed upon us its greatest gifts and continues to provide for our family with wonderful schools and our own Wollongong University that will carry my children into their adult years.

Photo by Liam Pozz

The descent down Mount Ousley transports you to another time, long forgotten in most places, where you share your lives with your neighbours. Somewhere that your household extends beyond the boundaries of your property as you help each other, just because you can. As time has passed, we went from moving down here without knowing a soul, to meeting the people we would consider family for life.

When offered an opportunity to move back up to the Shire in recent years, to be closer to work, closer to family, it didn’t take much thinking to muster a reply. Our answer? Absolutely not. We know we are the lucky ones and wouldn’t give up this little corner of the world for anything.

Wollongong, you are stuck with us.

Check-in with this Wollongong Local next time to read about what I enjoy doing in the Illawarra and fall in love with our beautiful city all over again.

Zoë Wood is an international travel writer from the local Illawarra area. Contact her here: Facebook –  Instagram  –  Email

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