What sits at the heart of Sydney but has no official boundaries? Kings Cross has never been a suburb, but ask any Sydneysider where it is and they’ll tell you. It’s been a site of significance for thousands of years, and these days is a byword for a state of mind.

“I think what’s always been special about this area, it’s been socially so progressive,” said author, journalist and television presenter Indira Naidoo.

“It was the first area where we saw restaurants, where we saw immigrants and people from different backgrounds being welcomed, different foods being tasted. It’s still such a beautifully diverse environment where you can meet people from all walks of life.”

Kings Cross Walking Tour


Stop 1: The Coca-Cola Billboard

Gateway To The Cross

You mightn’t realise it but you are currently standing on a very significant site. This intersection at the top of William Street has always been busy. The surrounding suburbs of Potts Point, Woolloomooloo and Elizabeth Bay remain important areas for Sydney’s First Nations people. Oxford Street and William Street follow important tracks used by the local Gadigal people.

In Sydney’s early days, the steep slope of William Street posed a challenge for horse-drawn carts, particularly in bad weather. The introduction of electric trams in 1898 and later motorised vehicles meant peak hour looked very different.

It wasn’t until the 1920s that the area well and truly exploded. Post-war apartment living took off ahead of the rest of Sydney. Night-time entertainment and dining arrived, and an increasing number of cafés, restaurants, wine bars and theatres began to open. New neon advertising signs dominated streetscapes and shop fronts.

Where you’re standing right now, atop the intersection of Darlinghurst Road and William Street, a beacon can be seen from far and wide: the iconic Coca-Cola billboard has been a permanent fixture on Sydney’s landscape for more than 40 years.

The arrival of a striking new neon Coca-Cola Billboard at the junction of the six roads at the top of William Street in 1974 signaled big things for area. The Kings Cross tunnel was almost complete and the billboard quickly became known as ‘the Gateway to the Cross’. It’s a fitting place to start an exploration of Kings Cross.

The 1974 Coca-Cola billboard featured a weather update alongside other Coca-Cola advertising panels. The old sign was removed in 2015 and more than 10 tonnes of material were recycled. All eight letters were auctioned off by Coca-Cola with all the proceeds going directly to 50 year old local charity the Wayside Chapel.

The neon sign was replaced by two kilometres of rope LED lighting that you now see before you. Previously the sign was controlled by a switching system the size of a Kombi van, but the new control panel is barely larger than an iPad.

Stop 2: The World Bar

A Glittering Mile

The Cross was the place to be after World War II. Along with the arrival of fast food, surfing and the Holden landed United States servicemen. They brought new music and ready cash and settled in the Cross partly because of its proximity to the naval base at nearby Garden Island. Their numbers were bolstered in 1967 when thousands of GIs came to Kings Cross on Rest and Recreation from the war in Vietnam, many of whom stayed on.

The area peaked in the post-war period as Sydney’s largest tourist accommodation and entertainment area, as well as its red-light district. The strip clubs that lined Darlinghurst Road along with the area’s numerous brothels came to be known as ‘The Glittering Mile’.

At the heart of the red-light district in the 1970s, the Nevada boasted ‘the biggest bed in Australia’. The Nevada is now the World Bar, and besides having housed the most famous brothel in Australia, this Victorian terrace quartered numerous venues in its long life. Today it stands transformed as a bar and nightclub.

Looking up at the beautiful archways on the balconies above, imagine women leaning over and whistling down to the men on the street to encourage them upstairs, or punters enjoying some air after a gig.

Due to an increase in visible street prostitution, the Cross became associated with the seedier aspects of Sydney’s nightlife. It had a colourful, well-populated underbelly and a notorious reputation for links to organised crime, but the Cross always looked after its own.

Figures such as Julie Bates from Harm Reduction Australia and Professor Basil Donovan were at the heart of change, ensuring working women were protected. They campaigned relentlessly for the use of prophylactics and ensured Sydney was world-leading in the fight against HIV/AIDS.

Stop 3: Piccolo Café Bar

A Kings Cross Institution

The Cross established a reputation as the bohemian centre of Sydney, with café culture attracting artists and performers from all over Australia and the world. This legacy lives on today in the Piccolo Café which has been operating for more than 65 years.

Locals claim the Piccolo Café Bar is the longest running café in the Cross, possibly running from as early as 1940. The Piccolo is owned and managed by octogenarian barista Vittorio Bianchi, who arrived in Sydney from Naples as a teenager and has become a Kings Cross institution himself.

Vittorio famously worked from 6pm to 6am and had musicians, dancers, writers and painters coming in every night for coffee. He’s famous in the Cross and his quaint little coffee shop has served the suburb’s diverse characters, artists and musicians for decades.

Stop 4: Hayes Theatre Co.

A Home for Neglected Musical Theatre

At the top of Elizabeth Bay Road between the unofficial border of the Cross and Elizabeth Bay, you will find the Hayes Theatre Company. This is the home of underground, independent and neglected theatre, established in 2014.

Named after Australian musical theatre legend Nancye Hayes AM, the venue is dedicated to honouring the vast history of Australian musical theatre and developing the next generation of performers and creatives. Nancye is renowned for her illustrious career in musical theatre as a dancer, singer, actor, choreographer, director and teacher.

The Cross has always been a safe haven for performers, and the neon lights have cast a protective glow on people from all backgrounds. It has helped launch the careers of many, not least of which is Carlotta, “the Queen of the Cross”. Australia’s first widely known transgender performer rose to prominence in Kings Cross while working at the famous Les Girls cabaret. She was the inspiration for Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.                                                  

The inaugural Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras pro-gay rights protest march was held on the evening of 24 June 1978. It also commemorated the Stonewall Riots of New York in 1969, known as the beginning of the gay rights movement. After the Sydney protest march, some participants headed to the Fitzroy Garden, just around the corner from the Hayes Theatre, where police arrested 53 people, although most of the charges were later dropped.

Stop 5: Minerva

The Ghosts of Kings Cross Past

A wonderful spectre in the Parisian-style alleyways that spread out like capillaries from the main arteries of Darlinghurst Road and Macleay Street is the Minerva Theatre, on the corner of Orwell Street. Built in 1939, this stark white building is an icon of the past, its impressive art deco architecture a shining example of the Cross’s glitz and glamour. The Minerva is still a home for art and culture, now housing a contemporary art gallery.

Ghosts of the Cross are apparent everywhere here, and the area’s effect has been felt nationally. It has been a centre of change. Through both the glitter and grit, a shining light many consider to be the heart and soul of the Cross was born: the Wayside Chapel. Just off Macleay Street on Hughes Street, The Wayside Chapel is often considered the heart of the Cross, supporting people down on their luck since 1964. Wayside has been a profoundly positive influence in the area, providing support and counselling services to people in need. Wayside is also where Aboriginal activist Charles Perkins AO set out on the Freedom Rides in 1965, drawing attention to the scourge of racism in rural New South Wales.

 

Coca-Cola has long been a supporter of the The Wayside Chapel, often considered the heart of the Cross. The Wayside Chapel also conducts tours of Kings Cross, click here for more information.

The famous Coca-Cola billboard letters were auctioned off in 2016, and the proceeds went directly to Wayside. In 2017 Kings Cross became a VIVID precinct, and the Billboard hosted the faces of many of the local characters.