A local’s guide to Byron Bay

Byron Bay is a special place. I was incredibly lucky to grow up in this beautiful northern NSW town, and after upping sticks 15 years ago to move to Sydney and then work and travel all over the world, I’m stoked to call it my home again – at least for the time being.

Known to its traditional owners, the Arakwal people, as Cavvanbah, which means ‘meeting place’, Byron morphed from a sleepy surf town into one of Australia’s top weekend escapes over the past few decades. Its popularity has led some to claim Byron has lost its soul, but you needn’t spend very long in town to discover that the magic is still very much here.

Byron has been embarrassingly slow to collectively adopt plastic-reducing initiatives such as ditching plastic straws and bags. so I try to do my bit by supporting businesses making an effort. From old favourites to new openings, here’s my round-up of all things awesome in Byron.

Just another Byron Bay sunset © Sarah Reid
Just another Byron Bay sunset © Sarah Reid

Coffee and brunch

You can get a good coffee and a solid brekkie at a dozen places in Byron, but my go-tos are Bayleaf and Folk. I’m also loving the brekkie rolls at The General Store (the reincarnation of Mac’s), but can’t say I’m a fan of the crate-style seating. Roadhouse is still good, but has slipped down my list due to its reduced opening hours.

With loads of open space, farm animals and a playground, Three Blue Ducks at The Farm is the best option for those with kids in tow (try the spanner crab scrambled eggs). Beach (formerly the Beach Cafe) gets an honourable mention for its epic beach views, but its current breakfast menu is uninspiring. If you’re after something more casual, try TopShop. I used to buy one-cent lollies at this crusty milkbar-turned hip neighbourhood cafe, where meals are now served in compostable crockery. For something a bit different, I consider Safya. Service is slow, but the Egyptian-inspired dishes are really tasty.

Five kilometres south of town, Suffolk Bakery makes the best sauso rolls in town; it’s just about to re-open after a huge renno. Just around the back of the Suffolk Park shops, Tully’s is a great spot for brekkie, too. For smoothies, I stop by Bare Blends smoothie bar in the Arts & Industry Estate, just north of town.

I can’t go past the ricotta pancakes at Folk © Sarah Reid

Lunch

If you’ve got wheels, consider hitting the hinterland for lunch. The two standouts are Harvest at Newybar for farm-to-table fine dining (Harvest Cafe next door does great coffee and takeaway snacks) and Doma at Federal (so hip it doesn’t have an online presence) for wonderfully relaxed Japanese-Australian fusion. In Bangalow, I like Woods, run by the same guys behind Byron’s Folk.

If you’d prefer to stay in Byron, my new favourite is Barrio for Argentinian-inspired goodness and a breezy, relaxed vibe. If you’re on a budget, The Mez Club offers a decent lunch special ($20 for a Mediterranean-inspired meal and a glass of vino). Though if you’re visiting from Sydney’s eastern beaches, you might not feel like you’ve left home. Uptown, Miss Margarita has the best lunch special in town (two big tacos and a beer for $16). Roadhouse, Three Blue Ducks and Beach also have solid, if a little pricey, lunch menus. For a (very) special lunch, it’s all about Raes.

The tempura prawn salad at Doma is well worth the drive to Federal © Sarah Reid
The tempura prawn salad at Doma is well worth the drive to Federal © Sarah Reid

Dinner

With its tapas-style plates perfect for sharing with friends, St Elmo Dining Room & Bar is a solid option for a smart dinner in town. I usually end up at Italian at the Pacific on a special occasion, though I wish they’d update their menu more frequently.

For a slap-up pub feed, you can’t beat The Rails. For families, Earth ‘n’ Sea, which has been pumping out the best wholemeal pizzas you’ve ever tasted for 40 years, is the way to go. On a nice evening, grab fish ‘n’ chips to eat on the beachfront from Fishheads’ takeaway bar or from Fishmongers in Bay Lane behind the Beach Hotel.

Il Buco, a great little pizza joint run by a lovely bunch of Italian blokes, is ideal for couples given its teeny premises (BYO from The Beach Hotel bottle-o). There’s a bit more space at nearby Light Years, my favourite Asian joint in town. For a quick, cheap feed, I grab a few tacos from Chihuahua Taqueria in the Feros Arcade; you can BYO from The Cellar at the end of the arcade.

If you’re happy to drive to (a fancy) dinner, put Fleet on your list. Located in Brunswick Heads, 18kms north of Byron, this small restaurant has made a big name for itself for its far-out creations inspired by local produce. If you’re visiting Bruns during the daytime, the Bruns Bakery (run by the same folks behind Suffolk Bakery) is the place to go for a coffee and a snack, while the family-friendly Hotel Brunswick is a top spot for an arvo beer. Just inland, Mullumbimby’s Milk & Honey does a mean artisan pizza.

Anyone for $10 margaritas? Image by noeltock / flickr
Anyone for $10 margaritas? Image by noeltock / flickr

Drinks and a boogie

Alas, Byron lacks a good small bar scene. Fortunately, we have The Rails. With live music every night, this shabby watering hole has a great local atmosphere. There’s always something going on at the Byron Bay Brewery at the weekend, too, though it has a more backpackery vibe. For lazy weekend afternoons, it doesn’t get better than sipping a Stone & Wood Garden Ale at an outdoor table at the Beach Hotel when the sun’s shining. Speaking of Stone & Wood, there are brewery tours and tasting paddles at its Arts & Industry Estate premises. They’re currently building a huge brew bar next to the BP, which should hopefully be open in a few months.

If you’re after cocktails, Byron’s restaurants currently serve the best ones. I like swinging by Miss Margarita between 5pm and 6pm for $10 margaritas, or poshing up a little for an afternoon tipple at Rae’s. The Mez Club also has a good happy hour, with $10 concoctions and $5 beers during its 4-6pm happy hour. Balcony Bar & Oyster Co runs some good cocktail specials, too.

When the pubs close, you can party on at Lawson St club LaLa Land (warning: young crowd) or at Woody’s Surf Shack. The Northern Hotel is open until 3am, but I’ve never been a huge fan. If you’re optioning a stop-in at Cheeky Monkeys, it’s time to go home.

Elements’ adults-only bar is as good as finding gold at the end of a rainbow © Sarah Reid

Accommodation

How it took so long for someone to open a guesthouse like The Atlantic in Byron, I don’t know. This beautifully styled coastal retreat now has a major competitor in the form of The Bower, but while the latter is equally stunning, The Atlantic is better located in the heart of town. Bask & Stow is also a lovely recent addition to Byron’s B&B scene. As for hotels, Elements and The Byron at Byron Resort are the big-hitters, though if money was no object, I’d stay at Rae’s.

Self-caterers who are all about location (and history), will love the six cottages dating from the 1920s to 1950s managed by the National Parks and Wildlife Service that occupy the best seaside posis in town. Choose one of two assistant Lighthouse Keeper’s cottages up on the cape, or roll out of bed for a morning swim at one of four properties nestled by the beach between Captain Cook’s beach and The Pass. You can book up to a year ahead, and you’ll need to.

There are dozens of Airbnb’s in Byron, but surprisingly few hosts offer the A-grade experience you might be hoping for. Whole properties can be also rented through the likes of byronbaybeachhouses.com.au and byronbayholidayrentals.com. As for campers, Clarke’s Beach Caravan Park with its leafy seaside setting is the pick of Byron campgrounds. Street camping/vanpacking is not legally permissible in Byron, though plenty of travellers still do it. Please camp respectfully if that’s what you’re planning to do; your empty beer bottles don’t pick up themselves.

Clean Coast Collective make some super cute plastic-free lifestyle products © Sarah Reid

Shopping

Despite most of Byron’s homegrown surf shops having long been pushed out of Jonson St by chain stores that can afford the ever-increasing rents, Byron’s fashion and design scene is flourishing – I buy all of my clothes locally now.  The bulk of my favourite shops are on Fletcher St. From north to south, I head to Seabones for all my lady slider needs, before popping into local photographer Craig Parry’s next-door gallery to stare at his beautiful prints. Past the roundabout, you’ll find Moroccan rugs and cute accessories at Marr-Kett, and more womenswear at Hope & May and 11:11 (which also does menswear). Relatively new on the block is Citizen Nomade (for minimalist, tropical inspired clothing and homewares), beautiful indoor plant and ceramics boutique Nikau, and local womenswear label RowieLiberty Trading Co and, Ahoy Trader (around the corner on Marvell St), are great for picking up gifts. Also on Marvell St is Sydney boho womenswear label South of the Border, and Bali-based label Mister Zimi. It’s another five or ten minutes’ walk to Spell & The Gypsy Collective on Browning St, next to the roundabout at the south end of town.

Fashion boutiques are now also mushrooming in the Arts & Industry Estate. Habitat Woman is a convenient one-stop-shop for local labels including Atmosea for cute swim and surfwear and The Bare Road for casual dresses. Next door, the Department of Simple Things is a top stop for blokes. My other half is also partial to an Afends or Thrills warehouse sale, which are held in the A&I Estate every few months.

Home decorators would be wise to make a stop at Raw Vintage for industrial furniture and curios, and Hendrix and Harlow for breezy, coastal-inspired furniture and accessories. There are also some good vintage shops out here including Mr Vintage and Ghostwood. For shoes, I can’t go past St Agni.

As for markets, there’s the monthly Byron Market (held on the first Sunday of the month – look out for Byron Steve who makes the wonderful chutneys and sauces made from foraged produce) and the weekly Farmer’s Market (every Thursday until about 11am), both held at the Butler St Reserve, near the police station. During daylight savings, there’s also the Artisan Market (with several food stalls) held in the Railway Park on Saturday evenings.

If you’re hinterland-bound, don’t miss Newybar Merchants, and the brilliant little handful of stores clustered together off the Showground end of Station Street in Bangalow. Bring some small change to pick up organic fruit, veg, honey and coffee at the many roadside food stalls (most operate via an honesty system) dotting the hinterland.

If you’re keen to pick up some locally-made pantry items, keep an eye out for stores that stock products by Byron Bay Chilli Company, Byron Bay Coffee, Byron Bay Chocolate Co, Bare Blends, and Brookfarm, to name a  few. Byron has quite a few wholefoods stores; I love The Source‘s plastic-free philosophy.

There are also loads of online brands based in Byron, including veg-tanned leather handbag label Balincourt, stunning jewellery label Flash Jewellery, and Clean Coast Collective, which sells some beautiful plastic-free lifestyle products. You can follow some of the brands mentioned above (and others, including my fave local bikini label, San Taylor) on their environmentally- and socially-conscious journeys via a cool Byron-based initiative; BrandsForGood.com.

Local shaper Ed Sinnot (left) is worth seeking out if you're after a new board © Sarah Reid
Talking boards with local shaper Ed Sinnot (left) © Sarah Reid

Wellness and watersports

There are literally hundreds of masseuses – and even more healers – in the Byron region, so look around. For a treat, I book a massage at Comma, and when I can carve out the time to go to yoga, I go to Creature Yoga, which has a studio in town and in the Arts & Industry Estate. You’ll find a variety of different healers at the Byron Medicine Wheel and Byron Health Lodge. And if you’re looking for a day spa, try Buddha Gardens on Skinners Shoot Road, Kiva Spa in Mullumbimby, or even Olivia Newton-John’s Gaia Retreat and Spa up in the hinterland.

For surfboards, I can personally recommend shaper Ed Sinnot from ESP Surfboards, a local legend who shapes epic boards at really reasonable prices – my turquoise 8’6” longboard he made for me has treated me well. If you need repairs, there are several joints in the Arts & Industry Estate that can sort you out including Dr Ding.

There are a handful of dive centres in Byron (most run snorkelling tours, too) that all go to the same spots. I got my OWD ticket with Byron Bay Dive Centre, but I hear good things about Sundive too. The water is pretty chilly in winter, but this is generally the best time to spot grey nurse sharks. You might see whales on the boat ride out to the Julian Rocks dive site, too.

If you prefer to stay on top of the water, Cape Byron Kayaks and Go Sea Kayak operate mobile offices in front of Clarkes Beach. If you don’t see dolphins on their tours, you can go again for free. As you can see in this video made by some local mates, whale season can be a special time to be in a kayak. You can also go whale watching with Byron Bay Whale Watching, but if you’re lucky you can spot whales up close from the cape.

Glorious morning at Wategos © Timmy Page
Glorious morning at Wategos © Timmy Page

Beaches

Byron’s main sweep of beach starts at Belongil (the only beach in town where you can take dogs) to the north, which becomes The Wreck, a popular surf spot just north of Byron’s public pool. Moving east you hit Main Beach, which merges into Clarkes, Captain Cooks, and then The Pass with its lovely headland lookout and famously long right-handers that peel across the bay. The next cove along is Wategos (another great longboard wave and Byron’s best beachside BBQ spot), with Little Wategos (accessible by walking track) at the tip of the cape. Around the other side, more wild Tallow Beach curves south past Suffolk Park, all the way to Broken Head.

Wategos and Captain Cooks are my favourite beaches for swimming. For surfing, it’s all about The Pass or Wategos for me as a longboard rider. On a flat day, I’ll grab my snorkel and head out from Main Beach to look for turtles and wobbegongs around the little-known wreck known as the Tassie II (historians proved in 2008 that is it actually the Tassie III) about 100m offshore, and when a northerly is blowing I’ll make for the sheltered nook of Tallows known as Cosy Corner. For a change, I like to head down to Broken Head for a swim, or to the lesser-known coves beyond Broken Head for a bit of solitude (prepare to see plenty of flesh if you make it as far as King’s Beach).

Walks and hikes

Most days I run the 3.7km Cape Byron walking track that loops from Captain Cooks up through a serene patch of rainforest (with lots of stairs!) that pops you out at the base of the iconic Cape Byron Lighthouse. The track then weaves back down the cape to Wategos, over a hill to The Pass, and back around to Captain Cooks on the beach (or via a lovely wooden boardwalk hugging the road above). The views are all-time, and rarely a day goes by that I don’t see wallabies and dolphins. When the ocean is clear I often see turtles, and on most days between from June to November, I tick off a humpback whale or ten.

There’s also a lovely walk around the Broken Head Nature Reserve headland called the Three Sisters walking track (2.6m loop). If you’re a keen bushwalker, there are some gorgeous walks in Nightcap National Park, around 30km west of Byron, including the epic Minyon loop (7.5km) which passes the scenic Minyon Falls.

G’arn, ride the Byron Train © Sarah Reid

Other fun stuff to do

If you haven’t heard, Byron is now home to the world’s first solar-powered train, which runs between the centre of town and the Arts & Industry Estate. At only $3 each way, riding out to the estate in the restored 1940s carriage (which I recently wrote about for London’s Evening Standard) and having a potter around the shops before taking the train back into town is one of the best ways to spend an afternoon.

Byron also plays host to a huge calendar of festivals spanning music (Bluesfest, Splendour in the Grass, Falls Festival) to cultural (Byron Bay Readers & Writers Festival, Byron Bay International Film Festival), to holistic (Byron Spirit Festival, Evolve Yoga Festival) to food (Sample Festival), and lots of smaller events in between. On sunny weekend days you can always find a garage sale somewhere, especially along Bangalow Road. From June to November, Byron hosts its own natural spectacular when migrating humpback whales swim so close to the cape you can sometimes make out the barnacles on their tails.

If you’re partial to a good gin, book a distillery tour at Cape Byron Distillery up in the hinterland. With Byron’s main cinema currently being redeveloped, Pighouse Flicks is the only place in town you can catch a film; this little cinema mostly screens indie flicks.

If you’ve just arrived, the Byron Bay Visitor’s Centre is a good place to grab some maps and find out what’s on. The Byron Shire Echo newspaper also has a good gig guide, as does Byron Bazaar, which is also great for garage sales and community goings-on (at least it should be, since I write the ‘Around Town’ section). Both weeklies are free and easily found around town in local cafes and whatnot.

Finally, if you’re looking for somewhere to work, check out co-working hub The Corner Palm, which also hosts some fun events like drop-in life drawing with local artist @katbakcreative.

Whatever you get up to in Byron, please tread lightly and limit your use of single-use plastics.

And, well, that’s about it for this update. Please drop me a line if I didn’t mention a great Byron spot you think visitors might want to know about.

This article was originally published in September 2016, and was last updated in March 2018.