Adelaide, the locals like to tell you, is a city unlike any other in Australia. It was a colony of free settlers, the only capital with a woman’s name, a leader in women’s suffrage and a paradise of progressive politics. This is the city of the ‘revolutionary in hotpants’, Don Dunstan, who as Premier in the 1970s gave Adelaide an ambitious sobriquet: ‘The Athens of the South’.
It comes as no surprise, then, that as Adelaide considers its future, it is re-connecting with its proud past. The last few decades have seen considerable change in the city and its sprawling suburbs, with the boom and bust of manufacturing, changing small venue laws helping to drive social, environmental and cultural shifts. Yesterday’s materials, places, and progressive ethos provide the architecture for a dynamic and future-facing city.
Working, variously, with old flourmills, car-manufacturing factories, and 150-year old markets, while introducing new ideas, ways of living, and technologies, Adelaide is transforming its underused assets into new spaces in line with new use and imagination – and they’re getting there not by eradication but by evolution.
Tradition and modernity thrive side by side: soak in the picture-perfect heritage buildings of North Terrace one moment, marvel at the shimmering modernity of SAHMRI the next. There’s a sense of positivity, resilience, and the drive for improvement everywhere. Today, as a uniquely Adelaide identity emerges, so does a new chapter that feels confident and exciting – one that embraces the past, while keeping its eyes on the future.
Tonsley Innovation District, Clovelly Park
In 2008 the last car rolled off of the Mitsubishi factory line at Tonsley, and in the decade that’s followed the Tonsley Innovation District has led the transition from mass manufacturing to a new era of knowledge-driven industry in South Australia. Australia’s first innovation district is sprawling and so are its uses: its 61-hectares are home to over 30 businesses, both established and start-up, and more than 1400 people are employed on site. Tonsley is a major education and research hub, but its business focus is interspersed with community spaces, retail outlets, and residential living. Driverless cars whisk passengers and freight across its expanse.
The site’s centrepiece is the open-air MAB, a space adapted from Mitsubishi’s Main Assembly Building, featuring interior forests, shops, cafés, offices, workshops and labs. The light-filled space thoughtfully retains the materiality of its previous life, and its architects, Woods Bagot, were recognised with a trophy cabinet of awards for the adaptive reuse project. With even more plans in the works, the evolving precinct is bringing together innovation, research and development, and community, all while nurturing the city’s ethos for the future.
Hart’s Mill, Port Adelaide
More grit than glamour, the historical waterside area of Port Adelaide is full of character – a place of heritage buildings, old wool stores, unused wharves and brutalist office blocks. This character comes through in spades at Hart’s Mill. At the heart of the $2 million+ public realm redevelopment is this 130-year old flourmill, surrounded by a 600 sqm playground that celebrates the site’s industrial past, 1500 sqm of open space, an open-air market and event space and public amenities for locals and visitors alike.
The play area, café, and multi-use buildings make what could be industrial feel welcoming, even neighbourly, attracting locals throughout the week, while the event facilities provide a drawcard for those further afield with a calendar of events that includes Laneway Festival, Winterfest, and Wonderwalls. The development has helped re-imagine the formerly industrial area, but its grubbiness hasn’t been eradicated. It’s not at all gentrified, but proof that sympathetic development can turn unused spaces into successful public places.
MOD., Adelaide CBD
The Museum of Discovery (MOD.) likes to ask questions. What is a museum? What is knowledge? How do we know? A newcomer on the city’s cultural boulevard on North Terrace, the ‘future-focused’ museum is the latest cultural addition to a fast-changing landscape in the city’s northwest corner. Across its two floors of exhibition and hangout spaces, MOD. is exploring new ideas at the intersection of science, art and innovation, with a focus on young people 15 years and up.
MOD. is located in the A$3.8 billion Adelaide BioMed City, one of the largest health and life sciences clusters in the Southern Hemisphere. The precinct is bringing together research, education, clinical care and business development, providing an ideal backdrop for a futuristic cultural destination. Sitting alongside the striking avant-garde buildings, MOD. is working to provoke questions in its visitors about how science, technology and design shape our future. With the announcement of the Australian Space Agency being based in Adelaide, the museum strengthens the state’s connection with STEM and the space industry, inviting visitors to think about South Australia as a rapidly evolving, future-focused region.
Adelaide Central Market, Adelaide CBD
There are few places that can truly be said to be at the heart of the city: the Adelaide Central Market is one. Lovingly part of local life for 150 years, the markets continue to be central to the city’s daily life and character. At the biggest undercover market in the Southern Hemisphere, wandering through the matrix of stalls is a definitively local experience. Set on a whole city block, wanderers will find bright fruit, fresh-cut flowers, local produce, wafting espresso and casual eateries, as well as open-air food courts selling authentic fare. Amongst it all, Adelaide’s Chinatown precinct is woven seamlessly, with its own rich cultural and historic significance.
Constantly evolving, the Markets’ Chinatown Plaza redevelopment saw a previously dingy food court on buzzing Moonta Street – the core of Chinatown – undergo a major renewal. The new fit-out features hawker-style eateries, retail outlets, eight-seater wooden pagodas, and communal tables where you can watch the crowds over your steaming shumai, providing a new dimension for a quintessentially Adelaidean precinct.
Africola, Adelaide CBD
The East End of Adelaide is always a buzzing destination for food and fashion, but there’s nothing quite like Africola. The North African-influenced eatery, inspiration of chef Duncan Welgemoed and local designer James Brown, gives a new dimension to the precinct’s personality with its bright, bold approach. It’s a destination as popular with locals as it is critically lauded. What is the magic element? It could be the ‘militantly seasonal’ local produce; the innovative, African-inspired menu; the bang-up design job, with its one-off shebeen sensibility.
After a fire in 2016, the eatery’s design philosophy may have been pared down, but the energy and signature confident playfulness has gone nowhere, and it’s unlike anything South Australian dining has ever seen. Whatever the magic, the result is perfectly positioned between old and new Adelaide, lending something distinct to the perennially popular East End. With East Terrace just steps away, Africola invites you to sit down, sip a punchy cocktail, and watch the theatre of the street unfold.
About Study Tours
Study Tours are not intended to be city guides. Their purpose is to try and understand how different cities function, what kind of life they provide their inhabitants and what we might be able to learn from them. Think of them not as a comprehensive list of things to do but as a comment from a curious fly on the wall, delivered without an opinion of how the city ought to be better. All our Study Tours can be found here.
Lana Guineay is a freelance writer and editor based in Adelaide. Her writing has been published extensively, and she has over ten years’ experience working with leading organisations and media in both Australia and the UK, including as Senior Editor at ASOS. She is currently working on her first novel.
Tour photography by Sia Duff.