Harbour Cruises: The commentary onboard Nova Cruises' harbour lunch cruise (2.5 hours) gives an excellent overview of Newcastle's changing foreshore, coal-loading operations and history of the port. It runs every Sunday, departing Honeysuckle Wharf at noon. Whale-watching cruises (2.5 to three hours) run three times a week from May to November and every day during NSW school holidays. (5 Honeysuckle Drive.)

Fort Scratchley: Built in 1882 on a hill overlooking the Hunter Valley Estuary, Fort Scratchley is the only coastal fort in Australia to return fire at an enemy vessel during a time of war. Guides lead 45-minute tours through the labyrinthine tunnels and recount the history of the site and how it was operated over the years. A gun is fired every day at 1pm, in time-honoured maritime tradition, and it's also fired when cruise ships leave the harbour. Some cruise ship captains have been invited to have a go themselves when they visit the fort. Admission to Fort Scratchley is free and visitors can take a self-guided tour around the barracks and above-ground defense structures. A self-guided tour brochure is available from the Artillery Store (shop). Tunnel tours cost AU$16 for adults, AU$8 for children under 14 and AU$38 for a family of four. Concession price is $9. (Nobbys Road. Open six days a week, 10am to 4pm, with the first tour at 10am and the last departing at 2.30pm.)

VRXP: A virtual reality studio is one of the newest and most mind-blowing things to do in Newcastle. Suitable for all ages, the high-end VR experience is easy and fun. Just put on the headset to explore under the ocean, create 3D art, shoot aliens or enter many other types of immersive worlds. Pick up the controllers, walk around and interact within the room, while playing your favourite music in your headphones. Staff will help you use the equipment and guide you through each step. Sessions cost $30 for half an hour and $50 for an hour, charged per space, rather than per person. A single space can be shared by up to four people. (20 Watt St, Newcastle; 02 4023 3226)

Newcastle Art Gallery: Culture vultures keen to find out more about Australian and indigenous art should head to the Newcastle Art Gallery, which houses more than 5,000 works of Australian drawings, paintings and prints from colonial times to the present day. There's also a collection of indigenous bark paintings and 20th-century Japanese and Australian ceramics, and regular visiting exhibitions. The gallery is close to the Darby Street caf? and shopping precinct. (Laman Street. Open 10am to 5pm Tuesday to Sunday, admission free.)

Dolphin Cruise: A 1.5-hour Moonshadow dolphin cruise is a relaxing way to explore the stunning inland waterway of Port Stephens. The boats depart daily at 10.30am and 1.30pm from Nelson Bay, which is about an hour's drive from central Newcastle. Kids of all ages love the huge boom nets, but if you don't want to get wet while looking for the resident bottlenose dolphins, the boats have triple 360-degree viewing decks.

ATV Rides: Thrill-seekers will enjoy riding quad bikes on Stockton Bight Sand Dunes, the largest in the Southern Hemisphere. Sand Dune Adventures offers a choice of adventure rides, all led by experienced guides: quad biking (one- or two-hour tours), Aboriginal Culture Tours, sand-boarding and quad biking (1.5 hours) and Hummer Tours (1.5 and 2.5 hours). Safety gear supplied. (Murrook Cultural Centre, Nelson Bay Road, Williamtown; 02 4033 8808. Book as a ship's tour, or book directly with the operator well in advance.)