Sydney is the largest city in Australia, boasting many of the nation’s cultural and financial institutions — as well as truly dramatic natural scenery. Although it is a modern city strongly influenced by British roots and current American popular culture, Sydney’s real character is derived from its exotic location and brash beauty. Walking through the glass and concrete downtown, known as the Central Business District (CBD), you could be in any other Western-culture metropolis — until a fluorescent red and green lorikeet parrot swoops overhead or an unexpected flash of the brilliant blue harbor appears between the skyscrapers.
Any proper visit to Sydney must begin in the harbor, which is both the birthplace of the city and its current iconic centerpiece. The area is called Circular Quay (pronounced “key” by locals). It is hard to imagine a more picturesque setting for a city’s heart than this, with the Opera House and Harbour Bridge displayed against the inlet’s bright water.
Sydney spreads across a massive geographic area, but the majority of its most interesting areas can be found near the ocean coast, in the area known as the Eastern suburbs. Oxford Street, the main thoroughfare running east from downtown to the ocean beaches, hosts Sydney’s famous gay and lesbian Mardi Gras parade and is popular year-round for its upscale shops and cafes.
Sydney is a well-balanced blend of a big-city lifestyle and the laid-back Australian mentality. Although Aussies who hail from other towns often disparage Sydney for its flashiness and hectic pace, urban inconveniences seem minor here compared to places like New York and London. Tourism is a huge industry around Sydney, and locals are accustomed to providing visitors with service, helpful directions and a rousing welcome to the stunning city that they call home.
Take a tour of the world-famous Sydney Opera House. There are a handful of options (including an intimate backstage tour), held throughout the day. Of course, schedule permitting, travelers can also take in a show.
The best way to see the harbor is to get a bird’s-eye view from the top of the Harbour Bridge on a Sydney Harbour Bridge Climb — not your ordinary stroll across a bridge and not just for the young and crazy. The 3.5-hour trek up and down the famous landmark is safe, slow and suitable for people of all ages and fitness levels; you’ll don a harness. Also available are an Express Climb, which takes only two hours and 15 minutes, and a Sampler, which takes you to a vantage point halfway up in an hour and a half.
The climbs are guided tours and are offered during the day as well as at night. There are lots of rules and regulations, including: no kids under 8 (and children aged 8 to 15 must be accompanied by an adult), no women more than 24 weeks pregnant, climbers must wear rubber soled shoes, and all climbers must pass a breath-test (for a blood alcohol limit of less than 0.05).
From the bridge, visitors can walk around the inlet to tour the always-crowded Opera House. It is easy to continue from there through the Royal Botanical Garden, a collection of flowers and trees overlooking the water, where you can see some of Australia’s unique flora without leaving the city.
Go for a stroll — or take a walking tour — through the historic Rocks, Sydney’s birthplace (it dates back to the city’s beginnings as a British convict colony). There are numerous historic buildings (archeological sites and the like); plus, the neighborhood is a lively one, with many shops, restaurants and bars. Today, the narrow, twisting streets are free of criminals and fun to wander through. The shops here sell every kind of Australian souvenir imaginable, but the best come from the Rocks Markets, which are full of handcrafted and unique mementoes.
Explore Darling Harbour. While one main attraction is Harbourside, a waterfront shopping and dining complex, Darling Harbour is also a nexus for tourist attractions such as the Sea Life Sydney Aquarium, the Australian National Maritime Museum and the Powerhouse Museum, which focuses on “creativity,” whether through art, technology or science (see below for more details). There are also exhibitions, displays and impromptu music performances, plus numerous restaurants grouped around King Street Wharf. Also worth a visit is the Chinese Garden of Friendship, which features winding pathways, meandering waterways, and exotic flora and fauna.
Visit WILD LIFE Sydney Zoo, an exhibit of Australia’s most exotic critters and plants. You may not be able to find wild koalas lounging around Sydney, but you can get up close with them at the koala sanctuary here. The park includes multiple habitats, such as the Daintree Rainforest and Wallaby Cliffs, that supply a peek into different climates and animal homes around Australia. The Sydney Aquarium is right next door, and combination ticket deals are available.
Get out on the water via Harbour Jet. It’s not for the faint of heart — the speedboat ride offers some commentary, but the real fun is in the 270-degree spins, wild fishtails and other boat-acrobatic maneuvers. Captain Cook Cruises offers a gentler ride.
See Sydney from above on a helicopter tour (offered by several companies, including Blue Sky Helicopters). They offer views of Sydney’s entire extensive coastline, as well as the harbour, the city and even the Blue Mountains out to the west.
Check out Sydney’s art scene with a visit to the edgy Museum of Contemporary Art Australia. The Art Gallery of New South Wales features a wide range of art, including Australian, Aboriginal, Western and Asian exhibits.
A slightly different kind of museum is the Powerhouse, which is devoted to celebrating outstanding technology and design. An old power station in the former industrial district of Ultimo has been converted into a museum that hosts continuously changing exhibitions (topics have ranged from Sherlock Holmes to the evolution of the human voice).
Explore King’s Cross, Sydney’s infamous red light district. This once-bohemian town is in the process of gentrifying into one boasting fancy bars and upscale apartments, at least on the outskirts of the neighborhood. Take a walking tour with Viator to catch a glimpse of the area’s seedy, sometimes sordid and always fascinating history.
Barangaroo is a new waterfront park, part of a larger urban renewal project that will eventually include cultural spaces, restaurants, cafes and shops. For now visitors can hike or bike amid native plants, or take an Aboriginal culture tour.
Rent a car or hop on one of the bus tours that leave from Sydney and go wine tasting in Hunter Valley (a two-hour drive from Sydney), which features some 50 wineries. Boutique Tours Australia will take you from Sydney to the valley for private tastings at some of the region’s best wineries. Viator also offers a number of wine tours.
If you have a couple of days to spare, drive out to the Blue Mountains, where draws include beautiful scenery, bushwalking, rain forests, waterfalls, a scenic railway and more. The area is an hour and a half by car from Sydney. It’s also a very romantic destination with lots of intimate inns. Check out Blue Mountains excursions from Viator.
Hit the beach! Manly, accessible via a 35-minute ferry ride from Circular Quay, offers scenic walking, water sports ranging from windsurfing to parasailing, and numerous cafes and restaurants. Bondi Beach (reachable by bus from Circular Quay) is Australia’s best-known beach, with lots of restaurants, shops and cafes. It’s also the most crowded strip of sand in Sydney. Be aware that topless sunbathing is accepted.
A hiking path cuts through the cliffs between Bondi and Coogee, another beach suburb several miles south. The walk can be strenuous, but the views of the seemingly endless Pacific Ocean from the top of the cliffs are unbeatable, and there are several other beaches to make rest stops at along the way for a refreshing drink or swim.
There are so many — and so many kinds of — restaurants, pubs and cafes in Sydney that it’s hard to go wrong. You can find just about every ethnic cuisine you can imagine, from Afghan to Austrian, and you splurge on fine dining or find delicious cheap eats. Below are a few of our favorite spots around town.
Bennelong boasts one of the best restaurant locations in town: inside the Sydney Opera House. Both the menu and wine list showcase Australia’s own flavors, including Sydney rock oysters and Queensland mango.
Fashionable and trendy cafes and restaurants abound in Paddington and in Darlinghurst and Double Bay. We especially like Tigerbakers, a cozy casual cafe that has the best breakfast and brunch in town.
Rockpool Bar & Grill offers superior steaks and seafood, with signature dishes such as lobster with herb butter and dry-aged, grass-fed ribeye.
China Doll, on Woolloomooloo Wharf, is one of the city’s top Asian fusion restaurants. Nosh on dim sum, curry and san choy bau while enjoying views of the city skyline.
Also on Woolloomooloo Wharf is Otto Ristorante, which offers marina views and Italian flavors — gnocchi with sausage, chicken wrapped in pancetta, marinated olives with capers and pickled vegetables.
Fishmongers, located a block from Manly Beach, is a favorite for casual seafood. Options include battered or grilled fish, calamari, prawns and more.
For a fine dining splurge, head to Farmhouse Kings Cross, where diners rave over the five-course set menu. The place is small, with a single long, communal table, so bookings are essential.
We love the Middle Eastern fare at Zahli, located in the Central Business District. You can order one of the banquet dishes — appropriate for two to share — or pick and choose from a la carte large and small plates, from shawarma chicken to falafel.
Shopping in Sydney
Melbourne has long been considered Australia’s premier shopping city, but in recent years Sydney’s shopping scene has been quietly gaining ground. Major international labels Christian Dior and Burberry launched their first Australian locations in Sydney, not Melbourne, as did local designer Sass & Bide. In addition to cutting-edge fashions, Sydney is also home to some of the world’s best opal jewelry, drawn from the nation’s many opal mines. Local handicrafts and unique artwork are on display in open-air markets around the city.
Go beyond the kangaroo T-shirt. Visitors in search of unique souvenirs and mementoes should browse the Rocks Markets, held on Saturdays and Sundays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. The local art, handcrafted jewelry, photo albums and antiques here are distinctive and well made. More traditional souvenirs — Aboriginal art, Australian cowboy boots, paintings of the Opera House, even didgeridoos — can be found in neighboring shops in the Rocks.
The Queen Victoria Building (or QVB) and the Strand Arcade, just a block apart in Sydney’s CBD, are must-see shopping. While both complexes are home to a wealth of good boutiques, the real attraction is the historic buildings themselves, which are ornately decorated and stately — definitely the opposite of a typical mall.
For good deals and unusual merchandise, join the locals at the weekly open-air markets in Glebe, Paddington and Bondi. Vintage clothes, antiques, handmade jewelry, local art and fashions by up-and-coming designers are just a few of the unique offerings. Glebe’s market is held each Saturday at the Glebe Public School, while Paddington’s is held the same day at the Paddington Uniting Church. Bondi’s market is held Sundays at the Bondi Beach Public School.
There’s a fierce rivalry between Australia’s two biggest department stores, David Jones and Myer, both located in the CBD near Hyde Park. They literally war over who can sign Australia’s top designers to exclusive contracts — so if you see a certain label carried in one store, it’s likely that you won’t find it in the other. While David Jones is the older and more established of the two, we’ll let you decide which store you find superior.
–written by Tracy Elsen