You’ve caught the bus to Bondi and the ferry to Manly. Now you’re ready to venture further afield and discover the delights of Sydney’s ‘peninsula’ — 30 kilometres of end-to-end beaches, each seemingly more glorious than the last. If time permits, you can visit all the Northern Beaches over a series of weekends, and you’ll soon discover that each has a distinct character. If you only have one day though, make an early start and head to the enigmatically named Dee Why for a morning swim. There’s plenty of parking for drivers, or you can take the 136 bus from either Manly wharf or Chatswood railway station.
Dee Why has undergone a foodie renaissance in recent years, so it’s the perfect place to enjoy breakfast or morning coffee with superb ocean views. Head to SeaChange Cafe on The Strand for a huge range of on-trend brunch options. Afterwards, walk off the calories by taking a northward route on foot, past the lagoon and up to the Long Reef headland, where you’ll be rewarded with superb views. The walk is almost four kilometres each way, so break it up with a lunch stop at the White Rock Café at Long Reef Golf Club.
Alternatively, leave Dee Why after breakfast and drive (40 minutes) or take the L90 bus (1 hour and 15 minutes) to Palm Beach. Marvel at the magnificent homes, see locations used in TV’s Home and Away, walk up to historic Barrenjoey Lighthouse or catch the Patonga ferry from Palm Beach Wharf to the southernmost point of the New South Wales Central Coast.
A rich history, stunning scenery and great bushwalks combine to make the Blue Mountains one of Sydney’s best day trips. Start with a visit to the quaint village of Leura and browse in the upmarket boutiques, such as Josophan’s Fine Chocolates. The town also hosts a spectacular spring garden festival.
In neighbouring Katoomba, Echo Point Lookout provides the classic view of the Blue Mountains’ most famous landmark — the rock formation known as The Three Sisters. Also check out fabulous Scenic World, home to the Scenic Railway — the world steepest passenger rail service.
Further along the Great Western Highway, the iconic Hydro Majestic hotel at Medlow Bath, with its Art Deco interiors and old-world ambience, is a great place to indulge in high tea and enjoy yet more spectacular views. From there it’s a short drive to Blackheath, the Mountains’ fresh produce hub. There’s a fantastic fortnightly growers’ market and the chance to enjoy all things apple-based at the atmospheric Logan Brae Orchards.
History buffs will love Mount Victoria, the highest point in the Blue Mountains and a true village. Admire the historic railway station, settle into a matinee session at vintage cinema Mount Vic Flicks, or relive the story of the original explorers’ mountain crossing at nearby Mount York lookout.
For the more energetic explorer, there’s a huge variety of bushwalks through the Blue Mountains’ almost 1 million hectares of national park. Remember to respect the weather and the challenges presented by some of the area’s extraordinary topography.
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Scientists believe the Jenolan Caves are around 340 million years old, making them the oldest known open cave system on earth. Armed with this awe-inspiring thought, it’s worth embarking on the 2.5-hour drive from Sydney across the Blue Mountains to the tiny village of Jenolan. Tourists have been coming here for more than 150 years, so you’ll find a well-developed visitor infrastructure that includes historic Jenolan Caves House and many other dining and accommodation options.
The range of cave tours is impressive, with everything from children’s tours and self-guided audio tours, to night tours and adventure caving trips. In making your choice, consider your overall fitness level, as access to some areas requires over a thousand stairs to be climbed. Yet several of the most beautiful caves, such as the Orient, Imperial Diamond and Temple of Baal, demand only moderate fitness. You’ll be amazed by the variety of crystal formations, the delicate mineral tints, and the entrancing reflections of both in the underground rivers and pools.
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At just two hours’ drive from Sydney, the Hunter Valley — Australia’s oldest wine region — is a great option for a day out. Award-winning wines, a thriving food culture, lovely countryside and spectacular gardens and estates are some of the many reasons to visit the area. There are around 150 cellar doors to choose from, so use the Wine Country directory to plan your day or book one of the many tours that will take you to the top vineyards.
Providores are starting to give winemakers a run for their money in attracting visitors to the region. The Smelly Cheese Shop has two outlets — at the Roche Estate Complex and the Smelly Deli in Pokolbin. The Lovedale Smokehouse is a mecca for all things charcuterie as well as jams, olives, and preserved fruits and vegetables. On Saturdays you can hone your Asian cookery skills at the onsite Majors Lane Cooking School.
Green thumbs will love the Hunter Valley. The Hunter Valley Gardens are the largest display gardens in Australia and home to ten themed sections, including the much-loved Storybook Garden and the magnificent Sunken Garden. This is a great spot for families, with a picturesque putt-putt golf course and seasonal school holiday activities.
Over on the coast east of the Hunter region, it’s all about the environment — well, two environments actually. One is the huge bay that is Port Stephens itself — a drowned valley forming a natural anchorage more than double the size of Sydney Harbour. Unsurprisingly, this relatively calm expanse of water and deeply indented coastline is a mecca for boaties of all kinds. Day-trippers from Sydney can share in the fun with dolphin-spotting cruises that explore the nooks and crannies of this unique waterway and virtually guarantee sightings of its resident bottlenose dolphins.
On land, Australia’s largest complex of coastal sand dunes makes the Worimi-Stockton dunes in Worimi National Park a must-visit for aficionados of outdoor adventure. There are lots of ways to experience this desert-like landscape up close, including quad biking and a variety of 4WD tours. Sandboarding provides hands-on fun for all ages.
The world’s second oldest national park (behind Yellowstone in the United States), Royal National Park is a treasured environmental resource on Sydney’s southern doorstep. The park begins at Port Hacking, just below the beachside suburb of Cronulla. Facing Cronulla across the mouth of the bay is the village of Bundeena, where you can enjoy watersports (fishing, kayaking and stand-up paddleboarding), art and craft markets, and walking trails through rainforest and past Aboriginal rock carvings.
The rest of the park, which stretches as far as the northern suburbs of Wollongong, is a hikers’ paradise. Walks through coastal heathland yield breathtaking views of the iconic sandstone cliffs of the Sydney basin, as well as myriad opportunities to see native Australian plants such as waratahs, grass trees and Gymea lilies. Secluded beaches and idyllic natural pools are perfect for a cooling swim mid-hike. There are also plenty of picnic areas, some with barbecue facilities.
Nestled in Sydney’s northern suburbs, Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park was established in 1894 and is the second-oldest national park in New South Wales. Start your visit at the Kalkari Discovery Centre to learn about the park’s flora and fauna, and Indigenous heritage. Then set off on the moderately difficult Birrawanna Walking Track, which rewards with immersion in peaceful forests alive with birds and wildlife.
The trail also leads to Bobbin Head — a vintage ‘pleasure-ground’ created through make-work schemes during the Great Depression of the 1930s. There’s plenty of open space here for picnics and games (bring your frisbee!), a mangrove boardwalk, and a café serving snacks and light meals. The nearby Empire Marina has small boats for hire — perfect for a spot of fishing or for exploring the picturesque inlets of Cowan Creek. Alternatively, stay on shore and enjoy a meal made from sustainable, locally sourced ingredients at the Waterside Bistro.
At the far end of the 15,000 hectare park is the Resolute picnic ground, gateway to the amazing Red Hands Cave. Reached by a short walking track (a 0.6-kilometre return trip), the cave contains ancient rock art by the Guringai people, the original inhabitants of this part of Sydney. A further one-kilometre walk from the cave, or a two-minute drive from the picnic ground, is West Head — an elevated, ocean-facing lookout with incredible coastal views.
This long stretch of sparkling beaches and spectacular cliffs begins at the village of Stanwell Park, which can be reached in an hour by car or 70 minutes by train from the centre of Sydney. Stanwell Tops, the escarpment that overhangs the village, offers magnificent opportunities for coastal hang-gliding and paragliding. Just six kilometres to the south is the sweeping Sea Cliff Bridge, its sinuous curves overhanging the Pacific Ocean, providing extraordinary views of the rocks and water for both motorists and pedestrians.
Pretty seaside villages such as Coledale, Austinmer and Bulli dot the coastline as it extends southward to the city of Wollongong, which boasts many surfing, dining and shopping options. Further south, below Lake Illawarra, the scenery takes on an English feel as lush dairy farms juxtapose emerald-green fields with the bright blue of the ocean. An old-world seaside charm awaits in the picturesque town of Kiama — famous for its spouting blowhole and home to historic buildings, craft markets, and a popular annual Jazz and Blues Festival.
Heritage townships and a soul-soothing rural atmosphere are the hallmarks of the Southern Highlands, located roughly two-hour’s drive southwest of Sydney. Mittagong is the region’s gateway town and a natural first stop. Depending on how early you hit the road, the Shaggy Cow Café will meet your breakfast or morning tea needs in style (who can resist those cow portraits lining the walls?). Just outside Mittagong is Tertini Wines — highly regarded not just for its cool-climate vintages, but also for the guest experience at its cellar door.
Continuing on to the town of Bowral, you’ll find a huge range of things to see and do. For cricket fans, there’s no question of where to stop first — the excellent Bradman Museum. Garden enthusiasts can head to Corbett Gardens, which are especially stunning during ‘tulip time’ in September. Antique collectors will be spoiled for choice at two excellent emporiums: Dirty Janes and Lancelot Hill Antiques. Grab a coffee at Rush or indulge yourself with a fine dining experience at Onesta Cucina.
Finish your Southern Highlands day of discovery with an afternoon visit to the historic town of Berrima, and perhaps a stop at the famous Berkelouw Book Barn.
If you’re prepared to put in a long day, it’s possible to visit Canberra from Sydney without staying overnight. Driving time to and from the nation’s capital is three hours each way. Take the bus, book a tour from Sydney, or self-drive. If you do the latter, break the journey at Marulan and enjoy a delicious cake and coffee at the Meridian Café.
If you’re car-less in the capital, the Tourist Route bus (number 81/981) is a great service that will take you to many of the city’s major attractions, including Parliament House, the National Arboretum and the acclaimed Australian War Memorial. Of course, these can all be accessed by car as well, and there’s ample parking at each location.
There are loads more museums and art galleries in Canberra. For those interested in Australian society, the National Portrait Gallery offers fascinating insights into the personalities that have shaped our nation, and there’s also a lovely waterfront café.
Canberra is the only major Australian city built around a lake, so your day there should certainly include some time on or by the water. Take a Segway tour around Lake Burley Griffin, or do it the old-fashioned way by bike. In summertime, a lake cruise is also a great way to see the city’s landmarks from the water.
Do you have any suggestions to add to our list of the best Sydney day trips? We would love to hear from you. Please leave a comment below.
Cover image courtesy of Destination NSW. Additional images: Bigstock
The activities and attractions mentioned in this story are provided as a guide only and may not be included in the Sydney day trips and tours offered by The Big Bus. Please check the itinerary notes for your preferred tour for a list of the included sights and stops.
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Roslyn Jolly is a freelance travel writer whose work has appeared in Luxury Travel, Get Up & Go, The Sunday Telegraph and The Australian. In her former career as an English Literature academic, she studied and taught the work of great travel writers, such as Henry James, Herman Melville and Robert Louis Stevenson, and became fascinated by the history of travel and tourism. Two years at school in Wales and three years at university in England allowed Roslyn to travel extensively in Europe and North America, which she continues to do.