There’s so much to see in and do in the Harbour City, and Sydney city tours are a great way to see a lot in a very short space of time.
Here are six must-sees around the city that are covered on most Sydney city tours — but they are well worth coming back to and exploring in more detail if you have the time.
1. The Rocks
Let’s start at the beginning, with the city’s oldest neighbourhood — The Rocks. The area’s unusual name comes from the local sandstone that provided materials for many of its own buildings. Originally a convict quarter, The Rocks became a mariners’ haunt and slum district, and was nearly demolished in the 1970s before being transformed into today’s heritage precinct.
Cobbled laneways, early colonial buildings, mysterious staircases and history-filled pubs give The Rocks its distinctive character. There are also unique retail stores, art galleries, and a busy craft and food market. Visit Cadman’s Cottage and The Rocks Discovery Museum, take a guided walking tour to discover more of Sydney’s early history, or simply enjoy the chance to wander at your leisure. All this is just ten minutes’ walk from Wynyard Station and two minutes on foot from Circular Quay.
2. Hyde Park Barracks
Another hive of colonial history is Hyde Park Barracks on Macquarie Street. The World Heritage-listed site preserves Sydney’s origins as a convict colony and offers rich insights into the history of the world’s longest-lasting system of penal transportation. The sandstone barracks building, commissioned by Governor Lachlan Macquarie and designed by convict architect Francis Greenway, is one of Sydney’s handsomest historic structures. Inside, exhibits and free tours bring to life the experiences of the convicts and immigrants who passed through its doors over 180 years.
Bakehouse Kitchen + Bar + Store puts a contemporary spin on convict-era food and crafts, playing rustic against elegant within its unique heritage setting.
3. Sydney Opera House
The stunning Sydney Opera House literally seems to float on Sydney Harbour. It’s Sydney’s cultural heart, Australia’s premier performing arts venue, and one of the most recognisable buildings in the world. Here you can take in opera performances, but also cabaret, musical theatre, comedy and so much more (it’s well worth browsing the Opera House’s website when you are planning your Sydney visit to see what’s on). The official guided tour is also well worth doing. You’ll learn about the building’s history, including the controversy that surrounded its construction. Danish architect Jørn Utzon was dismissed from the project and never saw the completed building that would become an architectural icon.
4. Queen Victoria Building
The Barracks’ architectural restraint contrasts with the over-the-top opulence of another Sydney sight you can’t miss, the Queen Victoria Building in downtown George Street. Built in 1898, the QVB is a glorious fantasia of domes, arches, stained glass and curving staircases. Fashion designer Pierre Cardin called it ‘the most beautiful shopping centre in the world’. Enjoy a formal English high tea on Royal Albert china at The Tea Room. Browse the upmarket art and fashion boutiques, and take a turn at the grand piano in the central atrium.
The QVB is accessed directly from Town Hall station and is linked by an underground walkway to another Victorian-era shopping gem — the Strand Arcade.
5. Royal Botanic Garden
When you’re ready for a break from the hustle and bustle of the city, head to the beautiful Royal Botanic Garden for a stroll or picnic lunch. Nature meets culture in this 30-hectare preserve, which has been a place of recreation and education for Sydneysiders since 1816. There are walks, talks and workshops aplenty — including art classes, yoga groups, botany tours, and lessons about the plant culture of Sydney’s Indigenous Cadigal people. Science and art are equal partners at the innovative Calyx exhibition space, and the Garden Shop stocks garden-themed Australian souvenirs.
6. Art Gallery of New South Wales
If you walk far enough through the Botanic Garden – or take the #441 bus from the QVB – you’ll reach the wonderful Art Gallery of New South Wales. This classical-style sandstone building is a heritage Sydney landmark, and provides park and harbour views you won’t see from elsewhere. With over 19,000 pieces of Australian art in its collection, including 2,000 by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists, this is the best place in New South Wales to experience the achievements of our national and Indigenous artists.
Art after Hours on Wednesday nights brings a pop-up bar, live music, films and talks, and the chance to dine at the Chiswick Restaurant or the more casual Gallery Café.
Additional images: Bigstock
About the writer
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, Roslyn 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 her to travel extensively in Europe and North America, which she continues to do.
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