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Sydney travel guide, tours & things to do

Only got a couple of days to get to know a new city? Our Big Five City Guides can help. We break each destination down into culture, history, dining, shopping and relaxation must-sees and dos. Cindy Bingley-Pullin checks in from Sydney...

Sydney is the urban jewel in the glittering crown of Australia.

Think of the nation’s first city and many iconic Aussie landmarks spring to mind: the magnificent harbour, Sydney Harbour Bridge, the Sydney Opera House, The Rocks historic precinct, Sydney Tower and a plethora of golden, soft-sand beaches, including fabulous Bondi.

Cosmopolitan yet chilled, Sydney attracts over 30 million visitors annually. There’s so much to see and do here, and whether you’re a culture vulture, a sand-surf-and-sun seeker, a foodie or fashionista, you’ll find a wealth of experiences on offer.

Enjoy this Sydney travel guide.

Ten top things to do in Sydney

Sydney travel guide
Sydney travel guide

Need to know

Capital of: New South Wales
Base yourself: City, Darlinghurst, Elizabeth Bay, Pyrmont
Average hotel price per room/per night: AUD $200
Best breakfasts: Bondi, Manly
Great coffee: Marrickville, Newtown, Alexandria
Top spots for a beverage: The Rocks, Balmain, Manly
Must-dos: Harbour cruise, Sydney Harbour Bridge climb, Blue Mountains day tour

Best times to visit Sydney

Sydney is a year-round destination, but summer is the best time to enjoy the city’s enviable lifestyle by the water — on the water — and in the water!

There’s plenty to do in Sydney during winter too. It’s a great time to check out the hottest new restaurants and galleries or rug up and spend time in the great outdoors. The Blue Mountains are stunning in the colder months. Perhaps challenge yourself to take part in the annual City2Surf fun run alongside 80,000+ other participants — from serious runners to walkers in colourful costumes.

Spring and autumn offer the best of both worlds. They bring clear blue skies, mild temperatures, and the chance for visitors to enjoy everything the Harbour City has to offer.

Sydney travel guide
Sydney travel guide: Autumn and spring are the best seasons for whale watching.

Find a Sydney tour


Save on top Sydney attractions

Consider purchasing a Sydney Flexi Attractions Pass for your visit. You’ll save up to 40% on many of the top attractions and things to do listed in this Sydney travel guide. Choose a five or seven-attraction pass. Passes are valid for three months from the date of issue.

If you are planning to visit fabulous Luna Park on the harbour foreshore, pre-purchase your Unlimited Rides Pass.

Sydney travel guide
Sydney travel guide: Luna Park

Top cultural experiences in Sydney

Sydney has a thriving arts and cultural scene that rivals the best in the world.

Start by visiting the classically designed Art Gallery of New South Wales, which has a distinguished collection of local and international works. The excellent Museum of Contemporary Art in The Rocks houses over 4,000 Australian works — many by Indigenous artists. While you’re there, enjoy a latte at the rooftop cafe with its stunning views. General admission to both galleries is free.

Sydney travel guide
Sydney travel guide: Museum Of Contemporary Art

There are plenty of smaller public and privately owned galleries to explore. The Brett Whiteley Studio in Surry Hills was the workplace of celebrated Australian 20th century artist Brett Whiteley. It’s open to the public Friday to Sunday.

The world-famous Sydney Opera House offers an extensive programme of live performance, including opera (of course!), ballet, theatre, stand-up comedy, orchestral presentations, and even concerts for children. Sydney Theatre Company is the resident theatre company at the Sydney Opera House, and it also has its own venues. The city’s fringe theatre scene offers plenty of additional diversity. Try the Darlinghurst Theatre Company.

If you’re a festival fan, highlights to look out for include the Sydney Festival, Chinese New Year FestivalArt and About, the Sydney Biennale and Vivid.

Sydney travel guide
Sydney travel guide: Vivid. Image: Bigstock

Sydney for history lovers

There are lots of opportunities to step back in time in Sydney.

Indigenous Australians inhabited the region for thousands of years prior to European settlement. Join a guided tour of sacred rock art sites near the city.

The Rocks is Sydney’s best preserved colonial precinct. Here you’ll find charming cobbled laneways, gracious sandstone architecture, and the nation’s oldest drinking dens. Book a guided walking tour, have a drink in a heritage pub or browse in the bustling outdoor markets.

Sydney travel guide
Sydney travel guide: Explore The Rocks. Image: Bigstock

Evidence of Sydney’s early history isn’t confined to The Rocks. Cockatoo Island in Sydney Harbour is another amazing time capsule of remnants from the past. In fact, throughout the city and suburbs you’ll find intriguing evidence of days gone by.

The list of museums to check out in Sydney is endless. Some of the highlights are the Australian Museum — with its emphasis on natural history and Indigenous culture, the excellent Australian National Maritime Museum at Darling Harbour, and the Hyde Park Barracks Museum — another of the city’s most significant colonial sites.

In March 1932 an estimated one million Sydneysiders turned out for the official opening of the magnificent Sydney Harbour Bridge. You can climb the 1,332 steps to the top of the soaring steel arches with BridgeClimb Sydney for what is undoubtedly one of the best views in the world.

Sydney travel guide
Sydney travel guide. Image courtesy of BridgeClimb Sydney

Great places to eat in Sydney

For dining options that are award-winning, up-and-coming, and everything in between, Sydney has it covered.

Splurge at a fine-dining establishment such as QuayRockpool Bar & Grill Sydney or the new Bennelong in the Sydney Opera House, where the ambience, service and exquisite menu are worth every penny.

You can expect more Michelin-quality fare at Long Chim in the heart of the city, alongside Indu and Mercado. They’re three of the hippest restaurants right now.

For memorable meals that won’t break the bank, Surry Hills has a plethora of cool eateries (Firedoor and Nomad are hot choices) while Chinatown offers excellent Asian fare at Golden CenturyDin Tai Fung and Mamak (join the queue!).

Ten top places to eat in Sydney

Sydney travel guide
Sydney travel guide. Image courtesy of Bistrot Gavroche. Image: Belinda Rolland

Head to one of the new specialty dining precincts that have popped up around town. Kensington Street in the gritty-but-quickly-gentrifying locale of Chippendale has an ex-brewery site that has been converted into the Old Clare Hotel. It’s also home to several exciting eateries, including French-style Bistrot Gavroche, Spice Alley for hawker-style Asian, and trendy Kensington Street Social (by British Michelin-starred chef Jason Atherton) for Mediterranean shared plates.

In the beachside suburb of Bondi, scoff delicious pasta at A Tavola and authentic Italian-style pizza at Da Orazio (a family friendly favourite). For a breakfast in Bondi, don’t go past Bills (renowned for scrambled eggs and ricotta hotcakes!). You’ll also find them in Darlinghurst and Surry Hills.

Sydney travel guide
Sydney travel guide. Image courtesy of Bills

The new Barangaroo harbourside precinct is fast becoming the city’s dining destination du jour. It started with the Noma pop-up in early 2016 and continues with Turkish-inspired Anason, and Banksii Vermouth Bar & Bistro for tastes of the Mediterranean.

For a more casual foodie experience, download the City of Sydney’s food truck app. Depending on who’s around, expect anything from lamb ragu pasta and Reuben sandwiches to Vietnamese banh mi and slow-cooked tacos.

Ways to relax in Sydney

Sydney’s world-famous beaches are every bit as spectacular as their reputation.

Top picks are Shelly Beach for snorkelling, any of the Northern Beaches for surfing and Balmoral Beach for families. Bondi is great for people-watching (the popular TV series Bondi Rescue is filmed here) and the starting point for the must-do Bondi to Coogee coastal walk. Keep a look out for whales and dolphins!

Sydney travel guide
Sydney travel guide: Bondi Beach. Image: Bigstock

For something less energetic, pack a picnic and head for the newly opened Barangaroo Reserve. It offers lots of amenities and fabulous panoramas of the harbour and bridge.

No visit to Sydney would be complete without getting up close and personal with majestic Sydney Harbour. There are endless options for harbour cruises, including morning tea and BBQ lunch options. Whale-watching trips take to the open ocean from April to November.

Sydney travel guide: Blue Mountains
Sydney travel guide: Opera Bar. Image: Bigstock

For drinks with a view, don’t miss the Manly Wharf BarWatsons Bay Hotel and Opera Bar — with their enviable waterfront locations. If you have little ones in tow, both Coogee Pavilion and The Newport are fun and cater to families.

When it comes to exploring further afield, bushwalking and sightseeing in the scenic Blue Mountains, wine-tasting in the Hunter Valley, and sand dune boarding in Port Stephens are all easily doable as day trips or tours from Sydney.

Where to shop in Sydney

The suburbs of Paddington, Kirribilli and Bondi have regular open-air bazaars selling unique quality design, art and fashion items, and general bric-a-brac.

Paddington Markets is the go-to place for stylish and on-trend clothing, accessories and jewellery from emerging designers (the globally successful womenswear brand Zimmermann started here). At Kirribilli Markets you can rummage through the General Market stalls for pre-loved fashion and curios, or snaffle a unique creation at the Art, Design and Fashion Market — usually held once a month (check the website for dates). Bondi Markets are also a treasure trove of vintage gear and new discoveries from local creatives and craftspeople.

Shop ’til you drop on Pitt Street Mall, the main retail precinct in the CBD, where you can find major department stores, local fashion chains, and international designer and high-street brands.

Sydney travel guide
Sydney travel guide: Queen Victoria Building. Image: Bigstock

For a refined shopping experience, head to the Queen Victoria Building (QVB) or Strand Arcade. Both are elegant Victorian-era buildings, which have been beautifully restored to their original glory.

Where to stay in Sydney

Vibe Hotel North Sydney

There are plenty of good reasons to consider staying in North Sydney during your visit to the Harbour City, not least of all the thrill of travelling to and from the CBD over the iconic Sydney Harbour Bridge. North Sydney is just two stops by train from the CBD’s Wynyard Station, and offers a plethora of local bars, restaurants and shopping options. It’s an easy stroll down to the harbour and world-famous Luna Park.

The new Vibe Hotel North Sydney is the perfect accommodation option for business and leisure travellers looking for a stylish and sophisticated accommodation offering in North Sydney. The hotel has 187 rooms and suites, with an emphasis on connectivity. Rooms features work spaces and USB charging points, and Wi-Fi is complimentary. When it’s time to unwind, the hotel has a fabulous rooftop pool and recreation deck. The Eat Street dining precinct is located beneath the hotel.

Take a look around the Vibe Hotel North Sydney:

Take a sneak peek inside the new Vibe Hotel North Sydney – The Big Bus

We were thrilled recently to get a sneak peek at the fabulous new Vibe Hotel North Sydney, and to put together this video preview. If you are looking for somewhere to stay in the heart of the North Sydney business district, this hotel offers a range of stylish rooms and suites, and a fabulous rooftop pool and recreation deck.

Travelodge Hotel Sydney Airport

Budget-friendly airport hotels aren’t generally known for going out of their way to provide a memorable stay, but the Travelodge Hotel Sydney Airport breaks the mould. The hotel opened in 2017 and offers comfortable king and twin rooms, that are contemporary in style. Basic kitchenette facilities are provided, and Wi-Fi is complimentary. The late 11am check-out is a nice touch.

Downstairs, T’s Bistro is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner. There are regular lunch specials, and the dinner menu features plenty of hearty Aussie favourites. There’s a very affordable wine list to go with it. The lobby bar opens until late.

Take a look around the Travelodge Hotel Sydney Airport:

Check into the Travelodge Hotel Sydney Airport before you fly – The Big Bus

We recently had the opportunity to take a look around the snazzy Travelodge Hotel Sydney Airport (which opened in late 2017), and to put together this video preview. If you are looking for somewhere cost effective to stay at Sydney Airport that offers more than just the basics, this is the option for you.

Travelodge Hotel Sydney Airport is located a short distance from the domestic airport. You could walk it in theory, but a shuttle service is available for a small fee.

Sydney Harbour YHA

For Sydney digs with a bit of a difference (there’s a pun in there that will soon become apparent), the Sydney Harbour YHA is located on Cumberland Street in the heart of The Rocks and encompasses The Big Dig archaeological site — an excavation of colonial remains between Cumberland and Gloucester Streets. Staying at the hostel is superb value given the location. It offers shared and private rooms, all with ensuite facilities. Anyone can stay at the facility. You’ll automatically become a YHA member when you check in. The rooms are modern, clean and comfortable.

The Rocks Walking Tour
Image courtesy of YHA Sydney Harbour

The Big Dig is visible from the central atriums of the accommodation wings, which adds to the experience — as do the artefacts on display around the hostel. Free Wi-Fi is provided in the communal recreation area, which also features a fully-equipped shared kitchen. The views of the bridge, Opera House and city from the rooftop deck and BBQ area are superb.

Do you have any tips to add to our Sydney travel guide? We would love to hear from you. Please send us a message.

Additional images: Bigstock

About the writer

Cindy Bingley-Pullin considers herself a writer, wanderluster, corporate bee and happy homemaker. In between analysing spreadsheets in the office, she pursues her combined passions of travel and freelance writing. Her work has appeared in Virgin Australia’s Voyeur, International Traveller, Fitness First magazine and the Sydney Morning Herald.


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