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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 travel guide
Sydney travel guide

Sydney serves as the emblematic face of Australia for travellers from across the world.

Think of the nation’s first city and many iconic 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.

Cosmopolitan yet chilled, endlessly popular yet lacking pretension, 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.

The ten best things to do in Sydney

Sydney travel guide
Sydney travel guide: Explore the magnificent harbour during your visit.

Need to know

Capital of: New South Wales
Base yourself: City, Surry Hills/Central, Darlinghurst, Darling Harbour
Average hotel price per room/per night: AUD $200
Best breakfasts: Bondi, Manly, Chippendale, Darlinghurst
Great coffee: Marrickville, Newtown, Alexandria, Paddington
Top spots for a beverage: The Rocks, Balmain, Manly, Watsons Bay
Must-dos: Harbour cruise, The Rocks walking tour, Bondi Beach, Blue Mountains day trip

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 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
Summer is the best time to hit Sydney’s famous beaches, including Bondi.

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.

Ten of the best Sydney tourist attractions

Sydney travel guide
Sydney travel guide: Luna Park

Top cultural experiences in Sydney

Sydney’s arts and cultural scene 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 from Friday to Sunday.

Sydney travel guide
Sydney travel guide: Brett Whiteley Studio

The sublime Sydney Opera House stages an extensive programme of live performances, including opera (of course!), ballet, theatre, stand-up comedy, orchestral presentations, and even concerts for children. Do the official guided walking tour for an informative introduction to ‘the House’. Sydney Theatre Company is the resident theatre company at the Opera House, and it also has its own venues. The city’s diverse fringe theatre scene is also worth delving into (find out what’s playing at the Darlinghurst Theatre Company during your stay).

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

Sydney travel guide
Sydney travel guide: The annual Vivid festival lights up the city. 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. To learn more about their cultural heritage, 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 period architecture, and some of the nation’s oldest and most characterful drinking dens. Do a guided walking tour or browse in the bustling outdoor markets.

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

Sydney has close to 40 museums and heritage sites to explore. Highlights include the Australian Museum — with its emphasis on natural history and Indigenous culture, the excellent Australian National Maritime Museum at Darling Harbour, one-time convict gaol Cockatoo Island, 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 Sydney Harbour Bridge. You can immerse yourself in the history of the bridge by visiting the Pylon Lookout museum, which is housed in the south east pylon. The museum is spread over three levels and there are stunning city and harbour views on offer from the lookout itself. Those with a head for heights may like to 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 on a fine-dining experience at QuayRockpool Bar & Grill Sydney, or the new Bennelong in the Sydney Opera House. The ambience, service and exquisite menus are worth the investment.

You can expect more fabulous fare at Long Chim, Indu and Mercado. They’re all clustered around Angel Place in the heart of the city, and are three of the hottest places to eat right now.

For memorable meals that won’t break the bank, head for the inner-city suburb of Surry Hills. It has a plethora of uber-cool eateries to choose from, including Firedoor and Nomad. Over in Chinatown, Golden CenturyDin Tai Fung and Mamak (join the queue!) are three must-trys.

Ten great places to eat in Sydney

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

Kensington Street in the once-gritty-but-quickly-gentrifying locale of Chippendale has several exciting dining options, including the fabulously French-style Bistrot Gavroche, the Old Clare Hotel’s trendy Kensington Street Social (which offers a menu of Mediterranean-inspired shared plates by British Michelin-starred chef Jason Atherton), and Spice Alley (where you can choose from six different Asian food outlets).

If you’re staying in beachside Bondi, don’t go past Bills for breakfast (they’re renowned for their scrambled eggs and ricotta hotcakes!). You’ll also find them in Darlinghurst and Surry Hills. In the evening, scoff down sensational pasta dishes at A Tavola (they also have a venue in Darlinghurst).

Sydney travel guide
Sydney travel guide. Image courtesy of Bills

Where to shop in Sydney

The suburbs of Paddington, Kirribilli and Bondi all host weekly open-air markets, which bring the city’s emerging designers, artisans and creatives together.

Paddington Markets is the ‘go-to’ for fashion, accessories and jewellery (the globally successful womenswear brand Zimmermann started right here). Rummage through the general market stalls at Kirribilli Markets for pre-loved fashion and curios, or snaffle a one-of-a-kind item at the Art, Design and Fashion Market — usually held once a month (check the website for dates). You’ll find a bit of everything at Bondi Markets, including a trove of vintage wear.

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

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

Ways to relax in Sydney

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

Top picks are Shelly Beach near Manly for snorkelling, any of the Northern Beaches for catching a wave, and Balmoral Beach on the North Shore for families-friendly facilities. Bondi Beach is the city’s most famous patch of sand (the popular TV series Bondi Rescue is filmed here) and is the starting point for the popular Bondi to Coogee coastal walk.

For some harbourside R&R, pack a picnic and head for the newly opened Barangaroo Reserve. It offers a range of recreational amenities and shimmering panoramas of the inner harbour.

Sydney travel guide
Sydney travel guide: Go whale watching from April to November.

No visit to Sydney would be complete without spending some time on the majestic harbour, and harbour cruises depart from Circular Quay and Darling Harbour all year round. From April to November, whale-watching boats head out onto the open ocean. See the harbour highlights along the way and meet the giants of the deep as they migrate up and down Australia’s east coast.

For drinks with a view, the Manly Wharf BarWatsons Bay Hotel and Opera Bar all have enviable waterfront locations. If you have little ones in tow, both the Coogee Pavilion and The Newport cater to families.

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

If you want to explore 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 from Sydney.

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. Each room features a workspace 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 tour of 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 is open until late.

Take a tour of 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. In theory you could walk it, but a well-priced shuttle service is available.

Sydney Harbour YHA

For Sydney digs with a bit of a difference (there’s a pun in there, which 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 leave a comment below.

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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