Nowhere in Australia rivals Sydney in terms of the city’s spectacular harbour location and iconic sights.
Here are the ten best things to do in Sydney. Tick all of them off and you will have seen the Harbour City at its finest.
The city’s brightest star looks good in all weathers and at all times of day. There are so many ways to enjoy this architectural gem: see a performance (including plays, concerts and ballets as well as operas), join a guided tour, or just walk around and marvel at the building itself. The Opera Bar reinvents the beer-garden concept Sydney-style, and offers live evening jazz music and cocktails by the harbour’s edge. A drink or meal here includes front-row seats for one of the world’s great urban scenes — encompassing the Harbour Bridge, the lights of Luna Park and, of course, the Opera House itself in all its illuminated glory.
To appreciate the majesty of this engineering marvel you need to climb it or cross it – preferably both. The Pylon Lookout (located at the bridge’s city end and accessible from Bridge Stairs in Cumberland Street) offers a unique perspective on the iconic steel arch as well as providing far-reaching views of the city and harbour. From here, it takes about 15 minutes to walk across the harbour using the pedestrian walkway that extends the length of the Bridge on its eastern side. Early risers will capture the best photos. Those prepared to brave the arch’s heady heights can take on the Sydney Harbour Bridge climb.
If you’ve never heard the name ‘Lachlan Macquarie’, when you come to Sydney you soon will. He was the visionary early nineteenth-century Governor credited with transforming the colony of New South Wales from a stagnating penal settlement into a thriving commercial society. The street that bears his name is the backbone of Sydney’s civic life, and a historic precinct that contains some of Australia’s oldest buildings, including The Mint, Hyde Park Barracks, Sydney Hospital and St James’ Church. Take a stroll to admire the fine architecture — much of it constructed in the local golden sandstone — or drop into one of the Living Museums for further insights into Sydney’s colonial history.
While Macquarie Street showcases a story of political power and civic progress, Sydney’s oldest neighbourhood — The Rocks — tells another tale. From first settlement in 1788 through to the 1960s, convicts, sailors, criminal gangs and citizens mired in poverty made this side of the city a rather unhealthy place to be. Now the erstwhile slum quarter has become a heritage precinct, where modern art galleries jostle history-filled pubs. Cadman’s Cottage and The Rocks Discovery Museum reveal the area’s colonial and indigenous past, while heritage walks, ghost tours and pub crawls bring the notorious characters and stories of The Rocks to life.
Sydneysiders love the QVB and you will too once you discover this Victorian beauty. Situated in downtown George Street (right next to Town Hall station), the Romanesque-style building is an architectural hymn to the refinements of a bygone age. Looking around at the domes, arches and stained glass, you’ll feel you’re in a secular cathedral — one dedicated to the pleasures of shopping. Pause to enjoy impromptu performances at the grand piano in the central atrium or treat yourself to a formal English high tea at The Tea Room. At Christmas time the huge Swarovski crystal tree is a joy to behold.
The golden sand of Australia’s most famous beach draws locals and visitors throughout the year. Easily accessible by public transport from the city centre, Bondi is a place of remarkable natural beauty and a hive of hedonistic energy. Thanks to Sydney’s mild climate, it’s possible to swim here for much of the year — but if you do plunge into the famous surf, make sure you stay between the red-and-yellow flags (where lifesavers can see you). Surfing lessons are a fun way to engage with local beach culture. Back on dry land, you’ll find plenty of great cafés and restaurants along Campbell Parade, as well as surf shops and boutiques. On Sundays, Bondi Markets overflow with craft, design and vintage stalls.
A six kilometre coastal walking path connects two of Sydney’s best loved beaches — Bondi and Coogee. Although the setting is urban, this path opens up a powerful marine landscape. As you thread your way between mighty sandstone cliffs and the even mightier Pacific Ocean, you may well forget the city at your back. Along the way you can turn off for a coffee, a meal, or a swim at any of three charming smaller beaches — Tamarama, Clovelly or Bronte. Finish the walk at Coogee with its shabby-chic art deco beachfront. Public buses will take you back to the city from here, or you can turn around and do the walk again in reverse! The springtime Sculpture by the Sea festival turns the route into a wonderful outdoor art gallery.
Watson’s Bay is a former fishing village that sits on the narrow strip of land that forms the southern side of the entrance to Sydney Harbour. Arrive by ferry from Circular Quay, purchase fish and chips from Doyles on the Wharf, and enjoy a picnic in family-friendly Robertson Park. For more sophisticated dining options, consider a weekend brunch at historic Dunbar House or cocktails and modern Australian cuisine at the relaxed Watsons Bay Hotel Beach Club. At the tip of the peninsula, the South Head Heritage Trail is an easy 1km loop walk that offers 270-degree harbour and ocean views. Visit the candy-cane striped Hornby Lighthouse, which is the perfect spot to watch for migrating whales from May to November. On the ocean side, the outlook from the sheer cliffs over the Tasman Sea at Gap Bluff is literally breathtaking.
More than twice the size of the other ferries that criss-cross Sydney’s complex system of waterways, the mighty Manly ferries are the queens of the Harbour City. They ply a thirty-minute, 7 nautical mile route from Circular Quay to Manly, and traverse the entire length of greater Sydney Harbour — taking in all its natural features and cultural landmarks. Just think — some people do this as their daily commute! City workers may choose the Manly Fast Ferry to save time, but visitors should do it the old-school way, on a traditional Freshwater Class vessel. Sit back, feel the wind on your face and the engines thrumming beneath you, and enjoy the journey.
Iconic Manly Beach enjoys international renown, but for something different explore a little further and discover its sweet little sister, Shelly Beach. Connected to the southern end of Manly Beach by a scenic pathway, Shelly Beach is part of the Cabbage Tree Bay Marine Reserve. The sheltered cove is a favourite spot for snorkelling and diving, being home to 160 species of brightly coloured fish. Enjoy a picnic on the sand or plan a special lunch at The Boathouse. You can walk off the calories with a ramble around the headland, where an elevated lookout provides spectacular beach and ocean views.
Do you have any suggestions to add to our list of the ten best things to do in Sydney? We would love to hear from you. Please leave a comment below.
Additional images: Bigstock
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.