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.
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 most handsome 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.
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.
Since 1932, ‘The Coathanger’ has spanned Sydney Harbour with grace and strength, forming an essential connection between the city’s northern and southern shores. For television audiences around the world, it’s the centrepiece of Sydney’s spectacular New Year’s Eve fireworks, while for thousands of Sydneysiders, it’s part of their daily commute. Both practically and aesthetically, the bridge is vital to the life of the city, and no Sydney visit would be complete without seeing it up close.
For those unafraid of heights, BridgeClimb Sydney offers the ultimate Harbour Bridge experience, taking visitors to the very top of the soaring arch to reveal unmatched panoramas. Humbler, but still wonderfully rewarding, is the stroll across at road level, using the dedicated pedestrian walkway. History buffs can add value to their visit with a stop at the Pylon Lookout for more elevated views and access to three levels of exhibits on the history of this mighty engineering project.
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.
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.
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.
Dedicated to the work of living artists, both Australian and international, Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art occupies one of the most spectacular urban locations imaginable — opposite the Opera House and almost beside the Harbour Bridge at West Circular Quay. The building is an architectural mix of old and new. A gleaming, ultra-modern extension was added in 2012 to the original Art Deco stone structure. Entry is free, and the museum aims to make contemporary art accessible and fun for all through a raft of educational and family-friendly activities.
With ferry terminals close by and Circular Quay railway station only two minutes’ walk away, the MCA is easily reached by public transport and can be conveniently combined with visits to the Opera House or The Rocks. Once inside, enjoy a meal at the MCA Café or MCA Graze (both offer brilliant harbour views), or browse the gift shop’s art-themed books, homewares and accessories.
The nucleus of the 112-year-old State Library of New South Wales, both architecturally and in terms of its book collection, is the Mitchell Library — whose imposing classical facade stands regally on the corner of Macquarie Street and the Cahill Expressway. While ‘the Mitchell’ brings the solemnity of a Greek temple to the busy streets of the city centre, its magnificent bronze doors resemble the entrance to a Renaissance palace. Inside, the glass-ceilinged, book-lined Reading Room looks every inch the part as a repository of ancient knowledge, while the Tudor-style Shakespeare Room (open Tuesdays only unless on a tour) evokes the feel of a private library in a British stately home.
These and other architectural highlights can be experienced on the free heritage tour, while the free gallery tour showcases brilliant exhibitions of Australian art and history in the Library’s newer Macquarie Street wing.
Old-timers may call it Centrepoint Tower or even Westfield Tower — this unique structure in the heart of Sydney’s CBD has had several name changes since its construction was completed in 1981 — but its offical title is Sydney Tower. Still the tallest point on the city skyline, the golden turret topping a slender column wrapped in a fine mesh of metal cables is a much-loved local landmark. Sydney Tower Eye offers the best views in town from an outdoor observation deck 250 metres above street level, or you can enjoy the same outlook over a ‘sky high feast’ at the indoor Sydney Tower Buffet revolving restaurant.
Do you have any suggestions to add to our list of the top sights in Sydney? We would love to hear from you. Please leave a comment below.
Additional images: Bigstock
This list of key sights is provided as a guide only and is not covered in its entirety on every Sydney city tour 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, 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.