While Sydney is far from being the only city in the world built around a harbor, what you find here is perhaps as magnificent as it gets anywhere in the world. Two of the planet’s most instantly recognizable land marks are right here in the vast and dazzling harbor –the Sydney Harbour Bridge and the Sydney Opera House. And, while these gems together are the city’s most famous sights, there is very much more to Sydney than just this.
Representing the country’s largest city (although not its capital as many mistakenly believe) Sydney was where Captain Cook first set foot on Australian soil in 1770 and where 18 years later the first colonial settlement was established. This rich history and the convict colony story which runs alongside it can all be explored during your time here, especially around the lovely cobble-stoned streets of The Rocks. The Australia story however began far further back than the 18th century. Long before its ‘discovery’ by Europeans –for a period spanning 60,000 years in fact -Australia’s indigenous people had called it home. Ancient rock art, incredible craft and art galleries and fascinating museums all chronicle the culture, traditions and way of life of the world’s most ancient continuous civilization.
Today multi-ethnic and cosmopolitan Sydney is at once inclusive, welcoming, packed with culture and a destination where you don’t have to choose between the beach and the city because you can have them both. Sydney is home to a collection of gorgeous beaches ranging from the tiny and secluded to icons such as Bondi and Manly.
Besides its magnificent parks and gardens, multiple museums and galleries and its one-of-a-kind experiences such as climbing the bridge, Sydney is also a destination for foodies. Here you will find celebrated chefs, award-winning restaurants and an innovative and thriving food scene which just about covers every cuisine type you could think of. Venues range from enchanting historic cafes to rooftop dining spots with generous helpings of sophistication.
A further feather in Sydney’s cap is its incredible diversity of things you can enjoy for absolutely free. This long list includes such things as museums, gardens, markets, galleries, walking tours and even a looped bus circuit which encircles the center and which makes getting around especially easy.
A Morning in Sydney
Sydney, once you include all of its suburbs, is really quite spread out and you couldn’t possibly hope to cover all of it in just one day. To make the most of your time it is really best to concentrate all your efforts on just one area and in this regard there is perhaps nowhere better than The Rocks. Not only does this lovely little corner of cobbled laneways have a plentiful supply of things to see and do –not least of all the iconic Harbour Bridge –but it is also where the whole Sydney story started, at least for Europeans. Although Aboriginal communities had been calling the harbor home for long centuries, the seeds of modern day Sydney were first planted when the British arrived in 1788 with the intention of establishing a penal colony.
The Rocks was where the new arrivals first settled, thus making it the city’s oldest area, packed full of echoes from the past in its buildings and centuries-old leftovers. Together they tell a story of convicts, dock life, whalers and the comings and goings of sailors who would arrive after having spent long months at sea.
Your morning starts, fittingly, with the most famous of all Sydney’s landmarks –the bridge –and then leads you off exploring the history of the area’s fascinating first people, its penal colony and the early settlements and settlers. After a break for coffee you can choose between wandering art galleries, markets and charming boutique stores or even take a walking tour of the area with an indigenous community member as your guide. For something a little different you can get out on the water instead.
The Harbour Bridge
Sydney’s grand bridge is so instantly recognizable that for almost all it needs no introduction. The most distinctive of the city’s landmarks along with the Opera House, the gracefully arching steel-constructed Sydney Harbour Bridge joins the north area of the city to its south and opened in 1932. Not surprisingly an inclusion on the Australian National Heritage List, the bridge is an essential must-see for Sydney visitors although quite how you do it varies considerably.
For some, climbing the Sydney Harbour Bridge ranks as item number one on the bucket-list for visitors to Australia, With options for day and night climbs, easier versions and those only suitable for the most intrepid, this experience really is something for everyone; the oldest bridge climber to date was Mrs. Chris Muller aged 100 years and there is even the option to get married on the climb. However, most people are content to simply walk across this famous landmark and doing so won’t cost you a cent. From here you can take in some wonderful city views including the distinctive Opera House and the entire harbor.
For an entry fee you also have the choice of heading onto the Pylon Lookout where, besides enjoying a notched up view, you can explore a range of exhibits which give plenty of interesting facts and figures regarding the history and construction of the bridge.
Before heading off to the Rocks Discovery Museum you might like to take a detour of less than 100m to take in the oldest building in the entire city. One of a rare few buildings still standing from the first decades of the colony, Cadman’s Cottage was constructed in 1816, originally as a residence for British boatmen, at which time it was located waterfront before a subsequent quay construction set it a little back. Although it is possible to book onto a free guided tour to peek inside these only take place on two Sundays a month so unless you are lucky you will only be able to enjoy the exterior.
This wonderful interactive museum has more than a few surprises for its visitors, not least of all that it is completely free to explore. Chronicling The Rocks entire story –from ancient times through to today–this museum is crammed with artifacts and treasures unearthed in the area, some of which you are even allowed to handle.
The setting itself is historic –a former 19th century warehouse –and the museum is divided into four main areas which cover different time periods. The first tells the story prior to 1788 when the original custodians knew the land as Warrane and has been developed in conjunction with the Metropolitan Aboriginal Land Council, thus providing an authentic and accurate representation.
The other three periods are ‘Colony’, ‘Port’ and ‘Transformations’, this latter covering the period from 1900 on wards and showing how modern day Sydney emerged.
Alternative Museums in The Rocks Area
The Susannah Place Museum
An alternative to the Rocks Discovery Museum and less than 300m away is the Susannah Place Museum. Only accessible by guided tour, this row of four terraces which date from the mid 1800s are today collectively a museum although from their beginning until the 1990s they served as simple homes to a long succession of working class Sydney families. While most humble dwellings of this kind fell to the development bulldozers over the years Susannah Place survived. Step through the doors and discover what everyday life was like for these ordinary people whose tiny backyards were home to outdoor wash houses and toilets which you can still see. Incorporated within the museum is a local store, faithfully recreated as it would have been in 1915.
Although not actually within The Rocks, this fascinating museum is just a short stroll south and an essential inclusion for anyone interested in the city’s convict past. Undergoing a major overhaul in 2019, this former convict barracks was built in the early 1800s and is considered of such historical significance it is UNESCO World Heritage-listed.
Morning Coffee in Sydney
Sydney’s now long-established coffee culture actually makes it one of the best places in the entire world to find great coffee so little effort will be required to find venue’s serving quality drinks. Also, having spent the first half of you morning in The Rocks you are going to be ideally placed once the need for a coffee break arrives. Besides its incredible history, this pocket of Sydney is also where you will find some if its most charming cafes.
Considering its relatively compact size the diversity of cafes in The Rocks is astonishing. Tea fans can make their way to the exquisite Tea Cosy where each pot comes dressed in a hand-crocheted or knitted tea cozy and your surroundings are a protected heritage building with a history which stretches back 180 years. Quaint and quirky and with a lovely alfresco area as well, here you can indulge your tea cravings with traditional classics, herbal options or sample such infusions as Australian chamomile and lavender or caramel whiskey while the handmade scones here are talked about all over the city.
Chocolate addicts have the sleek and contemporary Guylian Belgian Chocolate Cafe where you can pair you dreamy hot chocolate or coffee with a sweet choice of all things chocolate including cakes and waffles.
Alfresco fans have heaps of choice in the beguiling area of The Rocks, one of which is ideal for the discerning coffee connoisseur. Located in the area’s oldest laneway, the Fine Food Store has a charming street-side patio of chunky rustic wood chairs and tables. Perhaps more to the point it roasts its own beans in-house, serves up some wonderful single origin brews and employs skilled baristas which together ensure the entire process from bean sourcing to putting the coffee in the cup is of the highest standard. Despite the fact that this outfit delivers coffee fit for royalty in typical Australian fashion it is free of pretense or coffee snobbery and offers warmth and welcome to all.
Another gorgeous alfresco choice, this time sure to appeal to those with a sweet tooth is La Renaissance Patisserie and Cafe. Originally the vision of a pâtissier trained in France, this wonderful cafe is today a member of the exclusive ‘Relais Desserts’ (the first in the whole of the Southern Hemisphere) which recognizes industry excellence. Take a seat in the enchanting leafy courtyard of a building which was originally built by a highwayman-turned respectable tradesman in 1842. Exquisite pastries which are nothing short of works of art are not surprisingly standard fare here.
If a sensational view would make your coffee break perfect head to the MCA’s rooftop cafe where one of the finest views of the Opera House in the entire city can be found. As you sip your coffee your lofty panorama also takes in Sydney Harbour Bridge and the entire magnificence of the harbor waters.
Continuing Your Exploration of The Rocks
If you can manage to tear yourself away from whichever beautiful cafe you opted to relax in for a while there is plenty more to explore in The Rocks before lunch. Quite how you decide to continue your morning will really depend on whether you want to be outside in the sunshine or not coupled with your own personal tastes. The following are just a handful of your options.
- The Rocks Walkabout with an Indigenous Guide –Nowhere on the planet has such an ancient culture as that of Australia’s Aboriginal people. If you are interested in learning something of this join up with a walking tour led by an indigenous guide to discover the history of The Rocks told from their perspective.
- The Museum of Contemporary Art –The largest contemporary art gallery in the country, the Art Deco-designed MCA is packed with thousands of paintings, photographs, sculpture and digital arts which showcase both Australian and international artists. This excellent gallery also has an extensive Aboriginal art collection.
- Rocks Market –If you find yourself visiting The Rocks at the weekend you might like to throw yourself into the bustle of its charming market. Browse a large collection of stalls packed with the creations of local craftspeople to find a unique gift or souvenir or simply feast your way through the food stalls.
- Boutique stores –Dotted around the cobbled streets of The Rocks are a wonderful collection of boutiques which are lovely to simply browse and an almost essential inclusion if you want a quality Sydney reminder souvenir or are looking for a unique gift. The Rocks has all kinds of lovely wares –handmade jewelry, clothes, gourmet foods, artisan soaps and candles and a whole lot more besides. Make a visit to the Australian Alpaca Barn for a range of items made from home-grown alpaca fiber, head to Sticky to watch sugar-craft wizardry unfolding before your eyes or step inside the Argyle Oracle. Even if you have no interest in all things esoteric this incredible store could have leapt straight from Diagon Alley in a Harry Potter story and is worth a look just to marvel at its atmosphere.
- Harbour Cruises and Water Activities –Now, as has always been the case, the waters surrounding the city of Sydney are intrinsically woven into its culture and heritage. To come to Sydney without experiencing it in some way is almost unthinkable and there is a huge diversity of ways in which to do just this in craft ranging from simple and tiny to luxurious. Most popular are harbor cruises but one of the cheapest ways to see the sights from the water is to hop on-board one of the ferries which cover a variety of routes including bays, beaches, suburbs and city highlights. The more adventurous can hire a kayak and explore, perhaps paddling out to the tiny island of Shark Bay right in the harbor itself.
Lunch in Sydney
Sydney has an incredible number of beautiful places to dine. The picturesque harbor is the focus of all things Sydney and a multitude of venues in both the center and suburbs place you waterside to make the most of your setting. Then, of course, there are its beaches for those who like to lunch with an ocean view.
In this category and as a way to combine a great lunch while simultaneously taking in another of the Sydney essential inclusions grab a taxi, bus or train and head out to Bondi Beach. While the menu of beautiful beaches in the city is extensive there is perhaps none as iconic as this lovely sweeping crescent of white sand. If you are a fan of the hugely popular Bondi Rescue TV series which follows the real-life daily dramas of the beach’s lifeguard team you will already be familiar with this lovely stretch of coast.
The highest end restaurant here is Icebergs but if you want something a little more casual and pocket-friendly without losing the spectacular views make you way to Seans Panorama. With a focus on seafood but also with other choices and incorporating ingredients brought fresh from source to restaurant kitchen from a Blue Mountain farm owned by the same people, Seans Panorama fare is organic, homely and hearty. The ever-changing menu is scrawled across blackboards, typically offering a choice of four different entrees, mains and desserts and the accompanying wines are all Australian labels. Take your seat in the interior with its large windows and art-filled walls or at one of the alfresco tables to take in that view of the ocean right out front.
Another gorgeous location just a short ride from the center is Chiosco. Billing itself as the ‘barefoot Italian trattoria by the sea’, the sublime setting for the casual and friendly Chiosco on the Spit in Mosman is hard to beat. Decorated in beach-shack shades of blue and white, this wooden-decked venue is half open and half enclosed by huge windows with a choice of smaller cocktail tables right out on the deck itself although wherever you choose gorgeous views are yours for the taking. The extensive menu is heavy with seafood choices and there are some sharing feasts for those who want a little of everything or have larger appetites.
If you would prefer to stay more centrally-located for lunch then simply wander The Rocks to be spoiled for choice whether you are looking for homely or something a little more elevated in the sophistication stakes. Options here range from the quality casual such as the Australian Heritage Hotel with its pub fare to those perfect if you want to splurge a little such as Sake with its Japanese cuisine.
An Afternoon in Sydney
After lunch you can continue your Sydney discovery day uncovering the hidden corners of an enchanting secret garden followed by some time enjoying Aboriginal art. Alternatively you can spend your entire afternoon on either a guided city tour or a walk along the coast under your own steam.
Wendy Whiteley’s Secret Garden
Most cities have a handful of hidden gems; these are the kind of places which often,for some inexplicable reason and despite their exceptional offerings, stay absent from tourist literature and even sometimes escape the notice of locals. The exquisite Wendy’s Garden, although having received media attention in the past, is a perfect example of such a treasure and so relatively little visited is this enchanting place it is more than likely you can enjoy its tranquility and beauty without having to share it with a single other soul. To add to its appeal, entry to this magical place is free,all you will need to pay is the ferry passage or the bus ride to make your way from the center to Lavender Bay.
This enchanting little flower-and plant-rich corner of winding paths, secret niches and statues which is the private garden of Wendy Whiteley was once nothing more than an overgrown patch of land, once railway property and strewn about with dumped fridges and mattresses, which tumbled down the slopes from her house. After losing her beloved husband –the well-known artist Brett Whiteley -Wendy launched herself into the task of clearing the land as a means of channeling the pain of her loss. From tragedy emerged a thing of great loveliness and all of it despite the fact that Wendy had zero horticultural knowledge at the outset. Her vision was that of a painting and in her own words ‘driven by aesthetics, color, form, beauty and whimsy’. Today this exceptional place along with its fairy tale-like story is alive with native bird-life including parrots and kookaburras which colorfully flit around the trees, herbs and shrubs, filling the air with their songs and calls.
Besides the indescribable magic of the gardens themselves this is possibly THE spot in the whole of Sydney from which to get the most perfect shot of Sydney Harbour Bridge.
Aboriginal Art Galleries
Although you may have already dedicated some or all of your morning to Sydney’s principal contemporary art gallery there is plenty more to discover in this category. For those with an interest in indigenous art Sydney is home to some exceptional places which focus on just that and many are also outlets for buying unique souvenirs.
The Aboriginal people of Australia represent the oldest culture with unbroken lineage in the entire world and among the many things which set this race of people aside is their highly distinctive art styles. Today visitors can wander a diversity of galleries both tiny and large to learn about the art and its highly significant place in the culture since the dawn of time. The longest established of these is the Cooee Art Gallery whose almost 40 years of age make it the country’s oldest example of its kind. With locations at both Bondi Beach and Paddington, the Cooee Gallery collects together thousands of pieces and is generally considered the finest of the city’s Aboriginal galleries.
Another option is located in the Sydney suburb of Waverley – Aboriginal Contemporary. The gallery showcases incredible pieces sourced by the gallery owner from both established artists and those found by visiting remote communities to unearth unsung talents.
Closer to the center is Spirit Gallery, one of the several options in The Rocks. From humble beginnings as nothing more than a tiny gift shop, Spirit’s reputation has grown and so has its size so that today it is a treasure trove of not just art but a range of handmade craft items such as wood sculpture, boomerangs, eucalyptus didgeridoos and ceramics, all beautifully decorated in the indigenous style.
If you would like to see some ancient rock art this isn’t going to be hard in Sydney and its surrounds which are home to literally thousands of rock engravings. While many of these sites are not open to the public in an effort to preserve them, there are several easily accessible sites too. These include the large number of animals, figures and geometric symbols at Bantry Bay, those at North Bondi where you will see fish, whales and turtles carved into the rocks and the Grotto Point collection. All of these are thought to be at least 5,000 years old.
An Alternative Afternoon –A Free Walking Tour or a Self-Guided Coastal Walk
Australia in general is a great provider of the free walking tour concept and Sydney has it down to a fine art. The slick operation of I’m Free has now been part of the city scene for many years with all of the guides young and energetic Sydneysiders and all trained to professional standards. Sporting a bright green t-shirt, your guide will lead you on a 3 hour stroll around the city. Even if you find yourself re-covering any ground which you already explored this morning it is unlikely you will get bored as this time your exploration will be accompanied with heaps of insider knowledge, a wealth of anecdotes and stories you won’t find in any guidebook and plenty of fun. While technically free, in reality the free walking tour concept is based on you paying what you feel the tour was worth and then only once it is completed and according to your own budget. Although you could just slip away at this point without handing over a cent most don’t; I’m Free tours tend to draw rave reviews from all who try them and customers are typically more than happy to make a contribution to such a worthy idea.
The afternoon ‘Sydney Sights‘ tour departs from Sydney Town Hall at 2.30 and there is no need to book ahead.
If you prefer to guide yourself and want beach and coast scenery rather than urban backdrops, consider the cliff-top Bondi to Coogee Walk. Covering 6km and taking in no less than six separate beaches, this superb trail is a series of stunning vistas from beginning to end. If you need a refreshment pause along the way there are several cafes where you can do just that. The official walk website offers a wealth of information to help you maximize your hike along with things to look out for.
Of course if you find yourself so enamored by any of the beaches you come across that you don’t want to go any further you can simply stop there and take a cooling dip before heading back into town.
Pre-Dinner Drinks and Dinner in Sydney
From the atmospheric cobble-stoned alleys of The Rocks to venues which place you at absolute beach-front, Sydney has no shortage of incredible places to take in the sunset with a cocktail in hand and then dine beneath the stars or the glitter of the city lights.
Casual pubs in historic buildings filled with Sydneysiders just off work to venues where only the wealthy and sophisticated congregate –this is the diversity of the city’s choice of watering holes. While deciding which is best among this dazzling array of options is really down to personal choice one thing Sydney does do especially well is rooftop bars. As the sights to be seen from such places are exceptional even on a global scale (thanks to the city’s coastal location and iconic landmarks) these venues are perennially popular.
At the higher end of things in this category is the Blu Bar on 36 which is the roof terrace of the Shangri-La Hotel. Cocktails are the focus here and the choice is extensive, including a martini which comes complete with a diamond ring and a bed for the night in the hotel although at $10,000 a glass this is quite possibly the most expensive cocktail on the planet. For the majority of customers the drinks are rather more conventional with both time-honored classics and the establishment’s very own creative inclusions, all expertly served by skilled mixologists. No matter what drink you choose your view takes in harbor, Opera House and Harbour Bridge.
Another venue for views although this time from a rather less lofty height is the Glenmore. The open rooftop here is only three floors up but the backdrop still offers million dollar views of the Sydney Opera House and harbor.
To drink in something of history along with your sundowner head to the Lord Nelson Brewery Hotel. This beloved icon of the Sydney scene has been pulling pints for thirsty customers since 1841, a fact which earns it the title of Sydney’s oldest drinking establishment of continuous standing. In the 1980s the current owners lovingly restored the pub to resemble its original appearance with the help of photo archives and at the same time added a brewery. Today, three decades on, this institution is a wonderful place to sample award-winning craft beers immersed in the atmosphere of a bygone era.
Home to some of the country’s most famous and quality restaurants, Sydney is awash with dining options no matter what your taste or budget. To make life simple and keep effort to a minimum you can transition from sundowners to dining at both The Glenmore and the Lord Nelson. The Glenmore rooftop offers pub fare with inclusions as diverse as tacos, curry and fish and chips while the dining options inside, although with the same menu, offer a change of scenery and vibe.
The Lord Nelson’s restaurant Upstairs has a small but well-thought out menu of seafood and meat dishes -described as ‘modern Australian’ -notable for their innovative elements and use of fresh local ingredients . Additionally this gem also has a string of awards for its hand-picked wine list.
For those intent on a romantic evening for two the Stacks Taverna at the highly picturesque Cockle Bay has to be a contender for the top choice. The linen-draped alfresco tables here offer beautiful views while you tuck into succulent crab, oyster, octopus and prawn dishes or premium steaks including kangaroo fillets. The Mediterranean-influenced menu is extensive, the wines excellent and the air casual-refined.
For something a little different and which offers you ever changing views of your lovely harbor surrounds hop aboard one of the dinner cruises. The choices possible here include buffet-type meals or highly sophisticated seated and served options and some also include an on-board show or live music as entertainment. Most cruises depart around 7pm and last from two hours upwards.
An Evening in Sydney
It will probably come as no surprise to learn that a city as dynamic and cosmopolitan as Sydney has as much going for it in the evening as it does in the day. Options include immersing yourself into something with a cultural aspect, spending a quirky evening amid competitive crustaceans and scaling the iconic bridge as the moon rises.
If you happen to be in town on a Saturday night during the summer months you can enjoy a totally free fireworks spectacular lighting up the skies over the city. Funded by local businesses and restaurant owners, these pyrotechnic displays typically start at around 8pm at Darling Harbour.
For many of Northern Hemisphere origin the skies of the Southern Hemisphere are an instant fascination -well-known constellations are upside down, the moon is back to front and things are present in the sky which are not usually visible for those who live north of the equator. For an even more in depth exploration of the night skies in this area of the world head to the Sydney Observatory which offers several night tours of around 1 ½ hours duration.
During your tour you will be able to use powerful telescopes to find deep space objects, nebula and planets or explore the craters of the moon with expert guides. Your evening also includes fascinating tours of the dome and the planetarium too.
Heritage-listed and lovely, Hyde Park is the country’s oldest park and full of mature trees, monuments, themed gardens, the beautiful Archibald Fountain and a collection of sculptures. As a city focus it is often used as the venue for all kinds of cultural events including both annual giants such as the Sydney Festival and the Food and Wine Fair as well as hosting all kinds of one-off offerings.
Even if Hyde Park isn’t staging an event during your time in the city it is still a lovely place to stroll in the evening and enjoy all it has to offer.
For an evening with a distinct difference head to the Friend in Hand in Glebe if you are in Sydney on a Wednesday night. At 8pm the first starter pistol is fired and pub customers watch anxiously to see if the crab they have placed their bet on is going to win the race by reaching the edge of the table first. You can even buy your own crab to take part in this madcap event. If you are unlucky enough to miss the crab racing the pub also hosts poetry reading and open mic nights.
Sydney Harbour Bridge Night Climb
While most are content to gaze on or stroll across Sydney’s iconic bridge there is also the option to climb it in a variety of different ways. A night climb complete with the city and ocean a blaze of light real and reflected far below you is one of the options. This experience doesn’t come cheap but there are many who consider it more than worth it for such a once-in-lifetime bucket list experience.
The Sydney Opera House
Sitting prominently on the harbor edge like a beautiful pearl-tinted sculpture about to sail away, the Sydney Opera House along with the harbor’s bridge is the city’s most distinctive and iconic landmark. First opening in the 1970s and today the entire country’s most visited tourist site, this incredible building was described by UNESCO as standing by itself as ‘one of the indisputable masterpieces of human creativity, not only in the 20th century but in the history of humankind.’
Hosting more than 2,000 shows every year, Sydney Opera House doesn’t simply stage operas but also comedy, contemporary music, cabaret, dance, classical concerts and circus. Even if you don’t want to take in a performance you can take an evening tour of the building to learn of its history and access backstage areas which are normally off limits to the public.