In a slight change of pace from my recent booze-centric Top 10s, here’s one that’s a little more relevant to travel.
I’ve been lucky enough to call Sydney my home since March of this year, and in that time I’ve probably managed to see and experience more of it from a tourist’s perspective than most people who have spent their entire lives here. Call it the benefit of having a tourist for a girlfriend.
There are countless things to see and do here, but I’m going to narrow it down to my top ten and count them down for your viewing pleasure.
#10 – Explore the Rocks
Most people who pay a visit to Sydney will have experienced The Rocks. Sydney’s historic district is jam packed with trendy cafes, pubs, and gift shops as well as a large selection of tour companies promising to show you the great city’s historic underbelly.
Nestled at the eastern foot of the Sydney Harbour Bridge and just a short walk from the Circular Quay travel hub, there’s no excuse not to pay The Rocks a visit while you’re in town. Whether you’re looking for a bite to eat, a cold beverage, or some expensive opal shopping – you’re going to find it in The Rocks. There are plenty of tour options ranging from a bike tour to a late night ghost tour to a more sedate walking tour for those wanting to get in touch with the country’s roots.
Not an out of towner? There’s still plenty of good reasons to pay the area a visit. My favourite pub in Sydney, Hart’s Pub, is in The Rocks – and it’s not far to other great pubs such as the Lord Nelson and the Hero of Waterloo. But I’ll cover those later.
Pay a visit to the Susannah Place Museum and shop where you can pick up some old school candy or a few souvenirs, or visit the area after the sun sets to search out a bargain at the Markets by Moonlight. There’s so much to do that I’ve barely managed to scrape the surface, so visit their website and take a look for yourself.
#9 – Spend a day on the beach
A visit to Australia really isn’t complete without spending at least a day (and preferably more) on one of its picturesque beaches. While Sydney might not boast the best Australia has to offer as far as beaches go (a short trip down to the south coast or up to Newcastle offers better, less crowded fare) – there’s still plenty of fantastic spots to lay out a towel and soak up some sun on a hot summer day.
The general recommendation for tourists is the permanently crowded Bondi Beach, and for sheer novelty value, it’s worth a visit. My personal preferences lie a short ferry ride from Circular Quay on the northern beaches, where Manly Beach is my personal pick. Coogee Beach in the south is also a perennial favourite, and there’s no shortage of alternatives in between.
If you’re feeling adventurous, you can take a surf course. My recommendation there would be Manly Surf Guide for an affordable but informative day out.
Australia’s beach culture also offers up plenty of good food and ice cold beer, and you’ll find a wide selection no matter where you go.
If you follow my advice and hit Manly, you’re in for a real treat. The Esplanade offers a huge selection of dining options and plenty of ice cream shops to keep you cool, and it’s close to the mind blowing 4 Pines Brewery and gorgeous Shelly Beach.
#8 – Kayak in Bundeena
A two hour train ride south of Sydney is the Bundeena National Park. It’s hard to believe such an idyllic, laid back community can exist so close to the hustle and bustle of Sydney, but you’ll step off of your ferry from Cronulla and be blown away by this tiny slice of paradise. The ferry ride itself is a treat, as you cut across in one of the cutest ferries you’ll ever encounter.
Whether you want to go fishing, spend a day exploring the town, or rent a kayak and find a quiet little picnic spot for yourself – there’s plenty to like about one of Sydney’s better kept secrets.
My visit earlier in the year included a day of kayaking, a quiet picnic lunch on the riverbanks, and a walk along the beach to finish out the day. It might be a little out of the way, but if you’re looking for a change of pace – you’re going to find it in Bundeena.
#7 – Have a beer
This one goes hand in hand with The Rocks at #10, but it really warrants an entry of its own. The area around The Rocks boasts a big selection of micro-breweries and pubs that offer up the best Sydney has in terms of beer. My personal favourite is Hart’s Pub with its range of local beers and fantastic food, but there’s plenty of praise out there for the Lord Nelson’s beers and meat pies.
The Hero of Waterloo, another bar claiming to be Sydney’s oldest, is a bit hit or miss as far as a crowd goes – but it definitely looks and feels old as you perch on an uncomfortable pew and soak in some acoustic music. There’s more typical Australian pubs in the form of The Australian, and the ever popular Lowenbrau which has a broad selection of German biers and fare.
If you want to venture outside of The Rocks, and I’d recommend it, there’s also great bars all around the city. Sweeney’s Hotel has some great Thai food and a brilliant view of the city; the Watershed seems to factor in its spectacular harbour view when pricing its beer; and the backpacker haven that is the Shark Bar is a low rent alternative if you’re counting your coins. I have mates who swear by the Bavarian Bier Cafe as well, although I’ve not had the pleasure just yet.
Fancy a younger scene? The Madison is right outside Central Station and aims for the younger crowd, and Oxford Street and King’s Cross offer up many pubs and clubs for the more energetic set.
Don’t overlook the offerings of other cultures either. There’s plenty of great karaoke bars in the city run by Japanese and Korean immigrants. My personal favourite is above BBQ City just outside Museum Station, but the perennial favourite in the city seems to be the Ding Dong Dang in Surry Hills. Just don’t expect class.
Australians love to drink and there’s never going to be a shortage of places to do your drinking. There are entire websites dedicated to the best pubs and the best beers in the city. Just venture out, pick a venue, and enjoy an ice cold brew.
#6 – Visit the Blue Mountains
I only recently waxed lyrical about Sydney’s western neighbor, so I’ll direct you to my entry on the subject rather than going into specific details.
But if you like hiking, arts & crafts, and great photo opportunities – you’re going to enjoy a visit to the scenic Blue Mountains.
#5 – Take a Harbour Cruise
There’s no shortage of options if you want to get out on a boat and soak in the world’s most beautiful natural harbour, but my personal preference is with the very good Captain Cook Cruises. I took a twilight cocktail cruise with them earlier in the year, and can’t complain about the service or the beautiful view we were afforded.
Thrillseekers can instead splash out on one of the many jet boats that offer twenty minute tours of the harbour at break-neck speeds, and there’s also sailing if you’re after a more sedate day out on the water.
Can’t afford a dinner cruise? A ride around the harbour on one of the Sydney Ferries is a cheap way to see the sites. Make sure you snap photos of the Opera House, Luna Park, and the world’s most recognizable bridge. The ferries also offer up a great chance to explore areas such as Manly, Milson’s Point, and Balmain.
#4 – Scuba dive or Snorkel the Northern Beaches
I mentioned beaches earlier, but what lies beneath the waves needs a mention of their own. I’ve not yet had the pleasure of going underwater in Sydney yet, but I’m intent on snorkeling Freshwater and scuba diving Shelly Beach before the year is out.
My PADI trainer recommended Shelly Beach and my research also suggests it is one of the best sites in Sydney for it due to its calm waters and the variety of aquatic wildlife in the area. There’s also plenty of love for Gordon Bay, so be sure to give that a look if you fancy taking in some underwater action while in Sydney.
There’s no shortage of websites offering up opinions on the matter, so do a little research and see what appeals to you.
#3 – Catch a game of footy
Australians love their sport, and Sydney offers up the best there is to see from Australia’s four football codes. While you won’t catch me at a Super 15 or AFL (Aussie Rules) game anytime soon, plenty of backpackers and locals come together to cheer on the NSW Waratahs or Sydney Swans when they’re in town.
Rugby League is the most prevalent sport in the city, and you almost always find a game in the city during the NRL season. The city boasts the Sydney Roosters, Canterbury Bulldogs, Cronulla Sharks, Wests Tigers, St George/Illawarra Dragons, Parramatta Eels, South Sydney Rabbitohs, and Manly Sea Eagles – so pick a team, buy a jersey, and show your support to the most popular sport on Australia’s east coast. The NRL season runs from March through September – but there’s usually a post season international or two to catch if you fancy watching the Australian Kangaroos hammer some minnows from the Pacific islands.
In the summer months the sport doesn’t stop – with the A-League (soccer) and the cricket season in full swing. Sydney FC are the local football club, and there’s derby matches between nearby Central Coast and Newcastle to look forward to, as well as occasional exhibition matches between the Sky Blues and visiting clubs.
#2 – Darling Harbour
The site of the 2010 FIFA World Cup Live Site was well chosen. While Circular Quay might have the Opera House and the Harbour Bridge, Darling Harbour has the best food in the city and plenty of things to see and do. The IMAX cinema is a popular site during winter when the weather isn’t so good, and there’s the Sydney Aquarium and Wildlife World there to occupy the little ones.
It’s not so much what there is to do in Darling Harbour that I love, but just the whole vibe of the place. There’s always people strolling along the waterfront or dining in the many restaurants that line it – and there’s plenty of nearby parkland full of fountains to help you relax after a busy day.
You’re a stone’s throw from Sydney’s Chinatown district and its many sights and sounds and a short walk from Paddy’s Markets where you’ll be able to pick up a few cheap souvenirs to send home to the unlucky bastards who couldn’t accompany you.
#1 – Sydney Harbour Bridge Climb
What better way to celebrate your time in Sydney than to shout it out loud from atop the city’s most recognizable landmark? A climb up the bridge is the thing I would recommend to every single visitor – regardless of their age or their level of fitness. The climb isn’t nearly as intimidating as it might look or sound, and the view at the end of it all is well worth a few minutes of grunting and grimacing your way up the stairs.
Prices range from $188 for a night climb (and in summer these start early enough for you to catch the sunset) to $298 for a dawn climb. These prices do jump up a bit during peak season (Dec 27 to Jan 6) – but all prices include a photograph of you and your climbing partners and a certificate to say you did it. Extra photos are $20, but worth it if you want a more personalized touch.
The guides are great fun and the entire experience is worth the somewhat hefty price tag. You can read more about my experiences with it here.