Sydney can be a daunting place for newcomers — just where to begin your exploration? The city sprawls out on all sides from the massive 55sqm harbor of Port Jackson, better known as Sydney Harbour. The area encompasses The Rocks, a historic area packed with old pubs and pretty, sandstone buildings; the central business district, where you’ll find most of the capital’s skyscrapers; and the city’s busy transport hub, Circular Quay. The harbor is also where you find two of the city’s most iconic landmarks, the Sydney Opera House and Sydney Harbour Bridge, so it’s little surprise that most travelers begin their sightseeing adventure here. But once you’ve clicked your way along the quayfront, there is so much more to explore, and it’s not all within walking distance of the CBD. As a resident of this city for most of my life, I’d like to provide disappointment-free recommendations for how to make the most of your Sydney sojourn. These are the places and activities that, even as a local, I never fail to enjoy both on my own and with visitors from out of town.
Also read: Sydney city guide
See Sydney from all angles
From a café: The Museum of Contemporary Art (140 George St, The Rocks; +61 2 9245 2400; mca.com.au) a three-minute walk from Circular Quay in the opposite direction to the Opera House, is a must-visit whether you love art or not. You’ll be captivated by the views from this institution’s rooftop sculpture garden and by its veranda-style eatery, the MCA Cafe. It’s the perfect place to have brunch and plan your day ahead while taking in sweeping, almost-aerial views of the harbor and Opera House without having to hire a seat on a seaplane or climb the Harbour Bridge — just take the lift to the fourth floor. Visit during weekdays to ensure you can swiftly secure a seat in the sun.
From “the Bridge”: If you’re not squeamish about heights, BridgeClimb (3 Cumberland St, The Rocks; bridgeclimb.com) is one of the most rewarding experiences you can have in Sydney. Once you have been buckled up in a safety suit and clipped onto the handrail of the world’s largest steel arched bridge, you will feel secure as you climb its 1,332 steps to view a panorama unlike any other in the world. You’ll also skirt along suspended catwalks, well above the water, and climb service ladders above zooming traffic as you complete your thrilling three-and-a-half-hour journey across this iconic hunk of metal.
From a fun park: If you are afraid of heights, I recommend visiting the historic fairground Luna Park (1 Olympic Dr, Millions Point; +61 2 9922 6644; www.lunaparksydney.com) instead. Opened in 1935, Luna Park was based on the fun park of the same name in New York’s Coney Island and its sister attraction, Luna Park Melbourne, which opened in 1912. Both of the Australian Luna Parks are known for their iconic giant clown faces (you enter through their mouths), and retro attractions such as wonky walks and mirror mazes. Sydney’s Luna Park has a cute timber rollercoaster called the Wild Mouse, too — and while it’s not as high or fast as modern rollercoasters, it is rickety and jarring enough to give quite a thrill.
Take a ride on the old-school Ferris wheel, which is located near the Harbour Bridge’s northern pylon, allowing views across the harbor and the high-rises of the CBD from a more relaxing 40m above ground. On Sunday evenings between this month and March 2016 you can book in for a romantic three-course fine-dining experience on board one of the wheel’s colourful and cute open carriages thanks to catering by innovative modern-Australian restaurant The Deck.
From the water: Taking a Sydney Harbour ferry is essential if you want to experience how some lucky Sydneysiders live; many people use these beautiful big boats for their daily commute.
The most popular journey for tourists is from Circular Quay to the seaside resort town of Manly (where many expats also choose to settle, both for the beaches it accesses and for this unique commute). At seven nautical miles, the trip takes approximately 30 minutes but be warned, at times it can get pretty rocky as the ferry veers out into open ocean between two rocky outcrops known as “the Heads”. But the journey leads to one of Sydney’s most glorious beaches. If you’ve ever felt the urge to learn to surf, the perfect place to start is at one of Manly’s many surf schools.
Among its many other destinations, the Sydney Harbour ferry service also heads to Balmain — a fantastic low-rise suburb where you can wander between terrace-style shopfronts, and find a coffee and bite to eat — and Taronga Zoo (Bradleys Head Rd, Mosman; +61 2 9969 2777; taronga.org.au/taronga-zoo), where you can see over 4,000 animals and even hand-feed a carrot to a giraffe!
Some of the smaller ferry services also allow access to Sydney Harbour’s historic islands from Circular Quay. Fort Denison (fortdenison.com.au) is one of Sydney’s most scenic wedding-photo locations, and was once a military defense island. Called Pinchgut in the 1700s, it has a beautiful sandstone fort that now houses a museum and a great restaurant for lunch, the Fort Denison Cafe. Try a dozen freshly shucked oysters with Thai-style nam jim sauce for AU$42 or, for a real taste of Australia, order the seared kangaroo loin with walnuts and gorgonzola (AU$37). The drinks list features Italian, French and local wines.
An old gunpowder-powered cannon is fired at Fort Denison at 1pm each day. This tradition has continued since 1906 (except for a break starting in World War II, when it was thought locals would panic upon hearing the blast). Its original purpose was not for war, but for ships’ crews to accurately set their times by chronometer.
Cockatoo Island is another idyllic harbor island, with a dark convict past. A penal colony in the early days of the Sydney, this gorgeous island then became an industrial port and shipbuilding yard. It was transformed into a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp in Angelina Jolie’s film Unbroken, but you can stay here much more comfortably — it’s the only Sydney Harbour island that allows you to stay overnight. They will provide the tents, or you can bring your own. Glamping on Cockatoo Island costs from AU$150 per night for a tent with two camp beds, linen, towels and a lantern — there are no street lights here! It’s also one of the most incredible vantage points for the Sydney Harbour fireworks on New Year’s Eve. No matter what time of the year, the Island Bar on the eastern side of Cockatoo Island is the perfect place to enjoy a sunset cocktail. Its hours are largely dependent on weather, though.
Hit the coast
Bondi Beach (www.bondivillage.com) is Australia’s most famous beach for good reason — its half-moon curved bay is beautiful, and the water is patrolled by those famous lifesavers in their red and yellow trunks. To enjoy Bondi Beach as a local would, either lay out your towel on the grassy hill on the northern end of the beach, or go for a walk along the coastal track between Bondi to Bronte. While locals tend to run rather than walk, you’ll be too interested in the scenery not to take it more slowly. While the full track is much longer, this easy 1.5km stretch from South Bondi to North Bronte takes about 45 minutes if you don’t stop to take photos of the steep sandstone cliffs, rolling waves, multi-million-dollar houses and rock pools. To fully enjoy the experience, allow yourself three hours to walk to Bronte and back, which will leave plenty of time to have a freshly squeezed fruit smoothie or a huge Aussie-style breakfast with heaps of bacon in one of the cafés along Bronte’s shop-strip.
As you walk back to Bondi, the first building you’ll come to on the southern end of the beach is Bondi Icebergs Club (1 Notts Ave, Bondi; +61 2 9130 3120; icebergs.com.au). Along with a historic ocean pool (which locals fill with huge ice blocks and jump into in winter, hence the name of the club), Icebergs has a fantastic bar-bistro with a veranda that looks out over both the beach and further out to the Pacific Ocean. A local secret here is Icebergs’ sauna. Located on the same level as the pool, it costs just AU$6.50 per person to access — the admission price is well worth it thanks to the sauna’s glass wall, which keeps you connected to the views. You can use the pool, too.
To get to Bondi Beach, take an Eastern Suburbs line train to Bondi Junction, then a bus to the beach (numbers 333, 380, 381 or 382). The 380 bus is the best one to catch all the way in to Bondi Beach from the CBD, but one of Sydney’s best malls, Westfield (500 Oxford St, Bondi Junction; +61 2 9947 8000; www.westfield.com.au/bondijunction), is in Bondi Junction so I recommend the train. If you want to go shopping for bargains as well as local fashions and design, see a movie, or eat at one of Sydney’s best yum-cha restaurants, Kam Fook Seafood Restaurant, make sure you pay a visit to this retail mecca.
Of course, there are so many places to see and things to do in Sydney that this is really just a sampler for your first-time stay. I hope it has provided you with some Sydney travel inspiration. Be sure to ask the locals for their own don’t-miss tips when you are in town; the city’s best-kept secrets are just waiting to be shared.
Also read: 7 offbeat things to do in Sydney
This article originally appeared in the October 2015 issue of Smile magazine.