I was lucky enough to spend the better part of a year, in the warm embrace of Sydney's clear water beaches, sunny palms trees and boisterous people. While you might not have a whole year to spend in Sydney, there is plenty you can fit in, in even the most hurried itinerary. Here are the best things to do in this harbourside city for any and all interests! I've broken the list down into Sights & Attractions, Activities and Eateries so you can find exactly what you're looking for.
Sights & Attractions
One of the first places I came after getting off the plane in Australia was to the Royal Botanic Gardens. There is something about wandering the green, tree-lined pathways and brightly coloured flower gardens which put me at ease and made the jetlag float away. Despite being a stone's throw away from the centre of town, this place feels a mile away from the hustle and bustle. If you've never been to Australia before, this is also a wonderful place to get to know the different flora and fauna which dot the landscape. Keep your eye opens for the various birds which call this place home. Coming from North America, seeing wild cockatoos, parrots, wattlebird and lyrebirds is like stepping into another world.
On every postcard, every brochure, every travel guide and even every travel blog, you'll find pictures of the Sydney Opera House. Even if you're not a fan of opera, studying the building as an architectural masterpiece is a must for any Australian visitor. Designed by modern architect Jorn Utzon, it was created to resemble a set of opening ship sails in the shape of abstracted seashells. While the design has been somewhat divisive, you need to make your way down to the harbour to see it for yourself. It is now known as one of the most iconic buildings of the 20th century and facing out onto magnificent seaside there's no better view in the city.
An hour and a half north-west of Syndey are the stunning Blue Mountains. The first time I came here I couldn't believe all this beauty could be found in Australia. When I first pictured Australia, I thought of desert landscapes with red rocks and golden sand. But the Blue Mountains are a lush panorama of brilliant green treetops, bright blue skies and sparkling waterfalls. If you've been looking to escape the city, this is the perfect day-trip. Standing atop the lookout point, you can study the Three Sisters rock formation, indulge in the various bakeries which serve locals and tourists alike, as well as the hike down the mountainside to explore the trails and waterfalls below.
While you've made your way up to the Blue Mountains, be sure to stop by the Jenolan Caves. The caves contain stunning underground rivers, angelic limestone formations and ancient stalactites. The Jenolan caves require a guided tour ticket but the guides are well worth the price of admission as their fantastical storytelling abilities make the unmoving rocks, come to life.
In the midst of the busy city centre stands, what looks like an old castle. Built in 1846, less than a hundred years after Australia was colonized. The Government House in Sydney was home to Australia's various Governors over the years but is now a museum. The building is so important due to the beautiful architecture. Its neo-gothic influences can be found along the walls, structure and in the art inside. While gothic architecture might not be what you think of when you this Australia, this is what is so wonderful about this country. It surprises you ar every corner.
The Rocks was originally the first European settlement in Australia, established in 1788. While the first building erected here was made of thatch and wattle, some of the houses were made of local sandstone and still stand today. This small area of town is now a very popular tourist district but the history which lies in between the souvenir shops can still be found if you look closely enough. Visit Cadman's cottage, the oldest residential house in Sydney, for a peek into the daily life of Australian's in the 1800s. If you are someone with an affection for the macabre, you might consider taking a guided ghost tour of the Rocks after the sun goes down. While they might not be "scary" they are full of history about the darker sides of Australia and it's criminal contingent.
Walk the University of Sydney Campus
While in the city centre, I implore you to take a walk around the University of Sydney. Founded in 1850, it has some of the most marvelous architecture in the entire city. Today, it is ranked as one of the top 10 most beautiful university in the world. Most of the buildings are open to the public, so you can wander around the hallways, courtyards and even food halls. The campus feels like Hogwarts in many ways since it's design was inspired by many old English schools. The cafeteria serves up reasonably priced food since they're for students, so if you're looking for a bargain and a great place for a picnic, head on down here.
Sydney, being a huge metropolitan city, is a hub for fantastical street art. And there is most definitely something about Australian art which I find absolutely compelling. Being so far removed from the rest of the world, they are both inspired by the west but also create something completely new for themselves since they don't feel compelled to be like them. Most of this can be explored by taking the side streets instead of main roads. New pieces pop up every day and disappear just as quickly. So take leave of the main sights and see what you can discover off the beaten track!
When you think Australia, you think of the beach. And the most iconic of all the beaches in Sydney is Bondi Beach. Many will argue there are more intimate, less touristy places to spend your time at but this beach is so popular for a reason. It's way more than JUST a BEACH. Bondi is easily accessible by public transit so even if you're not renting a car, you can make your way here with ease. The beach itself is nestled between two suburban landscapes, which dot the skyline with bursts of colour. Surrounding the beach are dozens of shops and food vendors selling iconic Australian grub to picnic with on the sands. The atmosphere is full of life and energy. So grab a towel and head into the water. But if you're scared to get in the ocean this next point will be right up your alley.
Swim in Ocean Pool
An Ocean Pool? "Now, what's that?" you might say. For many young children learning to swim, being thrown right into the ocean is a little daunting. So is braving waters where sharks are known to wander if you're someone who is paranoid about that (although it's very very rare.) These man-made pools are situated beside the sea and filled with ocean water. Entry to the pools is only $7 and well worth the price for peace of mind if you dream of swimming in the ocean, but too afraid of what creatures lie beneath. Bondi isn't the only place where you can find these ocean pools but their is one of the most iconic.
Every time someone asks me what they should do while in Syndey, the first thing I tell them is to be sure to do this coastal walk. The Bondi to Coogee boardwalk takes you along the cliffside next to the ocean to see various parks, the famous Waverley Cemetery, many different scenic picnic spots and access to the best swimming holes in the city. The walk takes about 3 hours at a leisurely pace but if you want to stop at the various cafes and restaurants along the way you could easily spend the entire day out there. Be sure to bring hats and sunscreen since most of this area is uncovered.
While spending time at a zoo might seem like a strange "must-do" for any seasoned traveller, I would recommend it to everyone. Taronga Zoo is truly an incredible place with views across the bay to the cityscape of Sydney Harbour, a view unlike you'll get anywhere else. The zoo is set along the cliffside and you walk up and down lush green pathways, where the animal exhibits seem nestled in naturally. To get to the zoo, you have to take a ferry from Circular Quay, then a cable car up to the entrance of the zoo. Both of these modes of transportation are not just necessary but a beautiful tour of the city itself. Inside the zoo you'll get to see many different animals unique to Australia like koalas, platypus', and, of course, kangaroos. If you have a little bit of extra cash to splash out you can even stay overnight at the park in their Roar and Snore luxury tents situated atop the zoo where you'll have the best view of Syndey this side of the harbour.
The waterways of Sydney are home to dozens upon dozens of tour companies, willing to take tourists out for putters around the harbour. But if you're looking for a scenic ride at a quarter of the price, jump on the Manly Ferry! You can ride the Ferry from Circular Quay down to Manly Terminal and despite it being nothing more than public transportation, the ride is an incredible way of taking in the sights of the city.
Walk Across Harbour Bridge
While some daredevils might want to take the Bridge walk to the extreme and climb across the top of the bridge, for the rest of us who are either too scared or too poor, a gentle stroll along the pedestrian walkway is still an iconic experience for anyone visiting Australia or Sydney for the first time. At night, the city lights up and if you look over to the north you can see the lights of Luna Park dazzling across the night sky.
If you love art, you need to make your way to the Art Gallery of NSW. While the building is an impressive monument to Australian architecture and their collection of worldly's artists is a pleasure to behold, the real gift of this place is its Australian collection. And for good reason. Blnded with historical, modern and indigenous artists, these painting and installations help you connect with the Australian culture and history in a way that is otherwise sometimes hard to understand.
My favourite place for Surf Lessons is Manly Surf School. Maybe I'm biased since it's my favourite beach but Manly's slightly less crowded waters also are great for learning to surf without constantly running into people like you would at Bondi. Lessons run here several times a day, in the busy seasons be sure to call to book in advance. You can just try it out for the day, or give it a whole weekend to see if you can master this very Australian endeavour. You can't come back from a trip to Australia without someone asking you, "did you go surfing?!" and you want the answer to be "YES!"
In the early 19th century, all of Sydney's water reserves were supplied through the Paddington Reservoir. But as early as they were created, they were shut down due to industrial improvements in the distribution of water. The reservoir lay dormant for years until 2009 when the architecturally stunning reservoirs were transformed from forgotten history into an immaculate garden park for the public. You can now explore this treasure of Sydney's past, traversing raised walkways, lunching on hidden picnic tables and simply getting lost in this incredible space.
Australia's proximity to Asia results in some of the best Asian fusion restaurants the world over. And the best place to dig into this incredible cuisine can be found along Kensington street, along their self-titled "Spice Alley". Spice Alley is made up of 18th-century historic townhomes and modern restaurants. The tiny laneway feels like hidden passageway. Hanging Chinese lanterns colour the skyline and the smells of Singapore pour out from the kitchen and onto the street. Many of the restaurants here spill out onto the streets on small patio tables so you can eat in the open and enjoy that Australian air!
Strolling the aisles of a farmer's market early in the morning, smelling the fresh produce, studying the foreign offerings and listening to the vendors scream out their daily specials is one of the best ways to start any day. Paddy's Market is Sydney's largest farmers markets open. It has been open for over 150 years now and houses over 1,000 stalls, so there is something for any appetite. If you're looking for cheap souvenir this is also a great place to come since the stalls also sell fashions, accessories, home good and yes, souvenirs.
Party on Oxford Street
If there is one thing that Australians do better than anyone else it's partying! This country eternally put a smile on my face. Oxford Street is one of Sydney's most vibrant neighbourhoods which still retains a ton of historical charm. It is the heart of gay and lesbian culture and as such has dozens of hip bars and restaurants that are often better options for tourists than the hard knock pubs of the inner city. Everyone here is so welcoming and friendly and if you happen to be here over Pride weekend, get ready for a wild ride! There are so many bars to hop in and out of along the street but my favourite is Pocket Bar. This hipster bar is filled with modern street art on the walls, vintage couches on the floor and some of the best cocktails in the city in your hand!
Sydney Fish Market
Australia is surrounded on all sides by the ocean, so it should be no big surprise that seafood is one of its most vibrant industries. The Fish Market in Sydney was first established in 1945 and processes over 14,500 tonnes of seafood every year. While you might not be in the market for quite that much, the market also has dozens of different restaurants and cafes serving up the catch of the day. My favourite are the Oyster tasting flights where you can sample all different kinds of these molluscs until you find your absolute favourite!
Din Tai Fung originally opened up in Taipei, Taiwan and now their flagship location seats hundreds of people a day. Their proximity to Australia meant that once they began to expand internationally, Australia was one of their first locations outside Taipei. Now, there are three different locations just in Sydney, so clearly, the Aussie's are a fan. Their long heralded xiao long bao, a soup dumpling filled with pork, is their keystone menu items and believe you me, you'll need more than one order. No matter which location you try, there is usually a line but the smallish menu, and quick on their feet staff, means you'll never have to wait longer than needed.
Lots of people come up to me and ask what they should eat while they're in Australia, and sometimes it's hard to answer this question. Although there are a handful of things which are notoriously Australian it's true that there are not as many iconic "meals" as you might find when travelling to Asia or even Europe. But what I DO tell them is it's the ingredients which make all the difference in Australia. Australian lamb, their locally grown vegetables, wine pairings and fresh seafood all contribute to some of the best meals in the world, albeit not perhaps the most "foreign" food despite being halfway around the world. Nomad is one of the best examples of this with their seasonal menus using only local Australian ingredients to create some absolutely incredible dishes.
While I knew that beer was the national beverage of Australia, I had no idea that Australia had such a HUGE coffee culture. Even when I lived in student residence my housemates would make themselves frothed milk every morning for their coffee. Mecca Espresso is located right in the centre of the city, along historic King Street, but has a laid-back and cheerful atmosphere. I would love nothing more than to order a large cappuccino and sit on the patio to people watch all day long.
In the heat of Australia's summer or even just a hot winter day, there is nothing better than a good ice cream cone. And when I say 'good', I mean 'good times'. Good Time Ice Cream is a next step up from regular ice cream. They offer decadent toppings and put a modern twist on traditional soft serve. My favourite offering is the "Ziggy Stardust" which is smoked vanilla bean ice cream topped with blackberry crispies, pop rocks, strawberry powder and gold dust stars. Fabulously instagrammable.
Lay by the beach, eat and drink to your hearts content and wander the streets, whatever you do there's fun to be found around every corner.