Between the eternal rival cities of Sydney and Melbourne, my heart goes to Melbourne, but I must admit that Sydney is probably the most beautiful and a highly photogenic place. Built around a gorgeous harbour, its location is also truly fantastic, with the Blue Mountains directly outside the city to the West and a stunning coastline to the South. If you’re travelling to Australia, the chances are high that you’ll spend at least a few days in Sydney so here’s a list of 10 things to do in and around the biggest city of the country.
📷 For more pictures have a look at my gallery of photos of Sydney.
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1/ Take pictures of the Opera House
I start with the most obvious. The Sydney Opera House is one of the most iconic buildings in the world, along with the Eiffel Tower or the Statue of Liberty. Staring at this architectural masterpiece for the first time is unforgettable! Its shape might suggest a sailing ship, but the Danish architect Jørn Utzon got actually inspired by peeling an orange: if you combined all the structures of the building, they would create a perfect sphere.
There are many different lookouts to admire it. The most famous is probably Mrs Macquaries Point in the Royal Botanic Gardens: day and night, the view from there with the Opera House and the Harbour Bridge is amazing… but might also get a bit spoiled by the thousands of tourists. The view from the other side of Circular Quay is also spectacular but with the disadvantage that the Harbour Bridge is now behind you. Finally, if you cross the bridge (see below) to the suburb of Kirribilli across the harbour, you’ll get a very different perspective over the Opera with the city in the background; the exact same view that the Australian Prime Minister can enjoy from his official residence on Kirribilli Point.
2/ Cross the Harbour Bridge
The Harbour Bridge is the second icon of Sydney. Along with the Opera House it forms a fabulous and world-famous panorama. Going across the Harbour Bridge is a must when you visit Sydney, for the amazing view that it provides over the harbour, the city and the Opera.
For the more audacious, it is also possible to climb the Harbour Bridge; well, the more audacious but also the wealthiest, as it costs not less than 168$ for the lower arch, and up to 388$ for the upper arch at dawn! For a much more affordable price, you can also climb to the top of the South-East pylon (the closest one to the city). The view over Sydney harbour is probably a bit less extraordinary than from the summit of the bridge, but at least it only costs 15$ and you can see a little exhibition about its construction.
While you’re on the other side of the bridge, take some time to go to Luna Park (free entrance, you only pay for the rides) and walk along the quiet streets of Kirribilli.
3/ Take the ferry to Manly
In other cities around the world, people catch a train or a bus to go to work. In Sydney, many people take a ferry as it’s the easiest way to travel in this city built around the water. If you’re only visiting for a few days, you have to take one of these cute little boats at least once. And what could be a better destination than Manly, on the North side of the harbour?
The journey by itself is fabulous. It’ such a pleasure to navigate in the middle of Sydney, so close to the Opera House and with the Harbour Bridge in the background.
From Manly Wharf, a wide pedestrian avenue called The Corso will get you to the beautiful Manly Beach. It’s a great place to swim, relax or take a surf lesson. Take the path to the right following the pristine water of the Pacific Ocean (when I saw the colour of the water I completely forgot that I was still in Sydney, surrounded by millions of people) until the gorgeous Shelly Beach, a little cove perfect for a sunbathing afternoon. Bring some food with you and use the self-service barbecues to feel like a real Sydneysider!
If you don’t feel like spending too many hours lying on the sand, you can also walk around North Head, the end of Manly Peninsula. It provides some gorgeous lookouts over the northern beaches of Sydney.
You can easily spend an entire day in Manly but try to take the ferry back to Sydney around sunset time: on a beautiful day, the colours of the sky with the silhouettes of the Opera House and the Harbour Bridge are a fabulous sight.
4/ Walk from Bondi to Coogee
Bondi Beach is probably the most famous beach of Australia, but in my opinion it’s by far not the most beautiful. Yes, this large stretch of white sand is pretty nice and the waves are great for surfing, but on sunny summer days it gets ridiculously crowded. For me the real interest of going to Bondi Beach is to follow the 6-kilometer coastal walk leading to Coogee.
The path begins to the right of Bondi Beach when you face the ocean, just above the open-air Bondi Baths. It’s a succession of beautiful beaches (Tamarama, Bronte, Clovelly and Gordon’s Bay) until you reach Coogee beach, a little smaller than Bondi Beach but also very popular. All of them have plenty of facilities (picnic tables, public toilets…) and are perfect for a relaxing couple of hours. If you don’t want to swim in the ocean there’s another seawater swimming pool at Clovelly Beach similar to the Bondi Baths. You’ll also walk past the Waverley Cemetery, built directly on top of tall cliffs. I don’t know if people buried there are able to appreciate the view but it’s certainly not the worst place on Earth to spend the eternal life!
Take some time to admire the colour of the water, the tropical vegetation and the tall cliffs along the way. Once again, you can easily forget that the buzzing centre of Sydney is just a few kilometers away.
You can obviously decide to walk backwards and start from Coogee to finish in Bondi. If you don’t have your own vehicle, there are many public transport options. Heading to Bondi from the city, you can catch the train line T4 from Town Hall, Martin Place or Kings Cross until Bondi Junction and change for buses 380 or 333, or you can directly catch bus 333 from Circular Quay. If you’re heading to Coogee, you can also take the train until Bondi Junction and then hop on bus 313 or take buses 373 or 374 from Circular Quay.
5/ Explore The Rocks, the historical suburb of Sydney
Nestled below the Harbour Bridge, The Rocks is the historical precinct of Sydney. This is where the history of the city began, in the late 18th century. And not so many things have changed since then! Many ancient sandstone buildings of this era are still standing and can be seen along the paved streets and lanes of the area. Take some time to explore the nooks and crannies of the suburb, mostly along George Street and Argyle Street. At the intersection between Argyle Street and Kent Street you can even find the oldest pub of Sydney, the Lord Nelson Brewery Hotel, which was built during the 1830s.
Climb also to Observatory Hill for a stunning view over the Harbour Bridge. It might be one of the best panoramas over it.
6/ Watch the fireworks from Darling Harbour
The New Year’s Eve fireworks in Sydney are among the most famous in the world. It always felt funny to me to watch people celebrating New Year on TV knowing that it was still the middle of the afternoon back home in France! But if you can’t make it for that special day don’t worry as there’s a catch-up session every Saturday night at the Darling Harbour.
To be honest, these fireworks are neither very long nor very spectacular, but they offer a good reason to come to this part of the city where many tourist attractions can be found (Sydney Aquarium, Madame Tussauds…), as well as a lot of stylish bars and restaurants. Formal dress required! Chinatown is also nearby, and the gorgeous Queen Victoria Building is pretty close too. A shopping session there (or at least a simple visit with your camera ready) is another must of Sydney!
7/ Visit the Royal Botanic Gardens
Ideally located next to Circular Quay, the Royal Botanic Gardens of Sydney provide a stunning view over the Opera House and the tall buildings of the CBD. They are perfect for a relaxing break. Take some time to walk along the quiet and shady paths, have a look at the Government House, enjoy the tropical vegetation, the gorgeous trees and the pretty flowers, and watch out for birds… and spiders!
Where to stay in Sydney? Sydney is an expensive city, especially if you want to stay close to the centre, but I found Surry Hills to be a good compromise between location and price. This LGBT-friendly suburb (you can’t miss the dozens of rainbow flags everywhere as well as the rainbow crossing directly painted on the street!) is well connected with public transports: Museum Station is close and there are direct buses to Bondi and Coogee. There are also numerous of bars and restaurants to go out. Here are two places I particularly enjoyed:
-on the quiet Reservoir Street, BangBang Cafe is ideal for a delicious brunch. The pancakes were absolutely yummy!
-for a good coffee in the morning or a glass of wine in the evening, the shady terrace of Pieno on Crown Street is the place to go. Don’t hesitate to try their delicious muffins too.
8/ Explore the majestic Blue Mountains
📷 For more pictures have a look at my gallery of photos of the Blue Mountains.
Less than 100 kms West of Sydney, the Blue Mountains remained for a very long time an impenetrable area. Even today, although there’s even a direct train line from Sydney, these wide forests, deep gorges and tall cliffs still seem to be particularly wild and hostile. The mountains take their name from the blue colour of the haze floating above the trees: it comes from the evaporation of a fine mist of eucalyptus oil refracting the light and, guess what, it really looks blue!
There are several points of view with tremendous panoramas over the Blue Mountains, which were listed as a World Heritage Area by UNESCO in 2000. The most popular is located at Echo Point in Katoomba, with a lookout over the famous rock formations of the Three Sisters. Try to go there early in the morning or at the end of the afternoon to avoid the huge crowds taking selfies in front of this gorgeous landscape. Not far from Echo Point, Scenic World provides different options for tourists with a Skyway, a Cableway and a Railway going down in the valley. It’s quite expensive though in my opinion and I prefer going on a hike to enjoy the natural beauty of the Blue Mountains.
If there was only one other place to visit after Echo Point, it would be the Govetts Leap lookout, located in Blackheat, a few kilometres after Katoomba. It overlooks a completely different valley compared to Echo Point, with another fantastic scenery… and the big advantage of being off the beaten paths!
Hiking in the Blue Mountains could be relatively easy if you decide to stay on top of the cliffs, but it can also be really challenging if you walk down into the valley… because you’ll have to climb up at some point! I did a beautiful hike starting from Wentworth Falls in 2016 but when I came back in 2019 some tracks that I used were closed due to rock falls. Enquire at the Visitor Centre in Katoomba to know what the best options are.
9/ Dive into the Figure 8 Pool
Warning: just as I was about to publish this article, I read on facebook that a tourist was missing after getting caught by a wave at the Figure 8 Pool, and that not less than 9 people died at this spot since 2016 (source)! Be aware of the risks if you decide to go there anyway and follow the recommendations below.
Did you know that the second oldest National Park in the world was just a few kilometres outside of Sydney? The Royal National Park was established in 1879 (the oldest one is Yellowstone in the United States, created in 1872) and is now a popular destination for Sydneysiders and tourists. The entrance is 10$ per day per vehicle.
One of the most famous features of the park is the Figure 8 Pool, a little natural pool with an extraordinary shape. It’s another challenging hike to get there: from the Garrawarra Farm carpark, you’ll first walk down through a tropical forest until you reach Burning Palms Beach, then follow the ocean for another 900m until you reach the pools. There’s only one pool with a figure 8 shape but you can swim in a few other ones with less distinctive shapes. Save some energy to climb all the way back up!
Be extremely careful when you plan your trip: Figure 8 Pool isn’t accessible at high tide (the water covers it entirely) and waves can be very dangerous (have a look at the pictures below!). Go only between one hour before and one hour after low tide to enjoy the sight at its best and at its safest. Here’s a link to the tide forecast in Sydney.
10/ Admire the whitest sand on Earth at Jervis Bay
📷 For more pictures have a look at my gallery of photos of the South Coast of New South Wales.
Jervis Bay is about 200 kilometres/3 hours drive to the South of Sydney so take at least a weekend to go there. It’s too far away for only one day, especially as there’s so much to see!
Hyams Beach on the southern coast of Jervis Bay has officially been declared the beach with the whitest sand on Earth by the Guinness Book of Records. This reputation brought quite a lot of tourists to it, but to be honest other beaches around Jervis Bay look exactly as white as Hyams Beach and are way quieter so don’t hesitate to skip it during your visit (pictures below have been taken at Nelsons and Blenheim beach).
But what you definitely shouldn’t skip during a visit to Jervis Bay is the Booderee National Park. Located on the southernmost part of the bay, this park (10$ entry for 48 hours per vehicle) offers a wide range of activities: snorkelling, hiking, sunbathing on its gorgeous beaches… and watching its incredibly rich wildlife. Kangaroos and wallabies are everywhere (be extra careful while driving, especially at dawn and dusk) but the most interesting part is up in the air with dozens of amazing birds. Green Patch is the best place to see all of them: parrots, kookaburras, rainbow lorikeets with their stunning colours… It was an extraordinary moment for me to observe all these birds from so close.
On your way back to Sydney, if you have enough time escape the highway after Wollongong to take the Grand Pacific Drive. Most famous part of this gorgeous road, the 455-meter-long Sea Cliff Bridge between Clifton and Coalcliff is an architectural masterpiece.
I hope you’ll enjoy exploring all these places during your next visit to Sydney! Do you know any other thing that should be part of this list? Share it in the comments!
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