The waterside city of Sydney is a glittering metropolis of boats, bays and beaches, with world-famous landmarks that shouldn’t be missed. These 20 attractions will help you get under the skin of Sydney, and discover some unexpected sides of the city along the way.
The stark white sails of the Sydney Opera House and the steel magnificence of the Sydney Harbour Bridge are on the bucket list of every traveller to Australia. But there are plenty more essential stops you should make when exploring the Harbour City, including some off-the-beaten-path gems that capture Sydney’s diversity and vibrancy. Lace-up your walking shoes – you’re going to need ankle support and a soft tread to get through this list of must-dos.
When the relatively unknown Danish architect Jørn Utzon won the competition to design Australia’s national opera house, he probably didn’t know his design would go down in history as one of Sydney’s most famous landmarks. Stroll along the harbour and take in the pearly white exterior for free, or opt for a guided tour inside. If you really want to splurge, purchase a ticket for an upcoming opera – the incredible acoustics alone are well worth the price tag.
One of Australia’s oldest neighbourhoods, The Rocks was once a slum located on the arriving convicts’ side of town. While it was long frequented by visiting sailors and prostitutes, the area today is a trendy Sydney locale, with boutique stores and quaint cafes lining its cobbled streets. Have a drink at the Fortune of War, Sydney’s oldest pub, and check out the haunted Susannah Place, where the ghost of a little convict girl supposedly roams at dusk.
For breathtaking (and free) 360-degree views of Sydney, a visit to Observatory Hill is a must. The grassy knoll is the perfect place to spread a picnic blanket, open a bottle of wine and kick back to watch the sun go down over the harbour. Built to tell the time accurately via astronomical observations, the time ball on the roof still drops at 1pm. You can take a tour of the observatory, or even join a stargazing class at night (booking is essential).
Perched on a hill in Northern Sydney, Taronga Zoo boasts an enviable location, as well as an impressive collection of animals from South American jungles, African savannahs, Caribbean oceans and – most importantly – the Australian Outback. The best way to get to Taronga is by catching the ferry, a journey that is part of the adventure itself. From the wharf, the Sky Safari cable car or a bus will whisk you to the main entrance.
Stretching over 30 hectares (74 acres), the lush oasis known as the Royal Botanic Garden sits slap-bang in the middle of Sydney, or the Central Business District (CBD). It’s Australia’s oldest botanical garden and features thousands of native and exotic plants and flowers. Visitors can take a tour, learn about Aboriginal culture or simply relax and enjoy unobscured views of the Sydney Opera House and the large public parklands of The Domain. The garden is one of the most visited attractions in Sydney. Both the garden and The Domain are open every day of the year, and access is free.
No visit to Sydney is complete without seeing the world-famous “Coat Hanger” bridge glistening over Sydney Harbour. If you’ve put aside the funds (it’s not cheap), the Harbour Bridge Climb takes you up the steel ribs of the bridge and provides some of the most astounding views of Sydney available. Otherwise, you can still get an amazing view of the bridge at Pylon Lookout, which costs 19 Australian dollars (£10.20) for entry. The lookout is 87 metres (285 feet) above sea level, and you can browse exhibits explaining the history and construction of the bridge on the way up.
For those craving the delicate spices or fiery heat of Chinese food, there’s no better place in Sydney than Chinatown. Dixon Street is the heart of the neighbourhood, which is framed by trees and bookended by ornate paifang (dragon gates). For the most delicious Chinese dumplings in the area, check out the hole-in-the-wall restaurants tucked away in the laneways. The best time to visit is after 5pm on a Friday when Dixon Street hosts night markets selling the tastiest Asian street food this part of the world has to offer.
Sitting in the middle of Sydney Harbour, Cockatoo Island was once a prison where repeat offenders were sent to serve their sentences. It was later transformed into a shipyard, storing the materials that were used to construct the expansion of Sydney. Today, it’s an art installation of old industrial relics and historic architecture. There are regular ferry services to the island, and once you’re there, you’ll find a glampground, rental accommodation and a cafe, along with some top-notch picnic spots. Just $5 (£2.70) will get you an audio guide – perfect for a dawdling, self-guided stroll around the island.
It adorns postcards and Instagram pages everywhere, and Bondi Beach is no disappointment to those who want to soak up that sought-after Australian sunshine. Stretch out on the golden sand and people-watch, throw a Frisbee around, take a dip in the turquoise waves and get some ice cream to cool off as the sun begins to set. It’s the perfect, quintessential Aussie day out. If you aren’t a fan of the ocean, take a dip in the famous Bondi Icebergs swimming pool instead, which is on the outskirts of the beach.
The Quarantine Station sits on Manly’s North Head, and its chilling past has given it a reputation as the most haunted place in Australia. From the 1830s right up until 1984, ships filled with migrants arriving in Sydney were stopped at the station. Passengers suspected to have contagious diseases were offloaded to reduce the risk of epidemics. Consequently, hundreds of migrants died within the walls of the station from the bubonic plague, smallpox, cholera, tuberculosis, typhoid fever and influenza. It’s no surprise that their spirits are said to be trapped within its walls, with paranormal sightings reported almost daily from staff and visitors alike. The visitor centre runs ghost tours nightly, but if you have no interest in being scared out of your wits, there is a history tour at 10am – safe in the hours of daylight.
Indulge your inner child among the vibrant colours and bright lights of Luna Park. At the entrance stands the supersize Luna Park Face, a huge, wide-eyed, grinning head flanked by brightly lit towers on the edge of the harbour. Enter through the mouth to find an array of classic amusement park rides as well as food stands selling fair favourites, such as hotdogs and candy floss. Entry is free, but the attractions will cost you. Either way, a wander through this retro waterside park is worth the trip – the picnic area has fantastic views from the northern side of the harbour.
Australia is well known for its quality seafood, and the Sydney Fish Market is hands down the best place in the city to find the freshest catch of the day. Located in Pyrmont, the market is open every day except Christmas, but be sure to arrive early because the best catches are usually snapped up quickly. If you’re not against rising with the sun and want to get your hands dirty, you can do a behind-the-scenes tour of the markets, which take place every weekday at 6.40am.
Whether you’re an art enthusiast or newbie, no trip to Sydney is complete without a visit to the Art Gallery of New South Wales. Alongside its outstanding regular exhibitions, which include a substantial collection of indigenous art and contemporary works, the gallery hosts renowned touring exhibits from around the world. It also puts on lectures, screenings, artist talks and workshops throughout the year, and a range of free guided tours are offered in multiple languages. Admission to the gallery is free, as are most exhibitions and events.
The beautifully curved bay of Manly is a spectacular spot to swim, snorkel, surf or simply while away Sydney’s long summer months. The best way to get to Manly is to take the ferry from Sydney Harbour, complete with sweeping views of the city and its sparkling harbour. Once you’ve arrived at Manly, consider taking a surfing lesson or stroll along the Manly Scenic Walkway to the century-old Grotto Point Lighthouse, a great lookout point over the water. Then, go to Manly Wharf for a bite to eat or a drink overlooking the shore.
Arguably everything you could ever wish to know about Australia’s history can be found within the walls of this museum, the oldest one in Australia. Founded a mere 40 years after the First Fleet arrived on Aussie shores, it focusses on natural and anthropological exhibitions, including hundreds of stuffed animals and extinct megafauna (think giant wombats) that somehow look plush enough to hug. There is an entire section devoted to Aboriginal culture and history, covering everything from Dreamtime stories to the Stolen Generations. Currently undergoing renovation, the Australian Museum will reopen sometime in mid-2020.
To the east of Sydney lies Watsons Bay, a historic fishing village that is thought to be the first place Captain Cook stopped at on arriving in the harbour. It’s a great place to chill out in Sydney, with its sprawling parks and gorgeous bay. A must-do here is to buy some fish and chips to eat by the water. There are some fancier restaurants, but the dish is best doused in vinegar and coddled in paper to eat on the beach. There’s also a pretty walk, the South Head Heritage Trail, from where you can admire the views over Sydney Harbour as you amble past an old lighthouse, a lightkeeper’s cottage and rusting cannons.
One of Australian’s most beloved and eccentric artists, Brett Whiteley lived hard and fast, and the remnants of his life are evidence of his talent and unconventional styles. Whiteley’s studio (head to Devonshire Street and look for the signs – it’s tricky to locate) is in a former warehouse that the artist bought in 1985, converting it into a studio and exhibition space, and lived in between 1987 and 1992. Frozen in time, it has remained untouched since he died and is preserved as a gallery. Macabre? Perhaps. But it also offers a unique insight into a celebrated creative mind.
The up-and-coming neighbourhood of Barangaroo is the place to go for good food, excellent shopping – and even a bit of culture. The name comes from Aboriginal history, which tells that Barangaroo was an important Cammeraygal woman from the Eora Nation. She was also the second wife of Bennelong, the interlocutor between the Aboriginals and the first British people who arrived in New South Wales. To experience some of the area’s history, take a cultural tour, where you can learn about its Aboriginal past. There are some brilliant places to eat and drink in Barangaroo, so find an outdoor terrace and relax with a plate of grub and some cooling drinks.
Take in some of Sydney’s best beaches by walking between Ben Buckler Point and Waverley Cemetery, passing Bondi, Tamarama, Mackenzies and Bronte beaches along the way. The scenic trail follows a beautiful stretch of coastline and runs along a clifftop path, which will take about an hour and a half to walk. Along the atmospheric trail, you’ll pass plenty of parks and viewpoints to stop at – and, of course, the beaches themselves. Make a whole day of it by taking a picnic and finding a spot for a barbecue for lunch (the beaches are well-equipped, with toilets, changing rooms and play areas).
For a completely different experience in Sydney, head to the Blue Mountains in the region’s western end. Rising out of verdant landscapes, the resplendent cliffs appear to stretch as far as the eye can see. They’re particularly spectacular when low clouds fill the valley. Take in the drama by embarking on a hike through eucalyptus forests, past waterfalls and small villages. From the main town, Katoomba, there are bushwalking trails. However, the most impressive sight is from Echo Point, where the Three Sisters – a trio of craggy peaks – can be viewed in all their splendour.