Australia’s largest city is also considered to be one of the most expensive. But Sydney is actually an ideal destination for travellers on a budget. Here are the top free things to see and do in the city, including history tours, market days and scenic walks.
For first-time visitors to Australia, Sydney is the place to be. Home to the Harbour Bridge, the Opera House, world-class beaches, well-stocked markets and a thought-provoking arts scene, the city is full of things to see. The best part? If the budget is tight, it’s still possible to experience everything Sydney has to offer. Whether you want to while away a day at the beach (there are around 100 to choose from), chill out to live music or enjoy a night of discussions with local artists, there are plenty of free activities to keep any itinerary jam-packed.
A great way to get to know any city quickly is to hit the pavement. Sydney is a very walkable city, and an easy way to orientate oneself quickly is on a free walking tour. I’m Free Walking Tours takes visitors right across the downtown area, along the harbour and into the historic district of The Rocks (for which there’s also a nightly 90-minute tour), covering Sydney’s major buildings, art centres and attractions.
“The local connection means that you are going to find out about not just the places where we think tourists want to go, but also the hidden gems that you’ll find us at in our free time,” says Justine Simpson, director of I’m Free Walking Tours. “On The Rocks tour, for example, we’ll take you down cobbled streets, through hidden lanes, past iconic pubs and historic buildings.”
Love a bit of art? Well, you’re in luck. Sydney’s main galleries are free to visit every day, with each offering something different. As the name suggests, the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) is home to an array of bold artworks. It’s also open late on Wednesdays, which means visitors can take in the art with a few special bonuses. “Wednesday nights at the MCA are a perfect chance for visitors to come to the museum for a fun and relaxed outing midweek,” says Yaël Filipovic, the MCA’s public engagement manager. “With an ever-changing programme, this includes workshops, exhibition tours and live music on our rooftop.”
The Art Gallery of New South Wales exhibits more classic art forms, including an impressive collection of sculptures and paintings by Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists. It’s also open on Wednesday nights for the weekly Art After Hours events, during which the gallery becomes a stage for artist talks, live music and panel discussions.
No matter the time of year, Circular Quay is abuzz with street performers, who belt out everything from traditional Aboriginal music to acoustic covers of contemporary tunes. Arrive before the lunchtime crowds to secure a prime spot along the waterfront (the lawn in front of the MCA is the most coveted position on sunny days), then sit back and listen to some amazing music as the ferries glide in and out of the quay.
Think expensive climbs are the only way to experience one of the most famous bridges in the world? Think again! Simply walk right across Sydney Harbour along the two-way footpaths that line either side of the bridge. The best time to go is early evening, when the sun is setting and lights illuminate Luna Park on one side of the harbour and the central business district (CBD) on the other. It’s also a great way to get a full view of the incredible structure of the bridge.
In the evening, be sure to start on the North Sydney side of the bridge before walking back towards the CBD to get a front-row view of the Badu Gili light show, projected onto the sails of the Opera House each sunset.
The Bondi to Bronte coastal walk is one of the most iconic walks in Sydney, but it’s also definitely the most crowded, especially on weekends. A slightly less crowded and more adventurous alternative is the 10-kilometre (six-mile) track that leads from Spit Bridge and around the headland to Manly. Along the way, take in coastal cliff views at Crater Cove – a great whale-watching spot between the peak migration times of June and October – stopping off at Castle Rock Beach (make sure to pack food, drink, sunscreen and a towel).
It’s hard to believe the oasis that is the Royal Botanic Garden is in fact right in the thick of the city. A great escape for both lunchtime workers and day visitors, it’s best appreciated while on one of the daily tours.
“Your guide will take you off the asphalt path to explore our network of secret, secondary paths, through displays like the Tropical Garden and our Australian Rainforest Garden,” says guide Paul Nicholson. “Along the way, you will learn about our unique history and see some of the birds and animals that call the garden home.” Make sure to check out the very first Wollemi pine to have been planted in the world – one of the rarest trees on the planet.
Weekend markets are a ritual right across Sydney, and The Rocks is home to one of the best. This market stretches across Jack Mundey Place, Playfair Street and George Street, and is a haven for local artisans. It’s the best place to go for home-made accessories, beauty products, gourmet foods and homeware.
As with most markets, the early bird gets the worm – or, in this case, chances to sample fresh produce, roasted nuts, home-made fudge, body lotions and more. If attending on the last Saturday of the month, book ahead on the website for a free creative workshop, where you’ll learn new photography skills, paint a work of art, bottle unique perfume or tie together a macramé plant holder.
Sydney’s best street art is actually just a short train ride from the centre of town. The scene is strong in these parts, and May Lane in St Peters is to Sydney what Hosier Lane is to Melbourne. May Lane is about a 10-minute train ride from Central, and sits just outside St Peters station. The lane acts as a rotating open-air gallery for artists to come and showcase their talents with spray cans.
When done admiring the diversity of street art styles, walk about 20 minutes north to the eclectic hipster neighbourhood of Newtown, where more murals can be found off and around the arterial King Street.