7 Hidden Gems to Discover in Sydney

The underground tunnels of Sydney
The underground tunnels of Sydney | © myevolvingeye/Shutterstock
Caitlin Morahan

Despite being one of the youngest colonies in the world, Sydney has never been short of things to do and see. The magnificent sails of the Opera House, the golden expanse of Bondi Beach, the thrilling climb of the Sydney Harbour Bridge (or the “coathanger”, as the Aussies fondly call it) – whatever your taste for adventure, culture or history, Sydney has the perfect thing for you. But if secluded gardens, secret beaches, and one-of-a-kind activities are for you, check out this list of Sydney’s best kept secret hideaways.

Shark Island, Sydney Harbour

One of the most isolated gems of the Royal National Park, Shark Island is the island getaway you’ve been longing for, sans the long-haul flight and sky-high price tags. It’s accessible only by boat (or if you’re super keen, kayaks). With stunning, 360-degree views of Sydney Harbour and its lush lawns, it’s the perfect place to take a picnic. And hey, you’re not driving, so a few glasses of crisp chardonnay wouldn’t go astray. After lunch, explore the hidden grottos, built by hand in the 1900’s when Sydney was first settled. The rock pools are home to hundreds of species of marine life, so it’s worth taking a snorkel to explore some of the most untouched havens of Sydney Harbour.

To get to Shark Island, take a ferry from Circular Quay or Darling Harbour.

Auburn Botanical Gardens

A more secluded, more tranquil alternative to Sydney’s Botanical Gardens, the oasis at Auburn sprawls over nearly 10 hectares, with every inch filled with some kind of flora or fauna. Peacocks strut through the Australian Native Bush Walk, and colourful geese flock to the Pool of Reflection.

While you’re in the neighbourhood, make a day of it and visit the Peacock Gallery and Art Studio located just outside the entrance to the gardens.

To get there, catch the train to Auburn and take the community loop bus. It stops right at the entrance of the gardens – you can’t miss it!

The stunning Japanese Garden

Arthur McElhone Reserve, Elizabeth Bay House

Standing on the forefront of Elizabeth Bay is the historical Elizabeth Bay House, part of Sydney’s Living Museums. It was built ‘at great expense’ in 1900 by the wealthiest settler. By day, you can tour the house, with it’s alluring creaky floorboards and antique furniture. The rooms are regal with shadowy nooks and crannies, as well as a cellar you just know is haunted by some done-wrong convict. The house often has special events, such as Nighlight Tours that explore the house by candlelight – if you’re game. For a bit for extravaganza, Sydney Living Museums occasionally hold masked balls, celebrating Sydney’s history.

Nestled in front of Elizabeth Bay House is a picture-perfect garden reserve, with a lush garden and one of the best harbour views you can get from across the bridge. It’s a beautiful place for a spot of lunch and a stroll, just a seven-minute walk from Potts Point and Kings Cross train station.

Elizabeth Bay House stands proudly over the bay

Milk Beach, Vaucluse

Waves not your thing? No worries, look no further than Milk Beach in Vaucluse. A perfect expanse of paper-flat water cover for a relaxing swim in an isolated Eastern Suburbs location. It looks over pretty much the whole of Sydney, including the breathtaking harbour. With white sand and aqua water, it’s a miracle this small beach has been kept under wraps for so long.

The trek is worth making an all-day excursion, so take your giant, inflatable flamingo and a six-pack of Corona’s, and you’ll be set for the day.

To get there it’s best to drive (there is plenty of parking available), but if you need to use public transport take the bus from Bondi Junction.

The stunning sunset at Milk Beach

Wendy’s Secret Garden

When Australian artist Brett Whitely died in 1992, his wife Wendy used her grief to fuel a project – to turn an abandoned, derelict train yard into the garden of your dreams. Over 25 years, Wendy and her gardeners have nurtured native trees, weeping willows, brought in exotic flowers from around the globe, planted ferns that curl around the winding paths and vines that grow along the exposed timber walkways. It’s an adventure to walk through the bronze busts, stone fountains and statues of Cupid giving you a sly wink. It’s an assault on the senses, and the perfect place for solitude when the hustle and bustle of the city becomes too overwhelming.

The garden also offers one of the most majestic views of the sparkling Sydney Harbour, the foreshore stretching past the towering fig trees and offering the perfect view of the bridge. Tucked away into the shadow of skyscrapers in the CBD, it’s a secret retreat for five minutes of peace and quiet, or five hours of complete meditation.

How do you get there, you may ask? As it is a secret garden, there aren’t any clear directions. Just head to Lavender Bay and follow the signs (if someone hasn’t moved them). Good luck!

Harbour Bridge view from Wendy’s Secret Garden

Paddington Reservoir Gardens

A tranquil retreat in the midst of the skyscrapers and Chinese eateries in the heart of Paddington, this sunken garden features hanging gardens, water features, high walkways and enormous echoing chambers. In the past, the garden had numerous diverse uses – such as a parking garage and a petrol station – however, it still maintains most of the original architecture. It was a vital water source for the rapidly growing colony in the 19th century and is now heritage-listed. The renovation into the hanging garden conserved most of the original architecture and is an eclectic mix of old and new, except instead of water pumps there are boardwalks, shady trees, plentiful flower gardens, and a roof-top retreat that is perfect for a spot of sunbathing with a good book and a bottle of iced tea.

To get to the gardens is free, and you need to take buses 378, 382 and 380 from Wynyard and Central train stations.

The original architecture of Paddington Reservoir

Tank Stream Tours, Sydney CBD

Probably one of Australia’s most exclusive tours, these tunnels are deep underground the bustling streets of Sydney, where the city’s first water supply ran in the early days of the colonial settlement. Only open twice a year to members of the general public, the only way to score one of these golden tickets is to enter their draw and win.

If you’re one of the lucky few to be successful, clear the space in your diary – there will be a lot of disappointed history enthusiasts out for your head if you let it go to waste. Expect moist gloom, a bright hardhat, goggles, gumboots, air so thick you can slice it, and an eerie darkness so penetrating, even the flash of the latest iPhone won’t capture an image to remember the adventure.

Tip: keep an eye out for the Mason symbol carved into the walls by the builders.

The underground tunnels of Sydney

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