Tucked away among the high-rises and ocean backdrop are Sydney’s beautiful and tranquil green spaces. Many of its parks also offer undisturbed views of the city’s most iconic landmarks, all for free.
Escape the concrete jungle, breathe in the fresh sea air, get active, discover some not-so-secret gardens and learn about the city’s history and transformation. Sydney invites everyone to be surrounded by sprawling greenery, local wildlife and indigenous flora, and to switch off from the rest of the world – even if just for a little while.
On the water’s edge, in the heart of the city, the Royal Botanic Garden Sydney is a verdant oasis spanning 30 hectares (75 acres). It’s framed by the iconic harbour, offering views of the Opera House and Harbour Bridge, as well as the Domain. The Botanic Garden is home to nearly 28,000 plants and more than 3,370 trees from more than 75 countries. It also hosts the Cadi Jam Ora Garden and The Calyx horticultural display space. It’s best explored on foot, but you could also hop on the Choo Choo Express train for free, which runs for 25 minutes every half an hour. Free guided walking tours are also available daily, led by volunteer guides.
On the other side of the harbour is Barangaroo Reserve, a former industrial site that has been transformed into an expansive green space with views of the harbour. There are extensive walking and cycling trails and picnic spots. Barangaroo cultural tour guide Tim Gray says the park has been landscaped with plants only indigenous to Australia. There are more than 75,000 trees and shrubs mostly endemic to the Sydney Basin. “To be able to share with people the untold history of Barangaroo, Gadigal culture and how the Aboriginal people of Sydney Harbour lived prior to colonisation is one of the main reasons I love working here,” Gray says.
Situated in Sydney’s eastern suburbs, Centennial Park is a grand-scale urban inner-city park. It’s affectionately known as ‘people’s park’ and is the go-to spot for city-siders looking to enjoy the outdoors. You’ll spot locals doing everything from walking their dogs, to jogging and rollerblading. For those less keen to get physical, there’s plenty of space to enjoy a picnic. It’s also home to plenty of local wildlife, including those that are listed as ‘vulnerable’, such as the grey-headed flying fox colony that can be found hanging upside down at Lachlan Swamp, as well as the white-bellied sea eagle and the freckled duck.
Conveniently located next to Central, Sydney’s main train station, is Prince Alfred Park. According to City of Sydney Deputy Lord Mayor Jess Scully, the space was recently redesigned into a “poetic reinterpretation of the 19th-century parks but with a contemporary reinterpretation in the way colours are used, and the kind of spaces that are supported and encouraged in the space.” These include the barbecue and picnic areas, the bright blue basketball courts that have been designed to match the bright blue lamp posts and the Prince Alfred Park Public Pool, the city’s first heated outdoor swimming pool.
It’s a park with a million-dollar view on Observatory Hill. It offers panoramic views of the harbour and Harbour Bridge – all for free. It’s also home to Sydney Observatory, as part of the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences. Admission is free during the day, but evening tours must be booked in advance. “Visiting the observatory itself is an incredible experience because it tells you how navigation was tied to the stars in that era,” says Deputy Lord Mayor Scully. Prior to becoming a park, it was the location for Fort Phillip, built in the 1800s. Deputy Lord Mayor Scully explains how it was armed with cannons and a gunpowder magazine.
Rolling hills, wetlands, lush grass and incredible birdlife make up the inner west’s beloved park. “Most people don’t know it was previously a dump that has transformed into one of the most beautiful parks,” says Deputy Lord Mayor Scully. “As part of recreating these wetlands that now flow alongside the Alexandria canal, it has brought an incredible amount of wildlife back to the area.” The area’s industrial heritage, however, has not been completely forgotten with the remains of a brick kiln and its towering chimneys still standing as a dominating feature of the corner of the park that leads out to St Peters and Newtown.
As Australia’s oldest park located right in the heart of Sydney’s Central Business District, Hyde Park is described by Deputy Lord Mayor Scully as the “most formal park and the most historical”. “I love it because it’s quite regimented in its design and speaks to a couple of past eras,” she says. The park is divided into two sections: north and south. The north end of the park features the Sandringham Memorial Garden and Fountain, while the south end boasts the imposing Anzac Memorial and the Pool of Reflection – a cultural landmark to honour the servicemen and women of the Australian Defence Force and their families. Nearby is a sculpture by Indigenous Australian artist, Tony Albert, to equally acknowledge the service of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. “What I like about the garden is that it gives this little moment of intimacy and privacy in the city,” Deputy Lord Mayor Scully says.
Wendy Whiteley’s Secret Garden may be Sydney’s worst kept secret, but even so, it’s still a hidden gem among the parklands of Lavender Bay. Originally created in 1992 by Wendy Whiteley in honour of her late husband, Australian artist Brett Whiteley. Wendy transformed what was a derelict train yard – located at the foothill of her private home – into an urban oasis filled with native and exotic plants, ferns and fig trees, as well as a few local brush turkeys that can be found wandering around. Beyond the ferns, the garden reveals majestic views of the harbour foreshore, including the Harbour Bridge as its backdrop.