In late May we were incredibly lucky to get the opportunity to visit some of my family over in Sydney. I’m not actually much of a city person by nature, but I adored Sydney. It’s so rich in things to do and see, including two of my favourite things: history and culture.
Even though I originally wrote this as a top 10, I couldn’t resist adding a few more favourites to the list! If you’re planning a longer visit to Sydney, be sure to check out my bonus recommendations from 11-15.
1. Get your bearings with an I’m Free Tour
I find tours the perfect way to acquaint oneself with a large and slightly intimidating city. Even better if it’s a free tour! As such, we kicked off our time in Sydney with an I’m Free tour.
We did the Sydney Sights one first, and that was definitely our favourite of the two. It took us exploring around both well-known and lesser-known landmarks of the city, from the Queen Victoria Building and Hyde Park through to things like Forgotten Songs, the evocative back alley art installation.
The tours genuinely are free, but of course there’s a request for donations at the end. The guides are knowledgeable and engaging, so we felt a donation was definitely earned.
Cost: Free (donation)
More info: I’m Free Tours – Sydney
2. Delve into Sydney’s past with a Museums Pass
If you’re as captivated by history as I am, the Sydney Museums Pass is a convenient and money-saving option to consider!
It lasts for a month and gives you access to twelve historic sites across the city. The most prominent are the four central museums – the Hyde Park Barracks Museum (note: as of 2019 Hyde Park Barracks is closed for renewal), Susannah Place Museum, Justice and Police Museum and the Museum of Sydney – but it really depends on your schedule and interests as to whether it’s worth splashing out on a pass rather than paying individual admission.
I did each of those four, plus Elizabeth Farm out in Rosehill and – on a more recent trip to Sydney in 2019 – I was also able to explore the lovely Vaucluse House (pictured above). I loved so many of them that I’ve devoted a whole post to Sydney’s best museums!
3. Stroll around The Rocks
Historically this neighbourhood had a less than salubrious reputation for prostitution, poverty and disease (bubonic plague hit the area at the turn of the 20th century!). Today, however, the surviving historical buildings are filled with pubs, cafes, galleries and souvenir shops, making it a great place to stroll, browse and take in the architecture.
4. Find calm in the Royal Botanic Garden
So often I find gardens the perfect antidote to the tumult of city life and Sydney’s Royal Botanic Garden is one of the loveliest I’ve been to in a long time. Given its size and the superb variety of things to see, it’s well worth taking a free tour to familiarise yourself with what’s on offer. Then wander around at leisure to properly take in all the individual gardens and plant houses one by one.
Three highlights for me:
- The sweet-smelling discoveries of Pineapple Sage (so wonderful! This one’s located in the herb garden) and Lemon Myrtle (the dried leaves smell beautiful when you rub them in your hands)
- Meeting some of the world’s tiniest bees
- Spotting the glittering golden webs of some local spiders in the Succulent Garden
More info: Sydney Royal Botanic Garden
5. Take in the view at Mrs Macquarie’s Chair
Once you’ve made your way into the far reaches of the Botanic Garden, you’re only a stone’s throw away from a gorgeous view over the harbour: Mrs Macquarie’s Chair. See this map of the garden for their relative proximity! Part of the rock is literally hewn into a ‘chair’ in this area, named for governor Lachlan Macquarie’s wife, Elizabeth, who particularly enjoyed taking in the views from this spot. I can see why she liked it so much. We headed down at sunset to do some photography (see above) and it made for a pretty special experience.
More info: DiscoverSydney – Mrs Macquarie’s Chair
6. Tour the Opera House
While the exterior of the Opera House’s is undeniably most iconic, we were curious to glimpse the inside too.
The interior is a symphony (sorry, couldn’t resist!) of concrete and wood. I loved how it somehow managed to give the impression of weight and lightness at the same time. The concert halls themselves were pretty remarkable as well, though I imagine you can’t fully appreciate them without hearing the acoustics too.
Cost: 37 AUD each (10% discount for online bookings)
More info: Opera House – English Tours
7. Climb the Pylon Lookout at the Sydney Harbour Bridge
Perhaps the most famous way to get up close with the Harbour Bridge is to do the bridge climb. We seriously considered this option but with prices starting at 260AUD it was out of our price range.
Instead, we chose to both walk across the bridge (free!) and climb the pylon lookout (only 13AUD when we did it, though it looks like it’s now 15AUD).
The lookout is located at the South East pylon. After clambering up all those stairs you’re rewarded with a gorgeous panoramic view of the Sydney skyline, including the shark fin sails of the Opera House.
Cost: 15 AUD
More info: Pylon Lookout
8. Visit the Blue Mountains
This one requires catching a train a couple of hours out of the city to Katoomba (and an onward bus from there), but I think it’s worth it.
The Greater Blue Mountains Area is one of Australia’s world heritage sites for its ecological diversity. On our day trip, however, we really just went for the breathtaking panoramic views of the canyon washed with that eponymous blue haze.
There are lots of walks of varying lengths you can do here if you’re into hiking. We only did a short walk to try and get a different perspective on the scenery, and were pleased to see that there were fewer crowds the further you got from the main viewpoint looking out on the Three Sisters (above photo).
Cost: Free, but factor in transport costs for a return train and bus trip!
More info: Sydney.com – Blue Mountains
9. Walk from Bondi Beach to Bronte Beach
My cousin kindly volunteered to take us on a short coastal walk toward Bronte Beach and back, which actually turned into quite the adventure when we discovered some recent storms had wreaked havoc on the paths! The more famous walk is a little longer – onto Coogee Beach – but even on our little jaunt we found the views over the sea absolutely stunning. Just looking back on my photos I can’t believe the immaculate shades of blue in the water!
Cost: Bus to/from Bondi Beach
More info: Bondi to Bronte
10. Immerse yourself in art
Sydney boasts some spectacular art galleries. From the impressive collection of the Art Gallery of NSW, housed in a beautiful building near the Botanic Gardens, to the wonderful Museum of Contemporary Art by Circular Quay and the smaller White Rabbit Gallery out in Chippendale.
I have a preference for older European art so I was surprised that my favourite of these ended up being the White Rabbit, which is devoted entirely to contemporary Chinese art! There was something so inventive and charming about their exhibits. Several of the works have stayed with me to this day (in particular Jiang Zhi’s Love Letters, 2014 and Xu Zhen’s European Thousand-Armed Classical Sculpture, 2013-14, pictured above). Always the sign of truly powerful art in my view.
11. Walk from Spit Bridge to Manly / Manly Ferry to Sydney
At 10km this is a considerably longer walk, but for us it served two purposes: 1) It’s a nice opportunity to get out of the city and back to nature, with some decent views to boot and 2) the return journey from Manly to Sydney on the ferry offers fantastic views of the harbour. We found this especially rewarding in the golden hour light after a hard day’s walk!
(Obviously you could also take the ferry/bus to Manly rather than walking all that way. That’s up to you!)
12. Hop on the ferry to Cockatoo Island
We happened to visit Cockatoo Island during the 20th Biennale of Sydney, meaning many of the historic spaces were transformed as part of the art festival. While the art was impressive, there’s quite a bit of history here too. It’s mostly focused on convict life, making Cockatoo part of the Australian Convict Sites world heritage property. There’s also a lovely view looking back towards the Harbour Bridge from the top of the island (see above).
Cost: Ferry cost, plus 10AUD each for a Heritage Festival tour, when running
More info: Cockatoo Island; TransportNSW – Circular Quay to Cockatoo Island Times
13. Explore historical houses in Parramatta
I briefly name-dropped Elizabeth Farm earlier, a very sweet historic property and in itself a good reason to venture out to Parramatta (well, Rosehill, but we walked from Parramatta).
Add to that the oldest surviving public buildings in Australia, Old Government House (pictured above, also part of the Australian Convict Sites world heritage property) and you’ve got a very decent historical daytrip in the making.
14. Indulge in Italian specialities in Haberfield
Haberfield is a little way out of the city and may be a little far for the average tourist. But if you’re into Italian food it makes for a very tasty excursion.
My Aunty and Uncle are foodies and were really impressed with this area after going on a food tour here. They were kind enough to take us one weekend – I must say enjoyed the early 20th century architecture almost as much as the delicious cannoli!
Cost: Return transport to Haberfield
More info: Broadsheet – A Guide to Haberfield
15. Shop for vintage and unusual ice cream in Newtown
Newtown I believe has a reputation as a bit of a ‘hipster’ part of Sydney. It’s a little bit gritty, with lots of quirky shopping opportunities. Since we’ve been making a point to keep only minimal belongings, we mostly just browsed here, but I was impressed with what I saw.
The best part about Newtown, though? N2 Extreme Gelato, home to all sorts of inventive ice cream dishes with a twist. My serving of Nutella ice cream came with a syringe with which to inject my own chocolate sauce!
Even from a high level overview I hope you can see why I fell in love with Sydney.
Have you been, or are you planning to go? I’d love to hear your favourite things to do in Sydney, or what you’re most excited to do. Feel free to share in the comments!
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