Like so many people throughout the USA and around the world, Adam and I face the annual challenge of balancing the many places we want to visit with the limited vacation time we have available. Our irrepressible love of exploring new cities and discovering new ways to experience them usually governs how we allocate our paid time off. That’s why our annual vacation calendars rarely reflect similarities from year to year; we almost never visit the same place twice. It takes a special city to draw us back more than once.
Sydney, Australia is a special kind of city.We first visited Sydney in January 2011, touching down just 48 hours after sharing our marriage vows halfway around the world in Old Town Alexandria, Virginia. We picked Australia as a honeymoon destination for two reasons: January is summer there, and since we wanted a warm weather honeymoon that took the entire northern hemisphere out of contention, and Adam wanted to spend a day at the Australian Open in Melbourne. We had two full weeks at our disposal—the second longest vacation we have ever taken together, after Antarctica—and before arriving in Melbourne we spent time in Cairns (to see the Great Barrier Reef) and, before that, Sydney.
We loved everything about Sydney during our first trip, and for years the few days we spent there crept into dozens of conversations that ended with a wistful promise that we would find our way back someday. When Thanksgiving week serendipitously combined with an unexpected flight deal to Sydney, neither one of us thought twice about booking tickets. For once, exploring a new place would have to wait: the call of the familiar could not be denied.
Whether you have never been to Sydney before or, like us, a return trip is on your bucket list, there is no shortage of fun ways to fill your days. In a world where vacation time always comes to an end, paring down your list can be a challenge. If you are deciding what sights you must see and what experiences you must have, here are 15 of our favorite things to do in and around Sydney.
Things to Do in Sydney
► Sydney Opera HouseIf there is one truly iconic spot in Sydney, it is the Sydney Opera House. The UNESCO World Heritage Site is perched on the edge of Sydney Harbor, and its trio of white shells is unmistakable when scanning the skyline. Designed by Jørn Utzon, the opera house opened in 1973 and has been a mainstay in the community as well as a beacon for visitors from foreign shores ever since.
Visiting the Sydney Opera House is a must no matter how much (or little) time you have in the city. During a very short visit, a simple walk to or through the building is a wonderful way to spend even a few minutes. With some extra time, the opera house offers hour-long paid tours of the building which provide a terrific history and overview of architectural choices. If your plans allow for it, perhaps the best way to experience the Sydney Opera House is by enjoying a show there. With everything from mainstage musicals to comedy shows to the ballet, chances are there will be a show of interest to you during your visit.
More Information: SydneyOperaHouse.com
► Circular Quay
If there is one neighborhood to visit in Sydney, Circular Quay is it. In addition to the Sydney Opera House and the Sydney Harbor Bridge, Circular Quay has enough shopping and restaurant choices to keep you busy for hours. It’s a great jumping off point for just about every attraction of interest for first-time Sydney visitors, and even frequent visitors won’t tire of the sights, sounds, and colors that characterize Circular Quay.
► Australian MuseumMuseums are often a great way to learn about a city, and the Australian Museum offers a diverse range of exhibits guaranteed to pique anyone’s interest. Opened almost 200 years ago, the Australian museum is the country’s oldest museum. Their collection of fossils is extraordinary, particularly those of extinct animals like dinosaurs that roamed the eastern portion of the country and whose fossils are still being discovered and connected to the prehistoric timeline. We were most interested in the thylacine, sometimes known as the Tasmanian tiger, which was native to Australia and only became extinct within the last century. The Australian Museum is a wonderful way to learn about our planet, the creatures that call it home, and the way it has changed—for good or bad—over the centuries.
More Information: AustralianMuseum.net.au
► Sydney Aquarium
Visiting the Sydney Aquarium is a fun way to learn about the marine life that lives off the shores of the continent—especially if your travels won’t take you to Cairns and the Great Barrier Reef. The aquarium hosts many species, some of which are native to Australia, and there is a lot to learn and a lot to do. The big attractions certainly include the penguins, a favorite of ours (especially after seeing them roam free in Antarctica!), but don’t miss the enormous turtles, sharks, and the famous dugong (a manatee relative). The Sydney Aquarium is a great activity to do when traveling with children, but we also found it to be fun as adults—and a great place to visit if you are battling jetlag and need something fun and interesting that will keep you awake!
More Information: SydneyAquarium.com.au
► Sydney Harbor Bridge
The Sydney Harbor Bridge has served as a critical transportation stalwart and a Sydney icon since it opened in 1932. Offering sweeping views of the harbor, the Sydney Opera House, and Circular Quay, the bridge is both historically and culturally relevant. Providing safe passage to vehicles, trains, cyclists, and pedestrians, the bridge is the tallest steel arch bridge in the world.Although visitors to Sydney will want to admire the bridge from afar, many people also want to climb it. There are two ways to legally climb the Sydney Harbor Bridge: by participating in an organized BridgeClimb tour or by climbing the southeast pylon. The pylon is a great choice for most visitors; it is inexpensive, completed in your own time, and offers fantastic views of Sydney Harbor from the top (including the Sydney Opera House!). Although we were intrigued by the formal BridgeClimb, the tour is much more expensive and does not permit visitors to take their own cameras or phones for pictures due to safety requirements. There are no such restrictions when visiting the pylon, which means you can take all of the photos you want when you reach the top. Additionally, the climb to the top of the pylon takes place indoors on staircases, so it’s an easier climb during bad weather and for people with a fear of heights. If neither climb is of interest, consider walking from one side of the bridge to the other. You’ll still be treated to beautiful views, and it’s a little less taxing on your body.
More Information: PylonLookout.com.au
► Cockatoo Island
Another great UNESCO World Heritage Site is slightly off the beaten path in Sydney—in fact, you need a boat to get there. Cockatoo Island’s history reflects its role in Aboriginal life as well as the decades it housed a prison complex and served as a shipbuilding facility. Today, regular ferry service connects Circular Quay to Cockatoo Island, so it is easy to spend a few hours exploring on your own. While there are guided tours and paranormal tours, many people enjoy taking a picnic to enjoy before, after, or in place of a formal activity.
More Information: CockatooIsland.gov.au
► Cahill WalkCircular Quay is a great place for a walk, but if you look up you’ll see an even better choice, The Cahill Walk connects the Royal Botanic Gardens to the Sydney Harbor Bridge. Starting from the gardens, or even from Circular Quay (an elevator close to Wharf 2 will take you all the way up), the trek will take you parallel with traffic and connects you to a few amazing lookout points that offer impressive views of the Sydney Harbor Bridge and the Sydney Opera House.
For anyone looking for an iconic, Instagram-worthy photo of Sydney, the best place to get one is from the Cahill Walk. We found our perfect spot to be beyond the expressway lookout point where most people stopped (a glassed-in area with sheltered benches); we walked further down the road, toward the bridge, and stopped under a variable speed limit sign just before the road slants upward and turns toward the harbor. Although we appreciated the added bonus of moving away from the crowds, the picture angle was unbeatable.
► Luna Park
Standing in Circular Quay and looking out across Sydney Harbor, Luna Park glitters on the horizon in the same way Coney Island shines as an entertainment destination in New York City. Visiting the art deco-styled theme park will take you back in time in a similar way, Dozens of rides from the steep and scary to the slow and steady greet guests of all ages. Although there are a few restaurants onsite, classic fair food like hot dogs, hamburgers, and ice cream are available—and it’s hard to leave without some “fairy floss,” or cotton candy, to make the ride home a little sweeter.
More Information: LunaParkSydney.com
► Hyde ParkThe oldest public park in Sydney is still a fun place to explore. Hyde Park—which shares its name with my favorite park in London—is a good spot for people watching, and its dotted with dozens of interesting monuments that tell the stories of the city and its people.
Perhaps the most meaningful monument in Hyde Park is the ANZAC Memorial, which is dedicated to the men and women who have served their country. Visitors passing through Hyde Park can’t miss the tall structure, which you can enter to see spaces like the Hall of Remembrance and the Hall of Silence. The northwest portion of the park hosts a life-sized chess board, and a memorial to the famous Captain Cook is also on display.
More Information: ANZACmemorial.nsw.gov.au
► The Rocks Discovery Museum
The Rocks is a great neighborhood close to the Sydney Harbor Bridge, and it is home to some of Australia’s earliest history. Visitors are educated on events from before European colonization to more current events through interactive exhibits and video presentations, and the museum retains a truly local feel by telling the stories of the people who built their community. The museum is free to visit and is a great way to see some older artifacts and step back into Australian history.
► Queen Victoria BuildingArchitecture fans can’t miss the Queen Victoria Building in Sydney—and neither can shoppers. Dozens of stores line the 19th century corridors of the QVB, which was originally constructed to house a marketplace and over time served as a library, office space, and a saloon. You’ll recognize plenty of stores and brands found in malls around the world as well as some with more local flair.
If you aren’t in the mood to shop, it’s still worthwhile to walk into the building to see the Royal Clock. The clock comes to life each hour to display scenes from British history, with events like King John signing the Magna Carta to the execution of King Charles I timed to music. It’s a quick, fun way to experience the QVB.
More Information: QVB.com.au
► Bondi to Coogee Coastal Walk
On a nice day in Sydney, there is probably no better outdoor activity than the Bondi to Coogee coastal walk. Starting at Bondi Beach, the walk is fairly easy (save for some staircases and changes in elevation) and rewards your efforts with breathtaking views at every turn. The landscape changes a bit as you go, with golden beaches disappearing behind rocky cliffs, which adds some drama to the coastline and the experience. The walk is a great way to break up a day at the beach as well as a destination in itself. Pack some snacks and take a water bottle; free water stations are available along the path, and the water is clean and safe to drink.
Our Post: Bondi to Coogee Walk: Why It Should Be on Your Sydney Itinerary
► Royal Botanic GardensJust around the corner from the Sydney Opera House, peace and serenity can be yours with a walk through the Royal Botanic Gardens. More than 70 acres of green space will make you forget you are just steps away from the hustle and bustle of the city, but within the garden there are enough things to see and do to fill as much time as you can spare. Established in 1816, the garden has been a favorite spot for Sydney locals and tourists alike for centuries.
Although there’s no need to preplan your visit to the Royal Botanic Gardens—you can show up and walk through for free anytime—it’s a good idea to have some sense of the events that may be taking place. While beautiful flowers will catch your eye at every turn, the gardens host a number of events and community gatherings during the year. Our visit coincided with an exhibit on “Plants with Bite” featuring carnivorous plants and a whole host of educational materials and activities to expand our knowledge. Be sure to check their website prior to visiting so you don’t miss an exhibition that might be of interest to you!
More Information: RBGsyd.nsw.gov.au
Where to Stay in Sydney
Sydney is a great, safe city that is well connected by rail and bus service, so just about any neighborhood will be a good choice. We like to stay close to Circular Quay because of the convenience; so many of our favorite places are a short walk from that neighborhood. We really love the Sydney Harbour Marriott Hotel at Circular Quay, which is a four-minute walk from the train station that directly connects to the airport and a ten-minute walk from the Sydney Opera House. Our most recent stay provided us with a clean, comfortable room that boasted opera house views, and we were grateful that each morning a tray of water bottles was offered to departing guests. The staff was universally cheerful and offered great tips and advice, and the customer service made us feel welcomed and valued.
More Information: Booking.com/Sydney-Habour-Marriott
We found our hotel using Booking.com, and there’s a good chance you’ll find a great Sydney hotel as well!
Interesting Spots to Eat and Drink in Sydney
Sydney is home to some world-class restaurants, and you can plan on a great dining experience at just about any establishment you choose. We have found a few spots that mix great food and drinks with their own personality if you are looking for something just a little different.
► Harry’s Café de WheelsMeat pies take center stage at Harry’s Café de Wheels. Harry Edwards started serving “pies and peas” in the Woolloomooloo neighborhood by the dockyard in 1938, and his dream of providing a filling late-night snack has endured to this day. Harry’s has fed millions of people, with some of the most recognizable being Elton John, Sir Richard Branson, Anthony Bourdain, Kevin Costner, and even the legendary Colonel Sanders of Kentucky Fried Chicken fame.
The line at Harry’s can be long, but it moves quickly. If you don’t know what to order, you can’t go wrong with Harry’s Tiger, which is a meat pie served with mashed potato, mushy green peas, and gravy on top. Sausage rolls and hot dogs are on the menu, too, but don’t skip the pies—especially if you are hungry. If you are in the mood for a snack, get a second fork and share with a fellow traveler; Adam and I shared one, and there was more than enough for both of us as a snack between meals.
More Information: HarrysCafedeWheels.com.au
► Pancakes on the Rocks
We believe breakfast is an anytime food, and Pancakes on the Rocks serves up breakfast favorites and more 24-hours a day, 7 days a week. You’ll find plenty of classic combos on the menu, but the specialty pancakes and crepes are a great way to start your day—or end your night. The Ultimate, a pair of raspberry and cream cheese-filled crepes drenched in raspberry coulis, is practically a dessert when served with a scoop of ice cream, but no one bats an eye if you order it for breakfast like I did at 7:30 one morning. Then again, the trio of travelers behind us devoured ribs and wedge fries for their breakfast, so who are we to judge what you eat on vacation?
More Information: PancakesOnTheRocks.com.au
► Fortune of WarVisit the oldest pub in Sydney for a drink and to count yourself as part of its history! Fortune of War opened its doors in 1828, and its name is a nod to the many soldiers who made it their first and last stop when Australia was at war. Although today it is popular for locals and tourists as well as veterans who meet there each ANZAC Day, one thing is still true: it’s a great place to enjoy a drink. In addition to an international beer selection, Fortune of War has a nice local beer menu as well as plenty of wine. A full food menu is also available for those who have more time or need a snack. We loved Fortune of War; we spent some time at the bar chatting with fellow travelers before taking a table in the back, and it’s a great place for both solo travelers and groups to gather.
More Information: FortuneOfWar.com.au
► Blackstar Pastry
Hidden inside of a shopping center, inside the bookstore on the second floor, Blackstar Pastry is a quirky spot for a sweet snack. The glass case by the register features some of the most beautiful desserts we’ve seen, and for just a few dollars you can try some reasonably exotic flavor combinations that look like artwork. We sampled the strawberry watermelon cake, which layers fresh strawberries on top of a thick slice of watermelon and a meringue-like dacquoise and rose-scented cream. Topped with rose petals and pistachios, it is almost too pretty to eat—but the light, delicate cake is too good to pass up. Other treats like dragon cake (dragon fruit, pineapple cream, and pomegranate jelly on a biscuit crumb crust) and chocolate hazelnut torte will tempt you, too.
More Information: BlackStarPastry.com.au
Want to plan your own walking tour of Sydney? This map might come in handy; it lists all of the places we recommend visitors experience when in the city. Sydney is a very walkable city, but public transportation is convenient and inexpensive as well.
Enjoy Sydney, Australia!
Sydney is one of the cities we would visit time and time again. With a history that belies its relative youth and a vibrancy that infuses energy into every experience, the only thing we don’t like is just how far away it is from our home.
If Sydney, Australia is on your bucket list, or if you are actively planning a trip, we would love to hear about the spots you are hoping to see—and the spots you love that we didn’t include here. One thing is for certain: no matter what you do when you visit Sydney, it will be time well spent!
Looking for more fun cities to visit around the world? Here are a few more posts for inspiration!