Sydney, Australia, is a grand host that welcomes the world to its stage. In fact, the city thrives on the opportunity to show the world what it is: a vibrant, cosmopolitan city with trendsetting international cuisine, stellar architecture—think of the Sydney Opera House—and a spectacular harbor setting.
Sydney is the cultural and financial heart of the Australian continent. Nearly one-fifth of the residents of Australia live there, and Sydneysiders are always on the go—many of them back and forth over the spectacular Sydney Harbour Bridge. They sail, surf, swim and ferry across the water—or look out over bays or beaches from one of many waterfront cafes.
Located on an inlet on the southeastern coast of Australia, Sydney is a sprawling city. Visitors will likely spend most of their time in Sydney's center in the downtown area, which generally includes the Central Business District, The Rocks and Darling Harbour.
The best place to start getting acquainted with the city's layout is Circular Quay, the city's transportation hub. As you face the Sydney Harbour Bridge, to your right is the famous Sydney Opera House with the Royal Botanic Gardens beyond it. To the left, beneath the bridge, is The Rocks, which curves around the bay to Darling Harbour, where you'll find the city's oldest pubs, the Sydney Observatory and other attractions. The tall buildings bordered by Circular Quay, Darling Harbour and Hyde Park make up the Central Business District (also known as the CBD).
A 20-minute walk or a short taxi ride southeast takes you to Kings Cross, with its restaurants and nightclubs, as well as some of Sydney's most hip neighborhoods. Paddington is lined with fine-art galleries, trendy clothing stores and stately Victorian houses. Darlinghurst is known for its trendy cafes and nightclubs. Oxford Street is Sydney's—and Australia's—gay mecca and site of the famous Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras in February. To the south is Surry Hills, a hipster hot spot full of great dining options.
North of the bridge and easily accessible by ferry from Circular Quay lies Sydney's second most popular beachside area for tourists, Manly and its famous beach. Manly is only the first of a string of northern coastal beach suburbs such as Freshwater, Newport, Avalon and Palm Beach—all spectacular and seldom explored by tourists. To the west are a host of grungy inner-city suburbs, including artsy Glebe and Newtown. Southwest is the Italian enclave Leichhardt. To the east are the iconic harborside suburbs with unbeatable views of Sydney's waterfront: Rushcutters Bay, Rose Bay, Double Bay and Vaucluse, as well as the wealthy eastern suburbs of Woollahra. Beyond that lie Sydney's most iconic beach, Bondi, and the trendy eastern beach suburbs of Bondi, Bronte, Coogee and Clovelly.
The Aborigines inhabited the Sydney area for tens of thousands of years before the first European settlers landed there on 26 January 1788. British Capt. Arthur Phillip raised the Union Jack and named the settlement in honor of Lord Sydney, who was then the British Home Secretary.
Phillip's mission was to establish a penal colony at Sydney Cove (today known as Circular Quay) for the boatloads of convicts and troops he'd taken with him—1,300 on all on four ships.
The reluctant colonists (known as "First Fleeters") were ill-prepared to settle the continent, but after much hardship, the settlement began taking shape in the area now called The Rocks. Over the next century, Sydney's secure harbor spurred the city's emergence as the country's economic hub.
Sydney didn't shed its reputation as bland and provincial until the mid-1950s, when enlightened leadership led to the construction of such landmarks as the Sydney Opera House. Explosive growth, coupled with a booming economy, helped turn Sydney into one of the world's most attractive, cosmopolitan and multicultural cities.
Many of Sydney's attractions are within easy walking distance of one another. In theory, you could attempt to see many of them in a single day—though you wouldn't stand still for long. Try taking a more leisurely approach by beginning your visit at Circular Quay (pronounced key
), where you can catch a morning cruise of the city's harbor. When you get back, head for the Sydney Opera House. Its prominence on the waterfront and its distinctive white, sail-style roof have made it the city's (and Australia's) most famous landmark.
You can stroll along the bay from the Opera House to the Royal Botanic Gardens, which we consider a must-see. The park's gardens and ponds are lovely, and the views of the harbor are spectacular—particularly from Mrs. Macquarie's Chair (actually a rock favored by the wife of an early governor of New South Wales). In addition, you can visit the ornate Government House, take in the artwork at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, or find out what life was like for the city's first felons at nearby Hyde Park Barracks.
On another day, tour the Australian Museum and then cut through Hyde Park to the Sydney Tower, in the heart of downtown, for views of the Pacific to the east and the Blue Mountains to the west. You can walk to Darling Harbour and visit the shark tanks at the Sydney Aquarium or take advantage of the huge selection of restaurants and cafes. A water taxi or a ferry will return you to Circular Quay. From there it's an easy walk to The Rocks, the city's most historic area. If you are taking the BridgeClimb tour, you'll depart from The Rocks. If you're not, consider walking across the Sydney Harbour Bridge—the views are almost as good.
Reserve an afternoon for a visit to the Taronga Zoo, which is on the north side of the harbor. It is best reached by ferry from Circular Quay. You could easily spend another day browsing the shops in Paddington and Darlinghurst. Glebe is wrapped in hippie culture and packed with cafes and new-age bookstores—it's an interesting stop if you have some extra time, as is Newtown, filled with colorful backstreet pubs, artists of all stripes and bohemian vibes. Beach lovers will want to plan a day at either Manly or Bondi Beach—better if you make time for both. More than likely, you'll run out of time before you'll run out of things to see and do in Sydney.
Sydney enjoys a lively nightlife, from the trendy bars and clubs along Darling Harbour and Circular Quay to the historic pubs (often called hotels) in The Rocks. You'll also find plenty of live music. If you enjoy late-night clubbing, you can find plenty of options around the Central Business District, but the favored hangouts are increasingly in the Darlinghurst neighborhood (also a popular dining area). By comparison, Kings Cross is seedier, but it has a lot of late-night activity. Cover charges and drink prices are usually lower there.
Controversial 1:30 am lockout and 3 am last drinks laws at hotels, clubs, nightclubs and licensed karaoke bars were enacted in 2014 throughout parts of Surry Hills and Darlinghurst to The Rocks, and from Kings Cross to Cockle Bay. This was done to lower alcohol-fueled violence. The laws made the streets safer, but the economy suffered, and many venues closed. In January 2020, the laws were softened in all inner city venues except Kings Cross.
In areas where the restrictions are still in place, venues that are licensed to stay open after 3 am can do so without alcohol service. You're best off starting your night a little earlier, then making sure you've found a nook by 1:30 am.
Today you're more likely to find Aussies dining on Thai, Vietnamese, Malaysian, Turkish, Lebanese or Italian food than on the more traditional fare borrowed from the British. Darling Harbour and Circular Quay are awash with trendy restaurants serving everything from modern Australian to grilled seafood. The neighborhoods of Darlinghurst and Newtown have a concentration of vegetarian and Asian restaurants.
Italian places are found all over, but Leichhardt is particularly renowned: The Italian Forum off Norton Street, where dozens of restaurants are lined around a courtyard, has an authentic Italian feel. Other good spots for Italian include Paddington, Woollahra and Darlinghurst. Great dim sum can be had in Chinatown and Chatswood. Manly has a strip of cafes along the beachfront serving meze plates, seafood and modern Australian dishes.
The combination of fresh Australian produce, Asian stir-fry techniques and such flavorings as lemongrass and chilies is catching on in the city. Local seafood, from calamari and smoked trout to rock oysters, Tasmanian salmon and the much-respected but pricey barramundi, is served just about everywhere.
Be sure to try some of Australia's native specialties (called "bush tucker"): warrigal (a spinachlike green), kangaroo (tastes like venison but contains less fat) and emu. For sweet desserts, try wattle-seed ice cream; lamington, a sheet cake coated with a chocolate spread and dipped in coconut; or pavlova, a soft-crusted meringue served with kiwi, passion fruit and strawberries and topped with whipped cream.
Australians have embraced coffee culture. Espresso drinks, including macchiatos, cappuccinos and other variations, are very popular. If you prefer the kind of filtered coffee that's common in North America, visit McDonald's or Starbucks. Otherwise, you will only find it at a hotel buffet breakfast.
Australia's wines are winning international gold medals, and samples of the country's renowned vintages are widely available. Excellent beers and liquors are served at most dining establishments, too. Some restaurants allow you to take your own alcohol (indicated by a BYOB sign in the window), which can be found at bottle shops (liquor stores), often located next to pubs and hotels. A corkage fee of about A$2 is usually charged. Establishments that are classified as "fully licensed" serve alcohol.
General dining hours are 6:30-10 am for breakfast, noon-2:30 pm for lunch and 7-10 pm for dinner. Don't be surprised if there is a 10% surcharge on your bill for Sunday dining and 15% for public holidays to cover additional staff costs.
Expect to pay within these general guidelines, based on the cost of a dinner for one, not including drinks, tax or tip: $ = less than A$35; $$ = A$35-$60; $$$ = A$61-$80; and $$$$ = more than A$80.
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