Stunning, sophisticated, energetic, and dynamic, the waterfront metropolis of Sydney offers visitors the best of hip urban living in a laid-back beach holiday environment. Food, wine, fashion, art, culture, history, sport, and nature intersect on a daily basis making it one of the world’s top 10 cities to live in. But beyond the obvious (and much beloved) Sydney Opera House and Harbour Bridge lies a vibrant and hidden city that often eludes even the most seasoned traveler. Home to a hugely multicultural population of over four million in a city spanning more than 12,000 sq km, there is significantly more to explore than these two iconic locations. Wandermelon takes you off the tourist circuit and gives you the insider’s guide to this special place down under.
To truly feel like a local, the first thing you have to do when you get off the plane (typically at 6AM) is to go to Bondi beach for a morning surf/swim and “brekkie.” Winter, spring, summer, and fall, Aussies get into the water; temperatures range from warm to refreshing, but never cold. Sean’s Panorama and Speedo’s are good spots to try the local favorites: vegemite on Turkish toast or poached eggs with roasted tomatoes and rocket. An absolute must (but perhaps not on your first day) is the 3.5km Bondi to Bronte Coastal Walk and beyond to Tamarama, Clovelly, and Coogee where the famous Wylie’s Baths is located. Discover the sensation of swimming in a contained ocean tidal pool at one of the many rock pools found along the shores from Bondi to Coogee. Or try surfing like the locals at Let’s Go Surfing. In October, the coastal walk is transformed into a popular special event called Sculpture By The Sea featuring sculptures by artists from around the world. Don’t miss the aboriginal rock carving of a whale shark en route just before Tamarama.
A different but equally spectacular view of the water is from the harbour. Sydney has an excellent public transport system and one of the most popular ways to commute is by ferry. Take the ferry from Circular Quay to lunch at Watsons Bay or to Taronga Zoo; the ride provides stellar visuals of the city from the harbour. For mediocre seafood, but a great view, go to the famous Doyles for lunch or hang out with the marsupials who also enjoy spectacular views of the water and CBD from Taronga Park. Another nearby favorite is brunch at the waterside cafe Thelma & Louise in Neutral Bay, a 20-minute ferry from Circular Quay past the bridge, the Opera House, and the Prime Minister’s residence at Kirribilli House. After lunch, walk to Australian children’s author May Gibbs house/museum, Nutcote. Gibbs wrote beautiful children’s stories centered on Australian fauna and flora such as the Gumnut Babies, Chucklebub and Wunkyduu, and the Adventures of Snugglepot & Cuddlepie. Her home continues to provide endless delight and entertainment for kids and parents alike.
Ferries also run to the islands in the middle of the harbor like Clark Island and Shark Island (excellent spots for picnicking), along with Fort Dennison, an old convict prison fort. Sydneysiders love to eat and choose their providores wisely. Pick up some fresh Sydney rock oysters and jumbo prawns at the Sydney Fish Market in Pyrmont or go to the Farmers Market at the Fox Studios on Wednesdays for a variety of fresh local produce. The David Jones Food Hall on Market Street is also an excellent spot to pick up a few goodies and is modeled after Harrods Food Hall in London and has everything you could possibly want for a traditional Sydney picnic.
At the Sydney Aquarium in Darling Harbor, get face to fish-eye with over 12,000 all-Australian aquatic animals, including sharks, rays and crocs and the current Dugongs exhibit. A “Breakfast with the Koalas” means a close and personal encounter with the famous Aussie bears who are happy to be petted and cuddled at Sydney Wildlife World in Darling Harbor. Luna Park is a must for the kids. This iconic amusement park offers amazing harbor views overlooking the Opera House and the Harbour Bridge. Originally opened in 1935, Luna Park is a traditional part of Sydney life for residents and visitors alike who flock to ride the Giant Slides, Joy Wheel, Turkey Trot, Wild Mouse, and the beautifully restored 1894 English carousel “just for fun”. Entry is free.
Nearby sits Wendy Whiteley’s garden, a leafy public oasis beside renowned Australian contemporary artist Brett Whiteley’s house; it’s one of Sydney’s hidden and controversial treasures. Known as the “grande dame of the Sydney art scene”, the park became a therapeutic labor of love for Wendy after her ex-husband and daughter died. For years she fought with the council for the right to restore and landscape a derelict public area in Lavender Bay, which she turned into a “magic garden” where Brett and Arkie Whiteley’s ashes are buried. Through local support and lobbying she was able to get the council to leave her alone and let it be for all to enjoy, but don’t be surprised if an eccentric looking woman taps you on the shoulder and shoves a spade in your hand. Everyone is expected to chip in one way or another. (Access via Clark Park, off Lavender Street in Lavender Bay.)
Climbing the Harbour Bridge is a very popular activity… if you can stomach it, and unlike climbing Uluru (Ayers Rock), which is considered sacred to the Aboriginal people, climbing the bridge is quite socially acceptable. Allow yourself three-and-a half-hours to complete the trek. If that’s not high enough for you, try the Sydney Tower Skywalk and experience open air, 360-degree views of Sydney from the roof of Sydney Tower, 260 meters above the city (double that of the Harbour Bridge) while harnessed onto the moving, glass-floored viewing platform that extends out over the edge so you can see the city beneath your feet from a whole other perspective. If getting high in Sydney is really important to you, Sydney by Balloon, offers breathtaking views of the city. Further south, those with a thirst for more adventure can take flight in a tandem hang-glider off a precipice known as Bald Hill in Stanwell Park that overlooks the spectacular Illawara escarpment at the Sydney Hang Gliding Center. Wandermelon’s favorite aerial activity is to take a Sydney Seaplane from Rose Bay to Jonah’s at Palm Beach or Cottage Point Inn or Berowra Waters Inn (one of Sydney’s best restaurants) for lunch: Sydney By Helicopter also gives thrill seekers more stunning views. As does Sydney By Harley ─ tour Sydney in a chauffeur-driven Harley Davidson bike. Most Sydneysiders however, prefer to sail on their harbor. Why not take a lesson at the Pacific Sailing School in Rushcutters Bay, home to the Sydney CYC? Sydney Tall Ships also offers two-hour BBQ lunch cruises or a Twilight cruise.
Within two hours of the city, a whole other world exists, whether it is the wine country in the Hunter Valley, the majestic landscape of waterfalls and awe-inspiring sandstone escarpments in the Blue Mountains, the mesmerizing and intricate waterways of the Hawkesbury River or the jewel of the northern beaches and home to Sydney’s elite, Palm Beach where visitors can stay at Barrenjoey House or rent exclusive private homes (see guide for details). At Ku-Ring-Gai Chase National Park you can bushwalk with wild kangaroos, wallabies, and goanna’s. Camping out at the Basin Campground, a naturally enclosed lagoon ideal for swimming, on the foreshores of Pittwater is also a magical spot not far from the city to enjoy the Aussie bush. Just opposite is Coasters Retreat, where coastal trading ships and smugglers used to sit out storms and gather in convoys to sail to Sydney.
And of course, no trip to Sydney is complete without a night out at the Sydney Opera House or the Sydney Theater Company, where Cate Blanchett presides as the co-artistic director along with her husband, the playwright Andrew Upton. With so much to see and do, Sydney makes an ideal vacation spot for all the family, whether you come for days or weeks or never leave at all!
Sydney’s next big event is the Sydney Writers Festival on May 18-24 and Vivid Sydney on May 26-June 14. For the latest information about what’s on in Sydney, go to the NSW Sydney Guide, Sydney Australia and Tourism Australia, and don’t skip the wandermelon Sydney Guide for even more great suggestions.