Many first-time visitors to Australia ask, Sydney or Melbourne? Having lived five years in each city during my lifetime and loving both, I have to answer Sydney. From an international visitor’s perspective, Sydney offers the most in terms of iconically Aussie experiences in a relatively small geographic area. From landmarks and historic sights to world-class beaches and national parks – Sydney has Australia wrapped up in an easily accessible nutshell. While I don’t encourage anyone to limit themselves to just Sydney, in a BIG country with lots of ground to cover, Sydney is an excellent starting point. Particularly if you have limited time to explore.
Let’s dispel one myth straight up… Sydney is not the capital of Australia. Canberra is the capital and it is pronounced “can-bra”, not “can-ber-ra.” Australians are notorious for lazy pronunciation and shortening words, so you might as well start practising for your trip now. Sydney, however, is the state capital of New South Wales. Sydney is also the place where ye olde Lieutenant James Cook of Great Britain landed on Sunday 29 April 1770, as he was charting the east coast of Australia. This landing at Botany Bay was the beginning of Australia’s colonization by Britain.
Now let’s formulate a plan for your trip to ensure that you hit all the high notes of Australia’s “not-capital but pretty darn terrific” city. We will start with a list of must-sees and then move into a suggested 3-day itinerary for those with only the bare minimum time in the city.
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Sydney Airport is Australia’s busiest and traffic in the city is disagreeable. Though the airport is located only 8km from the CBD, it’s going to take you at least half-an-hour to get there (on a good day). Taxis and rideshare services are available, but I would recommend bypassing the traffic jams and taking the train. You will need an Opal Card to ride, as with all public transport in the city including buses, ferries and light rail.
Where to stay
Staying in the northern end of the CBD is going to place you central to many of the sight and activity suggestions I’m going to make later on in this post. There you have easy access to the train network and light rail to get you around.
Use the Transport NSW site to help plan your trip by public transport. As mentioned before, an Opal Card is the key to using public transport, however, depending on traffic it may not be your cheapest nor most convenient option. Uber is abundant and may be worth considering for trips outside the CBD area in non-peak times.
Sydney is reasonably moderate in climate. Highest rainfall occurs during Autumn and the start of Winter in the months of March through to June. Winter is cool with maximum temperatures that reach the mid-teens in Celcius, and low sixties in Farenheight.
Summer (December-February) is hot and humid, with water temperatures that are much more enticing for swimmers. Spring is less humid and tends to be the driest season of the year.
Events to schedule for (or avoid)
A few yearly events draw more than average crowds and make accommodation more expensive. Depending on your tastes, you may want to time your visit for one of these or stay well away. Check specific dates here.
- Sydney International Tennis – January
- Sydney Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras – February-March
- Sydney Royal Easter Show – March-April
- Vivid Sydney – May-June
- Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race – December
- New Years Eve – December
What to do in Sydney
Climb an icon
You can read more about the Sydney Harbour Bridge here. You can experience this icon of the Sydney skyline by climbing or crossing on foot! BridgeClimb will take care of your all your climb questions.
Alternatively, for those on a budget or with a fear of heights, walk across the pedestrian path. Once you reach the northern side of the Bridge at Milson’s Point, get your photo in front of Luna Park’s smiling entry. You can walk back across the Bridge or make the return journey by train.
Tour the Opera House
Tour the World Heritage Listed, architectural masterpiece, the Sydney Opera House. Learn about its design and experience the Opera House inside and out with a knowledgeable guide.
Shop at The Rocks
Enjoy this historic part of Sydney with its heritage architecture and cobblestone roads during the weekend markets. Stalls offer excellent food and locally made crafts for souvenir shoppers. Choose between the Foodie Market on Friday Nights and the Rocks Market on Saturday and Sunday 10am-5pm… or maybe do both! Art lovers will also find the Museum of Contemporary Art, and gallery of Australian artist Ken Done in the area.
Saunter the gardens
For great photo opportunities of Sydney Harbour, its famed Bridge and the Opera House, surrounded by native Australian vegetation, take a long walk in the Royal Botanic Gardens. Make sure you go all the way out to Mrs Macquarie’s Chairs for photogenic views. You may also like to take an Aboriginal Heritage Tour of the Gardens to find out more about how Australia’s native people lived off the land and water in this area for thousands of years.
Grab a ferry timetable and take a self-guided tour of the Harbour. I suggest boarding at Circular Quay for a cruise out to Watsons Bay and along the way you will enjoy scenic views as you stop in at Garden Island, Darling Point, Double Bay and Rose Bay. On arrival, dine at historic Doyles which first opened in 1885. Doyles offers both formal (need a reservation) and casual dining options.
Next, go walkabout with a local Aboriginal to learn about the culture and heritage of Australia’s native people. Alternatively, take a walk along the South Head Heritage Trail, just a 1km loop of medium grade that offers spectacular views.
If you prefer not to have to think and want an organized tour, Sydney Harbour Boat Tours get the big thumbs up from reviewers on Tripadvisor.
Get the lie of the land
Take to the top of the Sydney Tower Eye which is like the Empire State of Sydney. Get 360-degree views from 250m (82ft) above the Sydney CBD at the observation deck – not one for those who suffer vertigo. If you want to take it up a notch, go outside on a Skywalk. There is also a revolving restaurant and bar, and buffet inside the Tower, neither which I have any personally experienced.
Talk to the animals
Get all your burning Australian wildlife questions, like “who would win a fight between a shark and a crocodile?” answered at Taronga Zoo. Ok, maybe not that exact question, but Taronga Zoo and the SEA LIFE Sydney Aquarium are great places to get acquainted with Aussie creatures great and small. The quickest way to get to the Zoo from the CBD is by ferry, while the Aquarium is a short walk away.
Wander the rocky coastline
Take to the coastal walking trail and experience Sydney’s scenic cliffs and sandy beaches. Every time I return to Sydney the path has extended to another beach, so you are spoilt with choice on places to start and end. My favourite stretch is Coogee-Bondi, which 6km (3.5mi) for working up an appetite and then eating your heart out at a beachside café. If you are visiting in Autumn, you may spot humpback whales as they migrate northward up the coastline to warmer waters. Check out other coastal walk options on the comprehensive website, Sydney Coast Walks.
The aforementioned James Cook charted Australia’s east coast aboard the HMB Endeavour. A full-size replica of the ship was built in Australia over five years from 1988. Though the Endeavour encore does sail, it is often docked at the Australian National Maritime Museum ready for your visit. See visitor information here.
You can learn more of Australia’s convict past at the World Heritage listed Hyde Park Barracks.
Learn about Aboriginal culture
If you want to wind the clock back even further, begin with the natives of the Great Southern Land, Australia’s Aboriginals. There are a few ways to learn about Aboriginal culture and heritage, including the aforementioned tours at Watsons Bay and Royal Botanic Gardens. You may also like to take in a performance of the Bangarra Dance Theatre or take in the Aboriginal art collection at the Art Gallery of New South Wales.
Be a sporting spectator
Sport is undoubtedly important in Australian culture. Choose from a selection of football codes: Rugby Union, Rugby League and AFL (Australian Rules Football) in the winter months. In summer you can bake out in the sun while watching a cricket match or soccer (hint: try for a night match). Check here for dates. On Boxing Day each year (the day after Christmas), the Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race begins in the Harbour and is an undeniable spectacle, whether you’re a windjammer or landlubber.
Take walking cultural and historical tours all over town for free with the Sydney Culture Walks App. Great for those independent travellers on a budget.
Places to visit near Sydney – day trips and overnighters
There are a selection of attractions accessible as day trips or overnight stays from Sydney such as:
- Three-hours drive southwest of Sydney lies the capital of Australia, Canberra. Here you will find our National Museum, National Gallery, Parliament Houses old and new, Australian War Memorial and National Botanic Garden. Just don’t go in winter.
- A three-hour drive north of Sydney is the Hunter Valley, one of Australia’s premier wine regions. Take a road trip, bus tour or the train, and eat and drink to your heart’s content. Some would call this a day trip, but I recommend staying the night especially if you are going to be wine tasting.
- Explore Royal National Park, which is the world’s third National Park after Bogd Khan Uul in Mongolia and Yellowstone in the USA. Here you can mountain bike, hike, kayak or swim the gorgeous Aussie wilderness.
- Ku-Ring-Gai Chase National Park is another option for those who love the outdoors and being active. The Park covers 15,000 hectares that range from rainforest to mangroves, rocky cliffs to beaches. Pack a picnic and hike one of these great trails.
- Two-hours drive west is the Blue Mountains, a World Heritage designated area with 140km of walking trails through eucalypt forests, with sandstone rock formations and gorges.
- Take the ferry to Cockatoo Island, the largest island in Sydney Harbour. There you can take a historical walking tour of World Heritage Listed convict sites or self-guided journeys through different aspects of the Island. Pack a picnic/bbq or dine at one of the Island eateries. And make a day of it.
Suggested Sydney 3-day itinerary for first-time visitors
Here is a suggested itinerary for squeezing some Sydney highlights into a mere 3-days, which is no mean feat. So get those comfy walking shoes on, stock your day bag and let’s go:
Begin with a walk through the Royal Botanic Gardens, including Mrs Macquaries Chair. Follow the Harbourside path around to the Opera House and dine in one of the restaurants and cafes for lunch with Harbour Bridge views.
Take an afternoon ferry to Taronga Zoo and get acquainted with Australia’s native wildlife.
Enjoy dinner and nightlife in the CBD
Climb or cross the Harbour Bridge. Alternatively, scale the Sydney Tower Eye.
Explore The Rocks and dine at one of a selection of eateries in the area.
Board a ferry or walk to Darling Harbour where you may like to visit the SEA LIFE Aquarium or Maritime Museum.
Dine at Darling Harbour followed by a Bangarra Dance Theatre show.
Board a ferry to Watsons Bay.
Walk the South Head Heritage Trail.
Enjoy lunch at Doyles.
Taxi or rideshare down the coast to Bondi Beach for an afternoon swim.
Get pumped for your Sydney sojourn with these tunes featuring local artists and songs about the city. Tunes include Midnight Oil’s “Wedding Cake Island”, a reference to the rock formation off Coogee Beach.
Enjoy your time in Sydney and surrounds, taking in the world-renowned landmarks, exquisite coastline, unique wilderness and cultural exchange. If you have any queries, drop them in the comments below.
Peace, love & inspiring travel,