As the biggest, oldest and most famous city in Australia, Sydney is almost certain to feature on every tourist’s vacation itinerary, and for good reason. Fantastic weather, a thriving nightlife, glorious city beaches (like Bondi and Manly) and Australia’s most iconic man-made structures (Sydney Opera House and Sydney Harbour Bridge) all work together to make Sydney the most attractive city in Australia, a place that everybody should experience in their lifetime.
It will come as no surprise that the New South Wales capital is nicknamed the Harbour City. The stunning expanse of shimmering water is like Sydney’s lifeblood, and the best place to start your exploring is at its heart – Circular Quay, home to the most famous views in Australia. If you want a luxury hotel with a view, this is the place to come. From here you have the towering skyscrapers of the Central Business District (CBD) just behind you, while Australia’s most historic quarter The Rocks and the Sydney Harbour Bridge are to one side, with the greenery and fruit bats of the Royal Botanic Gardens, plus the Sydney Opera House, to the other. Circular Quay is also Sydney’s main ferry terminal, from where you can catch a city ferry or join a boat tour to anywhere from Darling Harbour to Manly. One essential Sydney experience is to travel by ferry over to Taronga Zoo. The boat trip over, then cable car ride above the animals, plus the spectacular backdrop of Sydney throughout, not to mention the animals themselves, make it one of the world’s best zoos and a great starting point for meeting Australia’s unique creatures.
The site of Australia’s first European settlement, The Rocks was for many years a disease and crime-addled area frequented mainly by sailors and prostitutes. Luckily the historic quarter had a major facelift in the 1970s and is now one of Sydney’s top tourist attractions. Souvenir shops, restaurants, hotels and cafes abound in the cobbled streets and converted warehouses, especially during the weekend markets. The Rocks has a particularly good range of old-fashioned English style pubs, some of which double as hotels. Check out The Glenmore’s rooftop bar for one of Sydney’s best drinking spots with a view, or The Australian, for a kangaroo or crocodile pizza. There are stacks of hotels in The Rocks, as well as Australia’s swankiest budget hostel, the Sydney Harbour YHA, which comes complete with a rooftop pool and stunning views.
This purpose-built entertainment quarter is where many tourists, especially those on family holidays, might find themselves spending much of their Sydney vacation. Located to the west of Circular Quay, the sheltered waters are lined with a huge array of hotels, restaurants, bars, clubs and tourist attractions. The pick of the sightseeing bunch is the superb Sydney Aquarium. Chocolate lovers should head straight to the divine Lindt Café. Darling Harbour and Circular Quay are also generally the easiest places to organize either boat tours or sailing trips and charters, something well worth doing as Sydney is at its most beautiful when viewed from the water.
Eastern Suburbs Beaches
After its glorious harbour, Sydney is best known for its beaches. The most easily accessible are those found in the affluent Eastern Suburbs, home to Australia’s most famous stretch of sand, Bondi Beach. Truly iconic Bondi is the closest beach to the city and is a great place to play in the crashing waves, learn to surf or just hang out with the beautiful people. Several cheap hostels close to the beach make Bondi popular with backpackers, but there is plenty of family and luxury accommodation on offer as well, together with good restaurants. There’s also a great Sunday market. The dramatic Bondi to Coogee clifftop walk is a genuine must-do Sydney holiday experience, especially in November when the Sculptures by the Sea exhibition lines the route with art installations. Travelling south from Bondi are a succession of beautiful beaches, and excellent surf breaks, all the way down to Maroubra Beach, notably Tamarama, Bronte and Coogee.
Kings Cross & Oxford Street
The most famous suburb in Australia for a night out, Kings Cross is Sydney’s red light district. However, sleaze is not just what you will find. Strip joints, bars and cheap backpacker hostels abound, but seem to coexist happily alongside fashionable restaurants and upmarket clubs. One thing’s for sure, a night drinking on ‘the Cross’ can be a defining Sydney experience. Just south of Kings Cross is Oxford Street, a major thoroughfare which travels from Hyde Park in the city, through Darlinghurst and Paddington to Bondi Junction. Paddington boasts great pubs, Sydney’s best Saturday markets and plenty of designer shops. Darlinghurst is the hub of Sydney’s sizeable gay scene. It is along Oxford Street, and past the many, many gay bars, that the gay and lesbian Mardi Gras Parade travels in March. The parade is the biggest gay event in Australia, if not the world, so book ahead if you’re planning your Sydney vacation for during Mardi Gras, especially if you want a hotel around Oxford Street.
Once you’ve ticked off the harbour sights, explored the beaches and taken a boat tour, it’s well worth investigating some of Sydney’s vibrant and varied inner-city suburbs. Newtown and Glebe, with their large student populations, are perhaps the most alternative, while Surry Hills, with its unrivalled concentration of good restaurants, bars and vintage fashion shops, is also deserving of a visit. These suburbs can be a good option for hotels, as they tend to be slightly cheaper despite only being a short bus or train journey from the centre.
Sydney’s Northern Suburbs (Manly)
The northern beaches tend to be richer, more low-key, family-oriented and harder to get to if you have not rented a car or campervan. As a result, they are quieter, without being less beautiful than Sydney’s eastern beaches, making them great for family vacations. The busiest by a long way is Manly, which has plenty of accommodation options, lively nightlife and surf schools. Manly is also one of the best places in Sydney for scuba diving. Beginner divers can even share a tank with grey nurse sharks at the Oceanarium. Taking the half-hour ferry to Manly from Circular Quay is one of the best (and cheapest) ways to get on the water for a boat tour of Sydney Harbour. The beaches stretch north from Manly for 30km, all the way to exclusive Palm Beach, where Australian soap opera Home and Away is set. Some of the highlights inbetween include Dee Why, Narrabeen and Avalon beaches.
New Year’s Eve in Sydney
Australians and international tourists alike flock to Sydney for New Year’s Eve, so expect hotel prices to rise considerably. It’s where the biggest celebrations in Australia take place so prepare for a night to remember. If you want to get closest to the action you’ll have to join the hordes at Circular Quay, but get there very early. For a more relaxed option, while still enjoying fantastic views, you can buy tickets to several of the harbour’s islands. Many people also head out to Bondi Beach, which each year hosts the Shore Thing festival with top international DJs on the lineup.
The majority of visitors to Australia will first land at Sydney’s Kingsford Smith International Airport. Located just to the south of the city, by Botany Bay, there are several options for getting into Sydney. Shuttle buses are usually the cheapest, starting at $10 per person. There are direct trains to the city, but at about $15 for a single, they’re relatively expensive. Taxis to the CBD will cost about $30 to $40 (including a $3 airport toll which does not show up on the meter). You can only get public buses from Sydney Airport to Bondi Junction or Burwood, not the city. If you travel to Sydney by cruise ship then you will most likely dock at Sydney’s Overseas Passenger Terminal, right next to Circular Quay, directly opposite the Sydney Opera House.