Sydney is a cosmopolitan city surrounded by iconic beaches, world heritage sites, and acclaimed wine regions. Besides being Australia’s largest city, Sydney is also its’ most visited. (And, contrary to popular belief, not the country’s capital!) With an incredible variety of attractions and sights to see, including the very famous Bondi and Manly beaches, it’s easy to see why people come here and stay a while—try to stay at least a week if you can. As you will see from this travel guide, there is a lot to do in Sydney. It’s worth a long stay.
Hostel prices – Hostels in Sydney are very expensive. Cheaper hostels can be found in the King’s Cross area. An 8-bed dorm starts around 26 AUD, while a 4-bed dorm starts around 33 AUD. Private rooms range between 80-120 AUD per night depending on things such as location and whether the bathroom is shared or private. Wake Up! in central Sydney and the YHA Rocks are two of my favorite Australian hostels. Avoid the Jolly Swagman! It’s a horrible place to stay.
Budget hotel prices — Hotel prices vary greatly in the city. If you want to stay in the center, you’re better off getting a private room at a hostel as the hotels are too expensive downtown. Most budget hotels begin around 90 AUD per night for a single, and 150 AUD for a double, and get more expensive the closer you get downtown (+200 AUD). Check out Airbnb to rent from a local and get better value for a great location. You’ll find a lot better deals and, on a per person basis, be able to work out cheaper deals if you’re with a group. On Airbnb, a shared room in a home averages about 33 AUD per night. You can find whole apartments starting around 105 AUD per night.
Average cost of food — Cheap meals like sandwiches, burgers, and sushi can be found for under 14 AUD. If you cook your meals, expect to pay around 100 AUD per week for groceries that will include pasta, vegetables, chicken, and other basic foodstuffs. An average restaurant meal will run you about 20-28 AUD for no-frills eating. If you are staying in hostels, most offer family style meals each night for around 8 AUD (some offer “free” dinners but it’s usually crappy hot dogs and sausages). Restaurants on the harbor will cost a bit more because of all the tourists and great views. Fast food is around 15 AUD for a meal. The sushi trains around the city offer a filling meal for 10-20 AUD, the noodle and dumpling shops in Chinatown offer tasty and authentic meals for less than 10 AUD, and Lentil as Anything (a vegetarian restaurant in Newtown) offers meals on a “pay as you feel” system. Another cheap place to eat is the food court in the MLC Centre.
Transportation costs — Sydney’s transport system is made up of trains, buses, and ferries. Bus fares depend on the number of zones you travel with adult fares beginning at 4 AUD. Fares also vary slightly based on the time of day and the number of passengers. Taxis are fairly easy to flag down but expensive. Ferries range between 5-10 AUD each way. The airport express train is 15 AUD. UberX has become a really popular form of transportation around the city and is about 40% cheaper than a taxi. See below for information on the Opal Card (the city’s metro pass)!
Suggested daily budget — 50-60 AUD / 36-43 USD (Note: This is a suggested budget assuming you’re staying in a hostel, eating out a little, cooking most of your meals, and using local transportation. Using the budget tips below, you can always lower this number. However, if you stay in fancier accommodation or eat out more often, expect this to be higher!)
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Money Saving Tips
- Attend free local events — “What’s On Sydney” has a list of free and cheap current events. Check it out for the most up-to-date details.
- Walk the bridge for free — Taking a Bridgeclimb is 205 AUD but you can walk across this icon for free!
- Get an Opal card — This metro card is free – you just need to load it with money. It’s worth using for three reasons: first, it offers discounted fare compared to purchasing one use tickets (varies by distance); there’s a maximum fare charge of 15 AUD per day; and on Sundays, a maximum of 2.50 AUD. That means you can go anywhere in the metro system on a Sunday and you’ll never pay more than 2.50 AUD!
- Free walking tours — I Am Free runs a free daily tour of the city center and The Rocks, Sydney’s original settlement. Additionally, you can use Sydney Greeters (advanced booking required!), which is a free service that connects you with a local who will show you around their neighborhood!
- Visit the markets — Sydney has many amazing markets to walk through. At Paddington Markets (Oxford Street; open Saturdays after 10am), the fish market (Bank Street and Pyrmont Bridge Road), Bondi Farmers Market (Campbell Parade on Bondi Beach), the flower market (Parramatta Road), and a whole lot more seasonal markets, it’s really easy to spend a lot of time wandering and shopping. I love Paddington Markets and the farmers market the best — they draw an eclectic crowd, and the farmers market makes me want to cook nonstop.
- Explore the free museums — Australia has a lot of expensive museums, but it also has a ton of free ones. Some free museums worth considering: The Mint (a small exhibit on how they used to make money), Australia Center for Photography, White Rabbit Gallery (beautiful art), Manly Art Museum, Sydney Observatory, and the Rocks Discovery museum.
- Couchsurf — Accommodation in Australia can be quite pricey. If you plan ahead, you can usually find really nice Couchsurfing hosts all throughout the country. This way, you not only have a place to stay, but you’ll have a local host that can tell you the best places to go and things to see.
- Get a phone plan — The telephone company Telstra has really improved their service and offers great phone packages that have great coverage throughout the country. Their call/text rates aren’t that high either, so the credit will last you awhile. Vodafone has amazing deals (sometimes better) too but they have more limited coverage around the country.
- Drink goon (box wine) — Goon is infamous on the Australian backpacker hostel trail. This cheap box of wine is the best way to drink, get a buzz, and save a lot of money at the same time. 4 liters typically costs 13 AUD (compared to a six pack of beer for the same price). Drink this before you go out and save on spending money at the bar (where it is about 10 AUD per drink). Also, blow up the bag when you’re done and have a little pillow to rest your head on!
- Cook often — The best way to reduce your costs is to cook as many meals as possible. ALDI is the cheapest supermarket in the country, followed by Coles and then Woolworths (though sometimes you don’t get a choice at which place you can shop it! Some small towns only have one!).
- Get free internet — The internet in Australia is painfully slow and expensive (just ask any Australian how they feel about this), but libraries and McDonalds have free WiFi that you can use.
- Work for your room — Many hostels offer travelers the chance to work for their accommodation. In exchange for a few hours a day of cleaning, you get a free bed. Commitments vary but most hostels that ask you to stay at least a week.
- Drink at backpacker bars —Drinking in Sydney is expensive – with beers costing up to 10 AUD each – but the backpacker bars are where to go for a cheap pint. World Bar and Ivy Hotel have backpacker specials for 4-7 AUD, and the Peter Pan Travel Agency in Kings Cross has free drinks on Tuesdays!
Top Things to See and Do in Sydney
- Visit The Rocks — The Rocks is the oldest part of Sydney. With it narrow lanes, fine colonial buildings, sandstone churches, and Australia’s oldest pubs, this neighborhood is where Sydney started when the British first landed. It was almost torn down in the 1970s for modern high-rises, but, luckily, citizen action got it preserved instead. The Rocks’ weekend markets, art museums, street entertainment, delicious (and sometimes overpriced) restaurants, and beautiful views of the harbor, Opera House, and bridge make this is one of the coolest areas of the city. I love heading up to the Sydney Observatory Hill Park for a good view of the city, wandering the harbor promenade, and hitting the bars at night. The museum is open daily from 10am-5pm.
- Hang out at the beach — Sydney is synonymous with its beaches, and the area is also especially famous for having world-class surfing. Since it’s warm and sunny most of the year, the city has a strong beach culture, and on the weekends (and many weekdays for that matter), locals flock to the seashore. From Palm Beach and Manly in the north to the famous Bondi and Coogee in the south, Sydney has a beach for everyone. All the beaches are easy to get to via public transportation or car and there are tons of restaurants and surf shops around, too! My favorite beaches are Manly (wide and beautiful) and Bronte (small and quiet).
- Royal Botanic Gardens and Mrs. Macquarie Chair — You’ll find Australia’s first vegetable garden and a treasure trove of trees, ferns, flowers, and gardens at the Royal Botanic Gardens. On a sunny day, you’ll find locals sprawled out all over the lawns soaking up the sun. You can also see Mrs. Macquarie’s Chair, a seat carved into a stone cliff, where you can sit and gaze out at the harbor. There are also free one-hour volunteer-guided tours of the garden, too! The gardens open every day at 7am and, depending on the time of year, close as early as 5pm or as late as 8pm.
- Ferry to Manly Beach — The ferry ride to Manly (12.40 AUD round-trip, 2.50 AUD on Sundays) offers sweeping views of the harbor, Sydney Harbour Bridge, and the world-famous Opera House. It’s a picturesque 30-minute ride each way that puts you in one of the coolest parts of the north end of the city. Manly is famous for its wide beach, giant waves, surfing, and kick-ass nightlife.
- Sydney Harbor Bridge — The bridge was built in 1932 as a government employment project during the Great Depression. Its steel frame has become an iconic symbol of the city. While tours that climb the bridge are expensive (160 AUD), it is free to walk or bike across it for panoramic views of the harbor and Opera House.
- Take the Town Hall tour — Sydney’s beautiful town hall is a wonderful Victorian building; on Tuesday mornings, there’s a two-hour tour for 5 AUD.
- View the iconic Sydney Opera House — Just as iconic as the Sydney Harbour Bridge, the Opera House is famous for its white-shelled roof. As an architectural delight and feat of engineering (getting the roof to stay up took the creation of a complex support system), guided tours (40 AUD) give you a whole new appreciation for just how challenging the building was to design and erect. Tickets for a show in the Opera House are surprisingly affordable (45 AUD), so try to take one in if you can.
- The Blue Mountains — Over the millennia, the ancient sandstone of this national park has been weathered into gorges lined by steep cliffs and separated by narrow ridges. Some activities in Blue Mountains National Park include seeing the magnificent rock formation of the Three Sisters (particularly stunning at sunset and under evening floodlights) or hiking along the paths that offer excellent views of the valley, sheer rock walls, tumbling waterfalls, and magnificent forests. The park is free to visit and you can get there by train from Sydney, which takes 90 minutes. If you want to hike further afield, it’s best to stay overnight! The park is free to visit.
- Go to the museums — Like most cities, Sydney has a wide variety of museums. There’s free entry to the Art Gallery of New South Wales (modern art), the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia at The Rocks, the Nicholson Museum (antiquities), and the Australian National Maritime Museum at Darling Harbor. I also suggest visiting the White Rabbit Gallery (contemporary Chinese art; it also has a teahouse) and The Rocks Discovery Museum (local history); both are also free. However, my favorite museum of all is the Hyde Park Barracks. Set in the old convict barracks, it does an amazing and detailed job of chronicling colonial life in the city, with lots of stories of the early settlers, and it’s well worth the 10 AUD entrance fee. If you only pay for one museum, make it this one!
- Learn to surf — Sydney is often the place travelers bite the bullet and learn the art of Australia’s famous national pastime. There are many companies here that offer lessons. While Bondi is the most popular beach, Manly on the north shore of Sydney has better waves (though you can find good waves up and down the coast!). A group lesson starts at 70 AUD, and a 1-hour private lesson starts at 100 AUD.
- Visit the Hunter Valley — North of town is one of Australia’s premier wine regions. The Hunter Valley is home to amazing wineries that produce luscious reds. While it’s not as easy on the budget, it is an excuse to get out of the city and see the countryside. Day tours are offered from Sydney, but they are expensive (150-200 AUD) and you spend a lot of time on the bus. Want even more fun? Try a bike tour. Grapemobile and Hunter Valley Cycling offer one-day bicycle rentals starting at 35 AUD. It’s best to stay for at least a night to get the full experience. Day tours are offered from Sydney, but it’s best to stay for at least a night.
- The Tower Sky Walk — As tall as the Eiffel Tower and twice as high as the Harbour Bridge, the Sydney Tower offers amazing panoramic views of the city from its Skywalk at the top. At 50 AUD, it’s cheaper and easier than climbing the bridge itself, and the views are actually far better. Also included with your purchase of a Skywalk ticket is access to the “4-D” cinema experience, which includes in-theatre effects like wind and fire.
- Take the Trike Way — Another fun way to explore the northern beaches is by renting a motorized trike. This day-long trip can take you beyond Palm Beach, the furthest point on the peninsula, into the Ku-ring-gai National Park, past Church point to Akuna Bay.
- Visit Wild Life Sydney Zoo — One of the newest additions to Darling Harbor, Wild Life Sydney Zoo is set up with highly detailed, “natural” environments for birds, wallabies, reptiles, and more. There are various guided tours and animal feedings all day. This is a good family activity. Admission costs 40 AUD, but save 12 AUD when you buy ahead of time online. It’s open daily from 9:30am-5pm.
- Do a coastal walk — There are a number of stunning coastal walks that allow you to take in the breathtaking natural beauty of Sydney Harbor. While tons of people follow the two-hour Coogee-to-Bondi walk (skip the weekends when it’s overly crowded), I found both the shorter walk in Watson’s Bay and the Split-to-Manly walk quieter and more breathtaking.
- Attend a cultural event — Since Sydney has a complex about Melbourne being called the culture capital of Australia, it tries to outdo its rival by hosting over 30 official festivals and events each year. It offers art gallery nights, concerts, festivals, and much more. Most of them are free and can be found on the Sydney tourism website.
- Party in King’s Cross — If you’re looking to go out and get wild on the cheap, then go to King’s Cross. This is where the beer is inexpensive and the backpackers (and locals) party late. The famous World Bar is where most of the action happens (cheap drinks and a large dance floor). For a less traveler-centric time, head to Manly, The Rocks, or the CBD (Central Business District) where there are more locals and fewer travelers (but more expensive cocktails and beers).