Updated: 10/28/2018 | October 28th, 2018
The first time I went to Sydney (all the way back in 2007), I spent most of my days sitting in the botanical gardens, reading a book, and looking at the Opera House and Harbour Bridge. It was the of my trip and all I wanted to do was relax.
Growing up, I had heard always heard about how wonderful and beautiful Sydney was.
And it was true. Sydney was beautiful. I rarely ever got to my book. I was too enamored watching the harbor, relaxing in the gardens, and wandering the city’s walking trails and beaches.
Over the years, I’ve visited Sydney a handful of times, exploring it more and more with each visit. I’ve developed local friends who have opened up their city to me. I’ve seen all the major attractions, the smaller attractions, and everything in between. I can rattle off restaurants, bars, and hidden markets and trails with the best of them.
Sydney is like no other city in the world.
If you’re planning your trip and are wondering what the best things to do and see in Sydney are, wonder no more!
Today, I’m going to share my favorite attractions in Sydney – from fun things to unusual thing to not so touristy things, you’ll see the best of Sydney with this list!
The Best Things to See in Sydney
1. Explore The Rocks
The Rocks is the oldest part of Sydney. With its narrow lanes, fine colonial buildings, sandstone churches, and Australia’s oldest pubs, this was the first neighborhood to be settled when the British first landed in Australia in 1788. It used to be a lot bigger but, sadly, it was almost all torn down in the 1970s for modern high rises and ugly buildings. Luckily, citizen action got most of it preserved instead – and these old buildings have been turned into modern businesses, homes, and tourist attractions.
The Rocks’ weekend markets, art museums, street entertainment, delicious (and sometimes overpriced) restaurants, and beautiful views of the harbor, Opera House, and bridge make it one of the coolest areas in the city.
Don’t miss: Sydney Observatory Hill Park for a good view of the city, wandering the harbor promenade, and hitting the bars at night.
2. Hang out at the beach
Sydney is synonymous with its beaches and 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 sea to surf, swim, and crack open a beer. There are over 100 beaches in Sydney.
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 lining them all. There’s also a coastal walk connecting the beaches together. Keep in mind that the beaches, especially the more famous ones, get really crowded and should be avoided on the weekends.
Don’t miss: Manly (wide and beautiful), Bronte (small and quiet), Coogee (fun), Bondi (the most popular), Palm (chill), and Dee Why.
3. Visit the Royal Botanic Gardens and Mrs. Macquarie’s Chair
You’ll find Australia’s first vegetable garden and a treasure trove of trees, ferns, flowers, and gardens at the Royal Botanic Gardens. The gardens were opened in 1816, and on a sunny day, you’ll see plenty of locals sprawled out all over the lawns soaking up the sun. Home to the oldest scientific institution in the country, the gardens are one of the most visited areas in all of Australia. Here 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. Up until 2010, there was actually a large colony of flying foxes living in the gardens, but since they were causing too much damage they were removed. The gardens are open daily and admission is free
Don’t miss: The free one-hour volunteer-guided tours of the garden.
4. Take the 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 will give you some of the best views of the harbor and surrounding area for the cheapest price. Manly, a suburb in the northern part of the city, is famous for its wide beach, giant waves, surfing, and kick-ass nightlife. The area has a completely different vibe to it than the central city and it’s a part of town a lot of tourists miss. It’s one of my favorite areas of Sydney. There are some incredible coastal walking trails on this side of the harbor too.
5. Walk the Sydney Harbour Bridge
Almost as iconic as the Opera House, the Sydney Harbour Bridge was built in 1932 as a government employment project during the Great Depression. The project took almost 10 years to complete, and at the time it was the world’s largest steel arch bridge. These days, it’s considered the 6th longest spanning-arch bridge in the world. Stretching 1,149m over the water, it’s also the world’s tallest steel arch bridge and the widest, making it an impressive architectural accomplishment. To quote the famous travel writer Bill Bryson, “This is a great bridge.”
Don’t miss: While tours that climb the bridge are expensive ($158 AUD), it is free to walk or bike across it for panoramic views of the harbor and Opera House.
6. Marvel at the Sydney Opera House
This has become perhaps the most iconic site in Sydney, if not Australia. The Opera House is famous for its white-shelled roof, an impressive feat of engineering (getting the roof to stay up took the creation of a complex support system). The building took almost 15 years to complete, opening to the public in 1973. Today, more than 8 million people visit the Opera House annually, with almost half a million taking a guided tour. Daily guided tours are available for 40 AUD and 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 vary depending on the performance but expect to pay at least 50 AUD.
Don’t miss: Don’t miss out on the guided tour. It may be expensive but it’s worth every penny.
7. Visit 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! Here are some other hikes you might want to check out if you’re looking to stretch your legs:
- Grand Canyon Walk: A 6km trail that takes you through the most impressive areas of the park. The hike is a bit challenging and takes 2.5 hours but is definitely worth the effort!
- Katoomba Falls: This 4km circuit is an easy walk that takes a couple hours, leading you to the waterfall as well as some great viewpoints.
- Six Foot Track: This 44km hike a challenging endeavor that takes a few days to complete. But if you’re looking to get off the grid and spend a few nights under the stars, this is the hike for you!
Don’t miss: The Three Sisters at sunset.
8. See all the museums
Like most major cities, Sydney has a wide variety of museums. You’ll find art museums, history museums, galleries, museums of the weird, and everything in between. And, luckily, thanks to Australia’s Commonwealth past, all the public museums in the city are free, making it a great and inexpensive activity in an otherwise expensive city. My favorite museum in Sydney is the Hyde Park Barracks. Set in the old convict barracks from the 18th century, it does an amazing and detailed job of chronicling colonial life in Sydney, using the stories of the early settlers, historical information, artifacts, and historical recreations! It’s well worth the $10 AUD entrance fee. It’s always the highlight of my trip. Few people visit, making it one of the best non-touristy things to do in the city!
Other museums in Sydney:
- Art Gallery of New South Wales (modern art)
- Museum of Contemporary Art Australia at The Rocks
- Nicholson Museum (antiquities)
- Australian National Maritime Museum
- White Rabbit Gallery (contemporary Chinese art; it also has a teahouse)
- The Rocks Discovery Museum (local history)
- Hyde Park Barracks Museum (local, criminal, and judicial history)
- Australian Museum (natural history)
- Justice and Police Museum (criminal museum in an old court house)
- Museum of Sydney (local history)
- Sydney Jewish Museum
9. 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 throughout the city that offer lessons (they can be found on every beach so you don’t need to look hard). While Bondi is the most popular beach in the city, Manly on the north shore of Sydney is considered to have the best waves (though you can find good waves up and down the coast!). Some other great beaches for beginners are:
- Umina Beach
- Collaroy Beach
- Corrimal Beach
- Freshwater Beach
- Palm Beach
10. Wine Tasting in the Hunter Valley
North of Sydney is one of Australia’s premier wine regions. The Hunter Valley is home to incredible wineries that produce some of the world’s best red wine. While visiting is not easy on the budget, it is an excuse to get out of the city, see the countryside, and do something other than sitting on the beach. Day tours are offered from Sydney but they are expensive ($150-200 AUD) and you’ll spend a lot of time on a bus. It’s best to stay for at least a night out in the valley to get the full experience. This is also a perfect activity for couples or families!
If you have a car, you can base yourself in Newcastle or Cessnock, but you’d have a more unique experience if you booked a secluded cabin or home on Airbnb as there are plenty in the area, including some that are also vineyards.
Don’t miss: Want even more fun? Try a bike tour. Grapemobile and Hunter Valley Cycling offer one-day bicycle rentals starting at $35 AUD.
11. Take the Sydney Tower Skywalk
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.
12. Walk one of the coastal walks
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. Some coastal walks worth checking out are:
- Rose Bay to Watson’s Bay
- Watson’s Bay to Dover Heights
- Chowder Bay to Balmoral Beach
- Jibbon Beach Loop Track
Don’t miss: Coogee-to-Bondi walk and Split-to-Manly
13. Explore 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. Some other markets worth checking out are:
- Glebe Market: Vintage clothes and eclectic local handicrafts, as well as delicious food stalls. Open Saturdays from November-February.
- Rozelle Collectors Market: Home to antiques, clothings, DVDs and everything in between. If you like to dig and hunt for awesome finds, this is the market for you! Open weekends from November-February.
- Orange Grove Organic Market: Not only will you find great produce here but there are some incredible food stalls. Definitely come with an appetite! Open Saturdays from November-February.
Don’t miss: Paddington Markets
14. Attend a cultural event
Since Sydney has a complex about Melbourne being called the cultural 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. It wants to be seen as more of a beach destination. No matter what time of the year you visit, you will find something going on in the city!
Most of the events are free and a list of what’s going on soon can be found on the Sydney tourism website. It will give you dates, prices, times, and everything in between!
15. 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). In this part of town, you’ll find all the backpackers and young students drinking, dancing, and getting crazy. If you’re looking to get wild, then drink here. For a less touristy night life scene, head to Manly, The Rocks, or the CBD (central business district) where there are more locals, fewer travelers, and chiller bars and lounges (but more expensive cocktails and beers).
Sydney is a remarkable city. While some cities scream “run around and see stuff” (cough, NYC, Paris, London, cough), Sydney’s message to visitors is always “relax, go outside, and enjoy the beautiful weather.” Sydney is a destination that wants you to go for a walk, sit by the beach, picnic in the park, and drink wine by the bridge. Sure, there’s plenty to unique things to do here and museums to keep you busy, but I find the best way to enjoy a visit to Sydney is to take it slow, see a few attractions, and, mostly, just lay outside on the beach, sit in a park and at a bar with a glass of wine!
That’s the local Sydney. That’s the best way to visit.
Book Your Trip to Sydney: Logistical Tips and Tricks
Book Your Flight
Find a cheap flight by using Skyscanner or Momondo. They are my two favorite search engines because they search websites and airlines around the globe so you always know no stone is left unturned.
Book Your Accommodation
You can book your hostel with Hostelworld. If you want to stay elsewhere, use Booking.com as they consistently return the cheapest rates for guesthouses and cheap hotels. I use them all the time. My favorite places to stay in Sydney are:
- Wake Up! – This is my favorite hostel to meet people in. They have comfy beds, a lively bar, friendly staff, and great desk to work from!
- YHA Rocks – With their rooftop and views of the harbor as well as quiet rooms and comfy beds, this location can’t be beat. Book in advance as it fills up quickly.
Don’t Forget Travel Insurance
Travel insurance will protect you against illness, injury, theft, and cancellations. It’s comprehensive protection in case anything goes wrong. I never go on a trip without it as I’ve had to use it many times in the past. I’ve been using World Nomads for ten years. My favorite companies that offer the best service and value are:
Looking for the best companies to save money with?
Check out my resource page for the best companies to use when you travel! I list all the ones I use to save money when I travel – and I think will help you too!