It’s not often that I get awed by man-made wonders. I tend to fawn over nature more than I do steel and concrete. Yet when I gazed upon the Sydney Harbour Bridge, my heart skipped a beat. My jaw dropped. I “OOOOH”ed and “AHHH”ed. It was as mindboggling beautiful and breathtaking as people said it would be.
And that’s how I feel about Sydney — it was everything that people said it would be.
Built as a convict settlement in 1788 and by 1822, Sydney was the first major settlement in the the country (and remains the biggest city in Australia to this day). The urban development of the 1830s and 1840s (including the development of the first suburbs) occurred as the town grew rapidly when ships began arriving with immigrants looking to start a new life. With industrialization, Sydney expanded rapidly and by the early 20th century it had a population in excess of one million.
Today, Sydney is filled with a plethora of famous attractions. From the iconic Sydney Opera House and Harbour Bridge to Bondi Beach to King’s Cross to the wine area of the Hunter Valley and to the amazing Blue Mountains, this city can fill your days for an endless amount of time.
On my first to the city, I hardly saw any of that. Sydney was the last stop on an 18-month tour and by then I was pretty burnt out. So burnt out that I skipped most of Queensland to fly home (though after two weeks back in Boston, I was ready to fly back to Australia). I skipped Bondi Beach. I didn’t go to the Hunter Valley or the Blue Mountains. I avoided the clubs. I didn’t see the bars.
But even with missing over half the stuff in the city, I still loved Sydney!
It wasn’t until my next visits (I’ve been five times now) that I began to explore the city in depth and found an even deeper love for the city. It was in these visits that I explored the northern beaches, the eastern suburbs, walked the amazing coastal trails, and went into wine country.
And it was in these visits that Sydney continued to shine bright like the sun. It has continued to amaze with me its growing foody scene, endless art galleries, plethora of outdoor activities, and super friendly and welcoming locals who are always willing to share a pint and hear your story (and then share theirs).
Here are some things to see and do in Sydney:
See the Sydney Opera House
(Bennelong Point, +61 2 9250 7111, sydneyoperahouse.com)
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 ($37 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 ($43 AUD), so try to take one in if you can.
Go wine tasting in 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 in 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.
Walk the Sydney Harbour 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 ($158 AUD), it is free to walk or bike across it for panoramic views of the harbor and Opera House.
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)
Visit the Royal Botanic Gardens
(Mrs Macquaries Rd, +61 2 9231 8111, rbgsyd.nsw.gov.au)
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. The Sydney Domain/Royal Gardens are massive and quite lovely to wander around in. It’s easy to spend hours in the area. I walked around for about an hour and saw maybe less than half of the trails and I’m not a slow walker! It’s definably a good respite from the insanity of the city.
But if Sydney had a downside – and all cities do – it would be its costs. Sydney is one of the most expensive cities in the country (and the country is not cheap to begin with). But, as so often is the case in expensive countries, there are actually a lot of ways to save. Locals are ingenious about getting around the high prices in their country.
First, many of the city’s best attractions are also free, including all of its beaches and coastal walks. Australia has a lot of expensive museums, but tons of free ones too. Some worth considering are The Mint (a small exhibit on how they used to make money), The Australia Center for Photography, The White Rabbit Gallery (beautiful art), The Manly Art Museum, The Sydney Observatory, and The Rocks Discovery Museum!
Second, visit backpacker bars for cheap drinks. Drinking in Sydney is expensive – with beers costing up to $10 each – but the backpackers bars are where to go for a cheap pint. World Bar and Ivy Hotel have backpacker specials for $4-7, and the Peter Pan Travel Agency in Kings Cross has free drinks on Tuesdays!
Third, need a cheap meal? The sushi trains around the city offer a filling meal for $10-20, the noodle and dumpling shops in Chinatown offer tasty and authentic meals for less than $10, 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, a big office building in the heart of the business district and popular with office workers. From Mexican to sushi to salads to sandwiches, you can find big-portion meals for $10 or less.
Everyone who visits Australia sets foot in Sydney so I don’t have to push you to head there. Instead, I will simply push you to Australia by telling you the currency is weaker than it used to be so now is a good time to visit Australia and see Sydney.
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