The ULTIMATE Guide to Sydney
One of the most common questions I get is, “What should I see while I’m in Sydney?” After living here for nearly three years, I’ve decided to write up a guide. This is my own personal guide, so if you love amazing food prepared by the masters, a good drink, and nature and the outdoors, read on!
The Ultimate Guide to Sydney
In and Around Sydney:
Just in the middle of Sydney Harbour is Cockatoo Island – a quick ferry from Circular Quay. On weekends in summer they have The Island Bar – an outdoor bar where you can day drink and enjoy the sun. You can also go glamping if you’d like to stay overnight!
Sydney Harbour Bridge:
You can walk over this for free, or pay hundreds of dollars to do the Bridge Climb. If you walk from North to South, you land in the Rocks – grab beers at Lord Nelson Brewery. For a cheaper version of the bridge climb, go into the Pylon Lookout.
Sydney doesn’t really have anything on Europe when it comes to art, but the Art Gallery of NSW usually has some decent exhibitions.
St. Mary’s and the Royal Botanic Gardens:
You can check out the impressive St. Mary’s Cathedral in Hyde Park if you like old churches, then walk north from there to the Royal Botanic Gardens & Mrs. Macquarie’s Chair. It’s a huge park right on the Harbour, really beautiful and great views of the Opera House with the Harbour Bridge behind it.
The day itineraries below have all the beaches you could ever want to see around Sydney. If you don’t have a whole day, you can still get to these within 20/30 minutes from CBD. The main beaches to see are: Bondi, Manly, Bronte, Tamarama, Balmoral, Watsons Bay. Secret Beaches are: Red Leaf Beach, Milk Beach, Store Beach (reachable only by kayak/boat!). Note that beaches in italics are Harbour Beaches, which means no getting your surf on here.
Events to Check Out
Sculptures by the Sea:
Usually in late October/early November for about 3 weeks, Sculptures by the Sea gets PACKED on the weekends. If you’re able, go on a weekday and take your time looking at art in the most beautiful gallery in the world: the Bondi to Bronte Coastal Walk. If you are caught in the crowds, I recommend starting in Bronte and ending in Bondi with a meal or a Gelato Messina on trendy Hall St.
Good Food Month:
Put on by the major newspapers in each major city, Good Food Month for Sydney is in July and October, usually. This means you can go to some insanely expensive restaurants for lunch or dinner, and pay a flat cost for a 3 course meal at a fraction of what you normally would pay. The menus are more limited, but the chefs are the best in Australia, and arguably the world. It’s a great way to try some five-star dining on a budget. This also hosts the Night Noodle Markets in Hyde Park – a great evening of cheap food stalls worth exploring.
The Sydney Royal Easter Show:
Set in the 3 weeks surrounding Easter in March/April, the Sydney Royal Easter Show is a spectacle that you can’t miss if you are a lover of fairs. There is something for everyone here – petting baby farm animals, checking out the best livestock in the country, carnival rides, rodeos, dirt biking competitions, all sorts of horsemanship competitions – it’s really something to behold.
Festival of the Winds:
If you’re able to time your visit to Bondi with the Festival of the Winds [usually in September], you will be treated to a sky full of incredible wind-borne colors and creatures. I stumbled across this on accident my first few months in Australia and was delighted!
Art installations pop up in the city after the New Year, and you know the Sydney Festival is on its way. Theater, circus, opera, modern music, and more, this is where Sydney does what she does best: Preens in all her glorious, artistic and hipster glory.
Light, Music, and Ideas is what this festival is all about. Usually held in May or June, you’ll get to see iconic Sydney landmarks lit up with incredible light projected art, there are musical performances, TED-like talks and panels, and the whole city comes alive at night.
Go to breakfast at Three Blue Ducks in Bronte (go early or on a weekday, very popular), then make your way down to the beach. You can hang out there for a bit, or jump on the coastal walk to the left of the beach when you’re facing the ocean and walk past Tamarama Beach and up into Bondi. If you do this in the beginning of November you’ll be able to catch the Sculptures by the Sea art installation along the walkway. It ends in famous Bondi Beach; grab lunch/dinner at Bondi Hardware on Hall St and finish off with a Gelato Messina about a block away.
Take a ferry from Circular Quay (right by the Opera House) up to Manly Beach. Best and cheapest way to see the Opera House and Harbor Bridge from the water. Once in Manly, take a right out of the ferry building and go to Four Pines Brewery for lunch and local beers. Walk down the Corso to the beach and spend some time there. They do beach volleyball if you happen to play. You can also do a hike around the point; the pathway starts on the right of the beach when you’re facing the ocean and goes all the way around to harbour.
‘Mountains’ here are more like big hills, but it’s an interesting way to see some of the wilderness around Sydney. There are a lot of tour companies that will pick you up in Sydney and take you around; I went with Oz Trails on the Blue Mountains Special Tour and it was a good day. Their itinerary covers off pretty much everything worth checking out over there. Here’s my trip to the Mountains if you’re interested.
This is a famous wine region outside Sydney famous for its Semillion and Shiraz. You can do a day trip here, but a weekend would work as well. If you go, you have to make sure you stop at Tallavera Grove for a tasting. The wine is good, and the view is one of the most amazing in the valley. If you go with a tour they will probably drop you off at Tempus Two, but it’s not really that great – just a lineup of tasting rooms and restaurants & a bit of a theme-park vibe. I’m a wine snob though so I like to taste it where they grow it – you may not mind! If you do an overnight, go for brunch at Peterson’s Champagne House. Click here to read about my trip to the Hunter.
About an hour north of Sydney is Palm Beach and Summer Bay. They film a show here called Home and Away that is very famous in Australia and the UK, but no one from the US has ever heard of it! The beach here is great, as is the bay. You could rent Kayaks, SUPs, or a boat in the bay and hang out there during the day. The restaurant up there is the Boathouse.
If you want to splash out big:
Rockpool Bar & Grill on Hunter Street [NOT the Bridge Street one]:
Famous for their burger and steak, amazing food all around, wine list that will blow your mind. In an old bank so the architecture is pretty cool too. Ask for a table on the second level.
Otto Ristorante on Wooloomooloo Wharf:
Beautiful Italian-Australian food with stunning presentation — save room for dessert at this one.
The Cut in the Rocks:
Also amazing steak, some say better than Rockpool. It’s hard to pick a winner so just go to both.
Guillaume in Paddington:
This guy was running the restaurant in Bennelong at the Opera House and just opened up a new place in my neighborhood. I haven’t made it in yet, but it’s high on my list.
The Bridge Room:
Best lunch I’ve ever had in Sydney [and I used to work in advertising, I went to a lot of lunches!]
Famous Japanese food in a really cool heritage building in the city. Go for the degustation so you can get a taste of everything.
If you want good food but not as big of a bill:
Movida in Surry Hills:
Tapas; I’m told their Melbourne location is better, but not sure how that’s possible.
French; Great value for money; oysters are amazing, the wine list is long, and everything on their menu is good.
Greek; Some of the best Greek food you will ever have. If you go with a group, ask for the chef’s table in the kitchen.
Japanese Fusion; Really interesting menu – combines flavors you wouldn’t think about and manages to pull it off. A little pricy so you could put it in the ‘splash out’ list.
Australian; from quasi-celebrity chef Colin Fassnidge – just really good, hearty food in the heart of Surry Hills.
Chinese; A classic for a good advertising lunch, amazing Chinese food. Duck pancakes and pork dishes that will make you very, very happy.
If you aren’t in the mood to splash out:
Burgers; Booze, burgers, and live music. A very fun place in a cool neighborhood most tourists don’t usually see [Newtown].
The Clock in Surry Hills; fun for a night out right in the heart of Surry Hills.
The Royal Hotel in Paddington; best for day-drinking. Go to the roof for a great view.
Cliff Dive in Darlinghurst: late night; go here for a Sydney version of a dive bar.
The Glenmore in the Rocks: arguably the best roof deck in Sydney
The Beresford Hotel in Surry Hills; a massive bars-within-a-bar complex, this has a pub, a restaurant, an outdoor bar, and dancing on the second floor. You can spend an entire evening in here and feel like you’ve been on a pub crawl.
Shady Pines Saloon: down an alleyway in Darlinghurst/Surry Hills border off Oxford St.; a fun way to see how Australia does an American bar. They have PBR signs on the walls but sadly don’t sell it. However, they do have an impressive local beer list.
The Baxter Inn: Whiskey and Bourbon heaven, with really knowledgeable bartenders. In a basement and full of dark wood and green velvet; free peanuts for all. A really cool spot.
Four in Hand: On Sundays they do a Sunday roast [pork belly or roast beef, usually] with a full plate of really good food for about $24. They also do Toss the Boss, where you flip the bartender heads or tails to see who pays for that round of drinks.
Palmer and Co.: A bit pretentious, but classic speakeasy style where the bartenders and waiters/waitresses all dress in 40s style. Good prohibition-era cocktails too. Also in a basement.
The Opera Bar: right next to the Opera House, a bit touristy but kind of a must-do if you haven’t been to Sydney before.
Weekenders Near Sydney:
Jervis Bay & Hyams Beach:
Rent a house in Hyams Beach for an overnight and stay at the whitest beach in Australia for a couple of days. There isn’t a ton to do other than relax, but the beach is incredible and you’ll feel like you’re on a tropical island. There is a national park with a hike/walk at the right end of the beach when you’re facing the ocean. It’s a 3 hour drive south of Sydney.
An on-beach campground with campsites and cabins you can rent, it’s a great place to surf and hang out on the beach. I camped there last year and saw my first wild dingo! It’s about 3 hours north of Sydney.
Kangaroo Valley & Berry:
The epitome of Aussie countryside, there are some stunning outlooks and a very cute small town in Berry to explore. Check AirBnB for adorable farmstays; we stayed at the Dairy at Beauridge Farm for a weekend and absolutely LOVED it. This is a 2 hour drive south of Sydney.
Cheap airlines in AU are Jetstar and Tiger Airways, but Tiger tends to have an unexpected cancellation problem & isn’t as reliable. Virgin Australia also sometimes has deals. Follow them on Facebook or sign up for their emails if you want to know when they have sales!
Some suggested places:
- Byron Bay [airport: Ballina Byron]
- The Whitsundays [airport: Hamilton Island, Mackay Island] You can see the Barrier Reef from the Whitsundays
- Uluru/Ayers Rock [airport: Uluru]
- Noosa [airport: Sunshine Coast/Maroochydore]
- Melbourne [airport: Tullamarine and Avalon]
Okay friends and fellow travelers, what have I left out of this Ultimate Guide to Sydney?