At the end of our 18 month Gap Year trip in July 2017 we returned home to Tasmania, Australia via a stop-over in Sydney. We had lived in Sydney prior to moving to Tassie 20 years ago. I was born and raised there and Cally grew up there from the age of 10 onwards. We both still have lots of family and friends in Sydney so take every chance we get to spend time there.
During our stay, I started thinking about doing a post on Sydney. We have very little Australian content on Dodgy Knees so far apart from on Tasmania so something about the city we know so well seemed like an obvious choice, but what to write? Yes, Sydney is a place we know well, but after 20 years away we can’t really consider ourselves insiders anymore.
Sydney is a wonderfully exciting, vibrant city. But as older travellers we are not into partying, nightlife or adrenaline sports. What we love about the city is its natural assets – the beaches and headlands of the coast, the abundant eucalypts and other greenery, and the mountains that hem in the coastal plain that Sydney sits upon. And that’s what we want to highlight here.
However, we couldn’t do our first ever post on Sydney without including the iconic sights of the Sydney Harbour Bridge and the Opera House, so they’re here too. And Sydney Harbour, which they sit upon and beside, is one of the world’s great waterways.
This post covers some of our favourite Sydney places. Most are very well known, hence the title “Sydney for Beginners” and provides an introduction to Sydney for the first-time visitor with limited time. But I’ve also included a few lesser known spots - hidden gems - that mostly only locals know about.
Sydney can be expensive, so in the spirit of budget travel, which by necessity we usually practise, the focus is on places and activities that won’t cost you an arm and a leg, except in-so-far as it involves a fair bit of arm and leg movement – aka walking.
1. City Walk to the Icons – Harbour Bridge and Opera House
Start your first time visit to Sydney with a walk that culminates in a blockbuster view of the Harbour Bridge and Opera House at Circular Quay – the city’s main ferry terminal.
Instead of catching a bus, train or ferry from your accommodation directly to Circular Quay I suggest starting your walk from Sydney’s Central Railway Station. From here it’s a short walk to the city’s Chinatown. Maybe stop off for a yum cha – there are lots of restaurant choices.
Next stop, a stone’s throw away, is Darling Harbour which is a conference, entertainment, restaurant precinct. It is also home to attractions such as the National Maritime Museum, SEA LIFE Sydney Aquarium, Madame Tussauds, and harbour cruise operators. For more info on Darling Harbour click here http://www.darlingharbour.com/
From Darling Harbour walk across to George Street and keep heading north, past the Town Hall and Martin Place and you’ll soon arrive at Circular Quay.
Apart from taking in the view from the quay, to the left, towards the Bridge, is Sydney’s oldest colonial precinct, The Rocks as well as MoCA (Museum of Contemporary Art). On your right, past the Opera House, are the expansive Botanical Gardens.
2. Catch the Ferry to Manly
Having arrived at Circular Quay on a beautiful, hot summer’s day why not jump on a ferry to Manly? It’s a 30 minute ride across Sydney Harbour which provides a different perspective on views of the Opera House, Harbour Bridge, as well as Fort Denison (a small island fortress built in the mid-19th century), and the Heads (the entrance to the harbour from the Pacific Ocean).
From the wharf in Manly it is a short walk up the pedestrian street, the Corso, to the ocean beach.
If you prefer a calm water swim to surf, take the beach promenade to the right where it meanders along the shore to protected Shelly Beach.
Manly has plenty of cafes, restaurants, and bars, so you won’t starve or die of thirst.
If you have time I’d recommend exploring Sydney’s Northern Beaches, which is where we both grew up. From Manly to Palm Beach (Sydney’s northern coastal limit) there are 20 kilometres of some of Australia’s best beaches. For more info about Manly and the Northern Beaches click here. https://www.manlyaustralia.com.au/
Hidden Gem #1 – If you want a great, elevated view of Sydney’s coast, and you don’t own a drone, take a detour on your Northern Beaches trip up Collaroy Plateau (behind Collaroy Beach). At the northern end of the plateau, on Edgecliffe Boulvard, is a great viewpoint which looks north up Narrabeen Beach and lake.
Hidden Gem #2 – From nearby Long Reef headland (between Dee Why and Collaroy beaches) adjacent to a golf course, is a popular whale watching vantage point. Even if there are no whales it is a top spot for a picnic and views up and down the coast.
3. Bronte to Bondi Coastal Walk
For some great seascapes and a bit of exercise, head to Bronte Beach and take the coastal walk to Bondi. Bronte is not on the rail line so you’ll need to take the bus or other method of transport to get there (see Sydney public transport app tip at the end of this post).
You can, of course, start at Bondi Beach and walk to Bronte if you prefer. We like to do it from Bronte finishing in Bondi. There are quite a few nice little cafés/restaurants at Bronte so you can fortify yourself before the 2.5 km walk with a coffee and a snack.
From Bronte the track heads north following the cliff line and dropping down to beach level in places.
It passes pocket sized Tamarama Beach and eventually cruises past Bondi’s ocean pool and famous Bondi Icebergs Club.
It then arrives at Bondi Beach where you can have a dip, do some people watching, or even practise your pole dancing with an audience.
From mid-October to early November each year the walk is home to Sculptures by the Sea, the world’s largest free public sculpture exhibition. If you want to know more here is a link to the website http://sculpturebythesea.com/
A map of the walk can be found at the link here http://short-walks.com.au/new-south-wales/sydney/bondi-to-bronte-walk/
If you want a longer walk the trail actually goes all the way from Bondi to Coogee Beach a total of around 6 kms with Bronte being roughly the halfway mark.
Hidden Gem #3 – Also in Sydney’s east, not far from Bondi, is the lovely, small, secluded harbour beach of Redleaf. We’re not going to tell you exactly where it is in order to keep it a little bit hidden. Do a bit of research and head there on a hot, summer afternoon and you’ll be pleased that you bothered.
4. Take a Train to the Blue Mountains
For something completely different to city sights and beaches take a trip to the Blue Mountains, 90-120 minutes west of Sydney city by train.
The mountains get their name from the blue haze emitted from the abundant eucalyptus forests when viewed from a distance. In summer, the haze is supplemented by the, at times, deafening hum of cicadas. The Greater Blue Mountains region was named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2000.
The Blue Mountains have long been one of our favourite places, and contributed to us deciding to move to mountainous Tasmania where we could get our mountain fix on a daily basis - our house looks across the Derwent River to views of kunanyi/Mt Wellington.
The classic photo is shot from Echo point out of the town of Katoomba and features a rock formation known as the Three Sisters with the Jamison Valley as the backdrop. If you’re keen (and fit) from Echo Point you can follow a trail, which includes the 800 step Giant Stairway, to the valley floor.
Nearby Leura is another popular location and a top spot for a coffee and Devonshire tea.
Hidden Gem #4 – If you have your own transport take a drive to Valley of the Waters near Wentworth Falls. There are a number of walk options here ranging from short walks to spectacular viewpoints to serious day walks to the valley floor.
On a recent visit with brother Pete and friend and local resident Mark we did the 60 minute return walk to Empress Falls. If you want more information on the trails click this link.
The Wild Walks website also has many more walks in the Blue Mountains and beyond. For more on tourism to the Blue Mountains have a look at this site http://visitbluemountains.com.au/
Public Transport Opal Card and App
Sydney’s public transport system involves trains, buses, ferries and even some light rail. It can be tricky to navigate. Basically, you need two things – an opal card and a good travel app.
The opal card is a reloadable card that can used for all the different public transport modes. Available at newsagents and other outlets where advertised.
As for transport apps for Sydney there are a number. We use one called TripView Lite which works well.
Well, if you only have a few days in Sydney I’ve probably filled your itinerary if you take up these suggestions. There are, of course, many more great places and things to do if you have the time. I haven’t, for example, mentioned the southern beaches or Royal National Park; Kings Cross, Darlinghurst and Sydney’s Inner West if you’re looking for nightlife and an urban vibe.; the possibility of taking a train to multicultural Cabramatta in Sydney’s south west for the best pho outside of Hanoi; or Sydney’s world class Taronga Park Zoo – to name but a few.
Sydney really is a great city with seemingly endless possibilities – you really can’t go wrong.
PS Here are a few more useful websites