Sydney has one of the most breathtaking settings in the world. A first glimpse from the air reveals the glistening sails of the Opera House, the girded arch of the Harbour Bridge and the latticework of azure channels that make up Sydney’s incomparable harbour. Clinging to this ethereal seascape, a huddle of glass and chrome rises skywards, marking downtown’s Central Business District or CBD.
Australia’s First City achieves the impossible by merging the energy of a metropolis (world-class restaurants and a fabulous creative arts scene) with the wonders of the great outdoors (glut of surfing beaches and unrivalled coastal walks). The city has reinvented itself several times — from its mysterious beginnings in Aboriginal Dreamtime as the home of 3,000 Eora and Darug people (who were decimated by colonists’ firearms and smallpox), to its years as a harsh frontier colony, its 1850s gold rush and its redefining moment while hosting the 2000 Olympic Games. Two days in this city will simply whet your appetite for more, much more, in this tantalising gateway to the Land Down Under.
Getting your bearings
Much of the action is packed into Sydney’s CBD, which extends from Circular Quay to Central Station and the Royal Botanic Gardens to Darling Harbour. In the heart of the CBD is your first port of call — the bronze spike of Sydney Tower where an observation deck offers 360° views of the city (adult A$ 12.50/child $7.50 if you book at sydneytowereye.com.au). At 305m (or 1,474 steps if you’re brave enough), it is the city’s tallest structure replete with the obligatory revolving restaurant (sydney-tower-restaurant.com) and a Skywalk, which involves hitching yourself to a harness and shuffling across purpose-built walkways on the tower’s outer face (skywalk.com.au).
Getting your bearings, culturally speaking, is slightly trickier; if you can steer a course through Aussie slang — from ‘sickies’ (sick leave) to ‘U-ies’ (U-turns) and ‘brumbies’ (wild horses) to ‘blueys’ (Australian cattle dogs called blue heelers) — and sing a passable ‘Waltzing Matilda’, you’re home free. Good on ya.
Once known as Semi Circular Quay, this is Sydney’s waterfront hub — home to the Opera House and the jumping-off point for ferries. Though a tourist haven, the quay retains an authentic flavour and the wharfs throng with visitors, locals and street artists. Don’t miss the embedded plaques at your feet that make up Writers’ Walk — inscriptions from everyone from Darwin to Germaine Greer to Nevil Shute. A harbour ferry ride (adult single ride from A$5.60; sydneyferries.info) is unmissable, as the best views of the Bridge and Opera House are undoubtedly from the water. Maritime buffs should sail aboard the Southern Swan, an 1850s-style timber tall ship whose crew do pirate impersonations worthy of Jack Sparrow — their 1hr15min ‘Afternoon Tall Ship Discovery Cruise’ is perfect for those with limited time (adult A$45/child A$19; sydneytallships.com.au) but there are plenty of others too. Fine dining restaurants flank the quay’s eastern corridor, while the Overseas Passenger Terminal on the western arm, receives ginormous liners that dwarf the ceaseless ferries, yachts, sailboats and water taxis. The Harbour Bridge Climb to its 134m summit is an unforgettable way to experience the 1932 bridge, fondly called the Coat Hanger (A$188–298; bridgeclimb.com).
Circular Quay was also the landing site of Britain’s First Fleet of ships at ‘Sydney Cove’. Very little remains of these infamous beginnings except in the evocative bylanes of the Rocks, the restored historic quarter that is home to eateries and weekend markets stocking crafts and souvenirs (therocks.com). Named after the rugged cliffs in whose shadow nestled a maze of shanties, the area is fronted by the excellent Museum of Contemporary Art (open daily, entry free; mca.com.au), while just behind it at 137 George Street is a certified gem — the Fortune of War pub (fortuneofwar.com.au), which hosts the Robber’s Dogs Jazz Band who play clarinet, double bass, banjo and washboard every Sunday ‘arvo’ (Aussie for afternoon).
The Opera House & botanic gardens
By far the best way to experience Jørn Utzon’s architectural marvel is by attending a performance beneath the 67m sails of the Opera House that regularly showcases the Sydney Symphony, Bangarra Dance Theatre and the Australian Ballet and has even played host to Stephen Fry and Oprah Winfrey. Alternatively, book a tour and visit the playhouse, opera theatre and famous concert hall that seats 2,690 (tours from A$29.50; sydneyoperahouse.com). You’re promised sublime dining at Guillaume at Bennelong under the southern shell (guillaumeatbennelong.com.au), while the Opera Bar next door is a great place to soak up the local scene. Dead ahead, Macquarie Street is lined with colonial-era buildings — Parliament House, the Royal Mint and Hyde Park Barracks — and around the corner, the Royal Botanic Gardens is a treasure trove of Australian trees and rare plants. See if you can spot the Wollemi pine that dates back to the age of dinosaurs or peer into the trees near the café to see hundreds of flying foxes that city authorities have been trying to relocate, unsuccessfully, for years (rbgsyd.nsw.gov.au).
It is true that Sydney’s giraffes not only occupy the city’s best real estate but also possess some of the best sunset views from across the harbour in Taronga Zoo. As zoos go (and I’m not a fan), Taronga is a delight, both for its wide assortment of critters situated on scenic Bradley’s Head and for its support of conservation, education and breeding programmes of endangered species (Australian sealions and little penguins).
It’s best to get here early (avoid weekends) and head straight for the Aussie fauna where everything, but everything, hops. To start with, marsupials (pouched mammals) go way beyond kangaroos, and the variety of ’roo relatives boggles the mind — there are wallabies and wallaroos, tree-kangaroos, rat-kangaroos, potoroos and bettongs. Marsupials also include koalas and opossums (or possums), fierce Tasmanian devils and cat-like quolls, numbats or banded anteaters, big-eared bandicoots and tiny bilbies, snub-nosed veggie wombats and marsupial moles. I won’t bore you with the extraordinary egg-laying mammals — duck-billed platypi and echidnas (spiny-anteaters) — or the kookaburras, flightless emus and ground-dwelling lyrebirds, master mimics who can imitate up to twenty bird calls as well as, astonishingly, sounds of camera shutters, car alarms and chain saws. These are creatures like no other. Events include the not-to-be-missed Free-Flight Bird Show and Seal Show. You can also sign up for Sydney’s “ultimate sleepover, Roar & Snore”, where you camp overnight and wake to grunts, squeaks and views of the Opera House. Open daily 9am–5pm; adult A$44/children over four A$22; taronga.org.au.
Beer with Sydneysiders
As the world’s fifth highest consumer of beer per capita, it seems implausible that this young colony grew up on…rum. The liquor apparently caused such widespread inebriation in the early 1800s that beer was promoted as a healthier alternative. The result? The Aussie love affair with drinking beer — outdoors — no barbie is complete without an esky full of stubbies (375ml short-necked bottle of beer), while many pubs have Bavarian-style beer gardens. Australian breweries produce a dizzying selection of lagers, ales and stouts — try Tooheys, Hahn, James Squire, XXXX, Coopers, Carlton, James Boag’s, Cascade, Swan, Emu & Little Creatures. Pub culture (in the tradition of English-Irish ‘public houses’) is alive and kicking, and Sydneysiders flock to hearty locals or posh city bars every day of the week. Typically, pubs are noisy and friendly with TVs screening the footie (Australian Rules Football or Rugby League), pool tables, poker machines and music. You can order a pony (140ml of beer) or a middy (285ml), a schmiddy (350ml), a schooner (425ml) or a pint (570ml). Favourite watering holes include Blu Bar on 36 (atop the Shangri-La), Customs House Bar (Circular Quay), Art House Hotel (Pitt St), Kellys on King (Newtown), the Cleveland, Clock & White Horse (Surry Hills), Green Park Hotel (Darlinghurst) and Old Manly Boatshed. Aficionados should head to Sydney’s brewpubs for handcrafted ales at Macquarie Hotel or the Lord Nelson Brewery Hotel.
Bondi Beach & the Pacific Coast
The glitziest stretch of sand south of the equator is undoubtedly Bondi Beach. This perfect crescent seeped into the collective unconscious via the Bondi Surf Bathers’ Life Saving Club, a group of lifeguards who saved 180 people from rogue waves in 1938 and spawned the lifesaving club culture that culminated in Baywatch, Bondi Rescue and Bondi Vet. Bondi has come a long way since inspectors measured bikini dimensions to ensure ‘public decency’ in the 1950s and today’s sands are littered with pink-brown bodies in itsy bits of cloth. Sunbathing topless is now kosher, board shorts are in and budgie smugglers (figure-hugging briefs) are definitely out, though you still get an eyeful now and then. Bondi’s south end sees the big surf where the cold Pacific draws Sydneysiders out to play. It’s pure magic to watch the ebb and flow of wet-suited surfers paddling over breakers and hydroplaning back to shore on giant swells. Rookies (fondly called ‘shark biscuits’) can get lessons and rent boards at Lets Go Surfing (letsgosurfing.com.au).
Bondi to Coogee beach is a spectacular coastal walk. Go south along the rugged cliffs to Tamarama, called ‘Glamarama’, and lovely Bronte, past Waverley Cemetery whose nineteenth-century headstones possess enviable Pacific views, to Clovelly for good snorkelling, ending at Coogee with its tangle of chish & fips shops, joggers, rollerbladers and pets. Up north are Manly and Watson’s Bay with great sunset views out to the open sea. Beach safety: always swim in lifeguard-patrolled beaches in the area between the flags, as rip tides are dangerous and more frequent than shark attacks (many beaches have shark nets). Another word of caution to the uninitiated: don’t feed chips to the gulls.
You can’t leave Sydney without attending a beachside barbie (barbecue); you’ll need sunnies (sunglasses), cozzies (swimsuits), boardies (board shorts) and eskies (portable coolers full of beer).
Overhauled in 1988 for Australia’s bicentenary celebrations, Darling Harbour has since been a tourist hub by day with restaurants and a Harbourside arcade that stocks memorabilia and outback fashion (oilskin coats & broad-brim Akubra hats). By night, it’s a neon clubbing strip for Sydney’s nightbirds (try Home or Bungalow 8). Sydney Aquarium houses a lone saltie or saltwater crocodile (the world’s largest reptile at 4–5.5m), gentle nurse sharks and rays that can be viewed from underwater tunnels, and two orphaned dugongs — Pig and Wuru — who spend their days grazing placidly on lettuce. Dugongs, incredibly, were mistaken for mermaids by early European sailors (open daily 9am–8pm; adult from A$17.50/child from A$10, if booked at sydneyaquarium.com.au). The Maritime Museum (daily 9.30am–5pm; adult A$7/child A$3.50; anmm.gov.au) is worth a stop, if only to view the replica of Captain Cook’s Endeavour, climb aboard the 1956 destroyer, HMAS Vampire (fondly called the Bat) and explore the innards of the 1968 submarine, HMAS Onslow.
City clubs & all that jazz
Some of Sydney’s best acts are in gay/lesbian venues and the city’s pink strip, Oxford Street, is a pulsating glut of clubs, seriously innovative sex shops and burlesque clothing stores. Clubs to visit are Arq and Oxford Art Factory, while the Colombian Hotel is a Sydney institution. In Newtown, try Bank Hotel, while George St has glamorous Tank and Ivy, and preserves Victorian splendour at the heritage-listed Marble Bar (live music Wed–Sat). The city is pure jazz heaven and here are the strongholds: the Basement at Circular Quay (hosted Dizzy Gillespie & Herbie Hancock; now plays contemporary music and jazz), Strawberry Hills Hotel in Surry Hills (live jazz first Sat of the month) and the Vanguard in Newtown (jazz and international sounds). My pick is the intimate and stylish 505 in Surry Hills (venue505.com). Scour Time Out (au.timeout.com/sydney) for schedules, check dress codes and always carry ID that displays your above-18 status, as bouncers delight in sending excitable would-be clubbers home.