Insider Sydney: the icons and beyond

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Sydney. It's a city built from icons that make your jaw drop - the Opera House, Sydney Harbour Bridge, Bondi Beach - but there's also plenty of substance behind the flash. Get the best of both worlds with these insider tips.

Get to know a neighbourhood

The suburbs of Sydney are all unique in their own way. There's Bondi (flashy, beachy, great cafes if you know where to look), Newtown (alternative chic), Paddington (uptown chic and Australian designer boutiques) and more.

But if you're looking for a cosmopolitan kind of day, hang out in Darlinghurst and Surry Hills and eat/drink/shop til you drop. Gourmet grocers and nichey boutiques like Wheels and Doll Baby abound. The Book Kitchen is a great spot for brunch and a browse of their massive range of cookbooks. The revered, pocket-sized Bourke St Bakery diagonally opposite is a must-stop for flaky pork and fennel sausage rolls, plum tarts or a take-home baguette.

Get your art fix

Set aside an entire day to get your art fix - start off at 2 Danks St, an incredible warehouse complex of mini-galleries in the backstreets of Waterloo (you can get amazing brunches from the award-winning cafe there) then head over to the grand and challenging Museum of Contemporary Art, where the works are as inspiring as the Circular Quay view.

Plonk yourself on a beach

Need to work on that tan? Sure, you have to see Bondi but you could also throw your towel down at nearby Bronte or Tamarama, or on some of the less well-known city beaches like Shelly Beach near Manly and Camp Cove near Watson's Bay.

Take a walk

Stroll around the city's Royal Botanic Gardens (which just happen to afford a fantastic view of the Opera House) or walk around Cremorne Point and take in the beautiful gardens and fantastic city views. It's on the other side of the harbour from the Opera House, and you can ride a ferry each way.

One of Sydney's best walks is along the clifftops from Bondi to Coogee. With sea views all the way and cafes to break up the journey (in Bronte), it's as loved by locals as it is by tourists. If you're there around October/November, you might be lucky enough to see Sculpture by the Sea, a yearly exhibition that installs itself on the beach and gives it a magical feel.

Stay out all night

Check out Kings Cross,  Sydney’s colourful red-light district. It’s not for prudes but plenty of budget travellers make it their temporary home thanks to its cheap lodgings and plentiful bars.

If you're looking for a drink with a view, head to Opera Bar at the Opera House – sure it's a bit cheesy, but it is also one of life's pleasures to watch the sun go down on Sydney's biggest icons with a cocktail in hand. Or if you want something a little more clandestine and wicked, delve into the shadows of Surry Hills' Absinthe Salon. The wood-panelled Victoria Room in Darlinghurst goes from day to night seamlessly; depending on what time you go, you could be in for High Tea, a cocktail or dinner.

Eat your way across Sydney

When it comes to food, there's a lot on offer in Sydney, especially if you're a fan of seafood, mod Oz and Thai. Here's a little tasting plate.

  • Crown Street in the suburb of Surry Hills is lined with eclectic eateries and famous restaurants like Spice I Am, Billy Kwong (Kylie Kwong) and bills Surry Hills (Bill Granger). Zip around the corner to Le Monde or Fifi Foveaux for great egg breakfasts.
  • For a quintessential Sydney dining experience (ie food, sea and swank), head to Hugo's in the beach suburb of Manly. All you need to do is hop off the ferry and you're there - try for a seaside seat.
  • Newtown has a heap of cafes, quick cheap Thai restaurants and killer coffee at Campos on Missenden Rd.
  • Kings Cross may have a dicey reputation but Macleay St is home to many a lovely restaurant and deli these days. Try Yellow for great food and supplies.
  • Cleveland St (which crosses through Surry Hills) will find you surrounded by affordable and super-tasty Middle Eastern food - there are too many to recommend!
  • For low-rent dining fun on the city fringe, get yourself some fish fingers and mash (fairly certain it's from a packet) at Betty's Soup Kitchen or chips and rissoles at the ancient, perplexing but unforgettable Oceanic Cafe.

Shop your designer socks off

You might want to dive into the cut and thrust of the CBD, or wander the warm, old-fashioned delights of the multi-level Queen Victoria Building, but sophisticated shoppers head for the boutiques, cafes and bookshops of Paddington (for original Australian design likneDinosaur Designs, Collette Dinnigan and Akira Isogawa in nearby Woollahra). In Glebe there's the much loved Gleebooks, and check out Newtown's Better Read Than Dead, Holy Moley, Egg Records.

The flea-market set will fall in love with the Surry Hills Market held the first Saturday of every month (not to mention the Paddington, Glebe and Bondi weekend markets). The markets are great for picking up a bargain - think vintage homewares and handmade clothes - and the people watching cannot be beat (look for the stall holder selling pictures of himself in wrestling gear). Afterwards, enjoy the leafy vista from the upstairs balcony of the Clock Hotel next door for a breezy Sunday afternoon.

Getting around

    • If you're travelling solo, save by catching the train from the airport to the city rather spending big on a taxi. But if there are two or more of you it is worth taking a cab (they come with baby seats if you request them).
    • Don't bother with the monorail. It's pricey and doesn’t take you far. The CBD is easily walkable.
    • Get a ferry ANYWHERE. The views are awesome and there's always something worth seeing at the other end.
    • Jump on the Neutral Bay ferry or Mosman ferry from Circular Quay about 30 mins before sunset and get a world class view of Sydney Harbour for under $10. Don't bother getting off, just stay on the ferry until it returns to Circular Quay.