Sure, Sydney has enough going on to make even the most hardened traveler consider selling up and sticking down roots here, but step out a little further and you’ll soon discover that this entire region of Australia brims with breathtaking natural beauty, Aboriginal and colonial history and plenty of domestic critters to spot.
The Blue Mountains draw walkers for their epic bush-clad vistas and hidden valleys with prehistoric forests. You'll find the Hawkesbury River region and Sydney's south Royal National Park both offer spectacular walking with water views. The Central Coast stretches north with uncrowded surf beaches and inlets rich with sea birds. And the Hunter Valley is blessed with leafy country roads dotted with producers of fine wine, chocolates and cheese.
These are the best day trips from Sydney.
Hike rainforests and waterfalls in the Blue Mountains
Travel time: 1.5-2 hours by car, 2 hours by train
The cool haze that gives the World Heritage-listed Blue Mountains their name comes from a fine mist of oil exuded by huge eucalyptuses. There are eight connected conservation areas here rising to 1100m (3609ft), with lush rainforests and epic waterfalls that can be explored on well-marked hikes (of varying lengths).
You’ll also have the opportunity to gain insights into the mountains' importance to their traditional Aboriginal custodians by taking a guided tour. These are the homelands of six Aboriginal groups: the Darug, Gundungurra, Wiradjuri, Wanaruah, Darkinjung and Tharawal. You’ll see one of the best showcases of Aboriginal rock art in the region at Red Hand Caves near Glenbook.
Trees form a dense canopy across a landscape of deep, and sometimes inaccessible, valleys and chiseled sandstone outcrops. In fact, some valleys are so hard to reach, a species of tree once considered extinct, the Wollemi pine, was rediscovered in a valley here in 1994.
The three most popular walking areas for day trippers are the Jamison Valley, south of Katoomba, the Grose Valley, north of Blackheath, and the Wentworth Falls area. Some top choices include the Giant Stairway and the Grand Canyon Walk. Do take note: these ravines can be surprisingly cool throughout the year, so bring a warm layer.
How to get to the Blue Mountains from Sydney: Hourly trains to Katoomba take two hours from Sydney's Central Station. You can then walk from here, or catch the Blue Mountains Explorer Bus to tour the region, with options ranging from one-hour tours to all-day hop-on-hop-off tickets to see it all.
Get hiking, canoeing and photographing Royal National Park
Travel time: 1 hour by car, two hours via train and ferry
To Sydney's south, the Royal National Park protects 15,091 hectares (3,7290 acres) over a 32km (20 miles) stretch of beautiful coast. It is also one of the world's oldest national parks – declared in 1879. As well as secluded beaches, sea cliffs, heathlands and forest, the park protects a cornucopia of Australian animals including wallabies, lyrebirds and raucous flocks of yellow-tailed black cockatoos.
Audley, at the junction of Kangaroo Creek and the Hacking River, is home to the main visitors center and is the perfect place to pick up park maps, have a picnic or hire a canoe to get out on the river. There are a number of walks to tackle in the park including the fabulous 26km (16 miles) Coast Track, but unless you’re Usain Bolt, you will only have time to complete one of the shorter marked trails during a day trip.
The park is also home to the Insta-famous Figure Eight Pools, a series of figure of eight-shaped tidal pools near Burning Palms Beach. Visible only at low tide, it’s a two-hour hike to the rock shelf so try to arrive in the morning and only visit when it’s safe to do so – freak waves can (and do!) wipe out visitors. Check the National Park website for details.
How to get to the Royal National Park from Sydney: The easiest way to visit is by car ($12 per vehicle per day). For public transport take the train to Cronulla (45-60 minutes) Sydney's Central Station, where Cronulla Ferries travel hourly to Bundeena (45 mins).
See Aboriginal rock art and birdlife in Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park
Travel time: 1 hour by car, 2 hours by bus
The majestic Hawkesbury River flows to the ocean past honeycomb-colored cliffs, historic townships and into quiet bays and inlets. It passes through a series of national parks, including the spectacular Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park. Declared in 1894, its name comes from its original inhabitants, the Guringai people. Remnants of pre-colonial Aboriginal life are visible today thanks to the preservation of more than 800 sites, including rock paintings, middens and cave art.
For information about Ku-ring-gai and walks in the area stop by the NSW National Parks & Wildlife Service information center at Bobbin Head (accessible by car). There’s also a marina, picnic areas, a cafe and a boardwalk leading through mangroves here.
Further inland, the riverside hamlet of Wisemans Ferry (yes that’s the town’s name) spills over a bow of the Hawkesbury River. It’s another perfect spot to access the Hawkesbury, and its natural environs rich with bird life like kookaburras and sea eagles.
The surrounding area retains remnants of the convict-built Great North Road, originally constructed to link Sydney with the Hunter Valley and now part of UNESCO's Australian Convict Sites World Heritage listing. As well as walks, consider booking a boat tour or hire a kayak and get out on the river. Even better if you have the time, do as Sydney locals love to do and stay longer on a houseboat.
How to get to Hawkesbury River from Sydney: Take the train from Central Station to Hawkesbury River Station and explore the river by boat. Buses also run from central Sydney’s Wynyard to Mona Vale and then on to Church Point where you can get a ferry across to the park. The journey there takes approximately 1-2 hours.
Discover secret beaches and forests along the Central Coast
Travel time: a full-day return driving tour
The Central Coast runs between Sydney and Newcastle and includes some gorgeous beaches, swathes of national park and a series of inlets and saltwater lagoons. Closer to Sydney, the southern end of the Central Coast near Ettalong can be accessed by ferry from Sydney's Palm Beach. On the north side of the mouth of the Hawkesbury are the enticing Killcare Beach, Pearl Beach and Bouddi National Park.
Beyond this, you’ll need a car and there are many epic spots to stop off on a day trip north to Newcastle, including the pelican-packed town of The Entrance and deep, placid Lake Macquarie. Popular beaches to take a dip along the way include Avoca or Terrigal.
The more industrial Newcastle is blessed with an eclectic mix of historic architecture, as well as a much-loved beach and ocean baths. South of Newcastle Beach, below King Edward Park, is Australia’s oldest ocean bath, the convict-carved Bogey Hole. It’s an atmospheric place to splash about in when the surf’s crashing over its edge. The most popular surfing breaks are at Bar Beach and Merewether Beach, two ends of the same beach a bit further south. Merewether has huge ocean baths of its own.
How to get to the Central Coast from Sydney: If driving, take the M1 Pacific Motorway north towards Newcastle from Sydney where the Gosford exit will take you along the coast.
Go food and wine touring around the Hunter Valley
Travel time: a full-day return drive, or coach tour
Picturesque roads criss-cross this verdant valley, but a country drive isn’t the main reason to visit. Over two hours' drive from Sydney, the Hunter Valley is famous as Australia’s oldest wine region, with vines dating from the 1860s. It’s the perfect spot for a day trip from Sydney for fine wine, gourmet restaurants, boutique beer, chocolate, cheese, olives, you name it. It’s also a beautiful spot to go hot-air ballooning while in Australia.
You’ll probably recognize some of Australia’s biggest names in new world wines, especially for semillon, shiraz and chardonnay. The valley’s 150-plus wineries range from small-scale, family-run affairs to massive commercial operations so let your nose guide you. Most offer cellar door tastings either free or for a small fee. You can get a copy of the free touring map from the Hunter Valley visitor center and use it to hunt out the tucked-away small producers.
If no one’s volunteering to stay sober, there are plenty of guided coach tours available, ranging from mini buses that just do basic hop-on-hop-off transport between wineries to full-on gourmet extravaganzas, some on bicycle, horseback or chauffeured in a classic car.
How to get to the Hunter Valley from Sydney: If driving, take the M1 Pacific Motorway north to Newcastle from Sydney where the Hunter Expressway will lead you into the valley.