You can’t escape the briny smell of Sydney’s harbour and surf beaches but Sydney is also blessed with vast tracts of green. From manicured gardens to wild scrubby parklands over sandstone escarpments, Sydney is dotted with shady spots to escape the hustle and bustle.
Whether you're after a space to spread out a picnic on a soft lawn, or to stroll all afternoon taking in glorious views – or perhaps you need a place for children to frolic – you’re never far from an idyllic green space to stop and recharge. As well as these more well-known places, there are small parks and gardens sprinkled throughout Sydney’s neighborhoods – just ask a friendly local to steer you in the right direction.
Best for a city break
Now surrounded by skyscrapers, Hyde park was originally the colony's racecourse and cricket ground. It took its current form in the 1920s and is today a much-loved city escape, with manicured gardens and a tree-lined avenue running down its spine. It looks particularly pretty at night, illuminated by fairy lights. The park’s northern end is crowned by the richly symbolic Art Deco Archibald Memorial Fountain, while at the other end is the Anzac Memorial. The statue of Captain Cook in the southern section has been a focus of recent controversy, largely due to the phrase 'Discovered this territory 1770' carved on the plinth. Located in the city business district, the closest train stations are St James or Museum train stations.
Best for cycling
Scratched out of the sand in 1888 in grand Victorian style, Sydney’s biggest park is a rambling 189-hectare expanse full of horse riders, joggers, cyclists and in-line skaters. Grab a park map at any of the entrances or the information centre in the middle. Among the wide formal avenues, ponds and statues is the domed Federation Pavilion. The Ian Potter Wild Play garden, with a water play area, treehouse and bamboo forest, is a great nature play space for kids. Exploring the park on foot is a pleasure; you can also hire bikes, skates or go horse riding. Alight the train at Bondi Junction to get here, or catch the lightrail to Moore Park on the western flank.
Best for dramatic vistas
At the northern end of Camp Cove beach, the South Head Heritage Trail kicks off, leading into a section of Sydney Harbour National Park distinguished by harbor views and crashing surf. It passes old fortifications and a path heading down to Lady Bay nude beach, before continuing on to the candy-striped Hornby Lighthouse and the sandstone Lightkeepers’ Cottages (1858). Between April and November, look out to sea to where the whale-watching boats have congregated. The bus (324, 325, and 380) drops you on Military Road near Cliff Street.
Best for history
About 3km south of central Manly, spectacular North Head offers dramatic cliffs, lookouts, secluded beaches, pretty paths through the native scrub, and sweeping views of the ocean, harbor and city. It's great to explore by bike or on foot, along the Manly Scenic Walkway. Download a map and plot your path through the headland, which takes in former military barracks, WWII gun emplacements, a quarantine cemetery and a memorial walk commemorating Australia's military. At the tip, Fairfax Lookout offer dramatic clifftop perspectives. The 9km, four-hour Manly Scenic Walkway loops around the park. To get here catch the ferry to Manly then follow the signs to the beginning of the walk at Shelley Beach.
Best for a day trip
Something of a hidden gem, this gorgeous heritage-listed harborside park was once part of the then 206-hectare Vaucluse House estate. Beneath the trees is Greycliffe House, a gracious 1851 Gothic sandstone pile (not open to visitors) which serves as the headquarters of Sydney Harbour National Park. Despite its ominous name, there's really nothing to worry about at Shark Beach – it has a net to put paranoid swimmers at ease. The view is superb at Middle Head too, so it's easy to forget you're in a big city here. You can walk here from Bayview Hill Road in Rose Bay along the pleasant Hermitage Foreshore Walk, with great views of the Bridge and the Opera House. Bus 325 will drop you at the top corner on Vaucluse Road.
Royal Botanic Garden
Best for garden lovers
Just south of the Sydney Opera House, the Royal Botanic Garden features well-tended lawns, interesting botanical collections from across the globe and ever-present harbor views. Within the gardens you’ll find hothouses with palms and ferns, a lotus pond, and The Calyx, a striking exhibition space featuring a curving glasshouse gallery with a wall of greenery and temporary plant-themed exhibitions. Closer to the harbor is Mrs Macquarie’s Chair, named in 1810 after Elizabeth, Governor Macquarie’s wife, who ordered a seat to be chiselled into the rock from which she could enjoy the view.
Established in 1816, the gardens include the site of the colony's first paltry European vegetable patch, but their history goes back much further than that. Long before the convicts arrived, this was an initiation ground for the Gadigal (Cadigal) people. Book ahead for an Aboriginal Heritage Tour with an Indigenous guide.
Best for culture
Administered by the Royal Botanic Gardens, the Domain is a large grassy tract east of Macquarie Street in Sydney’s city area. It was set aside by Governor Phillip in 1788 for public recreation and today city workers use the space to work up a sweat or eat their lunch. Large-scale public events are also held here. Sculptures dot the park, including a reclining Henry Moore figure, and Brett Whiteley’s Almost Once (1991) − two giant matches, one burnt − rising from the ground near the Art Gallery of NSW which is also located inside the grasslands. On the lawn in front of the gallery is the Speakers’ Corner where you might catch religious zealots, political extremists, hippies and academics expressing their earnest opinions. To get here alight at St James train station and follow the signs.
Best for harbor views
Technically Robertsons Point (and Woolwarra-jurng to the Eora people), Cremorne is a beautiful spot for a picnic on the grassy reserve here beyond the ferry terminal. Walk west and you’ll come across the free saltwater MacCallum Pool for a quick swim. However the main reason to head over is the downright delicious views of the harbor, the Bridge and the Sydney Opera House. It’s an especially great location to see Sydeny’s New Year’s Eve fireworks erupting. You can explore the headland on a 3km loop walk. There’s a ferry across from Circular Quay.
Best for local experiences
If Balmain’s historic cuteness doesn’t float your boat, head to Elkington Park, named in 1883 after a local politician. It slopes down towards the water, with views across to Cockatoo Island. At the bottom of the escarpment, the magnificently restored late-Victorian (1884) timber enclosure at the tidal Dawn Fraser Baths picturesquely protects swimmers from underwater undesirables. The 140 year old baths have a small sandy beach at low tide and were restored in 2021. Australia’s all-conquering 1956–64 Olympian Dawn Fraser spent her youth swimming laps here. To find it, catch buses 433, 444 or 445 to the corner of Glassop & White Streets.
Bondi to Coogee
Best for people watching
A sensational 6km parkland walk takes you from Bondi to Coogee along clifftops via Tamarama, Bronte and Clovelly. It begins at the southern end of Bondi Beach just beyond the Icebergs ocean pool. Interwoven with panoramic views, are patrolled ocean beaches and salty sea baths for a quick refreshing dip if you fancy it. Plus there are small waterside lawns to picnic in. Look out for plaques recounting local Aboriginal stories to learn more about the history of this place. The trail begins at the end of Notts Avenue and deposits you out at the north end of Coogee Beach. Don’t forget to take your swimsuit, a camera and a picnic blanket. To get here, take bus 333 to Bondi Beach.
Wendy Whiteley's Secret Garden
Best for secret gardens
On the north shore not far from the Sydney Harbour bridge at Lavender Bay is one of Sydney's hidden treasures. This public garden was created by the widow of the much-loved Australian artist Brett Whiteley after his tragic death from a heroin overdose at this spot. It was a ‘secret’ garden for a long time because Wendy (also an artist) never asked permission to use it. Today, it’s a fairly well known but beautiful spot overlooking the harbor. Accessed the gardens through Clark Park, off Lavender Street.
One day Wendy’s Secret Garden will become part of the Sydney Harbour High Line project , which will commence at the southern end of the Lavender Bay rail line and traverse along through the existing tunnel under McMahons Point and on to Waverton Station.
Chinese Garden of Friendship
Best for Asia inspiration
Built according to Taoist principles of yin-yang, the Chinese Garden of Friendship is usually an oasis of tranquillity in the busy Darling Harbour precinct – although one increasingly dwarfed by assertive modern buildings. Designed by architects from Guangzhou (Sydney’s sister city) for Australia’s bicentenary in 1988 in a collaborative effort, by Chinese landscape architects and built by Australian craftsmen and specialists. The garden interweaves pavilions, waterfalls, lakes, paths and lush plant life. There's also a tea house that does a bottomless yum cha. Entrance is by a fee and tours are available. The closest station is at Town Hall.
Best for children in the city
Next door to the Chinese Friendship Garden, Tumbalong Park is a great spot to take toddlers needing a run around. This grassy circle on Darling Harbour’s southern rump is set attracts sunbakers and frisbee-throwers. There’s an excellent children’s playground with a 21m flying fox (zip line). But the highlight for most kids, and overheated tourists, is the aqua play area, with fountains offering some respite from Sydney’s central city district on a hot summer’s afternoon.
Best for design
Part of Barangaroo, the major project of what was a city port, this park sits on a headland with wonderful harbor perspectives. The tiered space combines quarried sandstone, native Australian trees and indigenous shrubs and flowers to create a space that feels very Australian. A lift connecting the park's three levels is good for weary legs or anyone pushing a buggy or travelling with mobility issues. There's a car park below plus lots of good food options in Barangaroo nearby.
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