New South Wales
Australia's most populous state is home to its largest city: glitzy, vibrant, intoxicating Sydney, an unforgettable metropolis in a privileged natural setting. Bondi Beach and the harbour are justly famous, but in reality the whole NSW coast is simply magnificent: a mesmerising sequence of beach after quality beach backed by a series of excellent national parks and interesting coastal towns.
Inland, the scenic splendour of the Great Dividing Range, including Australia's highest peak as well as the spectacular Blue Mountains, separates the coastal strip from the pastoral hinterlands, which gradually give way, as you move west, to a more arid outback landscape dotted with mining towns. Many visitors stick to the enticing coast, but it's worth getting out west too, where the big skies and country hospitality are as much part of the New South Wales soul as Sydney's surf scene, diversity and staggeringly good food.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout New South Wales.
Definitively Sydney, Bondi is one of the world’s great beaches. It’s the closest ocean beach to the city centre (8km away), has consistently good (though crowded) waves, and is great for a rough-and-tumble swim (the average water temperature is a considerate 21°C). If the sea’s looking a bit angry, you can always head to the child-friendly saltwater sea baths at either end of the beach, both of which received an upgrade in 2019. Surfers also carve up sandbar breaks at either end of the beach; it’s a good place for learners, too. At the beach’s northern end there’s a grassy spot with coin-operated barbecues, but don't bring alcohol to your picnic – it's banned on the beach. Changing rooms and lockers can be found at Bondi Pavilion. Free beach-friendly wheelchairs (for adults and children) can also be booked through the Bondi Pavilion. If you’re looking for your LGBTQIA+ community, head to near the North Bondi Surf Club where there's an outdoor workout area. This is one of the main hangouts for queer beach-going Sydneysiders. Two surf clubs – Bondi and North Bondi – patrol the beach between sets of red-and-yellow flags, positioned to avoid the worst rips and holes. Thousands of unfortunates have to be rescued from the surf each year. Don’t become a statistic – swim between the flags. Bondi’s lifeguards Bondi Rescue, the hugely popular Australian TV series based at Bondi Beach began in 2006 but the history of Sydney’s Bondi Beach Surf Life Saving club dates back to 1907. The club began when a group of local swimmers met at Bondi’s Royal Hotel to discuss forming a surf life-saving organisation, the first in the world. Surf lifesavers, of lifeguards as they’re also known, deal with everything from swimmers getting into trouble in the sea swell to treating jellyfish stings. Shark attacks at Bondi? Headline grabbing yes, but there has been very few shark attacks at Bondi. The beach is ringed by a shark net protecting it from great white sharks. Although it is not entirely shark-proof, the chance of a large shark entering the area is low, and surfers and lifeguards are on the lookout to keep swimmers safe. The last major incident when the shark alarm was raised in 2019 -- the unmissable signal from lifeguards for everyone to evacuate the water -- turned out to be a false alarm. The shark spotted by two surfers was a harmless baby shark. Hotels near Bondi Beach Bondi is blessed with excellent accommodation options in every budget category. Bondi Backpackers Baxley Bondi Dive Hotel QT Bondi
Sydneysiders love their giant 'coathanger', which opened in 1932. The best way to experience this majestic structure is on foot. Stairs and lifts ascend the bridge from both shores, leading to a footpath on the eastern side (the western side is a bike path). Getting the train to Milsons Point and walking back towards the city offers the more spectacular views. Climb the southeastern pylon to the Pylon Lookout or tackle the arc on the popular if expensive, once-in-a-lifetime kind of experience, the BridgeClimb. Climbing the bridge The BridgeClimb experience takes between 1.5 and 3 hours depending on which Climb you choose. A thorough safety briefing as well as special boiler suits, harnesses and a headset are provided. Climbers are given 15 mins to take photos at the top of the climb, but it’s a good hour to climb back down. There’s also a climbing tour with an Aboriginal leader who will teach you more about the land, its First Nations custodians, and meaning behind Aboriginal place names in Sydney like Bennelong point where the Sydney Opera House sits, and original named Tubowgule by the Gadigal people here. For many, climbing the Sydney Harbour Bridge is an bucket-list experience that a fear of heights has thwarted. The outfit offers support for those with acrophobia. History The harbour bridge is a spookily big object – moving around town you’ll catch sight of it in the corner of your eye, sometimes in the most surprising of places. Its enormous dimensions, the arch is 134m high (440 feet) from the top to the water and the span measures 503m (1650 ft). It’s the biggest (although not quite the longest) steel arch bridge in the world. The two halves of chief engineer JJC Bradfield’s mighty arch were built outwards from each shore in what was a huge source of Depression employment. In 1930, after seven years of merciless toil by 1400 workers, the two arches were only centimetres apart when 100km/h winds set them swaying. The coathanger hung tough and the arch was finally bolted together. Extensive load-testing preceded the bridge's opening two years later. Sydney Harbour Bridge facts Construction began in 1923 and the bridge opened in 1932 -- connecting Sydney city with the northern suburbs. It has four railroad tracks, a multi-lane highway, a pedestrian walkway and a cycleway. The bridge is made of 53,000 tonnes of steel, held together by reportedly six million hand-driven rivets (we’re not sure who’s willing to check that fact!).
A spectacular mix of sandstone, Australian bushland and tranquil water vistas, this 14,928-hectare park forms Sydney’s northern boundary. It’s located 20 to 30km from the city centre and accessible by public transport, making a spectacular day trip from the city. It is a popular place to visit for its wilderness, its Aboriginal heritage, as well as activities such as walking, cycling, and kayaking. In winter add whale-watching to the reasons to visit. The park takes in over 100km of coastline along the southern edge of Broken Bay, where it heads into the Hawkesbury River. There are two unconnected principal sections, Bobbin Head and the West Head area. The Barrenjoey headland at Palm Beach is also part of the park and the site of an historic lighthouse. The second national park in Australia, Ku-ring-gai was created in 1894. Its name comes from its original inhabitants, the Guringai people, who were all but wiped out just after colonization through violence at the hands of settlers and the devastating introduction of smallpox. It’s well worth reading Kate Grenville’s The Secret River for an engrossing but harrowing telling of this story. 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. Walks Elevated park sections offer glorious water views over Cowan Creek, Broken Bay and Pittwater. For information about walking trails, stop at the Bobbin Head Information Centre, operated by the NSW National Parks & Wildlife Service. There are a marina, picnic areas, a cafe and a boardwalk leading through mangroves at Bobbin Head. Waterfalls Upper Gledhill Falls is a fairly easily accessible waterfall inside the park, and a popular ‘secret’ wild swimming spot for competent swimmers. Further downstream along McCarrs Creek there’s a series of cascades including another swimming spot known as Duck Hole or Duck Pond with a large sandy bank on one side. Camping The Basin Campground is a remote camping spot accessed by ferry with basic facilities: a shower block, toilets, picnic tables and drinking water. Campers need to be well-prepared and self-sufficient. Sites are pre-booked via the NSW National Parks & Wildlife Service website Picnic areas There are multiple picnic areas in the park, with toilets and drinking water taps; some also have BBQ areas. Entry fee As with all Australian national parks there are entry fees for vehicles, and per person per day. More information can be found on the NSW National Parks & Wildlife Service website on current fees and how to pay. How to get to Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park Access to the park is by the Palm Beach water taxi or by car via McCarrs Creek Rd (off Mona Vale Rd, Terrey Hills) for West Head; or via Bobbin Head Rd (North Turramurra) or Ku-ring-gai Chase Rd (Mount Colah) for Bobbin Head. Accommodation As well as camping and a YHA at Pittwater and Collaroy, accommodation options includes houseboats on the Hawkesbury River and a Sydney Lakeside Holiday Park in nearby Narrabeen.
Lovely Watsons Bay, east of the city centre and north of Bondi, was once a small fishing village, as evidenced by the heritage cottages that pepper the suburb’s narrow streets (but which now cost a tiny fortune). For the Sydney visitor, it's a lovely day trip by ferry. If time allows explore South Head by foot, take a dip at Camp Cove or enjoy a leisurely lunch at one of its popular restaurants. On the ocean side, The Gap is a dramatic clifftop lookout worth a visit. Beaches The closest spot for a swim is at Camp Cove, a short walk from Watsons Bay ferry terminal. It’s a small sheltered beach, perfect for families. At the eastern end, there’s a short jetty where you might find locals snorkelling, plus public toilets and a kiosk to buy refreshments. Further around the harbour is Lady Bay Beach, a more secluded, clothing-optional, harbourside beach. It was the first nudist beach in Sydney to be given a nod from officials back in the 1970s (nudity is permitted on the beach only). Restaurants Next to the Beach Club, Doyles on the Beach is another Watsons Bay institution which opened here on the beach front in 1885. It also has a shopfront for takeaway on Fishermans Wharf. Slightly more upmarket again is Dunbar House, a 1830s restored mansion on Marine Parade that serves breakfast, lunch and high tea. Watsons Bay Hotel The Watsons Bay Boutique Hotel is blessed with one of those iconic locations that you can’t miss. The ferry pulls up practically outside, sailing boats bob in the harbour, with views to Sydney city beyond. While you’re here, tradition demands that you sit in the Beach Club beer garden at sunset and watch the sun dissolve behind the Harbour Bridge, jutting above Bradley’s Head. Ferry To take the ferry to Watsons Bay, you can go direct from Circular Quay or as a stop on the way to and from Manly. The ferry leaves around every 30 mins and takes around 25 mins. Leave the car behind if visiting Watsons Bay; the parking options can't cope especially on weekends.
A 12-minute ferry ride from Circular Quay, this forested harbour hillside is full of kangaroos, koalas and similarly hirsute Australians, plus numerous imported guests. The zoo’s inhabitants have million-dollar harbour views, but seem blissfully unaware of what the humans consider a privilege. Encouragingly as far as zoos go, Taronga is said to set benchmarks in animal care and welfare. If you want to know more go to their website where there is detailed information about the zoos contribution to conservation, transforming zoos, and caring for the wild. Highlights include the nocturnal platypus habitat, the Great Southern Oceans section and the Asian elephants enclosure. Feedings and encounters happen throughout the day, while in summer, twilight concerts jazz things up (see www.twilightattaronga.org.au). Tickets Prebook your zoo tickets online for discounts of between 10% and 20%. There's also the option to include Wild Ropes, a high-ropes courses offering special views (it's cheaper to buy this with zoo entry than separately). Accommodation Visits to Taronga Zoo Sydney (and Taronga’s other Zoo in Dubbo outside Sydney) include Roar & Snore, an overnight family glamping experience and a more luxurious eco-retreat also onsite at the zoo. Getting to Taronga Zoo If you are driving and staying a while, note that the zoo car park is cheaper than the metered parking on the streets around. Getting here by bus is the cheapest option; the M30 heads here from Wynyard in Sydney’s city centre. Taronga Zoo ferry Catching the ferry is part of the fun of a visit to Taronga Zoo Sydney. From the wharf, the Sky Safari cable car or a bus will whisk you to the main entrance, from which you can traverse the zoo downhill back to the ferry. Access for people with disabilities is good, even when arriving by ferry.
The Blue Mountains' essential sight is a rocky trio called the Three Sisters. Just an hour outside of Sydney, they stand at over 2953ft (900m) and a 1640ft (500m) trail from the main Echo Point lookout platform leads to more lookouts and a bridge across to the first Sister. They were formed over 200 million years ago when volcanic lava pushed through sedimentary rock and transformed it into stone towers. However, the local legend of their formation is much more intriguing. Legend of the Three Sisters According to Aboriginal legend the sisters, Meehni, Wimlah and Gunnedoo, were members of the Katoomba tribe and lived in the Jamison Valley. All three sisters fell in love with three brothers from a neighboring tribe and wanted to marry them...something that was strictly forbidden by tribal law. The brothers were so determined to wed their beloveds that they started a war with the other tribe to overturn the ban on intermarriage. Fighting became so intense that a witch doctor in the sisters' tribe turned them to stone in order to protect them from the violence. His plan to turn them back into women when it was safe was thwarted when he himself was killed in battle. The sisters stayed immortalized in stone forever, never to be reunited with their lost loves.
Designed by Danish architect Jørn Utzon, this magnificent building is Australia's most famous landmark. Visually referencing a yacht's sails, it's a soaring, commanding presence that comprises five performance spaces for dance, concerts, opera and theatre. Wander around the outside to your heart's content. The best way to experience the interior is to attend a performance, but you can also take a one-hour guided tour (available in several languages), with optional food. Ongoing renovation work, scheduled to be completed in 2022, may disrupt visits. There's also a two-hour 'access all areas' backstage tour ($175), which departs at 7am and includes breakfast in the Green Room. Another way to experience the Opera House includes a seven-minute narration of Aboriginal stories, Badu Gili, that is spectacularly projected onto the sails nightly at sunset, at 9pm, 9.30pm and 10pm.
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, harbour and city. It's great to explore by bike or on foot, along the Manly Scenic Walkway. Grab a map and plot your own 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 Lookouts offer dramatic clifftop perspectives. North Head is believed to have been used as a ceremonial site by the native Camaraigal people. These days, most of the headland is part of Sydney Harbour National Park. There's a visitor centre at the North Fort complex, and a cafe. Tours of the defensive tunnels run at weekends. If you are there midweek, ask to see the worthwhile wartime propaganda film about the gun emplacements. The 9km, four-hour Manly Scenic Walkway loops around the park; pick up a brochure from the visitor centre. Also here is the historic Q Station.
Wildlife thrives on this small, pest-free island, 9km offshore from Narooma, where fur seals frolic and 90 bird species wheel overhead. Little penguins nest here from September to February, while, offshore, whales are most numerous from September to November. Book ahead for tours by park rangers. Boat operators can combine the island visit with snorkelling and whale watching. Snorkelling and diving are made even more exciting by the presence of fur seals, whose underwater acrobatics are enchanting to watch. Be warned: seals delight in speeding towards unsuspecting snorkellers before veering off course at the last moment (boats, meanwhile, keep a respectful distance from the animals). All tours are number and weather dependent, and independent visits to the island aren't permitted. Once ashore, the island's whale, shark and turtle rocks, named by the Aboriginal community, are off limits to most visitors.
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