Sydney, spectacularly draped around its glorious harbour and beaches, has visual wow factor like few other cities. Scratch the surface and it only gets better.
On the Wild Side
National parks ring the city and penetrate right into its heart. Large chunks of harbour are still bush-fringed, while parks cut their way through skyscrapers and suburbs. Consequently, native critters turn up in the most surprising places. Clouds of flying foxes pass overhead at twilight and spend the night rustling around in suburban fig trees; oversized spiders stake out corners of lounge-room walls; possums rattle over roofs of terrace houses; and sulphur-crested cockatoos screech from the railings of urban balconies. At times Sydney's concrete jungle seems more like an actual one – and doesn't that just make it all the more exciting?
After a lazy Saturday at the beach, urbane Sydneysiders have a disco nap, hit the showers and head out again. There's always a new restaurant to try, undercover bar to hunt down, hip band to check out, sports team to shout at, show to see or crazy party to attend. The city's pretensions to glamour are well balanced by a casualness that means a cool T-shirt and a tidy pair of jeans will get you in most places. But if you want to dress up and show off, there's plenty of opportunity for that among the sparkling harbour lights.
Making a Splash
Defined just as much by its rugged Pacific coastline as its exquisite harbour, Sydney relies on its coastal setting to replenish its reserves of charm; venture too far away from the water and the charm suddenly evaporates. Jump on a ferry and Sydney's your oyster – the harbour prises the city's two halves far enough apart to reveal an abundance of pearls. On the coast, Australia ends abruptly in sheer walls of sandstone punctuated by arcs of golden sand. In summer they're covered with bronzed bodies making the most of a climate that encourages outdoor socialising, exercising, flirting and fun.
Brash is the word that inevitably gets bandied around when it comes to describing the Harbour City, and let's face it, compared to its Australian sister cities, Sydney is loud, uncompromising and in your face. Fireworks displays are more dazzling here, heels are higher, bodies more buffed, contact sports more brutal, starlets shinier, drag queens glitzier and prices higher. Australia’s best musos, foodies, actors, stockbrokers, models, writers and architects flock to the city to make their mark, and the effect is dazzling: a hyperenergetic, ambitious, optimistic and unprincipled marketplace of the soul, where anything goes and everything usually does.
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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.
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.
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.
This central section of Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park is a spectacular wilderness, with awe-inspiring vistas over Pittwater and Broken Bay, hidden beach communities, Aboriginal engravings and great walking tracks down to perfect little coves. It's accessed off Mona Vale Rd in Terrey Hills or via boat from Palm Beach. West Head itself, 14km from the main road, offers a sensational lookout point and a precipitous trail down to a WWII emplacement. Other trailheads are signposted along the road.
With its neoclassical Greek frontage and modern rear, this much-loved institution plays a prominent and gregarious role in Sydney society. Blockbuster international touring exhibitions arrive regularly and there's an outstanding permanent collection of Australian art, including a substantial Indigenous section. The gallery also plays host to lectures, concerts, screenings, celebrity talks and children's activities. A range of free guided tours is offered on different themes and in various languages. Construction of a second building, Sydney Modern, is due to be completed in 2022.