In a city where rum was once the main currency, it’s little wonder that drinking plays a big part in the Sydney social scene – whether it’s knocking back some tinnies at the beach, schmoozing after work or warming up for a night on the town. Sydney offers plenty of choice in drinking establishments, from the flashy to the trashy.

The Sydney Scene

Sydneysiders like a drink and the city is chockfull of pubs and bars. Locals are generally gregarious and welcoming of visitors, and these are good places to meet them. Sydney pubs were traditionally a macho domain but have changed markedly in recent years, becoming more inclusive and generally pleasant places to be. Licensing laws punish venues that serve drunks, so you're more likely to see this kind of behaviour on the streets than in the bars themselves. Expect a cross-examination from bouncers upon entering on a weekend evening.

Until recently NSW licensing laws made it hard to set up small wine bars and hole-in-the-wall cocktail lounges, but a recent relaxation has seen a blooming of such establishments, particularly in the city centre and inner suburbs. These are generically known as 'small bars' and are great spots, though the drinks don’t come cheap. These and other bars are riding the wave of cocktail popularity, with ever-more-imaginative mixtures getting slurped down for around twenty bucks a throw.

The local pub, traditionally called a hotel because the liquor laws meant they had to offer accommodation to serve booze, survives throughout the city. Often on corners, these venerable gems have been improved in recent years by beer gardens, upgraded food menus and a stupendous array of local craft beers. Smoking is banned in all substantially enclosed licensed premises, but some pubs still have outdoor smoking areas. Indoors, live sport is often a major feature and many pubs have a section where you can watch the greyhound and horse races and place a bet on the tote. Poker machines (‘pokies’ in local lingo) are the scourge of Sydney pubs, changing many a lovely local into a circus of flashing lights, beeps, whistles and hypnotised gamblers. It’s a brave licensee who forgoes this cash cow in favour of a more pleasant drinking environment, but bigger complexes at least have the luxury of hiding them in the corner.

The cheapest places to drink are often the subsidised Returned & Services League (RSL) clubs and other similar clubs. In a tourist-friendly irony, locals are barred unless they’re members, but visitors who live more than 5km away are welcome (you’ll theoretically need to bring proof and sign in as a temporary member as you enter).

Door Policies

Sydney's bouncers are often strict, arbitrary and immune to logic. They are usually contracted by outside security firms so have no problem in turning away business. Being questioned and searched every time you want a drink after 8pm on a weekend can definitely take the edge off a Sydney night out.

It is against the law to serve people who are intoxicated and you won't be admitted to a venue if you appear drunk. Expect to be questioned about how much you've had to drink that night: it's more to see if you're slurring your words than actual interest in the answer.

If security staff suspect that you're under the legal drinking age (18 years), you'll be asked to present photo ID with proof of your age. Some bars scan ID for everyone entering.

Plenty of places won't admit you if you are wearing tank tops, thongs (flip-flops) or sandals.

Some pubs have smoking areas, but you aren't allowed to take food into that area – even if you're happy to do so.

What to Wear

Sydney can be flashy, but it’s also very casual. Men will nearly always get away with tidy jeans, T-shirts and trainers. Thongs (flip-flops, jandals), singlets (vests) and shorts are usually fine in pubs in the daytime, but incur the ire of security staff after dark. Women can generally wear whatever the hell they like.

What to Drink

Beer is the Sydney staple but the scene has changed totally in recent years; a new wave of craft beers has taken over central Sydney pubs from the old staples Tooheys New, Victoria Bitter, Reschs and Carlton Draught. Australian wine is outstanding – most house wine at pubs is at least drinkable, and bars usually offer more considered wine lists. Cocktails (often with an Asian or Latin spin) rule the roost at more upmarket venues, usually costing upwards of $15.

Ordering a Beer

Traditional Sydney pubs serve middies (285mL) and schooners (pronounced skooner, 425mL), though pints (570mL), once restricted to British/Irish theme pubs, are now commonly available too. Australian pubs originally abandoned pints because beer would go warm in the summer heat before you’d finished your glass. Arm yourself with this invaluable local insight and order a schooner instead. Many trendier modern places serve a 330mL or 350mL glass colloquially known as a schmiddy because it falls between the two traditional measures.

A Night on the Tiles

Most of Sydney’s older pubs are clad in glazed tiles, often with beautifully coloured art-nouveau designs. Why? Prior to drinking law reform in the mid-1950s, pubs shut their doors at 6pm, before which after-work drinkers would storm in and chug down as many beers as quickly as possible – the six o’clock swill. Publicans discovered pretty quickly that it's easier to hose slopped beer, vomit and urine from glazed tiles.

Other Entertainment

Extra enticements to keep Sydney boozers boozing include bingo, trivia, karaoke, comedy and poetry slams. Most pubs have big screens for major sporting events. Don't be surprised if a tray of raw meat gets raffled off for a good cause. Yes, really.

When To Go

Venues get busier as you move towards the weekend. Tearing a page from the Perth handbook, postbeach ‘Sunday sessions’ have become a hit – especially popular, it seems, with hospitality workers and hairdressers.

Compared to major world cities, Sydney shuts down pretty early, and lockout laws haven't helped. Still, you'll find a few pubs outside the lockout zone open until 5am or 6am at weekends. Newtown has several. There are also a few 24-hour joints.

Need to Know

Business Hours

  • Pubs and bars: roughly 11am–midnight; later on weekends and in livelier areas; some open 24 hours.
  • Clubs: 10pm–5am Wednesday to Saturday; most aren't busy until after midnight.
  • Venues within a designated central zone are unable to admit people after 1.30am or 2am, or to serve alcohol after 3am or 3.30am.
  • Bottleshops (liquor stores): allowed to open until 11pm, which is also the last time you can buy takeaway alcohol from a pub. On Sundays, it's 10pm.

Tipping

Tipping in bars isn't the norm, so you should feel under no obligation to do so. The only possible exceptions are where there has been a considerable amount of table service (more than just delivering drinks and clearing empties) or where fancy cocktails are concocted.

Central Sydney Lockouts

In an effort to cut down on alcohol-fuelled violence, tough licensing laws have been introduced to a large area of the central city bounded by the Rocks, Circular Quay, Woolloomooloo, Kings Cross, Darlinghurst, Haymarket and the eastern shores of Darling Harbour.

Within this zone, licensed venues are not permitted to admit people after 1.30am. However, if you arrive before then, the venue is permitted to continue serving you alcohol until 3am, or 3.30am in the case of certain venues that you can enter until 2am. This latter amendment was announced after widespread protest from the public and industry over the severity of the laws. The change was too little, too late for many venues, which had already closed down. At time of research, the government was considering further amendments.

Lockout laws have seen to a shift in late-night drinking to places outside the zone, with southern Surry Hills, Chippendale, Newtown and Marrickville popular targets.