There are no two ways about it, Sydney, Australia qualifies as one of my favorite cities in the world. This city has everything…pleasant weather year round, mouth-watering international-inspired cuisine, culture and entertainment, white sand beaches, beautiful architecture, and a strong economic sector that provides for a happy and pleasant population.
Sydney also happens to be the city where I’ve personally spent more time in than any other city other than those I’ve lived in. Over the past four years, I have visited Sydney on more than a dozen occasions and have racked up a cumulative exposure of several months time in the city itself on various work related projects and to speak at events. Despite all of the visits, I still earnestly look forward to any opportunity to visit this amazing city, and have even gone as far as to consider a move here. This blog post touches upon some of my favorite sights, activities, and foods in Sydney, but I can honestly say that it really only scratches the surface of what this amazing city has to offer.
Sydney Opera House
For most tourists, a visit to Sydney simply can’t be complete without a visit to the famous Sydney Opera House. There is a reason all of those tourists head here…the architecture of this building, the product of a Danish Architect named Jørn Utzon, is remarkable in every way.
Declared a World Heritage Site, it lives up to its reputation. From every angle, the soaring concrete shells covered with glazed white ceramic tiles provide for a myriad of photo opportunities.
No matter how short of a time I have in Sydney, I usually try to get down to Circular Quay (the ferry terminal near the Opera House, pronounced like ‘key’) and visit the Opera House. Not only for the Opera House itself, mind you, but also to visit some of the seriously great cafes and restaurants along the waterfront. At the same time, visiting Circular Quay allows you to simultaneously take in both views of the Opera House as well as views of the dramatic Sydney Harbour Bridge.
Sydney Harbour Bridge
The Sydney Harbour Bridge is both the world’s widest long-span bridge as well as the tallest steel arch bridge, 134 meters from the water level to the top of the span.
The Bridge is a well known tourist destination in itself, offering a viewing platform on the Southeast pylon as well as the famous Sydney ‘Bridgeclimb’ which allows participants to physically climb to the top of the span itself.
It is relatively easy to cross the entire bridge using the regular walking path as well, as I did on a few occasions. There are several ways to access the bridge from the south. One of the more common routes is the entryway just off of Cumberland St. near the corner of Gloucester St. Coincidentally enough, that also happens to be the intersection where the Australian Heritage Hotel is located, a place that has a phenomenal pub on ground level where you can order a pint to go with your Emu, Salt Water Crocodile, or Kangaroo Pizza. As kitschy as that sounds, it’s actually quite tasty, particularly the Kangaroo Pizza and, while several locals were at first skeptical of this place, they changed their minds after I brought them here, as this is not your typical tourist trap. This place is most definitely worth a stop, even if you are a bit squeamish about eating Skippy.
The Australian Heritage Hotel is located in a neighborhood known as the Rocks, which was previously known as a ‘rough and tumble’ part of town, which is doubly impressive considering Sydney’s origins as a penal colony. Indeed, it should be noted that this city was famously founded as a location to house prisoners from Great Britain. Most citizens of Australia know the story of the First Fleet that brought the prisoners to this area, eventually setting in Sydney Cove on the 26th of January, 1788, a date that is celebrated today as Australia Day.
Just off of the plaza in front of the Opera House is a large park known simply as ‘The Domain.’ The Domain adjoins the beautiful Royal Botanic Gardens and is a relaxing diversion from the hustle and bustle of the city itself.
The Domain, and other parks in Sydney for that matter, a great spots to catch some of the exotic and incredibly interesting bird species that populate the continent. From loud and feisty Magpies (they often swoop in and attack) to flocks of magnificent Cockatoos, to brilliantly colored Lorikeets and laughing Kookaburras, you can spend the good part of a day just marveling at the different type of birds that make Sydney their home. Indeed, some of my most poignant memories of Australia include the exotic and beautiful sounds of these amazing birds. Be sure to be on the lookout for the famous Sydney bats, which come out at night around this area as well.
The Central Business District
The main commercial district in Sydney, what may be thought of as ‘Downtown,’ is generally referred to as the C.B.D. (Central Business District.’) The C.B.D. is where you can find the headquarters of many of Australia’s largest companies, and is a lively place during business hours, with Australian bankers roaming about in business suits, rubbing shoulders with camera-clicking tourists.
The CBD is relatively compact, and easily walkable. You can cross from the Domain to the other end in around 45 minutes or so, depending on your pace. There is a fairly good train network in the city as well, and one that will bring you directly from the airport into the C.B.D. as well, although I can’t honestly say it’s necessarily it/s always the cheapest option, especially if you are traveling with more than one person.
On the west side of the CBD is a smaller harbor known as Darling Harbour. This location is more tourist-centric than Circular Quay and the Opera House, and it contains a wildlife zoo, an aquarium, a convention center, and a maritime museum. It is also traversed by the tourist-focused Sydney Monorail (Metro Monorail.)
Darling Harbour is a pleasant place to visit, and its highly tourist focused nature doesn’t necessarily detract from some of its amenities. While it does have a few highly touristy restaurants, for example, it also has a few of the cities best, including the Malaya, a spice-focused Malaysian restaurant that became one of my favorite food destinations when I was working there.
To cross Darling Harbour (well, technically the Cockle Bay part of Darling Harbour,) Sydneysiders and tourists take the pedestrian Pyrmont Bridge, a swing bridge which opens to allow boat traffic through. The swing function is mostly for show, however, as it is rare to see a ship go through and, even if one did, it would be limited in height by the Monorail tracks, which curiously enough stay stationary when the bridge is open.
The Taronga Zoo is Sydney’s premier zoo, and is one of the the largest zoos in all of Australia, home to over 2600 animals and easily accessible from main sites of Sydney by ferry routes. After taking the ferry to the zoo pier, access to the zoo is provided by means of a pleasant gondola lift ride up to the zoo itself.
The zoo has the ‘typical’ zoo animals that you’d expect to see, such as elephants and tigers and various species from around the world. Of course, however, most foreigners come here to see the local Australian wildlife, and the Taronga zoo doesn’t disappoint with its many varieties of Kangaroos, Emus, Koalas, and other Australian residents.
While there are several well known beaches in Sydney, the most interesting in my opinion has to be Bondi (pronounced Bond-EYE) Beach. Bondi Beach is located east of the C.B.D., about a 20 minute taxi drive away, and provides a major draw with its white sand beaches and watersports. The dynamic of Bondi is different than your typical beach community, however, as it was originally a working class suburb, the vestiges of which can still be seen and felt in the neighborhood.
One especially interesting feature to the Bondi Beach area are the several ocean side swimming pools that were constructed right next to the sea, filled with saltwater, and then used daily by the public and/or various clubs such as the Bondi Icebergs. A few of these pools, such as the historic Bronte Baths, are accessible via coastal walking paths that head south of Bondi Beach and reach all the way to Coogee, another beautiful beachside area of Sydney.
Bondi and the surrounding beaches are surrounded by hotels which provide a change of pace from C.B.D. hotels and provide for great sunrise opportunities and beautiful vistas. I personally spent many mornings walking this area and exploring the beautiful surroundings before I would head off to a day of work in the C.B.D.
The Blue Mountains
A short drive (or easy train ride) west from Sydney takes you to the edge of the Australian Outback and the mountain range known as the Blue Mountains. The Blue Mountains have the feel of the Grand Canyon, especially when viewed from the small town of Katoomba, which towers over the Jamison Valley, a deep valley full of Eucalyptus forests, whose leaves emit a bluish eucalyptus haze that give the Blue Mountains their name.
One of the most picturesque views of the Blue Mountains is of the rock formation known as the Three Sisters. The overlook in Katoomba allows for a great view of the Three Sisters, particularly in the early morning light, when the sun shines off the rocks, creating a contrast with the shadowed fog in the valley deep below.
It was believed for years that the Indigenous Australians, commonly referred to as Aborigines, had a Dreamtime legend that held that the three rocks were three sisters that were turned to stone to protect them from aggressive suitors. The story went that the elder that turned them to stone was killed, so they could not subsequently be turned back to life. This story was apparently fabricated in the 20s, however, but like many ‘urban legends’ it continues on.
The Blue Mountains are also the home to Katoomba Scenic World tourist attraction, which includes the steepest cable-driven funicular railway in the world, a skyway that traverses part of the canyon, and a walkway through the forests in the canyons below. The Blue Mountains are also the first area where I saw kangaroos in the wild when I was in Australia, a phenomenon which is quite common outside of the urban areas, particularly in this part of the country.
On a final note, did I mention how amazing the sunrises and sunsets are in Australia? I’ve seen some phenomenal ones while I was there, and nearly every morning and evening provide opportunities to witness some amazing bursts of color and light.
In closing, I’ve created my own personal top ten lists of things to see and do in the City of Sydney. While I in no way consider this to be authoritative, I consider this list to include all of the major things that I normally recommend to someone going to Sydney for the first time. So without further ado, I give you…
Top Ten List of Things to See and Do in Sydney, Australia
- Visit the Sydney Opera House and take in the amazing architecture up close. Nowhere in the world has one building so defined a city like the Opera House does, and a large number of people in the world can identify it by reputation alone.
- Explore the park known as the Domain, and look for some of the exotic Sydney birds (and bats.) Listen especially for the cry of the Magpie, which creates some amazing and unique sounds that I’ve never heard elsewhere.
- Sample some Kangaroo or Saltwater Crocodile pizza at the Australian Heritage Hotel in the Rocks. If you aren’t into meat, at least try some of the local beers. If you aren’t into beer, well, then at least you’ll be able to enjoy the beautiful Rocks neighborhood that the pub is located in.
- Cross the Sydney Harbour Bridge and explore some of the tranquil neighborhoods at the north end of Sydney Harbour. If you’re really feeling adventurous, consider the Bridgeclimb and climb to the top of the span.
- Spend some time down in Darling Harbour, ride the monorail if you’re feeling touristy, and walk the waterfront in this entertainment mecca in Sydney.
- Enjoy the variety of Australian and foreign animals at the fabulous Taronga Zoo. Get there by taking one of the many ferries that ply the waters of Sydney Harbour, a great way to get around, whether or not you are going to the zoo.
- Walk through the Queen Victoria Building (QVB,) a late nineteenth century shopping pavilion that is a gorgeous display of Romanesque Revival architecture.
- Explore Chinatown, located near Darling Harbour, a rather large neighborhood in town filled with recent and longtime immigrants and the location of some great Asian restaurants.
- Get out of town, it isn’t far to some amazing destinations just outside of Sydney such as the Blue Mountains and the start of the Australian Outback.
- On the flight home, try to get a window seat on the right side of the plane. If you are lucky, the pilot will be authorized to do a ‘flyby’ route that takes you over Sydney Harbour and gives you some amazing views of the city, several of which I included as aerial shots in this post.