If we asked you to close your eyes and picture Australia, chances are that images of Sydney, with its iconic harbor, would pop into your head. Built around one of the world’s most beautiful natural harbors, Sydney is home to three of Australia’s major attractions: the Sydney Harbour Bridge, the Sydney Opera House and Bondi Beach. There are, however, many more places to explore in and around the city.
We’ve put together a list of our of the top sights in Sydney and near the city. But first, a quick note about planning your trip…
Seasons in Sydney
Since Sydney is located in the southern hemisphere, the seasons run opposite to those in the northern hemisphere. Sydney high season is summer (December to February) with queues, crowded beaches and elevated accommodation prices. The shoulder seasons are spring (September to November) and fall (March to May) and can still offer plenty of warm sunshine and clear skies — but with shorter queues. The low season is during winter (June to August) with cool, rainy days and the smallest crowds. Regardless of the time of year, it’s also important to keep in mind that the sun in Australia can be extremely strong, so don’t forget to pack lots of sunscreen.
The best way to get around Sydney is by public transportation. The city has an extensive system of trains, buses, ferries, and light rail. Pick up a free, reloadable Opal card when you arrive at the airport. The Opal card can be used for all public transit options in the city and it can also be used on the transport network extending beyond the city to the Blue Mountains, Central Coast, Hunter, Illawarra and Southern Highlands regions surrounding Sydney. One great perk or deal is that on Sundays, the fare on the Opal card is capped at a very low rate (currently AU$2.70 for an Adult) — meaning you can take as many trips as you want and the max you will be charged is that amount.
Sydney Harbour and City Center
Sydney Harbour is the essence of Sydney. The Rocks, where Europeans first settled in 1788, and Circular Quay are the focal point of the inner harbor and home to the Sydney Opera House and the recently renovated Museum of Contemporary Art Australia (MCA) (which boasts free entry). We highly recommend booking a hotel that’s close to the Harbour so that you can take an evening or nighttime stroll by the water — the Bridge and Opera House offer some spectacular sunset and night views.
Thousands of people cross the Sydney Harbour Bridge, the 502 m long, “coat hanger” shaped, bridge that connects Central Sydney with North Sydney on a daily basis — by foot, car, and train. The best way to experience the bridge is on foot. Staircases provide access to the bridge from both sides, and a walking path runs along its eastern side. Head here at sunrise and sunset for golden harbor views. If you decide you want an even better view, you can sign-up for the BridgeClimb, that will allow you to climb to the top of the bridge. But be warned, personal cameras are not allowed on the climb for safety reasons.
Nearby Cadmans Cottage, built in 1816, is a sandstone cottage that served as a sailor’s home, water police headquarters & more. This is Sydney’s oldest house located on the city’s oldest road.
Around the corner you will find The Rocks Discovery Museum, a quaint, small museum with artifacts and interactive exhibits that highlight the history of The Rocks area. Entry to The Rocks Museum is always free.
Sydney Opera House is the city’s most recognizable icon and its shell-like “sails” will shimmer on the blue harbor waters on sunny days. Make sure you get up close and examine the self-cleaning tiles or take a guided tour. The best way to explore the Opera House, however is by catching a play or concert if your schedule allows it.
The Royal Botanic Gardens is a 30 hectare urban oasis that’s always free to enter. Highlights include the rose gardens, rainforest walk and palm grove. Walk to the northeastern tip of the gardens to find a scenic lookout named Mrs. Macquarie’s Chair for spectacular views of Sydney Harbour with the Opera House and Harbour Bridge. The lookout was named in 1810 after Governor Macquarie’s wife, who order a chair chiseled into the rocks from which she would view the harbor.
If you’re looking for more of a break from the city, stroll through Hyde Park, Sydney’s lungs and Australia’s oldest public park. Here, you can see the St. Mary’s Cathedral as well as the Anzac Memorial among many historic buildings and statues.
Top Sights in Sydney: Bondi Beach
An essential Sydney experience includes the world famous, golden sand and cliffs of Bondi Beach. Bondi Beach is east of the downtown area, so if you want to access it by public transportation, you can take bus 389, 380, or 333 from Circular Quay directly to Bondi Beach. In addition to laying at the beach and swimming in the ocean, you can also take the sensational 5.5km Bondi to Coogee Clifftop Walk (allow about two hours, with a few stops). Bondi Beach can get very crowded in the summer months and on the weekends. Luckily, when we visited at the end of the summer in late February on a weekday, the beach was pretty empty.
Top Sights in Sydney: Manly
We took advantage of the Sunday fare cap by taking several ferries around the Sydney area, including the ferry to Manly. After getting off the ferry from Circular Quay, walk the Corso from the harbour beach to the ocean beach. There, take a walk along Marine Parade that links Manly Beach and Shelly Beach with its lookouts. The ferry ride to Manly provides nice views of the Sydney Harbour Bridge and the Sydney Opera House from the water.Return by ferry to Circular Quay and switch ferries to F8 and get off at Cockatoo Island Wharf. Cockatoo Island is an island located in the Parramatta River. Not only will this ferry ride take you to Cockatoo Island, but it will also take you underneath the Sydney Harbour Bridge.
Top Sights in Sydney: Blue Mountains
For a longer day trip from Sydney, take the train from Central Station to the Blue Mountains National Park, which encompasses steep cliffs, eucalyptus forests, waterfalls and villages. The park has been a world heritage site since 2000. The train ride takes around 2 hours, or 1:45 hours for the express train. Trains leave every 30 minutes.
Depart the train at Katoomba Station, the main town in the region. For actual train times and fare costs utilize the well laid out Trip Planner from the NSW Transport agency. To get around the Blue Mountains, there are public buses in Katoomba to Echo Point or the hop on, hop off Blue Mountains Explorer Bus runs from Katoomba Station for a circuit of the major attractions from Scenic World to Leura. We also recommend taking advantage of some of the bushwalk paths within the park that connect the above mentioned attractions. Make sure to visit the Three Sisters and the Giant Stairway (you descend to the foot of the Three Sisters via 998 steps cut into the side of the cliff), Leura Cascades and Bridal Veil Lookout.
Cricket and Rugby
Depending on what season it is when you visit Sydney, try to catch a rugby or cricket game. Both of the city’s major stadiums, Allianz Stadium and the Sydney Cricket & Sports Ground, are located right next to each other in Sydney’s suburb of Moore Park. On game days, fans have several public transportation options from downtown, including special bus routes that are free with a game day ticket. On our trip, we were able to attend a home game of the New South Wales Waratahs rugby team at the Allianz Stadium. Currently, that stadium is being demolished and a new Allianz Stadium will be built by 2021.
What are the top sights in Sydney you don’t think people should miss? Let us know!