Like any big city, Sydney can be toured in many different ways. You probably won't want to miss out on the big things like the numerous famous beaches or simply gazing at the Sydney Opera House, but after those, you have a lot of options.
Best City Attractions in Sydney
Sydney Harbour Bridge
I'm going to suggest what every other website suggest as well: Climb the Sydney Harbour Bridge if you can. I know, I know. So touristy. But everyone told me it's a must-do. It is also expensive the but views alone are probably worth the price.
Even if you don't have the time, or the money, to climb it gazing at it from near and far should be on your list. The engineering marvel was way ahead of its time. Opened in 1932, and nicknamed the coathanger, you can walk or cycle across the bridge to experience it up close. Another interesting way to tour the Harbour Bridge is by kayaking under it. Check out Sydney by Kayak for that. My favorite way to see it though is while wandering the grounds of the Royal Botanic Gardens.
Royal Botanic Gardens
And that brings me to this gorgeous garden. The Royal Botanic Gardens is a harborside haven for the city with wildlife at your fingertips. The gardens stretch for many acres and you could wander them for hours. The Calyx is particularly impressive and a must-visit. While I was there they had an exhibit on carnivorous plants that was as beautiful as it was fascinating. Best of all, the gardens and Calyx are completely free.
Sydney Opera House
Iconic. Beautiful. Unique. The opera house in Sydney is basically the cities most well-known and well-loved symbol. I know it's already on your list. Instead of a tour, I suggest looking ahead of time at the schedule and picking a show to attend. When I visited Sydney in January 2019 we bought tickets to a symphony performance for only AUD$39 each! We had never been to a concert like this before and honestly I assumed we wouldn't really enjoy it. We bought the tickets in lieu of a tour since this was cheaper anyway! Well, the show was fantastic (we enjoyed every minute of it) and being able to attend a performance in the main hall was a highlight of the trip.
Sydney's vibrant Chinatown in the Haymarket district is not just Chinese but truly pan-Asian. You'll find delicious cheap eats here at any time of day (or night). Visiting during the day will mean a fun experience of bustling markets while at night you'll find a completely different vibe. Try to experience both.
Sydney Fish Market
Over in Darling Harbour is the Sydney fish market, the perfect place to try Australia's delicious seafood. 15 million kilograms (33 million pounds) of seafood come through here annually and the chaotic nature surrounding the market is exhilarating. Several cafes and restaurants can be found onsite, as well as a famous cooking school. There is also a sushi bar, a Chinese seafood restaurant specializing in yum cha, and behind-the-scenes tours are available for around AUD$35.
St Marys Cathedral
Catholic cathedral built over 100 years (1821-1928). You can take a peek inside for free. Lighting candles, of course, requires offerings. Mass is also held regularly.
Queen Victoria Building
A Romanesque designed building from 1898 that now houses various stories. It was completely restored in 1980 after it was, thankfully, saved from demolition. It occupies an entire city block and is the perfect place to scratch your itch to shop till you drop in Sydney.
The Strand Arcade
Another great shopping complex, this one is near the Queen Victoria building as was built in 1891. The multilevel shop features upscale retailers and some superb dining. Even if you are just window shopping you should pass through.
Stroll around Darling Harbour
Darling Harbour isn't only home to breathtaking river views. You'll also find an extensive variety of attractions in the Harbour. Some must-sees include the serene Chinese Garden of Friendship (entry: AUD$6) and its delightful teahouse. As well as the informative National Maritime Museum (the permanent collection is free).
Best Museums in Sydney
Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA)
Modern art housed in a grand, waterside art deco building. You really shouldn't miss the rooftop cafe at the MCA. The cafe has a sculpture terrace with magnificent views of Circular Quay, including the Harbour Bridge and Sydney Opera House.
Art Gallery of New South Wales
Contemporary, modern, and indigenous art in a beautiful building from 1871. I really insist you take a look at the indigenous art on display here. The usual location is in the basement but this is subject to change. When planning your days in Sydney I suggest visiting the gallery in the middle of the day when it is hottest outside. Not only will you cool down but you'll also save money since the Art Gallery of New South Wales is free!
The Australian Museum
Admission: Free for kids, AUD$15 for Adults
The Australian Museum in Darlinghurst is perfect for families visiting Sydney. Kids admission is free (Adults pay AUD$15). Level 2 has Kidspace, a mini-museum for children under five. The top sight is the museum's great natural history collection enabling you to get up close with all of Australia’s scariest creatures, minus the whole risk-of-death thing. You also shouldn't miss the museum cafe which has perfect views of St. Marys Cathedral and Woolloomooloo.
Most Scenic Lookouts in Sydney
Mrs Macquarie's Chair
One of the most scenic lookouts in Sydney. The harbour views are fantastic here and you will definitely want to bring your camera. It is probably the most Instagramed spot in all of Sydney.
Campbell's Cove Jetty
Near the Park Hyatt Sydney is a gorgeous spot to watch sunrise over the iconic Sydney Opera house. Come here for a fabulous photo to add to Instagram of your trip to Sydney.
If you don't have the money for a bridge climb I suggest heading to this point. The Pylon Lookout offers incredible views for a small price and is a great alternative to help budget travelers to Sydney. 200 steps in total.
Best Beach Attractions in Sydney
First some tips:
If you plan on swimming at a Sydney beach be sure to stay between the yellow and red flags. These flags are placed each day by lifeguards and help tourists and even locals stay in the safest area of the strong ocean currents. These currents can be extremely dangerous and it is very important you pay attention to the flags.
The beaches of Sydney all have shark mesh nets plus they are regularly patrolled by air for sharks. If any are sighted you will hear a shark alarm alerting you to get out of the water. Please understand though, the risk of a shark attack while swimming on a patrolled beach, especially between the flags, is basically zero.
Sydney and Bondi Beach are synonymous. Bondi is truly one of the world’s best beaches and obviously this makes it a super popular attraction that you can’t miss when visiting Sydney. The beach is only 8km away and can be accessed via bus (333, 380-2) or a 15 minute drive by Uber or cab. We chose to take an Uber both there and back and found it cheap and convenient. You can easily spend a whole day in Bondi.
Bondi to Coogee Coastal Walk
This was one of my absolute favorite things I did while in Sydney. It was also my last day in Australia so I was a bit emotional about leaving.
Start at Bondi Beach relaxing on the sand. Gear up for your walk with a vegan (!) meat pie at Funky Pies and then start walking towards Icebergs swim club. Right after the club is a very easy-to-follow path that curves along the coast and cliffs for 3.7-miles. The views are ridiculously stunning with cliffsides, epic beach views, and rock pools. You can read more about the walk here.
Bondi Iceburgs Pool
A popular public pool in Bondi Beach, it has been around for over 100 years and admission is only AUD$7. That price will give you access to the pool, sauna, and gym! Don't be surprised if you recognize the iconic spot, it’s the most photographed, and Instagrammed, ocean pool in Australia. Plus, it's on almost every postcard. Although it really is a great pool, it does get crowded. I actually suggest skipping this one in favor of Bronte Pool. I've detailed why below.
My favorite pool in Australia and a not-to-be-missed spot. First off, Bronte Pool is man-made but feels much more natural. Second, entry is free. And third, it is much less crowded than Iceburgs Pool in Bondi. This place is seriously magical and Matt and I spent over 4 hours just chilling here.
Pro Tip: Get here for sunrise--before 7am-- and have a magical moment watching the sun creep over the ocean’s horizon.
Across the River or Bay
Manly to Spit Coastal Trek
Another great walk in Sydney, this 9-km coastal trek (one way) will weave you up and down rocky staircases taking you past sandy beaches and stunning vantage points. This walk is a bit more adventurous and will burn a lot more calories than the Bondi to Coogee Coastal Walk I talked about above. But, it is worth it.
If you want a great backdrop for photos or simply a so-kitsch-it's-kind-of-cool adventure I suggest heading to Luna Park. Naturally, there are many amusement park rides inside but you'll be surprised to learn you can also have a romantic dinner here also. On Sundays, the Ferris wheel offers first-class dining while you ride. If you're from the US and specifically NYC, you'll laugh to find out there is a Coney Island area inspired by non-other than our Coney Island in Queens.
Admission inside is free but you'll have to pay to ride the rides. A two-ride pass is AUD$20 or you can buy the unlimited-ride adult pass for AUD$52.
Take the Ferry to Manly
This is a must-do for the views alone! While in Sydney we took the ferry from Circular Quay (Sydney main ferry port, near the Opera House) over to Manly Beach for sunset and dinner. The 18-minute ride had some of the best views of the city and the roundtrip cost was only around AUD$32 each.
Manly has many excellent dining options, we ate at the lovely Mexican restaurant Chica Bonita. You'll also find a splendid museum and beach/water activities like beach volleyball, running, kayaking, scuba, and surfing.
Royal National Park
If you want to get away from Sydney and do some hiking head to Royal National Park. Here you'll find 26 kilometers of natural beauty with coastline walks, isolated beaches, and natural rock pools that are Insta-worthy.
Planning a trip to Australia in general, can be overwhelming. Everyone has an opinion on this beautiful location and you may be frozen and unable to plan anything. Rest assured that no matter what you choose to do in Australia or where you choose to stay in Australia you're going to have a beautiful time.
One last thing... even though researching ahead of time is great, I definitely recommend bringing an Australian travel guide along with you. Here are some of the travel guides I used during my trip...
And of course, if you have any questions DO NOT hesitate to reach out to me via Instagram, Twitter, or just shoot me an email (tessajuliette at gmail dot com).