When trying to plan the best things to do in Sydney, I found that I had to re-vamp my expectations of visiting an international city. Yes, Sydney has culture and, yes, Sydney has history; however, unlike European cities, you won’t find yourself steeped in the past. Instead, you end up embracing the now.
Most surprising: how the climate allows for outdoor activities, year round.
Best activity for families: visiting the Tarango Zoo
Most iconic sight: the Sydney Opera House
Best walk to get away from the bustle of the city: the Royal Botanical Gardens
Sydney is a vibrant city with a glittering harbor on the edge of the Tasman Sea. Here, you can (and should) enjoy the outdoors, partake of the arts, and go in search of what makes Australia different from the rest of the world. Your approach to tourism may have to be altered, but you will be rewarded in the end.
The best things to do in Sydney depend on your interests and time limitations. I’ve provided a list below, divided by type, but otherwise in no particular order.
Whether you love extreme sports or are more inclined to relax in nature, Sydney offers a range of outdoor activities.
The Harbour Bridge
Only the brave and the fit choose to climb to the summit of the Harbour Bridge, yet it remains one of Sydney’s most famous endeavors for tourists. It’s also costly. If you want to experience the view from the Harbour Bridge, free of charge, you can climb to car level and walk across, as we did. Yes, to get there is still a hike, but you don’t need to be super-fit or have any special equipment.
The Tasman Sea, just beyond the harbour, hosts migrating humpback whales between April and November. You can also see minke whale, orcas, bottlenose dolphins, and others. We were there in September, the first week of Australia’s spring, and we saw several humpbacks but no other species.
Options include Ocean Extreme, a tour in a rigid inflatable boat that allows you to experience the whales at water level. The pilot doubles as photographer so that you can have pictures of whales that you personally saw on the trip. This trip is not recommended for small children or people with hip or back issues (trust me, I know this firsthand.) You straddle a fixed “seat” and hang on to the back of the seat in front of you as the boat speeds across swells, some of which can be high, depending on the conditions. The landing between each can be hard. Although the ride can be physically jarring, the ability to see an enormous whale at water level is spectacular.
Larger, more traditional cruises are better choices for those who don’t savor a bumpy, albeit exciting, ride. Those boats saw the same whales we did but from a higher vantage point.
Strolling and Bird Watching in the Royal Botanic Garden
Every morning, before I set about on my sightseeing itinerary, I walked through the Royal Botanic Garden, accessing it through an entrance at the base of the Sydney Opera House. You can meander to enjoy the plants, or you can use the paths for exercise. I did both.
As a bird watcher, I delighted in the common Australian species that were exotic to me: sulphur cockatoos, rainbow lorikeets, kookaburras, masked lapwings, and others. Check out the Sydney Bird Club for a list of birds found there. The club also recommends day trips for birders.
Heading to the Beach
Although I’ve visited Sydney twice, I’ve never been there in weather warm enough for the beach. The famous Bondi Beach attracts sunbathers and surfers alike. A short ferry ride takes you to Manly Island (see day trips below) and Manly Beach. For a full list of beaches and how to get to them, check out this site.
Dining and Drinking Al Fresco
I love that Sydney’s climate allows people to spend a lot of time outdoors, including dining and drinking when the day comes to a close.
Circular Quay boasts several waterside restaurants and bars that offer fantastic views. Yes, these establishments may cost a bit more than comparable ones inland, but the ambience is well worth it. One of the best restaurants in the city, Café Sydney, offers rooftop seating with views of the cove. Located on the top floor of the Customs House, the restaurant overlooks Circular Quay. You can reserve indoor or outdoor seating, although outdoor seating is not guaranteed.
We had a Happy Hour wine-and-cheese special at Guylian Chocolate Café; it has both indoor and outdoor seating. For dinner, try the Sydney Cove Oyster Bar (reservations recommended — ask for a waterside seat). The Sydney Cove Oyster Bar has only outdoor seating and therefore closes during inclement weather. For drinks and casual food, including raw oysters, the Opera Bar is perhaps the most popular spot along the quay. For that reason, the crowds can be off-putting if you want something quieter.
Darling Harbour also has many restaurants and bars overlooking the water. Happy Hours abound over there because of the proximity to the Conference Center and the CBD. Even the establishments with indoor seating open up to the outdoors.
Culture and the Performing Arts
The Sydney Opera House
The Sydney Opera House is not just an iconic landmark. It also serves as a world-class performance venue. Even if you don’t acquire tickets for a performance in one of its halls — and I highly recommend that you do — you should book a regular tour or even the more demanding backstage tour of the Opera House to see all the performance spaces and to learn about its history. The Opera House also offers a tour for those with limited mobility
The Museum of Contemporary Art
The small, free Museum of Contemporary Art, located on the Circular Quay, is a great way to spend 60-90 minutes. The curators do a great job with making the artwork accessible by drawing the viewer into the aesthetics, artistic intent, and materials.
The Museum of Sydney
Another small museum (but one that charges admission), the Museum of Sydney displays artifacts relating to the history, people, and culture of the city. It takes 60-90 minutes to go through and is well worth visiting to gain some context.
The Chinese Friendship Garden
I debated whether to categorize this as an outdoor activity or a cultural one, but ultimately, it’s all about culture, as pleasant as it is to stroll through it. Located not far from Darling Harbour, the Chinese Friendship Garden is tucked into the city and stands as an impeccable tribute to the marriage of Chinese philosophy and nature. I found the admission fee well worth the time I spent admiring the beauty within the walls.
Of course, in a city of this size, multiple cultural venues exist. A simple web search should bring up options available for your trip.
For Families as well as Adults
The Tarango Zoo is one of the most popular destinations from the Circular Quay. You can see animals that you usually don’t see elsewhere: platypuses, koalas, Tasmanian devils, and endangered indigenous frogs. You can even walk among kangaroos and emus. Of course, the most popular animals are main draws at every major zoo: great apes, big cats, and elephants.
When we last visited, a lot was under construction, unfortunately. In 2020, renovation should be completed.
Zoo tickets can be purchased at the ferry pier to avoid the long walk to the entrance once you arrive. To get there via ferry, you can either use an Opal Card (see below) or individual ferry tickets purchased at a nearby machine.
SEA LIFE Sydney Aquarium
People rave about the SEA LIFE Sydney Aquarium at Darling Harbour, but I found it merely good, not great. I mostly enjoyed walking under the sharks, under the rays, and next to the emperor penguins. I admit that because I’ve been to the Osaka (Japan) Aquarium. the National Aquarium (Baltimore), and the Monteray Bay Aquarium, many aquariums pale in comparison. Kids, though, will love it.
Day Trips, Tours, and Short Ferry Rides
A huge number of people take the ferry to Manly Island to get out of the city. Some head to the beach while others walk the cliff trail from Spit Bridge to Manly Beach. Still others poke around in the town, shopping, eating, and watching the street performers.
Manly also is the northernmost breeding grounds for Little Penguins. We’re never there when they are, though, so I haven’t seen them except at the aquarium.
Hunter Valley Wine Tour
Because we love wine, we booked a small group wine-and-cheese tour into the Hunter Valley via Activity Tours Australia. Although the region doesn’t produce the best Australian wines, they do specialize in shorter season white wines, particularly semillion. As we learned, the shiraz from this region tends to be light and less intense.
The tour included three wineries, a stop at the Smelly Cheese Shop, a café lunch, and running commentary by our excellent guide, Scotty. Scotty rotates his list of wineries, although I suspect he always chooses Iron Gate Vineyards, the first and least interesting stop for us. Allandale Winery and Mount View Estate were great, though, as was the cheese tasting led by a whacky employee at the Smelly Cheese Shop.
What You Should Know Before You Go
Sydney has two airports, one for domestic travel and one for international. You cannot walk from one to the other the way you might between terminals in other airports. Fortunately, you can take a shuttle bus to get your there. This oddity is important for travelers to understand if Sydney isn’t their only stop in Australia. You don’t want to end up in the international airport if you are travelling domestically — and vice versa.
Trains run from both airports to the Circular Quay stop at the Harbour. You can also get a taxi. We’ve done both. The train is obviously less expensive; however, when you’re exhausted, the taxi ride to the door of your hotel can make all the difference.
You can purchase an Opal Card in increments of AU$ 10 to use the ferries, trains (including to the airport), and buses. Cards can be refilled at machines where you purchase tickets.
Sydney is a relatively safe city, particularly in the tourist areas and during the day. Still, you should take appropriate precautions to protect your belongings.
Also know that Australia in general has some truly venomous snakes and spiders. If you get bitten, assume the worst and call 000 for emergency services. The water poses its own problems with strong undertows and dangerous marine life.
Remember that the seasons are reversed from those in the Northern Hemisphere and that northern cites are warmer than those in the south.
Where to Stay
Tourists tend to stay near the Sydney Harbour, either in The Rocks or the Circular Quay (pronounced “key.”) Business travelers may prefer the Central Business District (CBD) or Darling Harbour. We’ve stayed in both the InterContinental Sydney (Circular Quay) and the Four Seasons Hotel Sydney (the Rocks.) Although the Rocks is supposedly more upscale, those two hotels are only an 8-minute walk apart, and both have excellent facilities. Another Circular Quay option would be the Sydney Harbour Marriott.
Where to Eat
For a detailed list of restaurants, go to my separate page devoted to where to eat in Sydney.
Where to Shop for Opals
I did a lot of research on buying opals, just as I did when I visited Florence and wanted to buy leather. Skip the shops around the Circular Quay that specialize in lower end triple-cut opals (“triplets”) and instead head to Opal Minded (the Rocks) for better quality. The shop is one of the few that sources stones from its own Jundah mines.
The staff will determine your tastes, teach you what to look for, and keep you within your budget. You can spend as little as $150 or as much as thousands, depending on both the stone and the type of setting, gold or silver. Expect to pay at least $300 (roughly AU$ 440) for a sterling silver doublet with enough opal to show off. Doublet gold pieces were priced less than I expected, starting at about $900/AU$1300. Of course, a solid opal in a gold setting is much, much more than that.
Opals are not cheap, but you will always be reminded of your stay if you buy one.
Sydney and its environs offer varied activities, but I found a week to be too long. The best things to do in Sydney, even including a day trip, can be ticked off in 4-5 days. If you have ample time, make plans to visit other Australian cites such as Melbourne, the Gold Coast, and/or Brisbane. If you want to see the Great Barrier Reef, head to Cairns.
Debbie Lee Wesselmann