Nowhere in Australia rivals Sydney for its spectacular location and array of iconic sights.
It’s the most popular port of call for international visitors, and much loved by homegrown holidaymakers as well. And there are endless ways to spend your days in the fabulous Harbour City.
Here are ten of the best things to do in Sydney on a first visit.
1. Visit Sydney Opera House
Sydney Opera House is the city’s brightest star, and looks good in all weathers and at all times of the day. There are so many ways to enjoy this architectural gem: see a performance (including opera, plays, concerts, and ballet), join a guided tour, or just walk around Bennelong Point and marvel at the majesty of the building itself.
The harbourfront Opera Bar reinvents the beer-garden concept Sydney-style. An evening drink or meal here affords you one of the world’s most captivating vistas — encompassing the glittering lights of the CBD and Harbour Bridge, the comings and goings at Circular Quay, and of course, the Opera House itself in all its illuminated glory.
2. Cross or climb Sydney Harbour Bridge
To appreciate the staggering scale of Sydney Harbour Bridge, you need to climb it or cross it — preferably both. The Pylon Lookout (located at the bridge’s city end and accessible from Bridge Stairs in Cumberland Street) offers a unique perspective on the iconic steel arch as well as providing far-reaching views of the city and harbour. From here, it takes about 15 minutes to walk across the harbour using the pedestrian walkway that extends the length of the Bridge on its eastern side. Early risers will capture the best photos. Those prepared to brave the arch’s heady heights can do so on the Sydney Harbour Bridge climb.
3. Walk in the footsteps of Governors past on Macquarie Street
If you’ve never heard the name Lachlan Macquarie, you soon will on a visit to Sydney. He was the visionary early-nineteenth-century governor credited with transforming the colony of New South Wales from a stagnating penal settlement into a thriving commercial centre. The street that bears his name is the backbone of civic life in Sydney and home to some of Australia’s oldest buildings, including The Mint, Hyde Park Barracks, Sydney Hospital, and St James Church. Take a stroll and admire the fine architecture — much of it constructed in local golden sandstone — or drop into one of the Living Museums for further insights into Sydney’s colonial past.
4. Take a guided tour of The Rocks
While Macquarie Street showcases a story of political power and civic progress, Sydney’s oldest neighbourhood — The Rocks — tells another tale. From first settlement in 1788 through to the 1960s, convicts, sailors, criminal gangs and citizens mired in poverty made this side of the city a rather unhealthy place to be. Now the erstwhile slum quarter has become a heritage precinct, where modern art galleries jostle history-filled pubs. Cadman’s Cottage and The Rocks Discovery Museum reveal the area’s colonial and indigenous past, while heritage walks, ghost tours and pub crawls bring the notorious characters and stories of The Rocks to life.
5. Shop at the Queen Victoria Building
Sydneysiders love the QVB and you will too once you discover this Victorian beauty. Situated in downtown George Street (right next to Town Hall station), the Romanesque-style building is an architectural hymn to the refinements of a bygone age. Looking around at the domes, arches and stained glass, you’ll feel you’re in a secular cathedral — one dedicated to the pleasures of shopping. Pause to enjoy impromptu performances at the grand piano in the central atrium or treat yourself to a formal English high tea at The Tea Room.
6. Hit Bondi Beach
The golden sand of Australia’s most famous beach draws locals and visitors throughout the year. Easily accessible by public transport from the city centre, Bondi is a place of remarkable natural beauty and a hive of hedonistic energy. Thanks to Sydney’s mild climate, it’s possible to swim here for much of the year — but if you do plunge into the famous surf, make sure you stay between the red-and-yellow flags (where lifesavers can see you). Surfing lessons are a fun way to engage with local beach culture.
Back on dry land, you’ll find plenty of great cafés and restaurants along Campbell Parade, as well as surf shops and boutiques. On Sundays, Bondi Markets overflow with craft, design and vintage stalls.
7. Do the Bondi to Coogee Walk
A six kilometre coastal walking path connects two of Sydney’s best loved beaches — Bondi and Coogee. Although the setting is urban, this path opens up a powerful marine landscape. As you thread your way between mighty sandstone cliffs and the even mightier Pacific Ocean, you may well forget the city at your back. Along the way you can turn off for a coffee, a meal, or a swim at any of three charming smaller beaches — Tamarama, Clovelly or Bronte. Finish the walk at Coogee with its shabby-chic art deco beachfront. Public buses will take you back to the city from here, or you can turn around and do the walk again in reverse!
8. Enjoy fish and chips at Watson’s Bay
Watson’s Bay is a former fishing village that sits on the narrow strip of land that forms the southern side of the entrance to Sydney Harbour. Arrive by ferry from Circular Quay, purchase fish and chips from Doyles on the Wharf, and enjoy a picnic in family-friendly Robertson Park. For more sophisticated dining options, consider a weekend brunch at historic Dunbar House or cocktails and modern Australian cuisine at the relaxed Watsons Bay Hotel Beach Club.
At the tip of the peninsula, the South Head Heritage Trail is an easy one-kilometre loop walk that offers 270-degree harbour and ocean views. Visit the candy-cane striped Hornby Lighthouse, which is the perfect spot to watch for migrating whales from May to November. On the ocean side, the outlook from the sheer cliffs over the Tasman Sea at Gap Bluff is literally breathtaking.
9. Ride a Manly Ferry
More than twice the size of the other ferries that criss-cross Sydney’s complex system of waterways, the mighty Manly Ferries are the queens of the Harbour City. They ply a thirty-minute, seven-nautical-mile route from Circular Quay to Manly, and traverse the entire length of greater Sydney Harbour — taking in all its natural features and cultural landmarks. Just think — some people do this as their daily commute!
City workers may choose the Manly Fast Ferry to save time, but visitors should do it the old-school way — on a traditional Freshwater Class vessel. Sit back, feel the wind on your face and the engines thrumming beneath you, and enjoy the journey.
10. Snorkel off Shelly Beach
Iconic Manly Beach enjoys international renown, but for something different explore a little further and discover its sweet little sister, Shelly Beach. Connected to the southern end of Manly Beach by a scenic pathway, Shelly Beach is part of the Cabbage Tree Bay Marine Reserve. The sheltered cove is a favourite spot for snorkelling and diving, being home to 160 species of brightly coloured fish. Enjoy a picnic on the sand or plan a special lunch at The Boathouse. You can walk off the calories with a ramble around the headland, where an elevated lookout provides spectacular beach and ocean views.
Do you have any suggestions to add to our list of the best things to do in Sydney? We would love to hear from you. Please leave a comment below.
Additional images: Bigstock
About the writer
Roslyn Jolly is a freelance travel writer whose work has appeared in Escape (News Limited), Mindful Puzzles, Vacations and Travel, and Mindfood. In her former career as an English Literature academic, she studied and taught the work of great travel writers, such as Henry James, Herman Melville and Robert Louis Stevenson, and became fascinated by the history of travel and tourism. Two years at school in Wales and three years at university in England allowed Roslyn to travel extensively in Europe and North America, which she continues to do.