Life in the Harbour City revolves, quite literally, around its famous waterway, and sailing this sublime aquatic landscape is an essential part of the Sydney travel experience.
The foreshore is fringed with key sights and attractions, and the choice of ways to see them from the water is almost endless. Ride the city’s seemingly ubiquitous but individually characterful green and gold ferries, feast on fine fare on a lunch or dinner cruise, explore the fan-like fingers of the harbour in a kayak, meet the giants of the deep on a whale watching trip, or take a spin in a tall ship. You might even consider yacht chartering in Sydney and live it up amongst the million-dollar mansions that cascade down to the water’s edge.
Here are ten top things to see around Sydney Harbour, all of which are best viewed from the water. We’ve also included some tips for exploring them in more detail.
Watch our video of ten top things to do in Sydney:
Are you planning a visit to the amazing New South Wales capital? In this episode of our online travel series, we bring you ten top things to do in Sydney.
1. Sydney Opera House
The Sydney Opera House is internationally acclaimed, beloved by locals, and like no other building in the world. You must see it from the water, where it almost appears to float on the harbour’s gentle swell. There are plenty of ways to enjoy ‘the House’. You can take in a concert, dine at one of the many food venues, or just walk around those iconic sails. A guided tour will reveal the secrets of Jorn Utzon’s revolutionary design. You can also tour backstage to see how performance magic is made.
When the sun goes down, soak up the atmosphere at the Opera Bar, or just settle into one of the many public seats around the perimeter of the building and savour the view of this majestic architectural masterpiece.
2. Sydney Harbour Bridge
Equally stunning in its own way is the Sydney Harbour Bridge, now 90 years young and still the focal point of almost all harbour experiences. The instantly recognisable arch connecting the northern and southern shores is a joy to behold from all angles, and is much more graceful than its nickname — ‘the Coathanger’ — would suggest. Climb the stairs to the Pylon Lookout on the south side (accessed from Cumberland Street) for excellent city views and a detailed exhibition about the Bridge’s social, political and construction history. The mighty steel bridge also looks great from below, especially when illuminated at night.
3. Fort Denison
Right in the middle of Sydney Harbour sits Fort Denison — a tiny island with a round stone tower and a single palm tree. It’s one of the harbour’s most recognisable landmarks; you’ll see it on all Sydney Harbour cruises, and you can visit the island by water taxi or ferry from Circular Quay Wharf 6. Pack a picnic, as there are currently no food and beverage services on the island. Enjoy its 360-degree outlook on the harbour, or take one of several guided tour options that explain its convict and military history. The Martello tower is the only one in Australia and the most complete remaining example in the world of this style of defensive fort.
4. Darling Harbour
As well as an endearing moniker (it was actually named after an early 19th century Governor of New South Wales), Darling Harbour has plenty to offer both first-time and repeat visitors. Located to the west of the CBD, attractions here include the Australian National Maritime Museum, a well-equipped children’s playground, and access to a wide selection of harbour cruises. Contrasts abound in this part of the Sydney foreshore: while the Chinese Garden of Friendship is a true oasis of serenity, the Cockle Bay Wharf dining and entertainment precinct buzzes with restaurants, bars and nightclubs.
5. Barangaroo Reserve
Barangaroo is the new kid on the Sydney waterfront block, and is already winning hearts with its commitment to public art and inclusive cultural programs. Named for a renowned Indigenous woman who lived here when Europeans first arrived, this urban renewal project on the edge of the CBD honours the deep history and original inhabitants of its site with cultural tours led by Aboriginal guides. The natural beauty of the headland setting also makes the car-free reserve a perfect place to escape the bustle of the city. Stroll the harbourside promenade, take advantage of the extensive network of cycling paths, or enjoy the unique colours and shapes of Australian native plants in the terraced gardens.
6. Cockatoo Island
Fifteen minutes by ferry from Circular Quay lies intriguing Cockatoo Island — the largest island in Sydney Harbour. The Visitor Centre outlines the penal and maritime history that led to a UNESCO World Heritage listing for parts of the rocky outcrop in 2010. To learn more, join a guided tour. Choose a walking history lesson by day, or stay after dark for the adults-only paranormal experience. You can even extend your visit by camping overnight or staying in a heritage holiday house.
While the shoreline offers glorious perspectives over the western harbour, the abandoned shipyards and warehouses of the island’s interior have a gritty, industrial ambience and the old convict buildings seem steeped in the sufferings of their erstwhile inhabitants. Truly, this is an island of many moods, which richly rewards the traveller in search of something a little different to the classic picture-postcard view of Sydney.
7. Milsons Point
The compact heritage precinct along the harbour’s edge at Milsons Point harks back to the 1930s. In that key decade, Sydney saw the opening of the Harbour Bridge in 1932, kitsch Luna Park in 1935, and the Art Deco-styled North Sydney Olympic Pool in 1936. The area is easily accessed by ferry from Circular Quay or by walking across the bridge, and includes a fabulous palm-fringed waterside walkway and a wide range of casual and upmarket dining options. The views — whether from water level or from the top of the Luna Park ferris wheel — are fabulous.
8. Nielsen Park
The posh east-side suburb of Vaucluse is home to some of Sydney’s most expensive waterfront mansions. But while its property market is highly exclusive, there’s one piece of Vaucluse real estate that’s open to all: beautiful Nielsen Park. It’s got everything you could want for a great day out by the harbour — expansive and well-shaded picnic grounds, a golden beach with flat-water swimming, and a lovely café in a unique vintage building.
For a more active visit, discover the area’s nineteenth-century heritage at Greycliffe House, stroll to picturesque Bottle and Glass Point, or walk the well-surfaced Hermitage Foreshore Track for excellent views of the city, bridge and harbour islands.
9. Watsons Bay
On the south side of the harbour, truly spectacular natural beauty awaits at Watsons Bay and out towards the harbour heads — which overlook the entrance to Sydney Harbour from the open ocean. You are likely to see both North and South Head from the water on any harbour cruise. To get a closer look, take the ferry from Circular Quay to Watsons Bay and walk up the hill through Sydney Harbour National Park to South Head. The scenery isn’t just pretty here — it’s awe-inspiring. Feast your eyes, then feast your tastebuds with a meal at historic Dunbar House or the casually fabulous Watsons Bay Hotel.
10. North Head
Where the harbour ends and the Pacific Ocean begins, the mighty cliffs of North Head stand guard over the entrance to the city. Part of the Sydney Harbour National Park, North Head is a 45-minute drive from the city or can be reached by ferry from Circular Quay to Manly, followed by the #135 bus. The bus stops at Q Station — Sydney’s former quarantine complex, where permanent exhibitions, as well as history and ghost tours, reveal the dramatic story of migration to this part of Australia.
Another North Head highlight is the fully paved, one-kilometre Fairfax Walk, which provides excellent vantage points for whale watching from June to October. Within the national park is North Head Sanctuary, an area of outstanding natural beauty that provides refuge for endangered native Australian animals such as long-nosed bandicoots, echidnas and pygmy possums. The two-hour Sanctuary Loop is one of Sydney’s most scenic walks, famous for its spring wildflowers, bird-watching opportunities, and panoramic city-to-ocean views.
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.