I have enjoyed living in Sydney for the past two years, waking up to the view of the Sydney Harbour Bridge every morning has been a real treat.
Living centrally has allowed me to explore the centre of Sydney with ease. The large number of visitors we had, made me make a list of top sites to visit to make sure we could really give them a feeling of this beautiful harbour city. Bring some comfortable shoes, as this is a city for walkers!
We always have a spare set of Opal cards. These are the public transport cards that allow easy access to ferries, busses, trams and trains (train, light rail, metro) everywhere in the greater Sydney region. You can get them at news agencies or at the transport office at train stations or Circular Quay. Although they are introducing the use of credit cards for public transport, Opal is currently still the most convenient method of payment. Note, cash is not accepted.
Load the card up, and you are ready to go. Tag on and tag off as you get on and off transport. There is currently a cap on the total amount that gets deducted from your card on a Sunday, so you can head off to the Blue Mountains on Sundays for a relatively low cost!
The following are our top spots for visitors to Sydney. I have ranked them to fit according to the duration of your visit.
If you have only One Day in Sydney
- Starting at Circular Quay, walk to the Opera House and on to Mrs Macquarie’s point.
- From there, head back to Circular Quay and on to Hickson Reserve, grab a coffee from the coffee cart at the OPT, and then get yourself lost in The Rocks.
- Head up to Observatory Hill, and then walk across the Harbour Bridge to Kirribilli.
- Continue on to Wendy’s Secret garden, and then take the Ferry back from Lunar Park back to Circular Quay.
- Finish the day with a drink in the Lord Nelson while you rest those sore feet, have a pub meal, and if it is a Saturday, see the fireworks.
1. Circular Quay
A great spot to walk around. Most people start where the train station and the ferry terminal is.
Head towards the area just under the Bridge, which is called Hickson Reserve. There is a lovely grassy space where you can soak up the sun and views of the opera house, as well as numerous brides who have their wedding photo’s taken here.
At night the views of the lights on the Opera House and Lunar Park are amazing from this spot!
If there isn’t a cruise ship in town, the gates will be open and you can walk along the quay side at the OPT (Overseas Passengers Terminal). You walk past the museum of Contemporary Art, which has a nice restaurant (Graze) facing the harbour. As with most museums in Australia, the entrance to the museum is free. You only have to pay for special events / exhibits.
Then head back to the centre of Circular Quay, and start walking towards the Opera House.
A lift in the South Eastern corner of circular quay, on the right hand side as you face the ferries, takes you up to the pedestrian path alongside the Cahill Express Way. There is a nice and very quiet viewing platform on this path, see the Bridge and the Opera House from a different point of view!
There are a range of restaurants and cafe’s alongside the walk to the Opera House, mostly catering to tourists.
2. Sydney Opera House
Walk up the steps, and discover that these are actually three buildings. And that the tiles that make up the famous roofs are in slightly different shades of cream.
Walk around it, and see if you can spot the resident seal. If the barrier gates are in place he may be lounging on the steps down to the water!
Try the ticket office under the front steps of the Opera House. There is nothing quite like attending an Opera inside the Opera House.
Note that you do not need to have a ticket to a performance to have a drink at the bar, or a meal at the restaurant of the Opera House!
3. Mrs Macquarie’s POINT
The best view of the Opera House and the Harbour Bridge, is from Mrs Macquarie’s point.
This is also the best free spot to see the New Years Eve fireworks from, but you have to queue up very early to secure your place.
4. The Rocks
This is the oldest part of Sydney and still has a bit of an old village feel. A lot of the buildings here have great stories, were made by convicts or the first settlers. Just wander along, head into some of the very narrow alleys like the Suez Canal and the Nurses walk. Enjoy getting a little bit lost. The area is only small, and you won’t really get lost!
See if you can find the small section of original road (made of small wooden planks), and the only remaining pisoire in Australia.
There is an archeological dig area, and there are a range of small museums and art galleries.
The Rocks Market takes place e very Friday, Saturday and Sunday. It offers life music, food, clothes, crafts and souvenirs. Our favourite purchases are the Stuga shaving and beard products, Dux candles, Brazilian chocolates, locally printed linen bags and tea towels, herbal teas and food from those food trucks!
A lot of events focus on this area, like Australia Day, St Patricks Day, Vivid, Christmas in July, etc. For the latest news, check out http://www.therocks.com
5. Observatory Hill
To get an excellent view over the harbour and The Rocks area, as well as looking down on the Harbour Bridge, head up Observatory Hill.
Easiest to get to via Argyle Street. This takes you through the Argyle Cut which was made by convicts, you can see the pick axe markings on the stone walls! The best stones from this cut were used in the building of the Garrisons Church (just west of the Argyle cut), and the remaining stone was used for building the Hero of Waterloo pub. One of the many pubs in this area.
Walk up the hill, find a bench under one of the Moreton Bay Fig trees, and enjoy the views. Behind you is the observatory, which is open to visitors. In front you see the Harbour Bridge, Balmain in the West and toward distant Manly in the East.
6. Walk the Harbour Bridge
Take the free option to walk across from The Rocks to Kirribilli. The Harbour Bridge is 1 km long and the entrance to the walk can be hard to find. The access is by steps or lift from Cumberland street, and close to Observatory Hill.
Note that if you take the lift from Circular Quay to the Cahill Freeway pedestrian path, you can continue walking past the viewing platform to where it joins the Harbour Bridge pedestrian path.
The Harbour Bridge has a dedicated pedestrian lane on the east side. The road surface of the bridge is 35 meters above the harbour. If you want to go even higher, the first pilon from the city is open to visitors. You can climb the steps inside to the top for just under $20 a person, and enjoy a view just short of the Harbour Bridge Climb heights.
We like to walk across the Harbour Bridge, have a coffee in Kirribilli, and then walk down to the Milsons Point (Luna Park) ferry stop and take the ferry back to Circular Quay.
If you have time, stroll down to the waterfront in Kirribilli and see the homes of our Prime Minister (Kirribilli House) and the Governor General (Admiralty House).
Keep an eye out for the monthly Kirribilli markets which has around 200 stalls next to the train station. Every second Sunday of the month there is an “Art, Fashion and Design” market and on the fourth Saturday a “General and Fashion” market (check the dates at Kirribillimarkets.com).
If you do happen to be in Sydney on New Years eve, take a stroll across the bridge before it is locked down, to see the crowds building up on the shore and the fireworks attached to the bridge.
7. Wendy’s Secret Garden
If you have some stamina left, continue your walk across the Harbour Bridge to Wendy’s Secret Garden.
Not as much a secret anymore… This is still a lovely spot in Lavender Bay, just west of Luna Park. Wendy Whiteley is a local artist, widow of famous painter Brett Whitely. Following his death in 1992, she slowly converted the disused land at the foot of her house into a lovely garden. Huge Moreton Bay fig trees form the frame of this garden, with winding paths, lots of little seating areas, and quirky art. A garden created by an artist, not a horticulturist.
In 2015 the NSW State Government granted the local council a 30 year lease to secure this garden, which is still on railway grounds, and keep it from being demolished for the moment.
This is a lovely small oasis of peace and green, in the heart of the city. Bring a picnic lunch, or just wander around, find a spot to sit down and look at the harbour and the Harbour Bridge from here.
To enter the garden, go through the underpasses under the rail line at Lavender Bay, and then walk up either one of the two sets of steps. Or, walk down from those two sets of steps from Lavender Street. The garden is situated about halfway the steps, on the Harbour Bridge side.
8. Visit one of the historic pubs in The Rocks / Dawes Point area
If you have only one day, visit at least one of the pubs in the area. If you have more time, pick a couple.
Our favourite is the Lord Nelson, which has its own boutique brewery and serves excellent pies and other pub food. Established in 1841, it is Sydney’s oldest continually licensed hotel. It has a great old English pub feel and the beer is the best. This pub can be found on the junction of Kent and Argyle Street.
Another great pub, mainly for its views, is the rooftop terrace at the Glenmore Hotel. This one is on Cumberland street above the Argyle Street Cut. Enter the pub and keep going up the stairs until you reach the roof terrace. There is a bar and seating area, with the best views of the Opera House and any visiting cruise ships!
Then there is the Hero of Waterloo (81 Lower Fort Street), which reportedly has not shut its doors since it opened in 1844. History has it was apparently used as a place to press gang drunks into service on a ship. The Hero has a great ambience, and also has live music in the weekends.
The Endeavour Tap Room is sitting right in the middle of the Rocks pedestrianised zone, and serves an excellent range of boutique beers.
There are a large number of pubs worthy of a visit in this area, and most locals have their favourites. So look a bit wider than those where all the tourists end up!
Note, there are a number of pubs claiming to be the oldest. It all depends on how you define a pub. Also, traditionally in Australia you could not sell alcohol unless you also provided accomodation, hence, the use of the term hotel for many pubs.
9. Sydney Fireworks (Every Saturday Evening at Darling Harbour)
There are weekly fireworks from a pontoon in Cockle Bay at Darling Harbour. This 15 minute event is pretty impressive and a good substitute if you missed out on the New Years Eve fireworks.
It takes place every Saturday, at 8:30 pm in winter and 9:00 pm in summer. The best view is from the area in front of the new Imax building (the South side of Cockle Bay).
Check the website though, as they are currently not taking place due to the Covid lockdown: http://www.darlingharbour.com
If you have Two Days in Sydney
- Day 1:
- As per day one, but leave out the Opera House and Mrs Macquarie’s Point.
- Grab a coffee at Dawes Point when you get to Hickson Reserve (just walk another 5 minutes).
- Day 2:
- Again, start at Circular Quay, but head now to the Opera House from Circular Quay, and walk on to Mrs Macquarie’s Point.
- Then keep on walking through the Botanical Gardens.
- Pop in the Art Gallery, which is close to the eastern entrance to the Botanical Gardens. You might want to grab lunch in the cafe.
- When you get back out of the gardens, walk up Macquary street to Hyde Park, and visit St Mary’s Cathedral and the Anzac Memorial. There is also a nice spot to have lunch in the park close to the metro entrance.
- You have by now deserved a High Tea at the Queen Victoria Building
10. Start the day with an excellent coffee
I would suggest you sampled the coffee in the more touristy circular quay area on the first day. There is an excellent coffee cart close to the OPT which also has a range of pastries.
Our preferred coffee spot is in Dawes Point / Walsh Bay. This is the area just west of The Rocks, nestled between The Rocks and Barangaroo. It is an area often overlooked by tourists, and is more focussed on locals.
There are some lovely restaurants and coffee shops on the boardwalk which starts at the Pier One hotel and runs parallel to Hickson Road to finish at the Barangaroo Reserve.
Our favourites are BarCycle (excellent coffee and Italian goodies) and Zupano (excellent coffee and Greek goodies).
11. Botanical Gardens
As a minimum, continue the walk from the Opera House to Mrs Macquarie’s chair alongside the water, and look at the gardens. If you find the walking strenuous, pop on the little tourist train that runs regularly from the gate next to the Opera House. Note, pensioners, do not forget to ask for the pensioners discount!
If you have more energy, take a good stroll through the gardens and wander up and down the paths. The Botanical Gardens are generally open during the day only! If you are fortunate to visit during Vivid, don’t forget to walk the gardens at night.
12. Art Gallery of NSW
This building is located next to the Domain, just up the hill from the Botanical Gardens. It is a bit tricky to find, especially as there are currently construction works in this area, but worth the effort for its amazing collection of aboriginal art. It also has a range of paintings over the ages, including a good selection of Australians artists.
The building itself is pretty, and there is a nice restaurant where you can have a coffee or a bite to eat.
As with all museums in Australia, the entrance to the general display is free. Access to special exhibitions requires ticket which can be purchased on the spot or booked beforehand.
13. Hyde Park, Anzac Memorial and St Mary’s Cathedral
I group these together, as we often do them in one dedicated trip. Take the train to St James Station, or walk up from Circular Quay along Macquarie street and admire the large number of grand old buildings along this road.
Hyde Park is a lovely formal garden, with the classical Archibald Memorial Fountain as a focal point. Hyde park is also the starting point of the annual Sydney Mardi Gras march, which goes down Oxford street.
It is worthwhile to pop into the Catholic St Mary’s Cathedral, located just East of the park and the fountain. It is an amazing structure, peaceful and a beautiful example of gothic revival architecture.
Then continue walking down the central path through Hyde Park, under the Moreton Bay Fig trees, to the Anzac memorial and its reflection pool. The memorial is a poignant reminder of Australia’s participation in activities across the world, and there is a nice little museum under the memorial.
14. High Tea at the Queen Victoria Building
This is a lovely 19th century building in the centre of town, close to the Town Hall and Central Station. It has a range of high end shops on the ground floor, more quirky and designer shops on the higher floors, and the best kitchen and pantry shop ever in its basement (Victoria basement).
There are a number of traditional cafes on the first and second floor, with most serving Devonshire cream teas or traditional high teas. The latter come complete with crustless sandwiches, scones with jam and cream and petite fours. Get yourself a spot on the balcony, enjoy the fine bone china, stick up that pinky and stuff your face!
Besides browsing the shops, look up and check out the very cool clocks in this building!
Note, this building also has the cleanest and nicest free (!!) public toilets in town on the second and third floors.
If you have Three or More Days in Sydney, add the following
15. Fish market (1 hour, morning to lunch)
This is one of our most popular spots in Sydney for lunch, they have the most amazing sashimi and sushi! But, be very careful! The seagulls have developed an amazing ability to steal sashimi from a slightly open box or from between your chopsticks before you get a chance to eat it!
The fish market is located in Pyrmont, on Blackwattle Bay, just south of Anzac Bridge. You can easily walk here from the Darling Harbour / Barangaroo area, or take the train to the Fish Market station.
16. Taronga Zoo (half day)
This is a pretty zoo, where the giraffes have the best view in the world! It is easily accessible via a dedicated ferry from Circular Quay. Buy a ferry and zoo entry ticket online to get significant discounts!
The fun starts by taking the ferry to the zoo. When you land there, you realise that the zoo entrance is all the way up the hill. But, don’t dispair, you can either take the complimentary shuttle bus, or, much more fun, the cable car! From the entrance on top of the cliffs, the path through the zoo winds its way slowly down the hill, back to the ferry stop.
For more details, check out http://www.taronga.org.au
17. Take the Ferry to Manly (half a day)
Forget about spending your money on the tourist cruises, just take the ferry to Manly. Our preference is the traditional ferry, not the fast ferry, as you can sit outside. The Opal card works on both ferries though (fast ferry is a couple of $ more expensive and gets you there 5-10 mins faster).
This ferry is the only one where you don’t have to tag off, so just tag on and enjoy the sail.
Hint, when you get on at Circular Key, find a spot on the outside deck of the traditional ferry, on the stern that is facing the Circular key railway station. These boats have two sterns and do not turn around. This will give you a great view of the Harbour Bridge and Opera House as you head out on the harbour towards Manly.
As you get to Manly, get off the ferry and stroll to the beach. Just follow the crowds (if in doubt, just cross the road and head straight out from the ferry terminal through the pedestrian shopping mall). In the weekend there is a nice souvenir and craft market along the mall.
There is a nice walk along Manly beach, and if you are into snorkelling, turn right when you hit the beach and follow the walk towards North Head. There are excellent sites for snorkelling on the southern side of Manly beach.
If you have the time and inclination, continue the walk over North Head, it is a nice bushwalk with great views over both the Pacific and the harbour. You will walk past a 19th century cemetery, where plague and small pox victims were buried. The walk continues on and ends again at the Manly Ferry terminal.
check out: http://www.transportnsw.info for the ferry details
18. Visit South Head (half day)
Take Ferry F4 to Watson Bay, and do the four kilometre walk to Hornby Lighthouse on the top of South Head. This is a lovely walk past small coves with rocks and pristine beaches, Sydney Harbours’ only nudist beach, and great views back to the city.
This area is particular popular on Boxing Day, when the Sydney to Hobart yacht race heads out into the Pacific here.
If you like fish and chips, make sure you get the fish and chips from Doyle’s at Watson Bay before you enter the ferry terminal.
Alternatively, bus number 324 will also get you from Circular Quay to South Head Road and back, it is a lovely drive along the south side of the harbour.
19. Walk from Bondi to Coogee Beach (half day)
This is one of the best walks in Sydney, providing great views of the ocean, a range of beaches, and those famous ocean pools, starting with the Icebergs Pool just south of Bondi Beach.
This six kilometre coastal walk is reasonably well sign posted, and takes around two hours to complete. However, take the time to enjoy the walk and stop at the beaches along the way.
- Bronte Beach is lovely, has a great ocean pool and nice little cafes!
- Walk past, or through, Waverley cemetery, a final resting place with the most amazing views.
- Gordon’s Bay has a 600 metre underwater snorkelling (or diving) trail, which I still want to follow when I have time. It looks great! (note, bring snorkelling gear next time!).
The path is paved, but has some steep sections going up and down the cliffs, so a comfortable pair of shoes is recommended.
During the winter months you can often see humpback whales from the path, look for the telltale “blow”!
This walk is easy to get to with public transport. Bus number 333 takes you from Circular Quay to Bondi Beach, and bus 373 takes you back from Coogee Beach to Circular Quay. The combination of these busses covers just about 80% of the “Big Bus Sightseeing Tours”, except you don’t get the commentary.
This walk is very, very popular in the weekends, so try and do it on a week day!
Check for more details the http://www.sydney.com
20. Captain Cook’s Landing Point in Botany Bay (half day)
This is a spot you will have to drive to, or get an Uber. The entrance to this park is located in Kurnell, a small coastal suburb to the south east of the city centre with a number of chemical plants.
Visit Kamay Botany Bay National Park to see the monument at the location where Captain Cook first set foot on land in Australia in 1770. There is a small museum dedicated to the event, and some walking tracks with interpretive signs. It is pretty low key, surprising for what was a significant part of history.
Make sure you pay the entrance fee (!), and then continue to drive to the coastal cliffs. There are some lovely short and longer walks here on top of the coastal cliffs, and during whale migration season (May/June to Sept/Oct) you are very likely to see at least a “blow” and most likely some whales breaching!
Check for details the website at http://www.nationalparks.nsw.gov.au.