Bar making beans on toast with the perfect bean to cheese ratio and on the topic of horse anatomy (it’s a phase we don’t talk about), I wouldn’t call myself an expert on anything.
So when people are fooled by Instagram spamming of places I spend a few days in and probe me for travel advice, I feel like a fraud. Who am I to give advice on a place I only passed through whilst trusting Trip Advisor like the flawless holy grail it isn’t? The road less travelled is definitely less travelled by me. I am no expert at sight-seeing.
Except when it comes to Sydney.
I am an expert about beans on toast, horses and Sydney.
If you can’t be an authority on your own home town, what’s the point of you? Twenty-plus years of habitation (minus about seven because your first seven years are void of meaning or memory), means that YES, I will assertively ram knowledge of my city down your non-Australian gullet. I will feel no guilt in telling you what to do. Let me have this.
It’s lucky if your hometown is a desirable destination, and there’s no doubt Sydney is a concoction of relaxed locals, beaming weather, laughably accessible natural beauty and beloved establishments for eating / drinking / spending too much money. Before zooting away to Europe I did all within my enthusiasm and budget to saturate myself with Sydney’s cultural scene and day-trip opportunities, despite the city’s ‘bring it on’ road system and lack of decipherable public transport options.
Yes, Sydney is a special place where residents can justify paying $30 for brunch and their first born sons for a parking spot in the Eastern suburbs, but it’s dear to my heart. Now I’m going to make it dear to yours.
I did some deep research (read: the first page of Google results) into some of Sydney’s ‘top’ attractions, but not everything rated for me – a resident – who obviously knows what is within your best interests. This is by no means a serious, definitive or exhaustive list, just some opinions about how you should squeeze the best outta Syd. Hold on to your cold-pressed juices. Ahem.
SYDNEY OPERA HOUSE
It’s iconic! It’s large! It’s a welcoming change to the phallic architecture that dominates other wordly landmarks! Go to Circular Quay (pronounced KEY, I know) and walk up to those white sails. Dodge other tourists, avoid chip-snagging gulls and feel like a VIP by walking in the FOYER for FREE! If you earn dollar like Richard Branson there is a restaurant, but keep an eye out for affordable performances (especially plays in the drama theatre) if you want the full experience.
SYDNEY HARBOUR BRIDGE
Also iconic! Also large! Walk across it, walk under it, walk opposite it, but unless you want to fork out an unreasonable wad of cash for an experience about as adrenaline-inducing as an Andre Rieu concert, there’s no need to walk on top of it. It’s a big coat hanger.
Go via FERRY from Circular K̶e̶y̶ Quay to kills two birds or however the saying goes. There’s lots of birds at the zoo, and other animals too. Plenty of shows, overpriced food and views of the harbour, plus they’re offering $1 entry on your birthday throughout 2017. I cannot fathom a better way to spend your special day than with some fuzzy and / or slimy animals that do not understand the concept of time, thus easing your existential crisis.
A boaty city-side area of tourism, home of such activities as:
- Madame Tussauds! Pretend to be Ryan Goslings date!
- The Aquarium / Wildlife World! Creatures of land AND sea in one expensive bundle!
- BAR$ and RESTAURANT$! Almost TOO many in one area! Make sure you pre-drink!
- Street performers endangering their lives for your loose change!
- Chinese Garden of Friendship – call off the trip to Bali lads!
- “SEAGULLS ARE THE WORST!”
- Fountains that kids love to run through fully clothed!
- The biggest IMAX screen in the world, may it rest in peace.
- Gelato shops everywhere, you’d think you were in Italy!
- The… Martime Museum? Does anyone go here?
- YACHTS! and other things you will never own, on display for your grieving pleasure.
Bond-I, not Bond-ee. Saved you a ton of embarrassment right there. Sure it’s overdeveloped and exaggerated, but like all well-known touristy attractions it’s famous for a reason.
It’s big and has nice sand.
Tan yourself into cancerous oblivion, check out the view from Icebergs on the south side, dog-spot, crush on the genetically blessed residents and Bondi Lifeguards, and watch tourists get rescued by said Lifeguards. Endless fun.
HOT TIP: Get your ass outta bed early enough to see sunrise along the Bondi – Coogee coastal walk (traverse whatever length you can handle, you’ll never be far from a cafe). In return you’ll be blessed with fewer crowds and Instagram BEAUTS.
Old buildings! Cobblestones! An area that might make you think you’re in Europe until you see the big-ass coat hanger looming in the background! The weekend markets are particularly exciting, especially if you love crowds.
*Sings* Take me out to Lunnaaa Park, just for FUN. Toothy-faced amusement park with free entry and expensive everything else, but if you want to experience some adrenaline without heading to Cronulla, it’s a jolly outing. You’ll wish the view from the top of the Crazy Coaster lasted longer than a few seconds.
It’s new, it’s BARANGAROO. A freshly minted area of the city that acts as harbourside park, business vicinity, James Packer ego-booster and events venue. It has restaurants/shops/things to do popping up every week, plus the name is fun to say.
If you go to Sydney without venturing to the Blue Mountains, you’ve only seen… Sydney? If you do want to escape the kerfuffle then get yourself into a car, on a train, or even a bus and head west for an hour and a half. Sure, ‘mountains’ is a fib, but the beauty of the Aussie bush and abundance of pie shops makes the journey worth while.
Noteworthy areas include Katoomba (cute town, accessible to the Three Sisters) and Wentworth Falls. Venture further to the Jenolan caves for some spectacular rocks. If you want the true blue ‘outback’ experience without travelling far from a city, the region offers plenty of hiking / camping options so you can go home with your own spider/snake/near-death in the wilderness story. Just kidding. But not really. Watch out for Dropbears.
If you’re going to Australia for the ‘culture’… go to Melbourne. If you’re going to Australia for beaches and the ‘Aussie’ lifestyle, Sydney’s your place. We have nice beaches, fight me.
Bondi’s more relaxed but still very tourist-catered cousin. Sand on the northern beaches tends to be darker in colour, but the locals are arguably less pretentious (or more, depending what side of the harbour you hail from).
Travel further north from Manly and you get a less-cluttered version, good for surfing and getting unforgivingly dumped by waves. Ben-Bry burgers, found along the waterfront, are legendary. Pineapple, avocado and bacon belong between a bun together.
A inner, smaller stretch of beach protected from big waves and currents. Suitable for families, those who like jumping from piers and those after a relaxed, suburban experience. Good for picnics.
Small, secluded northern beach that’s backed by palm trees to give a tropical feel. Beware driving on weekends, the small (paid) carpark fills quickly and the winding roads don’t leave you with many options but find somewhere else.
PALM BEACH aka SUMMER BAY for all six of you Home & Away watchers
Sydney’s northernmost beach. A bit of a day-trip, but the drive / bus is worthwhile. Well, the drive is, the Hell-90 L-90 bus is a constantly-stopping purgatory.
Once you’ve nagged a parking spot / survived the commute you can enjoy a decent brunch, walk the expanse of sand, fish from the rocks, walk up to Barrenjoey Lighthouse (takes less than an hour HIGHLY RECOMMENDED) and swim. If lucky, with dolphins (!!!)
EASTERN SUBURBS / SOUTHERN BEACHES
CAMP COVE / WATSON’S BAY
A posh harbourside area boasting killer views back over the city and sheltered beaches. Find the nudist one.
Maybe not the most picture-perfect ‘beach’, but this narrow haven is a favourite for two reasons.
#1 – If you hate the omnipresence of sand you can avoid it by baking on the concrete slabs either side of the water.
#2 – If swimming / snorkelling is your thing, Clovelly offers a deep stretch of sea populated by schools of fish including the renowned ‘Bluey’, a large friendly groper. If he’s still alive. Someone Google how long fish live.
Your classic mid-size beach overrun by East-suburbians. Wylie’s baths just south of Coogee are protected tidal pools for those who want to swim in salt water without wrestling the wrath of the ocean.
A south-eastern islet, not hugely popular with anyone. It contains a historical military fort (only visitable by guided tour), rocks popular with brave fisherman (history of deaths in the area) and a good view of planes taking off and landing at Sydney airport. I enjoy plane-spotting, tease me.
Sydney offers a huge range of international cuisines, but by far the most popular cuisine amongst locals is BRUNCH. Sydney’s cafes cater for brunch appetites, but as a visitor you should realise that:
- Avocado is extra but you WILL pay the avo-tax. Otherwise you may’ve stayed home.
- Your food will be cold by the time your get that perfect photo/snapchat/post.
- You will wait for a table on weekends.
- Almonds don’t have titties, but almond milk is everywhere.
- Sometimes your bircher muesli might not be pretty enough for a photo because it’s designed to be edible. Flowers generally aren’t.
Sydney offers great food, so this is by no means a definitive list:
THE GROUNDS OF ALEXANDRIA – It’ll take at least an hour’s wait for brunch on the weekend, not including the 45 minutes it’ll take to find a carpark within the industrial surroundings, but it’s damn good. Enjoy the coffee, photogenic meals, and meet Kevin Bacon. He’s a pig.
SPICE ALLEY – Tucked away in Chippendale, this open-air Asian hub is an easy place to meet with friends as it allow BYO and offers options from across the globe. Be prepared to eat a disgraceful amount of food.
THE NEWPORT – A landmark Sydney venue by the water offering great dining, a garden bistro, a huge kids area and bars for the big kids. An ideal day out. Wear white jeans to fit in.
PLATFORM 82 – Once a normal cafe, now famous for offering monstrous meal share plates. If the triple-layered breaky doesn’t please you, why do you hate yourself?
CAFE SYDNEY – Rooftop restaurant with panoramic harbour views. Not for those short on cash.
MEAT & WINE CO – Steak that’s a cut above the rest. Wine that is a, glass (?), above the rest. Picturesque locations in Darling Harbour and Circular K̶e̶y̶ Quay. I don’t usually love steak, but this place offers enough side sauces for me to make an exception.
THE OAKS – An iconic hotel / pub offering fine food and a huge beer garden shaded by a mammoth oak tree. The tree is decorated in fairy lights, which I believe make everything 800% better. Like most things you go out of your way for in Sydney, it’s worth it for the ‘gram.
CHINATOWN – An urban area of the CBD where you can fulfil all your dim sum dreams cheaply.
ANY KEBAB SHOP AFTER 1AM – When drunk everything tastes good, but kebabs cut through space and time.
Drinking out in Sydney is expensive, at least compared to Europe… and everywhere. You’ll do it anyway, so you may as well do it in style. Just know that a night out requires military-style organisation where you have to dedicate your mind, body and soul to the cause. Godspeed.
BAXTER’S – A prohibition-era whiskey bar that even non-whiskey lovers (i.e. me) will drag themselves to. It’s been listed in a few international bar rankings, and this hidden speakeasy deserves it. Free pretzels! A bit tricky to find if unfamiliar to the area, but if you find yourself walking down a dodgy alley you’re on track.
OPERA BAR – Set amongst the busyness of the Opera House, this huge bar gives wide views of the Harbour Bridge with a relaxed vibe. I bring every visitor here.
THE GLENMORE – A pub in The Rocks with a rooftop bar serving fresh drinks with a side dish of VIEWS.
COOGEE PAVILION – A crisp venue on Coogee beach set over three floors. It has a wide menu, stunning clientele and is an ideal place for a summer Sunday sesh.
TAYLOR’S – Another rooftop bar in the heart of the CBD. All you need to know.
ABSINTHE SALON – Not widely known, but one of my favourite places to really get the night started. Located in Surry Hills, this baroque bar offers the classic French & Swiss absinthe experience for a decent price (considering the alcohol content). The staff are friendly and will select just the right poison for you.
LOBO PLANTATION – A colourful, Caribbean-themed underground bar in the CBD that specialises in rum. Plants everywhere.
PALMER’S – A classic 1920’s themed cocktail bar in the CBD tucked in a brick basement. Jazzy music and dapper staff, all you could ask for. Turn up in the late afternoon for a guaranteed table.
EL LOCO – Tacos & tequila.
Sydney’s nightlife is controversially not-very-lifelike. It’s a downside to the city, but for your classic clubbing experience there are some venues that won’t give up just yet.
THE ARGYLE – Set in an 1820’s sandstone building in the heart of The Rocks, this club offers multiple bars, dance-floors and DJs every weekend. Get in before 10pm for free/cheap entry, or flirt your way onto a guest list. This club was used in the Australian ‘Modern Family’ episode, so they’re obviously allowed to charge hefty entry fees. The crowd is usually not too ratty and it’s in a central location, just be careful in heels. Walking across the cobblestoned courtyard becomes a perilous journey in them.
IVY – A huge complex in the CBD described as a ‘sophisticated urban playground for adults’. Until midnight, at least. Last time I checked Thursday nights were free entry, a clever idea if you want to check out the rooftop pool bar without queueing on a Saturday. Creepy men will hit on you here, more so than everywhere else.
BUNGALOW 8 – A mid-size, buzzy tiki bar in Darling Harbour with a fun dance-floor depending on good the DJ is (usually okay).
WORLD BAR – One of Sydney’s last-standing King’s Cross institutions, set across three levels in a Victorian terrace. Teapot cocktails, live music & DJs, late hours… it’s as fun as it sounds.
FESTIVALS / SHOWS
Sometimes Sydney has cultural events!
VIVID – An annual 23-day Winter festival of light, music, ideas, and art with immersive events set around Sydney. Art, commerce and technology intersect to bring you spectacular sights and sounds, including projections on the Opera House, interactive art littering the streets and lineups of gigs and talks.
THE ROYAL EASTER SHOW – An annual event set during, you guessed it, Easter, in Sydney. Run by the Royal Agricultural Society of NSW and first held in 1823, it comprises of an amusement park, fair, agricultural show, competitions from craft to wood-chopping, commercial exhibits, arena shows, shopping and show bags. I’ve loved this event since childhood and look forward to it with giddy excitement every year. Based at Sydney Olympic Park this show is a must if you’re around at the time, despite it being a pricey day out. If you haven’t noticed, most things in Sydney are, so just do it.
MARDI GRAS – The Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras is another annual event we proudly boast. It’s a joyous festival/pride parade/celebration of all things LGBTI that hundreds of thousands of people flock to. If in Sydney when on, glitter-fy yourself and head to Oxford Street for a colourful spectacle.
THE BIENNALE OF SYDNEY – An international festival of contemporary art held every two years at sites around the city.
WHATEVER SHOWS ARE ON – At any one time Sydney usually has at least one or two big productions playing at the Capitol, State or Lyric theatres. It’s not Broadway or the West End, but I’ve had the pleasure of seeing The Lion King, Billy Elliot, Warhorse and Les Mis without having to travel far.
OTHER STUFF YOU SHOULD DO
PICNIC IN THE ROYAL BOTANIC GARDENS – A tranquil oasis on the edge of the harbour, just watch out for the ibis’s (bin chickens).
ST MARY’S CATHEDRAL – A Catholic cathedral that’s rather impressive for one outside of Europe.
KAYAK SOMEWHERE – Get out on the water and pump those arms. You won’t be able to distinguish saltwater from sweat.
VISIT COCKATOO ISLAND – Take a ferry to this UNESCO site on one of Sydney’s most fascinating historical areas. With a convict and shipbuilding past, the island is free (!!!) to explore and offers sweeping harbour views.
SHOP YOUR WAY DOWN PITT STREET MALL – Spend money, you know you want to.
GELATO MESSINA – An establishment that sets the benchmark for gelato in Australia. Despite offering a huge array of flavours, the salted caramel and white choc chip never lets me down.
DAY TRIP TO THE ROYAL NATIONAL PARK – Drive south of Sydney to the RNP, home to beaches, bushwalking tracks and lookouts. Great for whale watching if there during the right season.
VISIT THE QUARANTINE STATION – A spooky area of heritage-listed buildings on Sydney’s north head once used to quarantine people with contagious diseases. I’ve never been on the ghost tours they offer, but I’m sure it’s gleeful.
NELSON’S BAY / PORT STEPHENS – It’s a 3-hour drive, so not really a ‘day’ trip, but this paradise known for beaches and bays is worth it if you can.
SEE A GIG AT THE ENMORE or METRO THEATRE – Decent mid-size venues that have hosted many a good night.
WEEKEND MARKETS – Take your pick from Glebe (for fashion, live music & knick knacks), Rozelle (for antiques), Bondi (for designs, arts & craft), Kirribilli (fashion & vintage), Balmain (arts, crafts), Paddington (mecca of everything) and many more.
EAT / DRINK YOUR WAY THROUGH NEWTOWN’S KING STREET – Student hub offering everything your hipster heart desires. Lots of Thai.
ART GALLERY and / or MUSEUM OF CONTEMPORARY ART – Large (free!!!) public galleries.
SYDNEY FISH MARKETS – A frantic seafood marketplace. Fun day out if you aren’t allergic to shellfish, don’t find squid carcasses gross and can deal with the smell.
BE TRENDY IN SURRY HILLS – Sport a fancy hat and pretend to be cool in this inner city suburb, a hub of galleries, design studios and art spaces.
BE ATHLETIC AT SYDNEY OLYMPIC PARK – Giant sporting and leisure complex in Western Sydney offering plenty of events, kids activities, parks, sport events and concerts.
GET INVITED BY TEXT TO A SECRET WAREHOUSE PARTY – As a visitor this may be hard to do, but nothing beats the naughty secrecy of being invited to a warehouse full of youths who’ve given up on clubs but are still in search of a g00ooOOo0od time.
That’s about it my friends! Advice about seeing Sydney, from someone who fucking loves Sydney and will call themselves an authority on it without hesitation.
Writing this has given me quite the overdose of nostalgia, but wherever I wander I’ll always be proud to call Sydney home. Cheesy? YES. Honest? HELL YES.
I hope everyone I love who doesn’t come from Sydney one day gets the chance to experience it, even better if I can be there with them. If not, I hope they (and YOU) can use this rough guide to squeeze the best out of Syd. It’s a place that deserves just as much squeezing as the juice you will pay $10 for in Bondi. You’ll love it.
Thanks for reading! Stay stoked x