In September 2010, after much planning and wrangling of schedules, we embarked on a well-deserved three week vacation to Australia. We had already decided early on that, rather than scramble around madly trying to do everything possible, we would instead stay in Sydney and get a feel of what life was like in Australia.
Happily, my wife’s aunt and uncle were currently living there, and very kindly agreed to let us stay with them. Sydney is one of Australia’s most expensive cities (if not the most expensive), and since our accommodation was taken care of we could budget more for other things, which was useful. But not everything in Sydney costs an arm and a leg, and some wonderful experiences are completely free. So here are twelve brilliant things—both paid and free—to see in and around Sydney.
#1. Balmoral beach
We went to Balmoral beach thrice during our stay in Sydney, and at a different time of day each time. We loved the cosy, laid-back feel of it, with the rocky promontory halfway down the beach adding a nice sense of mystery. We could just imagine ships sailing in through the narrow mouth of the bay hundreds of years ago! The lovely little restaurants and cafés on the beach and along the beachside promenade, like the excellent 200-year-old Bather’s Pavilion, were the icing on the cake.
#2. Leura in the Blue Mountains
On one of our days in Sydney, all of us did a day trip to the nearby Blue Mountains. There a tons of things to see and do in the Blue Mountains, and we took the one-and-a-half hour train to Leura to see some of the sights on offer—especially the view from Sublime Point. Sadly, it was raining that day and there wasn’t much we could do. The town itself was quite pretty in the rain, though, and we had a nice lunch in one of the many little restaurants along the main road, so it wasn’t a total loss. But in clear weather, the views, waterfalls and trails around Leura, as well as the town’s landscaped gardens are said to be magnificent.
#3. Bondi beach
Arguably one of the most famous beaches in the world, the beach at Bondi (pronounced ‘bond-ai’, for the uninitiated) has something to offer every beach-goer: fine sand, curling waves, plenty of beachside restaurants and interestingly weathered rock formations. Bondi is also the starting point of the spectacular six-kilometre coastal walkway to Coogee. Though we didn’t go in the water, we had a great time watching the waves and seagulls, and finished off with lunch at the Icebergs Club Bistro at the south end of the beach.
#4. The Sydney Opera House
Think of Australia, and chances are that the Sydney Opera House comes to mind. On one of the first few evenings in Sydney, we attended a nice modern dance performance at one of the smaller venues in the Opera House, and had a bite to eat at one of the many little eateries on the boardwalk that runs alongside. Another day, we took an audio tour through the main structure and got to admire its interesting architecture first-hand. We were tempted to walk into one of its restaurants for a meal, but the timing wasn’t right. A good thing too, because we probably wouldn’t even have been able to afford the coffee!
#5. The Harbour Bridge
Probably the most recognizable landmark of Sydney after the Opera House, the Sydney Harbour Bridge looks incredible from all angles, at all times of day. Since we were staying at McMahon’s Point, we were very lucky to have a view of the bridge—and of the Opera House behind it—from our bedroom window! Being so close, we could catch the bridge in all its moods; during the day, evening and night; and from the side and from below. We could even have done the climb up to the top, but we decided that the tickets were beyond our budget.
#6. Manly beach
Another famous beach, though not as famous as Bondi, Manly—yes, that’s its actual name—is one of the most popular surfing beaches in Australia. While we were there, we saw kids getting their first lessons in the shallows and seasoned veterans riding the waves further out. I, for one, itched to join the kids and take some surfing lessons myself. For the time being, though, we contented ourselves with walking along the promenade, under its tall trees, while watching people play beach volleyball or feed the seagulls.
#7. The secrets of Lavender Bay
A little inlet between McMahon’s Point and Kirribilli in North Sydney, Lavender Bay has lots of nice little nooks and corners to explore. During our walks around the bay, we spent pleasant hours walking through its many parks and gardens. We lost ourselves in the Sawmillers Reserve, with its interesting shipwreck; the almost fairy-tale-like Wendy’s Secret Garden; and the grassy Henry Lawson Reserve, with—of all things—a piano standing alone in the middle of it! At some point, we were even bamboozled into visiting Luna Park, a small amusement park at the other end of the bay, completed with rides and popcorn.
#8. Mrs. Macquarie’s Chair
We discovered the path to this rough stone bench, sitting on a promontory near the Sydney Opera House, while wandering through the Royal Botanic Gardens. After making friends with a sulphur-crested cockatoo in the gardens, we walked down what we later learned was Mrs. Macquarie’s Road, and found a beautiful shaded path that took us all the way around the little peninsula to the Opera House. Along the way, we found Mrs. Macquarie’s Chair, with its sweeping view of the harbour, and of Fort Denison on its tiny island in the middle of it.
#9. The Southern Highlands
Our longest absence from Sydney during our vacation was a three-day outing to the Southern Highlands, around three hours’ drive away. We stayed in a cosy little self-catered cabin on a farm near Bowral, with a sprawling farmland view that included a paddock of curious young bulls and a lake beyond. Our days were spent enjoying the silence and the clean air; and driving around the countryside, stopping at local pubs whenever we felt like. It was surprisingly cold at night, though, and even though the sky was full of stars, we weren’t dressed warmly enough to stay outside for longer than a minute at a time. Quite a pity!
#10. St. Mary’s Cathedral
We visited the impressive St. Mary’s Cathedral on three different occasions. The first two times it was closed, for some reason. The third time, we were actually just strolling through the broad tree-lined avenues of Hyde Park next door, when we saw that the cathedral was open for a wedding and decided to try our luck. We were allowed in, as long as we didn’t take photographs during the ceremony. It may not have been the largest cathedral we’ve been in, but it was as beautiful and ornate as we could have wished for.
#11. The Sydney Tower
The tallest building in Sydney by a fair bit, the Tower has spectacular views of the city and its surroundings. When we went up there for a late-morning cup of tea at the café, we couldn’t resist taking a tour of the glass-bottomed viewing deck at the very top. Dressed in weather-resistant gear and securely chained by our waists to a safety rail, we were guided around the terror-inducing platform for around 20 minutes, along with six other visitors. We were assured by our guide that, despite the fact that the platform vibrated with our every step, it was completely safe. We had our doubts of course, but when the platform stayed intact even after we were told to jump in the air several times for photographs, we were finally convinced!
A number of different species of whales along the eastern Australian coastline, and one can take a number of whale watching cruises from Sydney’s Circular Quay. If you’re lucky, you could see lots of whales swimming pas, exhibiting all sorts of exciting behaviour. We weren’t. After a half-hour ride out to sea, we did see a pod of whales swimming past in the distance (boats aren’t allowed to get too close to the whales, and rightly so), but all we saw was some waves they made, and the occasional plume as one surfaced for air. We wished we had brought three things along on that cruise: a pair of binoculars, a camera with a great zoom lens, and some seasickness pills.
- Sydney is expensive. Plan your budget carefully.
- While the ferries are a fun way to get around, they’re more expensive than the suburban trains and buses.
- A long-term, multiple-journey ticket is a great way to save on transport costs.
- The city is a haven for foodies, and you can find almost every cuisine you could want here. Predictably, though, eateries at scenic spots or near popular tourist attractions are expensive. When we were there, we paid about A$20 for a small meal in a café at Circular Quay. It’s probably more expensive now.
- Sydney loves its Asian cuisine. Try Mamak for its incredible Indo-Malaysian street food menu, or a place in nearby Chinatown for authentic siu mai.
- The city is extremely multi-ethnic and has a huge Asian (read east-Asian) population. There are times when you could be hard-pressed to see a Caucasian face in the crowd.
- Australians in general—and Sydney residents in particular—are a very outdoorsy people, so you’ll find countless parks, gardens, trails, tracks and beaches to keep you occupied.
- The waters around Australia are home to a few unpleasant beasties (we saw the water in Darling Harbour teeming with jellyfish), so you should probably avoid dips in isolated spots, or at least check with the locals first.
- The whale watching cruises are particularly expensive, and while they guarantee you another cruise for free if you don’t see any whales the first time, you might not see the sights you expect. Plan ahead.
- If you tend to get seasick, take anti-nausea pills if you go whale watching, and don’t eat any on-board snacks. I found this out the hard way.