Sydney, Australia is both a laid-back beachside town and a thriving metropolis that has some of the Southern Hemisphere’s best surf beaches, landmarks and activities. Whether you’re looking to watch a show at the iconic Opera House, take to the waves at Bondi Beach or explore trendy areas like The Rocks and Darling Harbour, Sydney features something for everyone. Even Sydneysiders have an ideal mix of both worlds: Fashion-forward attire and British-style sarcasm combine with a “no worries” attitude and relaxed coastal vibe. It’s no wonder this vibrant city down under is a natural choice for first-time Aussie visitors.
In addition to tons of beaches and top-notch restaurants and bars, Australia’s most populous city features an array of things to do. Thrill-seekers can participate in heart-pounding activities like a Sydney Harbour Bridge climb, while visitors looking to unwind will appreciate a relaxing day at Coogee or Manly Beach or a peaceful stroll through the Royal Botanic Gardens. There’s also plenty of seasonal Sydney festivals and events to experience, such as Sculpture by the Sea, the Festival of the Winds and the Night Noodle Markets. Whether you’re looking to enjoy a rugby match, hit up the city’s museums or lounge on a beach, Sydney’s got you covered.
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Things to Do in Sydney
Sydney’s famous beaches are some of the city’s most popular attractions for locals and visitors alike. Although they can get crowded on warm Aussie days, beaches like Coogie, Bondi and Manly cannot be missed.
Art Gallery of New South Wales
Situated in the same park complex that houses the Royal Botanic Gardens and Mrs. Macquarie’s Chair, the Art Gallery of New South Wales features a variety of indigenous, colonial and contemporary art collections. Everything from photography and Pablo Picasso paintings to aboriginal art and Tang dynasty ceramics can be found here. Additionally, several free artist talks and demonstrations are held throughout the year.
Although some travelers disapproved of the fee required for select special exhibits, overall, many former museumgoers said the Art Gallery of New South Wales is well worth a visit. Popular collections include the museum’s indigenous paintings and iconic European works by artists like Diego Velázquez, Claude Monet and Edgar Degas. The free tours and on-site cafe and restaurant, which offer seasonal fare in casual settings, are also a hit with past visitors.
To get to the Art Gallery of New South Wales, visitors can take a bus (the 441 or the 311), train (to Martin Place Station or St James Station) or ferry (to Circular Quay). Metered street parking and parking garages are also available in the immediate area for those traveling by car. The museum is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. (or until 10 p.m. on Wednesdays) and is mostly free to access, but if you want to visit a temporary exhibit or event, expect to pay a small fee. For more information about amenity hours, temporary exhibit fees and seasonal events, visit the museum’s website.
Australian National Maritime Museum
No harbor city would be complete without a maritime museum, and Sydney’s is one of the best. Here, you can view exhibits about everything from fish X-rays to pirates, but that’s just scratching the surface. The standout at this maritime museum is the 14 ships docked in Darling Harbour. All are open to museumgoers to board and explore. Notable vessels include the HMAS Vampire, a destroyer ship; the HMAS Onslow, a submarine; the James Craig, a three-masted barque ship; and the Akarana, an 1800s racing yacht.
Families that have visited the Australian National Maritime Museum praised its diversity of activities for kids. The museum’s guides offer a wealth of knowledge about each of the docked ships, and inside, children can participate in an array of kid-friendly events and activities, including after dark treasure hunts, themed arts and crafts projects and interactive artifact experiences. And because of the abundance of exhibits offered, many previous museumgoers felt the AU$30 (or $22) admission fee was more than justified.
Though the property’s permanent galleries are free to enter, access to the Australian National Maritime Musem’s ships and rotating exhibits requires a Big Ticket. For children and students, a Big Ticket will cost AU$18 ($13) each; however, children younger than 4 enter for free. To cut costs, groups should consider buying a family ticket, which includes admission for two adults and up to three children. (Admission is included with an iVenture Card.)
Open daily from 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. (6 p.m. in January), the museum houses restroom facilities and its own open-air cafe, but Darling Harbour’s restaurants are also within walking distance. A parking complex (additional fee applies) sits nearby, and for those taking public transit, the No. 389 bus stop and the Pyrmont Bay light rail station are just steps away. For more information, visit the Australian National Maritime Museum website.
Bondi Beach is best known for its gnarly waves, which make it one of the top surfing destinations in the world. But if you’re not ready to hang 10, don’t fret. Bondi is also nice for strolling, sunbathing and swimming. Despite its popularity (and its plentiful souvenir shops and surf and fashion boutiques), Bondi maintains an alternative, edgy feel. Topless sunbathing is allowed here as well, though it’s mostly limited to areas without children.
While some travelers complain about overcrowding, most said the 6-mile trek to Bondi is a must. To claim a prime spot on the sand, arrive early. Many former visitors also recommend setting aside time for one of the region’s coastal walks. Both the Bondi to Coogee walk and the Bondi to Bronte walk offer superb water views and relaxing spots for picnics.
The best way to get to Bondi Beach, which is southeast of Sydney Harbour, is by train or bus. From Central Station, you can take a train bound for Bondi Junction and then hop aboard the No. 333 bus to reach the beach. If you’d rather skip the train, visitors can also pick up the No. 380 bus from Circular Quay. Limited parking (free and metered) is also available, though driving here is not encouraged due to the crowds. A visit to Bondi is free, but expect to pay for area amenities like food and souvenirs. Public bathrooms and outdoor showers, which are located throughout the beachfront area, are also free to use.
The best way to get around Sydney is by Sydney Trains – formerly known as CityRail. While all Sydney’s rail lines are easy for first-time users to navigate, the City Circle line is ideal for travelers looking to visit a number of the city’s best things to do. Although the bus system has routes that criss-cross the city, any traveling done on four wheels is at the mercy of Sydney traffic.
Rental cars are recommended for driving to and from the city but not inside its boundaries since traffic is heavy and Aussies drive on the left side of the road, which can be confusing to American visitors. Walking is, of course, a wonderful way to explore any city, but Sydney is much too large to be done on foot alone. And a trip on a ferry is a must-do for the views alone.
To get to and from Sydney Airport (SYD), you can take a fairly cheap taxi ride or hop on the Airport Link train, which takes you about 6 miles into the city. You can also rent a car at the airport.
With a convenient light rail and train network that’s tourist-friendly and reliable, it’s no wonder why the Sydney Trains system is popular with locals and visitors alike. Many attractions, including the Sydney Opera House, The Rocks and the Royal Botanic Gardens, can be accessed from the system’s City Circle line, while other lines travel to the nearby Blue Mountains and along the South Coast. Fares vary based on distance and time traveled, and discounts are available for senior citizens and children. To determine your fare, go online to Sydney Trains’ Fare Calculator. Single and return MyTrain paper tickets can be bought at a station’s ticket office or ticket vending machine. However, for a more hassel-free fare option that works on all of Sydney’s trains, light rails, buses and ferries, purchase an Opal card, a reloadable plastic card that riders can transfer money onto online, at select retailers or at Opal train station vending machines.
Sydney’s public buses are a fairly reliable form of transportation and they’re a convenient way to get to just about everywhere in the city, even its outskirts. But because Sydney is such a big and bustling place, the buses do encounter frequent traffic jams and delays, particularly during rush hour. You can buy tickets on a bus, at select retailers or at Transport Shops located at major bus stops throughout Sydney. Fares are based on a zone or “section” system. A single, one-way MyBus ticket in sections 1 and 2 costs AU$2.40 (or just under $2). You can also use an Opal card on Sydney’s buses and other forms of local transportation.
If you’re looking to get to Manly Beach or Darling Harbour or just want to enjoy the best views of Sydney Harbour, riding one of Sydney Ferries’ vessels is a must. You’ll find the main ferry terminal at Circular Quay, where seven ferry lines depart every 25 to 40 minutes throughout the day and evening. Make sure to leave plenty of time to arrive at the ferry dock since wharf gates close two minutes before scheduled departure times.
One-way fares vary based on the destination but start at AU$6.20 (or $4.50). Should you choose to forgo buying paper MyFerry single and return tickets (which can be bought at select convenience stores, ticket vending machines or ticket offices), a reloadable Opal card can be used to pay for ferry rides. Discounts are also available for seniors, students and children.