Sydney, Australia Travel Guide
- Beautiful beaches and popular surfing spots, including world-famous Bondi Beach
- Architectural wonders like the Sydney Opera House and Harbour Bridge
- Great shopping, from malls in Darling Harbour to indie boutiques in Surry Hills
- LGBTQ-friendly city with a wildly Mardi Gras pride festival
- Diverse dining scene ranges from foodie haunts to Chinatown delights
- Warm escape during winter months for those who live in the northern hemisphere
- 100-year-old Bondi Baths is one of the most photographed seaside pools in the world
- Nightlife options range from mild beer halls to wild clubs
- Lovely city parks and reasonable drives to major national parks
- Gorgeous cliff walks and coastal scenery
- Hipster-friendly neighborhoods like Kings Cross, Newtown, and Surry Hills
- Mild climate means being outdoors is possible almost year round
- Air travel hub for Australia, with direct flights to most Aussie destinations
- Prices for food, drinks, and clothing are exorbitant
- Aside from buses, public transportation isn't the best for navigating town
- Most stores close early, meaning evening shopping isn't possible
- Fairly sprawling layout means cars or expensive cabs are necessary
What It's Like
With weather that rivals Southern California, lots of wild nightlife, one of the prettiest settings of any of the world's major cities, and urban culture that runs from refined to raffish, there's almost too much to like about Sydney. And while hipsters generally prefer Melbourne, we're here to definitively say that Sydney has more than its fair-share of cultural endeavors to keep any visitor happy. Oh -- and did we mention the beaches? Sydney is home to some of the world's most famous urban stretches of sand, like infamous Bondi Beach. But with over 60 beaches to explore, there are plenty of places to soak up the sunshine. Surf culture runs deep in Sydney, and nearly every major beach offers lessons that are a popular tourist activity. Just keep in mind that you'll be sharing the water with locals who surf like seasoned pros.
Much of the tourist activity in Sydney centers on its dazzling harbor, which is every bit as gorgeous as any picture you've seen of it. This is where the majority of the city's most recognizable landmarks sit, where its limited train lines connect, where boats and ferries zip off to distant suburbs, and where millions of photos are snapped every year. It's also the place to be on New Year's Eve. In fact, scenery is one of the things that Sydney does best, and clifftop walks connecting its beaches are a favorite pastime. The most famous runs from Bondi Beach to Coogee, but there are alternatives around Manly Beach as well.
One of Sydney's most recognizable landmarks is the Sydney Opera House, which is a fully functioning performance venue and a spectacular place to tour even if you're only passingly interested in architecture. On the other side of Circular Quay sits the Sydney Harbour Bridge, an equally impressive architectural icon that's home to one of the city's most popular (and pricey) tourist attractions -- the Harbour Bridge Walk. Here, guests tether themselves to the bridge's swooping arcs, and climb high above traffic, the water, and the city itself. Down at the water level, ferries provide a scenic and relatively inexpensive way to view the city's skyline (the most famous runs between downtown and Manly), while touristy boats zip in and out of the docks.
Sydney is a sprawling place, with a massive patchwork of neighborhoods set across seemingly endless rolling hills. While Darling Harbour, the CBD, Chinatown, The Rocks and destinations around Circular Quay are walkable, you'll likely be relying on cabs or cars to get around. A network of trains does service the city and its suburbs, but the schedule and reach is limited. Just east of the downtown neighborhoods sit hip areas like Surry Hills, posh Darlinghurst, and scruffy Kings Cross, while to the south and west, in-the-know travelers should check out cafe-packed Newtown. Across the harbor, Manly and its beach have a laid-back charm that includes a weekend market, lots of upmarket beachside cafes, and plenty of excellent coffee shops.
Nightlife ranges from mild to wild in Sydney. Beer halls and posh watering holes are the name of the game in the central neighborhoods like The Rocks, while there are wilder LGBTQ-friendly clubs along Oxford Street in Paddington. Oxford Street is also the site of the city's yearly Mardi Gras, which is an LGBTQ pride parade that usually takes place in early March (though the date changes and doesn't actually coincide with Mardi Gras celebrations elsewhere in the world).
Sporting events are a big deal in Sydney as well, and it's also home to a world-renowned rugby team, the Roosters (there are a number of local clubs as well). The games are usually exciting (and rowdy) and local bars are even more packed with patrons after a rugby match. Another popular sporting event is watching the Sydney Swans play fast-paced Aussie Rules Football at Sydney Cricket Ground.
Keep in mind that Sydney -- and all of Australia -- is not a budget-traveler's playground. Meals are often eye-wateringly expensive, even in seemingly no-frills spots. Chinatown is one of the exceptions. The work-life balance in Sydney is an enviable thing, though that means that most shops are only open during the same business hours as offices in town. After five in the evening on most days, the only spots open are cafes, pubs, and restaurants. Additionally, while Sydney has a fairly casual vibe, nightlife often involves dress codes, so check ahead before going out for the evening.
Where to Stay
Sydney is a spread-out metropolis and most of its neighborhoods have a distinct village-like vibe. You won't find the same urban density that's seen in places like Europe or New York City. Therefore, where you stay depends largely on how much time you have in town, what your transport style is, and what kind of vibe you like. The CBD, Darling Harbor, Circular Quay, and The Rocks are the most central districts, and are best for travelers in town for short stays or who want to be nearest the big-ticket tourist sights. They're also the closest to the majority of the city's train lines, as well as its major corporate offices.
Heading east from there, things take on a decidedly more neighborhood-like atmosphere, and neighborhoods including Surry Hills, Darlinghurst, and Paddington are packed with boutiques, cafes, restaurants, bars, and even nightclubs. The bulk of the city's gay nightlife is found along Oxford Street in Paddington, which is also the site of the Mardi Gras parade. Nearby, Kings Cross is an exercise in gentrification and is now one of the city's "it" neighborhoods.
Those wanting the beach will have to settle for staying a bit farther out, and rely on ferries, buses, or taxis to get around. Manly Beach feels decidedly adult, and has an upscale, quieter vibe. There are a number of hotels, and it's connected by a popular ferry to Circular Quay. Bondi Beach has a bit more edge, and is the city's most famous beach area. Hotel options are less numerous in these parts of town, but you'll get a more locals-only vibe by opting for either one.