The Rocks, Sydney Travel Guide
The Rocks and Circular Quay Summary
- World-famous tourist attractions like the Sydney Opera House and Harbour Bridge
- Sightseeing cruises around the harbor and views, views, views
- Top-notch restaurants and buzzing waterfront bars
- Leafy Royal Botanic Gardens has great city viewpoints
- The Rocks is Sydney’s oldest neighborhood, with a colorful convict past
- Cobbled labyrinthine laneways in The Rocks, plus historic pubs and cosmopolitan cafes
- The Rocks Markets and gourmet Friday Foodie Market with a street-festival vibe
- Plenty of free things to see and do, like museums and Sydney Writers Walk
- Year-round calendar of events, including the cutting-edge Vivid Sydney festival
- Great transport links to the suburbs and beaches
- Site of the city's spectacular New Year's Eve fireworks display
- Hotels can be expensive and book out in advance
- Impossible parking in The Rocks
- Crowded and super touristy parts of town
What It's Like
When it comes to looks, Sydney has supermodel status on par with Rio de Janeiro's Zona Sul. Circular Quay is the city’s crowning glory, draped around a natural harbor, with the iconic Opera House and Harbour Bridge making it instantly recognizable from land and water. Big-ticket sights like this are likely the reason why so many travelers think that Sydney is Australia’s capital (for the record: it's not).
Circular Quay buzzes with tourists and commuters during the week, and even more tourists and lunching locals on weekends. It’s hectic, but maintains a breezy, friendly vibe, with street performers entertaining the crowds and plenty of fast-food joints and coffee shops to keep energy levels high. You’ll also find some of Sydney’s top restaurants at Circular Quay, and for drinks, the vibrant Opera Bar has a harbor backdrop that’s hard to beat.
The Sydney Opera House is one of the world’s great landmarks. Perched sail-like at the tip of the harbor, it’s an impressive feat of engineering. For travelers that are keen to explore inside, a night at the opera can sometimes cost around the same amount as a guided tour, so it’s worth seeing if you can book tickets to a show. Sydney’s Harbour Bridge -- affectionately, and perhaps a little unfairly, known as "the coat hanger" -- is the world’s largest steel-arch bridge. Walk over it, sail under it, or even climb it -- on a clear day views reach as far as the Blue Mountains. If your budget can’t stretch to climbing the Harbour Bridge, Pylon Lookout at The Rocks end of the bridge -- with 200 steps that lead to a lookout with incredible views over the city and harbor -- is a cheaper alternative. Plenty of cool events take place around Circular Quay, including one of the world’s best New Year’s Eve fireworks displays and the Vivid Sydney festival, which literally lights up the city with cutting-edge light installations and projections.
Circular Quay is well connected to Sydney’s other suburbs and beyond, with a bus terminal and train station as well as ferries that depart for the northern beaches. For sightseeing, though, this is a neighborhood that’s best explored on foot, and The Rocks -- in particular -- is excellent wandering territory.
To the west of Circular Quay, The Rocks has an atmosphere all its own, with cobbled labyrinthine lanes, markets, boutique shops, and cosmopolitan cafes. It’s Sydney’s oldest neighborhood and has a colorful past of soldiers, sailors, and convicts. While the back streets’ old sandstone walls, well-worn steps, and hidden courtyards hint at the neighborhood’s history, it’s hard to imagine that today’s cute cafes and convivial pubs were once jails and brothels. The lively weekend Rocks Markets feels more like a chilled-out street festival, with over 200 eclectic stalls set out in the open-air. On Fridays, The Rocks Foodie Market brings some of Sydney’s top eateries to Jack Mundey Place.
For more cultural sightseeing, there are a few quality museums -- like the Rocks Discovery Museum, Museum of Sydney, and Museum of Contemporary Art. Down near the Overseas Passenger Terminal, the Sydney Writers Walk is a walk of fame for native and honorary Australian authors. To the east of the Quay, the elegant Royal Botanic Gardens offer lovely views of the Opera House. This urban green space perfectly embodies the laid-back and unstuffy Aussie way of life, with signs instructing visitors, "Please walk on the grass."
Where to Stay
As with most areas close to iconic landmarks, the hotels around The Rocks and Circular Quay are mostly established high-end hotels and will be expensive. The Four Seasons Hotel and Shangri-La Hotel have two of the best locations for harbor views and their harbor-facing rooms are in high demand during the New Year’s Eve fireworks display. For history over views, the boutique Harbour Rocks Hotel is housed in a series of 19th-century buildings and has lots of charm. For those on a budget, YHA has a one of Sydney’s best located hostels in the area.