Sydney has a reputation for being beautiful yet shallow, but scratch the surface a little and you’ll see that Sydney has a lot more going for it than just the way it looks. Beaches that bedazzle, windswept coastal walks overlooking whale-dotted waters, hole-in-the-wall bars, weekend farmers’ markets and a thriving food and wine scene are among the drawcards that keep the locals happy and the visitors flocking.
For a beach-centric summer holiday, choose to stay in suburbs like Bondi or Coogee, where clothing is minimal and the water (and people) stay warm past sundown. Those more interested in nightlife, restaurants, bars and shopping will find inner-city hotspots like Potts Point and Surry Hills excellent bases.
Explore our interactive map below for all the local highlights, and scroll down for our suggested day-by-day summary of the best things to see and do…
Have breakfast at Bills on Hall Street. Bill Granger put Australian food on the global map, and if you order the ricotta hotcakes you’ll find out why. Afterwards, make your way down to Bondi Beach. Slap on some sunscreen and always remember to swim between the flags — these are the areas of the beach that are patrolled by lifeguards.
After a dip, take the Bondi to Coogee walk, known for its dramatic sandstone cliffs and many beaches. You will pass McKenzie’s and Tamarama beaches and end up at the lesser-known (but some say more beautiful) Bronte Beach. You’ve earned another dip in the water. Continue the walk, which includes passing through the picturesque and historic Waverley Cemetery, until you reach Coogee Beach, another perfect spot for swimming.
Your long lunch by the water at Coogee Pavilion has been well earned. Head up to the plant-festooned rooftop bar for pizza or fresh seafood and panoramic views of the Pacific.
Jump on the 373 bus to Oxford Street (or take an Uber for roughly AUD $25/£14) and explore Paddington’s pretty-as-a-picture boutiques. I like Di Nuovo for recycled, high-end clothing bargains and Just William Chocolates for sweet treats. A little further down Oxford Street is The Intersection – a fashion-centric strip with Australian designers such as Alice McCall and Camilla and Marc.
If you’re still feeling energetic, wander down Oxford Street to Crown Street in Surry Hills, where you will find more eclectic boutiques, including my favourite, The Standard Store.
Fratelli Paradiso is well-loved in Sydney for its warm approach to service and consistently good food. Yes, it’s an Italian restaurant, but there is something quintessentially Sydney about it. The Calamari Sant Andrea is non-negotiable, and should be followed by the risotto with wild mushroom ragu and parmesan.
If you still have energy in the tank, go for drinks at Love, Tilly Devine. With over 300 wines on the menu and only 40 seats, the ratio is just right.
Take a morning meander towards Circular Quay. While on the way, pay a visit to the Art Gallery of New South Wales, where modern and contemporary works hang alongside Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art.
Once at Circular Quay, jump on a ferry and cross Sydney Harbour to Manly Beach. The journey will give you a chance to take in The Sydney Opera House and The Sydney Harbour Bridge. Manly is a popular spot for surfers, and many locals believe it lacks the pretension of the eastern beaches. To the south you’ll find the Manly to Shelly Beach Walk and to the north is Freshwater Beach, a local surfing spot with a large rock pool.
Lunch by the water at Queen Chow where you can choose from dumplings, salt and pepper calamari, Peking beef and other Cantonese delights.
Once you’ve taken your return ferry back to Circular Quay you’ll be well-placed to enjoy a late afternoon cocktail at Blu Bar, on the 36th floor of The Shangri La Hotel, Sydney. It’s the best-drink-with-a-view spot in town.
Treat yourself to dinner at Café Sydney. The location, on the rooftop of Customs House, is spectacular. While the prices are on the steep side, you also get a front-row seat to the best show in town: the harbour, the house and the bridge. Share the seafood platter and enjoy prawns, marron, Moreton Bay bugs, crab and oysters.
After dinner, it’s a five-minute stroll to The Sydney Opera House. Catch a show in the Concert Hall to experience the dramatic cathedral-like interiors and superior acoustics.
Head to hip Surry Hills for coffee, cocktails or dinner. Be sure to visit The Golden Age Cinema and Bar for an arthouse film and strong Negroni.
One of the most loved — and Instagrammed — things about Sydney is its ocean pools. Try Mahon Pool in Maroubra, Wylie’s Baths in Coogee and Icebergs in Bondi. Harbour pools are more tranquil: heaven is an hour away on one of the pontoons at Murray Rose Pool.
In the height of summer, many of the coastal walks are overcrowded. Try the Federation Cliff Walk from Dover Heights to Watson’s Bay. If your walk falls between April and December, you might just be rewarded with a glimpse of a passing humpback whale.
The pool on the rooftop of The Old Clare is open to the public and is one of the liveliest spots in the inner-city.
Did you know?
Sydney’s indigenous and colonial histories are tangible, if you know where to look. Behind the tourist-focused facade of Darling Harbour and The Rocks lies a complex history that can be unveiled on walking tours led by an indigenous guide. The 90-minute Rocks Dreaming Aboriginal Heritage Tour is a good one.
Tap your credit or debit card (or your smart device), when hopping on and off public transport across Sydney and New South Wales.
Where to stay . . .
This glamorous five-star hotel exudes a stylish opulence and is carved out of Sydney sandstone. But it’s the panoramic views of Sydney Opera House that truly wow guests at the Park Hyatt Sydney. Its five-star credentials include top-notch service, fine dining, a rooftop pool and excellent spa.
The design of Spicers Potts Point – which occupies three heritage-listed terraces – eschews the quaint, old-world style of the Victorian properties in favour of a modern, clean and sophisticated aesthetic. A botanical theme pervades throughout, from green-and-blue custom-made wallpaper to an eclectic collection of artwork. It feels like a private residence tucked away inside Sydney’s premier suburb for drinking and dining.
Vibe Hotel Rushcutters Bay feels much fancier than its price suggests. Perhaps it’s the sophisticated park-side location, footsteps from the harbour. There is a pool on the rooftop with sweeping harbour and district views – Sydney shows herself off up here.
What to bring home . . .
Don’t buy Aboriginal art from tourist shops. Blak Markets, a social enterprise for Indigenous people, sells authentic art and artefacts. Market stalls operate eight times a year at La Perouse, Barangaroo and at regular pop-ups throughout Sydney.
Hit up Carriageworks Farmers’ Markets on a Saturday morning. Not only is it a great spot for breakfast, you’ll also be bombarded by honeys, pickles, chocolates and other artisanal products to take home.
When to go . . .
You just can’t beat Sydney in summer (December-February), and this goes for the rest of New South Wales too. The beaches along the coast, from the Norfolk pine-lined south to the sub-tropical beaches and banana plantations of the north, are at their most glorious in the hotter months. Prices do rise significantly in December and January, so if you are trying to keep costs down choose to come in February and March, the months following peak season; the water stays warm and the fun continues long after party season has settled.
New South Wales also has a lot going for it in the colder months. Autumn (March-May) is perfect for touring the Hunter Valley and the Southern Highlands wine regions, when the areas explode with autumnal hues and the ground is crisp with crunchy leaves.
May and June are festival filled – Sydney quite literally lights up for the Vivid Sydney festival, and there’s Riesling quaffing at The Sydney Writers’ Festival followed by the Sydney Film Festival and the Darling Harbour Jazz and Blues Festival. In spring (September-November), the first signs of magnolias and cherry blossoms appear on the suburban streets and the mesmerising lilac of jacaranda trees are in bloom.
Know before you go . . .
British High Commission in Canberra: Commonwealth Avenue, Yaralumla, ACT 2600; 00 61 2 6270 6666; gov.uk
Police, fire and ambulance: Dial 000
Sydney Visitor Centres are at: corner of Argyle Street and Playfair Steet, The Rocks; and 33 Wheat Road (between IMAX Theatre and Darling Walk), Darling Harbour (sydney.com). Both are open daily, 9.30am-5.30pm
Local laws and etiquette:
• There is no set etiquette around tipping in Sydney. However, I suggest 10 per cent in restaurants and for table service in cafés, and rounding up taxi fares to the nearest AUD $5 (£3)
• Give fake didgeridoos the flick; buy something uniquely Australian.
• Most people are fairly honest, but watch out for taxi drivers who insist on taking you the scenic way to the airport or Bondi Beach.
Currency: Australian dollar (AUD $)
Time difference: Sydney is nine hours ahead of London in British Summer Time and 11 hours ahead in the British winter.
For someone who grew up in Bondi, Ariela spends more time out of the water – exploring new restaurants and interesting things to do – than one might think (it might have something to do with a childhood spent watching Jaws…)
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