Sydney isn’t a city of dreams, so much as a city of daydreams. Whether you were born there, relocate or pay it a once-in-a-lifetime visit, the ‘Sydneysider’ spirit will get under your skin as quickly as the sun, sea and lavender skies. It’s like expat Aussie writer Clive James puts it: “My mind basks in the light I never left behind.” More than most, Sydney is a city for the waking hours.
The land’s traditional custodians are the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation who peacefully inhabited the area for some 30,000 years before the arrival of Captain Cook in 1770. In more recent times – especially since the wild success of the 2000 Olympic Games – Sydney has become one of the world’s most expensive cities. Despite this, it also ranks repeatedly as one of the most liveable.
A day in Sydney will expand to suit you, but often starts early with a swim, a run or, at the very least, an excellent cup of coffee. Life is larger here – just check out the local wildlife – but it’s also hugely varied in its charms, many of which are accessible for free (or almost free). Here are some to get you started.
1. Enjoy The View As You Land.
Sydney is unique in its topography and if you arrive by plane, you might be lucky enough to fly right over the city on your descent. Look out for all the major landmarks: the famous four fins of the Sydney Opera House, the majestic sweep of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, and most of all the harbour itself, blue and boat-studded and teaming with life.
The transport hub of Circular Quay, while a messy tangle of roads and railways, isn’t a bad place to orientate yourself. From here you can walk along the foreshore to the Opera House on Bennelong Point and round the beautiful Royal Botanical Garden, and be in easy reach of the historic Rocks and Wharf quarters for some cultural exploring. It’s also where to go to catch a ferry.
2. Hit Up The Beach.
Or beaches. You’ll have to choose, because Sydney has more than 100 within close reach of the city. There’s Bondi, of course, where the Pacific rollers meet the turquoise waters of the famous Icebergs pool. But don’t miss family-friendly Manly (a half hour ferry from Circular Quay); Balmoral, with its picture-perfect Boat House and 1920s Bathers Pavilion; and Palm Beach (of ‘Home and Away’ fame), which makes for a good day trip.
Other gems include tiny Milk Beach, with its postcard view of the city skyline, and Gordon’s Bay, a rocky inlet along the coast from Bondi lined with fishing boats and an underwater nature trail that’s popular with snorkelers.
3. Explore Indigenous Sydney.
The Gadigal people were decimated after the arrival of the First Fleet, but there are still descendants of the Eora nation – made up of around 29 clan groups – living in the city today, whose culture is visible wherever you look (or listen).
Rock carvings around the city date back thousands of years. Some can be found near the fast-developing Barangaroo suburb and business district, once an important fishing and hunting area. Named after a woman of the Kameraigal people, it’s now the site of the moving Wugulora Morning Ceremony on 26 January – which is variously known as Australia Day or Invasion Day.
Indigenous culture and politics is also strong in the inner-city suburbs of Waterloo and Redfern, where Australia’s first Aboriginal-run health, legal and children’s services were set up in the 1970s, alongside pioneering housing projects. Redfern is a focal point of the nationwide Reconciliation Movement, but growing gentrification in the area is the subject of heated debate.
4. Get Into Festival Spirit.
Whatever time of year you’re here, there’s cause for celebration. In January, it’s Sydney Festival, a month-long cultural jamboree with a hub in central Hyde Park. March is dominated by Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, 12 nights of rainbow-coloured partying and events. As well as the main parade, Fair Day is loads of fun – the theme for 2019 is ‘Fearless’.
In April/May, book lovers take over the Wharf for Sydney Writers’ Festival. By July, it’s officially winter when Vivid Sydney lights up the city’s buildings (and mood), with accompanying talks that are pretty enlightening, too. September sees the theatre and comedy packed Sydney Fringe. And come December, the harbour becomes the centre of festivities from the Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race on Boxing Day to the biggest and best New Year’s Eve bash in the biz.
5. Eat. Then Eat Some More.
Yes, this is the land of the avocado smash, as championed by Sydneyside chefs such as Bill Grainger – visit his original restaurant in Darlinghurst and try the pancake stack, too. But Sydney’s food scene is about so much more than brunch.
Asian cuisine is a big deal here: Vietnamese, Japanese, Chinese, Korean – from high-end restaurants to delicious dim-sum. And that bit in ‘Finding Nemo’ about fish being friends, not food? Not true, where the freshest seafood is available at your local Harris Foods store or Sydney Fish Market, which boasts newly-shucked oysters as a cheap eat for lunch.
6. Geek Out On Architecture.
If an Englishman’s home is his castle, an Australian’s is his house. Sydneysiders are obsessed with real estate and every taste is catered for, from the Victorian lacework terraces in Darlinghurst and Paddington to the Federation-style verandas around Centennial Park and Mosman, not to mention Bondi’s art deco blocks.
Take a guided architecture tour by bike or make your own by walking a coastal path for free: from Bondi to Coogee, Split to Manly, or the Hermitage Foreshore Trail in Vaucluse. Great for nature-watching, sea views and ogling some truly grand designs.
7. Jump In The Pool.
If you think pools are sloppy seconds to the sea, you’ve not swum in Sydney’s. We mentioned Bondi Icebergs – along the same stretch of coast, you can dip in tidal pools at Bronte, Clovelly, Coogee and the atmospheric Wylie’s Baths. Then there are the numerous park pools: Prince Alfred’s near Central station is eco award-winning and Instagram-heaven with its wooden bleachers, yellow sun umbrellas and grassy knoll roof.
Around the harbour, hang out with the beautiful people at Andrew (Boy) Charlton Pool by the Domain (named after the Aussie swimming champ); enjoy the peace at the tiny modernist Maccallum Pool in Cremorne; and don’t miss lapping the spectacular North Sydney Olympic, under the Harbour Bridge. Tickets to climb the bridge start at $168, pool entry is $8.20 – we know which we’d rather do.
8. Appreciate Some Art.
For all that Sydney is an outdoors city, it’s worthing heading inside for the art. Go contemporary at the MCA, swot up on Australian painting at the Gallery of New South Wales or check out the former train depot, Carriageworks, for exciting installations and performance. As for gallery mooching, Chippendale and Paddington are both great areas: drop in on White Rabbit, Roslyn Oxley9 or the Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation, particularly strong on Asian art.
9. Go West.
Both the Inner West and Western Sydney are easily missed off a tourist itinerary. The former is a series of densely populated, but leafy suburbs beloved of students, young families and hipsters. From grungy Newtown to sleepy Glebe to the ‘Little Italy’ of Leichhardt, each has its own character and cheerleaders – and it’s a fun game picking where you’d live. There are bookshops and indie boutiques aplenty, and a cafe on every corner – it’s Flat White central.
Equally, there are many who see the sprawl of Western Sydney as the true heart of the city, its multicultural communities only matched in flavour by its cuisine. Parramatta is a city of its own, best reached – on a day trip, at least – by the ferry service that chugs its way upstream from Circular Quay. Search out some curry and culture, then catch the train back – or maybe even stay a while.
10. Visit Wendy’s Secret Garden
I was lucky enough to stumble upon this gem on my first ever day in the city. A beautiful terraced oasis above Lavender Bay, just along the harbour from the retro amusements of Luna Park, it’s a symbol of what can flower from grief.
Wendy is the widow of Australian artist Brett Whiteley – when he died from a drug overdose, she threw herself into tending a patch of wasteland below their house back to life. The resulting garden is a secret worth sharing. Explore the winding pathways, marvel at its colourful plants, then settle on a bench beneath the giant Moreton Bay fig to enjoy the view that inspired Brett’s paintings and soak up that Sydneyside light.