Explore Sydney: the top things to do, where to stay & what to eat
Sydney never stands in the shade, dazzling with her showpiece harbour – surely the world’s most famous and most photographed – and surrounded by a gorgeous line-up of golden sandy beaches backed by surf towns everybody knows by name. This is a city to dive into head first and emerge from exhilarated.
Key neighbourhoods in Sydney
Once a down-at-heel tourist trap of a place, the Rocks has recently reinvented itself as a cool(er) place to hang out and the locals are returning to its historic pubs (here known as hotels) and to its Friday Foodies Market. This is Sydney’s oldest neighbourhood and is well worth a stroll, not least for its views back across the harbour and the chance to stand beneath the iconic Sydney Harbour Bridge.
E A Given/Shutterstock
Just west of Central station and the Central Business District (CBD), this teeny suburb has recently been recast “Hippendale” for its crop of hipster bars and businesses. This is a creative quarter, home to the White Rabbit gallery for contemporary Chinese art and cutting-edge architecture by titans of design Frank Gehry and Sir Norman Foster. Check out their Paper Bag Building (aka the Dr Chau Chak Wing Building) and dive into hip cafes and bars as the mood takes you.
This inner west quarter close to the university is packed with cafes, bars and restaurants – so much so that its main drag King Street is often called “Eat Street”. The main shopping street is Australia’s best preserved Federation-era commercial precinct and there’s a lively arts scene here too (check out the Enmore Theatre) as well as tonnes of independent shops selling everything from books to designer fashion. Look out for the mural of Martin Luther King on – appropriately – King Street.
Along the foreshore on the western side of Sydney’s CBD is the city’s newest neighbourhood, a disused container terminal turned waterfront-dining hotspot. Everything here gleams – expect a lot of towering glass walls – and you’ll want to dress up (a bit) for a night out in the restaurants and bars that line the bay. This is a place to sit outside, whatever the weather, and there’s a laidback vibe.
Everybody’s heard of Bondi Beach, a sweeping stretch of golden sands that are every inch the tourist brochure shot. This is the closest ocean beach to the city centre though, so expect to be sharing those sands with plenty of other beach bums, and the water with surfers of all abilities. If you fancy a surf lesson yourself this is the place to do it.
Sydney's hottest hotels
Sydney is a big city so when it comes to hotels location is everything. If you plan to spend most of your time downtown, QT Sydney is brilliantly located – and brilliantly mad. Step in from Market Street in the heart of the CBD and you’ll enter a lobby that feels more like a boudoir, its velvet seats and moody lighting making even mid-morning feel like cocktail hour.
Want something even flashier? The Intercontinental has matchless views across Sydney harbour, the vast glass windows of its luxurious rooms staring straight out at the Opera House and Harbour Bridge.
Or for something cooler, hole up at The Old Clare on the fringes of Chippendale – housed in a pair of heritage-listed buildings (one an old pub) this hipster hangout is all exposed brick, concrete walls and mid-century modern furniture.
Old Clare Hotel/Booking.com
For classic cool it has to be The Langham, down on the waterfront of the Rocks and hiding a sizeable indoor swimming pool. Rooms here are spacious and decorated in calming colours; some have terraces with harbour views.
The Langham, Sydney/Booking.com
If you’d rather be closer to the beach, Watson’s Bay Boutique Hotel is an excellent choice. You’re practically on top of the ferry terminal here (with direct services into the CBD) and there’s a beach right on your doorstep.
Watsons Bay Boutique Hotel/Booking.com
Sydney's top 5 must-sees
Sure, the Sydney Harbour Bridge is grand to look at from the harbourside but getting up to stare-her-in-the-eye level is far more exhilarating. The Pylon Lookout takes you up three storeys and through three levels of exhibits about the bridge and its history before spitting you out at the top terrace (at 87 metres above sea level) for a superb view of the iconic structure, plus a birds eye perspective on the rest of the harbour – there aren’t many better views of the Opera House than from up here.
Sydney Opera House
From the outside the Sydney Opera House is impressive of course, but it’s inside her sail-like confines that you’ll really get a feel for why this is one of the world’s best concert halls. There are performances most evenings and backstage tours daily but if you’re short on time you can just pop in for a drink – there’s a fabulous riverside terrace at Portside where you can grab a coffee and snap a selfie with the Sydney skyline.
The Royal Botanic Garden
Sydney’s Royal Botanic Garden was established in 1816 and fills the headland to the east of the CBD with tropical greenery and formal gardens. On hot days you’ll find plenty of locals enjoying the shade of the mature trees here and it’s well worth the walk out to Mrs Macquaries Point for panoramic views of Sydney Harbour.
Bondi to Bronte walk
The great outdoors encroaches on Sydney from all sides. Get out there on a walk along the Pacific coast from the world-famous beach at Bondi to the lesser-known sands of Bronte. You’ll stroll around Marks Park to Tamarama Beach, surrounded by high cliffs, and end at Bronte beach – where the seafront saltwater baths call you in for a dip.
It can sometimes feel like surfing is to Sydney what breathing is to humans – simply everybody seems to do it. Join the locals in their favourite pastime by taking a lesson with Let’s Go Surfing. You’ll head out from Bondi Beach, a great place for beginners, and in a two-hour lesson you should get to your feet – though probably not for long.
The ultimate Sydney itinerary
Check in to: QT Sydney. You’re in the heart of the city here and ready to hit the sights.
Get your bearings at: Sydney Tower Eye. You’ll whiz right up to 250 metres and the observation deck, for views out over the city and its capacious harbour.
Have cocktails at: The Rook. Stay high with a sundowner at this rooftop bar, tucked atop an unassuming office building. The cocktails are creative – think gin mixed with rosemary syrup and rum and bourbon cocktails so potent the staff will limit you to one. Stay on for dinner here too, they serve a mean burger.
Spend the morning in: Chippendale. Check out the bold contemporary Chinese art at White Rabbit and settle in for coffee at Toby’s Estate, the local hipsters’ current coffee roaster of choice.
Chill out at: the Botanic Gardens. Escape from the day’s heat beneath the trees and size up your next adventure from Mrs Macquarie’s Chair, a sandstone rock hand-carved into a bench for Elizabeth Macquarie in 1810, wife of the then-governor of penal colony New South Wales, Lachlan Macquarie.
Test your head for heights at: BridgeClimb. Book the sunset slot for this clamber up among the struts of Sydney’s beloved Harbour Bridge. You’ll be suited up and clipped on to ascend the metal walkway to the apex of the bridge – and some truly unbeatable views.
Have dinner at: Barangaroo. Celebrate conquering the bridge with a slap up dinner at one of Barangaroo’s waterfront restaurants. Hispanophiles will love the tapas at Bórn by Tapavino while seafood lovers should book a table at Cirrus.
Suit up for: a surf lesson. Head out to Bondi beach to ride the waves with Let’s Go Surfing. The two-hour beginners lessons aim to get you standing.
Have lunch at: North Bondi Fish. Refuel over a languid lunch of local seafood with a view of the surf you just tackled. The dishes here are thoroughly modern: expect the likes of oysters with mountain pepper mignonette and tuna tartare with kimchi. There are often Moreton Bay bugs too, a type of native lobster.
Spend the evening in: Newtown. Head to Newtown for a cool night out, starting with creative sharing plates at Bloodwood (charcuterie boards and roasted prawns with miso butter) before strolling across the road for drinks at Earl’s Juke Joint, a New Orleans-style cocktail joint that mixes some of the city’s most enticing concoctions.
How to get to Sydney
Emirates flies to Sydney from London Heathrow, London Gatwick, London Stansted, Newcastle, Birmingham, Manchester, Glasgow and Edinburgh via Dubai from £775 return.
BA flies to Sydney from London Heathrow via Singapore from £709 return.
For more information about what to see and do in Sydney see the offical Australian tourism website here.
Map of Sydney
Use this handy map to find our pick of the best spots
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