OK, you’ve done the Harbour Bridge and the Opera House, what else is there to see in Sydney. For my money, while Sydney is very beautiful, its scenery is just the backdrop to life in the city – a lifestyle that’s the envy of the world.
Top 10 things to do in Sydney
I know “best of” lists are always contentious, but here are my top things to do in Sydney that don’t involve the Harbour Bridge or Opera House:
1. Wander around the Botanical Gardens and walk to the Art Gallery of NSW. Every Friday at 10 am, you can do an Aboriginal heritage tour of the Botanical Gardens. If the $36.50/head price is a bit steep for you, there are free daily walks at 10.30 am & 1 pm. Continue your walk along the harbour front to sit and rest on Mrs Macquarie’s Chair, a seat hand carved into the sandstone by convicts, and where the governor’s wife used to sit and watch ships on the Harbour. Then walk back up Art Gallery Road to the Art Gallery of NSW to see perhaps the world’s best collection of Aboriginal Art.
2. Take an all-day ferry trip to the Harbour. For $22 you can buy a pass that will get you on any ferry around Sydney Harbour for a 24 hour period. Take in Lavender Bay and Wendy Whiteley’s secret garden, Goat Island, Fort Denison, harbour beaches – anywhere that has a wharf and is serviced by Sydney Ferries. As a bonus, the ticket will even you get you on the bus and train into the city and back home again at the end of the day.
3. Visit Rookwood cemetery, the largest cemetery in Australia. Louisa Lawson, a newspaper proprietor, early feminist and mother of one of Australia’s favourite poets is buried there, as is Bea Miles, a very public and notorious Sydney larrikin in the 1950s and 60s; John Fairfax founder of the Sydney Morning Herald newspaper; and Peter Dodds McCormick who is less known but wrote the Australian national anthem and made ‘girt’ the most famous word in Australia. From 21 September- 31 October each year there’s even a “Hidden” sculpture walk.
4. Picnic at Frenchman’s Bay. Have a swim in the clear waters of Botany Bay while watching planes take off and land at Sydney airport and all the activity of Port Botany. If you’re there on a weekend make sure you check out the Snake Man on the eastern side of the peninsula, watch the boomerang throwing and go through the La Perouse Museum. The grave just near the museum is the oldest known non-Aboriginal grave in Australia. It belongs to a French medic on one of La Perouse’s ships which landed in Botany Bay only 6 days after the English fleet. That’s how close we were to becoming a French colony!
5. Walk from Coogee Beach to Bondi Beach along the coastal walk, stopping for a swim at beaches along the way. This is a very popular walk with locals and for good reason – the scenery is spectacular. The Tamarama to Bondi section of the walk is where the Sculpture by the Sea happens every October/November. If you’re feeling really energetic you can walk all the way from Botany Bay to the entrance of Sydney Harbour at Watson’s Bay.
6. Take the ferry from Cronulla to Bundeena and walk to the Aboriginal rock art and the Royal National Park. This area of Sydney is Dharawal country and is still rich in Aboriginal culture and heritage. The best known and most accessible carvings are at Jibbon Point, a 1km walk from Bundeena.
7. Have fish & chips on the beach at Brighton on Botany Bay. The Brighton Fish Shop is one of the best in Sydney, and whether it’s during the day in the heat of summer or in the cool of the afternoon after work, fish & chips on the beach is a must. The sand on the food is a bonus. Grab a can of soft drink (soda to all you Americans) or a bottle of crisp, cold Aussie sauvignon blanc and enjoy the view. Though beware – after sunset most beaches are alcohol-free zones. And watch out for the seagulls!
8. Do a pub crawl through the Rocks, the first area of Sydney to be built since white settlement. The first official currency in the new penal colony was rum, so it’s perhaps not surprising that there’s a pub on almost every corner. Mind you, that’s only because most of them have been pulled down or turned into something else – not only was there a pub on every corner but they used to be dotted along the streets as well! Start at the Hero of Waterloo where drunk young men used to get dropped through the trapdoor in the floor of the bar into the cellar to be Shanghaied onto ships sailing out of Sydney. Head up the Argyle Steps to the Glenmore with its roof garden and view across the harbour, then back down to the Harbour View on Lower Fort Street and on to George Street. Or from the Hero, you could go up to Lord Nelson and its boutique brewery and then up to the Australian. Or maybe there are lots to chose from and it might take you more than one day!
9. Catch the ferry to Parramatta and wander down to Elizabeth Farm, where Elizabeth Macarthur bred the sheep which helped the fledgeling colony prosper. Long deemed a place no self-respecting ‘real’ Sydneysider (ie somebody from the eastern beaches) would be seen dead, Parramatta has shaken off its ‘westie’ tag to become a place of great food, culture and history. Not only is there Elizabeth Farm, but there’s also Experiment Farm, Old Government House (which used to be the Governor’s ‘country’ residence) and St Johns Cathedral and Cemetery were ancestors of mine from the 2nd Fleet got married and were buried. Worth a visit for the ferry ride alone.
10. Swim in Sydney Harbour. There are lots of beautiful harbour beaches, many of them with netted swimming areas, and most a ferry ride from Circular Quay. Try Watson’s Bay where you can also wander over to check out the Gap and have lunch at Doyle’s restaurant, pub or fish & chip shop on the wharf. From Watson’s Bay ferry wharf you can also walk to Lady Jane beach, one of Sydney’s official nude beaches. Other nude beaches are on the other side of the Harbour– Cobblers Beach and Obelisk Beach are both near Middle Head. If you don’t want to go au naturel, try Nielsen Park, Manly Cove, Lady Martin’s, or Balmoral. I don’t know if it still does, but when my kids were little the cafe on Balmoral Beach used to do a swap with children – a jelly bean for a shell found on the beach. They loved it.
You might notice that a few of those things involve ferry rides on Sydney Harbour, which means you don’t really miss out on the Opera House or the Harbour Bridge. From the harbour is one of the best ways to see the Opera House and you can see the bridge from all angles, including underneath, as you cruise around.
But if you really must … go for a walk over Sydney Harbour Bridge. On a clear day, you have the best view in Sydney.