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Sydney city guide: Best things to do and where to stay in Australia’s magnificent harbour city

Sydney is home to some of Australia’s most famous landmarks  (Getty)
Sydney is home to some of Australia’s most famous landmarks (Getty)

Sprawling around one of the planet’s biggest and most beautiful natural harbours, Sydney is perhaps the ultimate city destination in Australia. With its swoonworthy physical attributes, laidback charm and trio of icons – namely the opera house, Sydney Harbour Bridge and sweeping Bondi Beach – the New South Wales capital almost effortlessly wows.

Though the city stretches westwards way beyond Parramatta (Sydney’s geographic heart) to the base of the Blue Mountains, nearly all of its visitor appeal lies in the city centre, central suburbs and beaches. Founded in 1788, Australia’s first British settlement has evolved into a true world city that’s liveliest when Mardi Gras fills the streets with sequins, parades and parties.

If you’re heading down under, our Sydney guide provides a heads-up on what to do, where to eat and drink, and the best spots to stay in the Harbour City.

What to do

Access all arias

You can’t miss Sydney Opera House. Designed by Danish architect Jorn Utzon and opened in 1973, this concrete-and-ceramic-tile masterpiece celebrated its 50th anniversary with a major renovation of its performance spaces. Ideally, immerse yourself in an opera, concert, recital or play; otherwise take a tour (from £22pp) to discover those rooftop sails and the building’s history.

Read more on Australia travel:

Sydney Opera House was named a Unesco World Heritage Site in 2007 (Getty)
Sydney Opera House was named a Unesco World Heritage Site in 2007 (Getty)

Bridge the gap

Sydney’s second major landmark, the Harbour Bridge, unites the CBD (central business district) with the North Shore suburbs. For those with a head for heights (and the best part of £150 to spare), Bridge Climb is the classic experience. Alternatively, take the train to North Sydney and walk back over the bridge for free, with the opera house and city skyline before you.

Beach day

Sydneysider culture goes big on the beach. Bondi is the icon, for its fine sand, surfer scene, and Icebergs saltwater pool, or hop on the ferry to Manly and its similarly sandy, pine-tree-lined promenade. Not a fan of waves? Stay within the harbour: the North Shore’s Fairlight Beach or more hidden-away Castle Rock Beach are fantastic.

Surfers and sand-dwellers are welcome on Manly beach (Getty)
Surfers and sand-dwellers are welcome on Manly beach (Getty)

Go walkabout

All around the harbour, fragments of foreshore and bushland constitute Sydney Harbour National Park. Weaving much of it together is the 80km Bondi to Manly Walk, via woodland, beaches, parks and urban promenades. En route, enjoy Aboriginal rock carvings, wildlife encounters (kookaburras, bush turkeys, water dragons) and cooling dips. Ferry and bus connections break it into manageable chunks.

Art and culture

The Art Gallery of New South Wales is lauded for its sculptures, exhibitions and collections, including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artworks. Qtopia, meanwhile, is a must for LGBT+ travellers and allies. As befits a city known for its massive Mardi Gras celebrations, this museum tells the story of community trailblazers whose actions helped decriminalise homosexuality in New South Wales in 1984.

Where to stay

Base yourself central to everything at Paramount House Hotel. Located where the CBD crashes into Surry Hills, this former movie company headquarters has been transformed into a 29-room boutique hotel, with rooms (nearly all of which have outdoor spaces) that are cosy, colourful, and come with the feeling of staying at a cool friend’s apartment. Room-only doubles from £175.

Inside the boutique Paramount House Hotel (Tom Ross)
Inside the boutique Paramount House Hotel (Tom Ross)

Find a similar price point just round the corner at Ace Hotel Sydney, where the concrete-meets-carpet aesthetic and a slightly retro vibe make the guest rooms at once supremely comfortable and delightfully homely. Top-floor restaurant Kiln is a community favourite, while the street-level diner and coffee shop keep things buzzing throughout the day. There’s also a bijou but excellent gym.

For a fun, yesteryear resort vibe, Oxford House in nearby Paddington wins for its laidback style, cheerful service, and poolside restaurant that doubles as a popular brunch spot for locals. The 55 light-filled rooms benefit from colourful artworks, warm tones and quality amenities, and doubles start from £145.

For more in the way of budget stays, Space Q Capsule Hotel delivers conveniently located, quirky, cool and cost-effective digs within a five-minute walk of Central station.

Where to eat

Asian flavours abound in Sydney. Ever-popular Chin Chin in Surry Hills is the go-to for beef rendang, crispy duck pancakes and prawn summer rolls, all bursting with freshness (mains from £12-20). Similarly upbeat is Uncle Mings: a quirky dumpling den serving small bites and cocktails on a CBD laneway. For something simpler, Japanese temaki are a commonplace, cheap (around £2 each) and healthy on-the-go snack; Hero Sushi is a good place to find them. Also refreshingly affordable is Spice Alley: a Chippendale backstreet whose hawker-style outlets span Singaporean, Thai, Malaysian, Cantonese and Japanese favourites, from satay skewers to special fried rice.

This being a coastal city, there’s no shortage of waterfront restaurants. The Boathouse on Manly’s Shelly Beach wins for its indoor/outdoor ambience, great design, and High Tide Happy Hour (alternatively, try the Balmoral Beach branch). At Bondi Pavilion, meanwhile, a much-needed renovation to mark its centenary has given this seafront landmark a buzzing brunch spot in Glory Days, with poke bowls, avo-on-toast breakfasts, and great coffee as the standouts.

Casually upmarket Café Sydney is perfect for special occasions. Situated atop Circular Quay’s historic Customs House, this classic spot enjoys foreground-filling Harbour Bridge views and a menu celebrating Aussie produce from barramundi to Sydney rock oysters, supported by thoughtful cocktail and wine lists.

Where to drink

Get a hint of its history at The Treasury, where coffee and cocktails are sipped in what was the courtyard of an 1851 building. Now enclosed to form a light-filled atrium, it’s a chic space with monochrome floor tiles, velvet booths, and an Art-Deco-style bar that complements the grand brick-and-sandstone architecture.

Elsewhere in the CBD, enjoy elevated views from Dean and Nancy on 22, where inventively quirky cocktails (brought to life with candy floss or smoke-filled bubbles) come with a side of highrise scenery. Try the gin-based Alien on Holiday or colourful Watermelon Sugar High, all priced at around £14.

Rather more hidden away are the bijou bars on the YCK Laneways, a lively precinct around York, Clarence and Kent Streets. Highlights include Sammy Junior, which segues from daytime coffees to evening cocktails, or speakeasy-style Stitch Bar, which you’ll find behind a faux frontage.

Where to shop

Of the CBD’s major shopping malls, QVB stands out for its beautifully restored Victorian architecture (all tiled floors, balustrades and glass domes) packed with mostly international brands. Over in Chippendale, Central Park is a much more modern affair good for youth-oriented fashion and footwear from the likes of Glue Store and Hype DC, plus Pigeonhole and its range of gifts and clothing with a sustainable slant.

Also worth checking out are the boutiques in Paddington along Oxford Street, or continue down it all the way to Bondi Beach, which has evolved from its “daggier” backpacker days into something much more credible. Gould Street and Hall Street are the go-to spots here; check out Tuchuzy for its Aussie and international fashions.

Architectural icon

Sydney Tower (formerly Centrepoint) is the city’s tallest structure, whose golden turret (with observation deck) sits atop a slender shaft.

FAQs

What currency do they use?

Australian dollar.

What language do they speak?

English.

Should I tip?

It isn’t expected, but 10 per cent is appreciated.

What’s the time difference?

GMT+11

Average flight time?

Around 22 hours from London, depending on layover duration. Emirates offers convenient connections from London, Manchester, Glasgow, Newcastle and Birmingham, via Dubai.

Public transport

AirportLink trains whisk travellers into the city in 15 minutes to connect with buses, trams and ferries. Top up an Opal (like London’s Oyster card) for seamless travel, or simply touch on and off with your credit card.

Best view?

For that classic shot of the opera house with a Harbour Bridge backdrop, head to Mrs Macquarie’s Point in the Botanic Gardens. Otherwise, take the ferry to Cremorne Point to see towering skyscrapers crowning the opera house.

Insider tip?

If jetlag has you up pre-dawn, go watch the sun rising over the opera house from Hickson Road Reserve.