21 top things to do in Sydney to get a feel for Australia’s first city

Sydney is one of those cities that lives in the mind long before you get to experience it. Body-boarding at Bondi beach, zipping under the Sydney Harbour Bridge on a ferry, or catching a show at the incredible Sydney Opera House are just a few of the quintessential Sydney experiences you’ll want to tick off on your big trip Down Under.

And once you’ve tackled those, it’s time to explore what else Sydney has to offer. Here are the best things to do in Australia’s big city, whether you’re visiting for the first time or the tenth. 

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1. Dine on delicious meals delivered with exemplary Sydney hospitality

Sydney’s dining scene has never been more inventive and exciting. Restaurants serving food from across the globe, often with a uniquely Australian twist, can be found in every pocket of the city. Okay, it may be a little faddish and perhaps a bit too obsessed with big-name chefs, but it wouldn’t be Sydney if names weren’t being dropped. Thankfully Sydney’s food scene manages to juggle style with substance.

Fine diners like Quay and Oncore by Clare Smyth stand out as world-class on every front, from the views to the service to the exquisite menus on offer. Other Sydney hotspots, no less incredible in terms of quality dishes and top-notch hospitality, include NOMAD, Mr Wong, Cafe Paci, Long Chim and seafood pioneers Saint Peter. However, a takeaway Sri Lankan or a cheap noodles night with BYO wine could just as easily be your Sydney dining highlight.

500px Photo ID: 161023355 - Sydney, Australia - December 29, 2014: Harbour Bridge, one of most  photographed landmarks. It's the worlds largest steel arch bridge with the top of the bridge standing 134 meters above harborOne of Sydney’s most exhilarating experiences is on one of its most iconic landmarks – climbing the Harbour Bridge © Alberto Mazza / 500px

2. Walk, cycle or climb Sydney Harbour Bridge

Sydneysiders love their giant ‘coathanger,’ which opened in 1932. The best way to experience this majestic structure is on foot; stairs and lifts climb up the bridge from both shores, leading to a footpath on the eastern side (the western side is a bike path). Getting the train to Milsons Point and walking back towards the city is the most spectacular.

Climb the southeastern pylon to the Pylon Lookout or ascend the arc on the popular BridgeClimb experience. You can now book a trip with an Indigenous storyteller who’ll share their perspective on the city and country while you look over Sydney’s magnificent harbor from on high.

3. Tour backstage at Sydney Opera House

Designed by Danish architect Jørn Utzon, this incredible, eye-catching building is Australia’s most famous landmark. Visually referencing a yacht’s sails, it’s a soaring, commanding presence that comprises five performance spaces for dance, concerts, opera and theater. You can wander around the outside to your heart’s content; the most obvious way to experience the interior is to attend a performance, but taking a guided tour is highly recommended (available in several languages). Tours include ones aimed at kids, as well as backstage tours, a food-focused tour, and one where guides will show you how to draw this iconic sight.

Three surfers heading to the Bondi Beach Bondi beach with their surf boards on a sunny dayBondi’s fame precedes it, but this is still a stunning spot to bask, splash or surf © xavierarnau / Getty Images

4. Body-board, learn to surf or watch the Icebergs at Bondi

Bondi is one of the world’s most famous beaches, with consistently good waves and warm sea temperatures. It’s also a great place to learn to surf – Lets Go Surfing is a well-established surf school based in North Bondi, offering lessons catering to practically everyone. There are classes for “grommets” (young surfers) aged 7 to 15 or adults, and women-only classes are also available. Alternatively, you can book a private tutor between a couple of people; prices are lower outside the summer peak.

Whatever you do, don’t be a “kook” – Australians are pretty forgiving but not on the water, so respect the norms and etiquette of local surfers. In the cooler months, you can forgo the water and dine with epic views while watching the winter “Iceberg” swimmers earning their stripes.

5. Explore secluded beaches and dramatic views from Watsons Bay

Lovely Watsons Bay, east of the city center and north of Bondi, was once a small fishing village, as evidenced by the heritage cottages that pepper the suburb’s narrow streets (they now cost a small fortune). It’s a lovely day trip by ferry from Circular Quay, and you can explore South Head and have a leisurely lunch at Doyle’s or sunset beers in Watson’s Bay Beach Club beer garden.

On the ocean side, The Gap is a dramatic clifftop lookout. On the harbor side, closer to Watson’s Bay ferry, is the sheltered Camp Cove beach to take a dip. If you’ve forgotten to pack your swimsuit, Lady Bay Beach is a clothing-optional nudist beach on the west side of the bluff just before you arrive at Hornby lighthouse.

Old disused cranes on the Cockatoo Island docks in SydneyWith its disused cranes, industrial relics and complex history, Cockatoo Island reveals another side to Sydney © Daniel De Petro / Shutterstock

6. Ride the ferry to historic Cockatoo Island

Studded with photogenic industrial relics, convict architecture and art installations, fascinating Unesco-listed Cockatoo Island (Wareamah) opened to the public in 2007 and has regular ferry services, a campground, rental accommodation and two cafe-bars. Information boards and audioguides explain the island’s time as a brutal convict prison, a shipyard and a naval base.

A spooky tunnel passes clear through the middle of the island, and you can explore the remains of the old prison. During WWII, most of the original sandstone buildings were stripped of their roofs and converted into bomb shelters. Solitary confinement cells were unearthed here after being filled in and forgotten in the 1890s. A range of tours run from the Visitor Centre, from straight-up heritage tours to ‘Ghostyard Paranormal’ and ‘Convict Escape Attempts.’

7. Join a female-focused street art tour

There are a number of tours exploring Newtown’s street art and murals, or you can do it yourself with Google maps and an app. However, Local Sauce has developed a self-guided tour that goes the extra mile, literally, and puts the spotlight on female artists who are often overlooked, starting from Redfern station. As well as covering the artists behind the works, they provide recommendations for cafes where you can re-caffeinate along the way. Their street art and food tours also take you to some top Newtown “chewtown” eateries.

Dressing in drag is all part of the spectacle at Sydney's Mardi Gras ParadeDrag is a joyful part of Sydney’s LGBTQIA+ scene © John W Banagan / Getty Images

8. Get thee to a drag show

Sydney is Australia’s self-professed LGBTQIA+ capital, so don’t miss the chance to take in a drag show. Since RuPaul popularized the art of drag on the hit show Drag Race, a more mainstream audience has discovered the subverting performances of drag queens and kings. Now, popular queens can command queues around the block.

In Sydney, you can dine out while enjoying a show or head to a bingo, trivia or competition night with a drag theme. The city’s inner north and west districts are where you’ll find most of Sydney’s queer venues, from the Universal nightclub on Oxford Street to the more alternative Bearded Tit in Redfern.  

9. Stumble across Aboriginal rock art 

It may come as a surprise to stumble across an art form that’s so ancient in such a modern city, but Sydney is built on top of a giant gallery for Aboriginal art. Until recently, not much attention was paid to such things, and many works were covered over or destroyed. Today, with dot paintings from distant deserts being celebrated, Sydneysiders have started to wake up to the treasure trove in their own backyard. Look for rock art by the original custodians of this place on the headlands around the harbor, on the coast, and in nearby national parks such as Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park.

Visitors by the entrance to the Art Gallery of New South WalesThe Art Gallery of New South Wales is one of Australia’s top cultural institutions © ArliftAtoz2205 / Shutterstock

10. Admire the Art Gallery of New South Wales

With its neoclassical Greek frontage and modern rear, this much-loved institution plays a prominent and sociable role in Sydney society. Blockbuster international touring exhibitions arrive regularly, along with special events. While the permanent collection has a substantial collection of 19th-century European and Australian art, the highlights are the contemporary Indigenous gallery in the basement and the collection of 20th-century Australian art, with some standout canvases by the big names of the local painting scene.

11. Deep dive into the White Rabbit art gallery

In many ways, Sydney’s best contemporary art gallery, White Rabbit, is tucked away behind the Central Park development in Chippendale. It’s the project of billionaire philanthropist Judith Neilson, who has amassed one of the world’s largest collections of cutting-edge, contemporary Chinese art (works produced since 2000). The gallery has so many pieces that only a fraction can be displayed at one time. You’ll find art here that is edgy, funny, sexy and idiosyncratic. An on-site cafe does specialty teas and dumplings.

People shopping at the Queen Victoria Building (QVB) in SydneyThe Queen Victoria Building (QVB) is Sydney’s most striking place to shop © Tooykrub / Shutterstock

12. Shop Sydney’s Victorian-era arcades

Sydney’s city shopping is concentrated around George Street and Pitt Street, spilling into arcades and side streets from there. Among the many glimmering places to indulge in some intense retail therapy, there are several ornate Victorian-era arcades to admire while you browse. 

The magnificent Queen Victoria Building (QVB for short) takes up a whole city block and boasts nearly 200 shops, including well-known international brands across its five levels. The building itself is a High Victorian neo-Gothic masterpiece – undoubtedly Sydney’s most beautiful shopping center.

Check out the wrought-iron balconies, the Byzantine copper domes, the stained-glass shopfronts, the mosaic floors, the replica crown jewels, the ballroom, the tinkling baby grand piano (available to play) and the hyperkitsch animated Royal Clock, featuring the Battle of Hastings and an hourly beheading of Charles I. Nearby, the Strand Arcade is home to a host of Aussie designers as well as an old school branch of JB Hi-Fi in the basement selling electronics, DVDs and vinyl.

13. Catch one of Sydney’s spectacular festivals

Sydney’s nocturnal calendar kicks off with a spectacular New Year’s Eve fireworks display over the harbor and doesn’t calm down for months. As soon as the Sydney Festival’s myriad openings and events finish, the lights come up on the biggest party of them all: the Sydney Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras in February.

Winter brings fashion, literature and film festival calendars to Sydney, with opening nights, cocktail parties and literary soirées, plus the spectacular Vivid Sydney in May lighting up the town with projections and lights. Spring is football finals time – whether it’s rugby or Australian Rules, try to get to a night game for the friendly atmosphere and epic crowds.

14. Kayak to a secret beach

A hidden jewel not far from Manly, magical Store Beach can only be reached by water. Hire a boat or kayak from Manly Kayak Centre at Manly, then cruise around (it’ll take approximately half an hour to 45 minutes) to the sheltered 200m cove beach fringed by trees. The views of the bushy North Harbour give the impression you’ve left the city entirely.

As this is a breeding ground for fairy penguins, access is prohibited from dusk, when the birds waddle in to settle down for the night. Visitors are also implored to leave the beach in the same condition they found it (or better). Take snacks, sunscreen and plenty of water.

Shelly Beach viewed from ManlyShelly Beach is the place to come to escape the crowds while walking around the coast at Manly © asmithers / Getty Images

15. Hike the coastline around Manly and North Head

This marvelous coastal walk has two major components: a 10km western stretch between Manly and Spit Bridge, and a 9.5km eastern loop around North Head. The western section traces the complex harbor coastline through upmarket suburbs and then a spectacular section of unspoiled Sydney Harbour National Park. It emerges in Clontarf and winds its way to the Spit Bridge. 

The eastern loop is known as the North Head Circuit Track, and the walk takes 2½ to 3½ hours. Make your way through the bush to the spectacular Fairfax Lookout on North Head. From the lookout, walk the Fairfax Loop and then head back via Australia’s Memorial Walk and WWII gun emplacements to the Bluefish Track, which descends spectacularly to Shelly Beach. From here, you can return to Manly Beach via picturesque Fairy Bower Beach. Either download a map or pick one up from the information center near the wharf.

16. Learn more Aboriginal history and knowledge at the Royal Botanic Garden

Southeast of the Opera House, this garden was established in 1816 and features plant life from around the world. Within the gardens are hothouses with palms and ferns, as well as The Calyx, a striking exhibition space featuring a curving glasshouse gallery with a wall of greenery and temporary plant-themed exhibitions. Grab a park map at any of the main entrances to the gardens.

The garden includes the site of the colony’s first paltry European vegetable patch, but its history goes back much further than that. Long before the convicts arrived, this was an initiation ground for the Gadigal people; book ahead for an Aboriginal Tour with a First Nations guide sharing their knowledge of Indigenous bush foods.

Barrenjoey lighthouse at night under the starsSpot stars at night or whales in winter from Barrenjoey Lighthouse at Palm Beach © saenman photography / Getty Images

17. Make a day trip to Palm Beach and Pittwater

Long, lovely Palm Beach is a crescent of bliss that’s famous as the setting for the cheesy TV soap Home and Away. The 1881 Barrenjoey Lighthouse punctuates the northern tip of the headland in an annex of Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park. The suburb of Palm Beach has two sides, the magnificent ocean beach and a pleasant strip on Pittwater, where the calmer strands are suitable for young kids.

From here, you can get ferries to other picturesque Pittwater destinations, including other park sections. To get to the lighthouse, you’ve got two walk options – shorter stairs or a winding track – for the steep hike to the top, but majestic views across Pittwater and down the peninsula are worth the effort. It’s also a perfect spot for whale watching in winter.

18. Go for a run or a horse ride around Centennial Park

Scratched out of the sand in 1888 in grand Victorian style, Sydney’s biggest park, Centennial Park, is a rambling 189-hectare expanse with wide formal avenues, ponds, statues and a labyrinth. The park is busy in the warmer months with joggers, cyclists, rollerbladers and horse riders. You’ll also find an equestrian center offering trail rides for kids and adults. Prior riding experience is not required, but bookings are essential. If a pony ride is not enough, children will also love the adventures to be had at the Ian Potter Children’s WILD PLAY Garden. 

The Rocks as dusk settles over SydneyRelics of Sydney’s convict history still endure at The Rocks © m. letschert / Shutterstock

19. Discover the colonial history of The Rocks

Australia’s convict history began in the district known as The Rocks, with a squalid canvas shanty town on a rocky shore. Its raucous reputation lives on in atmospheric lanes lined with historic buildings, with more than a few still operating as pubs. Sure, the place is overrun with tacky, overpriced koala-soft-toy stores and package tourists, but there’s a great museum and art gallery here as well. A popular old Rocks pub with rooftop views of central Sydney, The Glenmore is a top stop for a meal or drink. When it all gets too much, head through the Argyle Cut to the revitalized port area of Walsh Bay.

20. Skip along the Bondi to Coogee Clifftop Walk

The simply sensational 6km Bondi to Coogee walk leads south from Bondi Beach along the clifftops past the inlets at Tamarama, Bronte and Clovelly, interweaving panoramic views, patrolled beaches, sea-fed baths, waterside parks and plaques recounting Aboriginal history and stories. The trail begins at the end of Notts Ave and spits you out at the north end of Coogee Beach, where you have a choice of three ocean pools to swim in if the waves at the beach are ferocious. Pack a picnic, plenty of water and your swimsuit.​

21. Pretend you belong at the Cruising Yacht Club of Australia 

A 2.5km (1.6-mile) walk from Sydney’s central business district, in the well-heeled enclave of Rushcutters Bay, Sydney’s historic Cruising Yacht Club of Australia is the home of the annual Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race. If you want to experience some local Sydney life, the members-only sundeck cafe here serves enormous portions of fish and chips with a glass of Riesling overlooking multi-million dollar yachts. Visitors can sign in for the day.


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