International visitors have missed Australia during the pandemic, and with travel returning down under, it’s also an opportunity to connect with the city in new ways.
From hosting one of the largest Pride celebrations in the world to its new Indigenous tours over the bridge, return to Sydney and see it from a new perspective.
We asked Sarah Reid to map out a way to reconnect with Sydney over four days.
I called Sydney home for nearly a decade, and I still get a buzz every time the harbor comes into view through the plane window on my regular visits from upstate New South Wales. From its famous beaches to its fabulously diverse food scene, Sydney never fails to dazzle.
Why you should visit Sydney
Few cities bring the wow factor quite like Sydney. But it’s not just the Harbor City’s golden beaches and architectural icons that make it special. One of the world’s most multicultural places, Sydney’s rich diversity shines in its vibrant arts and ever-evolving culinary scenes. Sydney is also a famously inclusive metropolis, geared for good times, all year round.
Meet the icons
Lace up your walking shoes and make your way to Circular Quay to savor your first glimpse of Sydney’s glittering harbor. Snap an obligatory selfie with the Sydney Harbour Bridge as a backdrop before taking a tour of the iconic Sydney Opera House ($28, 1 hour), which reopened its concert hall in 2022 following a major renovation designed to address long-standing acoustic and accessibility issues. Now with an elevator to whisk less-mobile visitors up to the dress circle, the reimagined concert hall also had its brush-box-timber wall panels replaced with acoustic diffusion panels constructed from the same Australian hardwood, creating a harmonious ripple effect throughout the venue. Expect a packed calendar of events to celebrate its 50th birthday in 2023.
Follow the waterfront pathway through the Royal Botanic Garden to Mrs Macquarie’s Point, where you can take a breather on a sandstone bench carved by convicts (Mrs Macquarie’s Chair) and enjoy one of Sydney’s best harbor views. Next, wander through the lush gardens toward the Art Gallery of NSW, home to a superb collection of Australian and international art. It adjoins the Sydney Modern – due to open in December 2022, the new gallery space is Sydney’s most significant cultural development in half a century. Like the Art Gallery of NSW, its general collection will be free to visit.
Grab your swimwear, slip on a chic cover-up, and jump on a bus, train or taxi to another Sydney icon: Bondi Beach. Before you hit the waves, treat yourself to a smart regional Italian lunch with stellar beach views (and maybe some celebrity-spotting) at Icebergs Dining Room, a Sydney institution perched above Bondi’s famed ocean baths. Lola’s Level 1 and Sean’s also dish up sublime Mediterranean fare with sea views just steps from the sand.
Spend an afternoon lazing on Sydney’s most popular beach, or stretch your legs alongside buffed locals on the 1.4-mile (2.3km) Bondi to Bronte Walk, which traces the dramatic sandstone sea cliffs linking the two beaches. If you’re feeling energetic, continue south along the coastal pathway for another 2 miles (3.2km) to Coogee Beach, where the Coogee Bay Hotel offers the perfect place to pause for a restorative passion-fruit spritz in the afternoon sunshine.
If you’re bedding down in the City (Sydney’s central business district), kick off your evening with the best mezcal margarita in Sydney at hole-in-the-wall Cantina OK! (Latin American flavors have become increasingly popular in Sydney during the past decade) before moving onto dinner. Once slim on quality dining options beyond the classic fine-diners of Circular Quay (including the still-excellent Aria, Bennelong and Quay), the City is now home to some of Sydney’s best eats. For something new, head to 25 Martin Place (the revived former MLC Centre) for a handful of options including Middle Eastern–inspired Aalia, where the melt-in-your-mouth slow-roast lamb neck shawarma is a must-order. Or take your pick from the tantalizing offerings of Barangaroo, a former industrial port transformed into a buzzing multi-use precinct. We love Rekōdo, TV chef Matt Moran’s riff on a Japanese listening bar featuring modern Japanese shared plates.
Sleep in the heart of the city in minimalist-chic style without breaking the bank at the Little National, which rises above Wynyard Station, or opt for art-deco glam at the recently opened Kimpton Margot Sydney, set within a magnificent heritage building, the former Sydney Water Board headquarters. Also new on the hotel scene is the W Sydney. Shaped like a giant glass ribbon, the Darling Harbour hotel, located within easy walking distance from the city center, is due to welcome its first guests in October 2023.
Connect with Sydney’s cultural fabric
Grab a flat white to go from one of Sydney’s countless coffee bars (they’re all good – trust us) and see the city in a new light while scaling the Sydney Harbour Bridge with an Indigenous storyteller guide on BridgeClimb Sydney’s Burrawa Climb. As you ascend the 1332 steps to the summit of what locals call the “coathanger,” your guide will share fascinating insights into Sydney’s rich Aboriginal heritage. If you don’t have a head for heights, join Dreamtime Southern X for a walkabout around The Rocks. On this lively tour, your guide will enlighten you on how Sydney’s Traditional Custodians remain deeply connected to the landscape today, through stories, songs and even native bush tucker and medicinal plants that you might be surprised to find growing in Australia’s largest city.
Get another taste of multicultural Sydney by diving into its food scene. Channel Sydneysiders’ deep love for Asian flavors by tucking into pillows of joy at Mr Wong on Bridge Ln, which only serves dim sum at lunchtime. If you’re visiting on the last Sunday of the month, book ahead to feast on Sri Lankan crab curry at Lankan Filling Station in inner-east Darlinghurst. Or pop over to the South Eveleigh precinct (a short walk from Redfern Station) at 11am to beat the queue for a table at the newest restaurant from Australian chef Kylie Kwong, Lucky Kwong, where light and fresh homestyle dishes reflecting the chef’s Cantonese heritage feed the soul as well as the belly.
Wander over to the recently renovated Australian Museum, opposite Hyde Park, to learn more about the Aboriginal story of Sydney and beyond via its superb First Nations exhibitions, designed in collaboration with First Nations peoples and communities to ensure the objects held in the collection are interpreted appropriately. Free to visit, the museum also has an excellent natural sciences collection featuring everything from Australian dinosaur skeletons to specimens of the nation’s deadliest spiders.
Shimmy into something sparkly for an oh-so-Sydney night out at the Imperial in inner-west Erskineville, just a short walk from the train station. Immortalized in the legendary 1994 film The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, the historic pub hosts the city’s best Drag N Dine experience at its restaurant Priscillas, with drag artists bringing buckets of sass to the stage from Wednesdays to Sundays. On Friday and Saturday nights, anything goes (and usually does) at the Imperial’s underground Basement nightclub.
Back in the city, the 2021 relaxation of Sydney’s lockout laws (which saw inner-city nightspots refuse entry after 1:30am in an effort to curb alcohol-related disorder) has breathed new life into the Oxford St LGBTQI+ precinct. Party on at the likes of the Colombian Hotel, Ching-a-Lings, or the Burdekin. Not your scene? Take a seat at the handful of tucked-away, European-style wine bars in Sydney’s Inner East (try Dear Sainte Eloise in Potts Point). Or catch a performance by renowned Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander dance company Bangarra, or a show at one of Sydney’s many theaters (you can’t go wrong at the renowned Sydney Theatre Company).
Spend a day on the Northern Beaches
Sydney’s best sandy bits aren’t limited to the south side of the bridge. Jump on a ferry at Circular Quay for the achingly scenic 20-minute ride to Manly, one of the most famous stretches of sand on the Northern Beaches. Hit the waves at Manly Beach or follow the short oceanfront path around to Shelly Beach, a picture-perfect sheltered cove popular with families – and snorkelers.
Factor in a seafood lunch by the sea (try Manly Boathouse), perhaps followed by a hike (45 minutes, or else catch the 161 bus) up to North Head, a great vantage point for watching humpback whales put on a show during their annual migration from May to November. If you’re not pressed for time, jump on the 199 bus for the one-hour ride along the coast to The Newport. Overlooking the gorgeous Pittwater tidal estuary, this sprawling venue packs out with locals on weekend afternoons, with multiple bars and dining options giving it a casual marketplace feel. If you’ve got your own wheels, take a spin to Palm Beach at the northern tip of the peninsula for a refreshing dip just steps from some of Sydney’s priciest real estate. The short but steep climb up the sandstone steps to the historic Barrenjoey Lighthouse at the northern end of the beach is worth it for the sweeping coastal views.
The last ferry back to the city doesn’t leave until after midnight, allowing plenty of time for dinner and drinks in laid-back Manly. Start with sundowners at Wharf Bar, perched over the water just a short stumble from the ferry terminal. Or wander up Manly Corso to Manly Greenhouse, where a smart-casual restaurant with a Mediterranean-inspired menu, cozy wine room and rooftop cocktail bar filled with lush plants are spread across three levels opposite the beach. Also on the beachfront is the historic Hotel Steyne (circa 1859), reimagined for 21st-century fun with a stylish whiskey bar and breezy rooftop terrace.
Day 4: Get out of town, or seek out more Sydney gems
Sydney lies within day-tripping distance of two blockbuster New South Wales attractions: the Blue Mountains and the Hunter Valley, both easy add-ons to a Sydney visit. If you’d rather stay local, fuel up with a classic Sydney brunch before uncovering more of the city’s highlights.
The Scenic Skyway is a great way to see the Blue Mountain’s sweeping views © Stocksy
Just 90 minutes west of Sydney by car (or two hours by train), the eucalyptus-scented Blue Mountains are laced with some of Australia’s best bushwalking (hiking) trails; check the NSW National Parks website for the most-up-to-date trail information. Get your bearings in Katoomba, where the Echo Point lookout offers epic views toward the World Heritage Area’s famed Three Sisters rock formation. Historic Katoomba is also home to the bulk of the region’s restaurants and accommodations, should you want to extend your visit. And don’t forget to bring a sweater: at 3337ft (1017m) above sea level, it can get cool in the mountains, even in summer,
Sunset over the Hunter Valley’s vineyards © iStockphoto
Australia’s oldest wine region, the gentle rolling hills of the Hunter Valley lie just two hours north of Sydney. Sign up for a day tour, which typically includes four cellar-door visits and a winery lunch, or hire a car and take your pick of the region’s 150+ cellar doors.
Chardonnay is the star of the Hunter Valley, with other key varietals produced here including semillon, verdelho, shiraz, cabernet sauvignon and merlot. Some of the state’s best restaurants are also nestled in the area’s vineyards – book ahead for a meal to remember at the lauded Muse Restaurant (set in the grounds of the Hungerford Hill winery), where French techniques are married with superb local produce.
Silky scrambled eggs and ricotta hotcakes at Bills in Sydney © Courtesy Photo
Melbourne-born chef Bill Granger put brunch – and avocado on toast – on the map at his first bills restaurant, opened in Sydney in 1993. You can now tuck into his famous ricotta hotcakes and silky scrambled eggs at four bills locations across the city.
A coffee roastery, bakery, cafe and restaurant wrapped up in one delicious package, the Grounds of Alexandria in Sydney’s Inner West is another brunch favorite for locals. Its sister cafe, the Grounds of the City, is located in the city center.
Explore an artistic legacy
Views of the harbor from Wendy’s Secret Garden © Isabella Moore/Lonely Planet
Art lovers shouldn’t miss a visit to the former studio of the late Australian artist Brett Whiteley in Surry Hills (look for the signs on Devonshire and Bourke Sts), where many of his multi-million-dollar works were created. Then take a train to North Sydney to enjoy one of Sydney’s most delightful green spaces, Wendy’s Secret Garden. Created by Whiteley’s widow following Brett’s 1992 death, the serene green space sits at the foot of the couple’s Lavender Bay house, where Wendy still lives today.