How to explore Sydney on a budget

Sydney is not a cheap city to visit. Unless you’re already nearby, you’ll probably need to fly here for a start. However, there are ways to make your dollars go further in Sydney. 

Avoid visiting during the peak holiday seasons. Use public transport. Plan picnic meals at city parks, by the harbor or at the beach. And make the most of free attractions, from art galleries and museums to public festivals. This is Sydney on a budget.

Where to stay on a budget

Sydney is generally not a cheap city to stay in, but there are accommodations that fit different budgets. At the budget end, there are a few excellent hostel options if that’s the kind of accommodation you’re looking for, like the Sydney Harbour YHA. In the midrange field, Sydney is winning at super-hip boutique hotels that are as friendly and charming as they are cool. Yes, they’re not cheap, but then you won’t want to leave hotels like these with unique features like gorgeous architecture, rooftop decks and even a basement cinema at Paramount Hotel. You’ll find smaller, cheaper hotels further from the city center in Kings Cross, Glebe and at the beaches, but then you have to factor in travel time and costs.

Visit outside the Australian school holidays

The most expensive times for accommodation are during the Australian holidays, particularly the Australian summer (December to February), plus Easter and the late September school holidays. 

Winter (June to August) is when you’ll find deals like “pay two nights but stay three” at hotels. It may not get very cold in winter in Sydney, but the sun goes down early, leaving less time for many of Sydney’s most memorable experiences, like kayaking in the harbor, learning to surf and walking its stunning headlands.

Couple Sitting On Field with Sydney skyline in the backgroundTo save on meals, grab takeout from a market or grocer and enjoy it al fresco © Jean-Jacques Halans / Getty Images

Meals you’ll remember for the rest of your days

Food isn’t cheap in Sydney – even takeout – but it does present value for money. Looking at a menu with mains starting at $30 may make your eyes water, but when you consider the quality of the produce, the professionalism of the hospitality staff and, in many cases, the gorgeous surroundings – that $50 dinner may end up being one of the most memorable meals of your life.  

Dining outdoors is another way to make your pennies go further and still enjoy Australia’s blessed foodie bounties. Sydney is dotted with metro-style supermarkets and small grocers with mouth-watering produce, from fresh fruit and vegetables to delicious deli treats.

Take a bag (and your refillable water bottle) and scoop up a picnic-style meal to be eaten al fresco. Sydney has hundreds of perfect spots to dine for free, many with million-dollar views: from Mrs. Macquaries Chair to North Head or a shady spot at the Royal Botanic Garden. 

Get an Opal card and use Sydney’s public transport

Sydney has an excellent public transport system which includes frequent buses, trains, light rail trams and harbor ferries. NightRide buses run after midnight, delivering 24/7 transport on some train and bus routes. Rather than booking an expensive harbor cruise, take it all in on the Manly ferry or take the Parramatta River ferry upstream via Olympic Park. 

Get an Opal card and pay a maximum of $16.80 per day for transport in Sydney and $8.40 for children (4 to 15 years old). Weekends are cheaper, although there are fewer services available. A weekly ticket is $50 (kids: $25).

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Do the Sydney Harbour Bridge experience on a budget

The Sydney Harbour Bridge is a bucket-list climbing experience worth the price tag. But for those of us who can’t afford the climb, there’s the Pylon Lookout and Museum, which has a related experience for a tiny fraction of the cost. Here you can learn about the bridge’s history before climbing one of the four pylons for some decent harbor views. 

If you want something completely free, walking across the bridge between Milsons Point and The Rocks on the pedestrian walkway won’t cost you a cent. It’s accessed via a staircase at either end of the bridge. You can always admire it as you whizz by on a ferry back to Circular Quay. 

Get a combo pass for big-ticket attractions

If you’re planning to see multiple big-ticket attractions like Madame Tussauds, Sydney Tower Eye, SEA LIFE Sydney Aquarium and WILD LIFE Sydney Zoo, you’ll save on entrance fees with a combo ticket of two, three or four attractions within 60 days. You can buy these online before you visit, and all attractions are close to one another, so you may even tick them off in one day if you start early. 

Group of people admiring the Art Gallery of NSW interior.General admission to the Art Gallery of NSW is free © Oliver Strewe / Getty Images

Find out what you can do for next to nothing

Many museums and galleries offer free admission to all or part of their collections, including top attractions such as the Art Gallery of NSW, Rocks Discovery Museum, Maritime Museum, White Rabbit and the Museum of Contemporary Art by Circular Quay. 

There are loads of other Sydney activities you can do for free, such as snorkeling at the beach or stargazing at Barrenjoey Lighthouse, to stretch your budget further while seeing the best of Sydney. 

Check out what festivals and events are on when you’re in town. There’s almost always some cultural event happening with free – or low-cost – activities, from the spectacle of Vivid in winter to the drama of the Sydney to Hobart yacht race heading off on Boxing Day.   

Add a DIY walking tour to your plans

Going on at least one or two fully guided tours will hopefully fall within your budget. We highly recommend local tours, particularly an Aboriginal cultural tour, where you will learn about the Gadigal experience and knowledge of Sydney. 

Beyond that, if you’re still itching to see more, there are many self-guided walking tours to look up that will help you explore Sydney’s history, “wild side” and its eclectic architecture. Check out the City of Sydney walks app for more. 

A busy Sydney Harbour leading up to the Opera House as both locals and tourists alike enjoy some drinks and socializing at Opera Bar.Sunset cocktails with spectacular views don’t have to be expensive if you know where to go © Stephen Bridger / Getty Images

Linger over sunset-view cocktails

Is that iconic drink with incredible Sydney views one of your must-do Sydney experiences? If you can’t afford the minimum bar spend at the ultra-luxury Crown Towers rooftop bar CIRQ, don’t fret (although if we could, we would). You have options. Order a glass of wine at O Lounge Bar atop Sydney Tower (walk-ins allowed), or down the signature “36 Levels Above” cocktail from Blu Bar at the Shangri La Hotel in The Rocks while watching the sunset to the west of Sydney Harbour Bridge. 

If you want views but don’t want to get out of your shorts and sandals, head to Harbour View Hotel in The Rocks. Perched right next to the Sydney Harbour Bridge, you can sip an ice-cold beer on the rooftop of this 1920s pub while spotting ferries slinking under the bridge.

Get a GST refund before you go

A 10% goods and services tax (GST) is automatically added to almost everything you buy in Australia. If you purchase goods with a minimum total value of $300 from any one shop within 60 days of departure from Australia, the Tourist Refund Scheme entitles you to a refund of any GST paid. Keep your receipts and carry the items on board your flight as hand luggage (or get them checked before you check them in); you can get a refund at the designated booth located past Customs at Sydney airport.

Daily costs in Sydney

  • Hostel bed $70
  • Basic room for two $200
  • Self-catering apartment (including Airbnb) $300
  • Public transport ticket $17 (per day)
  • Coffee $4
  • Sandwich $12
  • Dinner for two $80
  • Beer at the pub $8  


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