Where to go in Sydney, Australia

by Dina Zavrski-Makaric

Seventeen years ago, when I arrived in Sydney, it was still trying to find itself and shape its character. Today, its personality is defined by 200 nationalities that live here, speaking more than 20 languages. There is something for everyone in this city of diversity.

I remember arriving on a late spring day, the temperature was in the high thirties, the humidity felt like 100%, and the drive from the Airport to Manly, after nearly 24 hours on planes, seemed to take forever. The size of the City and the Harbour Bridge was all too much for a European whose idea of a city comprised of a population of 1 million, and who was able to live most of her life within walking distance to places, or at worst taking a few tram stops. The first months we spent Sundays driving around the Sydney suburbs just to become familiar with its size. Every suburb had its own feeling, atmosphere, and people – the good thing was that they all had a little central point, where you could get refreshment and gather your thoughts. Seventeen years ago Sydney was at the brink of starting to embrace diversity in people, food and beverages. Today it catches up on consumers and their requirements faster than they can think about them.Sydney began its life as a penal colony on 26th January 1788, when 11 ships from England brought convicts and officials with plans to establish New South Wales. For the next 60 years it was the new home to the unwanted of British society.

Free settlers began arriving in 1793, and by 1840 the colony’s population was made up of mainly free immigrants. Transportation of convicts came to an end in 1842, when Sydney officially became a city. Due to the growth in immigration, in 1861 Sydney’s population was 96,000. In 1925 it hit the 1 million mark. Post WWII it swelled again with the influx of European immigrants, and in 1963 two million people were living in Sydney.

Today Sydney is Australia’s largest city, with 4.3 million people calling it home, and is the capital of New South Wales. It is one of the most cosmopolitan and culturally diverse cities in the world. With its harbour, rivalled only by that of Hong Kong, many beautiful beaches and a pleasant climate Sydney has become an extremely popular destination with tourists and migrants alike.

When it comes to ‘Where to go in Sydney?’, not only can you choose venues that satisfy everyone’s areas of interest, you can also choose the appropriate cultural environment you want to do it in. There is a suburb for all tastes and likings.

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Some of the obvious places to go to are concentrated on and around the Harbour:

– Cruise on the Sydney Harbour. If you take a walk along Circular Quay you will be able to choose from numerous offers to see the Harbour from a boat. Whether you want to take a regular ferry trip, a sightseeing cruise, or a more up-market cruise with food and entertainment, you will feel the effects that this natural wonder has on people. As soon as you board the boat, you start relaxing and smiling. If you are one of those who catch a ferry to work, you experience the Harbour’s wonders every day!

– Whether a first time visitor, or a Sydneysider, Circular Quay is the most convenient starting point for many exploratory tours of the city. Accessible by all means of transport, Circular Quay is only a 5 minute walk from the following main Sydney icons…

– The Opera House. One of the most distinctive and famous structures of the 20th-century and one of the most famous performing arts venues in the world. The Opera House is the home of Opera Australia, the Sydney Theatre Company and the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, as well as host to many touring theatre, ballet, and musical productions.

– The Harbour Bridge. Popularly called ‘the Coathanger’, this second major Sydney icon connects its central business district (CBD) with the North Shore. The Bridge opened in 1932, and until 1967 remaind the city’s tallest structure. It still remains the world’s largest (not the longest) steel arch bridge. There are two activities one can do on the Bridge: the Pylon Lookout or the BridgeClimb. The Pylon Lookout offers an exhibition about the Bridge and you can see the spectacular 360 degree view from the top of it. The BridgeClimb is not for lighthearted. It started in 1998 and attracts tourists and locals alike. The view is by any account absolutely breathtaking, and makes the climb through catwalks, up ladders and stairs worthwile. There is a choice of day, twilight and night climbs, and groups leave every 10 minutes. Everyone I ever spoke to (I myself am still working on my fear of heights) says that it is an absolute ‘must do’.

– Taronga Zoo, located on the shores of the Sydney Harbour in Mosman is a real treat for the whole family. You’ll need a day to see it all, and have small breaks in cafes and on benches scattered around. If you also take a ride in a cable car you will get a good picture of the zoo and its beautiful surroundings. It is continually undergoing redevelopment, replacing the old enclosures with larger, more natural ones.

Back to the suburbs around the City, and Kings Cross is the must – Sydney’s red-light and backpackers community. Every city that wants to call itself ‘worldly’ has it, London has Soho and Paris has Pigalle. Kings Cross used to be a real ‘downer’ with drugs and X-rated shops, but it is shaping up to be a mixture of strip-clubs, adult bookshops, trendy cafes, clubs and restaurants. An interesting mixture, and although it can be scary at night, it has its own pulse that is well worth experiencing. Not a place to bring children with you, and at night avoid dark allies, as people do get mugged here. The strangest thing is that Kings Cross borders with Potts Point, one of the most exclusive, up market areas of Sydney. Talk about differences existing together in close proximity!

If you prefer a Bohemian feel then Newtown is your thing, whilst Glebe and Balmain suit arty people. Paddington and Darlinghurst are trendy and almost arrogant. Those who love the (recent) history will enjoy The Rocks with its cobbled streets and sandstone buildings.

But the best thing about Sydney is that its finest features won’t cost you a cent (if you don’t take parking meters into account). Sydney’s climate is enchanting! Even on the days when you have to sit in the peak hour traffic, you’ll say to yourself ‘It is worth living here if for nothing else but for the weather!’ You can’t rely on rain to water your outdoor plants, as the sun is almost always shining. If a day starts grey and gloomy, you can be certain that the sun will come out. Compared to many European and Asian cities, the air is clean, and the leafy streets are a joy to wander all year round.

Parks and Bush Walks

Sydney has some exceptionally beautiful natural areas and open spaces situated within the city. It never stops to amaze me how isolated and close to nature one can feel on a walk through a park that is literally in the middle of such a large city! Many gardens and open spaces provide a true sanctuary from the day to day traffic, noise and crowds.

The Royal Botanic Gardens, first established in 1716, one of Sydney’s finest natural assets, also offer some of the best views of Sydney Harbour, the Opera House and the Harbour Bridge. The 30 hectares of gardens are home to over a million specimens, some of which were planted by the European colonists almost 200 years ago. The sealed walking tracks make it easy to walk on your own, but you can also take a guided walking tour. For those with specific interests, there are special gardens, from the Tropical, Herb, Fernery and Rose, to Succulent and Oriental. There is also a section dedicated to Rare and Threatened Plants of the World, including a specimen of one of the oldest and rarest plants in the world, Wollemi Pine. Notice the modern sculptured artworks scattered throughout the Garden.

In the City’s centre there is Hyde Park, named after London’s Hyde Park. Originally a racecourse and sporting ground, still featuring the 19th Century playable chess on the western side, the park is popular with many office workers who enjoy their lunch breaks on green lawns and a breath of fresh air. During the summer, the Park is full of activities and free entertainment, particularly during the Festival of Sydney. Also worthwhile is the 1934 art deco War Memorial.

Another treasure in the city is Centennial Park with its 220 hectares of open space. The park is very popular with singles, couples and families, from early morning until late evening on weekdays and weekends. Here you can play ball, walk your dog, ride a horse, fly kites, rollerblade, cycle or just watch others doing it while indulging in a traditional Aussie barbecue, watching and feeding the birds, or doing anything else people can do on a sunny day in a great outdoor setting. During the summer months the Centennial Park Amphitheatre hosts the outdoor moonlight cinema.

The Domain Park, opened to the Public in 1830, is a large grassy area used as a venue for outdoor concerts and performances, most well known for a large crowd gathering at Christmas to sing carols by candlelight. Events at Domain are very popular, so if you want to get a good spot you must come early!

The Chinese Garden, designed by Sydney’s Chinese sister city Guangzhou, officially opened to the public in 1988. Named the Garden of Friendship, symbolizing the relationship between China and Australia, the Garden offers a rare insight into Chinese heritage and culture, including The Tea House serving traditional Chinese tea.

There are many other parks and picnic areas around Sydney, but the most enjoyable activity for nature lovers are bush walks. With 37 national parks on the doorstep, Sydney has enough open spaces to keep most people busy walking for several years. Some of the most popular ones are Ku-ring-gai Chase, Lane Cove, Garigal and Botany Bay. An hour’s drive from the city is the Royal National Park, and it is perfect for that weekend away. Most bushwalks are well marked and maps can often be obtained from local libraries.

Beaches

Sydney has so many beaches that you will have something to explore for many years to come, and never need to go anywhere else for a holiday. From early spring until late autumn you can swim, sunbathe and surf. Some people do this all year round. From the very north Palm Beach, down towards Whale, Avalon, Bilgola, Newport, Bungan, Mona Vale, Warriewood, to the long stretch of the Narrabeen-Collaroy beaches. Then down to Long Reef, Curl Curl, Freshwater, North Steyne, Manly and Shelly.

– Manly. Situated on the lower Northern Beaches, in the suburb of Manly, is one of the most spectacular beaches for surfing in NSW. The beach is long and wide and very popular with sunbathers, picnickers, swimmers and surfers. As on most patrolled beaches you need to swim between the red and yellow flags as rips are very strong even for the best swimmers. Across the road from the beach and along The Corso (pedestrian area), there are many cafes, bars and restaurants. One of the attractions in Manly is Oceanworld, where you can join daily guided tours and live shows with sharks, crocodiles and the world’s most dangerous snakes.

You can also take a walk from Manly to Shelly beach. The path is along the ocean and offers beautiful views either towards Manly or Shelly Beach. It’s quite an easy walk taking approximately 45 minutes, and is suitable for small children. Shelly beach (one of my favourites) is small and tranquil, surrounded with palms. Another popular Sydney restaurant, Le Kiosk, offers a perfect setting for taking a coffee break or having a bite.

Around Middle Harbour and Sydney Harbour north of the Harbour Bridge, there are a number of other smaller beaches, such as Clontarf, Chinamans and Balmoral. Walking along Balmoral beach is also something to do on a warm summer afternoon – finish it off with some very tasty fish-and-chips!

To the south there is Shark Beach, Nielsen Park, and further along beaches in the eastern suburbs, all the way to the most famous Bondi beach.

– Bondi. One of the most popular southern Sydney beaches and among the world’s best known beaches. Approximately 1 kilometer long, Bondi offers plenty of sand for those hours you want to spend getting the Aussie tan. An abundance of cafes, restaurants, surf shops, and many activities, from surfing competitions and kite flying to festivals, markets and galleries promise that you will never have a dull moment at Bondi.

The walk from Bondi to Tamarama beach is another ‘must do’, offering some excellent views over both Bondi and other beaches to the south. After taking a coffee break at Tamarama you can continue walking to Bronte beach.

From here south are Clovelly, Coogee and Maroubra, beaches around Botany Bay, Cronulla and Kurnell. And I’m sure I left some out!

Sport

Australia is a sporting paradise, and Sydney is no different. Sport is an integral part of the culture and the favourite topic of conversation. Some of the biggest cultural events are sporting events. From a very early age schools and parents encourage sports activities. In fact sports are part of the school curriculum, unlike in some other countries. Some of the most popular sports with young people are cricket, soccer, netball, swimming, basketball and of course Australian Rules football (the top spectator sport). Other sports are golf, hiking, jogging, cycling, tennis, squash, lawn bowls, horse racing, and motor sports. Australians love tough sports, like ironman and triathlon competitions.

Australian rules football, also called ‘Aussie rules’ is the leading ball game and considered by most people to be the national sport.

Sydney is the headquarters of Australian Rugby League. The National Rugby League (NRL) is one of the most popular sporting competitions in Australia, consisting of fifteen teams playing rugby league football against each other, with nine of these teams having their home in Sydney.

Cricket is another popular sport widely played by amateurs and professionals, and religiously watched by many.

Surfing is one of the most popular sports for young people. Early in the mornings, all year round you will see black dots in the ocean…surfers waiting for ‘that’ wave.

Sydney’s most famous sports ground is the Sydney Cricket Ground, home to numerous events being played for over a century, especially Cricket and Rugby.

With a population dedicated to playing and closely following sports, no wonder Sydney was chosen to host the 2000 Summer Olympics.

Arts

The Sydney Opera House opened in October 1973 by Queen Elizabeth II, is a representative of Australia, and the centre of Sydney’s performing arts. Situated on Bennelong Point, it reaches out into the harbour. Seen from a ferry, with the Sydney skylines in the background and the Harbour Bridge on its side, the view is breathtaking and unforgettable. This Australian icon was designed by renowned Danish architect Jorn Utzon, and its history is well worth knowing. The Opera House has a year-round programme of events and guided tours.

The Sydney Symphony Orchestra is internationally noted and frequently performs at the Sydney Opera House.

The Sydney Dance Company, Australia’s premier contemporary dance company, famous for its repertoire of original works, has received international acclaim for its vivid theatricality and inventive choreography. With performances held nationally and internationally, in Asia, North and South America and Europe, the Sydney Dance Company has become one of the most in demand performing arts companies in Australia and an active advocate of Australian culture around the world.

Sydney is also a theatre city…

The Sydney Theatre Company boasts a regular roster of local plays, classics and plays by international playwrights. Performances are held at the newly opened state of the art Sydney Theatre and two Wharf Theatres at Walsh Bay. Around the City there are the Theatre Royal, the Sydney Entertainment Centre near Darling Harbour, and the large art deco Capitol Theatre near Chinatown. Across the harbour, on the water’s edge right across from the Opera House, lies the Ensemble Theatre. It is an intimate theatre with great plays, and you can enjoy a pre-show dinner in its restaurant. Twenty minutes drive to the north, at Belrose, there is the Glen St Theatre. Situated in a natural, leafy environment, it’s an oasis from the noise of the city.

Back closer to the City, in the suburb of Surry Hills, there is Belvoir St Theatre (due to renovations performances are currently held at the Seymour Centre). The Seymour Theatre Centre is a performing arts centre housing three theatres, a cafe, bars, expansive foyers and gallery space. Performances in the theatres range from concerts and theatre presentations, to dance, opera and performances for young audiences.

These are only some of the venues for the performing arts in Sydney. There are many more spread across the Sydney suburbs, offering a variety of theatre entertainment even for the most demanding theatre-goers.

For the admirers of visual arts, the Art Gallery of New South Wales is the leading museum of art, and one of Australia’s foremost cultural institutions. It holds significant collections of Australian, European and Asian art, and presents nearly forty exhibitions annually.

The Australian Museum is Australia’s first museum, established in 1827. With its unique and extensive collections of natural science and cultural artifacts, it has an international reputation in the fields of natural history and indigenous studies research, community programs and exhibitions.

The Museum of Contemporary Art, officially opened in November 1991, is situated at the Rocks, right opposite the Sydney Opera House. It is Australia’s only museum dedicated to exhibiting, interpreting and collecting contemporary art from across Australia and around the world. With a continually changing program of exhibitions there’s always something new, exciting and inspiring to see at the MCA.

The Australian National Maritime Museum, located in Darling Harbour, has thousands of exhibits depicting Australia’s history – from how Aboriginal people trapped fish and traded with Asian neighbours to why surfboards have become shorter. There are displays, hands-on exhibits, a cinema and the latest museum computer games.

The Powerhouse Museum is a science-and-technology museum that promotes interactive learning experiences through computer games, videos, demonstrations, lectures and activities. It is an absolute must for children, with more than 25 exhibitions that explore science and technology, human achievement and the decorative arts, and how they relate to our everyday lives. It will keep the whole family amused for hours.

The Sydney Observatory, the oldest observatory in Australia, has been in use for over 140 years. The Observatory preserves the history of astronomy in Australia including that from the Aboriginal perspective. You will see telescopes, read about the meaning and placement of stars in the Southern Hemisphere and see working models of our solar system. You can end your visit by sitting in its peaceful gardens, relaxing and viewing Sydney.

And this is not all when it comes to Sydney museums. There are: Australian Heritage Fleet, Conservation Resource Centre, Justice and Police Museum, Macleay Museum, Museum of Australian Currency Notes, Jewish Museum and Tramway Museum.

Festivals

Sydney is a host to many festivals happening almost every month of the year. In January the Sydney Festival, performing in theatres, galleries and concert halls across town, presents the best international and national performing and visual arts. The Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, held in February and early March, is a display of colour, art, excitement and the spirit of tolerance and acceptance of Sydney’s gay and lesbian community. The Festival runs over three to four weeks, with a spectacular mardi gras parade said to be the largest outdoor nighttime parade in the world, including an all-night party, ending in the early hours of the following morning. Also in March is the Greek Festival of Sydney, and the Royal Easter Show. April hosts The Sydney Garden & Flower Show. June is the time for the Sydney Film Festival, July explores new wine tastes and latest culinary trends with the Good Food & Wine Show, and also hosts the Biennale of Sydney, an international festival of contemporary art. August is for the big running event City to Surf, and in September it is the Festival of the Winds, a kite flying festival held off Bondi Beach. To mark the beginning of spring there is Cronulla Spring Festival. In October there is the Australian International Motor Show and December hosts the Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race, a world class yachting event.

Shopping

One of the features of Sydneysiders is that a huge number of them spend weekends shopping! Even if they don’t need anything, families will still visit the massive shopping centers placed strategically in almost every suburb. To accommodate this ‘shopping culture’ most shops are open 7 days a week, generally from 9-5pm, and on Thursdays for late night shopping until 9pm. The most enjoyable shopping is in the heart of Sydney, where large department stores are within a few blocks of each other, and even in the rain it’s easy to navigate through covered malls, arcades, tunnels, overhead walkways and passes linking it all into one big shopping experience. Fifteen years ago Sydney was way behind the European fashion trends. Today there is nothing you can buy in Europe that you can’t find in Sydney (very gratifying for fashion fanatics).

Some of the most popular shopping centers are:

– The Queen Victoria Building. Opened in 1898 celebrating Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee, it is one of the most stunning examples of Victorian architecture in Sydney. The Centre houses an outstanding collection of designer labels and specialty stores.
– The Strand Arcade, opened in 1892, houses some of Australia’s top designer labels, jewelers, boutiques and beauty salons.
– The Skygarden offers a superb collection of international and Australian fashion labels; the largest bookstore in town – Borders; Sydney’s boldest Chinese restaurant Sky Phoenix, and a whole floor dedicated to homewares.
– Meyer, on its seven levels and mezzanine floor, sells everything from cosmetics to computer equipment.
– David Jones, Sydney’s oldest department store and one of the world’s only department stores still trading under its original name and commitment to sell ‘the best and most exclusive goods’.
– Centrepoint, the Glasshouse, MLC Centre and Chifley Plaza add to this selection of shopping variety.

For those more unconventional shoppers Sydney offers a wide range of markets, usually placed outdoors in school or church grounds scattered around the suburbs. You can browse through the stalls or buy anything from food and pet products to new and pre-loved designer clothes. Some of the more popular markets are:

– Paddy’s Markets (the only one under cover). The biggest market in the city, stocking new items at cheap or discounted prices.
– The Rocks Markets, very popular with tourists. They mainly sell good quality crafts, homewares, arts and collectibles, and are a good place to buy gifts for those trips home when you need to buy something for everyone. The setting is outstanding, the pubs great and restaurants superb. The Rocks markets are a short distance from the Circular Quay and the Opera House.

The most popular suburban markets are:

– Glebe, Bondi, Balmain, North Sydney and Kirribilli Markets offering pre-loved clothing, arts, crafts, fresh fruits and vegetables, and prepared food from all parts of the world, all at very affordable prices. Even if you don’t need anything, it’s worth visiting for the atmosphere. The only nightmare is the parking!

Bars, Pubs, Cafes and Restaurants

There are so many great bars, pubs, cafes and restaurants in Sydney that it is unfair to mention some and not others. From Circular Quay and its many venues leading towards the Opera House, to the City venues, and others scattered around suburbs, there is no culture and cuisine that is not represented in this variety of places to eat, drink, dance, taste Australian (and foreign) wines, or just enjoy a good quality capuccino. You can choose from venues with a view of the Harbour, to those at the top of the Centre Point Tower overlooking the whole city. Pubs range from Irish to German to Czech and many more. Thursdays are popular nights out for young people, and of course Fridays and Saturdays, when traffic towards the City makes you re-think your transport next time you want to have a night on the town. You don’t even have to go into the City, as every suburb has its own variety of restaurants and of course the ever-present pub. Prices range from $7.00 for a decent meal, to those that I find too decadent to even mention. In short – there is something for every taste and pocket.

One thing is for sure, whether you are single, with a partner, or have a family – you will never be short of places to visit in Sydney, weekdays or weekends, during the day or for the whole night. Once you find places of interest, don’t restrict yourself. Always be on the look-out as new venues, new places and new events are being born in this city of diversity every day.

A good place to start exploring Sydney once you arrive is at the ‘Welcome to Sydney’ event organised by the Newcomers Network. Held on the second Sunday of every month at the Opera Bar (right below the Opera House and next to the Harbour Bridge!), this informal social gathering has been designed to help newcomers meet other people who have moved to Sydney, exchange experiences and share information.


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