20 Things to Do in Sydney, Australia: Iconic City Sights, Beaches and the Blue Mountains
This post was originally published in July 2019 and was updated in April 2020
With a handful of famous buildings, a glistening coastline made for seaside strolls and close proximity to the stunning Blue Mountains, Sydney earns its reputation as one of the world’s great cities. Whether you’re on a quick city break or have the time to really explore the area, you’ll always find heaps of fun things to do in Sydney. We spent five days in Sydney on a recent trip — here are the highlights!
Things to Do in Sydney: The City Centre
The Sydney Opera House
Perched right next to the water in the heart of the “touristy” part of the city, the Sydney Opera House is a building you’ll see from many different angles. It’s obviously a cool piece of architecture (it wouldn’t be this iconic if it wasn’t) but it’s probably best seen from a distance. Some of the best places to see the Opera House are from the Harbour Bridge, the Royal Botanic Gardens or from a ferry as it departs Circular Quay. I have no idea what the interior is like (it was closed when we were there and there weren’t any interesting shows on), but I’d love to see a concert there one day (it’s common for bands to play there).
The Sydney Harbour Bridge
The other big Sydney landmark is the Harbour Bridge. Again, it dominates the scene and you’ll see it from many angles while walking in and around Circular Quay. You can climb to the top of the bridge on a tour but a walk along the footpath will suffice for most. You’ll get awesome views over Circular Quay and The Rocks, one of the oldest parts of the city.
If you’re looking for a hip café or just love to be surrounded by grand old buildings, a trip to The Rocks is a must. It’s only a short walk from Circular Quay and there is so much to see. There’s Cadmans Cottage, the oldest surviving house in Sydney, as well as The Rocks Markets and several streets lined with consistently old (and very pretty) buildings. We visited a couple of cafés at The Rocks — our favourite was The Tea Cosy, where you can have a cup of tea, a scone and do some knitting (if you know how — I have no idea!).
This street, which starts close to Hyde Park and ends up at the Gardens / Circular Quay is full of some of Sydney’s most impressive old buildings, including Sydney Hospital (the oldest hospital in Australia), Hyde Park Barracks and St James’ Church.
The Royal Botanic Gardens
These gardens are located a short distance from Circular Quay and make for a nice place to stroll (or find some shade on a scorching day). Highlights of the Royal Botanic Gardens include Government House (which looks like a small castle) and Mrs Macquarie’s Chair, an old stone seat with great views of the Opera House (are you getting sick of that building yet?).
St Mary’s Cathedral
A short walk from Macquarie Street sits St Mary’s Cathedral, surely Sydney’s grandest church (I can’t confirm that though as I haven’t visited them all). It has that typical sandstone construction that you’ll see all over Sydney and the interior features heaps of stain glass windows.
We stayed in Kings Cross for the first four days of our Sydney Trip and it’s an interesting place. Kings Cross has long been known as the dodgy part of Sydney, full of rough bars and all the things that go along with that. We definitely saw some interesting characters but I’m sure it has lost its edge a bit these days. We found it to be a convenient place to stay as it’s only around a 30-minute walk from Circular Quay and there are lots of food options. There isn’t a lot to see in Kings Cross, but it could be worth a quick look (or as an area to stay in if you’re on a budget).
This long, thin park is close to Macquarie Street and the CBD and is a good spot for a picnic or a quick lie down in the shade (it gets hot in Sydney!). The ANZAC memorial (located within Hyde Park) is worth a look, especially if you’re from New Zealand or Australia. The streets close to Hyde Park (Park Street, Market Street) are home to heaps of shops and there is some nice old architecture to check out.
The Queen Victoria Building is one of Sydney’s nicest old buildings, with the added bonus (if you like shopping I guess) of it being a mall. Check it out for the architecture even if you’re not in the mood to shop. The Strand Arcade is also nearby and has a similar look and feel (without being as impressive from the outside).
Museums and Galleries
There are heaps of museums and art galleries in Sydney and it can be a little hard to choose which ones to visit. We settled on the Museum of Contemporary Art, which is located in Circular Quay (very close to The Rocks). It was full of bizarre art and was a lot of fun to explore. Other popular Sydney museums and art galleries include the Museum of Sydney, the Hyde Park Barracks Museum and the Art Gallery of New South Wales.
We explored Sydney’s CBD on a public holiday, so it was practically dead (and heaps of cafés were closed) but it was still nice to look around. Again, you’ll see plenty of old buildings (the Town Hall is my favourite) but we also heard about a unique piece of street art. “Forgotten Songs” is an art installation in an alleyway with dozens of cages hanging above it (according to the artist, Michael Thomas Hill, the installation “explores how Sydney’s fauna has evolved and adapted to co-exist with increased urbanisation”). It’s not my favourite thing to do in Sydney but it’s worth a quick look (and is very close to places like the Queen Victoria Building and Hyde Park).
This retro theme park is located just across the harbour from Circular Quay and is worth a trip across to see. You can walk along the bridge, but I highly recommend taking a ferry across. It’s especially cool at night when it’s all lit up, and you’ll also get great views back towards Circular Quay (with the Harbour Bridge and Opera House predictably dominating the scene).
Take a ride on a ferry
There are lots of different ferry routes, but if you just want a quick experience it’s hard to beat the trip over to Luna Park. You’ll get a different perspective of the city and it won’t cost you much. Another popular option is the ferry ride out to Manly. It takes you through a good chunk of Sydney Harbour and Manly is a cool place (more on that below). If you’re on a budget, make sure to take advantage of cheap public transport on Sundays. The most you’ll pay is $2.70, meaning you can pretty much ride for free most of the day. We took full advantage and went out to the Blue Mountains by train and then over to Luna Park on the ferry that night. You can’t argue with only paying $2.70 for all that travel!
Sydney Beaches and Coastal Walks
There are countless beaches in Sydney and we didn’t see them all. We did see some of the most famous ones though, as well as a couple of the most popular coastal hikes.
If you only see one Sydney Beach, it’s most likely to be Bondi. This place is pretty famous, and it has the crowds to prove it. It’s nice though, and the little town that backs it is full of cafés, bars, restaurants and shops. It reminded me a lot of places like Seminyak in Bali. It’s a great option for staying in Sydney (we stayed there for a night and wish we had longer).
The Bondi to Coogee Walk
This walk will take a couple of hours and is easy (there’s not a lot of shelter from the sun though so it’d be tough on a hot summer day). The Bondi to Coogee walk takes you to some of Sydney’s best beaches, including Bronte Beach and Tamarama Beach and there are some awesome viewpoints all the way around.
Taking the ferry out to Manly is one of the best things to do in Sydney, and there is lots to do when you get there. Manly Beach is a highlight — it’s a beautiful stretch of sand and there are heaps of places to eat and drink nearby. We had some delicious pies at Hamlets Pies, check it out if you’re hungry in Manly!
The Manly to Spit Bridge Hike
The coastal path from Manly to Spit Bridge is surely one of the best hikes in Sydney. You’ll pass by lots of beaches before climbing up to some stunning viewpoints looking over Manly and Sydney Harbour. It’s around 10 kilometres all up and there is a bit of uphill walking involved (it’s easy though). You’ll finish at Spit Bridge — from there you can catch a bus back to Manly or into the city.
The Blue Mountains
One of the best day trips from Sydney takes you out through the western suburbs and into the Blue Mountains. It takes two hours to reach Katoomba and from there it’s a short bus ride (or you can walk) to Echo Point and the Three Sisters. The view above The Three Sisters is one of the most iconic in the Blue Mountains and it really is worth the long journey to get to. Don’t be expecting mountains as such — it’s just a massive expanse of green with some rocky areas giving the whole thing some texture. It’s an amazing place and is quite unlike anywhere else I’ve seen. There are some other short walks in the area and Katoomba is nice little town. This day trip is (in my opinion) one of the absolute best things to do in Sydney and if you have the time I’d definitely recommend it.
The South Coast
From Sydney we headed down the South Coast all the way to Jervis Bay (where the famous Hyams Beach is located). You could probably do it as a day trip if you had to (you’ll need to rent a car though) but it’s a better idea to spend a few days in the area. I’ve been to some famous beaches over the years (in exotic locales such as Thailand, Indonesia, Panama and Mexico) but the beaches in Jervis Bay are very hard to beat.
These certainly aren’t the only things to do in Sydney, but I was happy with what we saw, and hopefully you will be too if you follow my advice. You’ll see some of Sydney’s best beaches, its iconic city sights and the stunning Blue Mountains. You’ll need a good 4-5 days to do all this, so if you have a shorter time just pick and choose what interests you. However you do it, I hope your trip to Sydney will be as memorable as ours.
What are your favourite things to do in Sydney? Did I miss anything you’d recommend to others? Let me know in the comments below!
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