Sydney is a gorgeous city. But even more so, it is a lively city, where you feel the urge to be active, explore, attend events and try new things. These are the top 10 experiences I had in Sydney during my three months living there; some more local, some more touristy, all memorable.
10. The views from the plane
No other city in the world will impress you so much so soon. Its unique setting by the meandering harbor, its compact downtown and vast green areas, its iconic bridge and Opera House, immediately recognizable… Sydney stole my heart even before I set foot on it.
9. Shopping in historic buildings
I have a confession to make: I hate shopping. And somehow, I always enjoyed going to Sydney’s malls, commercial streets and markets. It might have been the historical significance of The Strand arcade or the Queen Victoria Building… but then, how could I explain the fun I had browsing modern shops in the CBD, or the stalls of The Rocks Market? It might have been the fact that the AUD was so low. Or maybe that Pitt Street reminded me of my beloved Gran Via in Madrid.
8. Christmas festivities
I was so excited when I learned that I would be spending Christmas in Sydney because of work 🙂 And it didn’t disappoint, it is such a unique experience, combining “our” traditions with hot summer and beach time. My favorite event was the light show on St. Mary’s Cathedral, one of the coolest spectacles I’ve seen in my life.
There was also a giant Christmas tree on Martin Place, a Santa Fest in Darling Harbour, carolers and choirs everywhere, decorations in the malls,… Another awesome event that kicked off the winter season was the Night Noodle Market, an Asian hawker-style market in Hyde Park with dozens of food stalls and music. Since it was right under our hotel, we went several times and stuffed ourselves with ramen burgers, satays, lechon and matcha ice cream. Oh, if you happen to visit Sydney in the austral winter, don’t worry, they have an amazing light festival called Vivid then.
7. Taking the ferry
An absolute must do when you visit Sydney, taking the public ferry is the cheapest and most authentic way to explore the harbor. From Circular Quay there are routes to Manly, Watsons Bay, the Taronga Zoo, Darling Harbour and a few other destinations. Once on the ferry, get a seat on the upper deck in the back (or in the front if you’re coming back to Circular Quay), and enjoy incomparable views of the Opera House, the Harbour Bridge and the city skyline. This activity is perfect to combine with the Spit to Manly coastal walk.
6. Yummy food
Ok, another confession: overall, we were not impressed with food in Australia. So it became even more exciting when we found a gem! Our favorite places were Ippudo (our go-to place in the CBD, world famous Japanese with no wait time here), the Fish Market, Gelato Messina (unforgettable ice creams in Surry Hills, Bondi and Darling Harbour), Macelleria (delicious, economic stakes in Bondi), A Tabola (excellent Italian in Bondi), The Rook (tasty burgers, lobster rolls and cocktails in CBD), Sokyo (great sushi in Darling Harbour), and Bennelong (the best fine dining, in the Opera House, will talk about it below on #4). One thing we failed to do was finding a restaurant-bar with good views; we checked out the Shangri La but weren’t impressed… any recommendations?
5. Walking, or even better, jogging through the center and the Botanic Gardens
One of my most vivid memories of Sydney is jogging through Hyde Park and the historic row, reaching the Royal Botanic Gardens and trotting by the stunning waterfront to Mrs. Macquarie’s Point and back. Sometimes I would make it a bit closer to the Opera House, or detour to the Rose Garden, or sprint back to Sydney Hospital, or go to Darling Harbour instead. As I explained in a previous post, all highlights of downtown Sydney can easily be seen in one day walking. If you have extra time in the city, try running through them!
4. A night at the Opera
There is no better way to celebrate a special occasion in Sydney than with a night at the Opera House. Luckily for us, we happened to be in Sydney during Elena’s birthday, so we had an excuse to splurge. We started the evening with a perfect dinner at Bennelong, the restaurant located inside the iconic building and run by Australia’s top chef Peter Gilmore (same as Quay, another great restaurant we would try on Christmas day). The setting was unforgettable and all the dishes were delicious, our surprising favorite being the carrot salad. Then we attended the magic show The Illusionists 1903. We were already ecstatic to be inside the Opera, getting to observe all its architectural details, and didn’t have high expectations. The show ended up being really good, with a cool mix of modern and vintage magic, and lots of humor.
The best way to end such a magical night is with a walk to soak the best views of the Opera House under the moonlight. Our favorite spots for this were the Overseas Passenger Terminal on the western side of Circular Quay and the Botanic Gardens a bit south of Mrs. Macquarie Point (for this one, you have to get in before sunset and wait, since they close the gates at 5-7:30pm, depending on the month).
This is the ultimate Sydney adventure, an organized tour to the top of the iconic Harbour Bridge. I had looked into it back in the day, but had given up because of the steep prices ($240-370 per person, depending on the time of day)… And then, on our last week in the city, my boss signed Elena and me up as a farewell gift! As if that weren’t enough, she picked the classic route at a twilight time, i.e., the best of the best 😉
We arrived early to the climb base, not knowing what to expect. We signed a waiver and began an efficient preparation process, where our guide moved us from one station to another to change clothes and leave all our stuff in lockers, put harnesses on, get radios, train on a test ladder, etc. After about half an hour, we were ready to begin the actual climb. We lined up behind the leader (tip: go first, right after the leader, to get the best pictures and roam a bit more freely), and clipped our harnesses to the railing that would keep us safe for the whole tour. The first part took us through the guts of the bridge, while our guide shared historical tidbits over the radio, which made the geeky engineer in me very happy. Soon, we reached the steep ladders and climbed up to reach the arch. The sun was starting to come down, dyeing the harbor, the coastal neighborhoods and our beloved Opera House in warm colors.
The views were fantastic, and got even better as we walked up on the arch to reach the highest point, 134 meters above the water. We relished the 360 panorama of Sydney, while the sun set, coloring the clouds, and the lights in the downtown buildings turned on. The structure of the bridge itself was really cool, with all its steel trusses and rivets, and made us feel tinny. My only complaint was that they don’t allow personal cameras (probably for very good reasons like safety, but also business), so we only have a few images taken by our guide… and we all had to wait like sheep for each group to take the exact same shots.
We hang out at the top for a bit and then started the way back down on the opposite side of the arch. When full darkness arrived, it was exhilarating: the night skyline was picture-perfect, and we could see the kitschy Luna Park on one end of the bridge, and the Darling Harbour fireworks on the other. The whole tour lasted about 3 hours, and we would remember it forever.
(An economic alternative to the Bridge Climb is the Pylon Lookout, or a simple walk across the Bridge to Milson Point and Luna Park)
2. Beaches and coastal walks
Final confession: I’m a beach junkie! So the first time I set foot in Bondi, laid down in the thin sand to tan, and took a dip in the turquoise waters, Sydney rose to the top of my list of favorite cities. The beaches and shoreline here look like they’re taken out of postcards. And it’s not just Bondi, it’s also Manly, and Camp Cove, and the numerous coves and cliffs that you pass on the amazing coastal walks: Bondi to Coogee, Spit to Manly and the lesser known Rose Bay to Watsons Bay. You must do at least one of these hikes in your time in Sydney; or better yet, do the three of them. You’ll thank me later
1. NYE fireworks
Spending New Year’s Eve in Sydney and watching the fireworks over the Harbour Bridge and the Opera House is a once in a lifetime experience. Once we decided we would be staying in Australia until early January, we started investigating the options to catch the pyrotechnic show. Not being able to befriend a local with an apartment or a boat in the harbor, we were left with two options: camp out in Mrs. Macquarie Point for 15 hours for a free spot, or shell out over $300 for a dinner party. There were exclusive parties on cruises and ferries, restaurants and bars, and, the most famous ones, on the Royal Botanic Garden. Since we were probably only going to be in Sydney for NYE once, we went all in.
The Royal Botanic Garden was organizing four events, with slightly different locations, menus and prices: Lawn With The View, The Point, Midnight At The Oasis and NYE Under The Stars. We went for The Oasis, because it offered the exact view we had in mind, looking straight into the bridge, with the Opera in front of it… and it was one of two that still had tickets left by the time we decided. The dinner itself was good, but not memorable, maybe a bit above our low expectations for such a massified event. As we checked-in (which took a while, but not too long), we received a box with appetizers and then sat down in simple, shared tables. We had to get up to get our main dishes, which had the advantage that you could get seconds 😉 I any case, we didn’t really care about the food or the service, that night was all about the views, and those were perfect. We enjoyed the harbor scenery as the sun set, and the bridge and the downtown high-rises light up across the water.
At 9pm we got a teaser to keep us going: a mini version of the midnight show referred to as the family fireworks. The next three hours we spent listening to the live music, exploring the venue, and setting up our photography gear, including a tripod my local colleague had lend us. If you want good pictures, you must use a DSLR camera, a tripod and learn a bit about manual settings (lots of easy info on google). Finally, the time had come. Everybody was jammed on the waterfront, yelling along the countdown projected on the bridge pylons. Then the explosions of color began and it was epic.
Most of the fireworks were actually shot from a point south of the bridge (near the Lawn With The View and NYE Under The Stars locations) and another point on the north shore, further to our right. These fireworks were great: big, colorful, intense, creative, loud… And then every once in a while they would shoot a burst from the bridge itself, illuminating the sky, the harbor and the Opera House, and it would be glorious.
P.S.: That night, Elena and I realized that we had spent the last 5 NYEs in the 5 continents: 2011 in North America (Miami, USA), 2012 in Europe (Moscow, Russia), 2013 in Latin America (Manuel Antonio, Costa Rica), 2014 in Asia (El Nido, Philippines) and in 2015 Oceania (Sydney, Australia)… Should we do Antarctica for 2016?