Sydney in a day (+24hr+ BONUS)
Sydney is one of my top ten favorite cities, and probably even top five. There is plenty to do over several neighborhoods, but if you only have one day, I would stick to the main sites in the center of the city. If you have more than a day or two, then you might be able to cross off most of the list! Chances are you had to fly a ways to get here, so get ready to hit the ground running, but there’s plenty to do and see. Grab your flat white and good luck, mate!
Sydney Opera House.
Clearly one of the first things you’ll want to do is visit the iconic Sydney Opera House. This is one of the most recognized buildings in the entire world today and was built by Danish architect Jorn Utzon in 1957, who was awarded the job after winning the design competition. I won’t spoil too much for you; the tour of the Opera House is actually very interesting. Plus you might even be granted a quick peek at a rehearsing ensemble. If the weather is just too nice to spend a few hours indoors, then enjoy high tea at one of the several shops nearby overlooking Circular Quay and watch the ferries passing each other in the bay.
Royal Botanical Gardens.
On the back side of the Opera House you can walk through the Royal Botanical Gardens back to the city center, or over to the Art Gallery of New South Whales which houses plenty of interesting exhibits.
If you head the opposite direction from the Gardens, you’ll walk along the docks at Circular Quay and through a few street performers until you reach The Rocks on the northern end. Here you’ll find plenty of excellent bars and restaurants - if you’re lucky enough to stop by on a weekend, make sure you check out The Rocks Market for its blocks of local vendors and artisans. I also recommend stopping by the rooftop of The Gilmore one afternoon to enjoy a pint overlooking the bay and Opera House. (The Shangri La has a pretty impressive panoramic view from its rooftop bar as well).
Vivid Light Show.
If you’re planning to come around May, try to coordinate your dates with the annual Vivid lights showcased throughout the city. Each year thousands of artists participate in creating eye-capturing exhibits with lights that will fill up your camera roll. You definitely won’t want to miss the city all lit up during that week. Catch the award-winning night performances that use the Opera House as a backdrop while you take in the cool sea breeze (read: bring a jacket).
The CBD stands for the self explanatory City Business District, or what Westerners would probably refer to as “downtown”. It’s perched just below the Opera House and the Rocks, walkable within 10 minutes. It’s much slower paced at night after many businesses close which makes it the best time to check out its slew of bars and restaurants. The Barangaroo area has a row of lovely restaurants overlooking the water. There are also a few great hotels for a few dollars less than some closer to the Rocks, such as QT Hotel (https://www.qthotelsandresorts.com/sydney-cbd): a super cool, funky spot with the staff in different colored wigs and vintage decor worthy of magazine covers - not to mention a great spa). A few of my favorite spots for a bite or beverage here include: Mr. Wong’s for fantastic gourmet Chinese food; Belgian Beer Cafe Heritage for some authentic mussels; Palmer & Co. where flapper girls will serve up classic bootleg cocktails in an old speakeasy; and don’t miss Baxter Inn for one of the rarest whiskey collections you can find.
About a mile south of town The CBD (or one stop on the train) you’ll find every type of Asian street cuisine you could imagine at Spice Alley in the neighborhood of Chippendale. Affordable and casual, this spot offers something for any appetite. Schezuan, Cantonese, Thai, Vietnamese, Japanese, Chinese, the list goes on. If your travel companion is feeling Thai and you’re craving sushi, no worries- you can each order your food and grab a table to wait until your order is called. Make sure you leave room for dessert: a few block’s away you’ll find Master Chef 2015’s Reynold Poernomo’s Koi Dessert Bar (www.koidessertbar.com.au). Stop for a sweet or try their prix fix menu: it’s worth the coin. My fave creations were “Mr. Pistachio” with dark chocolate and raspberry and their Activated Charcoal and Black Sesame Tea is one of the best beverages I’ve ever had.
If you have more than a day or two, here are a few other suggestions for our fellow adventurers. Whether you are dying to see some Aussie creatures up close, face your fear of heights, or stroll along the shores, these trips were worth every minute. (Check back for when we can add Great Barrier Reef for all my fellow divers!)
This could probably be a spot you could visit within a day or two while you’re cruising around Sydney Harbor and The Rocks. Complete with a ferris wheel, rows of bars and restaurants, and several events throughout the year, Darling Harbor offers a great vibe to enjoy an evening out of dinner, drinks, ice cream, entertainment, or even just a walk while people watching (if you’re around during Vivid, definitely walk over and check it out).
I have to say I enjoy Manly nearly as much as I enjoy the center of Sydney. Just a half hour ferry ride from Circular Quay (which runs very frequently), you disembark in a great local beach spot. Not too big but plenty to do, there’s a small beach right in front of where the ferries dock. Stop and have a refreshing juice or local brew at one of the several great food stalls you’ll pass on the way through the docks.
Bondi is about a 20 minute ride from Sydney and well worth the trip if the weather is supportive. This is a much bigger beach than Manly and just about the same distance from the city. Though the walk along Bondi is a great way to spend your afternoon if you’re up for a stroll along the picturesque view. There is also a social-media worthy infinity pool along the beach that I aiming to check out on my next visit.
Climb the Harbor Bridge.
It’s still on my list, but I’m determined to do it. Not for those with a fear of heights… runs about $100 and the climb goes, rain or shine (they only cancel and refund if there is lightening in the area). Oh, and don’t forget to embrace your body clock when you’re up early in the morning and take a run over the Harbor Bridge before your flight home. (Note: New Zealand-based athletic store Icebeaker in the Sydney airport has the best merino wool compression socks I’ve ever used)
Hop on the ferry from Circular Quay to Taronga Zoo. Within a half hour boat ride, you’ll arrive at Sydney’s not-for-profit organization which actually supports wildlife conservation (which is why they made our list and earned our entrance fees). Take the afternoon to explore Australia’s wildlife among the backdrop of Sydney Harbor. You can even join one exhibit to hold a koala bear!
The Blue Mountains & Three Sisters.
About 2 1/2 hours by car north of Sydney Airport you’ll find a majestic mountain range, named aptly for the gorgeous blues and greens between the forests and sky. The Three Sisters rock formations sit on the edge of a beautiful panoramic view. Pick a day to make the trip out here and up to the caves (see next), or just grab a coffee and drive out as soon as you land like we did. (Because #jetlagisforamateurs.)
The Jenolan Caves.
After your hike, you can drive just a little farther up the road to see the Jenolan Caves. Get your dose of stalactites and stalagmites as you wander through the pathway into one of the world’s oldest, massive cave channels.
Royal National Forest.
If you’re still up for a little more hiking on day 3, drive out to the Royal National Forest. There are beautiful views over a patch of beach looking out from the cliffs- a real stop-and-smell-the-sea-water moment. Take advantage of any nice weather and low tide for the Instagram-famous Figure 8 Pool next to the side the beach - but hikers beware: there are signs warning of extreme danger during high tide, when the waves will you wash you out to sea before you could say cheese for that photo. They say everything in Australia is trying to kill you (“and nothing in New Zealand is” so check out our Auckland article), so I suppose the environmental factors are included. This also reminds me to warn you of the leaches during a post-rain hike through the forest, so keep your ankles covered and check your shoes (we were glad we did, anyway). I swear this is actually a fun and beautiful trip.
(Local refs: Mitsie and Liz Kent)