Like most who’s-the-fairest-of-them-all city debates, the one about Australia’s Sydney and Melbourne seems like a never-ending argument, with residents of each asserting that their city is the cooler one. I’ve been to both, and here are my two cents. If Sydney and Melbourne were sisters, Sydney would be the high-heeled, always glamorous fashionista, the head-turner who you’d suit up to take out on a date. Melbourne would be the free-spirited Bohemian with whom you’d bond over your shared love of coffee, culture, and the arts.
We arrived first in Sydney after weeks of exploring New Zealand’s sublime landscapes of erupting geysers, beautiful glaciers, and majestic fiords. It was a little strange to show up in our outdoorsy clothes and hiking shoes while smartly dressed locals sashayed about in dapper suits and fitted dresses, heels click-clacking in Sydney’s CBD (Central Business District). “Welcome back to city life,” I remarked as I fumbled about in my suitcase for a dressier outfit and pretty shoes for our first day in the city.
Over the next few days, we put on our best clothes and explored the city’s impressive architecture: world-class Sydney hotels, trendy boutiques and galleries, museums, posh restaurants, and nightlife. We walked around in the city’s good-looking neighborhoods, dined at its fine restaurants, drank wine as we ooh-aahed over its fantastic harbor views, and spent a delightful day on lively Bondi Beach. Here’s my pick of what first-timers can do with four days in Sydney.
Don’t waste any time in making your way to Sydney Harbour; the heart of the city is home to some of its most iconic sights and is also where all the fun happens.
Circular Quay is a major public transport hub and is easy to get to, wherever your hotel in Sydney might be. As its name suggests, it has ferry quays, bus stops, and a train station. Hang out in the area — a lively open-air street performance venue where you’ll see guitar-strumming buskers, African bongo players, living-statue artists, and street painters all the way from Italy. For a rest, sit down at one of the trendy al fresco cafés, restaurants, or bars. If you like museums, check out the Museum of Contemporary Art and the Museum of Sydney.
Enjoy Opera at Sydney Opera House
A short stroll from Circular Quay brings you to the crown jewel in Sydney’s skyline, the Sydney Opera House. The landmark is magnificent whatever time of day you see it, especially when it’s bathed in beautiful lighting during the Vivid Sydney festival. By day, you could walk around or take a guided tour, but if you’re in Sydney, why not partake in the joys of opera (and ballet, theater, symphony, and comedy) at one of the most iconic opera houses in the world? Book tickets in advance, dress up, and have your mind blown by one of many world-class acts at Sydney Opera House on what will be one of your most memorable nights out. Afterward, relax with a few cocktails at the Opera Bar before you put on your dancing shoes.
Stroll in the Royal Botanic Gardens
At one end of the Sydney Harbour, the Royal Botanic Gardens, which spread over more than 30 hectares, are a peaceful retreat-like space, ideal for slowing down a little on your Sydney exploration. The gardens are home to rare and diverse plant species, and free guided walks are available. Don’t miss the rose garden and the glass pyramid at the Tropical Center.
Sydney Harbour Bridge
The Sydney Harbour Bridge is an engineering marvel. The world’s tallest steel arch bridge (reaching up to 134 meters), it connects the city center to the northern suburbs and creates the perfect Sydney postcard image with the Opera House. Whatever your appetite for adventure, there are many ways to experience this iconic Sydney landmark. Set out on an adrenaline-packed BridgeClimb; see the bridge from a ferry, cruise, or a kayak; or simply put on your walking shoes and set off on an urban trek to walk the length of the bridge (my favorite way to see it).
Take a trip back in time in the cobbled lanes and back streets of The Rocks, where the first European settlers lived in the 1780s. This lively tourist hub is a far cry from the days when poverty-stricken migrants lived in disease-ridden, unsanitary conditions made worse by crime and prostitution. Today the area is worth a visit for its unique and quirky shops and weekend markets. Don’t miss Cadman’s Cottage (Sydney’s oldest house); the Rocks Discovery Museum, where you can learn about the area’s history and that of its first residents; Argyle Place; and Garrison Church.
Wander around this touristy waterfront, which is home to restaurants, cafés, and bars. Across Pyrmont Bridge you’ll find the Sydney Fish Market, a true local market experience. Take an auction tour or seafood cooking classes, or simply sample some seafood at one of the restaurants. Other sights of interest here are the Sydney Aquarium, Australian National Maritime Museum, and the Chinese Garden of Friendship.
Explore Sydney’s Neighborhoods
It isn’t just your fellow pedestrians you’ll find yourself looking at; Sydney is home to plenty of interesting architecture and good-looking neighborhoods. If the weather is on your side, exploring the city center on foot is an excellent idea. Go café hopping in Stanley Street, stroll up to the art deco ANZAC War Memorial in Hyde Park, and then make your way to bustling George Street.
Heading south, step into the grand Queen Victoria Building, also called QVB. Built in Romanesque style in the 1890s and restored in 1986, it’s home to the city’s best boutiques and cafés. You’ll notice the beautiful dome, the sunlight-illuminated stained glass windows, and a 19th-century staircase. Take it all in over a cup of tea and macaroons at one of the quaint teahouses. For more shopping neighborhoods, head to Oxford Street in Paddington; for exclusive luxury brands, head to Martin Place, Elizabeth, George, and King Streets.
If you want to see an unexpected side of the city, head to Chinatown and Haymarket. Here you’ll find plenty of options for Asian food, from ramen bars and delicious dumplings to the perfect bowl of Vietnamese Pho.
Be a Beach Bum at Bondi Beach
With lively cafés, a busy skate park, glorious tans, and bronzed surfer bodies, Bondi Beach — although it might not be the most scenic of beaches — certainly scores on popularity. Spend a day lazing around on the beach; hang out with the young and glamorous as they enjoy beers and sundowners by the beach; or, if you’re feeling active, do the 6-kilometer Bondi to Coogee Coastal Walk. The walk offers lovely views and fantastic scenery along cliffs and coves. Don’t worry if you don’t have your own set of wheels; you can easily reach Bondi by bus from Circular Quay. If you’ve got an extra day, spend a night in Bondi to enjoy its fun nightlife.
Have you been to Sydney? What would you add to this list? If you’re from Sydney, what insider secrets and spots can you share? I’d love to know — share your thoughts in the comments below.
This post was presented by IHG.