Travel writer Richard Tulloch has been to his fair share of great cities, but none have tempted him to cut his ties with his native Sydney. In our Long Weekend guide he shares his local travel tips for first-time visitors…
Australians who don’t live in Sydney are jealous. Melbourne people in particular enjoy niggling their northern neighbours. The Emerald City is a flashy, superficial town, they say. Lucky it’s got a sparkling harbour and brilliant surf beaches, because apart from that… okay, the weather’s sometimes good and yeah, yeah, there are those Blue Mountains… but apart from that Sydney just rests on its geographic laurels and pours itself a self-congratulatory beer. And BTW, that Opera House looks like a nest of copulating turtles.
Sydneysiders know better. Sure a lot of architecture is ordinary, public transport is limited and traffic’s a shambles. But we love the suburban neighbourhoods, the affordable casual food and the rocky parks wild enough to be a bushfire hazard every summer. Even though there’s water, water everywhere. We enjoy Sydney’s multiculturalism and general social cohesion, though the current popularity of Australia‘s ‘tough on border protection’ policies reminds us that not everybody is as tolerant as they might be.
‘Friendly and relaxed’ is how many visitors describe Sydney. This can extend to relaxed customer service… But usually it means people don’t mind what you say, do or wear, so long as you are friendly and relaxed too.
‘Friendly and relaxed’ is how many visitors describe Sydney. This can extend to relaxed customer service – ‘Jeez sorry, mate, you been waiting?’ But usually it means people don’t mind what you say, do or wear, so long as you are friendly and relaxed too. ‘Drop round for a barby this arvo, dip in the pool, few of us are watching the match on TV. Just bring yourself.’ Should you get such an invitation, also bringing marinated steaks and a bottle of wine makes you an instant ‘good bloke’ or ‘good lady’.
Best of the Beaten Track
A ferry ride on Sydney Harbour is top of the list of compulsory things to do in the capital. This could be a trip to Manly’s beach and flashy, superficial shopping strip or, my preference, to Watson’s Bay, calling at little jetties along the way. Once you’re there, Doyle’s Seafood Restaurant is famous and, if you don’t want to pay for a seat, their takeaway fish and chips on the beach is a good lunch option.
Climbing the Sydney Harbour Bridge is popular, despite costing a small fortune. Walking or cycling across the world’s biggest toast rack is free however, and the view and athletic achievement are almost the same.
Of course you want to see the Sydney Opera House, and the historic Rocks area nearby is now almost completely given over to tourist shops and restaurants. Modern Darling Harbour is a major attraction, with its excellent Sydney Aquarium, less excellent Star City Casino and predictable souvenir shops.
Taronga Zoo has a brilliant site overlooking the harbour, it’s fun for the kids and great if cuddling a koala is a high priority for you. The free flight bird show is a gem.
Too few visitors get to Sydney’s suburban areas. For real caffé, pasta and gelato in little Italy, take a short bus ride to Norton Street, Leichhardt. Haymarket’s Chinatown is close to the centre, and for an even more authentic Asian experience, take the (one hour) train trip out to South-East Asian Cabramatta. You’ll see how enormous and diverse this city is, and almost forget you’re in a western country.
Districts around a university usually have interesting shops and good-value restaurants. King Street, Newtown and Glebe Point Road fit well into this category, being close to Sydney University on the bus route down Broadway.
For arty shops and Saturday markets, visit Paddington and Balmain. Paddington has some of Sydney’s prettiest streets; classic 19th century terrace houses with intricate wrought iron balconies. It’s the hub of the Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras each March.
If you have any interest in the great outdoors, the Blue Mountains are a couple of hours away by car or train. They’re not high, but they are seriously wild, a plateau cut by deep, spectacular canyons. Buses spew out thousands of tourists at Echo Point, Katoomba, but there are better places for short or challenging day walks, notably Govett’s Leap, Blackheath or Wentworth Falls’ Conservation Hut. WARNING: Don’t walk into the bush without the right gear and proper planning. Hikers die out there – really!
Uber-hipsters will want to check out our Secret Seven guide for even more original and fun things to do in Sydney!
Experience & Events
Naturally you want to go to Bondi Beach. Surf or work on your tan/melanoma if you must, but also take a sunrise walk around the cliff tops to Bronte. In November the Sculpture by the Sea exhibition is a knockout (check our Richard’s article on the event for more insight!).
But surfing in Sydney is a no-brainer, so how about snorkelling at Clovelly Beach? The ocean here is forced between concrete banks, and the fish life below the surface is amazing.
Sport is big in Australia – cricket in the summer, football in the winter. The great spectator codes are rugby league or Australian Rules footy. Sydney Swans play Aussie Rules at the former Olympic Stadium at Homebush or at the historic Sydney Cricket Ground. Sydney Football Stadium next door hosts a rugby league game most weekends. Tickets are normally available at the gate.
Sydney also has The Yarts – at the Opera House of course, and Sydney Theatre Company’s Wharf Theatre and Belvoir St. Theatre, superbly reclaimed old buildings, present quality classics and interesting alternative work. A string of international stars including Cate Blanchett, Geoffrey Rush, Judy Davis, Hugo Weaving and Nicole Kidman started their careers in Sydney and still perform here… and if the Aboriginal Bangarra Dance Theatre has a show on while you’re in town – see it!
You only need about 50 dollars to wake to a million dollar view, if you choose to camp on Cockatoo Island in the middle of Sydney Harbour. You can even hire a tent.
The pick of the hostels might be the Sydney Harbour Youth Hostel, in the Rocks, which is central and has award-winning architecture, harbour views above and an archaeological dig below. Hostelgeeks named it in their top three budget stays in the city.
When someone else is paying opt for the Sir Stamford Hotel, Circular Quay.
For some the chance to sleep with smallpox-riddled ghosts is too rare to pass up. The former Quarantine Station at Manly has a sad history, but now offers upmarket B&B accommodation and dining, history and ghost tours, bushland surrounds and, of course, a fantastic harbour view.
You won’t go hungry in Sydney, whatever your chosen ethnic cuisine. Local seafood with an Asian influence is the standout. Australian restaurants allow you to bring your own wine which saves your wallet, despite the ‘corkage’ charged for opening your bottle. Though most wine now comes with screw-tops, calling it ‘screwage’ hasn’t caught on.
For value it’s hard to beat The Sydney Fish Market, one of the world’s largest. Your lunch will be killed and grilled while you wait.
Thanh Binh is a super and affordable Vietnamese. Order the cook-it-yourself and roll-your-own rice paper rolls. They also have a branch in their spiritual home in Cabramatta.
Sydney’s recent Restaurant of the Year in the Good Food Guide is Marque in Surry Hills, dethroning regular winner, Japanese Tetsuya’s. For serious foodie tours of different cuisines, see Gourmet Safaris.
Sydney nightlife is not unlike the London nightlife: there’s a readiness to embrace new music trends and scenes in clubland, whilst for a larger percentage of the city’s drinkers there’s an abundance of great pubs (often called ‘hotels’ for licensing reasons) in which to indulge in post-work binges.
The fine weather and surrounds makes Darling Harbour an obvious choice to start any night, and the likes of Pontoon and Cargo are great catch-all venues perfect for one or many schooners. Many nights that start here end in the vast Home Club just up the promenade.
For a good old fashioned pub in the ‘burbs try The Oaks in Neutral Bay.
For live music descend into The Basement.
Qantas flies to Sydney from the UK, Europe, the US and many Asian airports. For domestic flights within Australia, Virgin Blue and Jetstar (Qantas’ no-frills subsidiary) often have the best prices. The train from Melbourne takes 12 hours and costs as much as flying. Buses are cheaper, but the gruelling trip takes all day.
Grace Karskens’ recent epic The Colony is a serious history of early Sydney. Kate Grenville’s beautiful novel The Secret River tells what happened to the Aborigines. Ruth Park’s Harp in the South and Poor Man’s Orange are set in Sydney’s 1930’s depression. For lighter modern stuff, any crime fiction by Peter Corris.
Soundtrack to the City
Angus and Julia Stone – Big Jet Plane
Silverchair – Luv Your Life
Paul Kelly – Have You Ever Seen Sydney From a 747 at Night?
Mike Brady – Up there Cazaly.
Machine Gun Fellatio – My Ex-Girlfriend’s Boyfriend…
Slim Dusty – Duncan.