If you think Sydney peaks with a selfie of the Harbour Bridge, then check out our Secret Seven recommendations brought to you by native inhabitant Amy Cai. Ditch the guidebook you drongo, this is where the locals hang out…
When people ask me, “What do you like about Sydney?” I find it hard to answer them. The truth is that there are so many different ways of exploring my vivid and diverse home, such as via its art and architecture, or more sensually via its food and drink, as well as by the great natural landscapes that surround it, that to pick one or two highlights is tough. So I’m grateful to Urban Travel Blog that on this post I get to choose seven!
Many people in the past have written Sydney off as a young and gauche city next to the world’s most famous metropolises, but what they failed to see is that Sydney has its own story to tell and its own unique things for travellers to see and experience. This city was built by migrants from all walks of life, and its legacy of welcoming different cultures has seen new chapters emerge from where our various pasts converge. There is much to celebrate in contemporary Sydney, both our eclectic mix of people and and our ambitions in writing the next chapters in our history.
Take a look at these hangouts for just a sample of how we Sydneysiders live our city:
1# Spice Alley & Hawker Lane
Sydney offers some of the world’s most developed flavours in Asian fusion, a recipe we’ve perfected by mixing tradition with the contemporary. In recent years, we’ve built entire food courts in the style of Southeast Asian hawker lanes. The uninitiated should head to the suburb of Chippendale, just a stone’s throw away from the main city area. Nestled in the Kensington Street precinct is Spice Alley, a series of authentic Asian food stalls sprawled in a painted laneway. Twenty minutes away from the city is Chatswood, with its newly furbished Hawker Lane dishing out authentic lamb cumin kebab sticks, Peking duck fries, and the messy yet satisfying ramen burger.
2# Contemporary Art Outdoors
Sydney has brought contemporary art outdoors, rather than leaving it hidden in art galleries. Just a skip away from the busy areas of Chinatown is Kimber Lane, a narrow alley completely remade with the mystical brushstrokes of local artist Jason Wing. There’s a sense of wonderment cramped in this tiny space. As part of a series of artworks titled In Between Two Worlds, Jason’s murals aim to call on the spiritual beings of nature inspiring by folklore carried from a mix of Chinese and Aboriginal cultures. For beach-lovers, keep your eyes peeled for the yearly Sculpture by the Sea exhibit. This huge outdoor sculpture display stretches across one of the city’s most famous coastline walks from Bondi to Tamarama. With artworks involving surreal and at times interactive sculptures, even visitors who couldn’t care less about art can’t miss a stroll through this exhibit (check out photos and our full report of Sculpture by the Sea here). Vivid Sydney is another artistic triumph Sydney has perfected over the years. Held in the middle of each year, the most identifiable buildings around the city are lit up with colourful, interactive light displays. The festival has grown into the largest of its kind in the world – come nighttime, the entire city takes on a whole new persona. This year, our Vivid festival went wild, with a record-breaking drone performance held for five days, where a hundred lit-up drones took to the sky to perform a spectacular choreographed light show to synchronised to live orchestral music.
3# The Hidden Bar Scene
Sydney’s nightlife has drastically changed in the past few years, with strict lockout laws in place that ban entry into a bar after 1.30am. Sure, any hopes for long-winding pub crawls have all but died here, but none of us are heading home early just yet. In the spirit of New York’s 20s prohibition era, the modern-day speakeasy is well on the rise. Venture away from the well-trodden road, and behind some of the city’s shadiest looking dark alleyways, you’ll find underground playgrounds rife with intoxicating fun. A local favourite is The Baxter Inn, a basement bar nestled behind a nameless dark alley in the city. Recently named one of the world’s best bars, Baxter’s comes with an incredible selection of whiskey. Even if whiskey isn’t your thing, come along for the free pretzels and a tasty blend of apple whiskey.
4# Unbeatable Cafe Culture
Access to good coffee is so prevalent in Sydney that we locals here pretty much treat it as a human right. Venture into any small, unassuming cafe and you will still find that the barista almost always makes delicious coffee. If you’re looking for a morning pick-up in the city, the busy streets are stocked with delightful coffee stores. A favourite of mine is Workshop Espresso, which sits just off the intersection outside Town Hall. The shop space is unbelievably cramped, and in the mornings the congregation awaiting their coffee crowds the busy pavement outside like a group of prepubescent fans cheering for their favourite pop band. For those who like to grab a sneaky bite with their coffees, head down to Delisse – less hyped they may be, but their incredible pastry selection will melt your tastebuds.
5# Outdoors Cinema in Summertime
Sydney’s searing hot summer is famous for giving cooking ovens a run for their money. If you’re here during the Christmas period, you’ll see everyone who’s anyone either camping out in shopping malls or baking at the beach. By the time the sun sets though, the climate is perfect for outdoors gatherings and there can be no start to the Sydney summer without the outdoors cinema season also opening up across the city. First up, there’s the Ben & Jerry’s Openair Cinema, replete with live music before the movie and an unlimited supply of free Ben & Jerry’s ice cream for the audience. Whilst for movie-lovers who enjoy a good view, you can’t miss the St George’s Openair Cinema, dubbed the world’s most beautiful cinema.
6# Legendary Desserts
Foodies in Sydney have quite seriously formed cults over some of the city’s sweet offerings, and for reasons people often overlook. First up, the creative ice cream scene is truly mouth-watering. The makers of Cow and the Moon in Newtown, a small family-run gelato bar, were famously crowned the world’s best gelato-makers for their almond affogato flavour. This place churns out rich flavour combinations all the time – these guys love to experiment and mix their flavours right behind the counter. Another dessert venue that has gathered a fervent following is Black Star Pastry. This small, unassuming bakery sells what is undoubtedly Sydney’s most instagrammed cake, the strawberry and watermelon cake. Recently, the bakery opened a small shop front in the city area – the lines start to build up quickly after 5pm with workers on their way home.
Australia to most foreigners immediately conjures up images of endless golden beaches. The truth is that while even us locals will tell you our beaches are a delight, come summertime and our sandy bays turn into magnets that draw a good chunk of Sydney to the shores. If you’re looking for a place to think your existential thoughts away from the presence of Sydney’s entire population, take up hiking and you’ll discover plenty of hidden beaches scattered across the more isolated bay areas. Speaking as a true Gen Y, there are very few things on this planet that can convince me to go on a nature hike. One of them I highly recommend even the most cynical traveller to check out is Wattomolla. Hidden in the Royal National Park, Wattamolla is a secluded beach that connects to a running waterfall and a lagoon. If you’re looking for a place to leave behind the noise of the city, come here for shallow, calm waters, a small beachfront and an incredible view.
Bonus tip: Tank Stream Tour
If you’re running out of things to do, keep your eyes peeled for our local history tours. Believe it or not, the most exclusive thing to do in Sydney is the Tank Stream Tour, run twice a year taking travellers underground to Sydney’s first water supply. A ballot is run with about 160 lucky people typically chosen out of 4,000 who put their name down. For anyone thinking there’s no fun in learning a bit of history, prepare yourself for the countless unwritten anecdotes lurking behind Sydney’s glittering veneer.
Looking for even more fun things to do in Sydney? Then check out our weekend guide to “The Harbour City”. Here we cover everything from the unmissable attractions like the Opera House and Harbour Bridge, to some of the cool suburbs you should check out if you have a bit longer. We also have hotel, bar and restaurant recommendations aplenty. And if you’re carrying on exploring the rest of Australia, then be sure to check out our Melbourne city guide too!