There is a bit of pressure when you have only three and a half days to visit one of the great cities of the world, which is all the time we had to explore Sydney. How to decide what to see?
Recently, we met an American woman whose travel philosophy is to see as much as she can squeeze into the allotted time each day, and daily time slots for any one place can be as short as 15 minutes or as long as two hours. Between time slots, she and her family race to the next site to experience what they can in the time scheduled. This is a practical approach for maximizing sightseeing and we do not fault her for packing in all she can. It is not; however, our preferred travel philosophy. We pick one to three things to see or do each day and prefer to walk or take public transportation to experience what a place has to offer and people watch. It’s more fun for us to observe people who live and work in our travel destination. In the morning, we may sit in a small café seeing children in their uniforms going to school and in the evening, perch on stools at a pub sipping hard cider watching commuters heading home from work. And on weekends, we enjoy picnicking in parks with local families. It adds a bit of cultural understanding to our trip, and it often provides the opportunity to talk with locals.
Things to See and Do
On our first day we left our Airbnb apartment in the Kings Cross neighborhood shortly after breakfast and walked toward Circular Quay, which is the harbor at the heart of the Central Business District (CBD). Our route took us along Victoria Street, with shops, cafes, and old Victorian houses that had been converted into hostels. We descended the very steep public stairs to the Woolloomooloo neighborhood near the Fleet Base East Naval Yard passing old workers cottages and small neighborhood restaurants receiving their daily supplies from delivery trucks.
After a 30-minute walk, we entered the Royal Botanic Gardens, along with school groups of little children in floppy hats and matching tee shirts.
This is a good place to wander along paths photographing lush flowering gardens and giant trees suitable for housing the Swiss Family Robinsons. Don’t miss the harbor views from the popular Mrs. Macquarie’s stone chair—you might be able to sneak a photo between the heads of other tourists—and be sure to sit on a bench beside the botanic garden ponds long enough to watch water fowl catching insects and feeding them to their babies.
The temperature began to get hot as the sun beamed down from a cloudless sky. Wishing for floppy hats like the little children’s, we walked from the gardens on a sidewalk along the harbor to the iconic Sydney Opera House, which sits on one side of Circular Quay.
This world famous site is a popular tourist draw, but it is worth standing in line, blissfully in the shade, to get a tour of this extraordinary building. And if at all possible, secure tickets to view a performance in one of its six theatres to take in an opera, a play, a film, a dance performance, or a concert.
The Rocks, located on the far side of the quay, is another popular area for tourists with restaurants, historic bars and pubs, markets, and the Museum of Contemporary Art with its culturally relevant and edgy exhibitions.
The area is culturally significant with over 100 historic buildings from the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries. The oldest remaining building is Cadman’s Cottage, built in 1816. The best ways to see The Rocks are to meander along the steep cobble stone streets or, better yet, hire a knowledgeable guide for a walking tour to learn about the characters who lived there. For adventure travelers who seek lofty views, set aside about 3.5 hours to climb to the top of the 1932 Sydney Harbour Bridge. Photo by Mezuni vai Wikimedia Commons.
The CBD abuts Circular Quay, so if shopping is on your To Do List, this area is a good choice. Many visitors stay in the CBD’s luxury hotels and eat at the nearby fancy restaurants
Hyde Park is a cool shady 40-acre reserve in the CBD with wide paths, fountains, and tall exotic trees. One section of the park is the site for the Anzac Memorial, a tribute to those who served in World War I in general and specifically those who fought at Gallipoli in 1916. ANZAC stands for Australian and New Zealand Army Corps and is an important part of both Australia and New Zealand’s history. By good luck, we were in Australia on April 25th, the annual Anzac Day national holiday and saw a three-hour parade of veterans and active duty service women and men proudly wearing their uniforms and medals. The parade watchers seemed to be sincerely grateful to those who served and deservedly proud of the role Australia fulfilled and continues to play in resolving conflicts around the world.
You want to go where?
When traveling with a companion, there are times when one or the other traveler is deeply interested in a topic or a destination that you, yourself, have no interest, right? The question always arises as to whether you should flee and do your own sightseeing or take a chance. That point came when my husband and I arrived at the Hyde Park Barracks Museum.
He wanted to spend a couple of hours (yikes!) touring the museum. I wrongly thought this was another museum about military history and the men who fight wars. Instead, it was a fascinating look at the settlement of Australia by British convicts—women and men—using artifacts found in the building and artwork of the building. To get a feel for what the convicts’ lives were like, don’t miss the wall-to-wall hammocks on the top floor and the touching video of a women convict on her bed and a look into her chest of drawers located on the next to the top floor. Photo via Wikimedia Commons
The Museum presented some information about the aboriginal peoples who lived in the area when the convicts and marines invaded, but the aboriginal people’s perspective is not the purpose of this museum. For more information about aboriginal peoples, head over to the nearby Australian Museum at 1 William Street. Personally, I’m glad I took the chance of touring the barracks museum since it was worth it.
Kings Cross is a neighborhood of small ethic restaurants (our favorite was Friggitoria, a family-run Italian café), pubs (try Kings Cross Hotel pub), and three intimate theatres presenting contemporary, indie, and cutting-edge plays and musicals.
In other words, the neighborhood is a cool place and only a bit dodgy. And Kings Cross is merely a couple of stops from the CBD so it is a convenient base from which to explore Sydney. Alternatively, the nearby Potts Point neighborhood is another good tourist base. It is more upscale, and thus the lodging and restaurants are more expensive.
- Kings Cross Theatre is an intimate venue, located on the second level of the Kings Cross Hotel, which produces Indie plays. It supports artists from culturally diverse backgrounds. We saw and loved the world premiere of Between the Streetlight & the Moon, written by Melita Rowston. This theatre is so small that you have a good chance of sitting next to the playwright, which I did just by luck.
- Griffin Theatre Company is a small venue that produces new works written by Australians about Australia with Australian performers. It is also located in Kings Cross.
- Hayes Theatre Company specializes in Indie musicals and cabarets. This small theatre is a great way to see musicals up close. Its address is actually Potts Point, which is about an 8 minute walk (0.8 km or 0.5 mi) from the other two theatre venues.
The Sydney subway and train service is called the Cityrail, and is a modern and efficient system for moving lots of residents and visitors around the city, suburbs, and region. We found the Cityrail employees to be courteous and helpful. Another plus is that the trains and train stations were wheelchair accessible. Our only grumble is the dearth of maps in the stations and on the trains. Even when a knowledgeable staff member directs you to the proper train, visitors can feel uncertain about how far you must go. As it is, there aren’t any maps up in each train car that would allow tourists to keep track of the stops and feel more confident about getting off at the right place.
- Download the electronic Cityrail map onto your smart phone
- Print a paper copy of the map to keep in your daypack or purse for planning and reference purposes
- The traffic to the Sydney airport is an utter nightmare. If possible, take the train to the airport and avoid the inevitable snarl that will delay you getting to your airplane. We took taxis to and from the airport. The drivers were helpful, but they could do absolutely nothing about the horrible traffic.
We were told that you haven’t seen Sydney until you tour the harbor which turned out to be sound advice. And it was also a good way to spend the only rainy day we had in Australia. We bought tickets on a water taxi that sailed a circuit of the entire harbor and permitted us to hop off and hop on at scheduled docks.
When we arrived at Watson’s Bay, the rain stopped long enough for us to hike some of the coastal trails on the hillside above the town. Later, when we disembarked at Manley Beach, the rain picked up again. After putting on our rain jackets, we walked the beach, and enjoyed the cafes and shops in town. When on board the water taxi and weather permitting, be sure to take advantage of the terrific photo opportunities of the Sydney skyline.
Blue Mountains National Park is a wilderness area with bushwalking (hiking) trails along cliffs overlooking mountain features and waterfalls. It is an easy day trip (50 km or 31 mi) from the Sydney CBD and can be reached by driving a car, which can be harrowing if you usually drive on the right side of the road, or riding one of the comfortable and frequent trains through the Sydney suburbs to the wilderness area. The small town of Katoomba sits on the edge of the National Park and has a train stop near the town center. If you have additional time, the many restaurants, galleries, cultural events, and nature trails assure you can be entertained for several days. We walked about a mile across town to the trail head near a gondola taking sightseers to the valley below.
Alternatively, visitors can buy a day pass on tourist buses that drive from the train station along the cliffs, conveniently letting visitors hop off and hop on at specified stops, along with busloads of other tourists. Don’t miss seeing the street murals on Beverly Place.
If shopping for Aboriginal art, make sure it is authentic. Such art comes with a certificate and is already signed by the artist. Buy directly from an artist or reputable gallery to avoid buying fake Aboriginal art or exploiting artists. We loved the Waradah Aboriginal Centre near the Three Sisters overlook. In addition to the gallery, visitors can peruse the educational exhibits, see dance performances, and listen to demonstrations of didgeridoos.
The crime rate is low across Australia. As with any large city of the world, however, be aware of your surroundings in Sydney and guard against pick pocketing and purse snatching. In addition to wearing sunscreen, be like the little children and wear a wide-brimmed hat. The sun’s UV rays are strong and it is easy to get sunburned. Skin cancer is a commonly diagnosed cancer in Australia. We were horribly disappointed to not encounter the famously dangerous serpents, sharks and other lethal creatures of Australia but word has it they exist.
Traveling to Sydney gave us a tantalizingly short view of this city and a little of its region. There is far more to see and do than is written of here. Next trip, we hope to see more of the wilderness and scary wildlife!