Sydney Harbour at sunset. Photo by Canva

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Sydney (often referred to as the Harbour City) is one of the most beautiful cities in the world. It is blessed with good weather, great beaches and the largest natural harbour in the world. Sydney Harbour is one of the most beautiful in the world.

There are loads of things to do in Sydney and many of them are free.

I was born in Melbourne and I have lived there my entire life. As a Melburnian, I am supposed to “hate” Sydney (there is a fierce but friendly rivalry between the two cities!) I don’t hate Sydney though. I love visiting there. (In my view, Melbourne is more liveable than Sydney but that debate is for another day!)

Best Tips & Tools to Plan Your Trip

Sunset at Sydney Harbour. Photo by iStock/structuresxx
Sunset at Sydney Harbour. Photo by iStock/structuresxx

I still vividly remember the first time that I visited Sydney. I was 25. The first place I went was Circular Quay where I gazed at the Opera House and the Harbour Bridge. It was a real “pinch me” moment.

Even now, thirty years and many trips to Sydney later, I still love the Circular Quay area and I still have “pinch me” moments admiring the beautiful Harbour.

A Local’s Top Things to Do in Sydney

Here are my Top 11 Things to Do in Sydney for a first or second-time visitor to the Harbour City:

Sydney's Circular Quay
The Sydney Skyline and Circular Quay. Photo by Canva

1. Walk around Circular Quay

Admire the iconic Sydney Opera House and the Harbour Bridge from various angles and wander around the historic area of The Rocks. I do this every time I visit Sydney and I never tire of it.

The Rocks is the birthplace of modern Sydney. With the arrival of European settlers in 1788, convicts first set up houses and shops here. There is a market in The Rocks every Saturday and Sunday selling craft items and food.

You can climb to the top of the Sydney Harbour Bridge if you dare. Pricing is dynamic depending on the experience you choose and the time of day or night you climb but an adult climb starts at USD$197/AUD$294.

You can also tour the Opera House on most days of the year (USD$29/AUD$43). The standard tour includes up to 300 stairs with no lift access. For a stair free tour, contact the Opera House in advance.

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Of course, you can catch a performance at the Opera House, too. I finally did this last year when I saw a production of Miss Saigon there.

While away an hour or more, having a drink (and snacks or a meal) at the Opera Bar, looking out to the Bridge and marvelling at the superb views over the Harbour.

There is no need, however, to spend a cent to do this walk. Just amble, admire and soak in the vibrant city and views as you watch the traffic on the Harbour – there may be a cruise ship docked at Circular Quay and there will always be ferries bustling in and out of Circular Quay together with many other boats. It is a harbour that is well-used for commuting and for pleasure. No matter the weather, it is absolutely beautiful.

When you get hungry, there are plenty of food options all over this area from takeaway ice creams to fine dining.

Ride of of Sydney's famous ferries. Photo by Canva
Ride of of Sydney’s famous ferries. Photo by Canva

2. Have a Ride on a Ferry

Even if you don’t need to catch a ferry, it’s a fun activity that gives you a unique perspective of Sydney from the water. It is also inexpensive sightseeing. The heart of the Sydney ferry system is Circular Quay. Ferries operate many routes in Sydney Harbour and along the Parramatta River.

My favourite ferry ride is from Circular Quay to Manly. The ferry trip is about 30 minutes (USD$7.00/AUD$10.50). You can cross on the Fast Ferry if you want a shorter trip.

Once you arrive in Manly, you can walk down the Manly Corso lined with eateries and shops. At the far end of the Corso is Manly Surf Beach. Yes, that’s the Pacific Ocean. Head to the right beside the beach and follow the path to Shelly Beach. There are loads of cafes and restaurants. A gorgeous part of the world!

Have a swim at any of the sandy beaches if you feel like it.

3. Do the Coastal Walk from Bondi to Coogee or the Shorter Walk from Bondi to Bronte

Bondi Beach. Photo by Leonie Jarrett
Bondi Beach. Photo by Leonie Jarrett

I love this walk and I do it whenever I have the chance.

Bondi to Coogee is 3.7 miles/6 kilometres. Bondi to Bronte is 1.4 miles/2.3 kilometres. Both walks are on (mostly) paved pathways and offer incredible views. There are steep stairs along the paths, though, so this walk is not ideal for pushers, and it is not suitable for wheelchairs.

The Bondi to Coogee walk will take about 2-3 hours one way, but stopping along the way can make it a full-day activity. On the other hand, Bondi to Bronte will only take about 45 minutes one way. You can also do the walks in the reverse.

Read More: Sydney, Australia’s Top 10 Coastal Walks

There are beautiful, golden sand beaches along the route to admire and swim in. If you’re visiting from late June to early July, you may be able to spot some whales.

Spend some time at the famous Bondi Surf Beach. You might want to grab a drink or a meal at Icebergs and to savour the spectacular views.

If you do the longer walk, you may not want to walk back so take a train, bus, cab (known as a taxi in Australia) or UBER.

4. Enjoy a Harbour Cruise

Manly Surf Beach. Photo by Leonie Jarrett
Manly Surf Beach. Photo by Leonie Jarrett

There are many operators offering cruises, from one hour to lunch and dinner. Sunset cruises are especially popular.

Cruising the Harbour (by private operator or by ferry) is the best way to enjoy the Harbour and to take a peek at some magnificent homes!

5. Visit Taronga Zoo Sydney

Taronga Zoo is located on the shores of Sydney Harbour, only 12 minutes by ferry from Circular Quay. You can also access Taronga Zoo by car, bus or train.

Taronga Zoo is not-for-profit and cares for over 5,000 animals from over 350 species, many of which are threatened. Australian animals that you can see include: kangaroos and koalas.

Apart from the animals, the panoramic Harbour and city views from the zoo are stunning! Adult admission is USD$30.83/AUD$45.90.

A word of caution – the Zoo is full of steep paths. I still remember taking my 2 and 4-year-old sons there whilst I was pregnant and wishing that I had chosen a less taxing activity!!

Luna Park in Sydney
Luna Park in Sydney. Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

6. Visit Luna Park

Also on the shores of beautiful Sydney Harbour is Luna Park – an amusement park that opened in 1935. Modelled on the first Luna Park in Coney Island, New York, it is a wonderful example of fantasy architecture in the Art Deco style of the 1930s.

Admission varies in price and includes unlimited rides. The most expensive ticket is one bought on the day of your visit – USD$50.45/AUD$75.00.

As with Taronga Zoo, a fun way to access Luna Park is the ferry. Milson’s Point Wharf is right in front of Luna Park and is an 8-minute ferry ride from Circular Quay. You can also access Luna Park by car, bus or train.

Read More: A Guide to Sydney’s Best Gardens

Harbour Bridge at sunset. Photo by Leonie Jarrett
Harbour Bridge at sunset. Photo by Leonie Jarrett

7. Walk from Darling Harbour to Barangaroo to Circular Quay to Woolloomooloo

Another favourite walk of mine. You can walk any part of this route.

Darling Harbour to Barangaroo is only 0.37 miles (600 metres) then the walk to Circular Quay (along the foreshore) is just over a mile (1.9 kilometres). It is shorter if you walk to Circular Quay through the city – 0.6 miles (about 1 kilometre). Walk on to Mrs Macquarie’s Chair (just under a mile/1.4 kilometres) then on to Woolloomooloo (also just under a mile/1.6 kilometres).

Darling Harbour is adjacent to the Sydney city centre. It is a lively, waterside precinct with lots of hotels and eateries. It is also home to attractions including the Australian National Maritime Museum, the SEA LIFE Sydney Aquarium, WILD LIFE Sydney Zoo at Darling Harbour and Madame Tussaud’s.

Barangaroo is the result of a transformation of a former container terminal. It is Sydney’s newest waterside precinct and boasts beautiful green space, shopping, offices, restaurants, bars and cool, modern architecture.

You can walk on to Woolloomooloo beside the water or through the Sydney Botanic Gardens. If you choose the Gardens which were established in 1816, you can meander through 30 hectares and more than 27,000 plants from around the world.

Beside the Botanic Gardens, you can find and sit in Mrs Macquarie’s Chair – a Sydney landmark. The chair was carved out of a sandstone rock ledge by convicts in 1810. Specially commissioned by Governor Macquarie for his wife Elizabeth who was known to love the area, this is one of the best vantage points to view the sights of Sydney Harbour.

The Harbour views along the walk are magnificent, the path is mostly paved or board-walked and there are lots of opportunities to sit down and take in the views.

Have a drink at Woolloomooloo Finger Wharf when you finish and then take public transport, a cab or an UBER back to save having to repeat the walk.

If you want a long walk, try the 7.5 mile (12 kilometre) foreshore walk from Anzac Bridge to Woolloomooloo. This walk officially opened in 2021 as a beautiful, continuous walking track.

Read More: 10 of the Best Places to Visit in Sydney, Australia

8. Attend a Sports Match at the Sydney Cricket Ground (SCG)

SCG before an AFL Match. Photo by Leonie Jarrett
SCG before an AFL Match. Photo by Leonie Jarrett

The SCG is a historic stadium with roots dating back to 1851. The light rail from the CBD and Circular Quay stops right outside (Moore Park is the name of the stop) so the SCG is easy to access.

Catch a game of Australian Rules Football (AFL) in the Winter or cricket in the Summer. AFL is a fast game; cricket rather slower but both are passionately supported. I have watched both games at the SCG. In 2022, I watched my beloved AFL team, Collingwood, lose a Preliminary Final by 1 point (ouch!). Silver lining – they won the Grand Final (the AFL equivalent of the Super Bowl) in 2023!

You can do a guided 90-minute walking tour of the SCG where you go behind the scenes – USD$22.21/AUD $33.

9. Go Shopping

For some retail therapy, take a walk down bustling George Street and the pedestrian-only Pitt Street Mall.

You can also wander through the beautiful Queen Victoria Building (QVB). This is a glorious, five-level shopping mall which opened in 1898.

10. Attend the Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour

Opera House from a cruise ship. Photo by Leonie Jarrett
Opera House from a cruise ship. Photo by Leonie Jarrett

If you are in Sydney between about the 20th of March and the 20th of April, attend a production of the Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour. There are 5 pop-up restaurants and bars. Eating and drinking as the sun sets over Sydney Harbour is a treat in itself.

I attended this outdoor opera for the first time in 2023, seeing a production of the tragic “Madame Butterfly.”

Listening to a live opera complete with orchestra under fairy lights and stars in a grandstand by the water is a magical experience. The 2024 production is “West Side Story.” Dress warmly as the balmy night can turn cool.

11. Visit the Blue Mountains

If you have a day (or, better still, a few days) to spare, take a trip to the stunning Blue Mountains – a 90-minute drive west of Sydney. The Blue Mountains is a World Heritage wilderness area. Known for dramatic scenery, you will see: steep cliffs, eucalyptus forests, waterfalls and towns dotted with guesthouses, galleries and gardens.

To get to the Blue Mountains, hire a car, travel by train or join an organised tour. The cheapest way would be by train. Pricing depends on the time and day but starts at less than USD$5 one way/AUD$6.20. Trains leave from Central Sydney every hour and the journey takes 2 hours. Local taxis and bus services in the Blue Mountains will then take you to all the key locations and attractions.

From Sydney: Blue Mountains Full-Day Trip

I hope that you enjoy these few suggestions.

Sydney really does have something for everyone!

Getting Around in Sydney:

Read More: How to Get Around in Sydney, A Local’s Guide

As with any city, I think that walking is the best way to see Sydney.

Where it is too far to walk, there are many transport options, including self-driving. Note that you drive on the LEFT side of the road in Australia, and not all hire/rental cars have Automatic Transmissions. Specify Automatic if that is what you want.

There are also cabs (called taxis in Australia) and UBER plus other ride-share companies.

Public transport options comprise of buses, trains (overground and underground), ferries and light rail. You can buy an Opal Card or use contactless payment. For details on planning your journey plus fare prices, see https://transportnsw.info/

There is also an airport train – the AirportLink – from the Domestic and International Terminals – https://airportlink.com.au/ This runs frequently between 5am and midnight, 7 days a week. There are various stops including: Circular Quay and the Town Hall. Again, you can buy an Opal Card but contactless payment is easiest. There is a station access fee of USD $11.44/AUD$17.00 plus the local fare so a one way trip will cost about USD$17.00/AUD$25.00.

Read More:

Author Bio: Leonie Jarrett lives mostly in Melbourne, Australia with her Husband of more than 3 decades, her 4 adult children and her 2 Golden Retrievers. Leonie has variously been a lawyer and a business owner. Now that she is semi-retired, Leonie is loving writing about her life and her travels.

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