See also: Where to stay in Sydney
Sydney is often mislabeled as Australia’s capital and it is understandable why. Where Sydney’s city center is teeming with modern-day entertainments, shopping malls, dining complexes and skyscrapers that dominate the skyline, its winding coast teases with sandy strips and breathtaking trails. There’s no shortage of heritage sites and creative hubs either, artsy neighborhoods offering up artisanal eateries, indie bookstores, street art and innovative spaces. Here's the 30 best things to do in Sydney:
Sneak behind the scenes of the Sydney Opera House
This postcard-favorite landmark juts out dramatically from Sydney’s harbor front, its signature white sail-shaped roof structure shelling open. It is one of the World’s most photographed building and also one of the busiest performing arts venues. Home to the Sydney Symphony Orchestra and other leading opera and chamber music groups, the Opera House entertains with concerts, dance performances, stage plays, screenings and musicals. Tour backstage to see where the magic happens – the costume-filled dressing rooms, dramatic props on the pulley system, and other art-making rooms. You never run out of stories about mishaps and silliness with the crew!
Freshen up with a Bondi-Coogee Coastal Walk
Let the hush of waves and sea breeze along the Bondi-Coogee Coastal Walk snap you awake – the sun is up, why are you lazing about? This kilometer long trail winds along rugged cliffs with slight slopes and the occasional stairs, taking you down from residential streets to waterside strips. The trail links up cozy houses, bohemian summer residences, sandy beaches and wave-worn rocks, even venturing through a hauntingly beautiful cemetery. The long excess of Bondi Beach appears around the bend with colorful clusters of people, but not before you come through the sea-marinated Icebergs Pool. Reward yourself with an extended seaside brunch at one of the cafés or restaurants along the shore.
Circle around Circular Quay
Circlular Quay station is wedged between a shop-and-dine complex and Sydney Harborfront. Here you’ll find ferries that join the central district to other coasts, as well as a massive cruise ship docked at the terminal. The promenade will also take you towards the Opera House, where a series of restaurants line the wide walkway for some waterside views.
Window shop at Queen Victoria Building
Dominating an entire block along George Street is a 19th-century Romanesque masterpiece befitting of its royal name; the Queen Victoria Building. Five floors of open atrium design impress with the arched ceiling, stained glass, decked out balconies and rich décor. Historical corners to note are the Royal Clock, operational vintage lift, The Queen’s letter (still sealed) and the Tea Room that offers high tea. The commercial residents don’t fail to satisfy either. From small food and bargain stores in the basement to the fancier jewelry, fashion and gift shops of upper levels, Queen Victoria Building is a visual must-experience.
Weekend fun at The Rocks
Rocking the shadows of Sydney Harbor Bridge is a series of historic laneways collectively known as The Rocks. Revamping this quiet neighborhood into one of creativity and community, old pubs now exist alongside upscale restaurants, and the Museum of Contemporary Art moved in with ever-changing displays. Other exhibits such as the Susannah Place Museum and The Rocks Discovery Museum informs of this area’s history and heritage-listed sites. It receives a lot of love on the weekends when The Rocks Markets livens up with amazing artisanal works, handicrafts, sustainable products and some background street music.
Climb the Sydney Harbor Bridge
Connecting Sydney’s CBD with the North Shore is the massive Sydney Harbor Bridge, ferrying rail, cars, bicycles and pedestrian traffic on a non-stop basis. It is a great vantage point over the harbor front promenade, although visitors tend to take photos of the bridge instead. The best way to appreciate this arched steel construct, however, is to climb the skeletal frame. Conquer the views at 134 meters above sea level – safely strapped in of course! All you need is good weather, comfortable shoes, your sunglasses and a healthy dose of bravery.
Visit the historical Cockatoo Island
Settled in the junction between Parramatta and Lane Cove rivers is the largest of Sydney Harbor islands. Cockatoo Island expanded out of timbered sandstone knolls to function as a convict penal establishment and then shipyard, only recently reinvented into a cultural venue. Open daily and free of charge, Cockatoo Island welcomes day visitors to picnic and tour and even stay the night. Take a look around the Convict Precinct or entertain with a Ghostyard Tour. The Haunted History Tour is another amusement to consider, although it is perfectly understood if you prefer lounging around the heritage holiday houses instead. Alternatively, set up a tent at the Waterfront Campground for an unconventional sleepover.
Sydney’s green heart: the Botanical Gardens
30 hectares of park stretches along Mrs Macquaries Road to waterfront in a spread of open lawns, exotic blooms, solid trees and indoor experiences. Spend an hour or two combing through the various sectors such as the Palace Rose Garden and Australian Native Rockery, and then dip into The Calyx complex for the newest exhibition or event. You can also approach the Botanical Gardens from a historical perspective, where guides will recount the stories of the Cadigal people and lessons on how to forage Aboriginal bush foods. The Choo Choo Express is also available for a less-sweat tour of the space, where your guide will point out spectacular landmarks and share the Garden’s history.
Explore Sydney’s Central Business District
Like all central business districts, you can expect the usual shopping malls, office blocks, entertainment complexes and restaurants. Westfield, Pitt Street Mall and World Square are few of shopping complexes that is spread around the area, and more artisanal shops can be found at beautiful Parisian-style arcade malls. It’s not just modern buildings that will catch your eye. Teeming with heritage listings, you can find architectural highlights such as the Great Synagogue, Kings Hotel, The Strand Arcade, the Town Hall and more. Need a break from the busy streets? Visit the series of parklands that bring much needed greens, starting with Hyde Park, Royal Botanical Gardens, Farm Cove and The Domain.
Spend a day at Taronga Zoo
Hop on the ferry at Circular Quay with Taronga Zoo as destination; it’s the animal kingdom brought to you. Emphasizing conservation, Taronga Zoo tries to foster engagement over exhibition. Drop in on the shows and keeper talks or experience being a ‘Keeper for a Day’ to learn more about the most popular animals. There are programs designed for children too. You can get close-up and personal with Meerkats, Giraffes, Penguins and more with expert led behind-the-scenes tours. For those who want to live like our wilder counterparts, zip around the High Ropes Course and climb right above the local animals’ enclosures; peer down at lazy koalas, kangaroos and flustered emus.
Get hip with Newtown
This unconventional and vibrant neighborhood is teeming with activity day and night. Home to indie bookstores, hip bars, galleries, thrift shops and a bit of everything, Newtown is here to celebrate diversity. Meander along King Street for the best of multicultural eateries; find authentic Thai cuisine, Turkish fare, warming Vietnamese soups and even a rotating sushi bar. Let’s not forget the cafés that serve up avo-based brunches and aioli fries, or the mix-and-match gelato shops. There is also Enmore Theatre for your comedy fix and live music shows, nearby lanes decorated with street art to highlight the free-spirited nature of this area.
Cross through Darling Harbor
Actually the darling of the city, Darling Harbor is poised right by the CBD as a multifaceted recreational space. A wide bridge spans its diameter, from where you can admire the moored freights and ships. Along the curved promenade are both commercial and interactive entertainments, such as the serene Chinese Garden of Friendship, the National Maritime Museum, Dockside Pavilion and aquarium. There’s also a small sized mall with shops and restaurants. Looking up at the city will also grant you skyline views where Sydney Tower commands the eye.
Spend a few hours at Featherdale Wildlife Park
Slightly out of the city is the interactive, open-air Featherdale Wildlife Park. Home to over 1,700 residents, mammals, reptiles and feathery friends mingle under the careful watch of the staff. It is the place to visit for Australian native animals including kangaroos, wombats, koalas, Tasmanian devils and more. Count on the expert keepers to make your experience worthwhile, leading you through a kangaroo pen feeding. There are refreshments on site to keep your energy levels up, and the gift shop is great for easy souvenirs.
Tour around the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia
Wedged along the border of artsy The Rocks and Sydney harbor front is the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, its art deco exterior calling attention from passerby. Pushing forth contemporary art, the MCA stresses on innovation, interpretation and celebration of today’s artists. A range of exhibitions (permanent and temporary) and special events delve into various mediums, displaying paintings, photography, sculpture and moving forms by local and international artists. Another point of pride is their collection of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island artworks, a substantial part of the 4000 pieces acquired.
Enjoy the Ferry services
Take to the water for stunning coastline views, the high-rises of CBD giving way to holiday homes and seaside residences, to jagged cliffs and sandy strips. The ferry services will take you to floating heritage sites such as Cockatoo Island or under the looming Harbor Bridge. Manly is another classic adventure, taking you across tranquil waters to beaches away from downtown. The cute green and yellow embellishments of the Cronulla to Bundeena vessel runs one of the oldest ferry routes, bringing you into the Royal National Park since 1939. It’s not just an alternative (and often shorter) transportation option; taking the ferry is a visual and cultural experience.
Aesthetic eats at Tramsheds
Unusual lifestyle destinations are the trend and Tramsheds flatten competition in their restored, former Rozelle Tram Depot, glory. Previously home to 200 trains, it has since been repurposed to hold eleven exceptional restaurants and other community-based vendors. Enjoy dishes crafted from fresh local produce under the exposed steel beams and fixtures, the diners satisfying all tastes and budgets. Flexible Artisan Lane also features a Sunday Growers Market, where you can pick up fresh fruits, jams and produce; the less frequent Saturday Artisan Markets displays handmade crafts. Be sure to explore the precinct carefully – hunt down the graffiti covered relics or even eat inside a tram!
Water fun at Wattamolla Beach
Within the Royal National Park and hooked into the tip of Wattamolla Creek is one of the most beautiful lagoons along Sydney’s south coast. The sea and creek crash together in shades of blue and green, but is sheltered enough to offer calm waters for snorkeling, swimming and fishing. The hem of tree palms provides shade for picnickers whilst the soft sand bar promises a natural tanning bed. If some water fun isn’t enough to burn off your energy, hike over to the Wattamolla Falls or Providential Point Lookout for more scenic highlights.
Walk around Hyde Park
Visit Australia’s oldest park, a 16 hectare space composed solid thickets of trees and paved walkways, surrounded by other heritage buildings. Hyde Park is conveniently located at the heart of city, just minutes away from CBD. Many pass through the park to avoid on road traffic, but it is also teeming with things to see. Divided by Park Street, the park is loosely split into a south side that hosts the ANZAC Memorial building, the pool of reflection and statues; the north sector guards the iconic Archibald Fountain and themed Nagoya and Sandringham Gardens, as well as a multitude of art works and monuments.
An outdoor day at Manly
The wide sweep of Manly can be reached via ferry from Sydney Harbor, a popular weekend getaway that exudes ultimate chill vibes. Manly Beach reigns as the main attraction, fringed with trees to block out urban noises. There’s a sheltered Shelly Beach that you can reach through an oceanfront walk, a smaller sand bar where you can avoid the surfer crowd at its more frequented counterpart. Hit up The Corso when you’re hungry for some laid-back pigging out, and then challenge yourself with a hike through North Head for views over the harbor and city skyline.
Marvel at St. Mary’s Cathedral
Sitting across from Hyde Park’s Archibald Fountain is the grand, gothic St. Mary’s Cathedral. Built out of local sandstone from early 1800s to 1900s, the tanned exterior features dramatic windows and twin towers inspired by medieval European cathedrals. You’ll find more detailed work inside, vaulted ceilings and archways topped with carved saintly heads, invocations carved into high walls and stained glass windows set within the halls, chancel and nave. The terrazzo mosaic flooring and stunning crypt are other design highlights. Whether you’re there for mass or to simply marvel at its architectural beauty, St. Mary’s Cathedral is a do-not miss attraction.
Eat and souvenir shop at Haymarket
For some authentic, drool-worthy Asian cuisine, Haymarket is the destination. Clear out your fancy dinner plans and choose from the enticing mix of Thai restaurants, Cantonese dim sum, Korean barbecue, Japanese rice bowls and Vietnamese noodles. From dumpling houses to hole-in-the-wall’s to the budget food courts, it is one place catering to all. And definitely hunt down trinkets and cheap treasures at Paddy’s Market! Having set roots for over a century, it is one of Sydney’s biggest markets. You’ll find the intermittent food stall among the gifts and gadgets, Australia-themed keychains and plushies sold alongside fast fashion.
Brunching at Grounds of Alexandria
The lovechild of factory-chic and fairy garden, Grounds of Alexandria is an influencer’s dream. Bursts of flowers and leafy tendrils are draped over walls, doors and twining around beams. The combination indoor and outdoor eateries create a friendly community vibe; the green courtyard of The Grounds Garden is home to resident pig Harry Trotter, while The Potting Shed serves local brews and unique cocktails fringed with florals. The other café-restaurants bring a cleaner modern charm while small vendor stalls bring new products to the Grounds Market every week. There’s no better brunch destination than this repurposed factory space.
Exploring Lane Cove National Park
Who said parks are hard to reach? Located within metropolitan Sydney, Lane Cove National Park is the perfect retreat for families and those in need of stress relief. Picnic spots and camping grounds will ensure you have fun no matter how long you stay. Rent rowboats, kayaks or pedal boats to drift down Lane Cove River or explore with the bushwalking trails. There are also historical sites abound! Pick up a brochure from the park office for a self-guided Heritage walk.
Hike up to Barrenjoey Lighthouse
Strike north to reach the iconic Barrenjoey Lighthouse, its oil room and keepers’ cottage well-preserved in its sandstone finish. It’s an easy one-kilometer walk following the Barrenjoey trail, edging along the coast for stunning views. Alternatively, take the shorter but gruelling Smuggler’s track. Keep binoculars on you if you’re visiting between May to September; if you’re lucky, you might spot some whales.
Hunt down Mrs Macquarie’s Chair
Reap some outstanding views on your walk to Mrs Macquarie’s Chair. Even without reaching the historical spot, you get a clear shot of Sydney Opera House and Harbor Bridge. The “chair” in question was carved out of sandstone in the 1800s for the Governor’s wife. A simple stone bench, it’s nonetheless a popular photo spot and resting area.
Wander through the Chinese Garden of Friendship
What better than a secluded garden in the middle of a busy day? Detour through the Chinese Garden of Friendship while you’re around Darling Harbor. The traditional features bring you to a different world, one created out of pavilions, waterfalls, ponds and plant-filled crevices. They’re open relatively early around 9:30 am; the perfect time to take a walk before a late morning brunch.
Visit the Australian National Maritime Museum
Another quick attraction located around Darling Harbor, the Australian National Maritime Museum is your answer to seafaring dreams. Diverse exhibitions dig into the “how” of maritime vehicles, environmental issues, prehistoric sea monsters; events are both fun and historical, harbor cruises pointing out significant Aboriginal landmarks while others embark on a murder mystery at sea. Geared to entertain both adults and kids, the museum will fit neatly into your afternoon itinerary.
Tour around the University of Sydney
No one really wants to go back to school while on vacation, but you can stand to make an exception for the University of Sydney. Enter the campus from the walkway opposite Broadway Mall to see its sprawling neo-Gothic architecture. Snapshots of the beautiful Quadrangle and Great Hall, and poke around Nicholson Museum for some ancient artefacts. There’s even a hidden graffiti tunnel where students film dance covers.
Stargaze at Sydney Observatory
Visit the historical site of Sydney Observatory and their similarly dated telescopes. Give the Solar telescope a whirl – it’s the only time you’ll be able to look at the sun without risk of damage. It is best visited at night where experts guide you on a tour of the stars. If they’re not close enough for you, drop by the planetarium for a digital processing of the constellations.
Treat yourself to delicious seafood at Sydney Fish Market
Blackwattle Bay’s Sydney Fish Market is a wholesale gift, trading over 14,500 tonnes of seafood both nationally and internationally as the World’s second most varied market. Weekday wholesale and auctions enlist dozens of staff, and other promotional efforts include a Sydney Seafood School that encourages and teaches the consumption of fish. For the average tourist, the iconic blue-walled retail complex is the target. Pick out your seafood favorite among the fresh prawns, lobsters, shells and more on display and gobble down the signature cheese-baked scallops.
Day trip to the Blue Mountains
Get out of the city for some mind-blowing views in the Blue Mountains. Encompassing dramatic cliffs, eucalyptus forests, waterfalls and friendly villages teeming with galleries and gardens, this nature respite is precisely what you need to unwind. Explore major town Katoomba, or take bushwalking trails through Blue Mountains National Park. Scenic World has a glass cable-car ride that takes you across to Echo Point where you can see the iconic Three Sisters rock formation.