Photo Courtesy of Petrina Tinslay
Surrounded by spectacular harbor and beachfront, Sydney is one of the world’s most stunning cities, and one that entices travelers with rare plants and animals and pristine beaches and forests. But this beauty has brains, too, which visitors experience in the form of cracking cultural attractions, e…vents that focus on the locals, and innovative dining and drinking. The city’s temperate climate means that Sydneysiders love spending time outdoors, whether they’re playing in the waves or drinking coldies (cold beer) on a bar patio. In short, Sydney will welcome you in; she might just never let you go.
What to know before you go to Sydney
Featuring a temperate climate, Sydney offers mild weather year-round with warmer, sunnier days in the summer (December through February) and more clouds and wind in winter (June through August). Spring and fall see pleasant weather, thinner crowds, and cheaper hotel rooms. Pack layers and always be prepared for rain, which generally passes quickly and dramatically. Summer is festival season in Sydney, but unique events are held year-round.
Kingsford Smith is Sydney’s only airport, located just four miles from the city center. Direct flights run from Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Dallas—currently the world’s longest flight. The Sydney airport is well-connected to the city’s various neighborhoods by train and bus. And there’s an efficient taxi stand out front for those with a little too much luggage.
Sydney has a good train, bus, and ferry system, but you pay for it. Expect to drop about $2.20 per bus ride (there are currently no transfers) and at least $3.80 for a single train trip. (It’s cheaper if you buy round-trip—“return”—tickets). If you plan to ride public transit often, consider buying a 10-ride bus pass or a weekly Opal pass, which covers unlimited bus, train, and ferry travel within a defined zone.
Australians must be born with more salt water in their bodies. Nearly ninety percent of the nation’s population lives along the coast, and it shows in the way they swim, surf, paddle, row, and barely flinch at oncoming waves. For many Sydneysiders, swimming in the ocean is a daily cleanse. That must be why there’s a seawater pool at just about every beach. From Bondi’s iconic Icebergs club to Australia’s last remaining women-only bathhouse located in Coogee, pick your pool and take the plunge. You’ll never want to go back to chlorine.
If you’re coming all the way Down Under, it only makes sense to explore a little beyond the city limits. AFAR’s partner, Context Tours, offers a private day trip to the Blue Mountains, a UNESCO World Heritage site.
This is a city that cares about fresh, seasonal, and local food, which is found at hole-in-the-wall cafés as well as white-tablecloth, waterfront establishments. Being so close to Asia, Sydney offers every variety of noodle, roll, bowl, bun, and dumpling, and these are some of the most affordable eats in town. Craft beer, cocktails, and coffee are all in the midst of revolution, so you’re sure to encounter something new to drink here. And indigenous ingredients are becoming more common on menus, linking modern diners with age-old Australian traditions. Tipping is not customary at bars or cafés, but if you receive standout service, leave at least 10 percent.
Home to the world’s most famous opera house as well as volumes of convict lore, it’s no surprise that Sydney is well-loved for its cultural attractions. On top of opera and classical music, Sydney is renowned for dance and theater. And art—you can find touring international exhibitions as well as local stars at the Museum of Contemporary Art. For Aboriginal Australian art, head to the Art Gallery of New South Wales or the Cooee Aboriginal Art Gallery. If you’re more interested in the avant-garde, try Carriageworks and White Rabbit. And don’t miss the Hyde Park Barracks Museum or Cockatoo Island for prison history.
Parties might be what Australians do best, and Sydney features a full lineup of festivals, from the huge to the obscure. Start with the famous New Year’s Eve fireworks, and continue summer with the Sydney Festival, Australia Day, and the Big Day Out and St. Jerome’s Laneway music festivals. Early fall sees Gay Pride Mardi Gras, winter comes alive with Vivid Ideas lectures and light shows, and spring features favorites like Sculpture by the Sea, the Festival of Dangerous Ideas, and the Night Noodle Market. Every season has a film festival, or four. Check out Tropfest, Flickerfest, and all the outdoor cinemas that pop up in summer.
Like the weather, buses are unpredictable and often run late, so plan ahead. Or better yet, take the ferry, which offers amazing harbor views, refreshments, and free Wi-Fi. If you have time to kill, ride the long (and cheap) way by bus, or walk. Don’t forget to look up in this city. You might see lorikeets, cockatoos, the occasional owl or kookaburra, and at dusk in certain neighborhoods, giant bats called “flying foxes.” And remember: Sydney faces east, so get up early to catch at least one sunrise on the beach.
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Serena Renner is a journalist and editor whose work focuses on travel, people, culture, and the environment. Her writing has been featured in magazines including VIA, the Intelligent Optimist, San Francisco, Australian Traveller, International Traveller, and AFAR—where Serena worked as an editor for two years. In October of 2013, Serena moved to Sydney’s Bondi Beach neighborhood.