What to Do in Sydney

Surrounded by spectacular harbor and beachfront, Sydney is one of the world’s most stunning cities. But this beauty has brains, too, like cracking cultural attractions, hard-to-believe history, and surprise twists and turns around every little lane.

Bennelong Point, Sydney NSW 2000, Australia
Designed by Danish architect Jørn Utzon, the Sydney Opera House was inspired by its dramatic setting on Bennelong Point in Sydney Harbour, a location that’s long been sacred to the native Gadigal people. While construction took 16 years, including four years to figure out the spherical solution to the icon’s soaring sails, any controversies melted away when the masterpiece was completed in 1973. The same outside-the-box thinking that built the shell-shaped sculpture seeps through its walls today in the form of boundary-pushing opera, theater, and dance as well as contemporary music and mind-opening lectures. The landmark is also home to the beloved Opera Bar and Bennelong Restaurant upstairs, where diners can eat pavlova shaped like the landmark in which they sit.
34 Harrington St, Sydney NSW 2000, Australia
The most high-adrenaline way to see Sydney Harbour, BridgeClimb has been dressing up locals and travelers in jumpsuits and safety harnesses to ascend “The Coathanger” since 1998. Along the way, they learn fun facts about the Sydney Harbour Bridge, like how it was built using six million rivets, which bridge workers tossed to each other when they were white hot and ready to weld. You’ll also gain a new appreciation for the Sydney Opera House as well as the world’s deepest natural harbor, which just so happens to be the birthplace of European Australia. At the top, strike your favorite Zoolander pose, or try “the koala,” which Ben Stiller invented during his climb.
Mrs Macquaries Rd, Sydney NSW 2000, Australia
Sydney’s 158-acre botanic garden, which hugs the harbor between Mrs Macquarie’s Chair and the Sydney Opera House, is home to nearly 9,000 plant species. Depending on the season of your visit, you might seek out spring peaches and wisteria or tropical orchids and summer lotus flowers. On any occasion, don’t miss descendants of the 200-million-year-old Wollemi pine, a dinosaur of a conifer only discovered in 1994. The gardens are also studded with sculptures from historical statues to modern works by Bronwyn Oliver, Paul Selwood, and Keld Moseholm. The quartz-and-sandstone Wurrungwuri depicts an Aboriginal shield once used by the traditional owners of this land. Tours are offered throughout the year, including a 1.5-hour Aboriginal history tour on the food and medicinal properties of native Australian plants.
Art Gallery Rd, Sydney NSW 2000, Australia
The Australian collection here includes almost 19,000 pieces ranging from paintings and decorative arts to modern photography, pop art, and screen-printing. The Yiribana Gallery is renowned for some of the best permanent and rotating exhibits of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art in the world. Every Wednesday evening, the museum hosts Art After Hours, an inspiring night of workshops, talks, and live entertainment that lasts until 10pm. Once you’ve finished exploring the galleries, duck behind the museum outside to find Brett Whiteley’s whimsical Almost Once, a sculpture of two massive matchsticks, one burnt out, the other waiting to be ignited. In 2017, the New South Wales government committed $244 million to help transform the gallery into an expanded future museum called the Sydney Modern, slated to open in 2021.
1 William St, Sydney NSW 2010, Australia
Australia’s first museum was opened in 1827 in Sydney with the goal of showcasing unique specimens relating to the country’s fascinating natural history. Initially called the Sydney Museum or Colonial Museum, the institution was renamed the Australian Museum in 1836 and reopened in its current location on Williams Street in 1857. The small collection of curiosities has grown to more than 18 million objects of cultural or scientific significance. The museum also plays a leading role in natural and cultural research on Australia and the Pacific, and offers a rotating slate of exhibitions, events, overnight experiences for kids, and even ecology-focused trips abroad. In 2017, a new permanent collection called 200 Treasures debuted, featuring crystals, skeletons, and a Roro feather headdress from Papua New Guinea.

The museum is currently undergoing an expansion and refurbishment in the leadup to the blockbuster exhibition, Tutankhamun: Treasures of the Golden Pharaoh, which will debut in 2021. The museum will remain open during renovations.
140 George St, The Rocks NSW 2000, Australia
Set on the western side of Circular Quay, the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia (MCA) is the country’s leading institution for modern art. While access to touring international exhibitions from the likes of Tatsuo Miyajima and Annie Leibovitz incurs an entrance fee, the permanent collection of more than 4,000 contemporary works by Australian and Torres Strait Islanders, from Gary Carsley to Lena Yarinkura—plus a rare collection of artist notebooks, music, letters, and sketches—is always free. Come on Wednesday night when the gallery is open until 9 p.m., or for the adults-only Art Bar on the last Friday of the month. The rooftop café offers occasional live music and DJs plus glittering views of the Sydney Opera House and Harbour Bridge after dark.
George Street
The cobblestone walkways and sandstone walls of Australia’s oldest district are full of stories: of the lives of convicts, publicans, sailors, and wharf laborers as well as members of the 19 Aboriginal clans that called this land home centuries before the First Fleet of British ships arrived in 1788. Wander the narrow laneways on your own, or consider taking a walking tour to deepen your knowledge of colonial or Aboriginal history. If you’re in town on the weekend, don’t miss the Rocks Markets for clothing, jewelry, textiles, homewares, art, and street food. And if you never want to leave this area, standout accommodations, from the boutique Harbour Rocks Hotel to the five-star Park Hyatt, are at your service.
1003 Upper Fort Street
In the 1850s, a rugged hill overlooking Sydney Harbour was capped with the Sydney Observatory at the behest of English astronomer and clergyman William Scott. What started as a sandstone structure used primarily for time-keeping and navigation developed into an observatory that has been illuminating the southern sky for more than a century. Sydney has much more light pollution today, but the original retractable copper dome does a good job of blocking it out to bring distant constellations and nebulae into view. The resident astronomer will target planets such as Jupiter and Saturn as well as only-in-the-southern-hemisphere sights such as the Southern Cross constellation or the astronomer’s favorite: Jewel Box, a rare cluster of glimmering stars whose different colors reflect distinct ages.
Hickson Rd, Barangaroo NSW 2000, Australia
An Aboriginal territory turned shipping port between the Rocks district and King Street Wharf has been transformed into a harborfront reserve, modeled after what the headland may have looked like before Europeans arrived. It’s a great area for a walk or a picnic as well as for special events. And the surrounding area is home to dozens of new bars and restaurants. The seafood-centric Cirrus is run by the award-winning Bentley Restaurant team, and 12-Micron celebrates Australian produce through a menu organized around the elements. Early birds flock to cult favorites Micro by Coffee Alchemy and Bourke Street Bakery, while the after-work crowd unwinds at Sydney’s first vermouth bar, Banksii; the tropical rooftop Untied; and Smoke bar, on the top level of Barangaroo House.
245 Wilson St, Eveleigh NSW 2015, Australia
The brick-and-iron warehouses of the old Eveleigh Railway Workshops host a diverse lineup of experimental music, theater, film, and fine art. Located on the border of Redfern and Waterloo, Carriageworks was restored to keep the historical roots intact while providing a space for cutting-edge culture. Every Saturday, more than 70 stalls fill the former railyard outside with organic produce, artisan breads, specialty coffee, and exotic flowers as well as street food from the likes of chef Kylie Kwong during the farmers’ market. Fuel up at the market and then get inspired by whatever is on display inside this artist-run venue. Big annual events for Sydney Contemporary, Pacific Runway, Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, and the Sydney Festival are also held here throughout the year.
Australia’s most famous beach has played many roles throughout history. In 1907, a group of local swimmers became the world’s first lifeguards; during World War II, it was fortified by barbed wire and iron stakes; and over the last few decades, it has become a play land for international backpackers. More recently, the bohemian surf hood has morphed into a lively dining and shopping hub, with restaurants ranging from standbys like Sean’s Panaroma to the friendly burger joint Bonditony’s to Italian favorite Da Orazio Pizza and Porchetta, opened by Icebergs Dining Room owner Maurice Terzino. (Don’t miss the pool and sauna at Icebergs either.) Once fed, check in at the QT Hotel, shop along Gould Street, and walk the stunning Bondi to Coogee coastal path.
1 Notts Ave, Bondi Beach NSW 2026, Australia
This 7.5-mile round-trip walk has some of the most amazing coastal views in Sydney and is a great introduction to the city’s Eastern Suburbs. Starting from Icebergs pool in Bondi, the path hugs cornmeal-sand coves, natural seawater pools, a marine reserve (Gordons Bay) that’s great for snorkeling, and unique attractions from ancient Aboriginal rock art sites to the oceanview Waverley Cemetery. In late October, site-specific art installations pop up along the cliffs between Bondi and Tamarama beaches as part of the Sculpture by the Sea exhibition, one of the largest outdoor sculpture events in the world. Spring (September through November) is also an excellent time to see migrating southern right whales spouting in the sunset. Toast your trek with a drink at the Coogee Pavilion.
Manly NSW 2095, Australia
From Shelly Beach in Manly, the path climbs a flight of stairs surrounded by jungle foliage before alternating between idyllic neighborhoods, clifftop bushland, secluded beaches, and more rainforest. Along the way, you’ll see tropical flowers and eucalyptus trees as well as many colorful birds and the area’s ubiquitous “water dragon” lizards. As soon as you feel hungry, you’ll likely encounter a beach café such as the cabana at Little Manly Cove that serves great paninis. White sand beaches with turquoise waters are the norm, and the path guides you to many that you would have otherwise never found. When you finally reach the Spit Bridge, you’ll be filled with accomplishment and the feeling that you covered a lot more than just six or seven miles.
Bank Street
The Sydney Fish Market hosts the largest daily fish auction in the southern hemisphere. That means about 2,700 crates (or 50-55 tons) of more than 100 species of the freshest catch from Australia, New Zealand, and the Pacific Islands is sold every single day. Simply browsing the stalls or downing fresh tiger prawns and Sydney rock oysters on the Pyrmont waterfront is satisfying, but there are more unique ways to discover the market, whether it’s through a cooking class at the Sydney Seafood School—the city’s oldest culinary institution—or a 6:40am behind-the-scenes tour. The latter is the best way to see the daily auction in action and learn about the market’s efforts to promote marine stewardship.
Warumbul Rd, Royal National Park NSW 2233, Australia
Carved by ocean inlets that meet vertical cliffs, Sydney is a city that’s defined by nature. And in less than an hour, travelers can visit Royal National Park to the south, the world’s second oldest national park, established in 1879. “The Royal,” or “Nasho” as its sometimes called, is most famous for its 16-mile Coast Track, which undulates up rugged bluffs and down to rocky coves from Bundeena to Otford. Veteran trekkers can accomplish the hike in a single day, but most people divide the journey into a two-day backpacking trip with an overnight at North Era campground. Whales migrate along the coast from June to November, and swimming spots like Figure 8 Pool and the waterfall-fed Wattamolla lagoon beckon hikers in summer.
Named after the blue haze that cloaks the region—which some link to oil droplets from the multitude of eucalyptus trees—the Greater Blue Mountains World Heritage area is a staggering 2.5-million-acre swath of sandstone canyons, cliffs, and tablelands, just a few hours west of Sydney. The Blue Mountains are a stronghold of natural and cultural values, from Aboriginal rock art caves and relics of early industry to rare plants and animals, including the glossy black cockatoo and the wollemi pine, a descendant of a 200-million-year-old tree family. For a day hike, you can’t beat the National Pass, which takes in deep canyon views and three waterfalls. Adventurers can also rock climb, abseil, mountain bike, or endure the 28-mile Six Foot Track.
Palm Beach NSW 2108, Australia
The most northern of the Northern Beaches, Palm Beach makes for a relaxing day or weekend trip. Here, a sandy isthmus straddles ocean waves and harbor sails, and the Barrenjoey Lighthouse stands watch a short hike up the hill. Snag a spot on the deck of the Boathouse—a Hamptons-style beach shack complete with crab traps, striped awnings, and all manner of flowers and produce on display—for a bacon and egg roll, croissant French toast, or beer-battered flathead and chips overlooking the water. After finishing that cappuccino, which started with an anchor stamped into the foam, take the ferry across the inlet to the Basin campground in Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park to swim, stand-up paddle board, and search for wallabies in the wild.
Bradleys Head Rd, Mosman NSW 2088, Australia
Travelers should visit Taronga Zoo as much for its harbor views as for the 4,000 resident animals (who get to see them all day long). Ferry 15 minutes from Circular Quay and take an optional Sky Safari cable car, included in the ticket price, and you’re in an exotic land of giraffes, elephants, and bongos as well as native echidnas, wombats, and Tasmanian devils. Wildlife tours, zookeeper talks (including impressive bird shows), and special events such as the Twilight at Taronga summer concert series are on the calendar, and a tented camp accommodates overnight guests who help feed select animals before a sunset dinner set against the Sydney Opera House and Harbour Bridge. Tent cabins feature decks that lure campers out of bed for sunrise.
Harbour St, Sydney NSW 2000, Australia
The largest and most storied of the Sydney Harbour islands, Cockatoo was once an Aboriginal fishing ground, a naval shipyard, a girls’ reform school, and a gruesome prison. Today, it offers fascinating walking tours, a casual café, and a number of events such as the Biennale of Sydney. When most visitors line up in the evening to catch the ferry home, those staying on the island are just setting off on a leisurely sunset stroll. They can watch the city light up from what feels like another world and then retreat to their campsite, canvas “glamping” tent, heritage home, or modern apartment until they wake up to birds and boats the next morning.
8 Australia Ave, Sydney Olympic Park NSW 2127, Australia
Famous as the site of the 2000 Summer Olympics, Sydney Olympic Park is full of history. It also hosts a plethora of modern events from the National Rugby League Grand Final to concerts by the likes of the Foo Fighters and Ed Sheeran to the Sydney Royal Easter Show. Many of the world-class venues offer tours to cater to sports fans of certain stripes. Over 20 miles of running and cycling trails include the seven-mile River Heritage Circuit, which starts next to the Parramatta River and circles sports venues, an armory, woodlands, and wetlands where frogs and birds call out at dusk. End on a high note at one of the park’s many vantage points like Woo-la-ra hill.
38-46 Oxford St, Darlinghurst NSW 2010, Australia
A coveted venue for any band on the rise, the Oxford Art Factory has hosted Courtney Barnett, The Growlers, and Sylvan Esso, among many other emerging local and international acts. The intimate brick-walled space—inspired by Andy Warhol’s Factory in New York during the ’60s—is a flourishing music and art space in a formerly thriving nightlife district that has recently come upon hard times. The spirit of the place offers hope that there are no shortage of music fans in Sydney and that the cultural scene around Oxford Street is destined to bounce back. In addition to live music, the Oxford Art Factory books art shows and festivals.
Queen Victoria Building, Sydney NSW 2000, Australia
The Queen Victoria Building has been central to culture and commerce in Sydney since 1898. Covering a full city block with the Town Hall train station entrance on the ground floor, it’s hard to miss and easy to get to. For a perfect Sunday in Sydney, sip high tea under the crystal chandelier-laden ceiling of the QVB ballroom. True to English tradition, single-estate teas are served in floral Royal Albert china, and petite sandwiches, petit fours, scones, and pastries are ordered by the tier. Make time for admiring the mix of art deco details and shopping the maze of independent and international stores on your way to or from the Tea Room on the third floor.
2 Raper St, Surry Hills NSW 2010, Australia
The final home and workplace of the late Australian artist Brett Whiteley is now a museum that holds rotating exhibits of Whiteley’s work shown on weekends as well as monthly events such as poetry readings and classical music performances. The upstairs is frozen in time: dipped brushes are ready to create their next masterpiece; reference books are opened to the last page Whiteley saw; vinyl records sit waiting to be played. All of this plus a wall of photos, graffiti, and quotes from contemporaries like Bob Dylan paints an intimate portrait of an artistic genius who died of a methadone overdose in 1992. Entrance and events are free, and you don’t need to book ahead. Just show up ready to be inspired.
Queens Square, Macquarie St, Sydney NSW 2000, Australia
Since opening in 1819, Australia’s first barracks has housed British convicts, female immigrants, destitute elderly women, courtrooms, and government offices until it was finally declared a museum in 1979. During a twice-daily tour, or with the help of an audio guide, visitors get a glimpse of how high-skill prisoners lived, worked, and slept (on hammocks) during the 19th century—often freely working in the city by day but sleeping alongside more than 1,000 thieves, conspirators, bank robbers, pirates, and bushrangers by night. Offered in the original convict bakehouse and store, a house-made pot pie, burger, or cake with a schooner of beer at Bakehouse is a welcome end to the experience. Outside, freedom has never felt so good.
69A Wentworth Rd, Vaucluse NSW 2030, Australia
For a glimpse of Sydney‘s high society, visit Vaucluse House, a beautiful villa and garden in the Eastern Suburbs near Watsons Bay. A gothic revival mansion built in 1803, Vaucluse House once belonged to ex-convict Sir Henry Browne Hayes, who was shipped to Australia from England for abducting a banker’s daughter. Some punishment. The mansion also served as the home of writer, explorer, and local dignitary William Charles Wentworth. Once you’re done eyeing the antiques and memorabilia, check out the tropical gardens and settle in for a cup of English breakfast and a warm scone at the well-appointed tearoom. There’s also Milk Beach and the Hermitage Foreshore Track nearby, a gorgeous coastal walk for those looking for a little more adventure.
108 Market St, Sydney NSW 2000, Australia
You’d be forgiven for thinking this place is a tourist trap like every other revolving “sky tower” in the world. And the upstairs Sydney Tower Eye Observation Deck and Skywalk is, with one difference: the harbor view, which is truly spectacular from 1,000 feet up in the air. Tourist-fearing travelers should skip the observation deck and head straight to 360 Bar and Dining. Arrive early to snag a seat near the picture windows, and order a creative cocktail—some incorporate bacon-infused bourbon—to drink alongside small plates. There’s a $20 minimum, but it’s cheaper than the observation deck and includes a drink to sip during the hour-long revolution.
Hotels
175 Oxford St, Darlinghurst NSW 2010, Australia
Named after its storied sister in New York, this hub of LGBTQI culture on gay-friendly Oxford Street is the only place in Sydney where you can see drag shows every night of the week. Offering everything from stand-up comedy—like the Let’s Talk About Sex show on Friday, where audience members put their “problems” in a mailbox for beloved drag queen Verushka Darling to solve live on stage—to solo numbers and choreographed productions, it’s always a good time. On Sunday, the longest-running drag variety show in Australia, Polly’s Follies, is still being performed after more than 25 years by well-known drag personality Polly Petrie. Pop in on the right night and you might just run into a celebrity like Kylie Minogue or Adam Lambert.
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