Sydney is one of the world's great cities. You could spend years exploring and only just touch the surface of the places to visit in this gorgeous harbour city. That can make it hard to know what to prioritise on a short visit, so we've compiled a comprehensive list of the best things to do in Sydney after five years living in this amazing city. We've also included some unmissable things to do just outside the city too.
Here is our ultimate guide to the best things to do and places to visit in Sydney.
Places to visit in Sydney CBD
Start by admiring Circular Quay...
There is no better place to start your trip to Sydney than Circular Quay. This is the heart of the city, home to two international icons and Sydney's oldest suburb: the Rocks. It's a place that instantly puts a smile on your face.
Along the shore line are restaurants, cafes, the Museum of Contemporary Art and street performers which line the water all the way to the Opera House and Harbour Bridge. It is also the central port for the ferry network, enabling you to get around the harbour by ferry.
...Then take in the view from Opera Bar
It's hard to imagine a bar with a better view than the Opera Bar.
Whilst having your lunch or drinks in the evening you can look one way towards the Harbour Bridge and then the other to see the Opera House. There are few better places to have a glass of wine on a bright sunny day.
See if Bennelong the Seal has appeared on the Opera House steps
A local favourite, Bennelong the seal can sometimes be seen on the steps of the Sydney Opera House relaxing in the midday sun. She's not there everyday, but you may get lucky.
The steps are the ones at the northern end of the Opera House that go down to the harbour. You can get a good idea where that is on the map below.
Walk across the Sydney Harbour Bridge
Walking across the Sydney Harbour Bridge is one our favourite free things to do in Sydney. Starting at Cumberland Street in the Rocks, you can walk across this icon to the Northern Suburbs of Kiribilli and Milson's Point.
The walk way and cycle path are fenced off from the road (meaning you don't have to worry about the highway on the bridge) and you can appreciate some amazing views of the harbour.
You can walk back over the bridge, or simply catch a ferry from Milson's Point back to Circular Quay. The walk takes 20 - 30 minutes, depending on photo taking time.
Take in the views of the Sydney Opera House
The Sydney Opera House is one of those landmarks which lives up to the hype. We've always found it a mesmerising piece of architecture and love seeing it from every different angle possible.
Our favourite is from the Overseas ferry Terminal or at Hickson Road Reserve to see this icon side on. It's particularly lovely at sunrise.
Explore the stunning views from the Botanic Gardens...
The Botanic Gardens are another gem on the harbour and one of our favourite free things to do in Sydney. This beautiful green space couldn't be better situated, sitting on the shore line and looking back over the water.
There is a great, easy walking track that takes you to Woolloomooloo, (the greatest place name ever) where you can have a drink on the wharf, or you can simply meander through the gardens taking in all the Aussie flora. Enter the park beside the Sydney Opera House and keep walking round.
If you're there in October/November, then you may see the Jacaranda in bloom, where these trees turn a vibrant purple! It's a beautiful contrast to the greenery of the rest of the gardens.
... Culminating in the glorious sunsets from Mrs MacQuarie's Chair
Mrs MacQuarie's Chair is undoubtedly one of the best sunset spots in Sydney. The views from this outcrop in the harbour look back to a beautiful view of the Opera House and Harbour Bridge as the sun sets behind them.
To get here, follow the coast track round from the Opera House. After 15 minutes you'll arrive at Mrs MacQuarie's Chair.
Check out the weird and wonderful at the Free Modern Contemporary Art Gallery
We're not normally huge fans of modern art museums, but the MCA in Sydney is definitely worth a look, and often has unique exhibitions.
Sure, it has some of the more weird side of modern art, but there is enough beautiful pieces to make it worthwhile. Entry is free and it also has a coffee shop on the top floor with an amazing view.
It's pretty easy to get to as you can walk from either the Rocks of Circular Quay in just a few minutes.
Check out the Barangaroo, Sydney's newest and glitziest suburb
The creation of Barangaroo caused some controversy (did Sydney really need another casino?!) but the resulting suburb is impressive.
Based on the shore just north of Darling Harbour, Sydney's newest suburb is jammed packed with shiny buildings, bustling bars and classy restaurants. It's a real leap forward to the modern day in a city that can seem a bit dated (well, architecturally anyway).
If you're wanting to take a look around Barangaroo, then grab a ferry from Circular Quay directly there. Alternatively, you can get a train to Wynyard and take a very long underground walkway there.
Best things to do in Sydney Harbour
Take the ferry to Manly
The 30 minute ferry trip to Manly not only gives you a cheap harbour cruise, it's one of our favourite things to do in Sydney.
The Manly ferries are much bigger than the other ferries in Sydney and are an icon of the city. Look out for dolphins on the crossing and keep your camera handy, it's a very pretty journey.
If you go on a Sunday, you'll get a cheaper fare ($2.70 AUD per person for as much travel as you like). It's one of our tips for how to do things cheaply in Sydney.
One of the things that blew us away when we arrived in Sydney was seeing the Humpback Whale migration that happens just off the coastline between May and October every year. If you're lucky, you may spot them from the cliffs at Bondi Beach, Botany Bay, Watson's Bay or Manly.
Otherwise you can hop on a boat trip from Circular Quay or Darling Harbour where they guarantee whale sightings or give you a second trip for free.
Have a picnic on your own island - Shark Island
This is a real local's tip: having an island in the harbour virtually to yourself. Shark Island is public land, meaning you can rock up and have a picnic on a random tiny island in the middle of the harbour!
You'll need to pay a $7 AUD entry fee (which is because the island is a NSW National Park) and then you can stay all day. You'll want to get in touch with NSW National Parks using the details on this link.
If you want to make it even more adventurous, then take a kayak from Rose Bay. Alternatively, you can get a water taxi that can drop you off and pick you up at an arranged time. This option is a bit easier if you have food and picnic stuff you want to take! Captain Cook cruises also have a couple of trips here each day.
Have lunch on Fort Denison
For something really special, book a table for lunch at Fort Denison. This tiny island is in prime place for harbour views and is idyllic on a sunny day.
It started as a penal colony (like a small Alcatraz) but was turned into a fort when the British feared a Russian attack during the Crimean War.
You'll need to get a Captain Cook Hop On Hop Off service which stops at Fort Dennison and has a fixed schedule. Alternatively, you can get a water taxi from Circular Quay or Darling Harbour. The journey takes around 10 minutes from Circular Quay.
Have a leisurely stroll and eat at the iconic Doyles in Watson's Bay
Watson's Bay is in the heart of the swanky suburbs of Sydney and as soon as you arrive here by ferry, you'll see why. This beautiful area is home to several secluded beaches and offers great views back towards the harbour.
It's also home to Doyles: a Sydney seafood institution. Whilst it's not the best seafood restaurant in Sydney in our opinion, it's one of those historical places you need to check out.
If you don't want to have the more expensive white table-cloth dining of Doyles on the Beach, you can have the more informal take away fish and chips at Doyles on the Wharf and eat on the beach.
Stumble upon the bizarre SS Ayrfield
The SS Ayrfield wreck is one of the more random sights in Sydney, but something we love as photographers.
Just a short distance from the Olympic Park is a shipwreck with mangroves growing out of the hull. This old rusty ship is juxtaposed with the modern flats that surround it. Whilst there are a couple of other shipwrecks in the area, the Ayrfield really does stand out.
Best things to do in Bondi
The Bondi to Coogee Walk
The Bondi to Coogee Walk is the perfect jetlag remedy or weekend pick me up, mixing fresh sea air, exercise and stunning views to help fight the tiredness.
At 5.5km and not too steep it's achievable for most people and we've never taken anyone on this walk who didn't fall in love with it.
If you're looking to do one thing outside of the CBD, then make sure this is it. If you want the full guide to this beautiful coastal walk, then check out our guide to the Bondi to Coogee Walk.
Get up early for sunrise and then head to a hipster coffee shop
Bondi is known for its hipster cafes, so combining this with sunrise was one of our favourite weekend treats.
The beach looks east, meaning you're in the perfect place for sunrise and there are not many people around. However, this is Sydney so you won't be completely alone, you'll have a few people who go running along the coast walk.
Our pick of hipster cafes is Lox Stock & Barrel, a place which bakes their own bagels and serves up beautiful aussie brunches. You can find the location on the map below.
Have a drink with a view at Icebergs
Icebergs is another Sydney institution and also one of our favourite Instagrammable spots in Sydney.
This ocean bath/rock pool is set in a dramatic spot, on the side of a cliff and is regularly subjected to huge waves that crash over the pools.
We love the view on the cliff just beside Icebergs, but you can also choose to take it in from the RSL or fancy bar right next to the pool.
Whale watch from the cliffs
MacKenzie Point at Bondi Beach is one of the best places in the city to spot whales from the cliff.
This cliff edge offers panoramic views for miles in all directions. If you're here between May and October (and are patient) you may get lucky and see one breach like we did!
Check out Sculptures By The Sea
Sculptures By The Sea is one of the best festivals in Sydney and arrives to Bondi every October/November.
This exhibition is an array of sculptures set up on the top of the cliffs along the coast track between Bondi and Tamarama beaches.
Many are themed to suit their surroundings and provide some interesting photographic opportunities.
It is a popular festival, so you may want to go early as we've heard horror stories of crowds around the exhibit during the day at weekends! We went on at Saturday at sunrise and whilst we weren't alone it certainly wasn't crowded.
Live on the edge at Diamond Bay
Diamond Bay is one of those secret places which suddenly got a lot of attention on Instagram.
Based in the swanky suburb of Vaucluse, Diamond Bay is a picturesque cliff that was adapted to help fishermen get down to the shore.
Whilst we wouldn't take all the steps down, it makes for a beautiful view from the top!
Best things to do in Manly and the Northern Beaches
Hike the Spit Bridge to Manly Walk
Another favourite with Sydneysiders, the Spit Bridge to Manly walk takes you around parts of the harbour less visited by tourists.
The trail goes through beautiful bushland, along quiet harbour beaches, cliff edges and finishes in Manly. It's 10km long and whilst it has some uphill sections, it's generally an easy walk. Bring swimmers along and make a day of it.
The walk starts at the northern end of the Spit Bridge (see the map below) and finishes at the wharf in Manly. You can take a bus from the QVB to the start of the walk and take the Manly ferry back to the CBD after. Perfect.
Snorkel or sun bathe at Shelley Beach
This is something you might not expect, but you can actually do some really good snorkelling off Shelley Beach in Manly.
Whilst most people go to this beautiful beach for a dip or a bbq, the snorkelling here is very good with many fish, rays and even some sharks (of the safe variety).
You can swim from the beach and quickly see all kinds of different marine life! BYO snorkel.
See the iconic Manly Beach
Can you go to Sydney and not visit the iconic Manly Beach? This is one of the best beaches in Sydney and is fringed by the pine trees that are synonymous with the New South Wales coastline.
There are also plenty of good cafes and restaurants in town and along the shoreline, and you can easily spend a day or two exploring this coastal suburb.
Sunset at Cabbage Tree Bay
It's hard to think of a better sunset spot than Cabbage Tree Bay in Manly. In the evening the sun sets behind the headland with small yachts that float on the stillest water in the foreground.
The water also reflects the gorgeous sunset colours and creates a magical view. Whilst we liked to have a bbq on the shoreline, you could choose to take this in from one of the bars or restaurants on Manly Wharf.
Take a leisurely stroll around the North Head
The North Head is a small reserve that offers epic views from high up on the cliffs (another good whale watching spot in season).
There is a flat and easy 1km walking trail that starts at the car park and looks back over the city, before moving around to provide expansive views of the ocean before curving back to Manly.
It's an easy walk and perfect way to stretch your legs and get some epic views. If you would like a longer walk there is a lovely 10km circuit which leaves from Shelley beach and takes in the North Head and pretty bushland.
Get up for sunrise at Curl Curl Beach
A beach that is well off the tourist trail, Curl Curl is a beautiful spot. In the morning, the sun rises from the ocean directly across from the beach and we virtually never saw another soul when we visited.
It is also home to an epic rockpool with has a huge boulder in the middle of it (making it a favourite with drone photographers).
Check out the rockpool at Mona Vale
The rockpool at Mona Vale is another epic swimming area in Sydney. Whilst the majority of rockpools are at the foot of a cliff, the rockpool at Mona Vale looks like it's in the middle of the ocean at high tide.
On a rocky plinth away from the beach, the pool at Mona Vale has an amazing setting. You can either check it out from the beach or take your swimmers and jump in! You can find the location on the map below.
Best things to do in Sydney's Suburbs
Brunch in Balmoral
The beautiful Balmoral Beach is home to one of our favourite brunch spots: Bathers Pavilion. This cafe is set just by the beach and serves up great food with an even greater view.
After brunch you can take a walk along this beautiful beach and go kookaburra spotting in the park nearby. Balmoral also has a netted swimming area if you are nervous about swimming in the ocean.
Chill at the Chinese Friendship Garden, Darling Harbour
Set in the heart of the city, the Chinese Friendship Garden is an oasis of tranquility.
This little garden set in Darling Harbour is a little bit of Chinese culture within the skyline of this Australian city. It is a nice and peaceful way to escape the bustle of the city.
Entry is $6 AUD per adult (about $4.50 USD).
Admire the sunsets from Dudley Page Reserve
If you're looking for an epic sunset view, then head to Dudley Page Reserve near Vaucluse.
This park is so high up that it feels like you're on top of a mountain The views back to the CBD are stunning and picture perfect when the sun sets behind the city skyline.
Best things to do North of Sydney CBD
Take in the beauty of Palm Beach
To Brits, Palm Beach is mostly known as the home of the Aussie soap opera "Home & Away". To everyone else, it's one of the most stunning beaches in New South Wales, especially when you walk up to Barranjoey Lighthouse. It is also home to the Boathouse, one of the best brunch spots in Sydney.
To get here, you can take a bus from the QVB building in the CBD or hire a car and drive (it's just under an hour north of the city).
Admire the view from West Head Lookout
This West Head Lookout is a pretty epic viewpoint in the heart of Kuring-gai Chase, a beautiful national park that is just an hour north of Sydney.
It's a great place to start before exploring one of our favourite national parks and home to several great walking trails that are often overlooked for the more popular tracks in the Blue Mountains and Royal National Park.
The viewpoint from West Head is the start of the trail to Mackeral Beach, one of our favourites.
Hike the West Head to Mackeral Beach Trail in Kuring-gai
If you're looking for a wild beach with no road access then Mackeral Beach is calling you. This beautiful beach is found along a walking trail that goes through pretty bushland before descending down to the beach.
Very few people make it here, so it is an idyllic spot for the afternoon or simply a stop during the walk. You'll get another view of Barranjoey in the distance as well.
The walking trail is an 8.6km loop from West Head Lookout where you can park your car. You'll get the chance to visit several other quiet beaches along the way too.
Best things to do South of Sydney CBD
Bare Island at La Perouse
La Perouse is a picturesque coastal area just 20 minutes south-east of the CBD. One of unique things to see here is Bare Island, a small islet with a fort built on it. You can walk across the bridge and explore the cliffs, but the fort has always been closed when we visited.
There are also a few walking trails around the area that can take you through the stunning Cape Banks area (if you flew on Qantas you will have seen it on their safety demonstration video). The 6.6km Cape Banks loop walk passes an unusual golf course, one of the holes actually tees off from a rocky outcrop with a gorge between the tee and the hole!
You can take the 394 bus from museum in the city to La Perouse.
Take on the famous Coast Track Royal National Park
The Coast Track is arguably one of the best walks in Australia. This track starts at Otford and finishes at Bundeena (or vice-versa) and is just over 26km long, making it an extremely long day track or a comfortable two-day hike.
The walk takes you through the best of the Royal National Park, crossing stunning beaches and along cliff edges (more whale watching possible here).
Explore the cliff tops at Royal National Park
If the Coast Track seems like a bit too much, then you can tackle individual sections of this famous track.
The cliffs of Royal National Park are very picturesque and offer stunning views of the ocean and the south coast of NSW. We have seen whales here so many times in season so keep an eye out!
You can pick one of the many great walks (we made our way through them all) from our fave Wild Walks, but if we were to recommend one it'd be...
Walk to Eagle Rock from the beautiful Garie Beach
One of our favourite walks in Royal National Park is the track from Garie Beach to Eagle Head Rock. This trail starts at the stunning Garie Beach and climbs up to the cliff top for some incredible views of the South Coast.
It then carries along the cliff side to Eagle Rock (which doesn't really look like an eagle to us but is a very cool spot) and a waterfall that goes straight into the sea.
The views here are pretty amazing and is one of the highlights of the Coast Track. You can start the 8km walk by parking at Garie Beach.
Venture to the Figure of 8 pools.... If you dare
This is a trail that comes with risks, so only embark at low tide and if you are confident doing so. The figure of 8 pools in Royal National Park are certainly picturesque, but are set on a very dangerous section of coastline where the waves can easily drag you out to sea if you try this at high tide.
But if you have the right conditions, the figure of 8 pools are certainly a unique natural formation, allowing you to have you own plunge pool!
The track starts at Garrawarra Farm Car Park and goes down to the stunning Burning Palms Beach. But make sure you check the conditions before embarking and read the signs. If you can't see the Figure 8 Pools at the top of Burning Palms Beach, don't go.
Take in the view at Stanwell Tops
The winner of the best view of the South Coast has to go to Stanwell Tops. This patch of grass at the southern end of Royal National Park has an incredibly view of the Sea Cliff Bridge and Wollongong in the distance.
If you are lucky you can also see paragliders take off from the top, while you enjoy a cup of coffee at the local shop! Definitely a great stop on the drive south.
Take the scenic route with the Sea Cliff Bridge
The Seacliff Bridge is one of the most picturesque roads in NSW. Hugging the cliff just south of Royal National Park, the Sea Cliff Bridge is the longer way to Wollongong, but far, far prettier than the uninspiring Princes Highway.
If you want a more adventurous way to see it, you could take a gyrocopter over it - like we did - and see it in full glory with the stunning blue sea below. Keep an eye on Groupon for deals, but otherwise get in touch with Gryocopter Illawarra for a unique flying experience.
It looks pretty scary but it was one of the best things we did around Sydney! We even saw seals, a huge pod of dolphins and plenty of rays.
Fun things to do in Sydney and Splurges
Take a helicopter ride
It's not cheap, but a helicopter ride over Sydney Harbour and the beaches is something you'll never forget. The views from above are simply astonishing and on a sunny day you'll see the azure blue water shine. We loved it so much, that we did it twice!
The shortest rides tend to be around 15 minutes and will take you over the harbour, if you have a little more to spend go for the 30 minute route which also takes you over the famous beaches, including Bondi and Manly. If photography is really important to you some companies will allow you to pay a surcharge of $50 for the front seat.
Top tip: If you are staying in Sydney for a while try to get a stand by seat, if you book the day before the flight (usually one person only) you can get the 30 minute ride for $99. Bargain.
Marvel at the view with a drink or dinner at the Shangri-La Hotel
If you like your drink with a view then head to the Shangri-La. Altitude restaurant in this hotel has one of the best views in the city and is stunning at sunset as the colours light up the sky.
You'll see the Opera House and Bridge transition between day and night, making it a truly special view. The food and the drink aren't bad either! :-)
Take a sea plane to the Berowra Waters Inn
For a truly unique splurge, combine a sea plane over the city with lunch at the Berowra Waters Inn. Taking off from Rose Bay, Sydney Sea Planes will whisk you over the stunning harbour and drop you at a restaurant in the heart of Kuring-gai National Park, only accessible by sea plane or boat.
Whilst we often dreamed of making this trip we never actually got the chance to do it. We did visit Berowra Waters Inn by boat though, the food is great, the location amazing and the whole experience would be even more magical by sea plane.
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