Sydney Australia: First Timer’s Guide to the Best Things to Do

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Enjoy the view of the Sydney Harbour from the Sydney Bridge in Australia.

If Sydney was closer to North America, it would rank alongside Paris or San Francisco as everyone’s favorite destination city. Where else can you find stunning natural beauty and a world-class harbor, a lively and energetic city core, beaches that are a quick ferry ride away and a buoyant populace that’s always trying to make sure you have a “g-day.”

Get ready to discover the best of this remarkable Australian destination, the gateway to the largest of the six Australian states, New South Wales (NSW), and the must-see, first stop on every visitor’s trip to Australia.

Read More: Melbourne Australia: First Timer’s Guide to the Best Things to Do

Views of the Sydney Opera House at night in Australia.
Sydney Opera House at night. Photo credit: R.C. Staab

Walk along the Harbor to the Sydney Opera House

Curiously, Sydney’s most photographed and most iconic spot is mostly appreciated from the exterior but rarely from the interior. Let’s be honest – how many visitors actually step inside the Sydney Opera House to see an opera? To be fair the Sydney Opera House is a performing arts center with multiple venues inside. Cultural fans can experience dance, musical performances, touring productions from London’s West End and Broadway and plays produced by the Sydney Theatre Company, Australia’s leading theater company. For many years, Academy Award winner Cate Blanchett and her director husband shepherded the Sydney Theatre Company, and Blanchett frequently performed on stage there.

To explore this world-famous building and learn about its UNESCO World Heritage designation, visitors can take a guided tour.

SheBuysTravel Tip: Be sure to grab a coffee or a tea at the Opera Bar with ample seating along the harbor.

Get to the CBD of Sydney, Australia through a ferry.
Sydney’s Central Business District (CBD) from a ferry boat. Photo credit: R.C Staab

Get to Know the Circular Quay and the Ferries

Often referred to as the “Gateway to Sydney,” the Circular Quay is the hub of all ferry boats, sightseeing boats and cruise traffic in Sydney, a major railway and tram stop and a popular spot for runners, walkers and people looking to grab a quick bite to eat. Don’t be intimidated by the hustle. Almost every tourist attraction or suburb can be reached by public transit from the Circular Quay. Stop in at the transit office opposite Wharf 5 on Alfred Street for guidance.

From the Circular Quay, walk straight south in the heart of the Sydney’s Central Business District (CBD) to the east to the Sydney Opera House and Royal Botanic Gardens or for nightlife and dining to The Rocks on the western side of the harbor.

Don’t look for a circle at the Circular Quay. It’s a semicircle. The area was originally called “Semi-circular Quay” due to the shape of the stoneworks built with convict labor between 1837 and 1855 to stabilize a new shoreline built from the mudflats. Eventually, the name was shortened to Circular Quay.

SheBuysTravel Tip: It takes less than 15 minutes on the train to reach the Sydney International Airport from the Circular Quay, often quicker than a cab or Uber.

Visit the New Koala exhibit at Taronga Zoo Sydney when you are in Australia.
New Koala exhibit at Taronga Zoo Sydney. Photo credit: R.C. Staab

Amazing Place to see Cuddly Koalas, Hopping Kangaroos & More

On our first trip to Australia, a guidebook author helped us plan, and his suggestion for the first thing to do was visit the Taronga Zoo Sydney (formerly the Sydney Zoo). Seeing the puzzled expression on my face, he listed three reasons:

  • You’ll get out on the water by taking a ferry from Circular Quay to the Taronga Zoo
  • Be dazzled by the spectacular views of Sydney Harbour from the zoo’s hilltop.
  • See koalas, kangaroos and exotic wildlife native to the Australian continent.

Since our first visit, this world-class zoological garden and wildlife park has upped its game. Inside the main entrance is the new The Nura Diya Australia (meaning “this country” in the Aboriginal language) area. Its walkthrough is a very rare opportunity to walk among kangaroos, wallabies and emus without a fence or water feature to separate the animals from human visitors. Staff makes sure you don’t interact or feed the animals, but the animals can hop on by as they please. Nearby is a new Koala exhibit where visitors walk on elevated boardwalks to glimpse these cuddly creatures eating and sleeping in the trees at eye level. Want to hug a koala? Head to Cairns and the Kuranda Koala Gardens.

The exhibits are cleverly designed for adults and children. To see some of the more than 4,000 animals representing more than 350 species, there are animal shows, keeper talks and animal encounters for a fee.

SheBuysTravel Tip: Seriously consider staying overnight within the zoo with the Roar and Snore glamping experience or the fabulous Wildlife Retreat at Taronga (see here for a review of the resort-type accommodation). It’s a hotel experience you will not forget.

Add climb the Sydney Bridge in Australia to your to do list.
Climbers ascending to the summit of the Sydney Bridge. Photo credit: R.C. Staab

Climb to the Summit of the Sydney Bridge (Seriously!)

Tourists the world over make a point of walking the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco and the Brooklyn Bridge in New York City. But imagine walking on top of a bridge, especially one with the best views of the Sydney Harbor. In an unmatched feat of overcoming government red tape, BridgeClimb Sydney founder Paul Cavea convinced skeptical government agencies and experts to allow him to create the world’s first tourist experience to walk on the top of a major bridge to its summit. Cavea has made climbing the arch bridge one of the country’s top attractions.

Want to know more? Read my complete BridgeClimb Sydney guide.

Take a walk on the walkways across the Sydney Bridge in Australia.
Walkway across Sydney Bridge. Photo credit: R.C Staab

Walk Across the Bridge or Climb a Pylon

For those reluctant to book a BridgeClimb Sydney adventure to reach the summit of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, there are alternatives to enjoy the views of the Sydney Harbour from this landmark, often jokingly called the coathanger.

Along the eastern side of the bridge, a walkway connects The Rocks neighborhood near the Circular Quay to the Milson Point neighborhood on the other side. On a recent visit, plenty of joggers and locals were using the pedestrian walk. Tourists were strangely absent. One reason may be the lack of signage to direct people to stairs from The Rocks. Make the effort. The walkway has some of the best views of the harbor. There’s a transit stop in Milson Point with a quick connection to Circular Quay for those who want to walk one way and take a 6-minute train ride back.

Close to the Circular Quay side of the bridge is the Pylon Lookout and Museum located within one of the bridge’s massive pylons. The museum features three levels of exhibits showcasing original artifacts, historical images and videos of the bridge’s construction. But the reason to visit and to climb 200 stairs is for 360-degree panoramic views of Sydney’s skyline, the harbor, the Opera House and the bridge itself. The Pylon Lookout and Museum is open daily, with varying hours on weekdays and weekends.

SheBuysTravel Tip: There’s a combo ticket to visit the museum for those who book the BridgeClimb tour.

Enjoy meals at The Rocks in Sydney Australia.
Dining out at The Rocks. Photo credit: R.C. Staab

Join the Dinner Crowds at The Rocks

Only a few blocks from the wharves at Circular Quay, tourist crowds fan out every night, especially on weekends, to dine at the restaurants and party at the clubs in The Rocks. The original district of the working class, The Rocks was cut in half with the building of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Then the historic buildings faced demolition in the 1970s for urban renewal. People rallied and halted the demolition in favor of the “people’s plan” to conserve the area’s heritage. Fortunately, they were successful.

Be sure to venture up the hill and under the bridge structure to get away from the crowds to discover local historic pubs such as The Fortune of War and the Lord Nelson Brewery Hotel Restaurant. On a recent visit to The Fortune of War, the delightfully cramped pub was full of locals enjoying pub food and beer.

Shop at the Queen Victoria Building shopping arcade in Sydney Australia.
Queen Victoria Building shopping arcade. Photo credit: R.C. Staab

Join the Throngs Shopping in Sydney’s CBD

In Sydney, shopping isn’t a pastime; it’s a passion. From all over the country and Southeast Asia, shoppers descend to the CBD with seemingly more luxury retailers than one can find along Fifth Avenue in New York.

In addition to standalone stores, be sure to visit the Queen Victoria Building, a stunning late-19th-century shopping arcade that is connected on every side to department stores and shopping malls. This heritage-listed building features five stories of ornate architecture, high ceilings and a range of upscale shops, cafes and restaurants. Equally of interest is the Victorian-era shopping venue, the Strand Arcade with designer boutiques, cafes and gift shops.

SheBuysTravel Tip: Make sure to have Apple Pay, Google Pay or another pay service on your phone to pay electronically for goods and services. Throughout our two-and-a-half-week stay, we used the phone to pay for everything including transit, small-town gas stations and even vendors at carts in city parks. The only time we used cash was to tip our hotel doorman.

Visit the SEA LIFE Sydney Aquarium in Sydney Australia.
SEA LIFE Sydney Aquarium. Photo credit: R.C. Staab

Penguins, Sharks and a Dugong (What?) at SEA LIFE Sydney

If Taronga Zoo Sydney does a fantastic job of covering all things Australia above and below ground, SEA LIFE Sydney Aquarium is an equally fine way to see what’s underwater in the harbors, rivers and ocean near Australia. Like an amusement ride, visitors are directed along a path through 14 themed zones, including the world’s largest Great Barrier Reef display, Shark Valley and Penguin Expedition.

A standout exhibit is Dugong Island dedicated to showcasing the unique and endangered dugong species, often referred to as “sea cows.” Along with marine life, the Island is home to Pig, the only captive dugong in Australia, who was brought here after not being able to live in the wild. Visitors can observe Pig through above-water viewing areas and underwater tunnels.

SheBuysTravel Tip: Plan on spending a good part of a day or more along the rapidly developing Darling Harbour with restaurants, the Australian National Maritime Museum and several bridges crossing the harbor to the convention center and the ICC Sydney Theatre, an 8,000-seat entertainment and concert venue.

The Royal Botanic Gardens in Sydney Australia.
Royal Botanic Gardens. Photo credit: R.C. Staab

Stroll the Royal Botanic Gardens & Domaine

Don’t tell the squawking flocks of white cockatoos, but the Royal Botanic Gardens is supposed to be a peaceful escape from the bustling city. Adjacent to the Sydney Opera House, this 30-hectare botanical garden features large grassy lawns, water fountains and a diverse collection of native and exotic plants.

For the Instagram crowd, make your way along the waterfront to the Domaine to Mrs. Macquarie’s Chair, a sandstone rock formation carved into a bench in 1810 by convicts on the orders of Governor Lachlan Macquarie. The legend is that the governor’s wife, Elizabeth Macquarie, would sit and watch for ships arriving from Britain and European ports. From the chair is a picture-perfect view of the Sydney Opera House and Sydney Harbour Bridge.

SheBuysTravel Tip: On Fridays and weekends, the Royal Botanic Garden offers walking tours up to an hour and half in duration.

The Hyde Park Barracks in Sydney Australia.
Hyde Park Barracks. Photo credit: R.C. Staab

Learn the Gruesome History of Convicts Sent from England

In several plain-looking buildings near Hyde Park, experience one of the most interesting and innovative historic tours anywhere in the world at the Hyde Park Barracks. Using cutting-edge audio technology, visitors follow in the footsteps of native people, convicts and prison keepers to explore Australia’s settlement by the British and its colonial history as a penal colony. As a UNESCO World Heritage site, it provides a living record of the brutal life of early convicts, the courage of single female immigrants who were housed there temporarily and the plight of destitute and homeless women sent to the barracks when it became an asylum.

With well-chosen artifacts, the museum experience will leave you moved in a way that most history museums can only imagine. Admission and the audio tour are free.

Take pictures of Sydney Australia from the Sydney Tower Eye.
Sydney Tower Eye. Photo credit: R.C. Staab

See All the Way to the Pacific Ocean

High above all other Sydney buildings, the Sydney Tower Eye is an indoor, 360-observation deck with views to the ocean on one side and views of the Blue Mountains on the other. Visitors also can experience Sydney Skywalk, a 60-minute guided tour around the outside of the Sydney Tower Eye observation deck at a height of 879 feet. Participants are securely harnessed and walk on a metal pathway with glass-floor viewing platforms extending out from the tower’s main observation deck

SheBuysTravel Tip: If you plan on seeing the aquarium, the Sydney Tower Eye and the Wildlife Sydney Zoo (not to be confused with the Taronga Zoo), there are several combo ticket packages that will save money.

Visit the Wildlife Sydney Zoo i Sydney Australia and discover the wild animals in Sydney.
Wildlife Sydney Zoo. Photo credit: R.C. Staab

Discover Kangaroos Downtown

If time doesn’t permit a trip to the Taronga Sydney Zoo, Wildlife Sydney Zoo on Darling Harbour is an easy way to see kangaroos, wombats and the endangered Tasmanian devils, plus snap a photo with a koala in the background. Like the neighboring SEA LIFE Sydney Aquarium, there’s a self-guided path that leads through all 10 exhibits, including Daintree Rainforest, Kangaroo Walkabout and Crocodile Billabong.

The Art Gallery of New South Wales in Sydney Australia.
Art Gallery of New South Wales. Photo credit: R.C. Staab

Freely Visit the Art Gallery of New South Wales

Once a traditional art museum both inside and out, the Art Gallery of New South Wales has expanded and transformed its 19th-century neoclassical building into an innovative art museum campus with two buildings seamlessly connected by a public art garden. Rather than instruct visitors to quietly walk through the galleries, this free museum encourages people to congregate, socialize and immerse themselves in contemporary art, see its European masterworks and explore the gallery’s permanent collection of Australian art. The outdoor public garden is an inviting place to sip a cup of coffee, and its new exhibition spaces allow room for major international art exhibits to tour Australia.

China in Sydney Australia through Sydney’s Chinatown.
Sydney’s Chinatown. Photo credit: R.C. Staab

Have Dim Sum and Shop Around

Whether it’s shopping, sushi restaurants or buying fresh fish at the Sydney Fish Market, Chinatown is one of Sydney’s most popular neighborhoods. While the core is centered on Dixon Street, Chinatown has expanded beyond its traditional boundaries, spilling into surrounding areas such as Darling Harbour and Koreatown. It serves as a bridge between Sydney and Asia, with an influx of Asian students, entrepreneurs and big brands establishing a presence.

Across Dixon Street is Paddy’s Markets which started a market for traders in the 1800s and has now been largely subsumed by Chinatown to become a major indoor farmer and flea market.

The Chinese Garden of Friendship in Sydney Australia.
The Chinese Garden of Friendship. Photo credit: R.C. Staab

Find Tranquility in the Chinese Garden

Walk around the exterior of the Chinese Garden of Friendship and see more than a blank concrete wall. But go inside and discover a much larger garden than one can imagine in this hectic part of the city. Modeled after the classic private gardens of the Ming Dynasty and designed by architects from Sydney’s sister city Guangzhou, the garden seamlessly blends traditional Chinese landscape elements with a modern Australian twist. Visitors can wander along winding pathways adorned with intricate pavilions, serene ponds and lush flora meticulously arranged according to the principles of Feng Shui.

The Luna Park in Sydney Australia.
Luna Park. Photo credit: R.C. Staab

Walk into a World of Fun

On the shores of Sydney Harbour, gleaming at night across the harbor to the Circular Quary is the giant mouth of a smiling clown that greets visitors to a small but beloved Sydney amusement park, Luna Park. Since 1935, Luna Park has been a family attraction to ride the Ferris Wheel, drop from the Hair Raiser tower or play games at the arcade. The park is a quick train ride to Milsons Point from Circular Quay.

Visit the Islands of Sydney Harbor Like Cockatoo Island in Sydney Australia.
Former boat docks at Cockatoo Island. Photo credit: R.C. Staab

Ferry Out to Cockatoo Island

There are plenty of islands in the Sydney Harbour, but none with such a varied history as Cockatoo Island, a UNESCO Heritage site. When the British arrived to populate the area with their settlers, they established a penal settlement on Cockatoo Island. Convicts quarried sandstone, built silos and constructed the Fitzroy Dock through harsh labor, enduring overcrowded conditions. Later, the island transitioned into a shipbuilding hub in the 1850s when the Fitzroy Dock opened for British naval ships. It became the Royal Australian Navy’s main dockyard during WWI and WWII, constructing and maintaining warships until its closure in 1991. Today, it’s administered by the Sydney Harbour Federation Trust. Tour the old convict buildings as well as the huge abandoned shipping building structures.

Regular ferry service is from Circular Quay.

SheBuysTravel Tip: For a truly unusual experience, stay overnight at Cockatoo Island at a campsite in a tent or rent an apartment or house on a nightly or weekly basis.

The Ferry dock at Manly Beach in Australia.
Ferry dock at Manly Beach. Photo credit: R.C. Staab

Hit the Beach in Manly, Bondi and Beyond

Sydney and beachgoing are synonymous. Like the Northern Hemisphere with a four-season climate, the beaches are only typically full of sunbathers during the summer months of December to March.

Bondi Beach is Sydney’s most famous beach, renowned for its golden sands, Aussie surfers and lifeguards, snorkeling near the Bondi rocks and the coastal walk to Coogee Beach. It boasts trendy cafes, bars and the famous Icebergs ocean pool that overlooks the ocean. Manly Beach offers a more laid-back vibe with its long stretch of beach, scenic coastal trails like the Spit to Manly walk and family-friendly coves.

Occasionally lucky Sydneysiders walking the famous Bondi to Coogee coastal trek will catch a glimpse of passing humpbacks traveling north. The whale watching season is the last week of June and the first week of July. In early September, there’s another chance to see the mothers and calves passing by Sydney as they head back south. From land, Sydney’s best vantage point is The Gap at South Head in Watsons Bay. Outside of the city, head for Jervis Bay, a half-day trip south of the city, where you’re almost guaranteed a whale sighting in the calm, clear waters.

Beyond Sydney, consider day trips to:

  • The Blue Mountains to see ancient sandstone formations, lush valleys and waterfalls. Highlights include the iconic Three Sisters rock formation, scenic hiking trails like the Grand Canyon Loop, visiting quaint mountain towns like Leura and Katoomba and taking in panoramic views from lookouts like Echo Point.
  • The Hunter Valley is the place to explore some of Australia’s oldest and most acclaimed wineries. Taste your way through renowned Semillon and Shiraz varieties, enjoy gourmet food pairings and soak in the picturesque vineyard landscapes.
  • Venture to the Royal National Park to witness the unique Curracurrong Falls, where the waterfall plunges directly off coastal cliffs into the ocean – one of the few “tide falls” in the world.
Enjoy amazing views of Sydney Australia from the Four Seasons Sydney.
View from the Four Seasons Sydney. Photo credit by R.C. Staab

Great Hotels at Great Prices

Sydney’s busy downtown features many well-known hotels often available at affordable prices especially with the current exchange rate between the American and Australian dollars. A remarkable, centrally located hotel at an incredibly reasonable price – at least outside of the summer season – is the Four Seasons Sydney. The hotel’s elegant rooms and suites feature contemporary decor, plush furnishings and floor-to-ceiling windows that frame the stunning harbor vistas. Guests can indulge in world-class dining at the acclaimed Pei Modern restaurant or unwind at the outdoor pool.

Along Darling Harbour close to the convention center is the InterContinental Sydney hotel in a prime waterfront location with sweeping views of the harbor and city skyline. The hotel’s modern and stylish rooms provide a comfortable retreat, complete with floor-to-ceiling windows and luxurious amenities. Sip cocktails at the new rooftop bar while taking in panoramic harbor vistas.

Amazing views from the water looking toward the Sydney Harbour Bridge in Sydney Australia.
View from the water looking toward the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Photo credit: R.C. Staab
R.C. Staab is a New York-based author, playwright, musical theater writer and lyricist. His latest book, New York City Scavenger: The Ultimate Search for New York City’s Hidden Treasures, was published in Spring 2023. His first book 100 Things to Do at the Jersey Shore Before You Die was published in 2020 and is now in its second printing. In 2021, he walked the entire 139-mile coastline of the Jersey Shore from Sandy Hook to Cape May the book, generating more than 200,000 views on social media. He frequently contributes to New Jersey Monthly magazine and online travel publications. He is long-time member of the Society of American Travel Writers having traveled to 49 of the 50 US States and more than 60 countries. He specializes in cultural tourism, adventure travel and historical sites. His off-Broadway musicals and plays have been produced in New York, San Francisco, England and the Midwest. He is a two-time nominee for England’s Best New Song competition. He lives in New York City with his wife, Valari, and his dog, Skye.
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