Sydney Getaway Guide to an Urban Aussie Adventure

From beaches and beer to shopping and sightseeing, Sydney will give you a taste of the cosmopolitan life Aussie-style

Credit: John Thomson

Sydney’s stunning streetscape is awash in a mixture of history, a booming economy, and plenty to see and do

As everyone knows the first boatload of English, er, visitors to Australia landed in Sydney Harbour in 1794, in chains. Over time settlers joined the convicts and the influx never stopped.

My first impression upon hitting the streets? Sydney’s a bit of old Blighty with a few more sushi shops thrown in. The elevators are called lifts, cricket is a major sport and cars drive on the left. Don’t worry, the words “Look to Your Right” are etched into every intersection to remind hapless tourists of oncoming traffic. I survived Sydney and I never lost a limb.

Marvel in Sydney’s stunning streetscape

The country is awash in minerals, oil and uranium. The economy is booming and that means Canadians will find it a little pricey as Aussies flaunt their new found wealth.

You can see it in the city’s stunning streetscape; Victorian gems stand cheek-by-jowl with modern towers. Sydney makes a point of preserving its heritage buildings and the result is a mix of old and new connected by a sophisticated network of subways, roads and ferries plunked down in one of the most beautiful locations in the world.

Legend has it that back in the early 1900s Sydney and Melbourne and couldn’t agree on which would become the capital city so the government of the day built one from scratch – Canberra – between the two. Whether fact or fable, it pretty much sums up how Sydney regards itself – vibrant, self-confident and just a wee bit cocky.

Click through for your guide to an urban Australian adventure.

Credit: John Thomson

Start your visit at Circular Quay

To say Circular Quay in Sydney Harbour is the city’s heart and soul is an understatement. It’s historically important as the place where the convicts landed, but it’s also a major transportation hub.

Four ferry terminals connect the city to its north shore where homeowners, a 1920s amusement park and theZoo reside. The fifth terminal is the departure point for Sydney’s popular harbour cruises. The Quay is also a train station. Add cafes, restaurants and street performers – we saw two buskers playing the didgeridoo – and you’ve got a vibrant, pulsating urban space teaming with people.

Follow the seawall to get to Sydney’s major sights

To the east of the Quay sits Sydney’s celebrated Opera House. It’s even more stunning close-up with angles and sweeps that aren’t apparent from most photos. There are six halls and theatres inside the structure and backstage tours are available.

A seawall connects the Opera House to the Royal Botanic Gardens – home of tropical, rare indigenous plants, cockatoos and flying foxes (aka fruit bats).

Going the other way will lead to the refurbished historical district called The Rocks. It used to be a sketchy part of town but has been gussied up for the tourist trade. The Rocks also houses the entrance to Bridge Walk Sydney, an aerial adventure for those who want to walk along the top of Harbour Bridge and peer into the water 134 metres below. The company offers four guided tours of varying duration and complexity.

Credit: John Thomson

Visit Darling Harbour to sample Sydney’s maritime culture

Darling Harbour is Sydney’s other waterfront hub. Located west and south of the Quay, it’s the home of theSydney Sea Life Aquarium andthe Australian National Maritime Museum.

The Sea Life Aquarium hosts an extensive collection of predators, including lots of sharks. The truly adventurous can scuba dive with nurse sharks (the kind that don’t eat people) at the Aquarium’s sister installation Sea Life Sanctuary on Manly Island.

Experience life aboard Endeavour, the ship that discovered Vancouver Island

Sydney’s maritime museum is four times the size of Vancouver’s and is beautifully laid out. Two retired warships and a full-sized replica of Captain James Cook’s 18th century sailing vessel Endeavour are in dock. Cook, of course, discovered Australia and Vancouver Island back in the 1770s when he traversed the Pacific looking for the Northwest Passage.

A host of knowledgeable volunteers provide an authoritative commentary above and below decks. It’s a fascinating glimpse at how sailors used to live. There’s not much headroom though; apparently people were shorter in the old days.

Walking along Bridge Road west of the Museum leads to the Sydney Fish Market, second in size only to Japan’s for variety, where tourists jostle with buyers for the catch of the day. Nothing beats a plate of fish and chips with fresh barramundi processed on the spot.

Credit: John Thomson

Head for Bondi Beach to catch rays and waves

Sydney’s beaches are never far away; there are 70 within commuting distance. Bondi is arguably the most famous and the closest, a mere seven kilometres east of the city centre.

An immense stretch of white sand gradually sloping into perpetually warm water, Bondi has everything going for it – climate, location and accessibility. Thankfully, the residential community that’s grown up around the beach has avoided the high rise excess of its Mediterranean counterparts, and its low-rise beachfront is both inviting and curiously old-fashioned. The esplanade is what you’d expect – fast food and souvenir shops – but venturing deeper into the community reveals more interesting shops and restaurants.

Bondi also features an outdoor 50-metre Olympic saltwater pool for those wishing to swim laps. Bronte Beach, which is favoured by families, is another kilometre east of Bondi.

Northern beaches for surfing

Serious surfers head north to Manly Beach where the wave action is more intense. Manly is literally a hop, skip and a jump from Circular Quay. The 11-kilometre ferry ride from Wharf 3 deposits visitors at Manly Cove and from there it’s a short walk along the Corso, a pedestrian shopping concourse, to the Pacific Ocean side of the island and a series of beaches including the North Steyne, Queenscliff and Frewshwater Beaches.

Freshwater Beach is where it all started in 1915 when a Hawaiian gent introduced the Aussies to the aquatic sport.

Credit: John Thomson

Sydney’s major hotels encircle the harbours and the downtown core

Australia’s ‘roos have the right idea; carry shelter with you. But unless you’re a baby marsupial, chances are you’re going to have to purchase accommodation somewhere on the street. As they say in real estate it’s all about location, location, location.

Most high end luxury hotels are located in the downtown core or the CBD (Central Business District) close to Circular Quay. We stayed in the Sofitel Wentworth, a 10-minute walk to the Quay. Fifteen minutes in the other direction took us to the downtown shops.

The Four Seasons, Hyatt and Hilton are also in the central core. The Pullman Quay Grand Sydney is right on the waterfront and, yes, you pay a premium for the view. The Darling Harbour area is another favourite spot for the chains. Novtel, Radisson and Darling at the Star can be found close to key tourist attractions such as the Aquarium and the Maritime Museum.

Try the smaller hotels in Sydney’s off-beat neighbourhoods for colour and atmosphere

The smaller boutique hotels tend to congregate in the Darlinghurst and Paddington areas east of the downtown core. Check for a breakdown of hotels according to price and location.

Self-catering suites in private homes and apartments that locals rent to tourists are also popular, more so around the eastern and northern beaches. Rents range from $150 to $500 a night and up.Bookastay is a prime supplier.

Credit: John Thomson

Dine elegantly or casually; Sydney caters to every taste

Like any big city Sydney offers a mix of eateries ranging from posh to pedestrian. If traditional Australian food is on the menu it’s likely going to be meat – beef, pork and yes, even kangaroo.

Meat and potatoes are a holdover from colonial times but the Aussies are embracing other cuisines too; Asian is the second most popular followed by Italian. The higher end establishments can be found around the harbours. It’s hard to beat Sails on Lavender Bay at the tip of Sydney Harbour for fine dining and picture postcard views.

On the other hand the Marque Restaurant, 2012’s Restaurant of the Year, can be found inland in a former slum now refurbished. Niligris across the harbour on Sydney’s north shore is a popular medium-priced Indian restaurant which allows diners to bring their own libations, a familiar practice in Oz. There are no corkage fees in most Sydney restaurants.

Get familiar with a few local conventions

The price of food is a contentious issue in Sydney, even among the locals. We found restaurant meals a tad more expensive than in Vancouver. We also noticed cafes added a small surcharge if we ordered from a server as instead of ordering from the bar and taking our food away.

On the other hand, tipping is virtually unheard of, at least in the casual cafes, and as the bill already includes the 10% GST tax, there’s no confusion about how much your meal is really going to cost.

Credit: John Thomson

Enjoy a night on the town in the heart of the city

You can’t say the Australians don’t have a sense of humour. For a “Lemon Cohen” or a “Smells Like Gin Spirit,” head over to the Mojo Record Bar in the CBD, a fashionable hole-in-the-wall with a decidedly musical motif.

“Nelson’s Blood” is neither a cocktail nor a condition; it’s a custom beer brewed by the Lord Nelson Hotel over at The Rocks. Sophisticated cocktail bars? They tend to be located in the downtown core and around the harbours.

But head for the Hills to start your pub crawl

As for the amber nectar; it’s true Aussies love their beer but the image of the hard drinking bushman has taken a beating recently as booze cans have given way to gastro pubs serving wine as well as suds.

No fear, there are still plenty of regular pubs around. The more interesting ones tend to be located in the neighbourhoods. Check for details. We found a traditional watering hole in Surry Hills. A working class area, it has been re-discovered by students and gays and is enjoying a rejuvenation of sorts.

Pop into the Clock Hotel on Crown Street. Head straight for the second floor, saddle up to the bar and order a pint of Victoria Bitter. Nothing beats the second floor verandah for people watching. Non-smokers should be aware Sydney hasn’t got around to banning outdoor smoking yet, although it says it has. Many establishments still allow tobacco on their decks and patios.

Credit: John Thomson

Shop in Sydney’s exclusive arcades

George Street which runs north–south through the central business district (CBD) houses many elegant, refurbished shopping arcades, and the Royal Victoria Building (RVB) at George and Market Streets is the belle of the ball.

This 1898 Victorian gem was transformed into a sumptuous three-storey shopping arcade in 1986 and is packed top to bottom with exclusive labels. The RVB takes up a whole city block and it’s worth it to walk its entire length just to see the architecture and the goods even if you’re not buying. It’ll make you think Rodeo Drive is ho hum ordinary. Sydney loves its arcades.

The Strand, also on George Street, is a smaller, less flashy version of the RVB offering less expensive yet stylish clothes. The Strand also connects to Pitt Street, home of the Pitt Street Mall and another 300 stores. Pitt Street carries the dubious reputation of being the fifth most expensive retail space in the world, which apparently hasn’t discouraged Gucci, Zara and Christian Louboutin from setting up shop.

Or purchase local wares from the city’s many street markets

Bargain hunters looking for cheaper wares will enjoy the city’s weekend street markets. The Rocks is the most visible. Every Saturday and Sunday Argyle Street is crammed with booths selling clothing, jewelry and handicrafts.

Fashionistas prefer the Paddington market where local designers unveil their original creations while the Glebe market favours factory seconds and pre-owned furniture. Remember, the advertised price includes the 10% GST tax so there’s no need to do rapid calculations.

Sydney Getaway Guide to an Urban Adventure