Sydney is a cosmopolitan city on the edge of the Australian world, on the scale of New York or Paris but with a big and beautiful harbor, a fun-loving population, and beaches with shades of blue you never thought possible. The adventure that is Sydney could never be “done” in a week or even a lifetime, but if you have a few days to get a taste of the energetic Aussie metropolis, these are my suggestions.
DAY 1: Victoria Harbor and Sydney Bridge
When you arrive by subway or taxi in the city, your feet automatically propel you to the oldest and most interesting part of the city or any city in my opinion: the waterfront. Victoria Harbor is a busy blue mess of ferries, sailboats, speedboats, tour boats, and cruise ships. For an unbeatable view of the giant harbor and the expanse that is Sydney, book yourself on the Sydney Bridge Climb. If you can climb a ladder, you can climb the 440-ft bridge, right up to the tallest part of the top arch. Your legs will shake, your heart will beat along with the traffic flying past you, and you will climb back down SO much more hard core. Too chicken to climb? No worries, piker, you can get a similar view from the bridge’s pylon, no harness needed. You are also in place to explore The Rocks, Sydney’s oldest neighborhood which is chock full of shops and restaurants serving mean pavlovas. One hundred years ago this was the dirtiest, nastiest place in Sydney; today it is a manifestation of architectural incongruity as shiny steel skyscrapers swing into the sky right behind stone buildings over a century old.
DAY 2: Bondi Beach Surf’s Up!
I thought I knew what the color blue was before I went to Bondi. I was wrong. Even if you are not a beach bum, you will enjoy this world-class surfing beach with non-stop pounding waves, soft rock-free sand, shops selling sun hats, and hundreds of surfers bobbing in the flow, waiting to grab their next mother’s nightmare of a wave. Stroll the boardwalk, munch some fish and chips, slather yourself with coconut oil and bake with the topless babes, then go for a swim in the crazy crashing waves (you might want to hold onto your bikini bottom, however, as the waves at Bondi ARE NOT playing around). Walk south along the coastline from the southern end of the beach to access several more beaches, inlets, ice cream shops, and hot surfers. Finish off your Australian beach day at a pub with a nice cold pint of Victoria Bitter- there is no other way.
DAY 3: Taronga Zoo Meerkats hard at work
Taronga Zoo is across the harbor from the CBD (Central Business District); you must arrive via ferry, a languid ride right past the Sydney Harbor Bridge and Opera House (great photo opportunities)! Taronga is a very cool zoo, a conservation haven which cascades down a verdant hillside and is home to a wide variety of all kinds of animals, including the native marsupials in their natural habitats. Visit the sunbathing crocs, say what? at the size of the kangaroos, hide your baby from the dingoes, take a picture of yourself with a baby koala, laugh at the idiotic duck-billed platypus, spend way too much time with the meerkats and finally figure out what the heck a wombat is. Catch the bird show (backdrop: Sydney and her harbor), then ride the gondola back down across the zoo to catch the ferry back to the waterfront.
DAY 4: Find a treasure! The Rocks Market
Sydney is a shopper’s paradise; there are tons of stores and awesome prices thanks to the continent’s close proximity to Asia’s inexpensive goods. Billabong and Ripcurl are popular clothing brands to bring home (and oh-so-Aussie cool), and if you are into name-brand shopping then you will have no shortage of options in this city, especially down George Street and the area nearby. Budget shoppers are in heaven too, as heaps of warehouse-sized clothing stores burst at their seams with supercheap clothing and accessories; the quality isn’t top notch but for $5 dresses and $2 shirts, who cares? The weekend Rocks Market by the waterfront is an excellent source of Aussie-made products like crocodile jerky, gold-coated eucalyptus leaves, and money pouches made out of a kangaroo’s scrotum.
DAY 5: The Royal Botanic Garden and the Sydney Opera House Friday Night
Sydney’s Botanic Gardens are more than a green oasis in a bustling city, they are a living museum of Australian flora. Wander the grounds and picnic by the crashing waves; go for a jog or check out the Herbarium which contains plant specimens collected by Captain Cook’s crew. Close by is the stunning Sydney Opera House; don’t just stare up in awe at the tiled, sail-like immensity of the building- buy a ticket to a performance and experience the Opera House aurally. Get tickets in advance or at the box office for operas, ballets, and symphonies. If that isn’t your thing, enjoy the Opera House from the outside and have a glass of Australian shiraz at the open-air bar next to the waterfront promenade. On Friday nights there is no better place to be in the South Pacific.
DAY 6: Chinatown and Darling Harbor Music at Darling Harbor
Only twenty years ago Darling Harbor was a run-down, unsavory place for lowlifes and outta-lucks; now after a massive urban redevelopment it is a Mecca of Modern. It is home to the shark-filled Sydney Aquarium, the epically peaceful Chinese Garden of Friendship, the National Maritime Museum, and a plethora of other attractions including an IMAX theatre, a gigantic shopping mall, waterfront cafes, free outdoor music performances, theaters, and water-based architecture, all under the quiet whisp of the Sydney monorail. Next door is Chinatown with pink-budded trees, red archways, and Paddy’s market at Haymarket, a HUGE indoor marketplace selling crafts, food, souvenirs, clothes, animals, leather goods, and electronics, with all the familiar clamor of a traditional bazaar.
DAY 7: Get Lost!
This is YOUR trip to Sydney, and your journey should have plenty of free time for discovering, wandering, and following your heart’s desire. You see some of the best things when you are lost! Chill out in curious cafes and pubs, explore buildings that catch your eye, amble down strange streets, meet weird people, and stumble onto new experiences. This idea of unplanned free time runs counter to many Americans’ idea of traveling: to see as much in the shortest time possible. In Sydney or any other foreign city, take some free time (okay, even PLAN some free time if you have to) to explore your passions and you will return from your travels not only with a wider world view, but with an updated understanding of yourself as well.
“God made the harbor, but the devil made Sydney.” Mark Twain
See you on the beach!