Sydney is an attractive city and a great tourist destination. It’s the Australia most tourists picture in their minds; it is home to iconic buildings and structures. Sydney is definitely a must visit location when traveling Australia.
The city’s central business district (CBD) is fairly compact and easy to navigate on foot. But the comprehensive train and bus network also offer a convenient way to get around the city. Sydney has quite a lot to see and do within the CBD and its surrounding suburbs. You can easily spend a week leisurely exploring Sydney, but it is possible to see the major sights in as little as a day.
George Street is one of the most important streets in Sydney. It has a number of significant buildings and connects the major precincts of the city. St. Andrew’s Cathedral and the Town Hall are located in the heart of the city on George Street. They are both beautiful buildings worth checking out. Nearby is the Queen Victoria Building, which is now a shopping mall after being renovated in the 1980s. The QVB (pictured to the left) also has two clocks with scenes of British and Australian history that come out of the clocks every hour on the hour. They are best seen from level 3. From the QVB, a short walk east will take you to Pitt Street Mall for more shopping, or you can continue on to Hyde Park. The park is a beautiful, serene spot in the midst of the city. It is also home to the Anzac Memorial at the southern end and the Archibald Fountain at the northern end. Across the street is St. Mary’s Cathedral, a catholic church for Sydney’s Irish community that was first built in the 1820s, but then destroyed by fire. Reconstruction started in 1868, but the cathedral was not completed until 2000, making it the longest construction period in all of Australian history.
To the north is the Hyde Park Barracks Museum. The barracks were built to keep convicts off the street as the number of settlers coming into Australia was increasing. Criminals were offered free housing at the barracks, which helped decrease the amount of crime in the city. Just up the street is the Sydney Hospital, which is nicknamed the rum hospital. The governor of the time, Lachlan Macquarie, tried to obtain funds from England to build a hospital, but was rejected, because England only considered Australia a convict colony. So the governor gave rights to free men to sell rum in Sydney as long as they built a hospital. They ended up becoming so rich that they built a bigger hospital than planned. So now only part of the building is still used as a functioning hospital; it is also used as the New South Wales Parliament House and State Library. Outside of the hospital is Il Porcellino, which means little pig in Italian, an ironically large statue of a wild boar. You are meant to toss in a coin at the water basin below and rub the pig’s nose for good luck.
Across the street is Martin Place. The area is home to the fountain that was used in the first installment of The Matrix when Neo sees the lady in red. It is also the location of the Lindt Chocolate Café that was subject to a hostage crisis in December 2014. You will also find several banks, the Channel 7 News Studio and the General Post Office.
Continuing north, you will arrive in the Circular Quay area, which is home to many significant sights in Sydney. First up is the Customs House, which was used to process all immigrants arriving to Australia via ship, but now houses a library, restaurants, shops and a model of the city that is built under the floor and visible through glass panels. And, of course, in Circular Quay you’ll find the Sydney Opera House. The iconic building was designed by Danish architect Jørn Utzon. It was completed in 1973, 10 years after schedule and more than 14 times the original $7 million budget: it cost $102 million to construct. Sadly Utzon never saw the finished product. Due to financial strain, he had to leave Australia before the opera house was completed and received no invitation for the opening ceremony once construction wrapped up.
I have to say it was pretty amazing to see the Sydney Opera House in person. It is one of those structures that I saw time and again in movies and on television. So it was familiar, but I always thought about seeing it in person in an abstract way. To actually be there in front of the opera house and go up and touch it was surreal.
To the west of Circular Quay is the area called The Rocks. Follow the set of stairs up an inconspicuous path between The Rocks Hatters and Le Coq Sportif off of George Street to a lovely courtyard with a beautiful mural of the transformation of Sydney’s Circular Quay from the mid 1700s to the early 2000s. The path goes through some of the historic buildings of The Rocks and eventually leads to The Rocks Discovery Museum. If you follow George Street to the waterfront, you’ll come to Campbells Cove, which has a great view of the opera house and Sydney Harbour Bridge.
Royal Botanic Gardens
To the east of Circular Quay is the Royal Botanic Garden. The garden is massive and delightfully tranquil. It is a great place to relax and unwind after walking around the city. There are a variety of plants from regions around the world. The gardens lead right up to the Sydney Opera House and contain the Art Gallery of New South Wales and Sydney Conservatorium of Music. The gardens surrounding the Royal Botanic Garden are called the Domain. The Domain envelops Mrs. Macquarie’s Point, which is one of the best spots for photos of the Sydney Opera House in front of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. You really have to venture there to see the opera house and bridge from this point of view across Sydney Harbour.
Sydney definitely gets the bulk of its lifeblood from the numerous harbours that dot the city, and Darling Harbour is one that is worth a visit. It is a beautiful spot, but beware, it is a bit of a tourist trap. It has the Sea Life Sydney Aquarium, Wild Life Sydney Zoo and Madame Tussauds Sydney wax museum along with a variety of restaurants. The harbour is a pedestrian zone, making it a great place to walk around and enjoy a leisurely stroll. It also has an incredible park with water features that is great for children.
Darling Harbour is also home to the world’s largest IMAX screen. I was lucky enough to see Star Wars: The Force Awakens on that screen, and tell you what, world’s biggest is no exaggeration. I was skeptical at first, but once I walked into the theatre I knew it was a legitimate claim. The screen is absolutely massive. I had to strain my neck to look at the top. And as I sat watching the movie, I couldn’t help but notice that each audience member had to move their head from left to right as they read the opening crawl text. Tickets are a bit pricier than your average movie, but watching a film on the world’s biggest screen is an experience that is absolutely worth having.
Heading inland will bring you to Chinatown. You will come upon the Chinese Garden of Friendship. The garden is a peaceful retreat within the city, but entry is $6 per adult. The major attractions in Chinatown are found along Dixon Street. The street is decorated with Chinese architectural features and has lots of cheap and delicious Asian eateries. Another notable spot in Chinatown is the corner of Sussex Street and Hay Street, where there is a dead tree trunk that was turned into a beautiful piece of art.
There are several food courts and specialty shops in Chinatown. Market City is a shopping center with a variety of boutique shops, an indoor entertainment complex and Paddy’s Markets. It is a great place to go for cheap goods of all sorts. The quality won’t be the greatest, but prices are much better than many other spots in the city. Paddy’s Markets is a great place to get souvenirs and trinket gifts for friends and family back home. You’ll also find clothes, sunglasses, and a small section of fruit, vegetables and seafood. Paddy’s Markets is open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday.
Sydney Sights Tour
To get oriented with the city and briefly visit Sydney’s highlights, I recommend joining the free walking tour. It’s a great way to figure out what to see and where to go, all while listening to an interesting dialogue of the city’s history. The guides also point out other free activities available in Sydney and the most economical places to get the best views of the city. The tours meet every day (except Christmas Day) at 10:30 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. between St. Andrew’s Cathedral and Town Hall on George Street in the city center. They last about 2.5 to 3 hours, and tour guides work on a tip basis, so you can pay what you feel is fair. It is a very comprehensive tour, but there isn’t much time for exploring each of the sites. I would recommend taking the tour to learn the city’s history and become familiar with each attraction’s location, so you can then meander the reverse course slowly and stop in each place you want to explore more thoroughly.
The trains in Sydney are awesome! They are double-decker cars with more seats than standing room, so you’re likely to have a comfortable ride. And some of the trains have movable backrests for the seats; ordinarily the benches are lined up and facing the same direction like pews, but you can easily move the seat backs to create a section of two benches that face each other. It’s really convenient if you have a big group and want to talk while traveling together. Or it’s just fun if you are easily entertained like me.