Sydney

The Ultimate Guide to Sun-Soaked Sydney

Sydney has a visual wow factor that compares to few other cities.

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It’s the kind of place where surfers and renowned chefs vye for the same produce at the local farmers markets, where people spend each weekend at the beach, and where homes with water views abound.

As one of the biggest cities in Oz, Sydney is the perfect place for starting your Australian adventure.

We absolutely loved Sydney, but preferred Melbourne.

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Sunshine is great, but we’re chilly weather, cosy up, sip flat whites while it’s raining outside, and eat all the brunch kind of people. Melbs was right up our alley.

Sydney was fantastic and the beaches are gorgeous- but, there’s only so much sunshine those of us with pale skin can handle- #IYKYK.

Keep in mind, when planning your Sydney adventures, it’s not a small city. We were there for three weeks, and still left with loads of things on our to-do list (granted, we were also both working while there).

My advice would be to create a custom Google map with key activities you’d like to do, and then plan your days based on activity proximity.

While in Sydney, we’d spend a day along the coast; a day north of the city, hiking; a day in the CBD; a day adventuring to Manly; a day exploring another neighborhood in the city, and so on.

There are ways to pack a lot in, if you’re so inclined, but Sydney, like the rest of Oz, is so laid back, you’ll want to chill like the locals.

What to Do

From amazing weather, to pristine beaches, great bush walks, an ace cafe culture, and tasty tipples, there’s no shortage of ways to pass the time in Sydney.

Walk from Bondi to Coogee

The Bondi to Coogee coastal walk is one of the most iconic walks you can do in Sydney. Over the course of it, you’ll follow rough cliffs along the ocean with stunning views all around.

Most people, myself included started in Bondi.

When we did the walk, it took us about 3 hours to get from Bondi to Coogee, but we stopped often for photos, and to relax and take in the view.

Along the way, you’ll pass Tamarama Beach, Bronte Beach, Clovelly Beach and Gordons Bay.

The walk is easy, but not wheelchair accessible. Along the way, there are a few gentle inclines and sets of steps, but nothing too difficult.

To do the walk, I’d recommend taking a bus to Bondi Beach, and then taking a bus back to wherever you’re staying from Coogee. In our case, we caught transfer buses from/to the CBD.

// The Complete Guide to the Bondi to Coogee Coast Walk //

Spend a Day in Manly

When we visited Manly, we loved lounging on the beach lined with pine trees, and exploring the adjacent coastline so much, we decided not to walk to Spit.

However, I’ve heard Spit to Manly is one of the best bush walks in Sydney. It’s got a bit of everything- dramatic cliff views, harbour views and secluded beaches.

Although we may not have done the hike, we did ferry to Manly from the CBD and absolutely loved our day out there.

The vibe is totally different to Sydney. In some ways, it’s like being away for a weekend without actually leaving the city.

If you take a ferry, as we did, you’ll dock right in the centre of town.

From the ferry terminal, the beach is a short walk. Along the way, you’ll pass boutiques, bars, and restaurants with plenty of sidewalk seating.

The pine tree lined beaches of Manly reminded me of the Pacific Northwest, one of my favourite places in the world.

Don’t miss walking from the main beach to Shelly Beach– a sheltered inlet, with clear water, ideal for snorkeling.

Along the way, you’ll pass saltwater pools, which quickly because a personal favourite of mine – even just for dipping my toes in water – while in NSW.

Wandering Manly, don’t miss strolling the Corso, where you’ll find buskers drawing crowds and plenty of dining options.

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We enjoyed smoothie bowls at Bare Naked, lattes at Fika Swedish Kitchen, happy hours pints at Four Pines Brewing, and wood fired pizza at Hugos.

If you’re taking a ferry back to the CBD, try to time it for sunset. We did, and were lucky to catch a truly spectacular show.

Hike Through the Bush to the Barrenjoey Lighthouse

North of Sydney, we drove to Barrenjoey for this hike. However, I’ve heard you can also take a bus from the CBD.

If you drive, there’s a parking lot at the base of the hike- when we visited, there were other cars, but not so many we couldn’t find a spot.

The hike sits at the northernmost point of Sydney, on Barrenjoey Headland at Palm Beach.

In comparison to some of the other coastal walks, it’s much shorter.

Once you park, you’ll walk along the beach for a few minutes until you see a paved road.

At the road, you’ll have the option of continuing on the paved road to the top, or veering off to take steps that cut through the hinterland.

We decided to take the steps up- although steep, we heard it normally only takes 15-20 minutes to climb to the top.

On the way down, we walked the paved pathway, which took about 10-15 minutes, but also presented a fairly sharp incline. We didn’t mind walking down it, but it definitely wouldn’t necessarily be any easier climbing up vs. taking the steps.

Whichever way you decide to go, I’d recommend going one way up, and the other down for different views.

Once you’re at the top, take time to explore.

From one side, you’ll see signs for whale migration- if you’re lucky and there during the right time of the year, you may even see one.

You can walk around the lighthouse, and climb down some of the grassy hills and rocky surfaces at the top for different views.

And, if you’re driving and have the time, a few other spots that would be worth checking out while you’re north:

  • Mona Vale Rocks
  • Curl Curl beach (especially beautiful at sunrise)
  • Diamond Bay Reserve: Beautiful old stairs and ruins built into the side of a massive cliff, by the ocean. Take the cliffside stairway down to the stone doorway

Visit the Royal Botanic Gardens, and Walk to Mrs. Macquarie’s Chair

Mrs. Macquarie’s Chair offers some of the best vantage points of the harbour- you’ll have a clear view of the Opera House and Harbour Bridge.

Sunset here is a real treat.

Before you post-up to watch the sun sink below the horizon, take a stroll through the Botanic Gardens. They’re expansive, and free to visit.

The palm tree covered walkways are a beautiful reprieve from the city’s skyscrapers, and if you love succulents as much as I do, pop in the cactus garden.

With harbour views, the gardens are also a great spot for a picnic in the sun.

Hit up the Hipster Coffee Houses of Surry Hills and Darlinghurst for the Best Flat White You’ve Ever Had

See below for my top recos, or here for a full review of the best spots in Sydney to sit and sip.

See the Sydney Opera House, An Absolute Must

Is there anything more iconic to Sydney than the Opera House?

Located right on the harbour, its unique design stands out.

It’s centrally located and easy to get to. Go early in the morning if you’re keen for photos without dozens of tourists in the background.

Or, chance your luck mid-afternoon on an overcast, slightly rainy day, as we did.

If you visit in the afternoon or evening, don’t miss out on having a waterside tipple. A glass of bubbly here is the perfect way to cheers your time in Sydney.

From the Opera House, you can walk around the ferry terminal to the next to-do on this list, exploring The Rocks.

Explore The Rocks

A historic neighborhood located near the Sydney Harbour Bridge, The Rocks is a must visit for first time visitors.

You can take a free walking tour, or wander the cobblestone streets on your own.

Don’t miss popping into the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA). It’s free to visit, their art collection is fantastic, and the rooftop cafe offers a sweeping harbour view.

And, if you’re in the mood for a tipple, check out Endeavor Taprooms- a modern pub, brewing their own drafts.

Walk Over or Climb Up The Harbour Bridge

The thought of climbing to the top of this bridge makes my hair stand on end- it’s so high!

Good news for those who don’t want to spend $270 AUD on the climb- you can also walk across the bridge for free. There’s a staircase near the corner of Longs Lane and Cumberland, where that’ll lead you to the pedestrian walkway.

Explore the Other Side of the Harbour

Can’t get enough of Sydney’s famous harbour views?

For a perfect morning, take the Kirribilli ferry from CBD to Celsius Cafe for brunch on a cafe situated at the edge of a pier.

Then, walk along the coast to Missions Point.

Check out Luna Park, if that’s your thing.

Or, pop into the Olympic Pool for spectacular swimming views. Even if you don’t swim, watching others rip through the water is oddly calming.

When you’re ready, either hop on a ferry to the CBD, and then head to the Rock or Opera House, or walk over the harbour across the Harbour Bridge.

Window Shop the Queen Victoria Building

One of the city’s most beautiful arcades, the QVB is brimming with speciality shops and small cafes.

Also, be sure to checkout adjacent George Street for some of the city’s best shopping.

The Best Day Trips from Sydney

For all of these day trips, I’d recommend renting a car so you have flexibility over how your day goes. Driving on the left isn’t as intimidating as you may imagine it is- promise.

The only day trip I’d consider doing a tour for? A visit to the Hunter Valley, if everyone in your group wants to indulge in wine tastings.

And, some of these places, like the Blue Mountains can be visited in a day, but are best explored if you’re able to swing an overnight and take your time.

  • Blue Mountains: With loads of walking trails, hikes and waterfalls to discover, it’s best to plan for a few days in the mountains. If you can only swing one through, you’ll be happy to know you’ll be able to visit, see and do a few things if you’re willing to leave Sydney early and return late:
    • Lincoln’s Rock: Breathtaking views over the mountain landscape, great for sunset
    • Pulpit Rock: Walk from Govett’s Leap (6km return), or head there from the car park (5 minute walk)
    • Grovett’s Leap: One of the best introductory viewpoints in the Blue Mountains, you’ll see magnificent Grose Valley and mountaintops for miles
    • Katoomba: The heart of the Blue Mountains: No viewpoint is more iconic than the Three Sisters
    • Echo Point: For the great view of the Three Sisters, also a great view of the Jamison Valley below
    • Graze on Main Street does a beautiful porridge (great pre-hiking fuel)
  • Kangaroo Valley: Look up glamping cottages in this region, and thank me later. If heading to the mountains or southern beaches, I’d plan a night here in between the two areas, and then head back up to Sydney
    • A few other stops in the area:
      • Fitzroy Falls
      • Three Views Walking Track 
  • Southern Beaches: Admittedly, you need at least an overnight to check these out- unless you want to spend a looooong day in a car. We decided to spend three days in the region to cap off our Sydney trip, but were thwarted by some of the heaviest rain Sydney had seen during September in over a decade (of course). Before we were rained out, we were mapping out stops to-
    • Breakfast / coffee in Cronulla
      • Grind Espresso
      • Heart & Soul Cafe
      • Next Door Cronulla
    • Stanwell Tops
    • Seacliffe Bridge
    • Sublime Point Lookout
    • Kiama Blowhole
    • Plantation Point: Locals beach, good for sunrise
    • Huskisson Beach: Another popular white sand beach, seems to stretch for miles. Look out for dolphins from shore
    • Hyams Beach: A must, some of the whitest sand in the world
    • Wollongong: Opus Coffee Brewers and Diggies Cafe
  • Hunter Valley: Wine tasting time. The Hunter Valley is two hours north of Sydney, and a must visit if you’re a wine lover. There are world famous wineries, and loads of local restaurants to check out when you get hungry
    • Wineries that came recommended to us-
      • Brokenwood: Some of the best red wine in Hunter 
      • Gun Dog: Great wine and coffee, white wines are particularly good
      • Scarborough Wines: Great choice for white wines, beautiful option for sunset
      • Audrey Wilkinson: Most picturesque vineyard in the Hunter Valley, set in a secluded rural setting 

Where to Have Coffee

It’s no secret Australians have mastered coffee- from pour over to lattes, it’s hard to go wrong.

In case you haven’t already heard, sunny Sydney’s brews are some of the best in the world.

Everyone rates Melbourne for their coffee scene, and while it was ace, Sydney certainly didn’t leave anything to be desired.

// A Guide to Sydney’s Cafes: 30 Spots to Sit and Sip //

BONDI

Beaches and brews, does it get any better in one of the world’s most famous beach locations?

  • Porch and Parlour: Porridge, fresh juice and great brews
  • Speedos: We came for the pancakes, loaded with fruit, but were intrigued enough to order a ‘deconstructed mocha’ when we saw it on the menu. Verdict: Cool for Insta, not as good as when baristas make it for you
  • Lox Stock & Barrel: Great bagels and good coffee
  • Preach: Best spot to grab a cup of takeaway brew from for your coastal walk
  • Bondi Hardware: Known for their brunch scene, which of course includes ace coffee drinks

CBD

There’s more than business brewing in Sydney’s downtown hub. Excuse the pun, the coffee is that great here.

  • Aslan Coffee Roasters (The Rocks): Got some time to kill before your ferry? Head over to this small, but mighty coffee shop. And, on the way back, walk along the waterfront for those million dollar opera house and harbour bridge views
  • Klink: Take away coffee from this cute shop in an old police station, then go on a harbour walk
  • Pablo & Rusty’s: Spacious and bright, Pablo’s does a great iced coffee- but be forewarned, iced coffee in Syd comes with ice cream, unless you specify otherwise
  • The Grounds of the City: A beautiful cafe in the opening of an arcade, great for brunch of just a coffee catch-up
  • Workshop Espresso: An underground cafe, perfect for commuters or those in search of hidden gem coffee shops
  • MCA Cafe: Coffee, lunch, or a snack- whatever you choose to have here, it’ll be with one hell of a view (of the harbour and opera house)
  • Black Star Pastry: A can’t miss for breakfast pastries, to go with all the coffee you’re drinking with your CBD cafe hop

SURRY HILLS / DARLINGHURST

Hipster haven means an endless amount of cool cafes in Surry Hills. While, adjacent Darlinghurst is fun and funky with loads of edge shops.

  • Bootsdarling: Home to great coffee and a killer lunch menu
  • Fragrance: Here for the single window, sidewalk sips
  • A Brewer’s Tale Cafe: When you’ve had too much caffeine, switch to taro lattes. Bonus points for a cool setting with lights housed in birdcages
  • Single O: If you visit one cafe in Surry Hills, make it this one. The coffee is insane, there’s an alleyway bit for those who want to stand and drink their coffee, and all of it is just such a cool vibe
  • Reuben Hills: V trendy, but the avo toast and flat white were both great, so worth checking out the scene
  • The Reformatory Caffeine Lab: Excellent cold brew, served Alice in Wonderland style in itty bitty bottles
  • Bills: All of the mint tea and muted, calm interiors, pls
  • Paramount Coffee Project: Single O is my favourite cafe in Surry Hills, but PCP is a close second. Their flat whites are everything Aussie coffee should be
  • Two Good Eggs: A classic brunch spot- the avo and feta smash, with scram and hash browns are #droolemoji

NORTH SYDNEY

Most of these chill cafes offer a dose of seaside calm, in addition to cool coffee drinks.

  • Celsius Coffee Co: A tiny cafe, jutting out over the harbour- the waffles are beautiful (and delicious), and flat whites predictably fantastic
  • Bay Ten Espresso: If you’re nearby Bay Ten, don’t miss popping in for a takeaway flat white
  • The Boathouse Balmoral: The fish and chips are legendary, but the orange infused cold brew is just the loveliest to sip with a few of the sea

GLADESVILLE / HUNTERS HILL

Most visitors, especially those in Sydney for a short time, stay more central to the city or coast. Since we were there for three weeks, we chose comfort over proximity, and scored a beautiful, studio Airbnb.

It was a two minute walk to buses that went straight into the CBD, and on average took ~30 minutes to get downtown. Because we spent most mornings, and weekends in the area, we checked out a few local cafes and absolutely loved them.

  • Cav & Co: Just as good as any cafe in Oz, this was our go-to weekend brunch spot for avo toast and iced mochas
  • Cafe Elation: Ace flat whites, cool minimal Scandi decor
  • Dachshund Coffee: Filled with plants, serving up great brunch staples. Don’t miss the sandwich with a fried egg, kale, chipotle mayo, avo and halloumi

ADDITIONAL FAVOURITES

Scattered in a few other places around Sydney, we also dug these spots.

  • The Grounds of Alexandria: Everyone, literally everyone, told us to visit the Grounds. And, everyone told us to come early- as in when they first open early. Especially if visiting on a weekend. We loved the Grounds- concept wise, it’s a cool cafe, restaurant, garden and market all rolled into one complex. The iced coffee and avo toast are outstanding
  • Mecca Coffee: Beautifully designed with great flat whites and a must-order-from brunch menu
  • Coffee Alchemy: Excellent coffee in a small suburb. A great stop if you’re headed south to check out coastal stretch below Sydney

Where to Eat

During our adventures in Oz, we kept to a fairly tight budget of ~$20 AUD per day pp on coffee and meals out.

Usually, this meant a nice brunch out, plus a few coffees, and maybe a street snack.

For other meals (early morning breakfast, dinner), we bought groceries from Aldi’s and cooked for ourselves. Doing so proved to be a great way to try local brands, eat healthy, and keep costs down.

All that to say, I don’t have a ton of restaurant recommendations for Sydney. On a few occasions, we treated ourselves to dinner out.

Additionally, most of the cafes I’ve recommended above, and in my cafe guide, serve a bangin’ brunch.

A couple of other great eats in the city: 

  • Chin Chin: With a counterpart in Melbourne, Chin Chin Sydney serves up the same great Asian fusion dishes. We didn’t visit in Syd because we’d gone in Melbourne, but if you’re only in Sydney, don’t miss this place for a casual lunch or lively dinner
  • Gelato Messina: Freshly churned gelato that’s ridiculously good. The hardest part was choosing which flavours to have from their ever-changing array of 30-40+. I went for the vanilla + honeycomb and pear + rhubarb, but tried the coconut lychee, coconut + pandan, boysenberry, and chocolate mint, and all were absolutely delicious
  • Three Blue Ducks: An ace spot for brunch in Bronte, perfect if you’re making the Bondi to Coogee walk late morning to early afternoon
  • Nutie Doughnuts: Excellent donut selection, from cake doughnuts to vegan and gluten free varieties. Loads of flavours to choose from, too
  • Aqua S: Fun and funky ice cream flavours and styles. If you’ve ever dreamt of eating ice cream in a cotton candy cloud, this is the place for you. Or, if you’re into trying niche flavours, like Vietnamese coffee with sea salt, you’ll enjoy Aqua S
  • Barenaked Bowls: Best acai bowls in Syd
  • Simply Hummus Bar: Perfect for a great lunch deal in Darlinghurst- the falafel, hummus and tabouleh are so good. Plus, the mint tea is ultra refreshing
  • NOMAD: Contemporary metes Middle Eastern cuisine, NOMAD is perfect for a nice lunch, or special dinner

Where to Drink

We didn’t drink much while in Australia, but did meet up with friends for hangouts a few times each week of our stay, and did enjoy these spots-

  • The Forresters: A modern pub with great pizzas
  • The Beresford: An upscale pub with plenty of good eats to keep you going through those pints
  • Endeavor Taprooms: A classic pub in the midst of The Rocks, brewing their own drafts. If you’re a fan of stouts, this is the place to try one
  • Bulletin Place: Our favourite place for cocktails in Syndey. It’s a small, limited capacity bar, so best to come early if you don’t have a reservation. Every cocktail we had here was excellent
  • The Baxter Inn: Another great spot for cocktails in Sydney
  • Hyde Hacienda: If you’re looking for a lively nightlife scene in the CBD, this fits the bill with a prime location next to the opera house
  • Opera Bar: Have a glass of bubbly or cold beer with a ‘once in a lifetime’ view of Sydney’s famed harbour
  • Blu Blu on 36: With sweeping views of the harbour, Blu Blu is the spot for cocktail hour with a view

Where to Stay

Throughout Australia, we stayed in private rooms with en-suite bathrooms of people’s homes, via Airbnb. When we visited in winter, these were 50-60% less per night than staying in budget hotels or private rooms of hostels.

In Sydney, we chose to stay outside the city centre in Gladesville, which is about 30 minutes by bus to the CBD.

We loved Gladesville- it was central enough that we felt connected to everything downtown, but residential enough to give us a taste for what living in Sydney would be like. The area itself had everything we needed (cafes, shops, restaurants).

If only in Sydney for a few days, I’d stay along the coast- in one of the towns on the Bondi to Coogee coastal path.

As for our Airbnb in Gladesville, it was gorgeous- our room was upstairs and separate from their living area, which made it feel like we had privacy. Really, it was like a studio apartment, complete with a mini kitchen that was equipped with a tea kettle, fridge and toaster.

Extra Oz Travel Tips

Language: English, with some quirky slang thrown in for good measure 

Safety: Never once, traveling across Australia did we feel unsafe. Still take the normal precautions, like locking your car at night and keeping an eye on valuables, but I’d compare most of the cities and places we visited to small and big cities in the UK and US

Currency: Australian Dollar

While in Oz, I paid for most things with my Revoult card, as many things are contactless payment. I did carry a small amount of cash with me to cover tiny purchases- like a pack of gum here and there

Budget: Oz gets flak for being expensive, and while it is costly in comparison to nearby Southeast Asian countries, I found things to be a bit more affordable than in the US or UK. 

As with other destinations, there are ways to scale back on spending- eating meals in, staying in hostels or camping, limiting alcohol, and so on.

Getting to Sydney: We flew in from New Zealand, which was affordable on a Jetstar flight. Book ahead for the best deals. 

At the airport, you can rent a car or hop on a train to the CBD. Once you’re in the CBD, it’s easy to transfer to a bus closer to wherever you’re staying.

When to Visit: Summer (December – February) and the fringe months before and after offer the best weather, so to speak. 

We visited in winter (mid-August), and enjoyed moderate temps (65-75 Fahrenheit most days), as well as pretty good weather (lots of sunny days, only a few bouts of rain).

Getting Around the City: Depending where we were going, we either took a train or bus, and then walked for the most part. Get an Opal card when you arrive for seamless top-ups on public transit.

On a few occasions, we took Uber, but tried to avoid it as it’s a lot costlier than public transit.

Tipping: Tipping is not common practice in Australia. 

WiFi Access: WiFi was good throughout the city. In our Airbnb, we even had high speed WiFi, which was perfect for work. 

Many cafes in Oz do not offer free WiFi, so if you’re planning on connecting to check directions as you wander, you may have a tough time doing so.

SIM Card Options: I bought a 30-day SIM upon arrival at Sydney’s airport with Optus. At the time, Optus was running 50% off deals, making a 30-day SIM with loads of data pretty affordable (~£15).

Have you ever visited Sydney? Are there any places or tips you’d give to a first time visitor? 

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