What to do in Sydney

From awesome architecture and amazing animals to world-­class culture and haute cuisine – Australia’s most vibrant city has it all. So where do you start if you’re just dropping by?

No, it’s not the capital (that’s Canberra, some 150 miles inland). And no, you won’t see kangaroos in the street. But Sydney is still one of the greatest cities on earth – especially if you arrive or depart by ship.

Even if you’re bleary-eyed around 5.30am when your cruise ship is likely to arrive ‘off the Heads’ – the gap in the coastline that Captain Cook missed while sailing north from Botany Bay – grab a coffee and get up, because early morning in this famous harbour is one of the greatest sights you’ll see.

There are two cruise terminals: the Overseas Passenger Terminal at Circular Quay and the White Bay Cruise Terminal in Balmain. Either way, you’re likely to start your day at Circular Quay – and here’s how to make the most of it …

1. FAMILY FUN

08.30 Take the children for an after­-breakfast stroll round The Rocks, the historic heart of colonial Sydney. Then wander past the buskers setting up their didgeridoos and do a lap round the outside of the Sydney Opera House. Ask your kids what it reminds them of: no need to complicate matters by telling them that Jorn Utzon’s masterpiece is possibly the greatest building of the 20th century.

Manly Becah
Manly Beach is an Aussie icon -but beware those Pacific breakers

09.30 Take the ferry from Circular Quay to Manly. Bondi might be Sydney’s most famous ocean beach, but Manly is even more impressive. Just a word of warning: the Pacific waves are likely to be bigger than anything you’ve experienced in Europe or even America, so stay on the golden sand. If anyone fancies a swim, take the beautiful seaside track to the safer sands of nearby Shelley Beach.

11.30 Board one of the buses from Manly Wharf to Taronga Zoo. Here you’ll find lions, elephants and tigers in a breathtakingly beautiful setting – but since you’re in Australia, your children need to see koalas, kangaroos, platypus, wombats and all the other weird and wonderful creatures this island continent is home to. Here’s their chance.

14.30 If you had the foresight to pack sandwiches for the children, you can now relax while taking the ferry from Taronga Zoo back to Circular Quay. If you were asleep when your cruise ship arrived, this is the classic entry to Sydney.

15.30 Take the bus from Circular Quay to the Australian Museum. It used to have a stuffy reputation but has been totally reinvented. There are dinosaurs, sharks, whales – and the massive Australian megafauna that would dwarf most animals on the planet.

17.30 If the kids need tiring out before they appear back on board, take them to Sydney’s best free playground. Darling Harbour is now being redeveloped but those unpredictable water fountains still take some beating. Or, if you’ve got a later departure and have some money left over, cross the famous Sydney Harbour Bridge (there’s a walkway) to Luna Park – a 1930s-style funfair with spectacular views, particularly from the Wild Mouse and the Ferris Wheel. And spare time for Coney Island, with its timeless favourites such as the Wonky Walk, the Turkey Trot and the breathtaking slides that adults seem to love even more than kids do.

THE BASICS 

  • Taronga Zoo is a 15-minute ferry ride from Circular Quay. A family pass (two adults, two children) costs $A115.20 if booked online.
  • Entry to the Australian Museum for a family (two adults, two children) costs from $A50.
  • Admission to Luna Park depends on how tall your children are (there are strict rules about which rides children can take, depending on their height).

2. YOUR FIRST TIME?

08.30 Promise yourself you won’t try to see it all in a day. Just pick what interests you, and stick with it. A great start would be to hop on one of the regular buses from Circular Quay to Bondi Beach. Have a blissful beachside coffee on Campbell Parade, then take the clifftop walk to Bronte Beach (the route of Sydney’s annual Sculpture By The Sea exhibition). Pack your ‘togs’ and have a cleansing dip at Bronte’s beautiful ocean pool, perhaps the best in Australia.

12.00 Grab a cab or take a bus from Bronte to Hyde Park. This is the historical centre of Sydney, containing the city’s main war memorial and pool of reflection, some of the most beautiful trees and vistas in the southern hemisphere, and a wonderfully ornate fountain. Many of the most historic buildings in Sydney (Hyde Park Barracks, The Mint and St James, King Street) are to be found on its northern perimeter.

Sydney Opera House
Sydney harbour is one of the world’s great sights – and it’s even better from a cruise ship

13.20 Take a walk from Hyde Park along Art Gallery Road to the Art Gallery of NSW. Ignore the international art and just concentrate on the Australian contributions. Here you’ll see not only some of the best indigenous paintings, but work by modern Australian greats Tom Roberts, Sidney Nolan and Brett Whiteley. And the restaurant options are good too.

15.00 It’s all downhill from here. Follow the track through Sydney’s Royal Botanic Garden, where some of the most exotic plants in the world are coupled with views to die for. Look out particularly for the Wollemi Pine – a species only discovered in 1994 in the Blue Mountains, but dating back to the time of dinosaurs.

16.00 If you booked in advance – and you won’t get in otherwise – it’s time for your backstage tour of the amazing, iconic Sydney Opera House. You just can’t visit Sydney without coming here, and I promise you it’s worth the entrance fee – and then some.

17.30 You need to get back to the ship, but surely there’s just enough time to enjoy a glass of champagne and an oyster or two at Sydney Cove Oyster Bar on East Circular Quay, with its great view of ‘The Coathanger’; aka Sydney Harbour Bridge.

THE BASICS 

  • Sydney has recently adopted an electronic ‘Opal Card’ for payment across the whole public transport system. It’s only worth getting one if you’re in town for two days or longer, so explore other options at a newsagent or Transport for NSW Information outlet (the nearest to Circular Quay is in Alfred Street).
  • Entry is free to the Art Gallery of New South Wales.
  • Guided backstage tours of Sydney Opera House cost from $A38 with Viator.

3. BEEN THERE? GO HERE

1. BARANGAROO RESERVE/THE GOODS LINE/CENTRAL PARK 

Even if you’ve been to Sydney many times before, there’s always something new to discover in this dynamic city. Barangaroo was the feisty wife of Bennelong, the indigenous leader when the British arrived with their convict fleet in 1788. She now has an amazing park named after her, created with thousands of trees and much landscaping on the site of a former container port.

The Goods Line is a similar miracle of urban regeneration. Tracing the route of one of Australia’s first railways, built to convey wool to Darling Harbour and the textile mills of the mother country, it’s also the best place to view Sydney’s other truly great modern building.

Part of the University of Sydney, the Dr Chau Chak Wing – known to its friends as the Paper Bag Building – is the work of Frank Gehry, the Canadian-born architect most famous for the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao.

Across the street known as Broadway, you’ll find Sydney’s newest open space, Central Park. This is home to the world’s tallest vertical garden, an art installation designed by the French botanist Patrick Blanc that has transformed Sydney’s skyline. And you’ll be pleased to discover that the precinct’s Spice Alley has some of Australia’s best new restaurants.

2. THE GREATER BLUE MOUNTAINS WORLD HERITAGE AREA 

Blue Mountains
Simply stunning: the Blue Mountains at Katoomba

The spectacular Blue Mountains weren’t the first national park in Australia – that was Sydney’s equally beautiful Royal National Park, created in 1879. But the Blue Mountains are easier for a visitor to get to – just two hours from Circular Quay by train or car. There are lots of trails to follow, but if you’ve never been here before, go to The Three Sisters at Katoomba.

There’s a huge raft of things to do at Katoomba’s Scenic World, including two different cableway experiences and what’s claimed to be the world’s steepest railway descent (it’s a former miner’s track to the bottom of the Jamison Valley).

If you’re still up for adventure after the hour­long boardwalk through ‘Jurassic Park’ scenery, climb the Giant Stairway. A mere 800 steps will take you to the visitors’ centre, 1,000 feet above (though you can just take the cableway if you prefer). Unless you’ve been to Arizona’s Grand Canyon, this is mountain scenery like you’ve never seen it before.

3. PALM BEACH/HAWKESBURY RIVER

Millions have followed the Aussie soap Home and Away since it began in 1988, launching the careers of Heath Ledger, Chris Hemsworth and Isla Fisher among others. During the summer months, many tourists make the pilgrimage an hour north of Circular Quay to see its location (and yes, you can often watch the crews filming the latest episodes).

Palm Beach (the most northern of Sydney’s Northern Beaches) is also the playground of the rich and famous. Each summer, several international celebrities pay upwards of $A4,000 a week to rent beachside homes (Mick Jagger, George Michael, John Cleese and Tom Cruise among them). They’re attracted by the red/gold sand, the ocean pool, the great surfing, the walk to historic Barrenjoey Lighthouse and the casual restaurants (The Boathouse and Barrenjoey House are hard to beat).

If you really want a special experience, time your visit so you can catch the 11am Palm Beach River Cruises ferry to Cottage Point Inn (book your table in advance). After a 45-minute trip along the Hawkesbury River – one of the most scenic rivers in the world –you’ll arrive at Australia’s best riverside restaurant. But be sure to catch the return ferry after your meal at 2.15pm.

GETTING THERE 

  • If you can’t walk to Barangaroo Reserve,the Goods Line or Central Park (it’s around four miles, in total, one way) take a taxi, bus or train (to Central Station for the Goods Line and Central Park).
  • For the Blue Mountains, catch the train from Circular Quay to Central Station, then transfer to the express train to Katoomba.
  •  For Palm Beach, catch the bus from Wynyard Station (a ten-minute walk from Circular Quay, or catch the two-minute train from Circular Quay station). Top tip: make sure you catch an express bus.