I’ve been fortunate to visit many wonderful cities around the world, but the one that stole my heart is Sydney.
Have you ever travelled somewhere and found yourself experiencing a deep spiritual connection with a place? One that you can’t easily explain, but which makes you want to stay there forever?
For me, Sydney is that place. Whenever I go there, I feel uplifted, joyful, excited, like I’m arriving home. Yet I’ve never lived there – unless in a former life – and have no family connections with the city. What’s going on?
Maybe it’s because of the stunning harbour, meandering around Sydney’s many different bays, coves, beaches and rivers. Or the distinctive green and cream ferries that take you around them. Perhaps the many reminders of my home country (the UK), given our shared history and culture – but then again, other cities in the world have those, without causing the same emotional reaction.
And then there’s the people. Sydneysiders are down-to-earth, fun-loving and friendly. Their ‘no worries’ way of looking at life is infectious. When I visited for the first time, ill and in need of medical attention after a very uncomfortable 23-hour flight, I could not have chosen a better place in which to recuperate.
Being one of the world’s top cities, there are plenty of excellent published posts and guides on what to do in Sydney. This post will not attempt to replicate them. Instead, it’s very much a personal reflection on what I think makes the city so special.
1. The harbour
It’s really only possible to fully appreciate the harbour, which is known as Port Jackson, from above. Port Jackson encompasses the waters of Sydney Harbour, Middle Harbour, North Harbour, the Parramatta river and various other small rivers and tributaries. Sometimes the city feels like a little archipelago of islands, because there’s water everywhere you look.
If you fly in on a sunny day, you’ll get a good impression of the central city and the many waterside suburbs that radiate from it. Another good viewing point is from the top of Sydney Tower. (See my post Lifted – 8 city towers that will change your view of the world.
I’m told that the top of the Harbour Bridge is another place for a great view, but I won’t be doing the bridge climb any time soon. I’ll leave that to the more adventurous travellers!
Water is a huge part of Sydney life. Many people travel to work by ferry. At weekends they head to the city’s 100-plus beaches to chill out. Famous ones like Bondi and Manly are renowned surfing spots. Some of the northern beaches have ‘rock pools’ – public swimming pools hollowed out of the rocks, which fill with sea water.
2. The ferries
I’ve loved ferries ever since I was a child, travelling from one side of our river to the other. Living and working in London many years later, I couldn’t understand why ferries weren’t a thing (this has changed now, I’m pleased to say). Watching the movie ‘Working girl’ in the 1980s, I thought how cool it was for Meg Ryan to be able to travel to work by ferry, from Staten Island to Manhattan. What a civilized commute!
Sydney commuters are similarly fortunate, with tons of routes into the city from the outer suburbs. Which is great for visitors too. Sydney Ferries are a fantastic way to visit places like Manly, Watsons Bay or Mosman Bay. You can also shuttle between inner city areas on a ferry – such as from Circular Quay to Darling Harbour, for example.
Ferries for most destinations leave from Circular Quay, which couldn’t be more central for Sydney’s main attractions and amenities. I just love wandering around there and soaking up the atmosphere.
There are also private companies offering harbour cruises that will take you on a tour, with commentary to help you identify the many landmarks.
3. The Opera House
A spirit of post-war optimism led to the announcement, in 1956, of a competition to design a new concert hall for Sydney. Sadly, the winner – Danish architect Jørn Utzon – never saw his masterpiece completed. He resigned from the project in 1966 following disagreements with the construction engineers and the local government.
The Opera House was finally opened by HM The Queen in 1973, following years of turbulent political and artistic disagreement during its construction. Today, it remains Australia’s number one visitor attraction.
Even though I had, of course, seen numerous photos of the building, nothing could have prepared me for the real thing. It’s absolutely stunning, both inside and out – and rightly has a World Heritage listing.
We took a guided tour of the Opera House, which we really enjoyed as we got to see all the different halls and ‘behind the scenes’ areas. I hadn’t appreciated that the building’s luminous exterior was created with surface tiles. Inside, there’s lots of wood, glass and cavernous spaces. And a giant organ. Everything is designed to impress.
I was fortunate enough to go to an evening show, which was a real thrill. Despite still suffering the effects of illness and medication, I was determined not to miss out – and I’m glad I didn’t. The show was spectacular enough, but I wasn’t prepared for the amazing view of Circular Quay from the terrace at interval time. It was one of those moments I’ll never forget – as I wrote about in my post on Breathtaking travel moments that made me glad to be alive.
4. The Rocks
The Rocks is the oldest, most historic part of Sydney, where the settlers first landed in 1788. Here you’ll find cobbled streets, hidden laneways, gorgeous sandstone buildings and some wonderful waterfront restaurants and bars. The Rocks is also a conveniently short walk from museums, ferries, Circular Quay train station and landmarks like the Opera House and Harbour Bridge.
The laneways are great to stroll around, browsing the craft shops and boutiques. If you like opal jewellery, Australia is the place to buy it – and there are some really good opal shops in this area. Arts and crafts are on offer at the weekend markets along with some really tasty street food.
I’ve often fantasized about living in The Rocks. Everything I could ever want in life – in temporal terms at least – is here in this lovely atmospheric neighbourhood, without compromise of any kind. Alas, like many desirable areas in beautiful cities, it’s probably a little above my budget! But wonderful to visit.
If you’d like more detail on what to see and do in The Rocks, I recommend this excellent post by fellow blogger Perthtravelers – The best guide on what to do in The Rocks Sydney
5. the queen victoria building (QVB)
Sydney is great for shopping, with a good selection of designer outlets, major Australian department stores such as David Jones and Myer, plus flagship versions of high street shops like Country Road and The Witchery. Most of these are around Pitt and Elizabeth streets.
My favourite place to shop, however, is the impressively elegant Queen Victoria Building, which dates back to the 1890s. Aside from its 200+ stores, the QVB is an experience in itself, with its fabulous dome, stained glass windows, ornate clock, graceful staircases and tiled floors. And the toilets on the 3rd floor are amazing!
Another Victorian heritage shopping centre well worth a visit is the Strand Arcade, which was modelled on its London namesake. Like the QVB, it has elegant interiors and period features.
One of the many aspects of Sydney that I love, is the wide variety of old and new architectural styles that seem to co-exist happily. The Central Business District has plenty of modern skyscrapers that look spectacular, especially at night. Some of them house hotels, like the Shangri-La, that have amazing rooftop bars and restaurants with wonderful views.
Yet, dotted among these modern city towers, you can still find 19th century workers’ cottages and re-purposed commercial buildings from the Victorian era. Many of the latter are constructed in local sandstone, which gives them an attractive deep golden brown colour.
In neighbourhoods like Darlinghurst you can see examples of period villas and cottages with beautiful wrought iron lacework. Specialist companies still produce this delicate ironwork, using original Victorian patterns.
Anyone familiar with the UK will soon notice how many London names are repeated in Sydney: Hyde Park, Paddington, Kings Cross, Putney and Mortlake for instance.
I’ve already mentioned The Rocks and Darlinghurst, which are among the older, more traditional inner-city neighbourhoods of Sydney. Each has its own character and feel, whether it’s industrial history or traditional tree-lined Victorian residential streets that dominate the landscape. Others, like Darling Harbour, are more modern – lots of steel and plate glass.
Then there are the outer city waterfront communities like Bondi and Coogee, both of which remind me very much of seaside towns in the UK. Others, like Balmoral Beach, have a more tropical feel and are quite different. I love that variety and distinctiveness of Sydney’s neighbourhoods.
8. Food and drink
Sydney is a cosmopolitan city and you can find just about any cuisine in the world served in restaurants here. But seafood is particularly good, as you might expect, and this is what I tend to go for when eating out. It was in Sydney that I first tasted Balmain Bugs – a delicious bay lobster found in the Pacific ocean.
One of the best and most renowned places for seafood is Doyles. Dating back to the 1880s, it’s been run by 5 generations of the same family. Here you’ll be served the finest seafood dishes you’ll find anywhere in Sydney.
If shellfish and crustaceans aren’t your thing, Doyles has a Fish & Chippery and a takeaway too.
Doyles is located by the beach at Watson’s Bay, with great views of Sydney CBD in the distance. Bookings are essential for the restaurant.
New South Wales is home to some excellent wine regions including the Hunter Valley, which is the oldest in Australia. Semillon is widely regarded as the best variety from the region, but there are also some good shiraz and chardonnay options. Incredibly, there are over 150 wineries in the Hunter Valley, so you’re spoilt for choice if you want to ‘go local’ with your wine choices.
Craft beer fans can visit Australia’s most awarded brewery – Redoak Boutique Beer Cafe, in Clarence Street. Then there’s the Lord Nelson Brewery Hotel – an English-style traditional pub – and the Tap Rooms at Endeavour Brewing Company, both located in The Rocks. Endeavour pride themselves on using only Australian ingredients in their beers.
Tasting trays are offered at all these establishments, along with some seriously good pub fare.
Sydney has warm, humid summers with balmy evenings and mild winters. But when it rains, boy does it rain – and this can continue for days on end. At least 2 of my visits have been complete washouts! This is most likely to happen in summer (January to March).
I’ve found that spring is the best time to visit. Temperatures are usually around 20 degrees and rainfall is much lower. Autumn can be very pleasant too.
10. The blue mountains
If you’re keen to get out of the city for a day or two, the Blue Mountains region, about 50 kilometres north west of Sydney, is well worth a visit. You’ll see dramatic cliffs and valleys, eucalyptus forests and waterfalls. The name comes from the blue haze created by the eucalyptus trees.
There are some very picturesque villages in the area, like Leura, Faulconbridge and Mount Victoria. Katoomba is the main centre for the region and has a direct train link to Sydney Central. If you do take the train, there’s a hop-on, hop-off bus to take visitors from Katoomba station to various places around the Blue Mountains. Somehow it seems incongruous to see a double decker going around the countryside but it does fulfil a useful purpose!
If you don’t want to take the train, or do the 2-hour drive from Sydney yourself, there are various tours and packages available. I once did an all-inclusive overnight trip, staying at the gorgeous Lilianfels resort – which I really enjoyed. Especially as this was one of my wettest weekends in Sydney! There was no shortage of things to do at Lilianfels until the rain stopped and we were finally able to enjoy the amazing walks in the area.
where to stay
There is accommodation to suit all budgets and tastes in Sydney, so I’m just going to mention those places I’ve stayed in and would be happy to return to any time. 2 of the 4 hotels mentioned here are included in my top 18 bucket list hotels.
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My Sydney favourite, this boutique hotel – number 14 in my bucket list – is located a block away from the waterfront, in a quiet Rocks street.
It occupies a heritage building that was once a wool store and still has an industrial feel, with huge beams and painted bare brick interiors. There’s a stylish bar overlooking one of the pretty Rocks laneways.
I absolutely loved my stay here, not only because of the building and the location – but the staff. They really looked after me when I was ill, arranging my doctor’s visit and medications.
This was known as the Holiday Inn Old Sydney when I visited for a girls’ weekend with some friends. It’s mid-range and modest but has a fantastic Rocks location, and we particularly enjoyed the rooftop pool and spa. No doubt Rydges will have given the place a bit of a makeover so I’m sure it’s just as good as it was then, if not better.
This luxurious hotel has the top location, right on the waterfront at The Rocks and looking straight across to the Opera House. I once managed to get a cut-price suite here when some building work was in progress on the wharf outside. Definitely my most luxurious stay in Sydney. There was even a remote control for the curtains!
Lilianfels Blue Mountains resort and Spa*
Number 11 in my bucket list, this beautiful house used to belong to the Lieutenant-Governor of New South Wales, and still feels like a luxurious country home. Surrounded by beautiful gardens and spectacular scenery, this is the place to come if you really feel like treating yourself.
Another Sydney hotel that has piqued my interest since it opened in 2020 is the Fullerton Sydney*. Fullerton have a rather unique approach in that they like to convert former grand commercial headquarters, notably post offices, into wonderful hotels.
We stayed at their Singapore hotel and absolutely loved it – it’s number 5 in my hotel bucket list. So we might well check out this new one on our next visit to Sydney. It’s located in a historic building that used to be the General Post Office.
Do you have a deep connection with a place you’ve visited? Where is it? I’d love to know!
If you’re interested in Australia you might enjoy my post on Guided wine touring in Victoria.
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