A highlights guide to Sydney – Australia’s oldest city revisited

By Carolyn Enting

November 28, 2023

Whether you’re standing atop the Sydney Harbour Bridge or gazing through a skyscraper window, the views of Sydney Harbour from up high will draw you in.

Boats and watercraft go about their business, weaving paths within the confines of famous landmarks, including the Sydney Opera House, Sydney Harbour Bridge and Luna Park, and the harbour’s many islands – Shark, Clark, Rodd, Goat and Cockatoo.

Before you know it, 10 minutes have passed, and wherever you are it is a wonderful opportunity to admire the harbour’s undisputed beauty as well as consider the great cultural and historical significance of the area, particularly to the Gadigal people.

Today, wherever you go in Sydney – Gadigal country – Australia’s First Nations people are acknowledged.

Prior to colonisation they were dependent on the harbour for providing most of their food whilst living in their traditional lands.

Many visitor experiences now offer authentic ways to connect with the culture and to step in their footsteps as well as those of the settlers who arrived in 1788.

As Australia’s oldest city with a population of approximately 4.5 million, it has many stories to tell while you set about making new ones.

Views of harbour lights installations on marine vessels moving across Sydney Harbour during Vivid Sydney 2023. Photography Destination NSW

BridgeClimb Sydney

If you can climb a ladder and have a head for heights, buckle up for the BridgeClimb of Sydney Harbour Bridge.

I strongly recommend going for it, even if you put yourself in the faint-hearted category, because it’s not as scary as it may appear.

The path up and over the bridge is easy to negotiate, safety protocols are robust, and the view from the top is totally worth it.

Along the way your friendly guide will regale you with fun facts about the Bridge’s history and construction, or surroundings. Such as the time Elton John stayed at the Park Hyatt and bought a grand piano for his room. The roof had to be lifted off and a helicopter used to put it in situ.

You can also walk in silence, however, one tour option you’ll want to tune in for is the Burrawa – Aboriginal Climb Experience, with a First Nations storyteller as your guide.

The tour reimagines Sydney in a precolonial context, with stories that span thousands of years to the present day, and includes a small ochre (face-painting) ceremony. You can also take part in a traditional eel dance at the top of the bridge.

It’s also good to know your fee includes a $20 donation to BridgeClimb’s charity partner Tribal Warrior, an Aboriginal-led not-for-profit based in Redfern NSW, which empowers community through culture and family and supports young people and their families. bridgeclimb.com

If you’re on a budget, climbing 200 steps to the top of one of the bridge pylons and visiting the museum is the next best thing.

The South-East Pylon has been open to the public since 1934 and today is home to the BridgeClimb Pylon Lookout & Museum. It’s open every day from 10am (adult tickets from AUD$24.95).

Access to The Pylon is via the pedestrian pathway on the Eastern side of the Bridge from the city side (use the ‘Bridge Stairs’ or the pedestrian lift in Cumberland Street, The Rocks). If you are coming from the North side, use the steps or lift near Milsons Point Railway Station. Note the entrance is not accessible from the base of the Pylon at Dawes Point Park.

Royal Botanic Garden Sydney Photography Destination NSW

New landmark

A new addition to the city landscape is high-rise Crown Sydney in the harbourside Barangaroo district near Darling Harbour, which stands at 271.3m making it the tallest building in Sydney without an antenna.

The impressive tower twists upon itself as it reaches for the sky, its glittering exterior of more than 8000 individually cut glass panels reflects the mood of the day, from the soft golden hues of sunset to the vivid blue of the sky.

It’s both beautiful and awe-inspiring, and worth visiting even if you don’t book a room here (though I highly recommend doing so).

With standout dining options, incomparable service, flash-as Toto toilets with heated seats and a dreamy harbourside infinity pool, it’s a destination in itself.

You can dine at one of Crown Sydney’s 14 restaurants or bars, or just take in the view as you stroll along the waterfront at Barangaroo which has myriad bars and eateries. It’s also an easy 15-minute walk to Sydney’s inner city Pitt Street Mall and shopping precinct from here.

Put your walking shoes on

The best way to explore any city is by foot and downtown Sydney is easy to navigate with the help of Google maps.

A stroll around Circular Quay is obligatory, stopping at Opera Bar for a drink with oysters or fries and vistas of the Sydney Harbour Bridge and Sydney Opera House. From here it’s a matter of metres before you are standing under the giant sails of the UNESCO-listed Sydney Opera House. If you are unable to see a show there, booking a tour is the best way to see and learn about this architectural marvel up close. Undoubtedly a 20th-century masterpiece in both design (by Danish architect Jørn Utzon) and construction, the build was not without trials and tribulations. Sydney Opera House is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year.

The Royal Botanic Garden Sydney, Australia’s oldest botanic gardens, overlooks the harbour and is also easily accessed from here and free to visit.

Admission to the nearby Art Gallery of New South Wales is also free, with free daily guided tours.

The design and form of the new Crown Sydney, Barangaroo take inspiration from natural forms and curved geometry, emanating from three ‘petals’ that twist and rise together. crownsydney.com.au Photography Crown Sydney

Capella Sydney

Another beautiful new hotel is Capella Sydney, which opened in March 2023.

It’s ensconced within a heritage-listed baroque-style Edwardian building, and it’s worth a pilgrimage to the foyer to see the flora-inspired lighting sculptures.

The petals of the dreamy floral pendant lights open and close continuously.

You also can’t fault the service at this five-star hotel or the amenities, which include a rooftop pool and day spa.

The hotel has introduced Capella Rituals, too. Twice monthly the Capella Living Room hosts a free live show for hotel guests in the evening that celebrates Sydney street performance culture.

Echoes of Eternity is a daily ritual of storytelling over a cocktail and learning about Sydney’s own Banksy/graffiti artist. Almost every day for 35 years, Arthur Stace spent hours writing a single word, ‘Eternity’, on and around the streets of Sydney an estimated half a million times. His identify was a mystery for more than two decades before he was unmasked in 1956 and became a reluctant folk hero.

Capella Sydney also runs its own tours including a Sydney architecture walk, guided vitality run around the harbour and Aboriginal Dreaming tour.

Bondi Beach escape

If you’re going to pick an iconic picture-perfect place to learn to surf, Bondi Beach ticks those boxes and more, and is just a 20-minute cab ride from downtown.

Let’s Go Surfing – Bondi’s only officially licensed surf school, which is also Ecotourism Certified – offers brilliant lessons with experienced instructors who are there in the water beside you to help you get your feet, build your confidence and at the very least have a great time. letsgosurfing.com.au

Anyone who has watched Bondi Rescue will know that the beach has some strong rips, so if you’re swimming, make sure to do so between the flags. The position of the flags can change daily depending on the conditions and mark a safe swimming zone that the surf lifeguards identify anew each morning.

Forgot to bring your swimmers? Never mind! Bondi is the perfect place for people-watching. Stop for a drink or meal at Promenade which offers all-day beachside dining.

Or walk the length of the beach up to Bondi’s famous Icebergs Pool and watch the waves from the ocean wash into the swimming lanes. Then take a stroll around the coastal walking trail from Bondi to Bronte along coastal cliffs and past Tamarama Beach (2.5km one way). Sculpture By the Sea takes place here every year from late October to early November.

Bronte’s famous rock pool at the south end of the beach is also a popular swimming spot with the locals.

Visit sydney.com for more travel inspiration.

Damper infused with Native Herbs and Eucalyptus Whipped Butter at Midden by Mark Olive Photography Sydney Opera House

Where to eat:

Midden by Mark Olive

If you’re after a unique as well as outstanding Australian cuisine experience, dine outdoors on the deck of the Sydney Opera House at Midden by Mark Olive.

The menu draws on ambassador chef Mark Olive’s indigenous Australian heritage and is an exciting new culinary experience offering a produce-focused menu of native Australian ingredients and divine flavour profiles that your palate has possibly never tasted.

Lemon Myrtle & Pepperberry Cured Salmon; River Mint and Pedro Ximenez Seared Pork Belly with bush honey, sea parsley polenta chips, green beans and poached apple; and Double Chocolate River Mint Mousse with roasted macadamia wafers are my recommendations. Absolutely sensational.

Wild Sage Barangaroo

A popular breakfast spot with the locals, you won’t regret making the pilgrimage here. You can’t go past the Breakfast Roll – which presents more like a burger – with truffled egg, bacon, tomato chutney, smoky aioli, onion jam, spinach, avocado and crushed potatoes.

If you have a sweet tooth, go for the Chocolate Chai Custard French Toast with crunchy cornflakes, fresh berries, blueberry sauce and crushed almonds. wildsage.com.au

South Dowling Sandwiches

Famous for its caramelised carrot, which it has even trademarked, South Dowling have been making seriously delicious sandwiches and salads for more than 15 years.

You really haven’t had a sandwich until you’ve had one of these. It’s pretty much a hole-in-the-wall place where you order and then grab to go. We went for The Biatch with chilli chicken, SDS Red Pesto™, SDS Herb Mayo™, lettuce, rocket, pickles, red cabbage, SDS Caramelised Carrots™ and bocconcini. southdowling.com.au

Promenade, Bondi Beach

For a beachside Bondi Beach experience book a table at Promenade. Perfect for people-watching beach-goers walking along the promenade as well as tucking into a bowl of house-made pasta. We recommend trying the house Strawberry Gum Soda, too! promenadebondibeach.com

Company of Tina – THE TINA TURNER MUSICAL with Aisha Jawando (Tina Turner) Photography Manuel Harlan 

What’s on

TINA – The Tina Turner Musical
Theatre Royal Sydney

Be wowed, entertained, moved and inspired by the story of the late, legendary Tina Turner, whose perseverance and resilience as well as outstanding talent made her simply the best. You will be dancing in the aisles at the end.

A must see!

Courtney Stapleton as Belle and Shaq Taylor as Beast in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast Photography Beauty and the Beast © Disney 

Beauty & the Beast
Capitol Theatre

A tale as old as time, Disney’s Beauty & the Beast is still delighting audiences with its onstage spectacular at Sydney’s equally magical Capitol Theatre. Enjoyable for all ages.

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