Think of Sydney and the image of the shell-shaped Opera House watching over the water with the beloved Coathanger hovering in the back immediately come to mind. Yet, nobody can prepare you for the brightness that Sydney has to offer, for the energizing feeling you experience when walking down the vibrant streets of one of the world’s favorite cities.
Three days in Sydney are enough to give you a snapshot of life in Australia’s most international city. Hang out with the locals at Manly Wharf, enjoy a high tea like a true lady in the Queen Victoria Building, wander through historic The Rocks, and enjoy delicious pub food while overlooking the Sydney Harbour.
First things first – get the top attractions done. This will allow you to invest all your energy into discovering the local culture. One stop can check two of the city’s most scenic attractions off your list: visit Circular Quay. Follow the bustling crowd of tourists and locals around the always-busy international cruise terminal (right next to the Museum of Contemporary Art), taking in the scents of Hungry Jacks (the Australians’ answer to Burger King), sushi restaurants, oyster bars, and convenience stores. After a while, the beauty will pop up right in front of you.
The first time you set eyes on the Sydney Opera House is indescribable. The shells in a slightly off-white shade keep watch over the harbour, the dark glass windows and wooden beams criss-crossing on the inside of the shells guide visitors to the beautiful opera house. A devotion to the ocean, this building captures the spirit of Sydney – the edginess of the local art scene, the love of the ocean, and architectural innovation merge into this one icon that people will forever associate with Sydney.
Keep in mind, us commoners cannot simply enter the building without tickets to the opera (so if you really want the full experience, book tickets to one of the performances). But us commoners are also perfectly happy with a walk around the Opera House. From the small white tiles that shape the big shells to the brown beams of sailboats, it is everything you expected it to be.
Go at night.
The water reflects the lights of almost every building in the city – from the business center to The Rocks, to the hotels and restaurants on the waterfront, it all becomes part of a dance of light on the water, next to the cruise ships and sailboats coming and going underneath the harbour bridge (which, by the way, also has a light show projected on it). Don’t forget to stop at the Opera Bar, a cocktail lounge located next to the waterfront and right in front of the opera house. It’s a little touristy. It’s a little pricy (cocktails average at about AUD 19). But the view, the atmosphere, and the Sydney Sling (a gin drink with pomegranate and lime) as well as the Watermelon Tommy’s (watermelon juice and tequila – recommended by the staff) are well worth the price.
Try to be local. People always tell you to do the same as the locals, which means that now even the “local spots” are touristy. So don’t “be” local, but at least try it… Get on the ferry at Circular Quay and head to Manly Wharf. Here the locals, who commute to the city for work during the week, spend Saturdays and Sundays walking their dogs, and exercising on the beach. Surfers climb the waves and sport lovers play volleyball while others soak in the sun, reading a book or playing in the waves. Drop by one of the hipster cafés on the coast side for a great breakfast – from healthy to carb-elicious – and the coffee that Australia has become known for over recent years. On the ferry ride back, make sure you get enough daytime pictures of the harbour bridge, as well as the opera house – the best view of these two attractions are from the water.
Walk through time. Upon your return to the harbour, head into the area known as The Rocks, the historic heart of Sydney. When a fleet of British ships arrived in Sydney in 1788, the city’s first settlements were built right here. Walking through this historic district takes you all the way back to England – only with a warmer climate! Stone buildings in the Georgian, neo-Gothic, and Victorian styles line the streets, with various bakeries, restaurants, and the city’s oldest beer breweries for an afternoon snack.
At the edge of The Rocks, you will see the super-hip and the highly recommended Lord Nelson Brewery Hotel (if you like beer and good pub food, make a mental note and return here). Continue even further to Darling Harbour, another one of Sydney’s well-known attractions. Here, you will find Madame Tussauds, SEA LIFE Sydney Aquarium and heaps of restaurants – from classy to trendy.
Making dinner plans? Either head back to Lord Nelson Brewery Hotel, or find Argyle Street where the Glenmore Hotel has great food and a rooftop bar with perfect lighting and views of both the opera house and the harbour bridge. Sample the local beer and get a few pictures to eternalize the trip. Later, wander around the streets for a taste of Sydney night life, but remember to pick your final spot before 11pm… Most bars don’t accept any visitors after this time (I know, shocking, considering that Australians have a reputation as being great party animals).
Shop like a lady. Pitt and George streets form the shopping hub of Sydney. From international brands like Zara, H&M and Nespresso to local brands like Witchery, Country Road and Sportsgirl. Between George Street and Macquarie Street, you will find Martin Place.
Filling a city block between George, Market, York, and Druitt Streets stands the Queen Victoria Building (nicknamed QVB). The building with its beautiful stained glass windows and colorful floor tiles was designed by architect George McRae and constructed from 1893-1898. The center was constructed as a gift to the people – local craftsmen were asked to produce the artistic elements in the building to create work for them during the era’s financial turmoil. Today, the QVB is an ultra-luxurious shopping center housing high-end stores, unique boutiques, and delightful cafés and restaurants. Brands with outlets here include Trenery, Swarovski, Parisi, and Camilla.
If tea is your thing, plan to spend at least two hours at The Palace. A high tea here includes a delightful tower of sweet and savory delights and a delicious brew of tea. The Parisian blend (a fusion of vanilla, caramel, tangy fruit and lemony bergamot) is worth a try. As a matter of fact – a second and third cup will be in order!
In conclusion, Sydney is like any other state of the art city in the developed world – amazing shopping, incredible restaurants, business centers full of people in suits, architectural wonders, an interesting history… but there is one difference – the people.
Here, people don’t rush around in suits, rushed to get from one meeting to the next; they dress in bright colors and they live in bright colors as well. Friendly, laid-back, and warm… yet they still get the job done (perhaps we can all take a lesson from them in business ethics).
This gives Sydney an energy that is hard to find in major cities. It’s vibrant, colourful and high-paced, but in a relaxed way. I would return to Sydney. Not for the sights (which you will soon see are incredible too), but for another bite of this bright and energizing atmosphere.
I wish I knew this before…
- The Sydney Botanic Gardens offer some of the best city views, and are a wonderful escape from the hustle of everyday life.
- Bondi Beach… some of the best views of the beach can be seen from the Bondi Icebergs Club. If you’re keen for an adventure, try the surfing lessons offered on the beach.
- Climb the bridge! According to those who have done it before, not only is the view amazing, the guides are some of the best guides about the city.
- Eat everything… Australia is known for its incredible cuisine and it isn’t hard to find something delicious.
- Taxis in Australia are expensive, so try to use Uber instead. Ferries are also an easy and cheap way to get around.