After arriving in Sydney, we bought our Opal cards (a must for traveling anywhere in and around Sydney) and took the Airport Link for a quick ride into the city center. We happened to land around 6:30 am so once we got through customs and picked up our bags, we were traveling into the city with the local rush hour commute. It felt pretty exciting to be embarking on day one of our adventure while everyone around us was beginning a typical weekday. After checking into our hotel and taking a moment to rest, we took a short walk to Town Hall Square, grabbed some flat whites at a local coffee shop, and caught the 10:30 walking tour of Sydney with I’m Free Tours.
First things first, make sure you get an Opal card. You can purchase the card at an Opal retailer (look for the Opal logo in the window or just ask). You can also purchase your Opal card at the Central Station Transport Customer Center. You initially have to add $20 to your card, but that amount can be used toward your travels. After the initial amount, the card can be “topped up” (meaning money added) in increments of $10. The card is used nearly universally for all public transport in Sydney and the Blue Mountains, including ferries. Fares are charged based on distance, but you can never exceed $15 per day Monday through Saturday and on Sunday, you can ride for $2.50 (meaning any fares incurred after the $15 and $2.50 are waived). Further benefits are listed here. Your balance is displayed every time you tap on and off so you’ll know when to top up. (Note: Costs mentioned in this post are for a regular Adult card. Senior and Child costs may differ).
What to do:
If you remember nothing else from this post, please remember to take an I’m Free Tour as soon as possible when you are in Sydney and Melbourne. The company offers twice daily “Sights” tours in each city. No reservations required; all you have to do is show up! It was such a great way to get a lay of the land while learning a lot about the history of the area. Tours are free, but travelers are encouraged to tip their guide based on their experience. Each tour lasts 2.5-3 hours and covers a lot of ground (around 2 miles in Sydney and 2.5 in Melbourne). Make sure to wear comfortable walking shoes and dress properly for the weather as the tours run rain or shine and are almost entirely outside. The tour guides are young and lively locals and provide history, current cultural and social information, and recommendations for activities, events, and restaurants. An additional tour in Sydney focuses on the history of The Rocks area, which is a beautiful neighborhood filled with lane ways and historic buildings and was home to many murders, muggings, robberies, and other interesting historic events. The Rocks Tour takes place nightly at 6 and is only 1.5 hours. We highly enjoyed both the Sydney and Melbourne I’m Free tours and I hope you take one if you’re visiting. Our tour guide was Allie, who was fantastic!
You’ll cover a lot of ground on the I’m Free tour, but if you’re like us, you may want to explore certain areas a little further. Here are some of our favorite sights:
Of course, no visit to Sydney is complete without seeing the Sydney Opera House. The exterior of the Opera House is quite incredible and is especially interesting at different times of day and night. I sometimes find iconic buildings to be underwhelming after having seen thousands of photos, but the Opera House was even more impressive than I imagined. As for seeing the interior of the Opera House, you can take a guided tour for $37 and learn about the history of the building. Alternatively, you can purchase tickets for an event and explore the building at your leisure. We saw a beautiful performance by the Sydney Symphony Orchestra and were able to get great seats only a couple of days in advance.
If you visit or walk by the Opera House, you’ll next arrive at the Royal Botanical Gardens, which have been in existence since 1816. You can explore the gardens at your leisure, follow a themed self-guided walk, or take a free guided tour with a local volunteer. We arrived at the Information Booth outside the Garden Shop at the Palm Grove Centre just as the free tour was getting ready to leave and joined the tour. It was informative and interesting to hear history and a local perspective about the plants and gardens. It certainly enriched what was already a beautiful way to spend the morning.
Another iconic sight is the Sydney Harbor Bridge. It is a great backdrop for photos and the perfect place to get some exercise. I recommend walking or running the bridge. If you have the budget, the BridgeClimb looks like an exhilarating experience, but has a hefty price tag ($268). For only $13, you can climb the pylons to the lookout, but we opted to take in the views from the highest point of the bridge.
If you walk uphill from the Bridge, you’ll eventually reach the Sydney Observatory, which is located on Observatory Hill in the Rocks area. It features an interesting museum about astronomy with both guided ($10) and self-guided tours (free) available. Telescope viewings are available for an additional fee. Even if you aren’t particularly interested in astronomy, I recommend walking to Observatory Hill for fantastic views of Sydney and the Harbour.
Finally, we thoroughly enjoyed the Museum of Contemporary Art. The museum is conveniently located in Circular Quay and offers free entry. There were several exhibits that featured young Australian artists and the gift shop was a great place to pick up some souvenirs.
Where to eat:
Being a large city, Sydney offers ample choices for dining. However, be prepared to spend a lot on food and drinks, even at smaller establishments. We found that beer was shockingly expensive (sometimes up to $10AUD for a bottle). It was typically cheaper to order wine. Your best bet for saving money on alcohol is to find BYO options.
Mejico, located in the CBD, is an adorable farm-to-table Mexican restaurant which was surprisingly authentic considering the distance from Mexico! The restaurant also offers a great selection of tequila. What to order: Tableside guac, watermelon salad, salmon tacos, churros
Argyle, located in the Rocks, has a young and lively post-work crowd and delicious wood-fired pizza and salad. $10 cocktail menu also available. What to order: San Daniele pizza.
Spice I Am, located in the Balmain district, was one of my favorite restaurants. It is BYO and located right down the street from a shop with wine and local beer. The neighborhood is charming and full of beautiful architecture from the 1890s. The food at Spice I Am is delicious. The chef using local ingredients as well as exotic vegetables imported from Thailand. What to order: Pad Kra Prao, Pad Kee Mao
My favorite meal in Sydney was at Jewel on the Bay in Rosebay. We wanted to venture outside of the CBD and Rocks area one night so decided to get on a random ferry and see where it took us. We took a short ride to Rosebay, asked someone on the ferry what their favorite place was, and were directed to get Indian food at Jewel on the Bay. We had a fantastic and filling meal which was much more reasonably priced than most of the places in the city. The service was amazing as well! What to order: cheesy naan (seriously, the best!!), Malai Chicken Tikka, Spiced Lamb with Chili
Another meal I particularly loved was breakfast, or brekkie, at Bowery Lane. We had walked by the restaurant a few times during our stay and I immediately knew it would be right up my alley based on the rustic decor and bright interior. The restaurant boasts farm-fresh local ingredients. I had heard that Sydneysiders love their coffee and brekkie and Bowery Lane exceeded my already high expectations. What to order: Flat white, buttermilk hotcakes, Cuban omelette
After eating at any of these restaurants, make sure to pick up some pastries or Belgian chocolate from Guylian. There are several convenient locations; look for the one right near the Opera House and one in The Rocks.
For drinks, try to arrive just before the sunset at 360 Bar in Sydney Tower. If you use the bar seating and spend a minimum (cost of 2-3 drinks), there is no charge to enjoy the views. The restaurant takes about an hour to make the 360 degree turn and is a great place to watch the sunset while taking in the best views of all of Sydney.
Where to stay:
We stayed at two hotels during our time in Sydney. Both were gorgeous spaces with impeccable service. We spent the first two nights at the Radisson Blu Sydney, which was conveniently located in the CBD less than a 10 minute walk from Circular Quay. The hotel offers a 15 meter pool, sauna, and gym and spa facilities. The hotel has free wi-fi, complimentary umbrellas to use during your stay, and grab and go breakfast with complimentary fruit, energy bars, and tea and coffee.
We spent the second two nights of our stay at the Park Hyatt Sydney. Located on the edge of the Rocks about 5 minutes from Circular Quay, the hotel had up close views of the Opera House across the Harbour. We were lucky enough to have a room on Harbourside and enjoyed drinking our morning espresso with views of the Harbour. The Park Hyatt rooms are spacious and spa-like with floor to ceiling windows (and full shades that make for the most restful sleep). The hotel offers a rooftop pool and jacuzzi, gym facilities and a full spa, and 24 hour personal butler service. The hotel has a private wharf accessible by water taxi, but we usually chose to just walk to Circular Quay.
If you’re flying Qantas business class (and up) or have applicable membership, make sure you hit the lounge before your flight. You can have a full brekkie, complete with fresh pressed juices and all of the typical hot and cold breakfast items. The lounge also provides a bookshelf filled with reading material to take on the plane, computers, and showers.
Have you ever been to Sydney? I would love to hear your thoughts and favorite memories. It is a beautiful and friendly city and I hope to return one day. Next week, I’ll bring you some of the best day trips to take from Sydney! Thanks for reading!
Mejico, 105 Pitt St, Sydney NSW 2000
Argyle, 18 Argyle St, The Rocks NSW 2000
Spice I Am, 237 Darling St, Balmain NSW 2041
Jewel on the Bay, 639 New South Head Rd, Rose Bay NSW 2029
Bowery Lane, Shop 1, Level 4, 1 O’Connell St, Sydney NSW 2000
Guylian, 5 locations in Sydney including Circular Quay and The Rocks
360 Bar and Dining, 4, Sydney Westfield Centre, 100 Market St, Sydney NSW 2000
Radisson Blu Sydney, 27 O’Connell St, Sydney NSW 2000
Park Hyatt Sydney, 7 Hickson Rd, The Rocks NSW 2000