Sydney has more than enough beautiful beaches, iconic landmarks, and hip restaurants and bars to keep you occupied for weeks. However, if you're looking to escape the city for a day or two, you can't go wrong heading up or down the coast for tiny, chilled-out beach towns and flourishing small cities.
If nature is more your style, drive west to the mountains or explore the wine regions of New South Wales. Even Australia's capital city, Canberra, is only a three-hour drive away. Despite Australia's size, Sydney is in the perfect location for travelers looking to make the most of nearby cities, coastal towns, the countryside, and everything in between.
Palm Beach: Seaside Luxury
Sydney's Northern Beaches are famously gorgeous and secluded, and Palm Beach is the best of the bunch. An easy drive from the city center, this stretch of golden sand and clear blue water features exclusive vacation homes and appears as the backdrop for the iconic Australian soap opera "Home and Away." Hike up to Barrenjoey Lighthouse for the best views.
Getting There: Palm Beach is around an hour's drive by car from the center of Sydney. Buses depart from Circular Quay and Central Station to Palm Beach via all of Sydney’s Northern Beaches. You can also take a 20-minute scenic flight with Sydney By Seaplane from the eastern suburb of Rose Bay.
Travel Tip: Beloved waterside café The Boathouse is perfect for a casual breakfast. If you're a serious foodie, make a lunch or dinner reservation at contemporary Australian restaurant Jonah's, which overlooks nearby Whale Beach.
Wollongong: A Relaxed Beachside City
Over the past decade, Wollongong has transformed from a dreary industrial port into a thriving cultural hub. With great beaches, good food, and a quirky small bar scene, this little city is an affordable, laid-back escape south of Sydney.
Getting There: If possible, rent a car and take the coastal road to soak up the stunning views offered by Sea Cliff Bridge; this over-ocean engineering marvel runs parallel to the cliffs north of Wollongong. The city can also be reached by train. Whether driving or using public transport, the trip will take around 1.5 hours.
Travel Tip: One of Wollongong's more off-beat attractions is Nan Tien Temple, the largest Buddhist temple in the southern hemisphere. It is open Tuesday through Sunday and features an excellent vegetarian cafe.
The Hunter Valley: Aussie Wine Country
North of Sydney, the Hunter Valley offers travelers over 150 wineries and a slew of award-winning restaurants. The most plentiful grapes in the Hunter are Chardonnay, Semillon, Verdelho, Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot.
With farmlands populated by grazing cattle and kangaroos, the Hunter is not your typical wine region: Its attractions are best explored by bike, horseback, or hot air balloon. Excellent local eateries include Bistro Molines, Muse, and Cafe Enzo, while the best vinos can be tasted at Usher Tinkler, Brokenwood, and Tempus Two.
Getting There: The Hunter Valley is just over a two-hour drive from Sydney. Public transport options are limited.
Travel Tip: Many cellar doors recommend booking in advance or are only open on weekends, so be sure to confirm ahead of time.
The Blue Mountains: Natural Wonders
Sydney is surrounded by national parks, including the impressive Blue Mountains World Heritage Area, which rises out of the eucalyptus haze to the west. Most visitors use the small towns of Leura or Katoomba—dotted with galleries, pubs and cafés—as a base to explore the surrounding bushland, waterfalls, and valleys. Don't miss the Three Sisters rock formation.
Getting There: Katoomba is around a 1.5-hour drive from Sydney. It can also be reached by train (just over two hours) or tour bus.
Travel Tip: If you're interested in some more intense hiking, there are plenty of adventure tour companies that can show you the area.
Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park: From the Bush to the Beach
Known for its Aboriginal cultural heritage, hidden beaches, and many hiking trails, Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park is located on Sydney's northern outskirts. Measuring over 3,700 acres, the park's highlights include Resolute Beach, West Head Lookout, Bobbin Head picnic area, and the Red Hands Cave rock art site—all set among lush rainforest, rocky cliffs, and mangroves.
Getting There: Ku-ring-gai Chase is an hour's drive north of the city center. Keen hikers can take the train to Mount Ku-ring-gai or Cowan Station and walk the couple of miles into the park via well-marked trails.
Travel Tip: Check the National Parks website for details about specific trails and park-wide safety alerts.
The Hawkesbury RIver: Historic Towns and Water Activities
Just outside the city, the charming Hawkesbury River—and the area surrounding it—feels a whole world away. A popular weekend escape, the historic town of Windsor is home to one of Australia’s oldest pubs, the Macquarie Arms Hotel, as well as the Hawkesbury Paddlewheeler cruise ship. In Windsor and other towns along the river, visitors can enjoy bushwalking, horseback riding, biking, fishing, boating, kayaking, and waterskiing.
Getting There: Windsor is a 50-minute drive northwest of Sydney center and an hour by train.
Travel Tip: The treetop adventure course at Grose River Park will keep the whole family entertained, with obstacles for kids ages four and up.
Port Stephens: Dolphins, Sand Dunes and Surf
Port Stephens and the neighboring villages of Nelson Bay and Shoal Bay offer the quintessential Aussie beach experience. It's all about the sand and surf, with duneboarding, whale watching, surfing, and kayaking available. Port Stephens is also the best spot to see dolphins in Australia, as over 150 resident bottlenose dolphins live here. Once you've had your fill of the beach, head to Tomaree National Park and hike up the mountain for 360-degree views of the area.
Getting There: Port Stephens is a 2.5-hour drive north of Sydney, or 4.5 hours via train or bus.
Travel Tip: Because of the shape of the bay, Port Stephens is one of the few places on Australia's east coast where you can see the sun set over the water, making for some pretty perfect photos.
Royal National Park: Hiking and swimming
In between Sydney and Wollongong, Royal National Park is a sprawling playground for nature lovers. The beach at Wattamolla is one of the park's most popular attractions, with a thin strip of sand that backs onto a calm lagoon—waterfall included. For a relaxing coastal walk, try the Jibbon Beach loop track from Bundeena.
Getting There: Royal National Park is under an hour's drive south of Sydney. It is also possible to take the train, as the three-mile Karloo Walking Track starts from Heathcote Station and ends at Uloola Falls. Alternatively, you can catch the ferry from the Sydney suburb of Cronulla to Bundeena for a more scenic trip.
Travel Tip: Wedding Cake Rock and Figure-Eight Pools are popular spots in Royal National Park. However, park authorities discourage all but the most experienced hikers from visiting these fragile natural areas due to safety concerns.
Newcastle: History, Food, and Culture
If you're looking for something a little more cosmopolitan, take a trip to Newcastle, the second largest city in New South Wales (after Sydney.) There are plenty of beaches, including surfers' paradise Mereweather and family-friendly Bar Beach. For trendy food and boutiques, head to the Darby Street precinct or the open-air Hunter Street Mall. Because Newcastle was a center of industry in Australia's early years, history buffs will find relics like the old Convict Lumber Yard and the impressive Newcastle Museum worth a visit.
Getting There: The journey from Sydney north to Newcastle takes 2.5 hours on the train, and a little less by car.
Travel Tip: While Newcastle's beaches are world-class, the city's ocean baths are a tranquil and unusual alternative. The art deco Newcastle Ocean Baths is always refreshingly cool, while the Mereweather Baths holds the distinction of being the largest ocean baths complex in the Southern Hemisphere.
Canberra: Australia's capital city
A quick visit to Canberra will allow you to hit all the major landmarks, with a little time left over for some local food and wine. As the nation's capital, Canberra was designed in the early 20th century to house institutions like Australia's Parliament House, National Gallery, War Memorial, and National Museum.
Head to the inner north suburb of Braddon for the best coffee and all-day breakfast, then hike up Mount Ainslie or walk around Lake Burley Griffin to check out Canberra's unique geometric layout. The city is also surrounded by one of Australia's best cool-climate wine regions.
Getting There: Canberra is a three-hour drive from Sydney. It can be reached by train or an hourly bus service.
Travel Tip: Canberra's many museums and galleries have activities to keep kids of all ages occupied, making it a great choice for families.
The Southern Highlands: Quaint Small Towns
Located between Sydney and Canberra, the Southern Highlands region—made up of adorable towns like Bowral, Mittagong, Moss Vale, and Berrima—is perfect for those who crave a slower pace. The highlands are known for their fall colors and blooming gardens in the spring. The region's cool temperatures also offer a lovely respite from Sydney's summer heat.
Visitors flock to the 260-foot-high Fitzroy Falls at Morton National Park, a twenty minute drive from Bowral. The Bradman Museum and International Cricket Hall of Fame, dedicated to Bowral-born cricketing legend Donald Bradman, is a must for sports fans.
Getting There: The Southern Highlands region is only an hour's drive from Sydney, and can also be reached by bus or train.
Travel Tip: Events like the Tulip Time floral festival are an ideal time to visit. Check the NSW tourism website for dates and details.
Kangaroo Valley: A Haven for Wildlife Lovers
As the name implies, Kangaroo Valley is all about wildlife. You can spot kangaroos and wombats at the Tallowa Dam picnic area and Bendeela campground, go trail riding, or visit a working farm. Kayaking on the Kangaroo River and hiking in Budderoo National Park are also great ways to explore this region's natural beauty.
Stop by Hampden Deli to grab the best of the region's produce, including meats, cheeses, bread, and cold-pressed juices for your picnic.
Getting There: Kangaroo Valley is a two-hour drive southwest of Sydney. Public transport options are limited.
Travel Tip: Keep an eye out for Hampden Bridge. The only surviving suspension bridge from the colonial period in New South Wales, this bridge still carries traffic across the Kangaroo River.
Jenolan Caves: An Underground Wonderland
Nestled in the foothills of the Blue Mountains, the Jenolan Caves system is made up of 11 enormous limestone caverns, dotted along ancient rivers and filled with marine fossils and crystal formations. The cave complex is approximately 340 million years old, making it the world's oldest known and dated open cave system. It holds spiritual significance to the local Gundungurra and Wiradjuri indigenous peoples.
Getting There: The Jenolan Caves are located just under a three-hour drive from Sydney. There are no public transport options.
Travel Tip: There are a variety of cave tours available, with tickets starting at AU$42 for adults. Night tours run every day of the week except Sundays, and several undeveloped caves are available for adventure caving.