Getting Around Sydney: Guide to Public Transportation

Train coming to North Sydney in the morning
Bento Fotography / Getty Images

As a sprawling, beachside state capital with more than 5 million residents and 9 million overseas visitors each year, public transport is essential for Sydney. The city is Australia's leading public transport hub, with 20.9 percent of residents using it to travel to work in 2016, compared to 13.4 percent of Melbourne residents. The public transport in Sydney has steadily improved over the past decade as the city as become less reliant on driving.

Sydney's public transport network is made up of regular trains, buses, ferries, light rail, and the newly opened driverless Metro line. Local trains offer extensive coverage across the city, mainly via above-ground lines, although many beaches (including tourist hotspot Bondi) are best reached by buses. A free, pre-loadable card called an Opal allows visitors to use all public transport through a tap-on tap-off system.

If you have a contactless Visa debit or credit card, you can also use it to pay at the Opal card readers. (Adult Opal fare prices are charged using this method, including daily and weekly fare caps.) However, be aware that your bank may charge international transaction fees on each transaction. If you are traveling in a group, each person will need to use a different Opal card or credit card to tap on and off.

At some stations, you can still buy single tickets, but buying an Opal card as soon as you land in Sydney (at the airport or a nearby retailer) is probably the best bet for a stress-free trip. At the airport train stations, the minimum Opal top up is $35. At all other points of sale, the minimum is $10 for adults and $5 for children. You can use this credit and then top up your Opal when you run out, either online, via the Opal Travel app, through a ticket machine, or at an Opal retailer.

How to Ride Sydney Trains

Sydney's trains are the most popular and easiest way to get around. Since the first passenger railway was built in New South Wales in 1855, the network has expanded across the city with nine lines that meet at Central Station, including an airport line, a light rail line, and the fully-automated Metro line. The train is also a great way to avoid peak hour traffic.

If you're thinking about venturing further afield, NSW TrainLink trains depart from Central station and connect Sydney to regional centers including the Blue Mountains, the Central Coast, Newcastle, Wollongong, Canberra and the Southern Highlands.

  • Fares: Opal fares can be a little tricky to understand at first as they are determined by distance traveled. Train fares range from AU$3.61 for up to ten kilometers to $8.86 for 65 kilometers or more. If you go during off-peak times (weekends, public holidays and outside of 7 a.m. to 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. to 6.30 p.m.), you will be charged 30 percent less than these prices. Fares are capped at AU$16.10 a day, AU$50 a week, or AU$2.80 on Sunday, meaning you will not pay more than this amount no matter how many trips you take. (This does not include the Sydney Airport station access fee of AU$14.87, which has a separate cap of two visits per week.) If you forget to tap off, you will be charged the maximum fare for that trip.  
  • Concessions: Adult fares apply to those aged 16 years and older, except for local students and those eligible for a concession. Children and those eligible for concession fares will need to purchase a specific Opal card to access these prices, which are usually around half of the adult fares. Children under four years of age travel free.
  • Routes and Hours: Sydney's trains usually run every 5 to 15 minutes, with trains every couple of minutes in the city center and during peak times. Train services run from 4 a.m. to around midnight on most lines. Many bus routes operate 24/7, and NightRide buses replace most train services during the early hours of the morning. The City Circle at the heart of Sydney's train network is precisely what it sounds like; a route that passes underground from Central to the city's most frequented stations in the Central Business District and back to Central again.
  • Service Alerts: Sydney's trains generally run on time, but delays and changes do occur. Trackwork, especially on weekends, can also disrupt service. You can find information about service changes on the Transport NSW website
  • Transfers: Transfers between Sydney Metro, Sydney Trains, and NSW TrainLink Intercity services are automatic, so there is no need to tap off and on again between them. All other transfers made within 60 minutes will be charged as a single journey. The Sydney Ferries Manly service is the only exception, with 130 minutes from when you tap on to transfer to another service.
  • Accessibility: All trains and ferries in Sydney are accessible, with boarding ramps available on request. However, some train stations have stairs that restrict access, as do some ferry wharves. Accessible buses, with ramps and kerbside kneeling capacity, can be identified with the international wheelchair symbol. These buses also have priority seating and extra space inside. You can visit the Transport NSW website or call 131 500 for more information on accessibility.

How to Ride Sydney Buses

Like many cities, Sydney's buses are mainly used late at night and to connect between train stations. They are also particularly useful in coastal neighborhoods, like the Northern Beaches and the Eastern Suburbs, and outer suburbs that lack rail connections. With hundreds of routes crisscrossing the city, buses are often the quickest way to get where you're going if you're familiar with the city.

  • Fares: The same daily and weekly caps apply across all forms of public transport. Bus fares range from AU$2.24 for under three kilometers of travel to AU$4.80 for eight kilometers or more. There is no difference between peak and off-peak fares on buses.
  • Routes: The large number of bus routes in Sydney can be overwhelming. Check the Transport NSW website for maps or the TripView app to figure out your nearest bus stop.
  • Hours: Most buses run 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Other Transit Options

Sydney is sandwiched between the sea and the mountains, meaning there are some places that the local bus and train routes can't reach. Sometimes, ferries, bike- and ride-shares or rental cars might be a more straightforward choice.

Catching the Ferry

As a harbor city, Sydney's ferries are an important (and scenic) form of public transport. There are eight ferry routes, with essential services running from Manly and Mosman on the northern side of the harbor to Circular Quay. Ferries can be accessed using your Opal card and are a little more expensive than the train. Check the ferry timetable on the NSW Transport website in advance, as service can be scattered.

Riding a Bike

Biking is becoming increasingly popular in Sydney for commuters, with some dedicated bike paths and bike lanes available. There are no public bike-sharing programs, but Lime e-bikes are popular. It is illegal to ride a bike without a helmet, but only some of the Lime bikes come with helmets attached. If you're planning to cycle, also keep in mind that some parts of the city are quite hilly and the weather can be uncomfortably hot in summer.

Taxis and Ride-Sharing Apps

If you're in a rush or far from a train station, Sydney has plenty of taxis and ride-sharing apps like Uber to help you out. These operate all over the city and may even work out cheaper for groups, especially to and from the airport. Many locals prefer ride-sharing apps over taxis, which can be expensive, hard to find, and may refuse rides the driver deems too short.

Renting a Car

If you're planning to make a day trip or two outside of Sydney to visit the countryside or the Blue Mountains, a car will probably be necessary. However, parking in the city center can be costly, as can tolls to use certain roads, and peak hour traffic is a hassle, so most visitors can get by on public transport during their stay in Sydney.

Tips for Getting Around Sydney

  • Split an Uber from the airport if you're traveling with a group rather than paying the AU$14.87 station access fee (plus the standard Opal fare) per person to take the train.
  • Allow extra time for your journey late at night and on weekends, as trains are often replaced by buses due to trackwork.
  • Stand on the left side of the escalator and walk on the right if you want to stay in Sydneysiders' good graces.
  • Talking is prohibited in 'quiet carriages' which will be well-signposted. They are usually the first and last carriages of the train.
  • Hold your hand out to hail the bus you want to catch; otherwise the driver will likely continue on their route right past you. 
  • Travel on Sundays, especially on the ferry, to make the most of the AU$2.80 Opal card cap.
  • Avoid the north-south drive across the Harbour Bridge (or through the Harbour Tunnel) during morning traffic, from around 7 a.m. to 9 a.m. Centenary Drive, Lane Cove Road, Epping Road, Homebush Bay Drive, the Eastern Distributor, and Cahill Expressway are also notoriously slow before and after work.

Once you've got an Opal card, you'll be all set to get around Sydney on public transport. You can download the TripView app or use the trip planner on the Transport NSW website to plan your journey and get real-time service updates.

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