You've heard of Sydney's beautiful beaches, but did you know it's got plenty of world-class food, culture, and shopping to offer, too? Australia's harbor city is the nation's most popular destination for overseas visitors, having received over four million international tourists in 2018. Here's our guide to the best things to do, eat, and see in Sydney.
As one of the city's most recognizable monuments, the Opera House presides over Sydney Harbour. Most visitors admire the building's unique "sails" from outside, but a guided tour offers a more comprehensive look at this iconic building.
Every day, the popular Sydney Opera House Tour shares the stories and history behind Australia's premier performing arts venue. You can also choose to add on a dining experience or take the backstage tour for a behind-the-scenes experience. Bookings are essential.
Scale the Harbour Bridge
Adrenaline junkees shouldn't miss climbing the Harbour Bridge for breathtaking views 440 feet up in the air. The full climb takes 3.5 hours, but express and shorter tours are also available. All tours are led by BridgeClimb Sydney.
If you'd prefer to stay closer to the ground, you can visit the Pylon Lookout, a museum and viewing point inside the South East Pylon of the Harbour Bridge. There are 200 steps up to the lookout, but the panorama is definitely worth it. Visitors can also simply walk across the Harbour Bridge, which takes 20 to 30 minutes one way via a pedestrian walkway.
Surf at Bondi Beach
Bondi is known worldwide for its golden sand and big surf. The beach has become one of Sydney's most recognizable landmarks, and the lifeguards even have their own reality show. But why just swim when you could surf?
Let's Go Surfing is the only officially licensed surf school at Bondi, but there are plenty of others at nearby beaches with more budget-friendly or less crowded options. Take an introductory lesson or sign up for a five-day course if you're serious about catching some waves.
Dine at Circular Quay
Circular Quay is Sydney's waterfront entertainment district, home to the main ferry terminal. Nearby, you'll find the Rocks, the city's oldest neighborhood. When it comes to dining by the sea, you're spoiled for choice. Opera Bar is perfect for a casual bite, while Bennelong, Aria, and Quay regularly top Sydney's best restaurant lists. The Squire's Landing is a hip brewhouse and restaurant, while the Sydney Cove Oyster Bar is the place to be for seafood.
Have a Beer at an Aussie Pub
Home to old-school taprooms and trendy beer gardens, Sydney's pub culture is legendary. Every neighborhood has at least one, with many offering hearty meals and good conversation. The Lansdowne Hotel in Chippendale is our pick for live music, and the Lord Dudley in Paddington takes the crown for traditional English atmosphere. For foodies, there's The Glebe Hotel's chic gastropub menu, and the Newport serves up unbeatable views.
On the shores of the Harbour, Taronga Zoo has over 4,000 animals from over 350 species, many of which are threatened in the wild. The zoo is conservation-focused, with breeding programs for the Asian elephants, Sumatran tigers, chimpanzees, giraffes, meerkats, and gorillas.
There are plenty of cute native animals to meet, too, including the bilby, platypus, and marine turtle. The Sydney Aquarium and Wild Life Sydney Zoo at Darling Harbour are also worth a visit, especially for families.
The Art Gallery of NSW can be found on the fringe of Sydney's Central Business District (CBD), within a network of green spaces known as the Domain. Featuring an extensive collection of Australian, Aboriginal, Asian, and other works of international art, it's an interesting place to wile away an afternoon,
Designed as a temple to art in the classical style, the building opened to the public in 1874. The Gallery is open daily, with extended opening hours on Wednesday nights. Entry to the permanent collection and most of the temporary exhibitions is free.
The MCA is Australia's leading institution focused on the work of living artists; it highlights emerging and established creators across painting, drawing, sculpture, photography, and cinema. The museum is located at Circular Quay, inside the former Maritime Services Board building (with a modern wing that opened in 2012). Here you'll find works by artists including Sophie Coombs, Hayden Fowler, and James Angus. Admission is free.
You can find more modern amusement parks in Sydney's suburbs (Raging Waters water park is one of the best), but Luna Park makes up for its age and small size with charming, retro-style attractions and a prime harbor-front location. Highlights include the Wild Mouse roller coaster, the Rotor, and the ferris wheel—but there are a bunch of smaller sideshow rides and games as well.
Since 1935, the iconic smiling-mouth entranceway has delighted Sydney-siders and visitors. Entry to the park is free, with all-day ride passes available for purchase inside. The park is open seven days a week during school vacation, but closes Tuesday through Thursday during the off-season.
Find a Bargain at Sydney's Markets
Sydney's weekend markets are full of treasures, from vintage clothing to fresh produce and street food-style snacks. On Saturday mornings, head to the Carriageworks Farmers Market for all things gourmet, fresh, and local. The Glebe Markets (also open on Saturdays) have a more alternative vibe, with second-hand and handmade items, live music, and delicious food stalls.
On Sundays, the Bondi Markets pop up on the grounds of the local public school, with designer clothing, jewelry, furniture, records, retro homewares, and art for sale.
The Sydney Tower is the tallest structure in the city, with an observation deck that's 820 feet high and is open to visitors every day. The spire above the Tower reaches even higher, but is only used for telecommunications and navigation. The tower, originally part of the Centrepoint Shopping Center, was completed in 1981. Inside, you'll also find two levels of restaurants with 360-degree views.
If you're also planning on visiting other Sydney attractions, like the Sydney Zoo and Aquarium, the Sydney Big Ticket could be a good investment. Individual entry passes to the Sydney Tower are also available.
Cockatoo Island in Sydney Harbour is a UNESCO World Heritage Site with a complex history. It made the list due to its significance to Australia's convict history, as Cockatoo Island was the site of a penal station for reoffending male convicts from 1839 to 1869. Today the island is used as a concert venue, camping site, and contemporary arts exhibition space.
If you're not up for spending the night at the waterfront campground, there are also holiday houses and apartments for rent. The island, traditionally known as Wareamah (or ‘women’s land’ in the indigenous Dharug language), also has picnic spots, BBQ facilities, and cafés for day-trippers. The ferry to Cockatoo Island leaves from Circular Quay, Darling Harbour, and Barangaroo.
Take a Day Trip to Palm Beach
Sydney's northernmost suburb, Palm Beach, is a peninsula dotted with luxury beachfront homes and lush greenery. It's known as the set of "Home and Away," a popular Aussie soap, in addition to its secluded atmosphere and sparkling blue water. Take a hike up to Barrenjoey Lighthouse, or go around the corner to Whale Beach for a little more solitude.
The trip to Palm Beach takes around an hour and a half on public transport. The L90 bus departs for Palm Beach from Wynyard Station in the city center.
Taste Local Seafood
Sydney has an innovative food culture, and the fresh seafood on offer is some of the world's best. If you're on a budget, head down to the Sydney Fish Market to grab some sashimi straight from the vendor. For something a little more sophisticated, try the Asian-inspired Flying Fish in Pyrmont, or the airy, elegant Boathouse on Blackwattle Bay.
Built in 1892, the Victorian-style Strand Arcade is Sydney's most historic shopping mall. Here, you'll find storefronts from local designers including Dion Lee, Jack+Jac and Skin and Threads.
Make sure to check out the tinted glass roof, cedar wood staircases, and tiled floors of this gorgeous three-story building. The Arcade's food offering is heavily influenced by the city's Italian community, with La Rosa wine bar and Romolo café on hand for a mid-shop refuel.
Sydney is surrounded by bushland on three sides, complementing the Harbour's natural beauty to the east. Just south of the city, Royal National Park offers a chance to experience the native flora and fauna. Wattamolla Beach is one of the park's most popular weekend escapes, with a calm lagoon, waterfall, and beach all in one spot.
Keen hikers can choose between the six-mile Karloo Walking Track (which winds past secluded waterfalls) and the ten-mile Bundeena Drive to Marley Beach walk. The three-mile Forest Path loop is great for families. Access to the park is easiest by car, but you can also catch the train to one of the stations on the edge of the park (Loftus, Engadine, Heathcote, Waterfall or Otford) or the ferry to Bundeena.
Float in the Ocean Pools
If you'd rather swim laps than surf, Sydney's ocean pools are the ideal spot to take it easy. Also known as baths, these are man-made saltwater pools usually built into rocks.
The Bondi Icebergs swimming pool is the most Insta-famous, but the Bronte Baths and Mahon Pool in Maroubra are equally picturesque and less crowded. For women, the McIver's Ladies Baths is one of the most private and welcoming places to swim in the city.
Discover Sydney's Secret Bars
Sydney's nightlife has gone through a dramatic evolution over the past decade. In 2014, controversial "lockout laws" were introduced to combat alcohol-fueled violence in the city center. These laws meant patrons couldn't enter venues in certain areas after 1.30 a.m. or buy alcoholic drinks after 3 a.m. The NSW state government recently announced the lockout laws will be rolled back in January 2020.
In the meantime, quirky small bars have popped up, replacing larger clubs and live music venues. To get your night started, hit up Employees Only—which comes complete with a tarot reader and a party atmosphere—or Shady Pines Saloon for a laid-back, Wild West vibe. If you're craving a late night snack, Uncle Ming's serves dumplings and Japanese whiskey and Old Mate's Place has got you covered with cocktails, shareable plates, and rooftop views.
Sydney's Chinatown (also known as Haymarket) was established in the 1920s after Chinese immigrants began coming to Australia during the country's gold rush in the 1850s. Today, Chinatown is a colorful hub for Australia's Asian communities. Ho Jiak Malaysian, Sydney Madang Korean BBQ, Do Dee Paidang Thai, Gumshara Ramen, and Marigold dim sum (known as yum cha in Australia) are our top picks for authentic Asian cuisine in the area.
Apart from the incredible food, you can enjoy the Chinese Garden of Friendship, an oasis in the center of the city, and Paddy's, a bustling market of inexpensive clothes, fresh food, accessories, and souvenirs. Paddy's is open Wednesday through Sunday.
Cheer on a Local Sports Team
Depending on the time of year, you can catch one of Australia's many sporting events in Sydney. Happening at the start of February, the Sydney 7s rugby tournament is a fast-paced introduction to the nation's favorite football code, while the Women's T20 World Cup will show you cricket in a whole new light later in the month.
In June, the NSW and Queensland rugby league teams will face off in the three-game State of Origin series. The Australian Open, Australia's oldest professional golf tournament, takes place in December, as does the prestigious Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race.