You have already ticked off the Sydney Opera House, the Harbour Bridge and Bondi Beach, and are now looking for some of the more out-of-the-ordinary Sydney attractions? Let me give you a helping hand so that you can explore Sydney off the beaten track.
There are countless lesser known and outright quirky attractions and things to do in Sydney that I am more than happy to share with you. I promise that you will have the time of your life exploring these little known treasures.
See Sydney in a different light and discover new sides of Australia’s most beautiful city.
Paddington Reservoir Gardens
Not even Sydneysiders will know that there is a sunken garden right in the middle of Paddington. That is because the Paddington Reservoir Gardens are below street level, and cars speeding by on busy Oxford Street will not even notice that the garden is actually there.
I love the Paddington Reservoir Gardens because they successfully combine historic industrial building structures such as steel, brick and timber with a carefully planned garden design.
The garden is free to visit and invites you to just kick back and relax for a couple of minutes right in the middle of this busy city. Sometimes the Paddington Reservoir Gardens are hosting art exhibitions, which means that you can not only relax in nature but also check out the latest achievements in contemporary art. Read more about the Paddington Reservoir Gardens in my blog post here.
Memory is Creation without End
It took me years to stumble upon this small open-air exhibit right in the centre of the city. The reason for this is that it’s located in an area that doesn’t see a lot of foot traffic, and it’s well below the street level of the Cahill Expressway. You need to know that it’s there and look out for it as you drive by.
The curious collection of old building parts such as columns heads and reliefs that have been assembled for Memory is Creation without End are reminiscent of the classic archaeological – think Olympia and the Roman Forum. Here in Sydney, these fragments are in fact sourced from demolished old buildings and structures, most notably the Pyrmont Bridge. Altogether this is a little known art exhibition by Kimio Tsuchiya, a testament to the lost function of buildings arounds the city and of the loss of those old buildings in the collective memory.
You can access the site on foot when coming from Macquarie Street, close to Circular Quay. For more info, check out the website by the City of Sydney.
I have to admit that the Waverley Cemetery is one of my personal highlights when ‘doing’ the popular Bondi to Coogee coastal walk in the Easter Suburbs of Sydney.
The Waverley Cemetery is just one of the gorgeous sights you will walk past when completing the coastal walk, and I am sure that Waverley Council would like all walkers to just walk past and not disturb the peace. This is why they have constructed a million-dollar boardwalk way out of cemetery boundaries.
However, if you are respectful and careful I am sure it will be fine to risk a short detour to further inspect the tombs and graves of this marvellously located cemetery which I believe enjoys the best views in the world. The Waverley Cemetery is home to a number of prominent figures, but what is more notable is the fine artisan work of the stonemasons and the richly decorated family tombs. Well worth a look!
Street art in Newtown
Newtown is probably the most dynamic art precinct in Sydney, and it shows: Just head to the Newtown Town Hall and walk around it to view the backside. The walls here are covered in paint and posters, some of it several meter high above street level.
It is quite astounding that a council would permit this free expression of art, and I believe that they have accepted that it makes more sense to play curators rather than to fight a battle they cannot win.
You can drift along the backstreets of Newtown and Darlinghurst, it is quite easy really, to go on a Sydney street art treasure hunt, or you can join a guided walking tour. I can warmly recommend the tours that are organised by the Culture Scouts, read here what I discovered when I joined one of their tours.
Sydney Fish Market
I don’t quite understand why the Sydney Fish Market is so underrated. I really think it deserves some attention from Sydneysiders. I know that there is quite a demand when we head into the festive season, and there are a lot of people that will make the effort of visiting the markets for the catch of the day, but the Sydney Fish Market as a tourist attraction is pretty much unheard of.
Yet, when I first came to Sydney, this was one of the first places I visited, simply because it would have been one of the first places I would have visited in any destination.
The Sydney Fish Market is a feast for the eyes – from the fishing fleet outside to the most extraordinary seafood on display in the market halls, there is quite a lot to take in that you wouldn’t normally see on an ordinary day.
Plus, you can combine a visit to the Fish Market with a stroll along the beautifully restored harbour foreshore towards Balmain.
Bundeena is a special little place in Sydney, a close-knit community of just 2,000 that has over the years attracted quite a few artists. Location on the southern side of Port Hacking, opposite Cronulla and Bate Bay and surrounded by the Royal National Park, this little community is the perfect destination for a day trip away from it all.
You don’t even need to take your car – you can just catch the train to Cronulla and then hop on the ferry to get to the other side of the bay. What awaits you is a tranquil village with many local galleries, family-friendly beaches, and from time to time a friendly market. You will find a little bit more info on Bundeena here.
If you have some interest in Sydney’s colonial history, then you will be pleased to know that there are number of museums in the city that you can explore to get a better idea of what life was like in the early days of Sydney.
But if you are looking for something really special, check out the gorgeous estate of Vaucluse House in the Eastern Suburbs where history will become alive again.
This house was built by barrister and politician William Wentworth and is surrounded by well maintained formal gardens and orchards that seem to flow all the way to Sydney Harbour.
Marvel at the colonial interiors, learn about what it takes to run a stately home like this, and then finish the day with a picnic in nearby Nielsen Park or high tea in the adjoining Tea Rooms. Read more about my visit to Vaucluse House here.
Rouse Hill House & Farm
Another great but little known house that Sydney Living Museums is looking after is Rouse Hill up in Sydney’s north. This house couldn’t be more different to posh and elegant Vaucluse House.
It is a former farm, one of the first in the area, and the home is surrounded by a number of outbuildings and sheds that have quite a few stories to tell. The property is kept in original condition since the day the last family member moved out in the 1990’s, so expect to find here cracked floorboards, faded wallpaper and oldtimer trucks. You need to join a guided tour to visit Rouse Hill, but trust me it’s all worth it. Read more about it in my blog post that I wrote a while ago.
Everybody knows that cats and coffee mix well. Catmosphere is Sydney’s very own cat cafe. And these are no ordinary cats – these are catstronauts!
Gather some friends and book yourself in on one of the available session with the space cats, or maybe join the yoga group. It’s a great initiative which helps rescue kittens and supports the efforts of finding new homes for the cats. More info on the official website.
Bare Island Fort in Botany Bay
This little known fort on Bare Island is simply stunning and it comes packed with lots of important history.
First of all, for you movie buffs out there, this off-the-beaten-path fort has already starred in a major Holywood blockbuster, Mission Impossible II. Secondly, this fort dates back to the late 1800 when it was feared that Sydney might come under attack from other colonial forces. As it turned out the structure was deemed inferior and so the fort was turned into a home for war veterans instead.
Lastly, the area around the fort is known as La Perouse, in honour of the Frenchman who arrived in Sydney just a couple of days too late to claim the area for France (Captain Phillip was already busy setting up camp). If it hadn’t been for these couple of days, Australia may well be French today. Alas, poor Laperouse disappeared only a couple of months later somewhere in South Pacific waters, never to be seen again.
You can visit Bare Island on Sundays with a guided tour, more info here.