Sydney in a day… impossible you say? How can you discover all the intricacies of a 4.2m city in less than 24 hours? Its history, art, culture, people, shops and secrets? Well, I say it’s possible, and you don’t even have to follow the beaten tracks that a regular guidebook would recommend to you.
Have you ever been to a city and explored it with a local? Yes? See, this is how you need to tackle Sydney. Let me be your local friend, take my hand, and you’ll be fine.
All you need is a pair of comfortable walking shoes, a water bottle, sunscreen, exploration fever and a couple of dollars in your pocket. If you are fairly fit and motivated, read on. I will also make some suggestions for restaurants, as I know how confusing it can be to dine out in a city you are not familiar with.
Northern End of the CBD
I hope you don’t mind getting up early, because this is what you need to do if you want to get the most out of this experience. My suggestion is to head down to Circular Quay first, to get this out of your system. I know and understand that most visitors will want to see the most iconic landmarks of Sydney, the Opera House and the Harbour Bridge, so let’s get this done and over with before we can focus on the really interesting stuff.
Head down to Circular Quay and take plenty of photos and selfies. Go wild. Walk around the Opera House and take shots of it from different angles. Peek across the harbour to the bridge, see the ferries hurrying back and forth, listen to the squealing of the seagulls. Enjoy the commuter buzz, feel the morning sun on your skin. If you are a coffee drinker, we’ve been told that Mecca CQ on the top end of King Street is an excellent choice for your takeaway kick.
Sydney’s Convict Past
Next, head past the Museum of Contemporary Art along the waterfront to The Rocks. This precinct is the oldest settlement in Sydney, founded by the first fleets of convicts and the first settlers that arrived in Australia in the 18th century. This quarter is pure history, you won’t find anything older (other than aboriginal artefacts of course) in the whole of Australia.
There are many highlights around this area but we don’t have all day, so I suggest we quickly visit Cadmans Cottage (which is free) for a quick glimpse of the old sandstone buildings in this area, and then up Argyle Street, just to lose yourself a bit in the laneways that are home to wonderful little cafes, restaurants and speciality shops. Make sure you include Foundation Park, even if it involves navigating some steps. Walk past the Lord Nelson pub, Sydney’s oldest continually licensed pub, until you reach Hickson Road.
The New Sydney
Now, Hickson Road is probably not the prettiest street you will encounter today, but it’s a vital part of the new developments happening for Sydney at the moment. Stretching from north to south, Hickson Road is bordering one of the most spectacular and controversial developments in Sydney’s history, the Barangaroo site. This is the place where over the next 10 to 20 years new apartment and commercial buildings will be built, complete with a refreshed foreshore area and public parklands.
If you are lucky you may be able to walk right through the construction site to the waterfront. If you find such an opening, take the opportunity and walk this way rather than further down Hickson road, and take in the size of this space and the enormity of this project. Once you have reached the water, walk further down south towards Darling Harbour. If you cannot see such an opening, continue on Hickson Road until you reach Shelley Street, then turn right towards Darling Harbour.
Entertainment Precint Darling Harbour
Leave the noise of the construction site behind you as you take a leisurely walk along the water towards Sydney’s family-friendly entertainment precinct. If you feel like a second breakfast, then the cafes and restaurants here will be a good, albeit a little bit costly choice.
Depending on how you feel, what kind of budget you have, and the time of the day, I would suggest considering a visit to Wildlife World. I am aware that this place is a little bit overpriced and of course very touristy, however if you are to spend just one day in Sydney or have only very little time in Australia, then this place is the right choice for some serious native animal encounters. It may look smallish on the outside, but as a matter of fact inside you will find everything you would expect to see in Australia’s wild – kangaroos, koalas, venomous spiders, you name it. It is certainly a very popular place with the kids.
Keep on heading south, past Wildlife World and you will see in front of you a pedestrian bridge called Pyrmont Bridge. Did you know that this bridge is capable of swinging open in the middle to allow the passing of bigger vessels? This does happen from time to time, but it is rare. If you do happen to see it while you are there, count yourself very lucky. Anyway, Darling Harbour is quite an interesting place. It has a lot to offer even though it also faces a lot of critique.
Originally, the area was used as a port for loading and unloading goods, so on the other side of the bridge you will still see a number of gigantic brick warehouses and storage houses, as well as the powerhouse, which is today a technology museum.
With the decline of the wool industry and the move of port activities to other locations in and outside of Sydney, Darling Harbour was redeveloped to become a place for families and tourists to enjoy. Unfortunately, not everybody seems to be happy with the attractions on offer, and the overpass probably doesn’t do much to contribute a lot to the cheerful atmosphere.
However, Darling Harbour has a lot going for it, and it’s definitely worth a visit. If you have kids with you, they will enjoy the fantastic water playground just behind the overpass.
Chinatown and the South End of the CDB
So now it’s probably around lunchtime and you have already seen the most important landmarks of Sydney, the historic quarter, the developments of the future, the contemporary entertainment district and maybe a kangaroo or two. Time to start thinking about lunch. Continue south past Tumbalong Park and the Chinese Garden of Friendship (worth a quick peek if you are interested, it’s not very expensive!), underneath yet another overpass, and turn left just before the former site of the Entertainment Centre and voila! you are in a different world entirely.
Welcome to Chinatown, which is in fact not just a town full of Chinese people but a quarter that is exactly where you want to be for anything Asian.
Sydney has a great Asian community with people from countries such as China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Japan, South Korea, Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia. If you like food from any of these countries then you’ve come to the right place. How convenient that it’s lunchtime, so here are some suggestions: Mamak in Goulburn Street for Malaysian, Happy Chef for Laksa in Sussex Street, BBQ King for a crispy duck in Goulburn Street, Musashi in Pitt Street for yummy sushi or Chat Thai in Campbell Street opposite the Capitol Theatre for outstanding Thai food.
If you are not so keen on Asian food, enter Market City and find an alternative in the food court here. By the way, Market City is not a bad choice for outlet clothes of the usual high street fashion brands. If you are after a couple of bargains, then have a look here. On the ground floor underneath, Paddy’s Market is open on most days, and it’s a brilliant place to stock up on souvenirs, postcards, mobile phone accessories, sunshades, t-shirts and lots of non-sense. Just make sure you keep your valuables save and you’ll be fine.
After all this great food, is there still space for some dessert? Two suggestions for you – N2 Extreme Gelato for some steaming action and really fresh ice-cream, or Emperor’s Puffs from the Emperor’s Garden Cake & Bakery, both situated in Dixon Street.
Besides that, try to avoid Dixon Street – it is too touristy, and there are too many people trying to persuade you to eat at their restaurants. Not sure about you but for me it’s an absolute no-no. Instead, look into the smaller streets of the area and follow the locals – they themselves are interesting enough to watch. Then make your way to George Street.
Sydney’s High Street Fashion
George Street is a huge thoroughfare in Sydney’s CBD, stretching over more than 3kms from north to south, connecting the southern, more derelict part of Sydney with the upmarket north that is home to insurance companies, financial institutions and five-star hotels.
If you followed the street all the way up north you would eventually end up back in The Rocks. But that’s not where we are headed. From Chinatown head to George Street and walk past the massive World Square site which is home to some good shops including Superdry, Hugo Boss and Calvin Klein. In the basement you will find a supermarket.
Further up George Street you finally reach some imposing old buildings that make up the centre of the CBD – the Town Hall with its clock tower and the beautiful Queen Victoria Building. Walk past the first but enter the second. Even if you don’t intent to buy, the QVB is famous for its gorgeous interior with the big hanging clock showing historic Australian scenes, the gorgeous dome and the beautiful stained glass windows.
The QVB has had many lives already and was close to being demolished at one point, so enjoy the fact that some people did believe that this grand building was worthwhile saving. In front of the Queen Victoria Building by the way is a wonderful statue of the Queen and her lap dog. Wait for a couple of minutes and hear the dog talk and bark.
Walk through the QVB, explore the levels if you like and take a toilet break if you need to – the toilets on the top level of the QVB are futuristic in style and quite a lot of fun actually.
Exit the building on the north site and continue on George Street for a couple of meters until you reach the Strand Arcade on the opposite site of the road halfway between Market and King Streets. Walk through this arcade; if you found the QVB impressive, this one will probably take your breath away. Watch closely, you may find Nicole Kidman shopping here for the next red carpet event.
On the other side of the Strand Arcade is Pitt Street Mall, the only real pedestrianised shopping area in Sydney’s CBD. If you are from Europe you might be a bit disappointed, as the stretch is rather short, but in fact most shops in Sydney can be found in shopping centres and underground – all magically connected one way or the other, to create a sunless, hectic and completely confusing maze of shopping opportunities.
Sydney’s Colonial Past
But we are not here for shopping – I suggest you climb up the Sydney Tower Eye instead which is right in front of you to get the best views of Sydney from above. Unless it’s a very cloudy day or you are afraid of heights you will have a fantastic experience up there.
From the Sydney Tower Eye continue north either on George Street, Pitt Street or Castlereagh Street until you reach Martin Place with its historic facades from the gold rush area that ooze money and power. Back in the day these were the banks and the General Post Office, today you will find a number of top-end boutique and jewellery shops here, such as Chanel, Cartier, Tiffany’s and so forth.
Walk down Martin Place in the eastern direction towards the Sydney Hospital. Macquarie Street is lined with a number of important colonial buildings – the Hyde Park Barracks, the Hospital, the Parliament, the Mint, the State Library. Walk north on Macquarie Street until you reach the Botanic Gardens which you can enter through the gate opposite the State Library.
The Green Parks
After all this noise from the busses, the taxis, the shoppers and the office workers, isn’t it nice to enter a green park full of sights, sounds, and fragrances? The Botanic Gardens will be your saviour after all the hectic in the middle of the CBD. Continue north, it will be downhill, so a very easy walk. You may want to take a break at the cafe – the Royal Botanic Gardens Restaurant, in fact – which you will find right in the middle of the gardens.
The Royal Botanic Gardens will take you all the way back to the harbour foreshore, where you will have again plenty of opportunities to take great pictures. Just walk around Farm Cove and get this prize shot with the CBD, the green gardens, the Opera House and the bridge. Then head back to Circular Quay along the waterfront, just keep on walking towards the Opera House.
A Glorious Beachside End to the Day
Now, this was a full-on day! How do you feel? Are you tired, are your feet sore? Or do you think you can do some more? After all, life is short, and you only have one day in Sydney. Make your way to wharf number 3 in Circular Quay and board one the ferries to Manly. There should be a ferry every 20 or 30 minutes or so.
The ferry ride to Manly is beautiful if you do it towards the end of the day. Have your camera ready if you want to take some spectacular photos of the Harbour Bridge in the golden light of a sunset. Then kick back and relax for the next 30 minutes and take in the harbour views.
Your destination Manly is a wonderful place for some beers and dinner with ocean views. Most restaurants are excellent but if you are after something special try Hugo’s or Papi Chulo right on the wharf, or Chica Bonita in The Corso (actually in an arcade off the Corso). Bon appetit!