Want to find a thing to do in Sydney? You don't have to be a tourist to enjoy some of Sydney's best attractions – they are popular for a reason.
We've been through the best of the biggies and lesser-known great attractions to find you the most fun things to do in Sydney. Remember, just because they’re popular, that doesn't mean they are tacky. And just because you've never heard of it, that doesn't mean it's not worth visiting. These tried-and-tested tourist stops around the city range from thrill-seeking adventures to scenic tours of peaceful gardens and parks. There's sure to be something for everyone in our round-up of unmissable Sydney attractions that definitely don't suck.
Tourist attractions that don't suck
Thought to be one of the oldest public gardens in the Southern Hemisphere, Sydney's Royal Botanic Gardens date back to 1810 when Governor Lachlan Macquarie and his wife had a vision for an ‘English parkland setting with a grand house’. Over the years, this 30-hectare oasis has withstood fires, cattle grazing, invasions of flying foxes, a windmill, an aviary and even a zoo. Today, save a few sulphur-crested cockies, it's an oasis of calm in an urban jungle. Explore the place on one of the Aboriginal tours in botany, or simply pack for a picnic in the park.
There’s nothing quite like gazing upon the impressive Harbour Bridge silhouetted against the Sydney sky. Unless of course you’re on said bridge, because the views from up there are pretty amazing. It's a hair-raising walk to the highest point of this single-span steel arch bridge – the fourth-longest in the world of its kind. But once you’re up there you can see Sydney Harbour in all its majesty – including a cracking take on Sydney Opera House and all the way out to the Blue Mountains. Plus you'll get fascinating insights into the bridge’s construction.
Look, you don’t need a bunch of hi-tech to enjoy the splendour of the Blue Mountains, but there’s no doubting that Scenic World is a lot of fun. There’s the original Scenic Railway (formerly used by miners) that takes you down a 52° incline to the valley floor; Scenic Skyway, a glass-bottomed cable car that travels clifftop to clifftop; Scenic Cableway, a cable car that descends and ascends while letting you view the Three Sisters, Orphan Rock, Mount Solitary and Katoomba Falls; and the Scenic Walkway, which is, well, a wooden walkway on the forest floor. In April and May the rainforest turns into a gallery for Sculpture at Scenic World.
Maybe you're feeling inspired pre-Olympics or maybe you've watched too many re-runs of ‘Bondi Rescue’, but either way, surfing is must-try Australian activity. Need some pointers? Book in for a class at Let’s Go Surfing, which runs a well-liked two-hour beginners’ course that goes through the essentials of water safety (including Bondi’s rips), paddling and how to catch a wave. No, you don't have to be good at it – to be honest, falling into the water (and seeing your mates do that too) is all part of the fun. Besides, when you do finally stand up, you'll be glowing. If you've already cracked it then it's worth noting that while Bondi is one of most famous surf beaches, you can head to the southern end to be around those more familiar with the watersport. Surf's up!
You’ll feel like you’ve entered a whole other world. The garden is so peaceful that it’s impossible to imagine you’re in the middle of Sydney city (the skyscrapers being the only real giveaway). It’s larger than you’d expect and refreshingly empty of people, which makes it the perfect escape for some solitude. Make your way through bamboo forests and across stone bridges to reach one of the garden’s beautiful pavilions; take a seat on the water’s edge and watch schools of koi; or gaze at the majestic Dragon Wall – a gift from China representing the friendship between New South Wales and the Chinese province of Guangdong.
You don’t need to travel to the Great Barrier Reef to discover Australia’s marine life – you can see cockatoo fish, leatherjackets, sea urchin (so much sea urchin) and teeny tiny pomfrets right here, in Manly. Dive Centre Manly runs Snorkel Safaris of three popular spots in the area, and they take visitors on underwater adventures every day. Today we’re heading to Fairlight (the wind isn’t in our favour to snorkel at Shelly Beach) and our guide Ana explains the route we’ll take and what we’re likely to see before we arrive at the beach. In a 40-minute swim, we navigate over the kelp and seagrass in the quiet bay and Ana points out a school of goatfish, pygmy leatherjackets and crimson banded wrasse. Snorkelling is a social sport and having Ana to guide us means more eyes for spotting sea creatures as we concentrate on breathing and swimming. Before our eyes can adjust, Ana spots a pair of smooth cornetfish in the deep. We swim round to the boulders and the drop goes from three metres to 12, suddenly we’re surrounded by tennis ball-sized jellyfish that we scoop up with our hands to see the currents of light travelling through them. Already a snorkelling pro? Hire a mask, snorkel, fins and floaty for the day for $35 ($50 with a wetsuit).
It may be called the ‘Manly to Spit’ walk, but (especially if you don’t live North Side) you’re better off doing this ten-kilometre trek backwards. Start at the Spit Bridge (the M30 or 143 will get you there from Central) in Mosman, then cling to Middle Harbour’s coastline passing Clontarf Reserve and Clontarf Point. Your first opportunity for a really great swim will come early in the piece, at Castle Rock. After a steep descent you’ll find water that’s calm, clear and gorgeous. Though salubrious houses sit up just above the bushland, you can’t tell from the beach, and can barely tell from the walk. From there, you’ll be taking in big clifftop views and lots of scraggy, hardy bushland in the Sydney Harbour National Park. There are more opportunities to descend for a dip. Reef Bay is often where the party (ie: British expats with portable speakers) is at, while the harder to find Washaway Beach can be rocky and filled with nudists. The final stretch of your walk is through suburban Manly, and at the end, you should reward yourself with a cocktail and a snack, before catching the ferry home.
On a tour of Sydney Opera House you’ll visit all of the main theatres (so long as there are shows on at the time) – if you’re lucky, you’ll get a sneak peek of a rehearsal, such as ballet dancers warming up in the Joan Sutherland Theatre. In small groups, a guide will walk you around the outside of the Opera House, past roped-off areas, and you’ll learn all there is to know about Danish architect Jørn Utzon. The tour guides are incredibly knowledgeable and come bearing a microphone, so you don’t have to worry about being out of earshot for any of their stories.
Given the option, would you rather go fast or slow? If you opted for the former, you need to experience the thrill of a 30-minute Shark Attack Thrill Ride around Sydney Harbour. It’s one of very few white knuckle thrills you can enjoy so close to the Opera House – and the wetter you get, the better. Oz Jet Boating’s speedboats go up to 40 knots as they zoom from Circular Quay to Rose Bay, Shark Beach and around Clark Island. As ‘Funky Town’ and ‘Starboy’ blast from the speakers, our driver gives signals to indicate when he’s about to spin the boat or nosedive – resulting in whole boat waves and seaspray, completely soaking everyone on board. We’re pleased we left our shoes and sunnies on shore (they lose 20-30 pairs of sunnies every week). By the end of the ride our cheeks are encrusted with salt, cracking as we move our jaws. Even though we’re wearing red ponchos we are soaked through and in need of a hot shower. But, the photos captured on the boat’s GoPro are too funny for us to regret our decision. In fact, we’re ready for a second ride.
Whether you're a long-time equestrian or total novice, Centennial Park can cater to you. Set within huge, lush and lovely surrounds is a handful of inner-city riding schools: Sydney Horse, Eastside Riding Academy, Budapest Riding School, Centennial Stables and Papillon Riding School. Go it alone or have a 'pony party'. Either way, you'll get a good ganders of the park when you're going round the picturesque 3.6km horse track.
There are a few ground rules before you visit the Royal National Park’s Instagram Famous rock pools. The first is to come at low tide, which is the only time the pools are visible. The second is to call the Park’s Visitors’ Centre (02 9542 1420) and ask them about the swells before you make the journey – if the sea is big, the pools frequently get hit by giant waves that have hospitalised a number of unwitting hikers. The third is to wear sensible shoes and pack a first aid kit. The path to get to the pools is rocky, slippery and not safe for young children. Bumps and cuts will happen. If you follow all the rules and hike for just over an hour, you’ll be rewarded by two perfect circles, forming a stunning, natural figure eight that you can and should bathe in. Just try and hit it up on a weekday or in winter, because on summer weekends, the site is crammed.
Two international design competitions, months of construction and $53 million later, the MCA was reborn in 2012. Now boasting 50 per cent more floor space, a rooftop café, sculpture terrace and a high-tech education centre, a trip here makes a perfect art stop – especially if your time in Sydney is limited. The MCA offers an overview of contemporary Australian art, with the Today Tomorrow Yesterday display being a particular highlight. You'll also catch glimpses of more transient exhibitions, so try to check online before your vsiit to know what's on.
Every Friday night, Dixon Street in Chinatown is lined with market stalls selling colourful phone covers, Pokémon toys and paw-waving cats. But the best stalls to visit are the ones selling street food from all corners of Asia. You can get octopus balls – yum! – and ten different types of Asian-style liquorice, but there’s also cheap yum cha, teppanyaki, sushi and pho. Go late and finish your night with karaoke at Dynasty (found via an unobtrusive doorway in the middle of Dixon Mall leading to an elevator) or at Golden Century – the late-night food haunt of chefs and hospitality workers.
If you want to catch fishermen at work, you’ve got to get up early. Sydney Fish Market runs almost-daily tours that start at 6.40am. Wrapped up warm, our group of six visitors meet outside Doyle’s Restaurant where tour guide Alex gives us a briefing and a few impressive facts about the largest fish market in the Southern Hemisphere. For one, it’s now considered the second most diverse seafood market in the world after Tokyo’s markets. We’re fascinated by the electronic Dutch auction system, which gives the buyers in the room just two seconds to make a decision. There’s 55 tonnes of fish out on the auction floor on this morning, brought in by 1,000 suppliers across the Asia-Pacific region. We’re introduced to an 85.4kg striped marlin – as long as a person, even without its head. But the prize of the day is a B+ grade yellow tuna fish that’s estimated to cost upwards of $22,000.
Dave’s Brewery Tours are a great way to find out about Sydney’s craft beer scene while exploring parts of Sydney you may not be familiar with and, of course, getting to drink tasty beers. At the Northern Exposure tour of Northern Beaches breweries you’ll be greeted by knowledgeable guides Tom and Jamie, who will take you to three Australian breweries. Nomad is home of the Freshie Salt and Pepper Gose and the Cruisin’ Pale Ale, both of which are perfect for a hot summer day. Mona Vale’s Modus Operandi is where you learn about the history behind the name of Former Tenant Red IPA. Then there’s 4 Pines, a giant among craft breweries whose range of beers is as impressive as their microbrewery set-up. The Northern Exposure tour is lengthy but includes burgers and tastings.
What was once Australia's first international airport is now home to a fleet of aircraft that'll take you on one of the most wonderfully scenic journeys you’ve ever flown. Soar over the harbour, out to the Northern Beaches and even directly to a waterside restaurant's front door. If you're lucky you might spot a pod of dolphins or whales, but if not, you'll still get unrivalled views across Sydney. Flights run roughly 15 times a day, all year round, and while you’re waiting to board you can have a ganders at the mini-museum about the terminal’s history.
Erm…adorable animals and ace views of the bay? Sign us up! There are few people out there who wouldn't love a trip to Taronga Zoo, what with its daily talks, live shows, activities, numerous food options and 4,000+ animals. See everything from Sumatran tigers to tree kangaroos via frogs, birds and more. You can also enjoy a night safari and sleepover, you know, if you dare.
One thing all Sydneysiders know, but none want to admit is that Sydney Harbour is, by and large, a little grotty. Sure, it’s cleaner than it used to be. But a dip at Redleaf Beach or Balmoral will probably leave you feeling less-than-fresh. The flipside of this is that Harbour waters are calm, and perfect for lap swimming. There is one place where you can get the best of both worlds, and that’s at the Harbour’s easternmost tip Camp Cove. It’s close enough to the open ocean that the water feels clear and clean, while still being protected from waves. It’s also got a spectacular view of the whole Sydney city skyline. For bonus scenic-points, get there via a ferry to Watson’s Bay.
Grab a friend and drop $55 each on high tea at the Vaucluse House Tearooms for a little taste of how the other half lives. Perhaps a tour of the historic estate is what brought you out here, or a paddle in the harbour, but you should conclude your visit out under the umbrellas and ancient fig trees that shelter the tables out on the stone terrace of the tearooms. Three tiers of sweets, savouries and scones, plus tea, coffee and sparkling wine is a lot to fit in so the key here is to clear out your schedule and graze slowly. Start with chicken sandwiches and move onto little Italian doughnuts, then back to a crisp cone filled with salmon and cream cheese (it’s like a tiny Cornetto) before turning your full attention to the scones. Crack them open and don’t hold back on the three-berry jam (blueberry, strawberry and raspberry) and a vanilla clotted cream.
If you live in Sydney, a three-hour walking tour around the CBD may sound like a chore rather than a fun thing to do on your day off. But if you have visitors in town, this is a free way to check off many of the city’s historical sites in one go – and there’s a fact-filled guide to do all the talking. To join a tour, simply go to Town Hall at 10.30am or 2.30pm on any day of the week and look for the people wearing green ‘I’m Free’ T-shirts. Wear comfortable shoes as this really is a walking tour and it includes sites like Customs House, Sydney’s oldest cemetery and underground tunnels. You’ll learn why the Queen Victoria Building has a talking dog fountain, why Town Hall faces the wrong way and why the ‘Rum’ Hospital is named after booze.