It’s easy to hate on Sydney – it’s an expensive city to live in, and too often our ‘lockout’ reputation precedes us – but every now and again we clasp eyes on that glittering city skyline and feel lucky to call this city our home. Whether you’ve lived here all your life or just stepped off your flight on the adventure of a lifetime, we’d recommend heading to one of these parks, walks, beaches and lookouts to gaze on the Emerald City in all its glory. The best part is: it’s free to enjoy.
While you’re feeling like a tourist, give one of these tourist attractions that don’t suck a whirl. It’ll give you a fresh sense of admiration for our world-famous home.
Or if you’re just not feeling love for the city, GTFO with one of these awesome day trips.
RECOMMENDED: Six Indigenous-led walks and tours around Sydney.
Where to spy Sydney’s city skyline
What is it? One of the worst-kept secrets in Sydney is a garden at the foothill of Wendy Whiteley's home in Lavender Bay. When Wendy lost her husband, Australian artist Brett Whiteley, in 1992, she funnelled her love and grief into transforming a disused, derelict train yard into this sacred space. You're welcome to visit the partly public, partly private garden at any time.
What will you see? From here you have views of Sydney Harbour Bridge, the back of Luna Park and across to the Opera House. It's serene, and it feels like you're enveloped by the trees planted in the gardens.
What is it? One of Sydney's best beaches is found a short walk away from Watsons Bay. With its sloping shore and turquoise waters, Camp Cove looks like it's straight out of a tourist brochure. And it's a calm, inviting place to swim in Sydney's harbour waters.
What will you see? As you're floating in the harbour, you'll see the buildings of Sydney's CBD as a faint, faraway land where share prices and the cost of a cocktail matter more than they should. Forget that stress and take pleasure in feeling like you're on holiday. Monday's a world away.
What is it? One of our oldest, largest public parks is where active Sydneysiders like to come to escape the daily drudge. You'll find dog walkers, horse riders, cyclists, runners and circus performers on most weekends. Even though it's relatively central, the Parklands never feel like they're in the city... that is until you spot the high-rises in the distance.
What will you see? It's possible to make out the Sydney Tower and many of the surrounding skyscrapers in the CBD, and from many sections of Moore Park and the Parklands you'll also spy Bondi Junction's Westfield.
What is it? The area was a meeting point for the Borogegal clan of the Eora nation before colonisation. Today it’s named for the Lieutenant Bradley of First Fleet ship HMS Sirius. The walking track starts near Taronga Zoo and it trails from Athol Bay to the HMAS Memorial Mast, and onwards to Chowder Bay.
What will you see? In the first section of this inner-city bush walk you’ll have sweeping views over to Sydney Opera House, the Harbour Bridge and the PM’s residence.
What is it? This short stretch of sand on the Hermitage Foreshore Walk is considered one of our best 'secret' beaches. And for such a hidden beauty, it sure attracts a lot of partygoers. It's where the cool kids like to bathe, and part of that appeal is the view – interrupted only by boats and kayakers.
What will you see? There's the Coathanger, the Pineapple, the Sloping Roof One. BYO sunnies, as the view is blinding.
What is it? Australia’s longest-standing operational navigation light was built on the precipice of Dunbar Head in Vaucluse in 1818, and even after a few renos, it’s still a splendid sight to visit. You can see the light and wander around the lighthouse keeper’s and assistant’s cottages that make up Macquarie Lightstation any day of the week, or join a tour for $3-$5 on selected Sundays.
What can you see? Climb the 100 steps to the now electronic lantern room to see the Fresnel lens that still guides ships today, and look out to sea and back towards the hazy city skyline.
What is it? The 31-room hotel was renovated in 2013, but its roots as a pitstop by the beach date back to the 19th century when it was called the Palace Hotel. Today, Watsons Bay Boutique Hotel caters for wedding parties, corporate away days and school reunions with equal class and revelry. The pub is also generally packed with Sydneysiders seeking a sundowner session on the weekends.
What will you see? Like Camp Cove around the corner, you'll be gazing way across Sydney Harbour back towards the faraway outline of our little city. At the hotel, you'll have the added ambience of palm trees, the jetty and quaint sail boats bobbing on the water.
What is it? This park (and small outdoor gym) has one of the most picturesque views of Sydney. We've taken overseas visitors here, hours after landing, so they get the wow-factor experience of setting eyes on Sydney's skyline surrounded by all the beauty of the harbour.
What will you see? You’ll see the outline of the city skyline from the fringes of the Eastern Suburbs right across to the North Shore.
What is it? Pyrmont Bay Park is a large grassy area lined with garden beds and loads of public seating. It is located opposite the Star casino and you've probably locked eyes on this view from Marquee or one of the Star's restaurants. You don't have to be cashing in your chips to see this shiny site, you can simply visit the park and boardwalks that line the harbour.
What will you see? You'll see the Harbour Bridge to the north and all the glittering buildings of the business end of town. It's especially 'Sydney' in the evenings.
What is it? Every aspect of this North Sydney pool is more impressive than the last, from its prime position slap bang in the middle of Sydney’s most iconic landmarks – Luna Park, Sydney Harbour and the Opera House – to the simpler beauties of its art deco design and decorative plasterwork.
What will you see? From the 50-metre heated pool, you'll be in prime position to watch the trains and cars crossing the Bridge, and as you dry yourself off you can wave to the officeworkers in their tall, tall towers.
What it is? This sandstone rock ledge was carved by convicts in 1810 for governor Lachlan Macquarie’s wife, Elizabeth, who, like many a view-hungry Sydneysider today, enjoyed lounging in this secluded spot by the water. But to take in the city views (which would be new to Mrs Macquarie), you’ll actually need to scooch around the corner to an area of the nearby walking track nicknamed ‘Postcard Point’ for obvious aesthetic reasons.
What can you see? You may need to make elbow room among the bike riding and power-walking tourist hordes to catch a glimpse of the big white sails and the towering buildings beyond both pylons of Sydney’s favourite bridge.
What is it? It’s been sitting on the shoreline of Mosman for more than 100 years, and in that time the zoo has evolved from an entertainment centre to a hub of conservation and education. But the fun is still thriving at animal shows, zoo keeper talks and ropes courses, and if you’re charmed by happy animals and epic sunsets, you can even spend the night with the glamping Roar and Snore experience.
What can you see? The giraffes have the height advantage, but humans can still catch some stellar skyline snaps as they wander between animal habitats. You’ll be able to see the sparkling centrepoint tower and all its friends as well as the ol’ Coathanger, Opera House sails and sailboats bobbing around Cremorne Point. The regular summer gigs at Twilight at Taronga really showcase the wide-angle view.
What is it? It would be difficult to ignore Sydney’s harbour islands when seeking out unobstructed views of the city’s outline. Originally used as a naval arsenal in the late 1820s, Goat Island was then transformed into a sandstone quarry manned by gangs of convicts in 1831, and later housed the first water police station and harbour fire brigade. Today, it’s a popular filming location, a venue for swanky NYE parties, and a hive of historical tours.
What can you see? You’ll be looking straight at faraway CBD workers while you lounge on the undulating island lawns. Take a lazy stroll around the premises for better views of the bridge and out towards North Sydney’s CBD.
What is it? OK, this busy metropolis of fancy pants dining, pulsating clubs and awkward magic shows does number among some of the more overrated experiences in Sydney, but we can’t deny that it’s got ‘the look’. If you love a little city sparkle with your lobster mornay and overpriced Champagne, look no further than Darling Harbour.
What can you see? This is one of the more up close and personal views of the skyline, and you might be able to give a few high-rise residents a little wave from your seat on the Darling Harbour jetty in between bursts of fireworks during New Year's Eve, Vivid and on random Saturday nights. At the foot of the mighty view, historic ships, beloved ferries and upper crust yachts glide around the bay.
What is it? The 10km route takes you from sandy coves to beautiful vantage points of Sydney Harbour, up and down rocky staircases, and to at least four secret beaches. Start the journey in reverse at Spit Bridge to reward yourself with a seaside lunch and ferry home from Manly.
What can you see? You’ll mostly be gazing out across bushlands and expansive ocean views, but you’ll catch glimpses of the faraway hazy city.
What is it? Sitting happily on a Woolich peninsula at the mouth of the Parramatta River, this quite green space is a gem for easy breezy afternoons. It’s a dog-friendly zone, accessible by ferry from Woolwich Dock, and it has parking and barbecue facilities that’ll make you want to while away the weekend on the foreshore grass.
What can you see? Depending on your position within the greenery at the point, you’ll be able to lay eyes on the Coathanger and the full ‘wow factor’ CBD set-up. The charming sailboats in the foreground only add to the scenic harbour city story.
What is it? Inner West residents will be pleased to know that their skyline viewing dreams really can come true on home turf. While this Birchgrove park is precariously close to the harbour, it’s still technically part of Sydney’s hippest council. As well as the fabulous views from the foreshore and ferry wharf, it also provides picnic tables, sporting facilities, off-leash puppy play areas and an accessible park.
What can you see? As the ferries chug in from Circular Quay, you can count the tallest towers of the CBD and walk your fingers across the arch of the Harbour Bridge.
What is it? Rather than a rocky outcrop or harbourside locale, this unusual (and more costly) city skyline viewpoint lets you see Sydney from her best angle, high up in the sky. You can't help but feel like James Bond when you climb into the compact helicopter that is set to ferry you up over the Sydney CBD.
What can you see? The Sydney Scenic Flights tick off every angle of the city skyline, and throw in stunning views of Kirribilli House, Taronga Zoo, Bradleys Head, Rose Bay, Woolloomooloo and Bondi Beach, just for laughs. The city-based tours will set you back between $220-$400 per person.
What is it? Before colonisation, this area was known as Yerroulbine and was a meeting place for the Cammeraygal people of the Eora nation. Traditional Indigenous engravings, art sites and middens remain at the reserve today, which also incorporates walking tracks and picnic facilities.
What can you see? The Harbour Bridge arcs over trees lining Blues Point Reserve across the water, and there’s also a clear line of sight to the CBD from the lush public park. You’ll want to clamber to the viewing platforms for the clearest picture of our man-made forest.