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The best bars in the CBD

All the best booze action to be had in the heart of the city

Photograph: Daniel Boud

There was a dark time, not so many years ago, when after work drinks were limited to huge booze barns with no soul and pubs. Those were your options. Fast forward less than a decade and the CBD now possesses an exceptional collection of bars, from underground tropical hideaways to booze attics with cocktail maestros at the helm. You can drink life-changing wines, the freshest ales and fruity elixirs made from seasonal harvests, and sometimes you can do it all in the same place. It's a big part of what makes Sydney awesome. 

Assembly

When Assembly first opened in Regent Place there wasn’t much else in the complex, but now it’s a real city hotspot where Thai restaurants and izakayas sit side by side. Below decks there’s a Vietnamese canteen, and this secret city bar. To tell you the truth, we’re kind of tempted to keep it on the DL – the drinks are bloody good and they fry the hell out of a chicken thigh.

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Sydney

The Barber Shop

A hidden bar of forest green walls, glossy white tiles and smooth wood surfaces is the place to decompress after a long week. They've got all the gins behind the bar, plus big game drinkers can also busy themselves with the impressive single malt collection, or a few nips of calvados.

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Sydney

The Baxter Inn

That queue of people rolling out of a dark, nondescript laneway on Clarence Street is for Baxter Inn. This basement-level hooch sanctuary is brought to you by Anton Forte and Jason Scott – the two bartenders best known for opening Shady Pines Saloon.

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Sydney
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Bennelong

It’s not a cheap exercise to drink here, but when you’ve frocked up for a little high culture, you want an experience that matches the majesty of your surrounds. Claim one of the four seats at the gleaming brass bar and you’ll feel like a monarch of the arts. In the midst of all this finery we also receive some of the warmest service in town. We’re sure pre-theatre hours will be manic, but in between there’s great chat to be had with the genial team manning the shakers and super-chilling your glass with liquid nitrogen. Forget the Concert Hall – you can get drinks and a show right here at the bar. 

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Sydney

Bentley Restaurant and Bar

You might not expect a seriously schmick wine bar and restaurant housed in the original Fairfax building in the heart of the CBD to be all about inclusivity, but the Bentley Restaurant and Bar by sommelier Nick Hildebrandt and chef Brent Savage wants everyone to have a good time. If you’re not here for the full sit-down dining experience that’s A-OK. Grab a table down on the bar level, vanish some exceptional wines by the glass and let the view into the buzzy, open kitchen tempt you to order up some bar snacks.

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Sydney

Bulletin Place

There are two things, straight off the bat, that make this pocket-sized CBD bar the standard setter it is. That’s the drinks and the service. No matter who is shaking up their short, sharp and perfectly executed menu, scrawled on brown paper with a sharpie at the beginning of each service, you're in for a win.

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Circular Quay
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Easy Eight

Easy Eight is bringing ace eats to Sydney’s most compact bar crawl (they're in the same loading dock as the Baxter Inn and the Barber Shop). It's kitted out like an old soul diner, and food is a big part of their appeal. They've aimed high with a menu that includes a 12-hour smoked brisket, roast chicken, grilled king prawns and a whole smoked pumpkin with goat’s cheese – there’s a whole lot more than a sandwich press in this bar kitchen.

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Sydney

Frankie's Pizza by the Slice

The newest member of the Swillhouse family, Frankie’s Pizza is a cross between a sleazy ’70s pizza parlour and the late, legendary New York music dive, CBGB. Sure, the plastic glasses are a shame, but a stack of tinnies in the fridges makes up for it.

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Sydney

Grandma's Bar

Grandma's is to be found underneath a guitar shop, in a psace that might have once been a store room, or a bunker. Pass an enormous deer head mounted on the wall, take the AstroTurfed stairs down to the basement, and hit the bar for rum cocktails in nan-chic surrounds.

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Sydney
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Lobo Plantation

A drink in this subterranean rum bar is as good as a holiday. All that’s ever needed to reset a shitty day, or keep a good one rolling is rum cocktails, some jangly tunes and good chat, and you can get it all at Lobo Plantation.

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Sydney

Mojo Record Bar

Music, if you haven’t guessed it, is the name of the game here. They have a 700-record-strong back catalogue of juicy tunes and fine sounds to do your drinking to.

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Sydney

Palmer and Co

Palmer and Co, the speakeasy-style bar hidden behind Establishment, sports a 3am license. So while it’s totally respectable to head earlier in the evening this bar really hits its straps late.

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Sydney

Papa Gede's

Take a stumble down Kent Street and you'll find simple little room lit by candlelight and decorated with skulls, beads and a drinks list that errs on the bitter, brown-spirits and boozy end of the spectrum, and very often combines all the things in one glass.

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Sydney
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PS40

In high-rise cities like Tokyo, many of the best things are not on the ground floor. You have to head up the stairs of commercial towers, tuck around laneways and use your best sleuthing skills to find great hidden bars. And while we’ve already got an excellent collection of underground haunts in Sydney, now we also have PS40, a cocktail bar and soda operation hiding just above eye level in the heart of the CBD. 

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Sydney

Ramblin' Rascal Tavern

A CBD basement bar where the beers are ordered from light (Marilyn) to dark (Bettie) and the cocktails are primarily dark, bitter and boozy. Want a shit tinnie? They have a case of those too for $6 a pop, and snacks areMary's burgers orderd from their new city outlet.

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Sydney

Rockpool Bar & Grill

The bar at Rockpool is like something out of another time altogether, with beautiful Art Deco architecture, plush leather seats, dark corners and a bar filled with housemade tonics, syrups and sodas.

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Sydney
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The Rook

Being hidden down the stairs behind a cupboard-sized room lined in old Singer sewing machines has never deterred the Sydney booze hounds from finding and filling the booths and bar stools at this cocktail cubbyhole. But as more small bars join the CBD ranks, the delicious burden of watering the after-work crowds is getting shared around. Now you can stop by Stitch on a Wednesday night with no queues but that almost-full buzz inside.

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Sydney

Stitch Bar

Being hidden down the stairs behind a cupboard-sized room lined in old Singer sewing machines has never deterred the Sydney booze hounds from finding and filling the booths and bar stools at this cocktail cubbyhole. But as more small bars join the CBD ranks, the delicious burden of watering the after-work crowds is getting shared around. Now you can stop by Stitch on a Wednesday night with no queues but that almost-full buzz inside. We can’t guarantee that the Elegantly Wasted will do exactly what it says on the label, but the mix of tequila, blackcurrent, kaffir lime, lime juice and ginger beer will certainly help you on your way. Don’t like to stray too far from the classics? Order a bourbon Negroni that adds some sweet vanilla and oak flavours to the bitter kick of the original. This is also an excellent spot for whisky lovers. Their collection is over 50 bottles strong and the Islay, Highlands, Speyside, Lowlands and Island drams are all well represented. The nice thing about Stitch is that they seem to genuinely like drinkers, as well as drinks. The service is attentive and they are just as happy to serve you a nip of something neat as they are to dream up a beverage to your mood. They keep the dirty blues soundtrack at chatting-friendly volumes, you can reserve a table and the light is flatteringly muted. This is a good place to be in the CBD.

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Sydney

The Swinging Cat

The worst part about discovering a great new bar? Once the cat is out of the bag, everyone wants in. Luckily the New Orleans-inspired cocktail den that has set up shop on King Street in the city is not exactly easy to find. The Swinging Cat hides underneath a Subway sandwich shop and boasts almost no signage. Of course, such is the CBD’s after-work thirst that the place pumps after knock off regardless – Sydney booze hounds can sniff out good drinks at a thousand paces.

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Sydney
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Zeta Bar

The great thing about a cocktail bar in a famously upmarket hotel is that drinks come with a hint of holiday. Get acquainted with the Lady of Guadalupe, a reworked Margarita that tames a lug of Ilegal mezcal with a sweet and nutty macadamia liqueur, before ramping things back up with lime juice and a gentle jalapeño agave. It’s a less punchy and more intriguing take on the spring break special. 

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Sydney

Feeling adventurous?

The best ferry trips in Sydney

The jewel in Sydney’s crown is its harbour – always has been, always will be. This love affair with the crushed sapphire liquid expanse of the Harbour dates back many, many thousands of years to when the Gadigal people of central Sydney paddled their canoes around the bays, into the coves and across the open seas in search of fish or en route to ceremonial sites or neighbouring settlements. Today, those journeys of discovery are provided by Sydney Ferries when you clamber aboard one of the picture-postcard green-and-yellow ferries that still scoot across the harbour as they have for the past century-and-a-half. 

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By: Time Out editors

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