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Aerial of Sydney Opera House
Photograph: Hamilton Lund; Destination NSW

A local's guide to Sydney's CBD

Where to find the best restaurants, cafes, bars, shops, events and things to do in the heart of the city.

By Maxim Boon
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Very few views are as instantly recognisable. Soaring over the waters of the city’s big blue heart, the mighty arches of the Harbour Bridge look down on the to-and-fro of ferry traffic from Circular Quay, while the unmistakable sails of the Opera House sit proudly at the tip of Bennelong Point. These gleaming icons of Australiana are as familiar to people the world over as they are to born-and-bred Sydneysiders, so it’s little wonder that an estimated 17 million international and interstate visitors a year once flocked to the Central Business District's most storied corner to get up close and personal with these architectural megastars.

And yet for all its epic landmarks and postcard-ready views, the CBD’s status as a tourist trap has, in the past, put off locals from embracing the city as a go-to for a great day out or a night on the tiles.

Now, thanks to improved public transport links, a boom in top-flight hospitality and retail venues, and the repeal of the senseless lockout laws, those old biases have shifted. With its palaces of culture and art, its bustling bar and restaurant scene, its glorious parks and waterfronts and its sprawling malls and department stores, locals now recognise Central Sydney as a one-stop-shop for the very best this city has to offer.

What’s the CBD known for?

It goes without saying that the aforementioned harbourfront landmarks are the city's most famous destinations, but this area has an ancient and complex history that far pre-dates these wonders of the industrial age. For tens of thousands of years, the area near Sydney Cove, known as Warrane, has been the home of the Gadigal people of Eora nation. With the arrival of European settlers with the First Fleet in 1788, this is also the place where modern Australia was birthed. Today, the CBD is Sydney’s principal business, commerce and retail hub, with thousands of white-collar workers and eager shoppers making the trip here every day. It's also the culture capital of the city, boasting the vast majority of Sydney’s top museums, galleries, theatres and concert venues.

How do I get to the CBD

It’s no exaggeration to say all roads lead here. If you’re coming via PT, you can catch the L2 and L3 light rail routes, trains (either passing through to North Sydney or Bondi Junction, or on the City Circle line), or numerous suburban bus services. If you’re coming from the North Shore, the ferry is your best bet, and if you’re based in Parramatta, you can even catch the river ferry, which will drop you off at either Barangaroo or Circular Quay in under an hour.

What’s nearby?

The CBD is surrounded by some of Sydney’s buzziest suburbs including Kings Cross, Surry Hills, Darlinghurst and Paddington, while the revitalised Darling Harbour and Barangaroo precincts, with their many eateries, shops and public spaces, sit conveniently on the city’s fringes. A pleasant stroll through the Royal Botanic Gardens will lead you out to the bougie and beautiful harbourside neighbourhoods of Potts Point and Rushcutters Bay. But in terms of sheer convenience, the easy access to both ferry services from Circular Quay and rail routes from Sydney Central connects the CBD to virtually every corner of the city and beyond.

Map of the Sydney CBD

If you only do one thing

Sure, you’ve seen the Opera House. You’ve probably whiled away an arvo or two at the Opera Bar, admired its one-of-a-kind design while passing on a ferry, and maybe even snapped the odd selfie on the forecourt. But have you actually been inside this most famous of Australian buildings? If the answer to this is a sheepish ‘No’, it’s high time you booked a ticket to one of the hundreds of performances that take place in the Opera House’s five performance spaces each year, or went on one of its excellent backstage tours. Experience Sydney’s most iconic landmark as it was intended: as a world-class arts venue.

The best things to do in the CBD

An interior shot at Bennelong showing the centre bar surrounded
An interior shot at Bennelong showing the centre bar surrounded
Photograph: Daniel Boud

Eat

Picking the right place to eat in the CBD very much depends on what you’re hungry for – and how big your wallet is. 

There are plenty of affordable feasts offering incredible bang for your buck, be you in the mood for rich, delicious pasta from Fabbrica (161 King St); crispy, delicately spiced pitas from Jimmy’s Falafel; thick, slurp-worthy noodles from Xi’an Biang Biang (39/1 Dixon St); or a juicy burger from the lads at Mary’s CQ (7 Macquarie Pl). (Check out our pick of Sydney’s best cheap eats for more inspo.)

If you’re happy to fork out a little more, the mid-range budget options are just too numerous to comprehensively list. But you’d do well to consider The Continental Deli (167 Phillip St), where a gilda and signature Martini is a must before your meal; Mr Wong (3 Bridge Lane), where the Peking duck is near-impossibly succulent; Hubert (15 Bligh St), a bistro so consummately French you could be dining in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower; and the Gidley (161 King St), a decadent ode to a bygone age when steaks the size of toddlers, Waldorf salads and prawn cocktails were all the rage. 

Should you want to really splash some cash, the city’s finest eateries, helmed by roll call of celebrity chefs, will happily help you empty your wallet. Matt Moran’s legendary Aria (1 Macquarie St) is a shrine to world-class cuisine with astonishing views that are almost as delicious, while the world-wide renown Peter Gilmore is a perfect fit for his restaurant Bennelong (Bennelong Point), housed within one of the ivory scallops of Sydney’s most famous building. And of course, there’s Brent Savage and Nick Hildebrand’s Cirrus (10/23 Barangaroo Ave), an elegant seafood restaurant that’s the jewel in the crown of recently revived Barangaroo precinct. (Check out our pick of the best CBD restaurants for more must-book tables.)

But should you find yourself famished in the wee small hours, you can always rely on Golden Century (393-399 Sussex St), the much-loved Cantonese stalwart that’s the undisputed ruler of late-night eats in the CBD. It’s not fancy, it’s not necessarily cheap, and don’t expect a smile from your waiter while he scribbles down your order, but the near-mythic deliciousness of the pippies in XO sauce kicks the butt of any other morsel you could possibly lay your hands on at 3am.

Cocktail with plastic bag garnish at Maybe Sammy
Cocktail with plastic bag garnish at Maybe Sammy
Photograph: Katje Ford

Drink

It’s more than a little ironic that despite the strangle-hold of the lockout laws, the CBD has managed to cultivate arguably the strongest bar game in the city in recent years. Forget the average after-work watering hole; here you’ll find mixologists elevating the craftsmanship of the cocktail to astonishing new heights.

Take for example PS40 (40 King St), the brainchild of Michael Chim and Thor Bergquist. Its cocktail menu is themed, with each drink evoking a narrative, so before your beverage even touches your lips, your mind is already awash with a story. Then there’s Maybe Sammy (115 Harrington St), which was recognised as having the best hospitality in the world by the global 50 Best Bars Awards 2020. Here you'll find a fusion of 1950’s Vegas glamour and a Willy Wonka-esque whimsy that delivers cocktails with a theatrical flourish. Similarly, Double Deuce Lounge (6 Bridge St), with its irreverently retro ‘70s porn aesthetic, and Employees Only (9A Barrack St), with its tarot readings and live performances, use a little bit of theatre to ensure their punters have an unforgettable time.

Bulletin Place (10-14 Bulletin Pl) is perhaps less flashy in its decor, but its daily-changing cocktail menu, which heroes seasonal produce, in-house made distillations and the wild creativity of its bar team, means every visit is a brand new adventure. Cantina OK (Council Pl) is another bar where looks can be deceiving. Housed in a single parking space down an unremarkable laneway, this teeny tiny tequila bar can easily lay claim to having the best damn Margarita in the city. 

If you like your beverage to come with a view, the Sydney Tower’s Bar 83 (Lv 83, 100 Market St) – the highest cocktail bar in the city – boasts a panorama of Sydney that stretches all the way to the Blue Mountains. And there could hardly be a more quintessentially Sydney vista than that found at the Opera Bar (Bennelong Point), where you can crack a cold one in sight of the Harbour Bridge and Opera House.

Check out our list of the best bars in the CBD for even more recommendations.

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People scaling the Harbour Bridge on the BridgeClimb
People scaling the Harbour Bridge on the BridgeClimb
Photograph: Supplied

Things to do

If you consider yourself a card-carrying culture vulture, the CBD has more art, theatre, and museum exhibits than you can shake a very big stick at.

The Art Gallery of New South Wales and the Museum of Contemporary Art are two of the most highly regarded visual art institutions in the country, while the Walsh Bay precinct is home to Sydney Dance Company and Sydney Theatre Company, which both grace the stages of the Roslyn Packer Theatre and Sydney Opera House throughout the year. 

If it’s knowledge you seek, you can put a spring in your synapses at the Australian Museum, the city’s home of natural history, the Museum of Sydney, where you can explore the earliest years of Australia, or one of city's notable historical sites such as the Hyde Park Barracks or Sydney Observatory.

Darling Harbour is home to both the Wild Life Sydney Zoo, which is dedicated to native fauna and the Sea Life Sydney Aquarium, where you can meet all manner of creatures from the deep. 

One of Sydney’s simplest pleasures is taking a meander through the Royal Botanical Gardens, Barangaroo Reserve or Hyde Park, which all offer a tranquil refuge from the frenetic pace of the city. However, if you’re in the mood for an excursion with a little more adrenaline, the BridgeClimb is a must. After you’ve scaled the steel arches of Sydney’s mighty coathanger, your efforts are rewarded with 360-degree views of the city that’ll take your breath away.

Queen Victoria Building Sydney
Queen Victoria Building Sydney
Photograph: Unsplash/Fidel Fernando

Shopping

Luxury brands, flagship stores, arcade boutiques and sprawling shopping precincts can be found in abundance in the CBD.

Built in the 1890s and restored to its former glory in the 1980s, the Queen Victoria Building offers three levels of fine fashions, chic jewellery and fancy gifts, as well as cafes and restaurants, including the opulent QVB Tea Room with its Baccarat crystal chandelier.

Brands like Apple, Mecca, Sephora and Tiffany’s all have their largest Aussie premises in the city, and you’ll also find more than 250 high-street shops along Pitt Street Mall and the Westfield Centre. Myer and David Jones department stores can be found within a block of each other, with the Dymocks Building and the stunning Strand Arcade nearby, where you can purchase bespoke, handcrafted and speciality goods by local artisans.

Yet more luxury and international brands can be found on Castlereagh Street and around Martin Place, but if your budget is a little more modest, head to Market City or neighbouring Paddy’s Markets, where you’ll find a maze of stalls selling afforable souvenirs and budget fashions.

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