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The best ways to experience Sydney Harbour

This city's love affair with the big blue runs deep

Many yachts in the water of Sydney Harbour with the city skyline and harbour bridge in the background
Photograph: Creative Commons

There’s a good reason why Sydney is often called the Harbour City: this place is defined by its connection to the water. Which is hardly a surprise, given Sydney has a heck of a lot of H2O and a heck of a lot of ways to enjoy it.

Beyond the headlands, Sydney’s shores are dotted with some of the best beaches in the world, as well as picturesque coastal paths, buzzing seafront neighbourhoods, and between May and November, awesome whale watching. But the more sheltered waters of the Harbour have their own irresistible charms.

Whether you’re in it, on it, or simply admiring it, here are our top recommendations for the best ways to experience Sydney Harbour.

A panoramic view of Camp Cove beach in Watson's Bay
Photograph: David Iliff

At the beach

The classic stereotype of the Sydney beach is one of golden sands, with ocean all the way to the horizon. But within the harbour, there are dozens of beachfronts that can easily hold their own next to their flashy sea-facing cousins. Within its sheltered estuaries, the waves are far calmer, making harbour beaches – such as Parsley Bay, Balmoral, Camp Cove and Store Beach – the ideal place for a swim or snorkel without the risk of rip tides or wipeouts. Many of these harbour shores are also wonderfully secluded, which is why several allow visitors to go nude, should your exhibitionist side need some fun in the sun.

Ferry in the harbour
Photograph: Supplied

On a ferry

A familiar sight crisscrossing the harbour, the fleet of 32 Sydney ferries nimbly navigate the length and breadth of both north and south shores every day. The aquatic workhorses of Sydney’s public transport network will get you efficiently from A to B, but the journey itself is also a joy. Stout and sturdy, these emerald and beige beauties chug along at a relatively leisurely pace, so you can really take in the harbour’s wonders. A trip to Cockatoo Island takes you beneath the Harbour Bridge, so you can get an up-close glimpse of its iron underbelly, whereas catching the boat to Manly offers a whistle-stop tour the harbour’s lush eastern edge. Looking to up the thrill factor? Catch the fast service to Manly and enjoy 18 minutes of bracing speed and salty spray.

Oz Jet Boating 01
Photograph: Supplied

On a boat

The ferries are by no means alone on the water; Sydney Harbour is the stage for an intricate ballet of boating traffic. Taking your own private yacht out for a spin is beyond the reach of most of us, but fortunately, there are plenty of other nautical adventures that are more readily available. Self-charter services put you in the captain's chair, and clearly marked Destination berths and marinas allow you to drop anchor and take advantage of amenities like Wi-Fi, public bathrooms and wash down facilities. Simply look for the green and blue flags. If you’re a landlubber who needs a more experienced mariner behind the wheel, services like Flotespace, jet boats, dining cruises, whale watching excursions, and water taxis can help you take to the waves.

Opera House at Opera Bar
Photograph: Anna Kucera

At a waterfront bar

As the stunning Sydney sunset sparkles on the harbour, is there anything more satisfying than looking out on that expanse of blue, a perfectly mixed cocktail or ice-cold beer in hand? If there is, we sure haven’t found it. In fact, no matter what vibe you’re chasing – be it relaxed and pubby or up-market swank – you’ll find something harbourside to suit your taste. The Bavarian in Manly is perfect for a chilled-out pint, or you can dive into the hustle and bustle of the Opera Bar, ideal for people-watching against the world’s most true blue backdrop. For sheer sophistication, head immediately to Bennelong, the Watsons Bay Boutique Hotel or the city's most storied restaurant, Quay. However, if it’s views you’re after, the glass walls and sweeping aspects of Henry Deane's Millers Point perch can’t be beat.

Andrew Boy Charlton Pool

At an outdoor pool

Sydneysiders are blessed with a truly world-class collection of outdoor pools, several of which happen to be right on the water’s edge. The Andrew Boy Charlton (that’s ABC to those in the know) hugs Woolloomooloo Bay and is as much a hub for socialising as it is for swimming. When it comes to the question of which pool has the best view, it’s a close-run contest between McCallum and North Sydney Olympic. With the sprawling vista of the CBD on the horizon, McCallum has a picture-postcard perspective. North Sydney Olympic, on the other hand, sits in the shadow of the Harbour Bridge, with unrivalled views of the Opera House and Luna Park. Which is best? You decide.

Generic man in kayak on Sydney Harbour
Photograph: Creative Commons

By kayak or paddle board

Gnarly dudes and bitchin’ bettys have been carving up A-frames on Sydney’s shores since surfing was first introduced Down Under in 1915. Inside the headlands, however, the waters are a little less tubular and a little more zen. Hire a paddleboard from the Balmoral Boathouse, and you'll experience the serenity of being out in nature, unplugged from the hustle of daily life. You can up the physicality a notch by exploring the harbour by kayak. There are many kayaking clubs and hires on offer, but our favourite has to be Sydney by Kayak, which begins its tours at dawn so you can be out on the flat-calm as the sun rises on the Pacific.

A pilot flys over Sydney Harbour
Photograph: Emma Joyce

By air

Anyone who’s flown into Sydney’s Kingsford Smith Airport will be familiar with the spectacular sights of the city you get as your plane begins its descent. If you want to hold onto the view a little longer, you can also see the harbour from on high with an aerial tour. Hop into a chopper, like those operated by Sydney HeliTours, and you’ll get a bird's-eye view of Darling Harbour, Kirribilli House, Woolloomooloo, and of course, the Harbour Bridge and Opera House. Alternatively, take one of the 15 daily flights chartered by Sydney Seaplanes, where you’ll take off from the waters of Rose Bay before soaring over the Northern Beaches, swooping down on the fortress island of Fort Denison and across the Botanic Gardens.

Bradleys Head walk
Photograph: David Finnegan

At a park or reserve

The harbour is fringed by an array for green spaces, from finely manicured parks to more rugged bushland. If you’re in the mood for a gentle stroll with one foot in civilisation, there’s the ever-popular Royal Botanic Gardens and Domain, as well as Barangaroo Reserve, Wentworth Park by Blackwattle Bay, and the parks by Rushcutters Bay and Rose Bay. If you want to make a day of your walk, the harbour also boasts a number of more involved hiking trails. A ferry ride to the Taronga Zoo wharf brings you to the Bradleys Head Walking Track, which you can follow around the peninsula towards Taylors Bay and the Sydney Harbour National Park. You can beach-hop around Dobroyd Head on the Spit to Manly coastal walk or have a slightly gentler trek on the Hermitage Foreshore walk. However, if you’re in search of the ultimate harbour expedition, look no further than the 80km Bondi to Manly hike: an epic trail connecting eight different walks, tracing north and south shores.

A group reach the peak of Sydney Harbour BridgeClimb

From a major Sydney landmark

The bridge and opera house might be old hat for most Sydneysiders, but from the peak of the BridgeClimb, these icons seem brand new. Atop of those iron arches, it’s possible to see the harbour in almost its entirety, from horizon to horizon, with the city at your feet. Back at sea level, the harbour islands offer a more intimate, historically rich encounter with the water. Fort Denison (currently closed for conservation work) and Cockatoo Island, in particular, are places of great significance in Sydney’s evolution from convict outpost to thriving world city. Taking the plunge into the harbour’s diverse fauna, a trip to the Sea Life Sydney Aquarium is a chance to see local marine wildlife up close. But above the waves, Taronga Zoo’s exotic residents are only part of the reason it is one of Sydney's busiest attractions. Set on steep slopes facing the CBD, its views of the Harbour City, in all its glory, are phenomenal.

After gazing at shores, look to the sky

Milk Beach at Vaucluse
Photograph: Jayphen / Flickr
Attractions, Parks and gardens

Where to see Sydney’s city skyline

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. We’d recommend heading to one of these parks, walks, beaches and lookouts to gaze on the Emerald City.