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Travel tips every first time Sydney visitor needs to know

From using public transport to avoiding death by sunburn, here are the travel tips every visitor to Sydney should know

By Time Out editors |
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View from Sydney Observatory
Photograph: Supplied

G'day mate! Welcome to Sydney, where you come for the beaches, but stay for the restaurants, the culture and the good vibes (but also, the beaches). We promise we're friendly here, but between the one-way streets, our four different forms of public transport and the fact that our urban design is more ‘bowl of spaghetti’ than ‘grid’, we know it can all be a little bit confusing. Here’s how to survive and thrive in the city, whether you’re here for a few days, or the rest of your life.

Looking to take a break from city life? Head to these glorious campsites near Sydney, or stretch into the weekend on these short getaways

RECOMMENDED: Places to volunteer in Sydney.

Things to know the day you land

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An Opal card reader

Everyone needs an Opal

No, not the gemstone (although you can find plenty of stores hawking shinies when shopping in Newtown) – our public transport system’s integrated payment method is called an Opal card, and you can use it on ferries, trains, buses and the Light Rail. Remember to tap on and off everywhere, otherwise you’ll be charged the highest possible amount for your trip. Opal cards have maximum daily and weekly charges, and you can load them with funds at train stations, convenience stores, and, if you're registered, online. But if you've got a packed wallet, you can actaully scrap the Opal for all but buses, and use your bank card instead (you won't get any discounts, though).

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Barangaroo Reserve, Barangaroo
Photograph: Anna Kucera/Destination NSW

But much of the city is easily walkable

Sydney is one of Australia's biggest cities, but by most international standards it is a fairly compact place. Much of the city centre (the Central Business District, otherwise known as the CBD) and the trendy surrounding suburbs are easily explored by foot, and in fact, one of the best ways to familiarise yourself with the lay of the land is by taking a wander through Sydney's streets and parks. You can even cross the famous Sydney Harbour Bridge by foot, and be sure to check out Luna Park by Milsons Point if you do. If you're a seasoned walker in search of a more challenging trek, there are also many wonderful inner-city bushwalks and coastal paths to discover on Sydney's fringes.

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Young boy looking over Sydney harbour
Photo: Murray Fredericks
Things to do, Walks and tours

Ferries really are a thing here

There are people who catch a ferry across Sydney Harbour to work every day. It’s a legitimate form of public transport, and can be the fastest way to get from one part of Sydney to another. But it’s also ridiculously scenic like a postcard. We've found some of the most stellar ferry trips: you'll be sailng on the old chuggers to Manly, down the river to Parramatta and out to Watsons Bay.

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Sydney buses free wifi
Photograph: Creative Commons/Bidgee

Leave plenty of time to get places

Public transport in Sydney has a chequered past; from our inexplicably scrapped tram network to the one-way monorail that once encircled the CBD, some pretty questionable choices have marked this city's transit history. Trains and buses are prone to delays and whole services can be suspended in bad weather. Ferries are gorgeous and run to a tighter schedule, but aren’t that frequent either. Basically, Sydney does not have a fast, reliable, easy to use mass transit system, at least not yet. An extensive light rail extension is making certain parts of the city more navigable, and upgrades to Sydney Central Train Station are aiming to streamline the customer experience and keep services slick. There's no denying, by international standards, this city is a beautiful basket case. So, you might as well embrace it: plan ahead and enjoy the (long) journey.

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North Bondi Sunrise
Photograph: Matthew Fuentes
Things to do, Walks and tours

We’re a city of early risers

Most cafés in Sydney are cracking open the first bag of beans by 7am, and the most scenic running routes and Sydney walks are best enjoyed before the day heats up and the masses descend. If you want to join us at dawn, click 'read more' to check out the prettiest spots to watch the sunrise in Sydney. Need a little 'you' time? Bliss out at our favourite spas, or have fun flying solo with these great things to do when you're alone in Sydney.

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Corn dish at Saga Enmore
Photograph: Yael Stempler
Restaurants, Cafés

But you can also get breakfast all day

Ever tried a flat white? How about avocado on toast? We invented those (kind of). Here, breakfast really is the most important meal of the day, so it doesn’t matter what time of day you order it. Want eggs benny at 2.30pm? Most cafés will be happy to oblige. Even the ones that switch over to a lunch menu at midday still sneak a few breakfast-style items in for good measure. For bonus local-points, announce you’re “having a cheeky brekky” while you tuck in.

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2016 Nature (singles) winner 'Storm Front on Bondi Beach' by Rohan Kelly
Photograph: Rohan Kelly

The sun doesn't always shine here

Sydney has an international reputation as a go-to destination for sun-seekers, and we certainly do catch quite a few rays here in the Land Down Under. But be warned, Sydney can dish out its fair share of wild weather too. Courtesy of a sub-tropical climate, torrential rain and summer storms are not uncommon here, and can roll in from the Tasman Sea, dropping a deluge on the city, without much notice. So, even if the sun is shining and the skies are clear in the morning, you'd be wise to check the forecast before heading out for the day. And if rain is on the horizon, we suggest a rain-poncho over an umbrella: even the sturdiest brollies don't last long during Sydney's epic downpours. 

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Generic closed sign
Photograph: Creative Commons

Everything shuts early

It’s not uncommon for restaurants to close their kitchens at 9.30pm. If you’ve left it too late to grab dinner, the chances are you may need to travel for it – because you’re not going to find somewhere open just by walking around. Here’s a list of the best late night dining options in Sydney.

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Gone to the beach sign
Photograph: Creative Commons

Yes, even the shops

In the CBD shops are open till 7pm at the latest, and everywhere else they close at around 5pm. Late night shopping, where things stay open till 9pm or so, is on a Thursday. If you’re planning to hit the boutiques in Bondi or Barangaroo, make sure you give yourself enough time. Individual hours vary from store to store, so check ahead to avoid closed doors.

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Late Night on Oxford St
Photograph: Daniel Boud

And the bars too (although hopefully not for much longer)

In the centre of Sydney, we have a little thing called ‘lockout laws’. They make a lot of people very angry. Basically, they mean that every bar in the ‘lockout’ zone has to close its doors by 1.30am, and the party stops at 3am, no matter how full the venue is. But it's not all doom and gloom. Recently, the NSW Premier announced her intention to roll back the lockout laws in the CBD – news very much welcomed by Sydney's hospitality industry. And in the meantime, you can keep the good times rolling in the Eastern Suburbs or the Inner West, and we've found plenty of top late night venues without a lockout.

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North Bondi Surf Club Bathroom
Photograph: Cassandra Hannagan
Attractions

There are some stellar public toots

We always want to scope out the toilet situation when visiting a new city. In Sydney, art galleries, beaches, shopping centres and theatres are all sure public dunny bets. You want your public bathrooms to be clean, well-stocked, accessible and aesthetically pleasing, when possible. It’s a big ask to meet all these toilet targets, but we reckon we’ve found some rather inspiring public bathrooms for when you’re out on the town and busting. 

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Sydney taxi in Bondi
Photograph: Creative Commons

Don’t try and get a taxi at changeover time

Taxis in Sydney do a shift change over around 3pm and again at 3am, and trying to get a cab during the hour of changeover time can be a challenge. Lucky there’s Uber and GoCatch (basically Australian Uber with no surge pricing). They’re both cheaper than using a taxi, and both allow you to hail cabs, if you’d prefer taking a taxi to hopping in a random car.

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Sculpture at Barangaroo 2017 installation view photographer credit Jamie Williams

You’re visiting the Eora Nation

Australia is home to the world’s oldest living culture. First Nations Australians were here more than 60,000 years before European settlers ever arrived. Despite a dark colonial history, and issues of poverty and disenfranchisement that exist to this day, Aboriginal culture is still thriving in Sydney. Teach yourself about it by taking an Indigenous-led walking tour or checking out some Aboriginal art.

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Weaving at Homeground Festival 2016
Photograph: Daniel Boud

Be respectful about what you take home

Be aware that not all Aboriginal art is authentic, or ethically sourced. There’s an Indigenous Art Code that provides a legal framework for commercial dealings and sets ethical standards. If you’re buying from a gallery, pick one that’s a signatory to the Code. Besides this, you should always ask for details of the work’s provenance (who made it, where, and when) and proof of authenticity (did the artist named actually make this work?). Check out the Blak Markets – they have an online store and hold regular market days selling Aboriginal-owned and made souvenirs.

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Steaks sizzle on a large barbecue

Eat outdoors at a community barbecue

Tend to a sizzling mountain of meat and seafood over a scorching hot plate in the great outdoors while the flies swarm and the kids run wild. It’s Australia’s favourite pastime; the barbecue. Even if you don’t have the pleasure of visiting a backyard event while in Sydney, you’ll be able to participate in this cultural phenomenon at free barbeque spots throughout the city.

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Manly Beach

It’s not all about downtown

While there are plenty of great restaurants and coffee shops in downtown Sydney, staying right in the centre of the city doesn’t suit everyone. If you want to visit the beach every day, for instance, you’re better off staying in a beachside suburb like Bondi or Manly. If you’re here for the nightlife, then staying in Chippendale or Newtown will give you walking-distance access to lots of late night bars, pubs and places to see live music. If you’re here for the food and shopping, then Surry Hills, Darlinghurst and Paddington will probably float your boat.

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No Smoking sign
Photograph: Creative Commons

Be aware of smoke-free zones

Many Australian cities are pushing towards being a smoke-free. For a basic Sydney no-go list, remember that smoking isn't permitted anywhere food is served, on public transport or at bus and train stations, close to playgrounds or public recreation areas, at sporting grounds and close to any building entrance. And popular shopping spot Pitt Street mall is now completely smoke-free. Basically, assume no and check with the proper authorities.

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Two people make use of the new high-speed Wifi at the Botanic Gardens
Photograph: Supplied

And the free Wi-Fi situation

Staying connected is a top priority for most travellers and luckily, Sydney has got you covered. More of the CBD and surrounding neighbourhoods are becoming Wi-Fi hotspots. Even some green spaces like the Sydney Botanic Gardens are taking up the trend. Tired out from all your adventures? Spend a day bonding with the staff over how long you’ve nursed your latte at these Wi-Fi positive cafes.

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Sydney Opera House with Indigenous light projection on the sails
Photograph: Daniel Boud
News, City Life

Visit the Opera House at sunset

Every night, the Sydney Opera House is illuminated with a projection called Badu Gili, which shows the work of First Nations artists from across Australia and the Torres Strait Islands, with new artists regularly appearing on the impressive sails. You can check what time the projection will light up throughout the year at the Sydney Opera House website

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Sydney Opera House
Theatre

And go inside it

icon-location-pin Sydney

Don’t just snap a selfie in front of the Sydney Opera House – the best experience of the venue is on the inside. The Opera House is the heart of theatre, classical music and major rock shows in Sydney, and with over 2,000 events a year, there’s probably going to be something on to your taste while you’re in town. And if not, you can always take a behind the scenes tour. If you’re more interested in fine food than fine art, dine inside the House at fancy fantastic restaurant Bennelong.

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MCA Artbar 2016 Fri October 28 Megan Cope edition image feat installation view Tatsuo Miyajima Connect With Everything November 3 2016 (c) MCA photographer credit Leslie Liu
Photograph: Leslie Liu
Art, Galleries

You can still see art at night

Major art institutions in Sydney stay open later (around 9pm) on Wednesday evenings, and some have free public programming to go along with their extended hours. If you plan on checking out art at night, hump day is your best bet.

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A couple sitting on the rooftop at Coogee Pavillion having a bee
Photograph: Anna Kucera

It’s easy to get public transport to the beach

But only if that beach is Coogee or Bondi (catch a bus from the city), Cronulla (take a train) or Manly (catch a ferry). Sydney’s Northern Beaches like Avalon, Palm Beach and Whale Beach are a punish to get to via public transport – but if you’re prepared to ride the L90 for an hour and a half to see the set of Home and Away, it can be done. As for the other eastern and southern beaches, there are buses, but they tend to be infrequent.

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Putting on sunscreen at beach
Photograph: Creative Commons

Be sun safe

Even in winter that infamous Aussie sun may shine through and leave you red in the face with embarrassment and a not-so-healthy tan for forgetting your sunscreen. To save your skin, your go-to is SPF 30+. And don’t forget to keep your fluids up. If you starting looking, you’ll quickly realise Sydney is pretty big on bubblers (aka water fountains) offering free filtered water. So help the planet and your wallet by carrying a reusable water bottle and stay hydrated as you hit the pavement.

Must download apps

Two walkers on the Barrenjoey Lighthouse Track
Photograph: Wild About Whales

Wild Walks

If walking in nature is more of your thing, the Wild Walks app features over 1,000 walking trails around New South Wales, and the majority are concentrated around the Sydney region. You can select walks by difficulty, time and location.

Luminous yellow trees
Photograph: Paul Patterson

Sydney Culture Walks

Want to take a self-guided tour of public art or historic sights? The City of Sydney has created a ‘Culture Walks’ app with 400 ‘points of interest’ and ten self-guided walks, curated by the city council.

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Whale breaching the water
Photograph: Supplied

Wild About Whales

If you’re visiting in winter and want to meet some whales, there’s an app for that. Users can upload sightings, and Google Maps will find your location and you can select vantage points or tours.

Mapworld

Some kind of map app

You’re probably not going to be able to find your way around without a map. Sorry. Sydney streets are confusing, and our wayfinding isn’t great. Every smartphone map app will accidentally take you to the back of buildings, or send you the wrong way down a one way street sometimes, but in our experience, Citymapper is the best if you’re on foot or going via public transport, while Google Maps and Waze are the best for in-car navigation.

Pick up perfect prezzies

Plant Bag by Yevu
Photograph: Supplied
Shopping, Gifts

Ethical souvenirs to take home from Sydney

When you’re having the best holiday ever it’s nice to take home a reminder of your time in the sun, but if you’re only here for a short time it can be hard to find souvenirs that have been made ethically.

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