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I’m often asked by ex-pat friends and Social 101 readers alike, ‘What are Sydney’s must-see activities when hosting first-time guests?’ Having been here for nine years now (to the day – hooray for me) I’d like to think I have the whole ‘entertaining guests’ down pat. So, as a gift from me to you, here’s the breakdown of my ‘must-see in Sydney’ activities to see and do (in no particular order):
OPERA HOUSE & BOTANICAL GARDENS
What would a Sydney ‘must-see’ list be without Sydney Opera House being slap bang at the top? In iconic building that requires absolutely no introduction! I feel it’s important to emphasise that it’s not just a building, yeah sure it’s great to have your picture taken at the front (are you even in Sydney if you don’t do that?!), however it is also key to your experience to watch a show/ opera in one of the famous concert halls and to eat at one of the eateries located within the Opera House precinct. Opera Bar and Bennelong would be my top choices.
We would recommend checking out the programme of events and shows prior to your guests arriving and determining which would be most appropriate/ enjoyable. To put it into context, I’ve been recently to watch The Merry Widow opera with my mother-in-law, which was outstanding, but I’ve also been to watch Massive Attack & Florence and the Machine perform on the forecourt of the Opera House at sunset, both mesmerising and bucket list fodder!
BONDI TO COOGEE WALK
This was the first thing that I did then I arrived in Sydney back in January 2009 (seems like a lifetime ago), not only was it breathtakingly stunning, it made me realise that this was the place I wanted to call home. I recommend starting in Bondi with breakfast by the beach at a cafe, such as Trio or Icebergs, to ensure you have enough energy for the 8KM walk. Then head from Bondi to Coogee via Tamarama, Bronte, Gordon’s Bay and Clovelly.
The views are out of this world, the walk is relatively easy if you take your time and be mindful that there are a few steps if you’re parents aren’t as able as they once were. Once you get to Coogee, head to the Coogee Pavilion for a refreshment and wood fire pizza – The view from the terrace is stunning and it’s a great way to toast all your efforts.
MANLY FERRY / MANLY
To get the ferry over to Manly from Circular Quay provides a glimpse into the lifestyle that the locals live here in Sydney. For my family, getting a ferry was such a novelty as it allows guests to see Sydney from a completely new perspective. I recommend getting the traditional Sydney ferry for the first trip, however after that it’s worth spending $1/ $3 more on the Manly Fast Ferry, which gets you there in only 19 minutes.
If you’re feeling a little more adventurous, you can get the bus to Spit Bridge and do the Manly to Spit walk. A stunning hike that and passes some hidden little beaches and coves, that you might not have seen before. It’s worth noting that hit is pretty hard going, so is one for more seasoned walkers, but is so worth it!
There are so many things to do whilst you’re in Manly, which is a whole other post to itself, however for ease (and ‘cos I’m dead nice like that) here’s a few that would be top of my radar: The Boat House, Shelley Beach, Garfish and Manly Wharf Bar.
WATSON’S BAY HOTEL
If you plan ahead, you can even time this well with your Manly trip, the Manly fast ferry and eco-hopper ferries go frequently from Circular Quay and Manly to Watson’s Bay. As you hop off the ferry (or bus, 380 from Circular Quay & Bondi Junction), you’re greeted by the Watson’s Bay Hotel, a haunt for locals and visitors alike.
The ultimate pub and dining venue, has great cocktails and food, supplemented by a fabulous view of Sydney’s skyline.
There are also a number of beaches nearby, within walking distance (including a nudist beach, if that tickles your fancy), along with a beautiful walk around the headland that looks right out in the heads and the open ocean.
Whether you’re a fan of Home & Away, or have never watched an episode, this doesn’t negate from the fact that Palm Beach (aka Summer Bay and where Home and Away is filmed), which is located on Sydney’s Northern Beaches and about 1 hour drive from Sydney’s CBD, is visually stunning.
If you’re not keen to make the journey and back in one day, have a look at local Stayz and AirBnB deals to spend a night or two away from the buzz of the city, they can be pretty reasonable and you can relax and take it all in without having to rush back to the mayhem.
I get that Bondi Beach is infamous and that EVERYONE wants to go there when they arrive in Sydney (hell I lived next to Bondi Beach for two years!), but I have to go out on a limb here and let you know that there are other beautiful beaches located on the Northern Beaches that are much less crowded and just a bus journey (L90 from Wynyard) away.
Also – If you’re peckish whilst you’re in Palm Beach, be sure to check out The Boat House, which boasts amazing food and views! Also, Newport Arms on the way back to Sydney is great for a Pitt stop and fab atmosphere!
Any visit to Sydney isn’t complete without a heading to Taronga Zoo complete with must-see Bird Show, Seal Show and even a baby elephant (aww).
The giraffes also have the best seat in the house with this stunning view:
There is also the brand new Tiger Trek, which allows you to get up close and personal with an actual tiger (fear not, there’s gas between you!). Best of all, the zoo is 100% focused on conservation, so you can learn all about how you can do your bit whilst enjoying all that the zoo has to offer.
A great day out for all the family, it’s located in the heart of Sydney Harbour and is a short ferry ride from both Manly and Circular Quay (depending on where you’re staying). Be sure to check out the program of events before you book, ‘Twilight at Taronga’ and ‘Roar and Snore’ are both fantastic events to check out, if the timing is right!
OPEN AIR CINEMA
A true stalwart of Sydney’s summer calendar, the pop-up open air cinemas are an absolutely must-see when visiting Sydney during the peak summer months. Outdoor ambience, coupled with great views ensure the you can’t go wrong. It seems like there are new outdoor cinemas popping up each year, but we’re here to tell you which two we think are the best!
In the Eastern Suburbs, the Moonlight Cinema at Centennial Park gets our vote. Picnic setting with ‘Gold Grass’ for those wanting their creature comforts, as the sun sets over the park and the bats come out to dance in the moonlight) the movies begin. With bean bags provided (for an additional cost), comfort is king as you sit back, relax and watch the latest blockbusters with Sydney’s skyline as a backdrop.
In the CBD, there is no other cinema like it in the entire world, IMO, the St George Open Air Cinema provides unparalleled views of the Opera House and Sydney’s Harbour Bridge, all whilst enjoying the latest cinema releases in the open air. The unique setting also has a few surprises as the screen rises from the harbour at sunset. A true must-see in every sense of the word. Be sure to get tickets fast however, as they sell-out super quickly.
DARLING HARBOUR – SEA LIFE SYDNEY AQUARIUM, MADAM TUSSAUDS & WILD LIFE SYDNEY ZOO
It wouldn’t be a trip to Sydney without visiting Darling Harbour, an absolute magnet for tourists, it’s haven of eateries, activities and views. Located in the heart of Sydney’s CBD and in close proximity to Circular Quay and central hotels, it’s no surprise that it’s top of many visitor’s must-see lists.
Aside from the views, the water and the watering holes and restaurants, Darling Harbour is also home to Merlin Entertainment’s family activities: Sea Life Sydney Aquarium, Madam Tussauds and Wild Life Sydney Zoo. All located next to King Street Wharf, you can regularly secure deals to visit all three for a reduced price. All are definitely geared more towards families, so do try and visit on a week day, when they aren’t so busy!
A day trip to Hunter Valley absolutely should be on the cards for any discerning wine (and/ or beer drinker). We have a seperate post about the ‘must-see’ whilst at The Hunter Valley, but here’s a snap shot for those short on time:
Stay – Spicer’s Retreat – Stunning hotel with outdoor pools Botanical restaurant with the most incredible food!
Play – Hunter Valley Gardens and Harrigan’s Irish Pub
Eat / Drink – Matilda Bay Brewery, Ironbark Hill Distillery and Roche Estate Complex
Also, be sure to check out upcoming concerts at Hunter Valley, as recently there’s been headliners including Elton John and Lionel Richie.
This is an absolute must-see and should be near the top of your list (behind the Opera House and Harbour Bridge) as you can get it! You can get to the Blue Mountains by train or by car (the train is super easy and only costs $2.50 if you go on a Sunday, #truestory!).
Once there, you are able to buy a pass that grants you access to the cable cars, national park and the steps (and I mean STEEPEST) train in the world! Stunning views, fun family activities, and a different side to Sydney, it’s more than worth the hour and a half journey.
We recommend stopping by local town Leura whilst there for a spot of lunch before heading into the National Park, our favourite is the Leura Gourmet cafe & Deli, which not only has delicious, reasonably prices food, but also stunning views. (159 Leura Mall 2780 Leura, New South Wales).
Finally, if you’re looking to spoil those extra special gusts, you can’t go far wrong with Cafe Sydney! Located on the roof of Custom’s House, the stunning restaurant has views of Sydney Harbour and Opera House. The food is exquisite, whilst also being reasonability priced. As a last hurrah, or a first night diamond to dazzle guests, we recon this should be firmly on the list of must-see Sydney treats.
Other gems that should be considered:
- Randwick races – Great day out get dressed up and have a flutter
- Luna Park – Not just for kids, def worth a visit to have a different perspective of the harbour
- The Star Casino – Open all night with restaurants, bars and designer retail to delight for hours on end, also home to Lyric Theatre, but sure to check out upcoming shows and times
- Balmain – Great pubs, markets, views and atmosphere
- Paddington Pub Craw – As above, a little taste of London
- The Rocks -Amazing markets in a Sunday and of course the Glenmore rooftop, the view that keeps on giving, rain, hail or shine!
As always with Social 101, if you feel that we’ve missed anything, or you have any suggestions/ nuggets that I’ve missed, please let me know in the comments section below, or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Hope this has been helpful! If you do go an frequent any of the spots during your visit, don’t forget to upload a picture and tag #SOCIAL101
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