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Australia’s most populous city is bold, beautiful, glamorous, glittering. There’s much to love about this urban playground, and although you’ll want much more than a day here, here’s our pick of the best things to cover off in just 24 hours.
Flying into Sydney Kingsford Smith airport is an experience itself. Make sure to drink in the views of the stunning Harbour City and spot Sydney’s structural icons from the plane window – it’ll give you a taste of what’s to come on your trip.
Sydney Airport is Australia’s busiest international airport, serving more than 40 million passengers a year, and is located just eight kilometres south of central Sydney. Interestingly, it is also one of the oldest continually operating airports in the world.
There’s so much to do and see in New South Wales’s capital city, so after you’ve taken your airport transfer and checked into your accommodation, hit the ground running with our ready-made guide of what to cover off with a day in this gorgeous city.
Breakfast is a speciality here. Sydneysiders have perfected the art of smashed avo, and coffee aficionados will rejoice in the Harbour City – you’ll be hard-pressed to find a bad coffee here. The hipster neighbourhood of Surry Hills is known for its cream-of-the-crop breakfast spots, and with its great location near Central Station, it’s an ideal place to kick-start the day. Devon Café and Reuben Hills are top choices, but there are so many breakfast spots, you may find it hard to choose.
After you’ve filled your boots, take the train or walk to the Royal Botanic Garden Sydney – the nearest train station is Martin Place, or it’s about a 40 minute walk from central Surry Hills. This 30-hectare city oasis was established in 1816 and is Australia’s oldest scientific institution. There are free tours with Volunteer Guides daily at 10.30am from the Garden Shop, which are a great way to learn more about these fascinating gardens. Or learn about the rich cultural history of the Cadigal people, the traditional owners of the Sydney city area, and the ways they used the plants in the Garden on an Aboriginal Heritage Experience.
From there head towards Mrs Macquarie’s Point for spectacular views of the Opera House and Harbour Bridge. Sit on Mrs Macquarie’s Chair, a stone seat that was hand carved out by convicts in 1810 for Governor Macquarie's wife, and drink in the views. Once you’ve rested your feet, continue walking around the peninsular towards the Opera House and Circular Quay.
Sydney is as incredible from above as it is to explore on the ground
The sails of Sydney Opera House are undoubtedly a must-see when in Sydney. The iconic performing arts centre was designed by Danish architect Jørn Utzon, who won an international design competition in 1957 to design a ‘national opera house’ for Sydney’s Bennelong Point. The UNESCO World Heritage-listed building took 16 years to build and is one of the 20th-century’s most renowned and iconic buildings. Tours run daily, and the events schedule is jam-packed throughout the year. The Opera House makes up one of the trio of spectacular structures in Circular Quay, alongside the Sydney Harbour Bridge and the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia.
Sydney didn’t get the name ‘Harbour City’ for nothing, and seeing the city from the incredible natural harbour is an absolute must – that’s why more than 14 million people travel across Sydney Harbour by ferry each year. The green and yellow Sydney ferries chugging around the harbour from Circular Quay are a city institution, and since 1855 the Manly Ferry has been the most popular way to reach the northern beachside town of Manly. “7 Miles from Sydney and 1,000 miles from care” was the slogan created in 1940 to advertise the beachtown, and it still rings true today. It really is a thrill to step aboard the Manly Ferry, whether it’s the first of fiftieth time you’ve done it. Spot Taronga Zoo, Chowder Bay, Shark Beach and Watsons Bay on the seven nautical mile trip over to Manly. If you’re travelling during whale-watching season, it’s not uncommon to see these magnificent giants of the sea on the trip over, too. The Manly Ferry departs from Circular Quay every half hour and takes just 30 minutes.
When you arrive at Manly, you’ll immediately feel in holiday-mode. The beachtown is known for its great surf – Manly was the location of the first official World Surfing Championships in 1964 – and its fine sandy shores lined with Norfolk Island pine trees. Walk from the wharf to the beach along the Corso, a pedestrian mall with bustling cafés and restaurants, and surf shops aplenty. If you’re one for underwater adventures, take the scenic walk from Manly to Shelly Beach to snorkel in Cabbage Tree Aquatic Reserve, a 20-hectare marine reserve where more than 160 species of fish have been recorded. Try to spot the famous local resident, Harry the Eastern Blue Groper.
After a few hours of sun, sand and sea, make your way back over to Circular Quay to explore the historic centre of Sydney. The Rocks was the first place of European settlement in Australia in 1788, and as such it provides great insight into the birth of modern Sydney. Wander the cobbled laneways and admire the sandstone houses with crushed cockle shells used in the mortar. Visit picturesque and historic sites, including the 200-year-old Cadman's Cottage, one of the oldest surviving residential buildings in Sydney.
Handy hint: If you’re in Sydney on a Saturday or Sunday, make sure you check out the hundreds of local artisan stalls at the Rocks Market, held under the Sydney Harbour Bridge every weekend. Here you’ll find everything from hand-crafted jewellery, hand-poured candles, and original artworks, to luxurious soaps and quirky souvenirs and gifts with a distinct Aussie flavour.
Look up and you’ll see the magnificent Harbour Bridge. This Australian icon is the world’s largest steel arch bridge, fondly called ‘The Coathanger’ by Aussies because of its shape. The best way to experience the famous bridge is to be on it – walk across it from The Rocks for picture-postcard views of Sydney, and end up in pretty Milson’s Point, where you can cool down with a dip in the famous North Sydney Olympic Pool or wander around the finely restored 1930s amusement park, Luna Park.
The yellow and green Sydney ferries are an iconic way to see the city
Head back over the Harbour Bridge for some early evening drinks to watch dusk settle in. There’s nowhere better for it than Opera Bar, just below Sydney Opera House. With pinch-me views back over the Harbour, Circular Quay and the Harbour Bridge, it’s the ideal way to wind down with a few celebratory tipples after a day of exploring.
Sydney’sChinatown is an explosion of tantalising smells, sounds and flavours. With a whole host of tasty Asian foods on offer – from dumpling and noodle houses, yum cha eating houses, to Chinese, Cantonese, Vietnamese, Thai and Malaysian restaurants, Chinatown will make you feel as if you’ve been transported to Asia. The food is delicious and kind to the wallet too, so it’s a great way to end the day.
If you’re here for a longer period of time, don’t miss out on the incredible places to explore outside of Sydney. Check out our article on 6 Unmissable Sydney Day Trips to find out what to do and see around Australia’s biggest city.
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Sydney didn’t get the name ‘Harbour City’ for nothing, and seeing the city from the incredible natural harbour is an absolute must – that’s why more than 14 million people travel across Sydney Harbour by ferry each year.