Things to Do in Sydney
The foundations of Sydney were built on convict labor, and the Hyde Park Barracks are where criminals who were sentenced to live out the rest of their days in Australia were housed. Opened to hold male convicts working on the government projects and later to house orphan girls escaping the Irish famine, it was after that also used as a female immigration depot, an asylum for impoverished women and a courthouse. All through history, it was the place where people in Australia certainly did not want to end up. Now, as a museum, the barracks tell the stories of those unlucky enough to pass through its doors.
The building itself was also built with convict labor, after it was decided that housing the criminals in one place would improve productivity as well as their moral character. The structure looks nothing short of imposing with its massive shingled roof standing above a simple, durable façade of sandstock brick.
The steps of this iconic building in the heart of Sydney’s central business district serve as a popular meeting place for both travelers and locals, but it is what’s found within its walls that make a visit worthwhile.
Built in the 1880s, this sandstone structure is the political powerhouse of the city, housing the Sydney City Council chamber and the offices of the lord mayor, the deputy lord mayor and the city’s councilors. But what catches the eye of most visitors is the building’s Sydney Town Hall Grand Organ, the world’s largest pipe organ. Two-hour guided tours include a look at Centennial Hall, the Lady Mayoress’s Rooms, the Reception Room and the former site of the Old Sydney Burial Ground, in addition to a stop at the world-famous organ.
While visitors to Sydney do have the option to venture into the outback in search of Australia’s natural wonders, the Australian Museum, located in the heart of Sydney’s central business district, makes getting up close with the wild a whole lot easier.
Wander through air-conditioned hallways filled with more than 40,000 artifacts, including examples of rare native minerals and exotic tropical birds. An all-access pass grants entry to even more galleries filled with ancient archaeological wonders and indigenous Australian artifacts. Popular cultural exhibits also delve deep into the nation’s aboriginal roots and link contemporary time to the far off past. Wildlife fans should be sure to check out the quirky Surviving Australia exhibit, which showcases the country’s weird and wild through six distinct sections that illustrate animal adaptation and survival.
Famous around the world for its beautiful harbor setting, Sydney’s Central Business District (CBD) is the hub of Australia’s finance sector. The district extends from the Circular Quay in the north to the Central railway in the south, while its east-west axis runs from Hyde Park and the Royal Botanic Gardens in the east to Darling Harbor in the west.
The CBD is an area of densely concentrated skyscrapers and hosts some of Australia’s tallest buildings, including the Governor Phillip Tower, the MLC Centre, the World Tower and Sydney Tower. This concrete jungle is interspersed with several parks, including Hyde Park, The Domain, the Royal Botanic Gardens and Wynyard Park. George Street is the CBD’s main north-south thoroughfare, while Pitt Street, which includes the Pitt Street Mall and the Sydney Tower, is the retail heart of the CBD. Nearby, Macquarie Street is a historic precinct that contains the State Parliament House and the Supreme Court of New South Wales.
What is now a popular destination for history buffs once served as a defense facility that kept watch over the bay. Fort Denison Island, located northeast of the Royal Botanic Gardens, was where some of the most gruesome acts against convicted felons took place.
Today, travelers can wander the grounds of this recently restored island and see the gibbet where criminals were hanged. Explore the fort built to protect the island from invaders and climb the historic Martello Tower, the only one of its kind in the country. The island is home to an informative museum, as well as a number of landmarks that illustrate its dark and violent past.
Now named for its shape and the image it brings to mind, Shark Island was once referred to as “Boambilly” by Australia’s aboriginal people. The island was previously the site of an animal quarantine and naval depot, but today travelers flock to its shores for recreation.
Settle in under shady trees and enjoy one of the island’s many well-kept picnic sites, or explore the rocky passes and handmade grottos along Shark Island’s beaches.
Coogee Beach is a family favorite, a sheltered arc of golden sand lapped by blue waves and patrolled by surf lifesavers in their red and gold. For a really safe swim, dip your toe in the walled ocean baths, protected from the strong Pacific waves.
The welcome blue waters of Coogee Beach mark the end of the Bondi to Coogee coastal walk, and the stretches of lawn shaded by Norfolk pines offer an inviting spot to rest under. Bring a picnic, fire up the BBQ or replenish flagging energy at the string of beach cafes and chichi restaurants bordering the beach.
More Things to Do in Sydney
You’d be forgiven for thinking that Sydney’s best sights are lining the beaches or harbor, but in the case of popular Observatory Hill, this elevated perch in the heart of downtown is one of the city’s best spots. For one, visiting the park is totally free—as are the sweeping views of the harbor and Sydney’s Harbor Bridge. Make the 20-minute trek from The Rocks and pack along a picnic, relaxing and sprawling out on the grass with a panoramic view of the harbor. The uphill climb to reach the park tends to thin out the visitor crowds, and thereby makes it a local favorite for watching the sun go down.
If you’re looking for adventure, phone accessories, strange herbs, delicious Chinese cuisine, or just want to visit a foreign country without leaving Sydney, then Chinatown is the place for you.
Located in Haymarket between Central Station and Darling Harbor, Chinatown is centered around Dixon Street, a pedestrian thoroughfare full of Chinese restaurants and shops. If you brave the unfamiliar signs, the labyrinths of stores and the enthusiastic street hawkers, you’re in for a rewarding experience.
The Sydney Chinatown is the country’s largest Chinatown, and the place to go for authentic Chinese food, especially if you’re looking for fried octopus balls, Dragon’s Beard Candy, freshly squeezed Sugar Cane Juice, Peking Duck or Tsing Tao.
Sydney Fish Market is the largest working fish market in the Southern Hemisphere, even rivaling some of Japan’s biggest fish markets in the variety of seafood that’s traded every day. Not only does the market shift an incredible 52 tons of seafood per day, it also hosts a wide variety of restaurants, cafes and food retailers to ensure that visitors get to sample Australia’s freshest fish straight off the boat.
Open for breakfast, lunch or an early dinner, the fish market is the best spot to see and enjoy Australian seafood at affordable prices. You can either eat in or head to the wharf outside to enjoy a meal overlooking Blackwattle Bay.
The market is also home to one of Australia’s leading cooking schools: the Sydney Seafood School. It offers a wide range of classes for all levels and abilities and is suitable for those who simply want to brush up on their skills or become a bit more creative with adventurous seafood such as mollusks and crustaceans.
When Sydney’s original European settlers arrived in Sydney Harbor, they sustained themselves by planting a garden here at Garden Island. Today, after land was reclaimed and filled in with rocks, Garden Island is now a point that juts out into the harbor, and houses the Royal Australian Navy’s eastern fleet of ships. During World War II, a Japanese mini sub infiltrated the harbor and sank an Australian ship—resulting in the death of 21 sailors from the Australian and British navies. Much more history is outlined in depth at the Royal Australian Navy Heritage Center—a fascinating museum here on Pott’s Point that’s a must for history or war buffs. Once finished perusing the Heritage Center, which is fantastically free of charge, take a stroll through the gardens and grounds that are hidden behind the museum, where BBQ grills and views of the harbor make the perfect spot for a picnic.
When it comes to finding a great deal, the Art Gallery of New South Wales (NSW) is one of the top spots to hit in Sydney. Everything from the permanent galleries and celebrity talks to live performances and Wednesday night films are free to the public.
Since 1871 this international destination, complete with grand courts, light-filled halls and stunning harbor views, has been showcasing one of the most diverse collections of artwork in the country. Travelers may have to pay an additional fee for temporary exhibits, but the permanent collection at Art Gallery NSW is large enough that visitors can while away a day soaking up Sydney culture.
Located in bustling Circular Quay, historic Customs House stands on the spot where modern Australia was founded. This is the site where the famous First Fleet came ashore in 1788, to establish a British penal colony in a land very far away. When the building was constructed in 1845, it was built in a classically Georgian style that’s exceptionally well preserved today, and simply the exterior is a sight in itself in the middle of Circular Quay. All the way up until 1990, Customs House served as the Customs Service headquarters for anyone entering the country, but today is a popular public space for just lounging and killing some time. On the top story, a café looks out over Circular Quay and is a nice place for grabbing a coffee, while the Sydney Library and it’s 400,000 books are open for viewing below. There’s free wi fi throughout the building—which is somewhat of a rarity in Sydney—and there’s even a miniature replica of the city in a glass atrium in the floor.
In 2000, Sydney Olympic Park hosted athletes from around the world, all of whom arrived hungry for gold. And while these games are now more than a decade behind us, this world-class facility still draws travelers and locals looking to experience the Olympic spirit. The park is made up of several venues like ANZ Stadium, Sydney Showground, Athletic Centre, Aquatic Centre and Sports Centre.
At the park, visitors can wander through the scenic stretches of well-kept boardwalk that winds through protected wetlands or settle the score in a match at the world-class tennis center. Bikes and Segways are available for hire, which makes exploring the grounds just a little more manageable. The Urban Jungle Adventure Park, with its high ropes course, is a popular stop for families and thrill-seekers, and weekend archery clinics help travelers hit the bull’s-eye. Travelers can explore the park solo or hire a guide for an in-depth Olympic experience.
Opened in 1826, Sydney’s State Library of New South Wales is the oldest library in Australia and a repository for a huge and diverse collection of books. The iconic building is also home to over 1 million photos, maps and manuscripts. Architecturally grand from the outside, inside is modern, bright and attractive, and the Mitchell Library looks straight out of a movie with its book-lined walls. The library also has five historic galleries in the Mitchell Wing which host both permanent and temporary free exhibitions — from collections of 18th-century Australian natural history illustrations to the diaries of Australian men and women writing in WWI.
Next to Parliament House and the Royal Botanic Gardens on Macquarie Street, the State Library of New South Wales also has its own book club. And on a regular basis there are also talks on literary, historical, and contemporary issues. Film screenings and workshops are often held at the library too.
Sumptuously decorated and timelessly elegant, central Sydney’s Queen Victoria Building is an unforgettable shopping destination. Built in High Victorian Romanesque style in 1898, and now meticulously restored, it stands on the site of the original Sydney markets.
The QVB's soaring central dome boasts translucent stained-glass clad in copper on the outside, and the shopping area takes up several balconied floors linked by grand staircases. Tiled floors, pillars, colonnades, balustrades, and arches. Chiming clocks and interesting historical displays complete the QVB’s flamboyant decor.
Originally the shops included tailors and florists; today there’s a wide range of specialist stores, from stationers to couturiers, cafes and coffee shops.
Be it surfers on the beaches, the discovery of Australia via the sea route from Europe or the subsequent commerce and immigration—Australia is closely tied to water. The Australian National Maritime Museum acts accordingly in featuring rich exhibitions ranging from the time of the Eora First People to the First Fleet all the way to the present. Visitors learn how convicts traveled in dark and damp accommodations and how passengers sailing to a new life survived long ocean journeys through reconstructed stories made up of artifacts and mementos left behind.
Those interested in military history can make their way to the Navy exhibit, which explores naval traditions during war and peace times. Here, visitors get the chance to test a submarine’s periscope and try out a soldier’s cramped bunk bed. The museum even has its own fleet, with many of the vessels accessible via guided tour.
With two locations in the heart of Sydney, Paddy’s Market is quickly becoming a must-visit for visitors to Sydney. Flemington Paddy’s Market is the place to go for local produce. If you’re after some of the best fruit and veggies in Sydney then visit the Flemington location. As well as Paddy’s Market, there’s a flower market in the area. Visit on the weekend to see Sydney’s Paddy’s Market come alive with clothes, gifts and souvenirs vendors, as well as a Swap and Sell Market selling second hand goods.
The Haymarket location is the one most people think of when they think of Paddy’s. The Haymarket market near Chinatown has a flea market vibe with clothes, souvenirs, some produce, jewellery, flowers and more. Haymarket Paddy’s is easier to get to, plus it has the added benefit of being next to some of Sydney’s best Chinese restaurants.
The Museum of Contemporary Art has been showcasing the works of Australian artists in galleries designed to celebrate solo exhibitions since it first opened its doors back in 1991. The museum is housed in the former Maritime Services Board Building and offers visitors incredible views of the picturesque harbor and iconic opera house. Those who enjoy the Museum of Modern Art in New York City will likely find similar experimental work here. Travelers say that while the museum is small, it’s worth the trip and a quiet café on the fourth floor is perfect for post-museum tea or weekend brunch with a view.
Travelers love Milsons Point because of the uninterrupted views of Harbour Bridge and the iconic Opera House. During hot summer nights, locals gather on this tiny peninsula in Sydney Harbour opposite Sydney Cove and watch the sun dip down over the central business district skyline. This quiet spot has become a destination for those looking to capture a perfect picture of the city.
When day turns to night, young couples can be found holding hands as they stroll along the neon-lit midway of nearby Luna Park. The low-key crowd will appreciate the well-manicured suburbs of the north shore that are ripe with quiet cafes, continental restaurants and plenty of friendly locals.
The Sydney Cricket Ground (SCG) is Sydney's primary venue for Cricket and Australia Rules Football. It also serves as the home stadium of the New South Wales Blues cricket team and the Australian Football League’s Sydney Swans.The SCG originally opened in 1886 and holds just over 47,000 spectators. It is famous for the two historic stands that are still standing today: the members and the ladies stands.
Beneath the ladies’ stands you’ll find the SCG Museum, which is dedicated to collecting, documenting, preserving and displaying the sporting and social activities that have occurred at the SCG since the mid-1800s. Tours of the SCG run Monday to Friday at 11am and 2pm, and Saturdays at 11am. The museum is closed all public holidays and major match days.
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