This guide was created with the support of the City of Sydney and focuses specifically on the city. Essentially the Central Business District (CBD) or what may be referred to the downtown area and its surrounding suburbs that make up the City of Sydney Council area. You can basically walk to all these areas or they're just a short bus or tram trip or train ride of 1 or 2 stops.
As with any city, the majority of accommodation and major tourist attractions are in the city centre. We cover all these, but we also cover so much more of what's available within the city limits and try to highlight what the locals get up to so you can experience what made Sydney the world's 3rd most liveable city in 2019.
Of course, Greater Sydney has many awesome places like Bondi Beach and activities which are only 20-60 minutes or so from the city centre to explore. The state of NSW which Sydney is the capital, also has some must see places like the Blue Mountains, Hunter Valley and hundreds of kilometres of beautiful NSW beaches that can be explored with a rental car, but remember to consider rental vehicle excess insurance.
Top 9 City of Sydney Must Dos
1. Explore the harbours foreshore
If you like walking or you could hire a bicycle, start in Woolloomooloo (sneak in a famous Harry’s café de wheels tiger pie), walk to Mrs Macquarie’s Chair for a great view of the Harbour Bridge, through the Royal Botanical Gardens, bringing you out to the Opera House, past the Harbour Bridge, through The Rocks (which has many options for a refreshment), around Barangaroo the newly reclaimed and developed harbour foreshore, which will link you up to Darling Harbour and the Chinese Gardens. You can continue on to Chinatown if you wish.
One the best views of the Harbour Bridge and Circular Quay is from the train platform at Circular Quay train station. It may quite possibly be the best view from any train station in the world!
2. Sydney Harbour cruise
There are a variety of options to match any budget, from a simple morning tea to a full seafood extravaganza, all to the backdrop of the beautiful harbour.
Locals Sydney Harbour Cruise Tip
The budget conscious tip is to catch the commuter ferry from Circular Quay to Manly, which gives you the same view as a Cruise for a fraction of the price. They even have a bar on board so you can treat yourself to a drink as you enjoy the view.
An open top bus is super touristy and these types of buses are popular in cities like London the world over. But they really are a great option for any city for five reasons.
- An efficient way to see a lot in a short period of time, especially if you are only in Sydney a few days.
- You'll see all the highlights which are going to be on your list so you can get all the photo's you're wanting.
- With commentary on board, you'll learn a lot about Sydney.
- The hop on hop off gives you flexibility to spend as long or as little time as you want in each location.
- Making a bus tour the first thing you do in the city will give you a good understanding of the cities layout and you'll know which areas or things you may want to go back to.
4. Learn about Sydney's history
- Sydney City walking tours are free and depart from Town Hall every day at 10:30am and 2:30pm
- The Rocks Sydney walking tours are free and depart from Cadman’s Cottage at 6pm daily.
- The Rocks Nightly Ghost Tour not only tells you some macabre real life stories of the area, but is also a unique history lesson of Sydney.
Tank Stream tours gives you a look into Sydney’s original water supply.
But there is very limited availability so plan ahead.
5. See Australia's unique animals
Australia is famous for having some very unique animals such as koalas, kangaroos, platypuses, echidnas and more. Luckily you have the opportunity to get up close to them right in the centre of Sydney.
With over 700 species in the underwater exhibits, you'll be able to get up close to sharks, penguins, turtles, tropical fish and more.
Right in the heart of Sydney, you can see Australia's big 5 (Koala, Kangaroo, Platypus, Wombat and Crocodile)
It's not technically in the City, but a short ferry ride will take you to Taroonga Zoo. The animals are great, but the zoo also has a phenomenal view back across the harbour of the Sydney City skyline.
Sealife Sydney Aquarium and Wildlife Sydney are right next to each other and you can get a multiple attraction pass which can save you a bit of money.
6. Get cultural in museums & galleries
Sydney has many museums and galleries scattered throughout the CBD such as:
- Museum of Contemporary Art
- National Maritime Museum
- Art Gallery of NSW
- Brett Whiteley Studio
- National Museum
See below in this guide for a more comprehensive list of both major and smaller galleries and museums.
7. Grab a drink & watch the sun go down
After you've spent a day touring the city, a great way to finish things off, especially during spring and summer, is to join the locals in an outdoor bar or one with a view to watch the sun disappear for the day, some suggestions are:
Right next to the Opera House with a great view of the Harbour Bridge and you can watch the commuter ferries come and go.
Beware the seagulls! They'll steal the chips or food right off your plate if you aren't looking.
Located in The Rocks, this bar has a great rooftop bar with a view of the Opera House.
Take the stairs all the way to the rooftop. To secure the best spot, get there before 5pm Monday to Friday before the locals finish work.
Located in the Shangri-La hotel (176 Cumberland Street, The Rocks, Sydney), with stunning harbour views from its level 36 elevated position.
They have a smart casual dress code so make a bit of an effort. It's also a good idea to book.
8. Book a night time event
Sydney hosts a variety of different types of entertainment that may not be as accessible in your home town or country. With a little bit of planning and forethought, you can secure a ticket to a special experience. Some after-dark events include:
- Sporting event
- Music gig
- Dinner at a hatted restaurant
9. Enjoy the nightlife with dinner & drinks
After a day or two you'll be familiar with the city centre and Darling Harbour's eating and drinking areas. You can also head over to The Star casino that has numerous restaurants within the casino complex and afterwards you can try your luck. For a more unique and local experience, look to visit some of the many villages of Sydney City.
Head to Crown St for bars and restaurants. If Lebanese food is your thing, Cleveland or Elizabeth St are the places to be at.
- Stanley Street is a small street lined with restaurant-cum-bars and the Lord Roberts pub on the corner as a good starting spot.
- Oxford Street is the LGBTIQA area of the city with many food and bar options.
Kings Cross & Potts Point
The majority of restaurants are on Macleay Street, Victoria Street and Llankelly Place, but there are plenty more in side streets. This area also has many bars to head to for a drink.
Finger Wharf in Wooloomooloo is home to some popular and renowned restaurants where the rich and famous can often be spotted.
This is Sydney's newest precinct and home to many new restaurants and bars.
5 Unique Sydney Experiences
A popular bucket list item for many Sydney visitors. If it is booked out or isn't in your price range, you can still experience the bridge by taking a stroll across it instead. You'll still get great views of the harbour, and you won’t have to pay a cent! It'll also take you to the other side of the harbour, you'll be able to take happy snaps of the Opera House from another angle, and is just a short stroll to Luna Park.
Sydney Aquarium offers this up close experience you will surely never forget.
3. Stay on Cockatoo Island
Cockatoo Island offers a variety of accommodation including apartments, houses and camping. The island is located in the middle of Sydney Harbour and you can have the unique experience of camping right on the waters edge in the middle of the harbour and waking up to a glorious sunrise. Everything is provided, including the tent which is erected for you or you can always BYO tent. During the day you can explore the many lives of the island, from the First Nation people, to a convict penal establishment, reformatory school and naval ship dockyard.
For a treat for your ears, they offer free classical music performances during the academic year. See Sydney Conservatorium of Music for the schedule.
5. See a show at the Sydney Opera House
Most people come to simply take a photo of it, and it's certainly a spectacular building and worth a photo, but everyone should remember it's a working opera house! However, if opera isn't your thing, that's OK, it hosts all sorts of productions, from theatre to comedy to dance and more.
Taronga Zoo is not quite in the city, but very close by. For a truly unique experience, you can do a "Roar and Snore" where you can stay overnight in the zoo and enjoy the amazing view of Sydney harbour in the morning.
Locally known as 'The Coathanger', it was completed in 1932 and the road sits 59 metres above sea level. Whilst practical, it's also a thing of beauty and something you'll want to take a photo of. The best photo spots are from the Opera House or Mrs Macquairies's Chair.
The platform at Circular Quay train station provides an awesome view of both the Harbour Bridge and Opera House, it could well be the world's best view from any train station.
Construction took 14 years, commencing in 1959 before finally opening in 1973. The cost to finish it was 14 times more than expected, at a total cost of $102 million. Over 10 million people visit the Opera House every year.
Mrs Macquarie was the wife of Major-General Lachlan Macquarie, governor of New South Wales from 1810-21. He used convicts to build her this chair and when you sit in it you'll understand why she was known to love the area.
It also now offers one of the best views and photo spots for the Harbour Bridge and Opera house, especially as the sun begins to set. It's an easy 15 minute stroll through The Royal Botanic Gardens from the Opera House.
The Royal Botanic Gardens with its amazing array of native and imported flora, sits on 30 hectares at the edge of Sydney Harbour and offers spectacular views of Sydney’s iconic landmarks. It's also Australia’s oldest scientific institution and offers free guided walking tours.
Landscape architects from Guangzhou, Sydney's sister city designed the gardens, which are located at the southern end of Darling Harbour.
Stroll in the peaceful surroundings as you take in the harmonious use of the five elements - water, wood, earth, fire and metal.
Sydney Tower is Sydney's tallest structure and naturally like all cities has a Observation Deck and also a SKYWALK for you to be able to take in the birds eye view of all that is Sydney.
It's located at 100 Market Street, but just look up and you won't miss this unique building.
This Romanesque architecture building was completed in 1898 and provides a stark contrast to modern buildings in the surrounding area. It serves as a shopping centre and as a thoroughfare to Town Hall Railway Station.
The high tea in the QVB is a memorable indulgence if the idea of high tea takes your fancy.
Stage 1 construction started in 1868 with completion of stage 2 in 1889. It's still very much a working building today, so there's no public access. However, you can book a guided tour of the building.
It's also home to a grand organ and was the world's largest when it was installed in 1890.
Artwork installation by Brett Whiteley and Matthew Dillon.
It's right next to the Art Gallery of New South Wales and close to Woolloomooloo, so you can visit all three at the same time.
After fire destroyed the original cathedral in 1865, the new one was constructed out of Sydney sandstone in two stages beginning in 1866 and finally completed in 1928.
Visit for spiritual reasons but also architecture, tours and music recitals.
Known as the 'the lungs of the city', Centennial Parklands are located a couple of kilometres south east of the city and accessible by tram, bus, taxi or bicycle.
You can hire a bike or rollerblades, kids can explore the WILDPLAY garden, join a tour, go horse riding, have a BBQ or picnic or just take in nature and admire the swans.
Art Galleries in Sydney City
Gallery and multipurpose creative hub
Art Gallery of New South Wales
Open to 10pm on Wedneasdays for art after hours
Admission is free
Artist-led gallery with emerging and experimental arts.
Brett Whitely Studio
|2 Raper Street, Surry Hills, New South Wales, NSW, 2010||Open Thursday to Sunday. Bourke Street bakery is nearby for a good coffee, meat pie or pastry.|
Ken Done Gallery
Australian art that is bold, sunny and quintessentially Australian. Admission is free.
Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery
Admission is free
White Rabbit Gallery
Chinese art and home to a tea house
Museums in Sydney City
Australian National Maritime Museum
A treasure trove of information and history and has one of the largest fleets of any museum in the world.
Great for families with both indoor and outdoor exhibitions including six permanent galleries, changing temporary exhibitions and 3D cinema.
Museum of Contemporary Art Australia
Home to plenty of interesting exhibits and even offers free monthly 'family fun' days with hands-on innovative craft activities for the kids.
The MCA’s rooftop café is a must-visit for spectacular views of the Sydney Opera House and Sydney Harbour Bridge.
Museum of Sydney
|Corner Bridge & Phillip Streets, Sydney NSW 2000||sydneylivingmuseums.com.au/museum-of-sydney||Less than 5 minute walk from Circular Quay & the Opera House - a convenient visit when at that end of the city.|
Great for families with a wide range of interactive displays from science, technology, design , engineering, architecture, health fashion and contemporary culture.
Sydney Jewish Museum
|148 Darlinghurst Rd, Darlinghurst NSW 2010||sydneyjewishmuseum.com.au||Open Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday.|
The Rocks Discovery Museum
|Kendall Ln, The Rocks NSW 2000||therocks.com/shop/the-rocks-discovery-museum||Housed in a restored 1850’s sandstone warehouse, and features stories of Sydney and interactive exhibits from pre-European days to the present.|
Sydney City Events
The Sydney calendar has a number of annual events held in the city which you can plan your holiday around or you might get lucky with your trip coinciding with one of these major events.
Australia’s designated national day has a number of events including welcome to country ceremonies by First Nations people and the famous ferry race on Sydney Harbour.
Sydney celebrates the new lunar year in style over a couple of weeks with the biggest celebration outside of Asia including:
- Street parade
- Dancing lions and lanterns
- Pop up markets
- Art installations
- Dragon boat races
- A wide variety of food options
An estimated half a million people line the parade route to watch more than 16 000 participants ride floats, march and dance their way up Oxford St to a pumping soundtrack. There are also a variety of other supporting events in the weeks ahead of the headline event of the parade.
Have your self a laugh with most of the comedians that drop into Sydney for a few warm up gigs before heading to Melbourne for their comedy festival.
Royal Randwick Racecourse holds the world’s richest horse race on turf and Australia's biggest prize money race. 12 horses race 1200m for $15 million in prize money in 2020.
In 2018 the event drew criticism when they projected an advertisement for the race on the sacred sails of the cultural icon the Sydney Opera House.
If you can't be at the track for The Everest, don't worry, horse races are held approximately every second weekend at Randwick Racecourse depending on the time of the year. It's a good excuse to get dressed up and make the most of Sydney's fine weather.
Some may think there wouldn’t be much going on in Sydney on Christmas Day, but you’d be mistaken. Mid-morning, you’ll find the beaches full of locals and accents from all corners of the globe as people indulge in a Christmas Day swim. So pack your breakfast or lunch and drinks in a picnic basket and head to the beach.
Come lunch time, many of Sydney’s finest restaurants put on fixed menu feasts or you can book yourself a seafood buffet harbour cruise.
If you’re still peckish at dinner time, never fear, you can always get a feed in Chinatown. Then head to Star Casino which often holds an event for those looking to party Christmas night away.
In the weeks prior to Christmas there are a number of Christmas activities you can indulge in.
- See the massive Christmas tree located at Martin Place
- See the beautiful Christmas tree inside the QVB
- The Rocks Christmas markets
- Christmas Carols in the Domain
If you are leaving a day or two before the Christmas Carols occur or you aren't fond of crowds, a dress rehearsal is held a couple of days earlier.
Does anywhere in the world bring in New Years Eve quite like Sydney. If you’ve never been on Sydney Harbour for New Years Eve, get it on your bucket-list and make it happen. There are two fireworks displays, one at 9pm for the kids and again at midnight. There are numerous options available for every budget but you should plan ahead as accommodation and events can sell out fast.
- Make a reservation with a restaurant that has a harbour view
- Book a hotel room with a harbour view
- Book a harbour cruise for the evening
- Buy a ticket to one of the harbour side events
- Pack a picnic basket and a rug and head to one of the many harbour side parks and open spaces.
- Bars and clubs have events you can also book
If you haven't booked anything, make a full day and night of it, pack a picnic basket and head to the harbour in the morning to grab your spot.
Dining in Sydney
Sydney has no shortage of restaurants, from the cool burger bar pop ups to a wide selection of fine dining establishments. You’re sure to find something that matches your taste buds and wallet.
Breakfast & Brunch
You’ll find brunch is a very popular activity in Sydney on weekends and most of the cafes in the residential suburbs on the fringes of the city will be quite full.
If you're staying in or near one of these suburbs, start in their high streets and go exploring and you'll be sure to find a number of cafes serving up the local favourite - smashed avo on toast and more.
- Macleay Street in Kings Cross & Potts Point area
- Oxford St and Stanley St in Darlinghurst
- Crown Street in Surry Hills
- Abercrombie Street in Chippendale but also many in the back streets
- There is also always Chinatown for yum cha/dim sum.
Sydney’s harbour and beaches are simply spectacular, so plan your lunches to be near the water. That way, even if the food doesn’t quite hit the mark, the view surely will. You’ll be able to find anything from fish and chips to fine dining.
Book yourself a harbour cruise
Lunch harbour cruises depart daily from Circular Quay and King Street Wharf near Darling Harbour.
Fine dining on Woolloomooloo's Finger Wharf or a pub meal from Woolloomooloo Bay Hotel.
This is the major ferry and cruise terminal of Sydney and a great place for lunch and to watch the world go by.
Sydney Fish Markets
This is the city's working fish market for all the restaurants, hotels and seafood shops. It also caters for visitors, where you can order fresh seafood to eat-in or do takeaway and enjoy your meal near the edge of the water overlooking the fishing boats.
Sydney's newest and one of its hottest dining destinations is located to the west of the city centre on the harbour.
Near Barangaroo and again on the foreshore so you'll have a view of the water as you have a relaxing lunch.
The food scene in Sydney moves quick and is always changing, so we're not going to try and keep up! Check out these websites to see what’s currently on-trend.
If you'd like a little direction on what each area of the city is known for, here are our tips:
- Spice Alley in Chippendale for Asian street food
- You’ll find Lebanese food on Cleveland and Elizabeth Street in Surry Hills
- A variety of Korean BBQ restaurants around World Square in the city
- Potts Point/Kings Cross has some restaurant institutions and more opening all the time as the area rejuvenates.
- Woolloomooloo's Finger Wharf is a great option for dinner on a warm Sydney evening.
- Chinatown traditionally offered Southern Chinese cuisine, but you can now find food from all over China and also Asia here.
- Darling Square is located between Chinatown and Darling Harbour. It's the new hip and modern precinct with restaurants, bars and eateries.
Late Night Dinner
Home to Emperor's Garden Restaurant who work the wok until 1:30am. Don't forget to join the queue for their famous cream puffs!
The Casino is open 24 hours a day, so you’ll be able to satisfy your late night dinner cravings with a variety of options.
Located on Oxford Street, Darlinghurst near several late night clubs, it serves up all sorts of pork crackling snacks of goodness.
Located in Surry Hills, traditional Turkish food is served up until midnight every night of the week.
Serving up traditional Aussie pies until 11pm weeknights and until midnight Friday and Saturdays.
Where to stay in Sydney
The majority of the big hotel chains are in the city centre as expected, check Booking.com to find a great price on a variety of rooms.
Whilst the city centre is great and super convenient, if you've stayed in Sydney City before or you want a more local experience, you may want to consider staying in the suburbs in and around the city which also have plenty of hotel options. Again check Booking.com for options.
These suburbs are a convenient distance to Sydney City:
- Potts Point (Kings Cross)
Other suburbs like Surry Hills, Darlinghurst and Elizabath Bay are also great but have less hotel options, so you're likely looking at Airbnb style accommodation.
If you're heading out of Sydney for a few days and coming back, it's a good idea to stay in a different part of the city altogether. That way you'll get to experience another part of town and find another great place to get your morning coffee fix.
How to get around Sydney City
One of the best ways to see the city is by walking. You'll get to the destination you want but you'll also probably see something of interest and unexpected on the way.
The CBD Light Rail Tram commenced operation in December 2019. It runs from Circular Quay at the north of the city down George Street to Central Station at the south end of the city. It then continues through Surry Hills and onto Randwick or Kensington.
The city has numerous train stations and you should be able to find one near your accommodation and areas you want to explore. The City Circle has the following stations covering most of the city.
- Town Hall
- Circular Quay
- St James
Sydney is well catered for with taxi's.
You can simply wave down a taxi anywhere, you don't have to be at a dedicated taxi stand. If you can't find one, try waiting at the front of a hotels lobby.
Global ride share companies make it easy to use services like Uber which you may use at home whenever you travel to another city.
Top 5 Sydney City Shopping Locations
- Pitt St Mall for all the big brands. Westfield shopping centre, Myer, David Jones and Mid City are all located off Pitt St Mall.
- George Street has a wide variety of shops from souvenirs to the Apple store.
- Alexandria for factory outlets and homewares.
- Paddy’s Markets next to Chinatown for all your cheap souvenirs and fresh vegetables.
- Sydney Seafood markets serves up both takeaway and eat-in seafood.
Useful Sydney Tourism Resources
Activities and Tickets
Sydney Travel Guide
NSW Travel Guide
We do our very best research to make sure the information provided is correct. However to avoid disappointment, we recommend confirming events and activities directly with the venue before you attend. This is particularly important with the constantly changing impact of COVID-19 on many venue's operating times, days and capacities.