Everyone knows that Sydney is an iconic, must-visit destination. People come from all over the globe just to get a photo with its world-famous harbour. But only locals know the real Sydney – the cool pocket precincts that make it buzz. And even fewer know the best-kept secret of all: the many awesome NSW regional destinations just a short drive away.
So it’s lucky for you that I’m a Sydneysider who’s happy to spill the beans. Here are five undeniable reasons to go to Sydney (and five more to get out and explore beyond it, too).
5 reasons to go to Sydney
1. The Rocks
A trip to The Rocks is like going back in time… except with better coffee. The Rocks is Sydney’s oldest neighbourhood, dating back to the earliest days of European settlement. It was once considered a slum (harsh!), but is now home to excellent restaurants and cafes, fascinating museums and galleries, and high-end boutiques. Have a beer at one of Australia’s oldest pubs (there are a few that claim the title, but the Fortune of War, the Australian Hotel, and the Lord Nelson are the strongest contenders), get your art fix at the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, or snoop inside some of Sydney’s oldest terrace houses at Susannah Place Museum.
2. Surry Hills
Okay, you’ve just arrived at Central, Sydney’s biggest train station. What do you do? Answer: Ignore all signs pointing to George St and instead make for an Elizabeth St or Chalmers St exit to check out Surry Hills! Gritty-cool, yet surprisingly leafy and pretty, Surry Hills is one of Sydney’s most vibrant and creative neighbourhoods. It’s home to some of the city’s best eats – see NOMAD, Bourke St Bakery and Gelato Messina for a start. Make sure you see a show at the Belvoir St Theatre, the former (and current) stomping ground of some of Australia’s biggest stars – think Geoffrey Rush, Cate Blanchett, Judy Davis, Deb Mailman, and more.
3. Bondi & Coogee
If you haven’t been to Bondi, have you really been to Sydney? In addition to Australia’s most famous beach (you know, in case that’s not enough for you), Bondi is also the place to go for wholesome cafes (so many smoothie and poke bowls!) and morning yoga, with just a smidge of retail therapy on the side. Breakfast favourites include Porch and Parlour, Rocker, and Bondi Wholefoods. Drake is great for a cheeky long lunch (get the gnocchi), and for seafood with sea views, it’s hard to beat North Bondi Fish or Fishbowl for your poke hit. Once your tummy’s full, check out the Bondi Markets (Sundays, 9am – 4pm) for up-and-coming designers and vintage gems, and Westfield Bondi Junction for all the shopping.
But that’s not all. Bondi is also the starting point for the Bondi to Coogee Walk – possibly Australia’s most famous walk. The whole track is almost 9km and will take you along some of the world’s best coastline (hey, who needs false modesty?). Put it on your list.
4. Redfern & Chippendale
Not all visitors make it to Redfern and Chippendale, but those that don’t are missing out. Redfern is considered by many to be the heart of Sydney’s Aboriginal community – the neighbhourhood and its residents played an essential role in Australia’s Civil Rights Movement and its vibrant street art (literally) illustrates the suburb’s roots (see Carol Ruff’s 40,000 Years mural and Reko Rennie’s Welcome to Redfern for just two examples). Today Redfern is also home to Carriageworks (an awesome performance/exhibition space with a great farmers’ market every Saturday) and excellent small bars like The Dock and The Bearded Tit. Make sure you check it out!
Just a short walk away, Chippendale is a tiny suburb (only 0.7km²!) that packs in a whole lot of awesome. Once the site of the Carlton & United brewery, its converted warehouses and cottages now house exciting galleries like White Rabbit and amazing eateries like Ester and Spice Alley.
5. Paddington & Darlinghurst
Heads up – this is where the beautiful people play. Paddington is famous for designer boutiques and small galleries. Check out Paddington Markets (Saturdays, 10am – 4pm) for new fashion, Berkelouw Books for new, rare, and second-hand reads, the Chauvel Cinema for arthouse flicks, or Just William Chocolates for a sweet treat. Then follow Oxford Street north to Darlinghurst, Sydney’s night-life capital. For 40 years, Darlinghurst has been the site of Sydney’s iconic Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, with Oxford Street the glittering heart of Sydney’s LGBTIQ scene. Start your party at one of the many awesome bars (Eau de Vie, Love, Tilly Devine, and Darlo Bar are a few to get you started), then catch a gig at the Oxford Art Factory. When you remember that you’ve forgotten to have dinner (whoops… ), head to Mr Crackles for the best late-night pork roll you’ve ever eaten.
5 reasons to get out of Sydney
1. The Grand Pacific Drive
What’s better than a road trip? A NSW road trip, and the Grand Pacific Drive is one of the best. Starting from the Royal National Park (which you also want to check out, by the way), it winds along 140km of stunning coastline, taking you through gorgeous rainforests and chilled-out beach towns like Wollongong, Shellharbour, Kiama, and Shoalhaven. The whole drive is amazing, but Sea Cliff Bridge – a 665m-long elevated road that swerves in and out from the side of the cliffs – is definitely the highlight. Make sure your passenger has their camera ready!
2. The Blue Mountains
Just a 90min drive or 2hr train ride from Sydney, the Blue Mountains is a super easy (and super awesome) side trip to add to your Sydney itinerary. Echo Point (with its spectacular views of the Three Sisters), Wentworth Falls, and Govetts Leap are the big must-dos, but Sublime Point, Narrow Neck and Cahills Lookout are also amazing. Put aside a day for the Jenolan Caves (do a Plughole tour if you’re brave!) and make sure you leave time to check out Katoomba and Leura’s eclectic shops and tempting cafes. Don’t miss Josophan’s Fine Chocolates or Leura Garage.
3. The Snowy Mountains
Snow bunnies, this one’s for you. The Snowy Mountains region is home to Kosciuszko National Park, where you’ll find Perisher, Thredbo, Charlotte Pass, and Selwyn Snow Resort – all excellent snowfields, catering for all experience levels and activities (sledding for me, thanks). Funnily enough, Kosciuszko National Park is also where you’ll find Mount Kosciuszko – Australia’s highest mountain. In winter (June to October), the walk to the summit is snowbound and only recommended for experienced cross-country skiers (there aren’t any snow poles to mark the route). But in summer it’s surprisingly achievable – the return journey is 18.6km, takes six to eight hours, and is suitable for most fitness levels. And the scenery is just… wow.
4. The Hunter Valley
Hey, it’s not all healthy hiking and extreme snow sports. Head to the Hunter Valley for a truly indulgent side trip. With more cellar doors than any other wine region in Australia (take that, Barossa!), the Hunter Valley is the NSW destination for wining and dining. The Hunter is most famous for its sémillon, but it produces some mean shiraz, chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon, and verdelho drops as well. There are almost too many cellar doors to choose from, but don’t miss Audrey Wilkinson (voted the Hunter Valley’s most picturesque winery, which is saying something), Brokenwood, or Tyrrell’s. And lunch at Bistro Molines, overlooking the rolling hills and vineyards, is a must.
5. Port Stephens
Great news! Your Hunter Valley side trip just got more awesome. You’re now adding on a Port Stephens side trip as well. Call it a side-side trip 😉
Between Sydney and the Hunter Valley (a 2hr, 40min drive from the city and 90 minutes from the Hunter Valley), Port Stephens is a fantastic coastal getaway in its own right. It has gorgeous beaches, a resident population of friendly dolphins, and offers easy access to Myall Lakes National Park. Check out Stockton Beach for exciting quad bike safaris and sandboarding. Once you’ve built up an appetite (and shaken the sand out of your hair), head to the Little Beach House in Nelson Bay for modern Australian cuisine with a side of incredible water views.
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