Australia was probably the first country on my bucket list before I even knew what a bucket list was. Sydney landmarks like the Opera House and Harbour Bridge beckoned to me from pages of books as I grew up.
As a kid, I figured I might have the chance to visit Sydney once in my life if I was lucky. My golden opportunity presented itself when two of my friends in DC moved to Sydney in late 2017. I immediately jumped at the chance to visit.
Planning Visits to Sydney Landmarks
I was excited to dive into the Sydney lifestyle for a week. My friends sent me a list of things to do, but I kept my itinerary loose so I could be spontaneous and spend time exploring areas that I liked.
Even though it was winter, I prioritized outdoor activities. Sydney has a mild coastal climate, so we weren’t at risk of truly freezing temperatures. We also wanted to make it out of the city on the days my friends didn’t work. It was nice to see more than just Sydney, and take in some of what New South Wales has to offer!
Here’s a map of all the ground I covered over the seven days:
What We Did
Scroll down to read about all the stops we made, or skip ahead to specific sections here:
The Northern Beaches
We were off to the races the minute my plane touched down in Sydney. We couldn’t waste any time since I had lost a day of the trip due to flight issues, which I’ll get into another time. My friends picked me up from the airport, and after a quick stop at their apartment, we set out on the hour-long drive to the beaches north of Sydney.
Our first destination was Palm Beach, where a short uphill walk will take you to the Barrenjoey Lighthouse and stunning views of the Pacific. We scrambled around the rocks at the top of the cliff to catch different views of the bright blue water. I commented on the incredible color of it; little did I know all of the shores I would visit would have the same color quality.
We descended from the path and grabbed a drink and a bite at The Boathouse, a breezy cafe along the protected harbor. I’ve never had a veggie platter that was as delicious as the one we got there, with beetroot dip paired with fresh veggies and pickled radishes. It was full of flavor and entirely satisfying.
Sunset was imminent, so we packed up at The Boathouse and made our way to The Newport nearby.
This was my first Merivale restaurant experience and it didn’t disappoint: A generous patio stretched in all directions with fountains and manicured beds and benches creating cozy sitting nooks. Dusty pink striped umbrellas lent a Lake Como quality to the space. Vintage touches at the bar and antique lighting set the atmosphere, with the fading sunset over the small harbor capping the mood lighting. It was romantic, a divine way to spend my first evening in Sydney.
If you go:
- Palm beach is about an hour’s drive north of Sydney
- Wear comfortable shoes for the lighthouse walk. It takes about 30 minutes to walk up the cliff from the parking lot.
- Newport Beach is about a 20 minute drive from Palm Beach
Walking Tour of Sydney Landmarks
My friends had told me about I’m Free Tours, which as the name implies gives free walking tours of Sydney and Melbourne. I’m always a fan of educating myself about the places I go so the tour was right up my alley.
And bonus that it was free! You just tip the tour guide at the end.
It ended up being a great recommendation. Along with checking off many Sydney landmarks in one day, I learned all about its beginnings as a British prison colony and how it grew into the city it is today.
The tour took us all around the Central Business District (CBD) with stops at the Queen Victoria Building, Hyde Park, the “Rum” Hospital, Circular Quay, the Rocks District, and more.
Today is my last day in Australia, and I can’t believe my time here is coming to an end. I feel like I’ve lived another lifetime in these three weeks. 🇦🇺 ================================= So you know what that means: prepare for an onslaught of Australia pics! Seriously guys, this country is so photogenic I am having a hard time choosing what to put on IG. So I might just post it all. I took over 3,000 photos! 😲 ================================= As for today, we will be going out in style! It’s 6am here and we’re up and at ‘em for a full day wine & food tour of the Hunter Valley. 🍷🍫 ================================= This series of images was shot on day two in Sydney, at the last stop on the @imfreesydney walking tour. It was super informative and I learned so much about the city! #recommend ================================= The gif may be a bit shaky (handed my camera off to a stranger), but I couldn’t get over this view of the Harbour Bridge and the lovely breeze that kept us cool. Little did I know that would be my last dose of sun in Sydney until yesterday, when the rain finally subsided. ================================= #seeaustralia #ausfeels #exploringaustralia #australiagram #australia_shotz #ig_australia #ilovesydney #sydney_insta
We wrapped up the tour at the Harbour Bridge with a killer view of the Sydney Opera House, an iconic sight that I had dreamed of seeing since I was a kid.
From there, I made my way over to the Royal Botanic Garden to check out the different gardens and walking trails. In the process, I stumbled upon this Star Wars-like view of the Opera House.
I also went into the Calyx, which has a lovely indoor garden with the largest living wall in Australia.
The day consisted of a lot of walking but it wasn’t too tiring. If it hadn’t begun to rain in the mid-afternoon I probably could have kept exploring!
If you go:
- Wear comfortable shoes – you cover a lot of ground on the tour!
- The tour lasts between 2.5-3 hours and has a morning and afternoon departure.
- The tour begins at Town Hall and ends at Circular Quay, both easily accessible by public transportation.
- The CBD (central business district) is all walkable, so you can explore other sights on your own like I did before or after the tour.
It was cold and rainy on my third day in Sydney, derailing my plans to do a coastal walk and surf. My full day of outdoor activities would have to wait for another day.
I struggled to think of what I could do inside that wasn’t a museum (as much as I love museums, they weren’t a priority for this trip). I finally elected to stay outside – albeit under cover.
I would visit Newtown, one of Sydney’s trendy neighborhoods, with the knowledge that I could duck into a store or cafe if the rain picked up.
I made my way over on the train (Sydney’s public transit is so easy to navigate) and walked around.
I immediately noticed the quantity and variety of street art. There was so much that I ducked down a side street to see if it extended into the residential areas. It did.
The main strip, King Street, was bustling despite the rain. I popped into quirky shop after quirky shop, picking up books and knick knacks along the way.
There seemed to be a new curiosity to discover around every corner. In the short time I had there, there’s no way I could have covered it all.
If you go:
- Take the train to the King Street stop to be dropped right onto Newtown’s main drag.
- Turn right out of the station to get to the stretch of road with the greatest density of shops (there are some good ones to the left, too, though).
- Take it slow and enjoy perusing all of the unique and quirky shops!
Sydney puts on a spectacular festival every year called Vivid Sydney. It’s billed as a “light, music and ideas festival” that features a city-wide light show, musical performances, and speakers and seminars over a three-week period.
We elected to enjoy the festival by boat, where we could get panoramic views from Sydney Harbour of a number of Sydney landmarks in full illumination.
This is what we were treated with.
A harbour cruise on any other day would have been a great choice, but this was simply spectacular. There’s no way to adequately show in photos how impressive the lights looked shining up to infinity. And the projection mapping on the Opera House that seemed to shape shift the entire building.
Another capture from #VividSydney, and one of the crispest, considering we were on a moving boat. 😆 ••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••• In its tenth year, Vivid Sydney is a festival of lights, music and ideas. The most visible part, of course, are the art and light installations that take over the city. But in addition, the festival features music acts from across Australia and the world and hosts talks with industry leaders and influencers to inspire and shape the future. It lasts nearly a month so you can pretty much guarantee you’ll be able to take part if you’re in Sydney from late May to mid-June! •••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••• #sonya6000 #nightphotography #justgoshoot #seeaustralia #ilovesydney #australia_shotz #natgeoyourshot #lpfanphoto #natgeotravel #livetravelchannel #tlpicks #sonyalpha
If you go:
- Note the dates – the festival runs from May to June each year.
- Be sure to plan ahead for any music performances or talks, which require tickets.
- Groupon and Scoopon offer deals on discounted harbour cruises during the festival.
- The Royal Botanic Garden has loads of light displays that are great to walk through at night.
- Layer up! It’s winter and the nights get quite chilly.
The Grounds of Alexandria
The expansive restaurant and market was built on an old parking lot in a former industrial complex, and transformed with overflowing gardens throughout its generous indoor-outdoor spaces.
Distinct dining and market areas allow guests to choose their own experience: sitting down for breakfast indoors in a retro-pastoral setting, sipping coffee under a canopy of vines, or browsing the bouquets of flowers amid colorful streamers and plastic flamingos.
They even have a resident pig named Kevin Bacon!
He’ll be retiring from restaurant life later this year, but in the meantime the Grounds will be celebrating with 7 Weeks of Kevin.
Oh, and the food was great too (it’s easy to get distracted from the main event when the location is so pretty). Is it surprising that a simple coffee and order of avocado toast would come out looking like this? The Grounds of Alexandria doesn’t do anything halfway.
If you go:
- Be prepared for crowds.
- Don’t give up on finding the parking garage, even after going down weird back alleys and following small green signs seemingly forever. There IS a garage, it’s just tucked away. The signs will get you there eventually.
- Be a nice person and take a photo (or seven) for someone. They’ll return the favor!
- Celebrate a birthday there. They will sing for you and bring you dessert with a sparkler in it!
The rain persisted for most of the time I was in Sydney, but I got fed up with being indoors and decided to do a coastal walk anyway. I made my way to Rose Bay, an affluent enclave with a trails along the rocky coastline that offer stunning views of the Sydney skyline.
I set out on the Hermitage Foreshore Walk, a short 1.8-km jaunt from the Hermitage Foreshore Reserve to Nielsen Park.
I was treated to beautiful harbour and skyline views the whole way.
The walk was mostly paved, with a few beach crossings along the way. Some stairs helped make it a good workout, though it wasn’t at all difficult.
This is a great walk to take slowly so you can enjoy all of the views of the city.
- The trailhead isn’t easy to spot. Be sure to look it up ahead of time and follow the signs down to the start of the trail.
- Wear appropriate shoes – you will be crossing over beaches.
- Be sure to read the informational signs about the vegetation and conservation efforts along the coast.
- Bus service is available all along Vaucluse Road, which runs parallel to the trail.
Bondi to Coogee Coastal Walk
The following morning my friends and I woke up early to watch the sunrise from Bondi Beach. In addition to the Sydney Opera House, Bondi Beach is another Sydney landmark that I had always wanted to see with my own eyes.
We grabbed coffee at the famous Bondi Icebergs Club and watched the waves crash over the pool while surfers idled in the bay eyeing the swells.
Icebergs is one of the city’s most photographed spots, and it’s easy to see why.
After the sunrise I jumped on the Bondi to Coogee coastal trail. I immediately saw the differences between it and the Hermitage Foreshore Walk: it was at least twice the distance over higher, rockier cliffs, and offered spectacular views of the South Pacific.
The entire trail was paved, and there were plenty of opportunities to enter and exit it to check out beaches or neighborhoods along the way.
I chose to hike all of it in one go, walking at a leisurely pace and stopping frequently to admire the view and take photos.
I still can’t believe just how blue the water was. And the beauty of the cliffs with their water-eroded, windswept rocks. It was a stunning natural landscape for being so close to a city of more than five million people.
If you go:
- You can begin the trail in Bondi or Coogee, or pick it up along the route. Just choose a beach and the direction you’re headed, and start walking!
- There are restroom facilities at every beach.
- Wear sunscreen! You will be exposed the entire time.
- Whether you start or end in Coogee, grab a refreshment at the Coogee Pavilion just off the trail. It’s another Merivale restaurant and has loads of cute seating areas and food/drink choices.
- Whether you start or end in Bondi, get a coffee or a cocktail at Bondi Icebergs Club. The views are to die for!
- The trail has lots of great opportunities to get the ‘gram. If that’s your thing, go for it! You don’t have to wear athletic clothes/shoes on the trail (it’s all paved), though it is a long walk from end to end.
- Buses are available just off the beach in both Bondi and Coogee.
Hunter Valley Wine Tour
One thing that I had wanted to do while I was in Australia was visit a winemaking region. The closest one to Sydney is the Hunter Valley, and luckily for us, tours buses go up daily.
We hopped on a tour bus so we wouldn’t have to designate a sober driver. The bus took us two hours north to Pokolbin, where we had four wine tastings and samplings of local chocolates, olive oils, and cheese.
My takeaway from the tour was simply that you get what you pay for. We had found a discounted tour online, and the full day of tastings ended up only being about AUD $45 per person. It was a fantastic price for what we were getting, and we definitely got to sample a lot of wine and goods.
What the tour lacked was context: we learned virtually nothing about the Hunter Valley, Australia’s wine industry, and the wineries themselves. But it was still a good value considering our transportation, lunch, and all of the tastings were included.
- If your goal is to get the best quality tour, do your research and don’t simply go with the cheapest one like we did.
- If your goal is to get a lot of alcohol cheaply, our tour would do the trick. We booked with Amazing Tours Sydney using Aussie deals website Scoopon.
- If you like to buy gifts or souvenirs during your travels, be sure to save room in your suitcase for all of the wine, chocolate, specialty liquor, olive oils, and other local goods you can buy in the Hunter Valley.
- Don’t forget to enjoy the scenery of the beautiful Hunter Valley!
The Final Word
In the end, I think the Sydney itinerary we put together was about as good as it could get. There’s certainly more I could have done if I’d had more time, but I think the variety of activities we planned was perfect. I got a taste of the history, the iconic landmarks, the beach culture, the wine country, and the city’s eclectic neighborhoods. It left me satisfied but still eager to return.
What’s your take on what I did? Are there Sydney landmarks that you’d like to check out, or if you’re a local, that you think everyone should experience? Let me know in the comments!