The sturdy green and yellow ferry punches its way across the water, transporting its passengers from the seaside town of Manly to Sydney’s Circular Quay. Many are well-dressed, perhaps coming for a night at the opera, others are more casual, with leather tote bags slung low across skinny jeans. Some, dressed in board shorts and flip flops, are clearly coming back from a day down at the beach.
The late winter sun is low and lovely, striking the navy blue water and sending diamonds skimming across its surface as I lean on the railing drinking it all in: the arch of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, the billowing sails of the Opera House, the shimmering skyscrapers…
Around 160 years earlier, my great, great grandmother, Sarah Ann, had crossed the same waters after a four-month journey from Southampton, sailing into the harbour aboard Asiatic. Clutching the arm of her new husband, the sight that met her would have been vastly different to the one I’m seeing today. From a rag-tag penal settlement, Sydney had grown into a bustling commercial centre, marked by row after row of timber wharves jutting out like long, bony fingers. While wealthy neighbourhoods had sprung up around the museums, churches and parks further away, suburbs such as The Rocks and Kings Cross, within stumbling distance of the wharves, earned their bad reputations.
Originally home to the Cadigal people, Sydney has changed many times, and has always managed to incorporate the old with the new. And now, with the addition of some creative bling (and a few billion dollars), Sydney is reinventing itself again. Part of ‘Sydney 2030’, this urban renewal project plans to turn it into one of the most sustainable, cultured and creative cities in the world. From the inner harbour to the western edge of the central business district (or CBD), the vibe has already begun. Its thumping new beat can be felt in every corner, cafe and pedestrian corridor, in the cycle ways and art galleries, the promenades and public spaces.
I’ve lived, studied and worked here all my life, and never have I seen my hometown looking so good.
What to do
To take in the sights you’ll need a good map, but before you go reaching for your smartphone head to Customs House, one of Sydney’s finest heritage buildings, which has a 1:500 model of the city embedded under the glass of its ground floor. From World Heritage-listed sites, such as the Hyde Park Barracks designed by convict architect Francis Greenway, to modern works by Renzo Piano, Harry Seidler and Frank Gehry, Sydney is home to some of Australia’s most significant buildings.
On an ‘Art, Place and Landscape’ tour with Sydney Architecture Walks, I learn about the city’s evolution. “Sydney is currently going through a renaissance,” says my guide Eoghan Lewis. “We’re leading the world in design excellence.” One example is the Goods Line, a regeneration project similar to New York’s High Line, which plans to turn a 500-metre rail corridor into a pedestrian and cycle network.
For sights of a different kind, head to Kings Cross, Sydney’s former red-light district. Two Feet and a Heartbeat offers a ‘Razor’ tour that uncovers the Cross of the 1920s and 1930s when duelling gangs controlled the city’s underworld. My guide is an actor who played the role of taxi driver Fred Moffat in the popular television series Underbelly: Razor. “Though the Cross is relatively clean today, there’s still enough sleaze to keep it interesting,” he says.
Going to the beach is an essential part of the Sydney experience. At the weekend, locals head to Manly, Bondi or any one of the secluded harbour beaches such as Camp Cove, Milk Beach or Nielson Park. Sydney Harbour also has a menagerie of islands — including Goat, Shark and Cockatoo — which make an ideal day out.
If you prefer to keep your feet on terra firma, Sydney has more than 400 parks and open spaces and 150 miles of shoreline. For a coastal hike you can’t beat the 5.5-mile Bondi to Coogee Walk. Spectacular at any time of the year, the walk turns into a sculpture park every October-November during the annual Sculpture by the Sea exhibition.
One of the best is Chippendale’s White Rabbit Gallery, a former factory that houses one of the world’s largest and most significant collections of Chinese contemporary art. The (free) gallery features rotating exhibitions of post-2000 art from the owner’s private collection. And in the neighbouring suburb of Redfern is Carriageworks, a 19th-century railway yard that’s been transformed into a contemporary multi-arts centre. Current exhibitions include Hereby Make Protest, a collection of artworks recounting Aboriginal political activists and Mayakovsky, an opera telling the story of Stalin’s favourite poet.
Across town at The Rocks you’ll find the newly renovated Museum of Contemporary Art, an imposing art deco-style building on the western edge of Circular Quay. The current (though sadly temporary) Game of Thrones exhibition has been a hit with frenzied fans. And on a more genteel note, Vivid Sydney (22 May – 8 June), a winter highlight and festival of light, music and ideas transforms the city into a wonderland of light sculptures.
Where to eat
Sydney’s love affair with homegrown continues. Nomad in Surry Hills has set a new benchmark by providing a cellar door in the city where guests can learn about what’s new in Australian wine while tasting the best of local produce. Occupying a turn-of-the-century warehouse, Nomad is reviving old world techniques, such as pickling, smoking, curing and cheese making. “Seasonal produce is the best, and if you can source it directly from the producer, farmer or fisherman, then more’s the better,” says chef Nathan Sasi.
One of the most trusted names on the Sydney food scene is Fratelli Fresh. Not just a providore supplying ingredients to the city’s finest restaurants, but the name behind the popular Café Sopra and the newly opened Café Nice. Decked out with black and white stripped awnings, Café Nice serves up niçoise cuisine, a provincial blend of Italian and French influences. I loved the classic salad niçoise, which arrived as individual servings of soft-boiled egg, peppers, olives, tomatoes, celery, anchovies and tuna, ready to be tossed at the table.
Sydney has long adopted Southeast Asian cuisine as its own, just don’t go looking for lazy Susans and fortune cookies. Instead, look for Mr Wong, a high-end dumpling den hidden behind the Establishment Hotel; Neil Perry’s classy Spice Temple or China Doll on the historic finger wharf at Woolloomooloo. At the latter, I ordered a selection of small dishes — pork and peanut san choy bau, corn and zucchini cakes and Chinese mushroom spring rolls — while watching the comings and goings on the wharf.
Elsewhere, the culinary architects at Gelato Messina create ice cream masterpieces, such as poached figs in marsala, pear and rhubarb, coconut and lychee, and my personal favourite, dulce de leche (South American caramel).
Since the recent change to licensing laws, small bars are popping up like meerkats across town. The best way to make sense of them all is on an ‘Eat, Drink, Walk’ tour with Two Feet and a Heartbeat. I meet my guide Alison on York Street in the CBD. “There are now more than 120 small bars across the city,” she says. “In the space of three blocks, we’ll visit 13.”
Most bars stick to a theme: there’s Shirt Bar, which sells fine whisky, great coffee and tailored shirts; The Fox Hole with bespoke cocktails and dumplings; Papa Gede’s Bar with a zombie cocktail ‘strong enough to wake the dead’; and The Barber Shop, a hip hangout where you can choose between a cocktail or a shave. My favourite is The SG (32 York St), a basement bar with a fetish for goats. “SG stands for Spooning Goats,” says owner Jason Newton, as if I should know this (check out his grandmother’s collection of spoons behind the bar). He also loves Star Wars memorabilia and Atari video games.
For a million dollar view and arguably the best cocktails in the city, head to Blu Bar on 36, a New York-inspired drinking den on the 36th floor of the harbourside Shangri-La. While most cocktails are reasonably priced, there’s also a £5,500 Diamond Martini on the menu, complete with a one-carat diamond. But for a better bang for your buck head to the Opera Bar, a Sydney icon located on the concourse level of the Opera House, which offers front row seats to our two most-loved residents — the House and the Bridge.
Where to stay
Sydney offers everything from backpacker hostels and camping to self-contained apartments and five-star luxury. 1888 Hotel, in inner-city Pyrmont, is its newest boutique accommodation, eatery and bar. Housed in an old wool store, dating from, er, 1888, this heritage-listed, 90-room hotel blends the city’s colonial past with its contemporary present.
With original features such as ironbark beams and sash windows set against funky furniture and vibrant artwork, every nook is a photo opp — so much so that 1888 Hotel has billed itself as the world’s first Instagram hotel, where guests with more than 10,000 followers are rewarded with a free night’s stay. Rooms range from ‘shoebox’ (their word, not mine) to two-storey lofts. My King Room Deluxe was just right, with its built-in workstation, exposed brick walls and views over Murray Street.
QT Sydney is another newly opened, design-focused hotel, installed within a restored 1920s menswear store. The mood is a cross between Rocky Horror Picture Show and Pulp Fiction. You know you’re in for a bit of fun when a staff member known as the ‘Director of Chaos’ meets you at the entrance. While the rooms are flamboyant — king beds draped with blood-red fake furs and lampshades made of bowler hats — they are also thoughtfully appointed with DIY Bond-style martini kits and oversized tubs.
The Watsons Bay Boutique Hotel (formerly Doyles Palace Hotel) has been an east Sydney icon for almost 130 years. This 32-room beachside bolthole has been given a complete makeover. The refurbished Beach Club, where old-world seaside charm meets yacht-club chic, is the place to enjoy live music and fresh seafood while watching the sun go down over the city.
Qantas, Virgin Atlantic and Emirates fly via Dubai. British Airways and Singapore Airlines fly via Singapore. Thai Airways flies via Bangkok. Sydney Kingsford Smith airport is around six miles from the city, linked by trains and taxis.
Average flight time: 22 hours
Most of the main sights can be reached from the CBD by foot. Alternatively, purchase a weekly MyMulti ticket (£35/£17) for unlimited travel on trains, buses and government ferries across three zones.
Sydney Water Taxis operate a fleet water taxis for transfers, tours and charter.
When to go
Sydney is a year-round destination. From December to February (summer), the city comes alive with festivals.
Need to know
Visas: An eVisitor (free and online: immi.gov.au) and a passport with more than six- months validity.
Currency: Australian dollar (AUD$). £1=$1.82.
International dial code: 00 61 2.
Time difference: GMT +10 (+11h during daylight saving time)
How to do it
Flights with Qantas and five nights at 1888 Hotel can be bought as a package from Expedia from £1,223.
Zoo2Q offers a three-day guided walk, combining one night at Taronga Zoo and one night at the heritage Q Station, Manly. Includes all meals and ferry transfers for £659 per person.
Published in the December 2014 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)