A little bohemian, a little sophisticated and a whole lot of fun, laid-back Sydney is a product of its natural environment. From the vast expanse of the South Pacific to the bays and beaches dotted with islands, it’s difficult to find a city whose visual impact packs more punch. Whether visitor or returning Sydneysider, the first glimpse of the sails of the Opera House floating on a sea of twinkling turquoise will lift the spirits of the most weary traveller.
For many thousands of years the Cadigal people lived here and today Aboriginal engravings and rock art can still be found. To learn more about indigenous culture catch a performance by the Bangarra Dance Theatre or visit the Yiribana Gallery at the Art Gallery of New South Wales.
For a taste of convict-era Sydney head to The Rocks, a stone’s throw from Circular Quay, where the first European settlers moored back in 1788. The Rocks is now a hub of 19th-century warehouses that have been converted to stylish restaurants, galleries, artisan markets and breweries. And that’s the thing — Sydney is both postcard and playground.
This is also a city of villages — from stylish Paddington to artsy Redfern, or edgy Newtown to fashionable Surry Hills, each neighbourhood has its own distinct personality with a plethora of cafes, bars, restaurants, boutiques and urban eccentrics.
But most of all Sydney is a place to wander; down leafy lanes lined with quaint terrace cottages, along creaking harbour-side wharves, and past Victorian-era beauties. You’ll discover she’s a chameleon, too: spring sees the city cloaked in purple jacaranda petals, summer is all bronze and gold, autumn is orange leaves and dappled light, winter is cobalt-blue seas and humpback whales. No need to pinch yourself. It’s real.
Food glorious food
Sydney’s multicultural heritage, talented chefs, fresh produce and superb locations have created one of the world’s most exciting food scenes. Voted 2013’s Best New Restaurant by the Sydney Morning Herald, Momofuku Seiobo is acclaimed chef David Chang’s first restaurant outside of New York City. Although its degustation menu is getting all the press, there’s also a little-known bar menu, served to a few fortunate walk-ins each night.
For knock-out views of the harbour it’s difficult to go past chef Peter Gilmore’s Quay, which recently made San Pellegrino World’s 50 Best Restaurants list for the fifth year in a row. Of course, you can’t beat dining by the seaside. Perched above Bondi Beach, Icebergs Dining Room & Bar offers a Mediterranean menu and a relaxed yet elegant atmosphere, while a ferry to Manly will bring you to Hugos for contemporary Italian cuisine and harbour views.
The villages are home to gems as well. 121BC is an Italian wine bar with a wine list of more than 300 bottles and tapas-style dishes. Lucio’s restaurant in Paddington, a Sydney institution for 30 years, serves authentic Italian fare in a dining room adorned with fabulous artwork.
Sydneysiders also love their food trucks (there are nine roaming the city), Eveleigh Farmers’ Market, and Messina Gelato, which has been voted the best gelato in Australia.
Quay: Overseas Passenger Terminal, The Rocks. quay.com.au
Momofuku Seiobo: 80 Pyrmont St, Pyrmont. momofuku.com
121BC: 4/50 Holt St, Surry Hills. 121bc.com.au
Icebergs Dining Room & Bar: 1 Notts Ave, Bondi Beach. idrb.com
Lucio’s: 47 Windsor St, Paddington. lucios.com.au
Eveleigh Farmers’ Market: 243 Wilson St, Darlington. eveleighmarket.com.au
Gelato Messina: Shop 1/241 Victoria St, Darlinghurst (also stores at Pyrmont and Surry Hills). gelatomessina.com
Sydney Food Trucks: Nine sites. sydneyfoodtrucks.com.au
Sydneysiders know how to party. From one epic New Year’s Eve fireworks to the next, the entertainment calendar doesn’t draw breath; starting with the month-long Sydney Festival (9-26 Jan 2014) before moving on to Mardi Gras (7 Feb-2 Mar 2014), Vivid Sydney (May-June), Art & About (20 Sep-20 Oct 2013), and The Sydney Morning Herald Good Food Month (October).
Perhaps the most exciting development has been the change in licensing laws, which has seen small bars popping up in anything from T-shirt shops to record stores. Prior to this, Sydneysiders had a choice between hearty pubs or glitzy cocktail bars, with very little in between.
The Baxter Inn is packed with personality — down a dingy lane, down some dingier steps — this Prohibition era-style bar has 300 bottles of whiskey on its shelves. Stitch offers up fine hotdogs and cool cocktails in the basement of a dressmaker’s shopfront, while Palmer and Co is a speakeasy that serves old-school cocktails.
It’s not all shadowy cellars; some bars are turning up the glitz. Gilt Lounge in the new boutique QT hotel is sexy and sophisticated, or you can head to the Opera Bar on the concourse level of the Opera House for unrivalled views of the house and the bridge.
Beer lovers will be in hop heaven at the Lord Nelson Brewery, Sydney’s oldest continually licensed hotel, while the 4 Pines Brewing Company gives you another reason to hop on the Manly ferry — Guinness and beef pie.
Gilt Lounge: QT Hotel, 49 Market Street. qtsydney.com.au
The Baxter Inn: 152-156 Clarence St. thebaxterinn.com
Palmer and Co: Abercrombie Lane. merivale.com.au/palmerandco
Stitch Bar: 61 York St. stitchbar.com
Opera Bar: Lower Concourse, Opera House. operabar.com.au
4 Pines Brewing Company: 29/43-45 East Esplanade Manly. 4pinesbeer.com.au
Lord Nelson Brewery: 19 Kent St, The Rocks. lordnelsonbrewery.com
Piles of style
Sydney’s style is both effortlessly sexy and fun and is best found away from the congested thoroughfare of Pitt Street Mall. In-the-know locals with a passion for home-grown fashion head to The Intersection in Paddington on the corner of Glenmore and Oxford streets, a chic strip of emerging and established Australian designers. With the charm of a Parisian lane and the edginess of New York, boutiques include Ksubi, Ellery, Sass and Bide anad Josh Goot. There’s even a Walk of Style, where names of important designers have been immortalised on plaques embedded in the pavement.
Continue along Oxford Street for funkier boutiques and high-street fashion, but also check out the lanes for vintage and boho clothing. For fashion that won’t hurt your hip pocket head to Paddington Markets, an open-air affair with more than 250 stalls selling fashion, jewellery, original art and quality local products.
Other fashion hot-spots include Military Road in Mosman, Crown Street in Surry Hills, Queen Street in Woollahra and Darling Street in Balmain. For clothes with a funky bohemian edge head to King Street in Newtown, a glorious hub of creativity where everyone is welcome.
For a touch of old-world glamour, visit the Queen Victoria Building and Strand Arcade, both in the Central Business District and as popular for their beautifully restored interiors as they are for their fashion boutiques.
The Intersection: Corner of Oxford and Glenmore Rds, Paddington. theintersectionpaddington.com.au
Paddington Markets: 395 Oxford St, Paddington. paddingtonmarkets.com.au
Strand Arcade: 412-414 George St. strandarcade.com.au
Queen Victoria Building: 455 George St. qvb.com.au
Top 10 local tips
01 Take part in the 16-mile 7 Bridges Walk if you’re here on 27 October, crossing the Harbour, Pyrmont, Gladesville and Fig Tree bridges among others. 7bridgeswalk.com.au
02 The free Sydney CBD Shuttle runs from 9.30am on a loop from Central Station to Circular Quay. sydneybuses.info
03 Visit the Art Gallery of NSW on Wednesday night for Art After Hours. Free events include talks and music. artgallery.nsw.gov.au
04 Go whale watching (May-November). Forget an expensive cruise — pop over to North or South Head for cliff-side action.
05 Friday is the busiest night in the CBD and queues are common. Head to one of the villages or visit on a Saturday night instead.
06 Take a dip in a rock pool. Sydney has more than 40 public 50-metre pools carved out of the rocks at the ocean’s edge.
07 Go island-hopping in Sydney Harbour — Cockatoo Island even has camping. harbourcityferries.com.au
08 Taronga Zoo offers a Roar & Snore package where guests spend the night in the zoo in safari tents. taronga.org.au
09 Purchase a weekly MyMulti ticket, from A$44 (£25.85) for unlimited travel on trains, buses, government ferries and light-rail. sydneytrains.info
10 Visit the Paddington Reservoir Gardens. cityofsydney.nsw.gov.au
On Screen: Phillip Noyce’s Newsfront (1978), Peter Weir’s The Last Wave (1977) and the ABC TV series Redfern Now.
Books: Sydney, by Delia Falconer. RRP: £18.30. (University of New South Wales Press)
Five Bells, by Gail Jones. RRP: £12.20. (Vintage)
Seven Poor Men of Sydney, by Christina Stead. RRP: £21. (Peter Davies)
Sydney Harbour: A History, by Ian Hoskins. RRP: £24.40. (University of New South Wales Press)
Published in the October 2013 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)