Sydney is the third most expensive city in the world, according to 2013 statistics, which place it behind Japan’s Osaka and Tokyo. A strong Australian dollar means the country’s unofficial capital can easily bleed your pockets. The good news is, as with any big city, there is still plenty left to do on a budget. For my first Big Five City Guide feature, I tackled this cosmopolis based on my recent adventures there as a solo backpacker.
1. Harbour Bridge Walk
You have to get onto the famous bridge in one way or another: by walking, driving, or even climbing. While the pylon climb may be unforgettable (I know a couple from England who did it and raved about it), if you’re on a budget you can forget it: it runs you roughly $300. Instead, simply walk across it. And I’m not talking about joining one of the preorganized walking tours (they also charge you) – you can do it for free. Head out to the Rocks and find the launch point where the tours depart, then look for the partially hidden staircase that looks like it was built into a wall. Climb a few flights to bridge level, then the rest is yours. The view of the harbor and Opera House are breathtaking.
2. Royal Botanic Gardens
Most cities proudly boast their own botanic gardens, and I’ve been through many of them. Aside from lovely buds and sprawling lawns, I particularly enjoyed Sydney’s because you get the added bonus of a waterfront ambience mingled with the park setting. Stroll along the harbor promenade behind the seawall, and hike up to Mrs. Macquarie’s Chair for the best view of the Harbour Bridge and Opera House together (just try to avoid mid-morning and mid-afternoon tour busses.) My favorite part was finding a quiet, secluded spot up on the hill and watching the sun set behind the bridge and opera house. You’ll even share the view with wild parakeets.
3. Bondi to Coogee Beach Walk
The walk itself only takes about 1-2 hours (3-4 hours return), but you could easily stretch it into a day-long adventure. This gorgeous stretch of coastline on Sydney’s outskirts is especially enjoyable on a warm summer day, when the sun drenches the craggy cliffsides and the ocean seems impossibly blue. Start in either Bondi or Coogee and end up at the other, where you can catch public transport back into the city or walk back to your starting point. The trail is paved and well-posted, passing through several smaller beaches along the way. You can walk the entire length or just sections of it; and be sure to bring a lunch so you can stop and picnic along the way. Also required: camera, hat, sunglasses, and lots of sunscreen.
4. Bondi Beach
Join the rest of the bronzed locals and soak up the rays at famous Bondi Beach – mingle with the “Bondi Beauties” (but don’t disturb their coconut-oiled siestas) and go for a swim, catch some waves, or just work on your own tan. The beach is large with plenty of sand real estate, but check the current conditions before you head out with a board. There are also enclosed swimming pools at various fitness centers nearby, all of which border the ocean and often receive backsplash from the waves.
5. Watson’s Bay
This suburb is a delightful little undiscovered gem. Thanks to a local’s recommendation, my roommate and I took off on a ferry and docked on the tiny peninsula of Watson’s Bay. Aside from a seafood restaurant, pretty little harbor, and itty bitty stretch of sandy beach, we initially wondered what else there was to do. But just hike up through the park in the middle of town to the ocean side of the peninsula (it’s a 5-10 minute walk, don’t worry) and you’ll see why the locals recommend it: the views are spectacular. Walk along the cliffs and climb up to the lookout point, where you are greeted with a salty ocean breeze, sweeping views of the South Pacific on one side, and the city skyline of Sydney on the other.
1. $$: Koala Breakfast at Sydney Wildlife World
Australia’s native species are on display in natural settings at this relatively new wildlife center, including kangaroo and wallaby exhibits, and an open koala enclosure. You can see the world’s deadliest snake, one of the world’s largest crocodiles (ask the zookeeper how they moved him into his “bachelor pad”!), and a whole entourage of colorful characters. For a truly memorable experience, splurge a little on the weekend-only Koala Breakfast – you’ll get a private tour of the park before the crowds, a fantastic buffet breakfast, and a picture with the koalas.
2. $: Manly Ferry
The iconic Manly Ferry is a fun and scenic way to get to the little island of Manly. It takes about 30 minutes to make the trip, offering you front-row views of the Harbor Bridge and the Opera House, as well as the boats docked in the Manly harbor and, off in the distance, the open ocean. Time the trip with sunset, and everything will look even more spectacular. (Best of all, if you purchase the below-mentioned My MultiPass for your stay in Sydney, the Manly Ferry is free!)
3. $$: Sealife Aquarium
Sydney’s famous aquarium is huge, filled with a million fish, penguins, and turtles, as well as special exhibits for deep-sea creatures like transparent jellyfish and seahorses, striped reef crustaceans and the biggest crab I have ever seen (it takes up half of a floor-to-ceiling tank wall). Best of all are the underwater tunnels through the shark enclosures: walk beneath Jaws’ cousins, saw-nosed sharks, and manatees. (Buy a ticket in combination with the Wildlife World and you’ll save.)
4. $$-$$$$: Dinner on Darling Harbour
Sydney is a culinary haven for food snobs, filled with more choices in cuisine and flavors than your food-hungry heart will know what to do with. Unfortunately, they come at a price – and usually a high one. My recommendation: buy your own groceries and self-cater as much as you can during your stay, and splurge on one good meal at Darling Harbour. The promenades stretch into Cockle Bay Wharf, where there are more restaurants, cafes, and bistros than you can count. Time your dinner right (between 7-9pm) and you’ll enjoy a golden sunset sparkling on the waters, followed by the bright lights of the high rise buildings reflected in the dark water.
5. $$: My MultiPass
If you’re going to be in Sydney for several days, or if you just plan on doing a lot of moving around (via trams, busses, ferries, etc.) it’s definitely worth investing in a My MultiPass. It gives you unlimited travel on all the ferries, busses, and trams inside certain zones (for example, a zone 1-only pass is $45 for 7 days and includes the above-mentioned Manly ferry, the ferry to Watson’s Bay, and busses to and from Bondi, in addition to all the inner city transportation.) Furthermore, if you’re going to sleep outside the city center, the pass will be worth your while for this alone; point-to-point tickets into town every day will add up quickly. Even if you don’t do anything else in Sydney, a MultiPass will allow you to take dozens of “free” self-guided tours on water and on land.
For even more recommendations and reviews on this beautiful city, check out my Sydney guides on Gogobot and Tripoto!