Hack the Hidden City: Sydney doesn’t mean splashing out

Travel hacks

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Visiting Sydney on a budget: what to do, what to see, hidden places and secret beaches, street food, drink and nightlife ideas, as well as tips, trips and tricks for sights in the surrounding region

Sydney is one of the few cities for which the word ‘iconic’ can be correctly used, but it’s also huge, sprawling, busy, and can be pretty expensive. However, here at Kiwi.com, we’ve hacked the city and brought you a guide to the best things to see and do, where to eat, drink and relax, and how to find your perfect bit of beach.

Get the picture

View of Sydney Harbour Bridge at night from Mrs Macquarie's Chair — ShutterstockView of the Harbour Bridge and the Opera House from Mrs Macquarie’s Chair — Shutterstock

Wherever you go in Sydney, you’ll find one almost universal truth: if you’re by the water, you can probably see the Harbour Bridge and the Opera House. These two constants are so emblematic not only of Sydney, but of the country as a whole, that it’s hard to avoid them. And why would you? They’re stunning. It doesn’t matter how many times you’ve seen them in photos, they’re just so… there.

The best photography spots include Mrs Macquarie’s Chair, a sandstone outcrop to the east (Opera House) side that’s a great place to get the bridge, Opera House and sunset all in one amazing shot. On the same side of the water but to the west is Hickson Road Reserve; you get a great view of the opera house, and a curious angle of the underside of the bridge. Observatory Hill looks almost directly across the bridge into North Sydney, and on that side, both Wendy’s Secret Garden and the Luna Park give great compositions combining boats, architecture, fun and nature.

Above view of Sydney's high-rise building, with Sydney Tower in the foreground — ShutterstockSydney Tower is the second tallest observation tower in the southern hemisphere — Shutterstock

The whole of Sydney is very flat indeed, so finding a high point to get your bearings is a challenge. There are lookout points, but an overview of the city isn’t really doable naturally. However, try Manns Point for a view of the whole harbor (or as much of it as is viable) and the glinting towers of the Central Business District (CBD), look back on the distant city from Manly’s Fairfax Lookout, or from the west at Berrys Bay Lookout. Finally, if you really need to get up high, Sydney Tower is the second tallest observation tower in the southern hemisphere, or you could choose to take part in a BridgeClimb and see the city from the top of the Harbour Bridge itself. This is far from cheap, however ($248 is currently the lowest price), so you might prefer to keep your feet on the ground!

Into the suburbs

Once you’ve got your bearings, it’s time to range a little further from the center and explore everyday Sydney.

Newtown and Surry Hills

Two women with milkshakes, taking a selfie in Surry Hills — iStockSurry Hills is a pleasant place to spend a relaxed afternoon with a gin-based drink, or even just a milkshake — iStock

South of the harbor you’ll find the quirky, boho neighborhood of Newtown. Home to the University of Sydney and its beautiful, neo-Gothic sandstone buildings, it’s the place to be for second-hand bookstores and record shops, microbreweries and burger places, as well as Thai, Vietnamese, and all manner of other Asian street food. For ten blocks or more, streets of solid 19th-century brick buildings branch off from the central artery of King Street, housing vintage clothing, designer boutiques, antique centers and other wonderful oddities like community theaters, Nigerian and Sri Lankan restaurants, and shops selling nothing but house plants.

A brief jog to the northeast and you’re in Surry Hills, close enough to Newtown to still feel cool, but less frantic and knowingly hip. It’s an area of art galleries and theaters, and some of Sydney’s best cafes and bars, full of locals happily people-watching. It’s less studenty, with dive bars replaced by whiskey bars and a high-class gin distillery, but it still feels friendly and alive.

Alexandria and Rosebery

Pond with artistic water feature in Sydney Park — ShutterstockThe 40-hectare Sydney Park is one of the city’s more tranquil spots — Shutterstock

Toward the airport, the former industrial areas of Alexandria and Rosebery sit next to each other, and their former factories are now home to everything from an amusement center (bumper cars, arcade games, bowling, etc.) that becomes an after-dark cocktail bar, to an indoor climbing center, or an axe-throwing venue.

The beautiful and much-Instagrammed Grounds of Alexandria is a stunning cafe with its own kitchen garden and a small family of farm animals, while the 40-hectare Sydney Park is somewhere to hang out away from the hubbub of the city, with landscaped gardens and wild wetlands to explore.

Naturally, these are only a couple of the thousands of neighborhoods that make up the sprawling city, but they’re a great place to begin to meet the locals and see a bit more of what makes Sydney tick.

But what if you want to get out of town for a day or two?…

National parks and animal encounters

Part of the reason many people come to Australia is the incredible wildlife and the range of scenery and landscape. Cities give way to suburbs give way to bush give way to outback, until the process reverses itself hundreds of miles later. But how can you see a bit of the country — and some of the animals that live there — while still being close to Sydney?

Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park

Creek view in Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park — ShutterstockThe National Park offers plenty of creekside walking and biking trails — Shutterstock

Firstly, you could head to Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park, almost 60 square miles of beauty just north of the city. It’s not the most taxing terrain you’ll ever come across, but you get a bit of the flavor of the bush on its hiking trails and cycling routes. There are tons of walks, from beachfront wanders to hilltop hikes, with loops or end-to-ends to choose from. If you’re looking for a more relaxing day, there are campgrounds, picnic areas and fishing spots, and for a glimpse into Australia’s ancient history, the fascinating Aboriginal Heritage Walk explores rock art and engravings that are thousands of years old, and gives an insight into Aboriginal culture. The park is free to enter all year round, but if you arrive by vehicle, it’s $12 per day for a vehicle pass.

Featherdale Wildlife Park and Bungarribee Park

Tourist woman with a kangaroo — ShutterstockInteract with some of Australia’s most renowned fauna — Shutterstock

A touch pricier (well, everything is more expensive than free!) is the Featherdale Wildlife Park where you can get up close and personal with some of Australia’s celebrated creatures: koalas, kangaroos, wallabies, echidnas, even crocodiles (although the ‘getting up close’ isn’t as recommended there). 

In the nearby Bungarribee Park, there’s also Sydney Zoo. The park wends its way through Sydney’s western suburbs following the route of (confusingly) Eastern Creek, with the zoo at its southern end. Tigers, red pandas, emus and more exotic offerings are all here, and everything down to the zoo buildings themselves is environmentally conscious. Sustainable building materials coupled with energy independence through solar power and water recycling means not only is this a world-class place for animal conservation, but one that thinks locally as well as globally.

A day at the beach

Right then — to the beach! One of the draws of Sydney is that it’s built on an inlet that meanders to the furthest points west, heading off on many, many tangents along the way. This creates bays, rivers and coves that are a) beautiful, and b) mildly surprising. It also means there are a great many beaches to choose from, often hidden in virtually plain sight.

Bondi Beach is the most famous, a massive draw for tourists with its sweep of white sand and crashing waves. Manly, reachable by ferries that run every 30 minutes, is almost as popular, with calmer waters and beautiful, tree-backed promenade. But if you really want to find somewhere special, try these…

Off the beaten track

Collins Beach, sparse with people on a sunny day — iStockCollins Beach is secluded, and only reachable by boat or on foot — iStock

Hidden away on the other side of Manly’s spit of land is Collins Beach. Small, secluded, and with stunning views, it also boasts its own waterfall. If you can spot Grotto Point lighthouse from here, you might just be able to see Washaway Beach as well. Accessible only by a short trek through the bush along Lighthouse Track, it’s not just a cute name: the beach only exists at low tide, so you’ll have to get your timing right.

Milk Beach at sunset — ShutterstockMilk Beach at sunset — Shutterstock

The trendy suburb of Vaucluse is home to Milk Beach, a bathing spot with views of the Harbour Bridge and Opera House. You could also head to Nielsen Park, a friendly little beach with a curve of sand surrounded by rocks to leap off into the stunningly blue water. Just southeast is Point Piper, where you (might!) find Lady Martins Beach. It’s backed by multi-million dollar houses, so you’ll have to scoot around the Yacht Club (really!) to get access. It is public, but being so tricky to get to, it’s generally only locals who know about it.

With hundreds to choose from, all within striking distance of the city, it’s only a matter of time and exploration before you find your own friendly cove. And that’s what Sydney is in its entirety, at the end of the day: a friendly place to make your own.

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