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The top 14 ways to enjoy Sydney: Welcome to the leisure zone

By Sue Tidy on 7th December 2016

Of all Australias coastal cities Sydney is the one that seems to have it all. From the beautiful natural harbour with its two iconic landmarks and the distinction of being the first colony, it reveals itself to be so much more.

There are the grand 19th century buildings of the museum and art gallery, built from golden sandstone and inviting you in to see their cultural treasures.

Or the chance to see some of Australia’s unique wildlife such as cuddly koalas, scary sharks or whales in the wild.

Nature lovers can walk the coastal paths or stroll through fragrant gardens whilst history buffs are well catered for with tours of the original settlement and the excellent maritime museum.

For the best views of the city you can walk around the edge of the tallest building or climb the Harbour Bridge and there are countless ways to experience the harbour itself, from tall ship cruises to tandem skydives!

It is a big friendly city bursting at the seams with things to do and I have chosen a selection that showcases what is unique about Sydney.

A bonus is that all these experiences are shared with you by the Sydneysiders themselves who are proud of their city and love to show it off to you, especially the tour guides with their Aussie mix of expertise and dry humour.

Sydney Opera House
Sydney Opera House

1 – The Rocks area

This is the most historic part of Sydney as it was here that in 1788 the original convict colony was set up. It is now a mix of old colonial buildings and restored warehouses converted into bars, shops and restaurants.

Why not visit the Rocks Discovery Museum which tells the story of the Rocks area from pre colonial time to the present day. Or if you prefer a more interactive approach then take a private tour to explore the origins of Australias first city.

To learn more about the fascinating convict history then pop along to the Hyde Park Barracks and find out how this inauspicious beginning made Sydney into the city it is today.

2 – Wild Life Sydney Zoo

This great little zoo has over 100 species of Aussie animals, insects and reptiles.

From quokkas to kookaburras and wallabies to wombats, they are housed in 10 distinct zones replicating their natural habitats.

As a special treat you could opt for the Koala Breakfast Package. This runs on weekends from 7.30am and includes zoo entry, a guided tour, breakfast with the koalas, and a cuddle and photo with the little cuties.

3 – The Domain

This is a huge public park curving around Farm Cove. You can visit the Royal Botanical Gardens, watch the locals playing cricket in their lunchbreak or walk the footpath around the park taking in the views of the harbour.

Also situated in the park is the Art Gallery of NSW which has a good selection of European, Asian and Australian art from the 15th century to the present day. The Yiribana Gallery contains Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artwork.

4 – National Maritime Museum

Not only is this a great museum for anyone interested in sea life through the ages, it has the huge bonus of allowing you to wander about on real seafaring craft!

You can visit the submarine HMAS Onslow, go onboard the destroyer HMAS Vampire and tread the decks of the replica of James Cooks ship HMB Endeavour.

All craft are manned by volunteers and you can stay as long as you want, exploring and asking questions.

5 – Sydney Aquarium

There are over 650 species of sea life to see here, and highlights include the rare dugongs, the Shark Walk and The Great Barrier Reef exhibit.

The discovery rockpool allows you to handle sea stars and other marine creatures.

6 – Australian Museum

Get yourself down to the Australian Museum for a touch of the weird and wonderful. There are exhibits on dinosaurs, fossils, minerals and skeletons as well as artefacts from indigenous cultures and the Pacific islands. ( Including some VERY creepy masks).

The resource centre Search and Discover is great, you can look through drawers of dead specimens and examine them under microscopes and touch stuffed animals such as a potaroo or a bandicoot.

Do be aware that not all exhibits are dead. I liked the cuttlefish and tree frogs but was less enamoured with the big huntsman and trapdoor spiders.

7 – Chinese Garden of Friendship

Ignore all the skyscrapers in the background and enjoy a walled oasis in the centre of the city. You can wander through twisting paths with waterfalls, pagodas and exotic plants then chill out in the tearooms overlooking the huge pond.

8 – Diving with sharks

If you want to get up close and personal with sharks then go along to Manly Sea Life Sanctuary and join Shark Diving Xtreme.

First time divers will be given full instruction and you can spend 30 minutes in the oceanarium with sharks, stingrays and turtles.

You must be in good health and not be flying in the next 12 hours.

Sydney Harbour Bridge
Sydney Harbour Bridge

9 – Sydney Opera House

The design really has to be seen up close to appreciate it and there is a choice of guided tours to give you an insight into this Aussie icon.

Spend an evening enjoying one of the many weekly events from opera to ballet, classical music and plays.

10 – Harbour Bridge

There are a few ways to experience the bridge depending on your energy levels. You can walk across it and take some good shots of the harbour and Opera House.

Or explore the Pylon Lookout. This is a great little museum inside one of the pylons of the bridge and if you are up for the 200 step climb to the observation deck you have a 360 degree view of the city to reward you!

Of course if you have no fear of heights then you can climb it with a small group of fellow daredevils.

Note – with the bridge climb although you will get breathtaking views of Sydney for safety reasons no cameras or phones are allowed.

11 – Up in the air

You can see the sights from a helicopter, seaplane or private jet and if that is not exciting enough you could combine your sightseeing with an aerobatic ride performing loops and rolls. Or for a pure adrenaline rush, what could beat a tandem skydive over the city and the surrounding countryside?

For details of these options and more go to sydney.com/things-to-do/tours

12 – Get out in the harbour

There are several companies offering lunch and dinner cruises from Circular Quay and I particularly like this one as it offers a more intimate small group cruise with an hour at a local beach to swim, snorkel or fish.

Or what about trying something a bit different and joining a tall ship cruise for a bit of added atmosphere?

13 – Sydney Tower

This is the tallest building in Sydney and 250 metres up is the enclosed observation deck for the best photos of panoramic views over the city and beyond.

Or do a skywalk, a 45 minute guided walk over glass bottomed platforms around the outside of the tower.

As with the bridge climb all cameras and phones are banned for safety reasons.

Sydney Tower is Sydney's tallest structure
Sydney Tower is Sydney’s tallest structure

14 – Take a walk

Try the Bondi to Coogee coastal walk. It is a 6km hike with stunning views and an added bonus is a good chance of spotting some whales from the clifftops.

If whales are your thing then check out sydney.com/things-to-do/nature-and-parks/whale-watching for more ideas on how to see these magnificent creatures in their natural element.

Or take the ferry to Watsons Cove, have a spot of lunch at one of the harbour side eateries then walk it off by taking the South Head Heritage Trail walk to The Gap at the head of the harbour.

Summing Up

Sydney tells its story in a series of reveals. It teases you in with its harbour and showy icons then presents you with a city that has a rich history and natural charms and knows how to make the best of what it has got and then some.

There is something for everyone and whatever your tastes there are plenty of options to give you a carefree and memorable trip.

It is a fantastic introduction to all things Australian, especially the cheery informality, from the sing song ” Hi, how are you today ? ” to the dry wit of a man who told me that locals call the harbourmasters tower the contraceptive tower, and when I asked why he said deadpan “It controls the berths.”

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