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Visiting Sydney for the First Time? Here’s What to See and Do

Tackle Sydney's must-see sights and must-do experiences on your first trip.
Hi, I'm Karen!

Karen is a Scottish freelance travel and culture writer based in the US. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, National Geographic, BBC, and Condé Nast Traveler.

Spectacular Sydney is a knockout of a city, blessed not only with natural beauty but also a dazzling harbor and world-famous attractions such as the Sydney Opera House. Unquestionably beautiful and universally alluring, Sydney is the kind of city that travel dreams are made of. The city has much more to offer than is possible to fit into just one trip, but here are some suggestions that will get you started—and planning a return visit.

1. Visit the Sydney Opera House

The Sydney Opera House on a sunny day in Australia.
The Sydney Opera House is hard to miss.Photo Credit: Ingus Kruklitis / Shutterstock

Admire the architectural drama of the harbor.

The soaring white sails of the Jørn Utzon–designed Sydney Opera House have a commanding presence on the foreshore of Sydney Harbour. For all the drama of the building’s exterior, it’s easy to forget that the interior is home to a world-class performing arts venue. Book a guided tour to get an up-close look and insights into the building’s history and architecture. Then, experience the Sydney Opera House the way it was intended—by attending a show.

Insider tip: Evening packages allow you to pair a performance with dinner.

2. See the Harbour Bridge up close

Sydney Harbour Bridge and the sidewalk leading up to it.
Sydney Harbour Bridge is the most famous bridge in the country.Photo Credit: FiledIMAGE / Shutterstock

View Sydney Harbour’s grand centerpiece.

Just like with the Opera House, it’s hard to miss the colossal Sydney Harbour Bridge. But it’s worth getting a closer view of its scale and beauty. Take a walk or cycle across the bridge from the Rocks to Milsons Point; sail or kayak underneath it; or, if you’re feeling adventurous, climb the steel bridge to the summit and enjoy unrivaled harbor views from a height of 440 feet (134 meters).

3. Get out onto the water with a cruise

A cruise ship plies the waters of Sydney in Australia.
When in Sydney, take to the waters.Photo Credit: Jon Ingall / Shutterstock

See the city from a new perspective.

Historically a maritime city, Sydney has plenty of options for getting out onto the water. The Sydney Ferries network is a critical link in the city’s public transportation system and a great way to explore the harbor. The 20-minute trip from Circular Quay to Darling Harbour passes beneath the Harbour Bridge and goes around the Opera House. If you’d prefer an interpretive experience, opt for a hop-on hop-off sightseeing cruise or treat yourself to an evening of fine dining paired with spectacular views on a dinner cruise.

4. Soak up the sun on Bondi

Surfers and sunbathers on Bondi Beach in Australia.
Head to Bondi Beach for surf and sun.Photo Credit: Dan Breckwoldt / Shutterstock

Check out the scene on Sydney’s best-known beach.

Just 5 miles (8 kilometers) from the city center, Bondi Beach is a Sydney landmark and one of the world’s great beaches. Blessed with powdery sand and warm turquoise waters, Bondi is an alluring place to pass the day away sunbathing and people-watching. It’s also a great place to catch some waves during a surfing lesson. After soaking up some sun and chilling on the sand, stretch your legs by embarking on a coastal walk from Bondi Beach to Bronte or Coogee.

5. Stroll around the Royal Botanic Garden

Bright flower beds and the lawn of Royal Botanic Garden in Sydney.
When in Sydney, smell the flowers.Photo Credit: Jay Stocker / Shutterstock

Get a breath of fragrant air at this downtown oasis.

A leafy oasis in the heart of the city, Sydney’s Royal Botanic Garden and the Domain, its neighboring park, stretch along the shore of Sydney Harbour. The garden’s exotic plants, rain forest, woodland, hothouses, glasshouses, grassy knolls, and shady picnic spots are situated on 74 acres (30 hectares) against the stunning backdrop of the Sydney Opera House. Before the Royal Botanic Garden was established in 1816, the land here was an important ceremonial site for the Gadigal (Cadigal) people. Learn more about the garden and its long history on a cultural tour with an Aboriginal guide.

6. Get wild at Taronga Zoo

A show takes place before an audience by the water at Taronga Zoo in Sydney.
See a show, and enjoy the views, from Taronga Zoo.Photo Credit: Keitma / Shutterstock

Meet koalas and kangaroos on a family-friendly day out.

If it’s your first time “Down Under,” you’re doubtless keen to meet some of Australia’s native critters. Jump on the ferry to Taronga Zoo, a sprawling sanctuary that is home to more than 4,000 animals from 350 species including koalas, kangaroos, and platypuses. Experience the best of the zoo with a guided, behind-the-scenes tour with a zookeeper, or by participating in a supervised up-close encounter with koalas, giraffes, elephants, and more. You can even stay overnight at the zoo in a safari-style tent.

7. Journey back in time at The Rocks

Twilight at The Rocks by the water in Sydney in Australia, with cars on the road.
The Rocks is home to plenty of historic buildings.Photo Credit: Taras Vyshnya / Shutterstock

Explore Sydney’s convict history.

Early colonial settlers and convicts made their home in precariously built shelters in the Rocks, a small district close to the center. Even today, the area bears traces of its colorful past in its atmospheric lanes lined with historic buildings. Take a walking tour to uncover the district’s secrets; learn more about the city’s history at the Rocks Discovery Museum; browse for local crafts and sample street food at the weekend Rocks Market; and have a pint or two in a historic pub, such as the Lord Nelson, which has been serving Sydneysiders and visitors since 1941.

8. Chill out on Manly Beach

Manly Beach in Sydney, Australia.
Manly Beach is just 30 minutes away from Sydney's city center.Photo Credit: Taras Vyshnya / Shutterstock

Sunbathe, surf, shop, and sip in Manly.

The golden sands of Manly Beach are just 30 minutes from the center of Sydney via one of the world’s most scenic ferry journeys departing from Circular Quay. It’s well worth spending a day in the lively suburb of Manly, which is home to not only to a beautiful beach with world-class waves, but also a fine selection of bars, restaurants, and entertainment, mostly concentrated along the part-pedestrian mall, The Corso.

9. Visit the Australian Museum

The exterior of the Australian Museum.
The Australian Museum houses fossilized skeletons and life-size casts of dinosaurs.Photo Credit: Maurizio De Mattei / Shutterstock

Discover the country without leaving Sydney.

Visit the Australian Museum for insights into the remarkable flora, fauna, and cultures of Australia and the Pacific. The museum takes visitors on a journey around the country without leaving Sydney, from the First Nations and Pacific Spirit galleries to the “Surviving Australia” exhibit, which celebrates Australia’s unique wildlife. The museum even journeys deep into the past with its crowd-pleasing fossilized skeletons and life-size casts of dinosaurs, including the Stegosaurus and T.Rex.

10. Explore Sydney Chinatown

People roaming Sydney Chinatown.
Sydney Chinatown is a great option for delicious grubs.Photo Credit: Alana Dimou / Viator

Soak up the sights, sounds, and flavors of this colorful neighborhood.

Sydney Chinatown is filled to the brim with restaurants, groceries, markets, and unique stores—and it’s the perfect place for a food tour. The pedestrian thoroughfare of Dixon Street is a great spot for a stroll and a bite to eat any time of the year, but really comes alive during the spectacular Lunar New Year celebrations in January or February. It’s also well worth catching a show at the Capitol Theatre, a beautiful heritage-listed venue on Campbell Street.

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