By: Verne Maree
Given that it’s 12ºC and pouring outside, we might be forgiven for holing up in our cosy, full harbour view room and ordering room service. But having an article to write is a good incentive to get out of bed. Fortunately, we have pre-solicited recommendations from Sydneysider friends – and a few of their friends – on where to go and what to do.
On previous visits we’ve stayed for longer, hired a car and zipped around at will: through the lovely Botanic Gardens, to various picturesque harbours that make up the greater Sydney Harbour; to Bondi, Bronte and Balmoral beaches; to the red-light areas of seedy King’s Cross; to outlying nature reserves alive with wombats, wallabies, kangaroos and kiwi birds; we’ve driven to the Hunter Valley wineries and trekked through the eco-marvellous Blue Mountains.
This time, we’ve decided not to hire a car, so a central location is all-important. Marking the spot where the first settlers landed in 1788, The Rocks offers some of the best views of Sydney Harbour and the Opera House. It’s a labyrinth of winding streets and alleyways, with something for everyone: pubs, cafés and restaurants, markets and boutique shops, historic sites and excavations, museums and galleries.
In the course of what is clearly a history outing, a class of serious-looking nine-year-olds gather at the base of a plinth commemorating Sydney’s early settlers. You’d look mournful too, if they dressed you in mob-caps and arrow-print convict coveralls and sent you out into the rain without your iPad.
8 Great Things to Do in Sydney
#1 Cross a Bridge
Tip: Forget the Sydney Bridge Climb, unless you’re 13 and you’ve already bragged to your friends on Facebook that you’re going to do it. Get a map from Sydney Visitor Centre.
What we did:
Simply walked across the bridge, taking the pedestrian walkway on its eastern side from The Rocks to Milsons Point. It’s a 15-to-30 minute stroll, depending on how long you stop for photographs. Having previously done the commercial bridge climb (prices start from A$198 for adults; $148 for children), I can assure you that the views are just as spectacular; and this way, you’ll avoid having to don those silly overalls and undergo two mind-numbing hours of safety training. What’s more, it’s free. Don’t forget to climb up to the Pylon Lookout to see informative exhibits on the history and construction of the bridge.
#2 Take a Ferry
Tip: Flying into Sydney during the daytime affords brilliant views of the expansive complex of harbours and waterways that make up this amazing archipelago of a city. It almost makes up for having to leave Singapore at silly o’clock, and you’ll immediately want to board one of the ferries that connect the Circular Quay hub to Darling Harbour, Cockatoo Island, Taronga Zoo, Manly, Mosman and more.
What we did:
Took the 30-minute Manly Ferry from Circular Quay ($14 return), passing the Royal Botanic Gardens, Woolloomooloo, Double Bay and Pott’s Point. We were meeting friends at the quirky Manly Wine bar, supposedly for lunch, but more for the passing parade and the entertaining view of surfers and paddle-boarders coming to grief in icy waves.
This stretch of open-air bars with live music is very popular on summer evenings, our friend Mathilda tells us, and famous for its skimpily attired volleyball players.
#3 Visit an Outdoor Market
Tips: Outdoor markets of all types abound in Sydney, the favourites include Paddington Markets and Bondi Markets for fashion; Pyrrmont Growers Market for slow food; and Glebe Markets for just about anything second hand. The Eveleigh Market at the Carriageworks is also recommended.
What we did:
Strolled up the road to Argyle Street in The Rocks, where a Friday afternoon mini-market was on the go. Vendors were grilling everything from juicy, giant bratwursts to prawn, lamb and chicken skewers; best of all was the tongue-singeing Turkish gözleme stuffed with cheese and spinach. The Rocks hosts a farmers market on Fridays (10am to 4pm) and a popular general market on Saturdays and Sundays (10am to 5pm).
#4 Splurge on Seafood
Tip: Get to Sydney Fish Market early to see them offloading, weighing and auctioning the fish, suggests Mathilda.
What we did:
Got there about 11.30am, as my Roy is not an early riser. Happily, it’s perfect timing for viewing the vendors’ displays of fresh seafood on ice, and for washing down a platter of oysters with a bottle of Tyrrell’s bubbly.
Busloads of tourists overcrowd the market in the summer, says Mathilda. Even today it’s packed to the gills, mainly with Asian families feasting on heaps of steaming seafood. Trestle tables groan with everything from sushi to fried calamari, and king crab legs to lobster Thermidor. Prices are good: an enormous South Atlantic lobster, ready-boiled, will set you back just $25. The ubiquitous Doyles and Christie’s Seafood are just two of the half a dozen or so providers frying up a fishy storm.
A sailing school operates off the wharf during the summer, when you can sit outside and enjoy the view. The Sydney Seafood School is here, too; a voucher for one of its classes makes a great gift for a foodie friend, says Mathilda. After your lesson, you eat what you’ve cooked. And at the entrance to the market is a shop where you can buy the hardware for piscatorial preparation: spatulas, tongs, friers, poachers, lemon-squeezers and more.
#5 Get Arty
Tip: Take advantage of free galleries and you’ll have more money for wine.
What we did:
Stumbled across two free art exhibitions; first, the “fat women” outdoor sculpture exhibition by Chinese sculptor Xu Hongfei, on the wharf near the Overseas Passenger Terminal. It featured women with endearingly massive and dimply haunches: one balletically supported by a slim young man; another kissing a rotund baby; yet another doing an exuberant but unlikely pirouette on a skateboard. Superb stuff!
Next up was the excellent Museum of Contemporary Art, its entire ground floor given over to works by New York-based Kenyan artist Wangechi Mutu. Other highlights include an Aboriginal art collection, and a collection of life-sized works by Canadian photographer Jeff Wall, displayed to excellent effect in light-boxes.
#6 Go Gourmet
Tip: Australia grades its top restaurants with a cute “chef’s hat” system – anything from one to three. But there are hundreds of hatless hostelries where the food is great.
What we did:
Headed back to our favourite eatery, which just happens to be a three-hatter: Est is at the boutique Establishment Hotel (252 George Street) where we’ve stayed before. We should have booked, especially for a Saturday night, but they did manage to secure us a table for two while we wrapped ourselves around a couple of cockle-warming vesper martinis at the sophisticated Hemmesphere lounge bar on the fifth floor.
Having failed to get into the highly recommended fine dining Café Sydney on the top floor of the nearby Customs House – inexplicably closed for Sunday dinner – we settled for the almost-always-open Löwenbräu Keller (Playfair Street, The Rocks). It’s crowded with pork-guzzling stein-swillers, and the hot goulash soup followed by an unbeatable eisbein hits the spot on a wet and chilly evening.
#7 Do a Breakfast Walk
Tip: On weekends you may need to book your café ahead.
What we did:
Walked from Bronte Beach to Bondi, for breakfast at Trio Café (56 Campbell Parade; +61 2 9365 6044). Another legendary walk, our friends say, is through the bush from Manly to Spit Bridge; set aside three to four hours for this.
#8 See a Show
Tip: It doesn’t have to be at the Opera House; Sydney has plenty of other theatres. Book well in advance; good seats can sell out early.
What we did:
Saw a Sunday matinee at the intimate Belvoir Street Theatre. Set in 1985 in New York, Angels in America Part 1 is Tony Kushner’s brilliant evocation of the HIV-AIDS generation at a time when infection was a death sentence. This three-hour production was simply stunning – the best thing we’ve seen for a long time, and probably the highlight of our weekend.
Even More Ideas
Here are some extra recommendations from those in the know…
Wine & Dine:
* Take afternoon tea at The Park Hyatt Hotel (+61 2 9256 1234); booking is essential.
* For dining in The Rocks and Circular Quay, the concierge suggests Selah for contemporary Asian fare at 12 Loftus Street (+61 2 9247 0097); Pony for Mediterranean food, corner Argyle Street and Kendall Lane (+61 2 9252 7797); Shiki for Japanese, corner Argyle and Harrington; Fish @ The Rocks, corner Kent and Argyle (+61 2 9252 4614); and Mr Wong’s for Chinese food at 3 Bridge Street (+61 2 9240 3000).
* A little further afield, but just ten minutes away by taxi is the western inner-city suburb of Newtown. According to our friend Hansni, it’s the place to go for Thai food; equidistant is Surry Hills’ trendy Crown Street, home to the uber-cool Clock Hotel and Dolphin Hotel.
* The Basement at 7 Macquarie Place (+61 2 9251 2797) is Mathilda’s favourite jazz bar.
* Listen to live music at Qirkz or Camelot Lounge (+61 2 9550 3777) in Marrickville, recommends Jenny.
* Visit the Sydney Observatory by night to look at the stars through a telescope.
* On a summer’s day, take the train for a picnic at Ball’s Head; it’s a little peninsula with wonderful views of the Bridge and the city – one of Sydney’s best-kept secrets, says Mathilda.
* Take a ferry to Rose Bay, walk from there to Watson’s Bay and lunch on fish and chips at Doyles.
* Feeling flush? Take a helicopter flip north to Whale Beach for lunch at Jonah’s Restaurant (+61 2 9974 5599).
Tip: Avoid Darling Harbour, says Mathilda – it’s just too touristy.
Stay at the Four Seasons Hotel
Opting for this super-central accommodation at 1 George Street – in the heart of the historic Rocks district, iconic Sydney Harbour Bridge and Circular Quay – fits in with our plan to keep a central focus. We can walk up to the bridge, down to the trains, buses and ferries that converge at Circular Quay’s busy transport hub, or turn right along George Street to the CBD shops.
Just six months old, The Woods is the hotel’s main restaurant. Centrally situated just off the lobby, it has a more casual perimeter area that pulls you in throughout the day for a flat white, a camomile tea or a gin and tonic. A breakfast buffet is served here too. As with every Four Seasons we’ve ever had the pleasure of staying at, the service is a joy.
For lunches and dinners it fill up with locals and tourists, who come for chef Hamish Ingham’s modern Australian cuisine. At his other restaurant, Bar H in Surry Hills, Hamish concentrates on Asian cuisine; but here it’s all about locally sourced ingredients cooked in or over a wood-fired oven fuelled with various types wood. The lamb, for example, is olive-wood-roasted. They do a pre-theatre three-course dinner that would be ideal before a show at the Sydney Theatre Company at nearby Walsh Bay.
With its own separate entrance on busy George Street, the hotel’s sophisticated bar, Grain, has as good selection of whiskies as you’d expect from its name. It has plenty of atmosphere, too, merrily heaving with business suits on the Friday evening we pop in for a post-prandial tipple. The eponymous Grain lager is produced by the nearby Rocks Brewing Company, we’re told; and Hamish’s bar-food menu includes Antipodean specialities such as wallaby sliders and fried old man saltbush with aioli dip – exotic!
On the third level is Sydney’s largest heated hotel pool, plus the Aeon spa; and next to that, a well-equipped fitness centre where you can work off the sins you’ve committed on the ground floor.