Australia’s premier city is the oldest settlement in Australia, the economic powerhouse of the nation and the country’s capital in everything but name. Built on the shores of the stunning Port Jackson, you would have to die and go to heaven before you see a more spectacular setting for a city. It’s a vital, self-regarding metropolis, exuding both a devil-may-care urbanity and a slavish obsession with global fads. Preparations for the 2000 Olympic Games are now underway as the city strives to bring its civic life on a par with its natural charms.
The Sydney area was the ancestral home of the Daruk tribe, whose territory extended from Botany Bay to Pittwater. There are some 2000 Aboriginal rock engraving sites in the Sydney area, and many of Sydney’s suburbs have Aboriginal names. The city of Sydney began life as a penal colony in 1788, and for the next 60 years received the unwanted, persecuted and criminal elements of British society. Despite its brutal beginnings, the city’s mixture of pragmatic egalitarianism and plain indifference has transformed it into a thriving multicultural society. Sydney now attracts the majority of Australia’s immigrants and the city’s predominantly Anglo-Irish heritage has been revitalised by large influxes of Italian, Lebanese, Turkish, Greek, Chinese and Vietnamese.
Sydney, the “Emerald City,” sits majestically around the greenest, most beautiful urban harbor in the world. It’s at its best approached at night from the air, when you’ll see a million twinkling lights, a vast swath of fluorescent spreading across the water, and the Sydney Opera House and Harbour Bridge lit up like Christmas. And this is not just one Sydneysider’s opinion of the city, either. In recent years, the readers of both Condé Nast Traveler and Travel Leisure have voted Sydney the World’s Best City. Beat that Paris, or Venice, or Melbourne, or myriad other hopefuls.
Sydney Opera House
Australia’s most recognisable icon is dramatically situated on the eastern headland of Circular Quay. It’s famous sail-like, shell-like roofs were inspired by palm fronds, according to architect Jørn Utzon, but may remind you of turtles engaging in sexual congress. The Opera House is so unique that it has been photographed a zillion times, appears on an army of cheap t-shirts, every other Sydney postcard and decorates the frames of Dame Edna’s dramatic glasses. It was built between 1959 and 1973, but plagued with construction delays and political difficulties which culminated in the resignation of Utzon in 1966. Although some visitors are disappointed by the interior, designed by a consortium of Australians after Utzon quit, it’s a truly memorable place to see a performance or to sit at one of its outdoor cafes with a bottle of white wine and watch harbour life go by. The Opera House hosts theatre, classical music, ballet and film, as well as the seasonal opera performances. There is free music on the prow of the Opera House on weekends and a craft market on the forecourt on Sunday.
We took a backstage tour of the Opera House which proved to be both enjoyable and enlightening! Definitely a must see!
Sydney Harbor Bridge
The harbor is the defining characteristic of the city. Its multiple sandstone headlands, dramatic cliffs, rocky islands and stunning bays and beaches, make it one of the most beautiful stretches of water in the world. Officially called Port Jackson, the harbour stretches some 20km inland to join the mouth of the Parramatta River. The most scenic area is on the ocean side of the bridge. The Sydney Harbor National Park protects the scattered pockets of bushland around the harbour and offers good walking tracks.
The best way to experience the harbor is to go sailing, but if you’re lacking nautical skills there are plenty of ways to enjoy it. Try catching the Manly ferry, swimming at Nielsen Park, walking from Manly to Spit Bridge, having a drink at Watsons Bay, dining with a view at Rose Bay, Balmoral or Circular Quay, or cruising to the heads on the Bounty.
The best photos of the harbor include the Sydney Harbor Bridge. A monumental engineering feat when it was completed in 1932, this 1650-ft-long bridge is one of the city’s most enduring symbols. The best way to experience the bridge and its spectacular views is to follow the bridge walkway, accessible from near the Argyle Stairs. You can also scale the bridge for about A$100 to A$150 which we elected not to do because it would have taken over 3 hours. Next time!
Taronga has the best view of any zoo in the world. Set on a hill, it looks out over Sydney Harbor, the Opera House, and the Harbor Bridge. The main attractions here are the fabulous chimpanzee exhibit, the gorilla enclosure, and the Nocturnal Houses, where you can see some of Australia’s many nighttime marsupials out and about, including the platypus and the cuter-than-cute bilby (the official Australian Easter bunny). There’s orangutans, red pandas, crocodiles, giraffes, an interesting reptile display, a couple of rather impressive Komodo dragons, a scattering of indigenous Australian beasties – including a few koalas, pythons, echidnas, kangaroos, dingoes, and wombats, zebras – and lots more.
The kangaroo and wallaby exhibit is very unimaginative; you’d be better off going to Featherdale Wildlife Park for happier-looking animals. Animals are fed at various times during the day. The zoo can get very crowded on weekends, so I strongly advise visiting during the week or going very early in the morning on weekends. Interestingly, the three sun bears near the lower ferry entrance/exit were rescued by an Australian businessman, John Stephens, from a restaurant in Cambodia, where they were to have their paws cut off one by one and served up as an expensive soup.
This is one of the world’s best aquariums and should be near the top of any Sydney itinerary. The main attractions are the underwater walkways through two enormous tanks- one containing an impressive collection of creatures you can find in Sydney Harbor, and the other full of giant rays and Grey Nurse Sharks. Other excellent exhibits include a giant Plexiglas room suspended inside a pool patrolled by rescued seals, and a truly magnificent section on the Great Barrier Reef, where thousands of colorful fish school around coral outcrops. Also on display are a couple of saltwater crocodiles and some tiny fairy penguins. We visited during the week when it’s was less crowded.
Australian National Maritime Museum
Modern Australia owes almost everything to the sea, so it’s not surprising that there’s a museum dedicated to the ships, from Aboriginal vessels to submarines, that overcame the tyranny of the waves. Here you’ll also find ships’ logs, all sorts of things to pull and tug at, as well as the Americas Cup-winning vessel Australia II. Docked in the harbor outside is an Australian Naval Destroyer, The Vampire, which you can clamber all over, and an Oberon Class submarine. Two fully rigged call ships were installed in 1999. Get there by taking the monorail (a good tourist activity) over to Darling Harbor.
The city’s only major museum of astronomy offers visitors a chance to see the southern skies through modern and historic telescopes. The best time to visit is during the night on a guided tour, when you can take a close-up look at some of the planets. Night tours are offered at 8:15pm from the end of May to the end of August and at 6:15 and 8:15pm the rest of the year; be sure to double-check the times when you book your tour. The planetarium and hands-on exhibits are also interesting.
The Rocks are the oldest, quaintest part of Sydney. Today it is unrecognisable from the squalid, overcrowded and plague-ridden place it used to be. Reinvented by visionaries in the building industry and the trade union movement in the 1970s, the Rocks is now a sanitised, historical tourist precinct, full of cobbled streets, colonial buildings and stuffed Koala bears. If you ignore the kitsch, a stroll around the Rocks can be delightful. Attractions include the weekend market, the Earth Exchange geological and mining museum, and numerous craft shops and art galleries. But it’s the old buildings, alleyways and historic facades that attract most visitors. Try exploring the less developed areas in the contiguous suburb of Millers Point, which has not sacrificed its community life to the tourist dollar. Check out the Lord Nelson Brewery Hotel and The Hero of Waterloo, two of Sydney’s oldest pubs.
Queen Victoria Building
You won’t want to miss the Queen Victoria Building (QVB), on the corner of Market and George streets. This Victorian shopping arcade is one of the prettiest in the world and has some 200 boutiques-mostly men’s and women’s fashion-on four levels. The photos I took show a couple of the clocks that are located within the mall. If you’re willing to wait around, the show at the beginning of each hour is quite entertaining.
Sydney Quarantine Station
Located in the Sydney Harbor National Park, North Head, with spectacular views of Sydney Harbor, the Quarantine Station was the location of numerous personnel detentions. Many agonizing tales were hatched here and there are some fantastic sites and inscriptions (as shown above). The Quarantine Station tours take visitors on a journey through history. Various tours are available including the ‘Ghost Tours’ at night where you can wander through a maze of historic buildings late at night – we took one of these and got the #%$#@ scared out of us. Here are the details of the Quarantine Act and some inscriptions written by Quarantine inhabitants.
Sydney Powerhouse Museum
Sydney’s most interactive museum is also one of the largest in the Southern Hemisphere. Inside the post-modern industrial interior you’ll find all sorts of displays and gadgets relating to the sciences, transportation, human achievement, decorative art, and social history. The many hands-on exhibits make this fascinating museum worthy of a couple of hours of your time.