Sydney is a brilliant hybrid, a dramatic and enchanting seaside city that combines many places you may have been, but is unlike any of them. It reminds me of Vancouver and Hong Kong, thanks to the towering glass and steel skyscrapers overlooking one of the largest harbors in the world. Meanwhile, the pastel beach bungalows in the eastern suburbs are equal parts Brighton and Malibu. Then throw in some impressive Victorian sandstone architecture that would be right at home in Edinburgh, add an overlay of deep Asian culture and you have some approximation of this wonderful place.
In the land of flat whites, feet and koalas, here are five things to do to realize you’ve flown halfway around the world to a friendly and energetic city.
Bondi Beach and icebergs
Half an hour by train and bus from the Central Business District, nothing prepares you for your first glimpse of Bondi Beach, a magnificent crescent of sand and surf, the heart of Australia’s surf and beach culture. Head south along the beach, watching the surfers as you go, and up the stairs to the Bondi Icebergs, where a small inlet lets you swim in a pool filled with ocean water as giant waves crash every few minutes or so. After a few chilly laps to take care of any lingering jetlag, head up two flights for the spectacular food, wine and views at the Bondi Icebergs Club restaurant.
Sydney Harbor Tour
The single most dramatic experience you can have in Sydney is taking a cruise in the bustling harbour, the second busiest port in the world after Hong Kong. It’s not just active, but vast, stretching eastward past a series of bays until you reach the gates, where giant rollers wash up from the Pacific Ocean and crash into the formidable sandstone cliffs that line the mouth of the harbor. There are many lunch and dinner cruises, but I chose a short, fast boat tour called the Sydney Harbor Icons, Bays & Beaches Morning Cruise. The boat had a maximum capacity of 12 passengers and offered a live tour that stopped for seals, rode the great oceans coming in from the Pacific and gave you a real feel of Sydney’s aquatic life.
Sydney Opera House
The white drapes of the Sydney Opera House are instantly recognizable and eminently Instagrammable. The complex of six performance halls rises on the edge of Sydney Harbor and is one of the most impressive works of architecture in the world. To experience how unique this structure is, inside and out, attend a rehearsal or an actual performance. I did both, watching the Australian Ballet on stage at the Joan Sutherland Theatre, taught by Artistic Director David Hallberg in an intimate setting. I then attended a performance two days later of ‘Instruments of Dance’ which featured three contemporary ballets by Justin Peck, Wayne McGregor and Alice Topp. Accompanied by Orchestra Victoria, it was an opportunity to get a sense of the fantastic space and incredible acoustics that enable a surround sound experience.
Barangaroo Aboriginal Cultural Tours
Barangaroo Aboriginal Cultural Tours are run by a team of Aboriginal instructors, a great way to connect with the world’s oldest living culture. Tours explore the headland of Barangaroo Reserve, which has 75,000 native Australian trees and shrubs, the only public space in Sydney to boast this quota of native flora. It opens up the world of Warrane (Sydney Harbour) Indigenous history, Australian Aboriginal heritage and its significance to the tribes of the Eora Nation.
Australian National Maritime Museum
Shipping has long been an integral part of life in this island nation. You can still feel it when you look out over Sydney Harbor and watch the frequent comings and goings of ferries and pleasure boats. But to get a sense of the historical roots of ships and Australia, head to the Australian National Maritime Museum in Darling Harbour. The contemporary space has exhibitions covering art, maritime and indigenous culture, including exhibits on migration, a defining Australian experience, documenting the four-week sea voyages from England that were common until the age of jet travel . Even more interesting are the historic ships docked at the pier, such as the submarine HMAS Onslow and especially the replica of HM Endeavour, the ship Captain Cook sailed on his epic world voyage from 1768-71 when he ‘discovered’ Australia.