The Non-Touristy Things to Do in Sydney
Sydney, Australia, is a very popular destination for both domestic and international visitors. Many articles have been written and I’m sure you all know about the Harbour Bridge and Opera House, Bondi Beach and Manly Beach. As I spent 3 weeks in this beautiful city and had contact with many local people, I could build experience and share it with you in this article on the non-touristy things to do in Sydney.
You can read about the touristy ones in hundreds of publications. I want to show the other Sydney, the places that still have authenticity and feel as you are not a visitor but one of the lucky Australians living there. Of course, there are some touristy things you absolutely have to see, so I included some of them here too.
WHERE TO SEE THE AUSTRALIAN ANIMALS?
You probably have seen photos of Taronga Zoo, right? Well, the giraffes look well on the background of the skyscrapers of the Sydney’s CBD. But they are not Australian animals!
To see a good selection of ONLY Australian animals, you should go to Featherdale Wildlife Park. There you can feed a wallaby and take a photo with a koala (but you can’t hug it, it is not allowed in NSW); have a look at one of the most venomous but also most beautiful Australian snakes – the Taipan (behind thick glass); even see one of the emblematic but so rare – the Tasmanian Devil.
Be there around 2 p.m. because this is the time of his feeding and it is sure that you will see him. In the rest of the time, he can be hiding in the dark corners of his zoo territory.
THE BEST BEACH IN SYDNEY
If you want to find the best amongst the many stunningly beautiful beaches in Sydney, go north!
Forget Bondi and Manly! There are overcrowded and you will not see many locals there. If you go further north, you will see a beach heaven, especially at sunset. Hornsby is one of Sydney’s northernmost suburbs. It is located just next to national parks and some of the residential properties have their backyard gardens as a starting point for bush walks.
One of the curiosities of Hornsby is the small alley with murals. You will find them at Dural Lane not far from the train station. Some of them feature the history of the town while others are inspired by Australia’s most popular comic strip – Ginger Meggs.
There are frequent train services from central Sydney (except when there are rail works) and it is not difficult to reach this northern suburb.
Palm Beach is a short drive from Hornsby. Why is this beach such a local secret? Well, probably because it is in a distant suburb and because you need a vehicle to get there. There are in fact two sides of the beach. It is because the beach sits on the peninsula between Pittwater and Broken Bay and a short sandy path will bring from one of the sides to the other.
Believe me, the time and money spent to reach it are totally worth it! Next time I’m in Sydney, it’s where I’m going for another Aussie sunset dinner.
Cronulla is one of the southern beaches of Sydney. I went there on Christmas Day to see how the Australians celebrate the holiday with beach barbeques and picnics. Alas, it was one of the coldest and very windy days and not many people there out there enjoying the sea.
Still, some were surfing and others swimming in the Cronulla rock pools (one of them is with Olympic size) I could spot several people with Santa’s hats while walking around.
Even in colder days, Cronulla is a great place to spend the day or just walk for several hours. You will find the rock pools on your way from Cronulla Beach to the adjacent North Cronulla Beach (that enjoyed more but it is not patrolled so it is not safe to swim). There are some magnificent sand dunes here too and the Kamay Botany Bay National Park is not far away.
KAMAY BOTANY BAY NATIONAL PARK
Something I couldn’t do that day because the wind was freezing cold and I would like to do for sure in the future, is to walk from Cronulla Beach to the tip of Kamay Botany Bay National Park. Google says it takes 1 h 44 minutes. It is worth visiting the park because it’s not only part of the historical Botany Bay where the First Fleet arrived (meaning, set the beginning of Australia as we know it today) but also features an abundance of natural and cultural heritage.
WATCH THE FIREWORKS ON NEW YEARS EVE – very touristy!
As the New Year’s Eve fireworks at Sydney’s Circular Quay are world famous now (and how not, the Aussies are the first to welcome each New Year and rest of the world is probably a bit jealous), to see them up close proved to be a difficult business.
Many people told us we have to be at the place from early morning. But I couldn’t see myself staying under the strong summer sun for the whole day. I knew I will be exhausted when the time of show comes and wouldn’t enjoy as I want.
Instead, we went at Milson’s Point at around 5 p.m. This is the opposite side of the Circular Quay and it is a residential area. There are better places to see the fireworks but now, for the past several years, the entrance costs a lot. If you can and want to pay the price (something around 300 AUD), go to the Royal Botanical Gardens.
To see these world-famous fireworks is worth the wait but not that much for their beauty (because you will see them better and in their whole awesomeness on the tv) but to experience the thrill to be amongst one million people watching live the show. To see how well everything is organized by the local authorities and, finally, to join the fun in the local pubs when all the fuss is gone. Because New Year’s Eve celebrations in Sydney start truly after midnight and continue for days after that. There are parties everywhere and everyone is welcome to join.
THE ROCKS – also touristy but must be visited!
The Rocks area of Sydney is another very touristy spot but you haven’t been to Sydney if you haven’t visited the Rocks!
It is the oldest part of the city and where the Circular Quay, the Opera House and the Harbour Bridge are located. It is the very heart of Sydney and there are several things you probably will enjoy the most here.
There is an interesting museum to visit – the Rocks Discovery Centre. And there is a very pleasant small market for local goods and handmade items held in the heart of The Rocks every Sunday and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
At the corner, there is an Irish pub where you can refresh with a pint of Guinness in hot days and if you visit on a winter Aussie day, you can warm your bones with a tea sitting on the cute tables at The Tea Cosy.
HARBOUR BRIDGE DOMINATES THE AREA
Walking on and around Harbour Bridge is inevitable. Its magnificent structure dominates the whole area and you can see it far before you reach it.
The Opera House is another focal point but to me, it didn’t look so impressive and beautiful. But this is, of course, only my opinion.
One of the most popular ways to experience the Sydney’s Harbour Bridge is to climb it. I didn’t for two reasons. I have a problem with heights and decided that I will spend my money on something that is more within my range of interests. But I’ve heard that it is a remarkable experience so if it something you would like to do, I encourage you to go for it.
Instead of climbing, I walked the bridge with a friend at sunset. It doesn’t feel so awe-inspiring of course, but as I’m already in love with this bridge, it was enough for me. The cross the bridge on foot takes about 15 to 30 minutes, depends on how often you stop to take photos.
BADU GILI LIGHTS SHOW
What you can do for free at the Opera House (because a tour costs and a show at the opera costs much more), is to be at sunset around its impressive structure. Badu Gili is a 7-minutes lights projection and you can see it every evening at sunset or 9 p.m. The day when I went, I was waiting and waiting and no colourful lights came to lighten the Opera. I guess it was because it was the Christmas Eve although it is announced as a daily show.
The Central Business District is where the Circular Quay and The Rocks are situated but it covers much more than these two landmarks of Sydney. Indeed, the most significant attractions of Sydney are located here. Some of the most interesting are listed below – some touristy and other not so much.
THE MARTIN PLACE AND THE CHRISTMAS TREE – very touristy
If you visit at Christmas time, you will probably want to check the Martin Place. There is nothing interesting about it except it is a home to some of the most important bank institutions and tv networks in Australia. But it is near three of the central train stations (Wynyard, Martin Place and St James) and this makes it an important point for your visit.
However, at Christmas time here you will find the biggest Christmas tree in Sydney. It looked to me a bit poorly decorated as a foreigner used to snowy Christmases, but I guess this is Australia and I enjoyed passing nearby and looking at the tree often.
QUEEN VICTORIA BUILDING AND THE SWAROVSKI TREE – popular but doesn’t feel like touristy
For a real exuberant Christmas decoration, you should check the Queen Victoria Building the Swarovski Tree nestled comfortably between its several floors. It is a splendid view! Indeed! I’m not one of wowing at glittering gemstones, but I have to say I was impressed by its simple opulence.
THE CUBAN PLACE
Just opposite the Queen Victoria Building is one of the places where you can not only have a wonderful night out but also see the multicultural side of the city.
On Friday nights, The Cuban Place fills up quickly with a happy crowd of not only Cubans but also people from other Latin American countries. The other big part of the visitors are people from around the world who love dancing, the salsa rhythms and having fun with a Cuba Libre or Mojito cocktails in hand.
It is a place you have to be ready to share with many others but it is definitely one that lifts your mood to the heights. Oh, yes, don’t worry if you go alone or only with girls/boys in your company. At the Cuban Place, you will find quickly enthusiastic if not so skilful dancing partners.
NSW ART GALLERY
At the moment I entered its bright hall, a painting took my breath away. It was (the deserving its fame) Seven Sisters, probably one of the best know art creations shown in the premises of the NSW Art Gallery.
Like most of the Aboriginal art, this painting is a brilliant example of simplicity, harmony and powerful expression of stories in bright and cheering colours.
I loved my visit to the gallery but to be honest I was a bit confused. Why was the section for Aboriginal and Torres Strait art in the third, underground floor? It felt more like a visiting a temple, not like an art gallery. Which was a good thing. I could observe the painting in a silence and enjoy and try to understand what I see without the disturbance of people walking around. There were a few going down to see these incredible creations of the traditional owners of the lands.
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What surprised me the most was the incredible wealth of styles. We tend to believe that the Aboriginal art is always colourful and always done with dot-painting. But no. There were some amazing creations in black and white and there were some painted using fine-line cross-hatching technic and the X-Ray style.
ROYAL BOTANIC GARDENS – touristy but enough specious to not feel it as such
The Royal Botanic Gardens in Sydney are not only free to explore but also one of the top places for best Harbour Bridge views and hanging out in nature while still surrounded by the urban charisma of this city. If you are interested in botany, even better. There are free guided walks every day and there is a special Aboriginal Heritage Experience that you need to book in advance and will cost you 40 AUD.
Just a short walk from the Royal Botanical Gardens is Fingers Wharf, my secret hiding spot from the heat in summer Sydney. I knew it is a building of historical importance but didn’t expect to feel so peaceful and cool.
Fingers Wharf was the place from where the Australian army troops were sent to join the two world wars. This was also the place where many of the immigrants disembarked the ships arriving from all over the world. These were the people that formed the Australian nation as we know it now.
The wharf was used for 70 years before, in 1987, the government decided that it is not useful anymore and should be demolished. Due to the strong public protests opposing the demolition of the building, the plans changed and refurbishment works begun.
The wharf in its current status houses a 5-star hotel, several trendy restaurants and upscale residential apartments. Its coherent and modern exterior showcases in a beautiful way what it hides inside – a history full of emotional outcries either because of goodbyes or welcome-homes.
The hotel I mentioned above is Ovolo Wooloomooloo, part of the Ovolo Hotels, might not be in your budget range. But you can still enjoy its Lo Lounge.
It was very hot January day when I decided that’s the time to see Finger Wharf. Walked around and saw stairs in the middle of the length of the building. Just at the end of the restaurants’ line and before the residential apartments start. When you enter, you will see that you are in the middle of the building.
At this point, you will see the big hall where many sculptures occupy the space telling the story of the wharf. You can’t walk to the left because the access is limited to only residents. Walk to the right and you will find the Lo Lounge. It is a multifunctional space with bright colours and modern design. The big ceiling fans give you relief from the summer heat. The delicious and well-priced food and drinks add additional joy to this moment of a short break from your city’s explorations.
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MRS MACQUARIE’S CHAIR
A several minutes’ walk down from the Finger Wharf you will find the best viewpoint to the Circular Quay.
This is where the wife of the Governor Macquarie used to sit and enjoy the view of the harbour and the arriving ships.
Another good place for best photos of the bridge is from Milson’s Point.
PITT STREET MALL – the most crowded place in Sydney
If you need to do some shopping, go to Pitt Street Mall. You will find everything you need including worldwide brands for fast fashion like H & M and Zara that will not do too much damage to your bank account. Get some of these beautiful boho chic dresses or baggy jeans shorts that are a classic beach (and even every day) wear in Australia
One of the best features of Sydney, and the one that I like the most, is that once you are out of the CBD area, it doesn’t feel as you are in one of the big cities of the world.
Sydney is spread over a large territory and has many suburbs. But if Sydney was more tightly-built, it wouldn’t have the charm it has now. A charm that comes mainly from the numerous beaches and nature, fully incorporated in the suburban lifestyle. You can’t get bored in Sydney. Even on a lazy weekend, you just can’t stay home.
TARONGA ZOO TO BALMORAL BEACH WALK
The walk starting at Taronga Zoo and ending at Balmoral Beach will take you a day. Especially if you stop often to enjoy the distant views to the Circular Quay and the secret beaches along.
When you reach the point of Bradley’s Head, follow the steps down. You will find the cutest little beach with amazing samples of the iron rocks. They are named like that because of their resemblance to rusted sheets of steel.
At the point of Middle Head my friend and I we lost the trail and hitchhiked the rest to Balmoral. The walking trail is marked and easy to follow (up to Middle Head; there you should ask people to guide you or take the bus if you feel already tired).
MORE SYDNEY WALKS
More options for walks in Sydney are (the very popular) walk from Bondi Beach to Coogee, the spectacular Palm Beach to Barrenjoey Lighthouse walk, Manly to Spit Bridge walk and more.
PLACES TO VISIT AROUND SYDNEY
There are many places you can visit around Sydney for on a day trip. These are some of my suggestions.
Thirroul is 70 km from Sydney but you can go easily there by train from the Sydney Central Station.
It is a suburb of the city of Wollongong. But its charm comes from the peacefulness and proximity to the beach. Walking the streets of Thirroul a few days after the New Year with a friend, was a delightful experience. I could see how the Australians live outside the big cities. It was also a good change from the busyness of Sydney. But the most fun was observing the Australian way of Christmas decoration on the streets of Thirroul.
To my big disappointment, I couldn’t go to Berry. It is just two hours south of Sydney, located in the serene highlands of Southern NSW. Apparently, its charm comes from the vintage-feel-like atmosphere. But my biggest regret is that I couldn’t savour the country’s best doughnuts. The Berry Donut Van is a 55-years old tradition.
This is another escape-the-big-city place near Sydney. Known as a water sports playground but also offers:
- beautiful walks (the Heritage Walk and the Coast to Lake Walk)
- beaches and ocean pools (North Entrance and The Entrance Beach where are the ocean baths, and Tuggerah Beach)
- and cycle ways (the Tuggerah Lakes Cycleway stretches over 12 km).
Kangaroo Valley is another 2-hours’ drive location from Sydney. A few kilometres further north are the Fitzroy Falls where you have a choice of two rim walks to enjoy the bush and the spectacular views.
Photo: Visit Kangaroo Valley
Kangaroo Valley claims to be Australia’s most beautiful valley. It must be true as I learned about it from a friend from Sydney. It’s not only a beautiful setting for a day trip but also provides plenty of activities. Choose between kayaking, walking, horse riding, golfing. Or attend a festival (the Folk Festival is in October and the Arts Festival in May). But probably the most interesting of all will be the Kangaroo Valley Show. Be amused by watching the fastest dog and highest dog jump races. Or have fun watching the woodchop, hay stacking competitions. What sounds like even more fun is the rodeo!
Brooklyn is a small town in the north of Sydney, half an hour drive from Hornsby. Surprisingly, this village-like place has a lot to offer. For superb river views, go for a picnic to McKell Park; there is a swimming pool nearby. For bushwalking, take the trail that starts from Parsley Bay in Brooklyn. It is part of the 250 km long Great North Walk from Sydney to Newcastle.
The top sites of Hawkesbury are:
- the Blue Mountains National Park
- Kurrajong Radio Museum
- Grose River
- Yengo National Park
- and Cattai National Park.
SOME OF THE BEST PLACES FOR COFFEE IN CENTRAL SYDNEY
Sydney has a very good coffee culture and many places for speciality coffee lovers. I, of course, couldn’t experience them all but found a favourite one that is also very conveniently located.
The café with this long, happiness-arousing name, is located just next to the Central Railway Station in Sydney. At just 5-minutes’ walk from the station, you will find:
1 – great coffee and tea
2 – good food for breakfast or brunch
3 – amazing, young, lively atmosphere that makes you feel you are at the right place at the right time.
If you can, bring a friend. However, plan enough time because the service can be a bit slower.
See on the map
30-34 Chalmers Street,
Sydney NSW 2010
ADD TO PINTEREST
This is Sydney I’ve seen so far and loved from the first sight. The best about this city is not in its stunning views and eclectic lifestyle. It’s with the people that make you feel welcome and the never short of happenings 24 hours.
You can’t be bored in Sydney. There is always something more to see and do in this city. Even just as a visitor, Sydney will make you feel like you are a special guest!