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  • Sydney
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  • Iconic Guide to Sydney: 11 Things You Have to do at Least Once

Iconic Guide to Sydney: 11 Things You Have to do at Least Once

Whether you're a weekend visitor or a long-time local, these are the most iconic things to do in the harbour city.

We may be biased, but Sydney really does have it all: a sparkling harbour, postcard-perfect beaches, a thriving food and cultural scene, and big-city sophistication. The city meets the sea in a beautiful way, and locals count themselves lucky to live here. While you could spend a lifetime exploring every nook, cranny and cove, there are just some things that you have to do whether you are a local or visiting from out-of-town. 

You can't call yourself a Sydneysider without having done these 11 things that have reached icon status.

1. Learn Sydney's History

Let’s go back to the beginning – of Sydney’s history, that is. The Rocks is the oldest part of the city, and it’s a charming peek into the past: think cobblestoned streets, tiny laneways, sprawling pubs, and colonial buildings. When you get there, fuel up with a coffee and gourmet goodies at The Fine Food Store. Not a big breakfast person? Pop into La Renaissance Patisserie for an almond croissant – they sell over 1000 a week! Then, stroll through The Rocks Square, Gloucester Walk and Campbell’s Cove, and check out The Rocks Discovery Museum. If you’re there on the weekend, wander the open-air market.

Royal Botanic Garden Sydney (Photo credit: Destination NSW)
Royal Botanic Garden Sydney (Photo credit: Destination NSW)
2. Get in Touch with Nature

Beautiful and serene, the Royal Botanic Garden is the perfect place to familiarise yourself with Australian wildlife. As you meander through, you’ll spot cockatoos, lizards, possums and butterflies, and colourful flowers in bloom. For a panoramic view of the harbour, the best vantage point (and photo op) is Mrs Macquarie’s Chair.

3. Experience the Icons

Exit the Botanic Garden, and walk around the harbour foreshore until you reach the Sydney Opera House. At the lower level, have lunch at Opera Bar. Then, catch a matinee show at the Opera House. Every day, the most talented artists in the city take the stage for theatre, dance, music and of course, opera performances, so be sure to book your tickets in advance. If you like, you can also tack on a tour, where you’ll learn a little about the building’s history.

It's very clear that the harbour is the jewel in Sydney’s crown, and the best way to see it in all of its glory is from above. BridgeClimb Sydney is a breathtaking experience, and it’s even better at twilight, where you can watch the sun dip in the horizon. The climb takes just over three hours, though you can choose a shorter tour if you’re fidgety, or not-so-keen on heights. The Summit Express is a two and a half hour journey, where you climb up the inner arch, and take a set of stairs to the summit. This one-of-a-kind experience will leave you feeling accomplished and deeply inspired by the iconic ‘coathanger’.

4. Art Appreciation

Keen for an arty afternoon? Go to the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA). Entry is free, though some special exhibitions are ticketed. Inside the Art Deco building, you’ll find a range of cutting-edge art in paint, photography and film form. We can also highly recommend their gift store, filled with beautiful coffee table books, unique accessories and one-of-a-kind artefacts. For a quick bite or afternoon pick-me-up, head to the MCA Café on the rooftop and enjoy the uninterrupted harbour views.

5. Immerse Yourself in the Nightlife

Whether you’re craving a post-show night-cap and midnight snack or a full-blown meal, more and more of the city’s top bars and restaurants are staying open and vibing up a storm till late. Bunkered down in Bligh Street, Restaurant Hubert is a romantic Parisian, post-war-style restaurant with elegant velvet draped touches and fringed lamps throughout. It always feels like nighttime when you're underground here, but come actual nighttime, the place really becomes a buzzing hotspot.

If you're looking for really good cocktail, we highly recommend Sammy Junior, the little sibling to the iconic cocktail bar Maybe Sammy. They've recently opened their gold-gilded doors in the CBD and are the only venue in Sydney to exclusively serve mini – junior-sized – cocktails. And these tiny tipples pair perfectly with their moreish share plates. 

6. Shop till you Drop

A day in the city would not be complete without shopping at the Queen Victoria Building. The QVB is a heritage landmark and has had many lives before becoming the shopping mecca it is today. High-street flagships share real estate with exclusive designer labels, and the vintage shopfronts are juxtaposed with contemporary interiors. For one-of-a-kind accessories, Pushmataaha is the Sydneysider’s go-to and Camilla cannot be beaten when it comes to luxe-boho threads.

Wild Sage
Wild Sage
7. See a New Side of the City

Take a short walk around the harbour’s edge through Barangaroo Reserve to reach one of Sydney’s coolest new precincts. Since opening, the Barangaroo precinct has developed into one of the city’s premium foodie destinations with a bar/restaurant/bistro/café around every corner. When it comes to breakfast, Wild Sage is our favourite spot. The decadent brunch menu is the best way to start the day.

The Boathouse Rose Bay
The Boathouse Rose Bay
8. Dine on Sydney Harbour

Sydney has an enviable line-up of eateries from Darling Harbour to the east that take advantage of the beautiful harbour outlook. For those unsure of what cuisine they want to sample, Woolloomooloo has a large variety of restaurants all along the finger wharf. For something new, make your way around to The Boathouse Rose Bay.  You can expect everything from sumptuous breakfasts and delicious pastries in the café kiosk, to beautiful seafood fare and signature cocktails in the restaurant upstairs. One thing that remains the same, no matter how you choose to dine, is the idyllic water views.

9. Get Your Culture Fix

Sydney is home to live entertainment and is lucky to get some of the biggest acts and theatre productions to perform. Right now, the globally renowned, and critically acclaimed musical Hamilton is playing at The Star's Sydney Lyric Theatre.  Hamilton tells the story of America's humble beginnings, through a post-Millenium lense. Blending hip-hop, R&B and Broadway, Lin-Manuel Miranda's Tony®, Grammy®, Olivier and Pulitzer Prize-winning musical centres around founding father Alexander Hamilton, and his contemporaries, and portrays the impact they had on America's story. A must-see production that is only playing in Sydney, book in your tickets to avoid disappointment. While you're at it, book a pre-theatre dinner at The Star's popular Flying Fish. They have a great two- and three-course offering that can be timed perfectly for a night a the theatre.

La Traviata, Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour
La Traviata, Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour

For an iconic culture experience, you can't miss Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour. This annual event takes renowned operas off the Sydney Opera House stage, and onto an outdoor, over-water stage on Sydney Harbour. Experience the electric atmosphere as soaring aria’s fill night the air, performers captivate in stunning costumes, the stage lights shimmer over the water and fireworks light up the sky. This year Verdi’s heartbreaking love story La Traviata took to the stage, and we can't wait to book our tickets for next season. 

This is an opportunity to enjoy Sydney’s harbourside at its best with luxury pop-up dining, bars set amongst the treetops, and impressive sunset vistas of the city skyline, Sydney Harbour Bridge and Sydney Opera House.

10. See the City from the Water

Sure, you’ve probably boated across the harbour, driven over it, and walked around it, but have you ever kayaked in it? Put it on the list! It’ll make you appreciate life and this gorgeous city even more – and burn a few cheeky calories. We recommend signing up to an Ozpaddle Sydney kayak tour, to make the most of your day on the water. Setting off from Andrew Boy Charlton Pool, owner and guide Sophie will take you paddling across the harbour, exploring many coves in the area. 

Little National Hotel Sydney
Little National Hotel Sydney
11. Stay in the City

Although the beaches are nice, there is something about the hustle and bustle of a city that makes you want to stay amongst the action. In fear of FOMO, opt for a central, CBD stay to maximise your time. The newest addition to Sydney's hotel scene, Little National Hotel is all about modern style, comfort and proximity. Nestled above Sydney’s humming Wynyard station, Little National Hotel draws inspiration from its Inner City location. Where this hotel really shines is its communal areas. Head to level 11 to step into the library work space that leads you to the exclusive rooftop bar, complete with outdoor seating and an indoor fireplace and lounge. With such a great hangout space in the hotel, you will find it hard to leave. But if you're looking for somewhere to have a tipple close-by, Vini Divini down on Carrington Street will whisk your wine-loving tastebuds away to far-flung destinations like Georgia, Greece and Turkey with their diverse wine list. And there is no better way to continue a wine-fuelled evening than with a spot of dinner at uber-cool, pasta haven Fabbrica. Better still, if you fall in love with what you dine on, you can buy it to take home!

Loved our iconic guide to Sydney? From the best restaurants and coffee spots to late-night eats and harbourside bars, we’ve got you covered.