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Off the Brochure Travel Guide: Sydney, Australia

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Sydney SkylineSydney, Australia is a city that’s attractive to visitors on many levels.

Some come to relax on the beaches and gawk at the beautiful people. Others come for authentic Aussie adventures such as koala-spotting, hiking in the Outback, or camping. Still others come to drink in the culture, nightlife and dining of this urban mecca.

With all that it has to offer, it’s no wonder that Sydney can get a little crowded.

But that doesn’t mean you have to ignore the well-trodden places. In fact, there are many ways to see Sydney’s unique landmarks in an entirely new light.

Whatever your agenda, Sydney’s got it going on Down Under!

Sydney Opera House - photo by Karl MullerMAKING THE ICONIC YOUR OWN

Of course we associate Sydney—and even Australia itself—with the Harbour Bridge and the Sydney Opera House. But with iconic status comes big crowds, so why not avoid the crush by viewing these landmarks from a different perspective?

Completed in 1932, the Sydney Harbour Bridge (aka “the coat hanger”) connects Sydney’s Central Business District with North Sydney. To grasp the true enormity of the bridge, why not get a view from above?

Yes, it’s something of a touristy experience, but the Harbour Bridge climb is not as hard as it looks and will earn you bragging rights with your friends back home.

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Sydney Harbor Bridge - photo by Karl MullerThe jumpsuits, climbing gear and safety harness may seem intimidating, but no experience is necessary. However, since the three-and-a-half-hour adventure involves clambering up stairs, ladders, catwalks, to get to the summit 134 meters above the water, climbers need to be in relatively good shape.

Don’t worry if you’re afraid of heights—guides take pride in helping people surmount their fear. Prices range from AU$125 to $250 and include a free pass to one of the Bridge’s pylons. Small guided groups depart throughout the day, but to really get the best experience, opt for a slightly pricier dawn or twilight climb. There’ll be fewer people in your group, and you’ll be able to watch the city light up with the colors of the sunrise or sunset. www.bridgeclimb.com

Opera House Interior - photo by Karl MullerThen there is the Sydney Opera House. Most visitors gaze at the rising sails from outside, and then take in a show. But to make the experience even more personal, sign up for the backstage tour, which departs at 7 a.m. each day and is limited to only eight participants. The tour takes you through backstage areas while crews and production teams are preparing for shows, and even allows you to stand for a few moments on the Concert Hall stage.

If you’re really feeling bold, take the opportunity to belt out a few notes while you have the chance! At AU$150, it’s not the cheapest experience, but brekkie (Aussie for “breakfast”) is included. www.sydneyoperahouse.com

For a whole new take on the iconic Sydney Opera House, don’t miss Destination Sydney: Vivid Sydney Light Show Brings New Dimension to Opera House.

BEYOND BONDI BEACH

Sailboat in Sydney Harbor - photo by Karl MullerIt’s no big surprise that Sydney is home to some spectacular beaches, the most famous being Bondi Beach. You can make a quick stop to check out the small shops and perfect bodies, but to avoid crowds, take a ferry from Circular Quay across Sydney Harbour to one of the quieter, more relaxing beaches.

In fact, the ferry ride across the harbor is one of the best parts of the experience. Sydney Harbour is in many ways the heart of the city, and reflects the love Australians have for the sea. Let the ocean mist tickle your face while you watch other ferries and sailboats cross your path, livening your spirits as you take in the dramatic scenery all around you.

Sydney’s winter (remember, that’s June-August Down Under) just got a whole light brighter with the Vivid Sydney Festival. Learn more here.

If you’re looking for a peaceful beach setting, head on over to Watsons Bay. Here the vibe is more akin to a small village, contrasting with the busy city life of Sydney.

Browns Beach AustraliaAfter arriving by ferry, you can stroll on up to The Gap, an ocean cliff with a view of the Pacific Ocean on one side and Sydney on the other. The spot is particularly pleasant at sunrise and sunset, with the sun rising over the Pacific and setting behind the Harbour Bridge. When you’re ready to strip down to your bathing suit, you should have no trouble walking along the coast and finding a quiet enough spot.

Or take the ferry to Manly Beach, another popular beach in Sydney, but skip Manly itself. From Manly Wharf, instead of heading to the Corso, turn left and walk for about ten minutes, and you’ll discover quaint little beaches only the locals seem to know about.  You might miss out on all those ubiquitous shops—Quicksilver and Billabong to name a few—but you’ll find them elsewhere.

Another spot to check out is Middle Head. There you’ll find the remains of Sydney Harbour’s defense fortress, which includes an underground tunnel network. From Middle Head, the clothing-challenged can head to the nude Obelisk Beach and show off their birthday suit, or the family-oriented can head to Chowder Bay for a good old-fashioned picnic. If you prefer, do both— just make sure you’re clear on which beach is which …

For more on great beaches, don’t miss our Beach Vacations section.

SHOPPING AND STATELY HOMES

Elizabeth Bay House AustraliaIf beaches aren’t your thing, or you just need some time away from all that exhausting tanning, the Elizabeth Bay House in Elizabeth Bay offers an excellent alternative to sand and sea. This colonial mansion stands out in a residential neighborhood that’s now dotted with apartment buildings, small delis and wine shops.

Grab a bottle of wine, a few sandwiches, and take an afternoon walk. Start in Elizabeth Bay and slowly make your way over to Rushcutters Bay Park, which lies on the waterfront and offers views of the marina. The leisurely atmosphere will almost make you forget you’re only a couple of miles from Sydney’s bustling, frenetic center. www.hht.net.au

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Shopaholics will have no trouble dropping a few dollars at Sydney’s many outstanding markets. You can either brave the crowds at Paddington Markets, which offer designer fashions and furniture, or Paddy’s Market, the cheap-as-chips market near Chinatown, or try exploring a smaller one such as the Manly Arts and Craft Market.

The Rocks - photo by Karl MullerLocated near the Corso, Manly market offers loads of handmade goods including paintings, jewelry, and souvenirs. And once you’re done shopping, you can relax on the beaches nearby.

The Surry Hills Markets, located on Crown Street in Surry Hills, also offer a variety of quality handmade goods, and the Rocks Market, nestled right near the Harbour Bridge, is worth a look, too.

With more than 150 stalls, this market is large enough to accommodate a small crowd yet not leave shoppers feeling overwhelmed by bargain hunters. Most of the markets are open every weekend, but Surry Hills Market is monthly.

Aussie outdoors - photo by Karl I. MullerADVENTURES BEYOND THE CITY

Though crowds tend to flock to the Royal Botanic Gardens (www.rbgsyd.nsw.gov.au) next to the Opera House, savvy travelers will head about 30 miles outside of the city to less-frequented Blue Mountains National Park. With more than 600,000 acres of sprawling natural beauty, the park features pockets of rain forest and stunning views.

The park gets its name from the grayish-blue mist that arises from oils emitted by the numerous eucalyptus trees, which give the area a very dreamlike quality. In fact, the park is so vast that its borders extend beyond the curvature of the earth. Day tours are available, but if possible, spend a few days camping. This will give you more time to explore the different trails and paths and take a dunk in a pool below the 1,000-foot-high Katoomba Falls. www.environment.nsw.gov.au

The Three Sisters - photo by Karl MullerIt’s worth braving the small crowd of local day-trippers and out-of-towners to ride down the Katoomba Scenic Railway, which, at 52 degrees, is among world’s steepest.

Once you descend into the ancient rainforest, head down through the scenic walkway, then ride up and out on the cable car.

If height isn’t an issue for you, keep going further up the scenic skyway to get a chance to peer down through a glass floor at the deep ravines and valleys nearly 900 feet below. www.scenicworld.com.au

Get all the destination information you can handle in our complete Australia & New Zealand Travel category.

DO YOU SERVE KANGAROO? SYDNEY DINING

Jimmy Liks restaurantEven though Sydney is a giant metropolis, dining can be a surprisingly intimate experience. Each neighborhood has more than enough restaurants to accommodate the hordes of folks who love to eat out.

Potts Point near Kings Cross offers diners a diverse selection of eateries. Doughboys (www.doughboypizza.com.au) serves up a variety of pizzas, and jimmy liks (www.jimmyliks.com), offers Southeast Asian cuisine in a quirky elongated room.

You can also try out Café Nest for a quick lunch and coffee. Since Potts Point is located near dozens of hostels and hotels, you are bound to run into someone to share your adventures with over a drink.

What also makes the area appealing is that while travelers and locals mix here, you don’t have to contend with the more dubious activities that the busier and smuttier Kings Cross is known for. On the other hand, the mix of strip joints and classy restaurants in Kings Cross does have a sort of curious allure for certain travelers.

Surry Hills streetAnother up-and-coming district is Surry Hills. More youthful in nature, hip, trendy bars and cafés make up most of the area.

Before hitting the bar scene, make sure to stop at the uniquely named Bird Cow Fish (www.birdcowfish.com.au) to charge up. This espresso bar and bistro serves modern Australian cuisine in a laid-back and neighborly atmosphere, and the restaurant allows you to purchase some of the ingredients that made your meal so tasty.

For more, check out Destination Sydney: Exploring the Surry Hills Neighborhood.

Kylie KwongIf you’re in the mood for Chinese, head to Billy Kwong (www.kyliekwong.org). This lively restaurant is popular but small—so if you end up having to wait a while for a table, take the opportunity to pop into a few of Crown Street’s offbeat shops and bars. Locals recommend going with “Kylie’s banquet” which gives you dish after dish of the seasonal flavor.

If you’re in a rush, hankering for a snack, or just trying to avoid a conversation with overly talkative travelers, the street side pizza and kebab places are appetizing options, too. Considered Sydney’s “take-out” joints, these places can be found pretty easily wherever you are in the city. But be aware that both pizzas and kebabs only come in one size—large—so come hungry.

Find even more off-the-beaten path adventures with this Video of Australia Travel Off the Brochure.

GETTING AROUND

Public transportation in Sydney is pretty cheap and comprehensive, offering you the option of taking a ferry or a monorail in addition to the traditional buses and trains. Even cabs are relatively inexpensive.

Sydney Ferry SuperCat ClassA DayTripper ticket will give you the most bang for your kangaroo-buck: For AU$16 you get a pass that works on the trains, ferries, and buses all day. Since some beaches require taking a ferry, which can be expensive if you buy a regular point-to-point ticket, the DayTripper more than pays for itself.

Another alternative is to pick up a SydneyPass which works just like the DayTripper, but can bought in three, five, or seven-day lengths and includes all public transit plus the Sydney and Bondi Explorer buses.

Most ferries leave from Circular Quay for other harbors or beaches, and buses can be caught at various points throughout the city with a fair number of them passing through Circular Quay and Bondi Junction.

For those staying near Darling Harbour, the Sydney Monorail can easily and quickly get you to places such as Chinatown and the Spanish Quarter. Monorail day passes start at AU$9.50.

However, one of the best ways to explore the scenic nooks and crannies of Sydney is simply by walking. Strap on the bathing (or birthday) suit, hike a trail or two, and make Sydney your own. (Just leave any inclination to hum Men at Work songs back home.)

Text and photos (except as indicated) by Karl I. Muller for PeterGreenberg.com.

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