When you think of Australia, a number of iconic landmarks come to mind, such as the Great Barrier Reef in Queensland and Ayers Rock in the Outback. If you’re in Sydney Harbor, there’s the legendary Opera House—and all of these landmarks are well worth the visit. But what about the destinations not in the brochures or guidebooks? In this segment of The Travel Detective, Peter Greenberg explores the hidden gems of Sydney, Australia.
Located on Australia’s east coast, Sydney is the capital of New South Wales, and the country’s most populous city. It should come as no surprise that it’s also one of the world’s most visited cities, with world class beaches, indigenous culture and museums, shopping, and a food scene to rival any in the world. Of course, there are also landmarks like the Opera House and the Sydney Harbor Bridge.
Fresh Local Fish
Situated on the world’s largest natural harbor, there’s no lack of fresh fish—and if you want to see where Sydney’s top chefs buy their fish, head to Blackwattle Bay, just outside the Sydney business district, in the wee hours of the morning.
The Sydney Fish Market is the real deal. It’s the third largest fish market in the world, and the largest in the southern hemisphere. Every day about 115,000 pounds of fish come here to be auctioned. You’ll want to get here early, before 5:30, because that’s when the auction starts. But whatever you do, don’t raise your hand, because you might be buying a $20,000 tuna.
Each morning, up to two hundred buyers bid on fish, using the dutch auction system—the same system that’s been used to sell tulips in Amsterdam for over one hundred and thirty years.
The auctioneers set a price that’s higher than the predicted market price, and as the clock winds down at one dollar per revolution, the price drops until a buyer hits a button to stop the clock. There are typically over 100 species of fish offered daily during the auctions, and about 1,000 crates—nearly 45,000 pounds of seafood—are sold every hour.
Right outside the market you’ll find Claudio’s Seafoods—a retail store, where you can buy almost any kind of fish. You can watch them clean, cut, and package the fresh fish. But what I really wanted to see was how they make the fresh sashimi for the on-site sashimi bar.
With more than 70 beaches in Sydney, you’re never far from the water, and iconic beaches like Bondi, Coogee—or Manly Beach, the birthplace of Australian surfing.
The first known body surfing contest took place here in 1908, and in 1909, long before the surf movies of Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello, there was the documentary surf film that started it all: Surf Sports at Manly.
A few years later, legendary Hawaiian surfer Duke Kahanamoku displayed his surfing skills at Manly. Today, Manly Beach is the host of the Australian Open of Surfing.
You can take the ferry from circular quay to Manly Beach, or you can bike it. The locals know all about Stain Road. You can rent a bike for 25 bucks, go along Shelly Beach, out by Cabbage Tree Bay, and all the way to Queen’s Cliff. What a great way to see Manly! It’s a wonderful place for diving and snorkeling, stand-up paddle boarding, or even just to people watch.
But if you’d prefer somewhere more off the beaten path—a place that only the locals know—there’s someone you’ll want to meet.
Richard Graham is the owner of My Detour, and you can spend the day driving around Sydney with him in his vintage 1964 EH Holden. He’ll show you the lesser-known places and experiences in Sydney that you’d probably only know about if you lived here, including Parsley Bay.
“This is literally what I think is the ultimate hidden gem,” Richard Graham explains. “To your right, you’ve got a secluded little beach…swim out, snorkel out, and then on the left you’ve got the wonderful harbor. If you have a look down, you can see these beautiful ancient rocks. This is the essence of Sydney. This is what Sydney’s about.”
Graham elaborates: “I started this business to show people the local side, how they become a local in a day, and a place like this is a great example. The biggest surprise is the fact that these, the hidden gems, are really a stone’s throw from the city. We go from the inner, inner city suburbs to the beach into the bush here.”
“We are 25 minutes from the center of the city and here we get a sense of what it was like not only for the Aboriginal people, but also for the first settlers. Again, it really does show that even in the guidebooks, you know, they’re still taking quite a skimming look of Sydney. You do need an informed local to show you. But it’s not only that, you gotta, you gotta create a context around this place. You’ve gotta be told that the sandstone that you’re looking at is 230 million years old. This is an underwater beach that turned to rock, came out, out of the earth. Dinosaurs walked on this stone. Aboriginal people have been living here for 50,000 years in a sustainable way. The oysters we can see on the harbor side is what the Aboriginal people ate sustainably. Then, also give you a sense of when the first fleet, the first British that came to Australia, what it would have felt like. That it would have felt like the other side of the world.”
You’ll quickly discover Australians really love their coffee. If you want to know how intense and robust that coffee culture is, you come out here to Clifton Beach, about six miles outside of Sydney, because when the people here go out for coffee, they really go out for coffee.
Since 2001, Gary White, also known as “Gary the Coffee Man” has been serving coffee to fishermen, boaters, and beachgoers in Sydney Harbor in his converted army boat.
If you’re more of a landlubber and prefer to have your ‘cuppa joe’ sitting in a café, then check out The Grounds of Alexandria. Though simply calling this a café is a bit of an understatement. You don’t come here just for the coffee, you come for the experience…
When you’re done sipping your coffee, you’ll want to make sure to visit ‘the grounds’—pun intended, because alongside the restaurant, you’ll find a bakery, a florist, and a mini farm with chickens, goats, and its most famous resident, Kevin Bacon.
If you’d prefer a beverage of another kind, then you might want to head over to the Archie Rose Distilling Company.
Will Edwards founded Archie Rose in 2015, leaving his day job to open the first independent distillery in Sydney in more than a century. That ‘thing’ that he’s started is now a small cocktail bar alongside his core business—a full-scale spirits distillery, where he creates vodka, gin, and whiskey. But if you want something really unique, you can create your own signature blend.
For a little bit of Sydney history, hop on the ferry for a visit to Cockatoo Island, where you can see remnants of prison barracks and guardhouses that were built by prisoners who were transferred to the island in 1839 when it became a penal colony. It was later the site for a naval shipyard—the docks serviced the royal navy during World War II.
Today, the island is open for tours and events—and even overnight stays. You can crash at an apartment—or better yet—how about one of these glamping tents? You’ll be treated to one of the best views in all of Sydney.
For a history lesson of another kind, check out Barangaroo Reserve.
The park sits on a headland overlooking Sydney Harbor that had been closed to the public for more than 100 years. The shoreline of the reserve was inspired by the shape of the coastline before the Europeans arrived in 1836—and was created from sandstone excavated from Barangaroo.
While you’ll want to come to check out the tide pools, coves, and walking and cycling trails, one of the best reasons to visit is to explore Barangaroo’s rich indigenous culture. Mary Mumbulla leads cultural tours here, and we talked about the influence of Aboriginal culture in Sydney.
“Not many people would know this, that Sydney has a really big population of Aboriginal people. It actually has the biggest population in Australia of Aboriginal people. There’s no dancing and no artwork, though we do do artwork in our school programs, but it’s more about storytelling,” says Mary Mumbulla.
One of those stories is the park’s namesake, Bangaroo, a powerful Aboriginal woman who was an important part of the local fishing community.
“We were lucky that one of our former prime ministers fought for this area and he actually wanted to name it after an Aboriginal woman who was around before colonization here in Sydney or Australia.
She only survived the first three years of colonization and the impact that she made on the Europeans and the fact that we’re even still talking about her today, like 227 years later. You know, that’s that’s the big impact we make on ‘em,” said Mary Mumbulla.
But it’s not just about bringing the stories back. It’s about bringing the plant life back.
“We’ve brought a lot of the native plants back that were here originally before colonization,” Mumbulla explains. “There’s 74,000 plants that have been brought back and there’s 84 different species. And we tell you how we use the plants. We don’t just use one bit of the plant. We’ll try and use the whole lot so it would tell us. We’d eat the fruits off it. We would use the bark off the tree or we’d use the fibers off the tree. It’s like a calendar. It indicate things—like when certain fish are running to go fishing. They tell us so much.”
A rich cultural history. Delicious food and drinks. Natural beauty. There’s all of that and more, in the “Harbour City” of Sydney, Australia.
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By the Peter Greenberg Worldwide team for PeterGreenberg.com