Things to do in Sydney
Sydney sparkles in the sun with big hitting Australian landmarks like the Opera House, Sydney Harbour Bridge and Bondi. Here’s our hand-tested guide to the best and most unusual things to do in Sydney.
The Best and Most Unusual Things to do in Sydney
Each time I visit Sydney, I feel a little thrill. Dressed in my favourite colours, white and a shimmering sea-blue green, she overflows with things to do. Many are lifetime highlights, like seeing the Sydney Opera House, climbing the Sydney Harbour Bridge and even kayaking across Sydney Harbour itself (and learning to surf on Bondi.)
Related: 7 Unusual Things to do in Australia
Yet what I really love about the city is her ability to surprise me with plenty of thoughtful, unusual things to do. What’s even more interesting is that many of these cool and quirky things to do hide in plain sight in key tourist areas like the Rocks.
So, shh. Just between you and me. Here’s my guide to unusual things to do in Sydney. In the touristy parts. And the non-touristy ones.
Unusual Things to Do Around the Rocks
Susannah Place: Travel Back to 1844 in The Rocks
Today, amid the gleam of modern Sydney, you’ll find old houses you can walk through in The Rocks at Susannah Place.
Built and occupied by Irish immigrants in 1844, over 100 families lived within this narrow terrace over the following 150 years. The walls seem better designed for the damp winds of Dublin than the blistering sun and eucalyptus haze of New South Wales but then again, I guess that’s the point.
As the homes of ordinary workers, Susannah Place offers a fascinating insight into daily life through showcasing different periods and the mod-cons that were – and weren’t – available at the time. Click here to explore more homes of everyday workers of Sydney.
Archaeology in the Rocks: The Big Dig
Yes, the Rocks is an area known for its eateries. But it’s also home to some, well, rocks.
Building work on the Sydney Harbour YMCA revealed archaeological remains aplenty, lovingly curated into an area called The Big Dig.
Sketch drawings and exhibits tell the stories of the peoples displaced by these newcomers: the Cadigal Aboriginal population. As spear fishermen and women, remains reveal a diet of rock oyster, hairy mussel and bream.
Such an intangible lifestyle left few remains but the 19th century practice of burying rubbish beneath houses has preserved a whole lot more. Ceramics, jewellery, the faded pages of books.
All together, it’s the tiniest of glimpses into a complicated past.
Recommended reading: Australian Landmarks to Help You Plan Your Trip and Fall in Love with the Country
Sydney Writers’ Walk
It’s easy to miss this if you aren’t paying attention. The Sydney Writers’ Walk trail runs from the International Passenger Terminal on West Circular Quay to the walkway between the ferry jetties and the train station before swinging on to the Sydney Opera House forecourt on East Circular Quay.
It consists of golden plaques in the ground, as in Madrid’s Literary Quarter, with each one commemorating a writer through their name, bio and a selection of their works. Most are Australian but not all. The trail also includes foreign writers who forged a connection with Australia in some way.
And so you’ll find D.H. Lawrence, Mark Twain and Rudyard Kipling among the names. Most, I’ll admit, were new to me but that’s part of the pleasure of this trail: discovering something new in one of the most visited parts of Sydney.
Sip Cocktails with History in Darlinghurst
It’s slightly strange to glamorise violent gangs but it happens the world over so sometimes it’s best to relax and join in the fun. Today’s chic Darlinghurst used to be a hotbed of bootlegging, brothels and razorhurst gangs led by Tilly Devine and Kate Leigh. Today, thanks to a change in licensing laws, it’s a hotbed of boutique creativity with bars that look like laundrettes and that go by the name of Shady Pines.
Around Sydney Harbour
Kayak on Sydney Harbour
Depending on where you’re from (hands up, the UK) it can take some time to realise how big and convoluted Sydney Harbour is. It stretches far beyond the Bridge, weaving in and out and back around again throughout Greater Sydney.
And there’s no better way to see a great body of water than on the body itself. Unless you’re in it. But that’s not a great idea, here, as you may find sharks will join you. That’s not a joke (as I once thought it was) it’s true.
That said, they’re few and far between and you’re likely to be OK if you step in a kayak or onto a boat.
Dip your oar into the water and stop for a break for a tim-sam-slam.
Arrange a trip through Sydney Harbour Kayaks (they may also entice you into spot of paddle-boarding too.)
Recommended reading: Kakadu National Park: Aboriginal Culture in Australia’s Outback
Reinvent the Classics in Sydney
Climb the Sydney Harbour Bridge
Sure, you can see the Sydney Harbour Bridge from afar. But you can also climb the thing, best done as the sun sets, and see Sydney in a whole other light.
The enterprise is a machine in its own right and, I’d wager, a triumph of vision over bureaucracy. Prepare for an alcohol breath test and a jumpsuit that covers anything you’re wearing. Even hairbands have to be approved and attached to your suit.
Because you’ll be popping your head up and then over four lanes of high-speed traffic, that’s why. Stands to reason that the bridge doesn’t exist purely for decoration and Sydneysiders have decided that they’d rather not have loose change and scrunchies fall into their windshields.
It’s not for those afraid of heights. But it is magnificent.
Tour the Sydney Opera House
Hand on heart, the tour of the Sydney Opera House was one of the best I’ve ver done. You may not be as lucky as me and get such an entertaining guide but the story of the Opera House should stay the same.
It’s interesting how those exterior sails are probably one of the most famous examples of architecture the world over. And yet originally, people thought the project a flop. The architect was sacked. It’s an inspirational story and it’s very well told.
Inside, prepare for great views, thick purple carpets, strange sound experiments and walk in the footsteps of operatic masters. Like climbing the Sydney Harbour Bridge, it’s even better than you might imagine.
Cruise Sydney Harbour
Take a ferry. Or… a small boat at sunset, complete with fizz and move into the smaller waterways. Look out for Russell Crowe’s gleaming house or head onto the water at night and look overhead for your stars instead.
Learn to Surf in Bondi
Sure, heading to Bondi is not unusual. But facing her waves on a surf board is. I’ve tried to learn to surf many times in Wales. But only in Bondi, under the expert tutelage of Let’s Go Surfing did I finally manage to stand for more than a second.
The sun may have helped. And the knowledge that if I didn’t get out of the water quickly, there was that lingering niggle about the sharks…
Walk from Bondi to Bronte
A gorgeous, rocky-pathed walk runs from sandy Bondi to Bronte, with views of whipped surf and possibly the most instagrammed outdoor pool in the world.
Take the Ferry to Manly
“7 Miles from Sydney and 1000 miles from care” – so said the steamship company back in the 1940s and nearly a century later, the same holds true.
Despite the macho name, Manly welcomes everyone as the gateway to the Northern Beaches and a beautiful, sandy slice of gorgeousness right near a major city.
Visit the Olympic Park
It’s hard to deny there’s a certain thrill to standing where greatness stood. Sydney 2000 inspired many, myself included, and a visit to the stadium captures a sense of that thrill.
Disclosure – I’ve visited Sydney as a guest of Destination New South Wales but also of my own accord, several times. As ever, as always, I write what I like. Otherwise, what is the point?!
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