First 24 hours in Sydney, Australia (Dreamstime)

First 24 hours: Sydney, Australia

It takes a long time to get to Australia’s most iconic city so don’t rush off. Stick around for fine ferries, free tours and bridge climbs

Nick Boulos | Issue 125 | January 2012

Where? Southern east coast of Oz
Why? To enjoy sunny days in the country’s most cosmopolitan and rewarding city
When? Year-round; Oct-Feb for sun

Before you arrive

Blessed in many ways, Sydney – capital of the state of New South Wales – is arguably Australia’s most vibrant and beautiful city (although Melburnians may have a thing or two to say about that...).

On the surface Sydney can seem a little superficial: all style and no substance, like some of the surfers at Bondi; a little too shiny, like the gleaming ceramic tiles on the iconic Opera House. But dig a little deeper and you’ll find a multi-layered metropolis bursting with culture and excelling in life’s finer things. There’s certainly no shortage of world-class galleries, museums and restaurants – but Sydney is a city that does its living outdoors.

The city is fringed with golden beaches, sleepy coves and secluded cliffs, so it’s easy – and positively encouraged – to escape the bustling boulevards and tourist hotspots for a bit of fresher air. Venture only slightly beyond the city limits and even more memorable experiences are on offer – everything from walks in deserted mountains to whale watching.

Plus, as a slick, modern hub, there’s no culture shock to worry about. Just the jetlag... 

At the airport

Flying to Sydney direct from the UK involves a 21 hour+ flight with a refuelling stop en route (check times at www.qantas.com). Minimise jetlag by making a stopover on the way: spend a night or two in Bangkok, Singapore or Hong Kong and you’ll land in Sydney feeling as fresh as a golden wattle (Australia’s national flower). 

International flights touch down at Kingsford Smith airport – sit on the left-hand side of the plane for views of the Opera House and Harbour Bridge during the descent.

Many flights arrive early morning, meaning queues at immigration can be lengthy. Be sure to dispose of all food products, including fresh fruit, to avoid unnecessary hold-ups. Note, In order to enter the country, you need to have arranged an eVisitor visa before travel (see below).

The airport boasts all the facilities you’d expect: shops (including several that sell local SIM cards), foreign exchange booths and a tourist information stand, which can help book accommodation and tours.

Getting into town

Travelling into town is relatively easy. Several shuttle buses make the 8km journey, but need to be booked in advance.

Airport Connect offers a one-way transfer to the Central Business District (CBD), Darling Harbour or King’s Cross from A$14 (£9.20); A$25 (£16.40) return. Buses leave every 30 mins; journey time is around one hour.

Those heading to Bondi should catch local Bus 400, which leaves from outside Terminal 1. Tickets cost A$4.30 (£2.90); for more info, see www.sydneybuses.info.

For a speedier option, ride the Airport Link train – you’ll be standing in the shadow of the Opera House (Circular Quay station) in 21 minutes flat. One-way tickets cost A$15 (£10).

Sydney orientation

Where to surf, sightsee and eat seafood in Australia’s good-looking metropolis

Essential info

Population: 4.5 million
Language: English 
Timezone: GMT+10 (Oct-Apr GMT+11)
International dialling code: +61 2
Visas: UK nationals can stay for up to three months but must apply for a free visa before travel (www.immi.gov.au).  
Currency: Australian dollar (A$), currently around A$1.5 to the UK£
Highest viewpoint: The Sydney Tower (250m) with 360° views of the harbour, mountains and ocean.
Health: No vaccinations required, employ good sun protection .
Recommended guidebooks: Sydney (Time Out, 2011; Lonely Planet, 2009; Rough Guide, 2009).
Web resources: The Australian tourist board’s site has advice and handy tips on how best to enjoy the city; the site of the Sydney Morning Herald newspaper is a good source for news, food and fun; www.131500.com.au has comprehensive information on public transport. 
iPhone app: The tourist board’s website (see above) has a selection of useful apps covering every corner of Australia. 
Climate: Summers in Sydney (Dec-Feb) are busy and hot – tourist numbers are at their highest and temperatures often nudge the mid-30°Cs. The city receives the majority of its rain in Feb and March (June also tends to be rather wet) and cools down nicely in April (average temp around 20°C). Winter (Jun-Aug) is sunny but chilly so pack a warm jacket.

First day’s tour

Rise early and watch the sun come up from the rugged clifftops of North Head before venturing to nearby bohemian Manly for a surf lesson.

Catch the ferry to Circular Quay, saving money on a sightseeing cruise while admiring the million-dollar harbourside houses and Sydney’s famous landmarks. Take a closer look at the Opera House and visit The Rocks Discovery Museum for info on Sydney’s Aboriginal origins. Climb the Harbour Bridge or, cheaper, ascend one of its pylons.

Wander along busy George Street – don’t miss the 19th-century Queen Victoria Building (for shops) – before seeking refuge in the leafy surrounds of Hyde Park.

Come nightfall, enjoy a dinner of fresh seafood at Bungalow 8, the perfect spot to watch the boats come and go in Darling Harbour.

First night’s sleep

Unless you’re a surf fan (in which case head to Bondi or Coogee), it’s best to base yourself around Circular Quay, The Rocks and Darlinghurst for access to all the main sights.

Top end: Cosy touches, sash windows and DVD players give the 78-room Observatory Hotel a classic yet contemporary feel. Doubles from A$315 (£213).

Mid-range: The Russell Hotel is a lovely property dating back to 1887 with individually designed rooms and Victorian charm. Doubles from A$229 (£155).

Budget: The YHA Sydney Harbour The Rocks oasts a terrace overlooking one of the world’s most iconic quays. Doubles from A$138 (£90); dorms from A$41 (£27) pp.

Stay or go?

Stay – this is a great city – but  not too long: while Australia does cities well, it does the great outdoors really well.

Just 65km west of the city are the Blue Mountains, a soaring sandstone plateau clad in eucalyptus trees that emit an eerie blue haze. Steeped in Aboriginal folklore, Katoomba’s Three Sisters rock formation is the main draw. Lose the crowds by heading to the southern sections of the vast national park. Blue Mountains Eco Tours offers 4WD day tours into the mountains (with clifftop walks and a trip on the world's steepest train), as well as wildlife tours (spot wombats and wallabies!) and bespoke tours to the mountains, Jenolan caves, and romantic Hunter Valley wineries.

Head north for Queensland, exploring coastal New South Wales en route: Port Macquarie and Byron Bay are worthwhile stops. Or head south: Oz capital Canberra is 288km away.

Worst scams

Sydney’s fairly safe but beware dodgy characters charging to visit  free attractions and unscrupulous vendors manipulating exchange rates to sell goods for three times their value.

Best deal

Enjoy a three-hour guided walking tour of the celebrated sights, and some lesser-known ones, without paying a cent. Free tours leave daily at 10.30am and 2.30pm from beside Sydney’s Town Hall (483 George St).

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