The 28 best things to do in Sydney to experience it like a local

This is Sydney. Enjoy.

Visitors to Sydney are spoiled with with golden beaches, impressive architecture, beautiful bushland and a diverse food culture. Figuring out where to start can be a bit daunting.

To ensure you get the best possible experience on your next trip, Business Insider has created the ultimate to-do list for your next visit to Sydney, based on what the locals love doing, to get the best out of your downtime. And while some of the activities will give you a memorable introduction to Sydney’s notoriously high prices, there’s something for every budget.

1. Catch a Manly Ferry for a drink at Manly Wharf Bar on Sunday afternoon.

Wharf Bar, Manly.

Catching the Manly Ferry from Circular Quay to the beach and harbourside suburb is a rite of passage for anyone visiting the city.

The 30-minute trip offers views of Sydney Harbour, including the Harbour Bridge, Kirribilli House (the Sydney home of the Prime Minister), the Sydney Opera House, North Head and the Manly esplanade. Manly Wharf Bar is hard to miss when you arrive and is a popular Sunday afternoon watering hole for both locals and tourists. Grab a beer on the outside wharf section of the bar, enjoy the scenery, and be jealous that the locals get to do this all year round.

2. Lunch at Rockpool Bar & Grill.

One of Neil Perry’s many restaurants dotted around Australia, Rockpool Bar & Grill is the cornerstone of Sydney power lunching in a glorious 1930s art deco building lined with green marble. Frequented by socialites and business people, the restaurant’s grandeur is apparent as soon as you step into its magnificent main dining room. Enjoy a cocktail at the bar before taking your seat, and if you feel like it, order the sirloin on the bone once you are seated – it’s to die for.

3. Coffee at Single Origin in Surry Hills.

Surry Hills is the trendiest of Sydney’s inner suburbs, known for its hipsters and awesome cafe scene. It’s a great for a lazy explorative stroll. You’ll find it alive with the buzz of wine bars, discretely-located restaurants, and creative corner cafes. After exploring busy Crown Street, take a trip down to Reservoir Street to find Single Origin Cafe. Don’t be surprised to find this little gem packed to, but wait for a seat and be prepared to squish – it will all be worth it if you’re a coffee nut. Not only is it the HQ for the roasters of some of Sydney’s best cafes but it encapsulates the vibe of Surry Hills.

4. See a game at the SCG.

Sport is just as much part of the Australian culture as spending time at the beach. Whether it be AFL, rugby union or league, soccer or cricket, everyone has a team and everyone has a rival. Ahead of your trip, take the time to look up which games are being played while you’re in town and grab a ticket to see the action live. There’s Aussie rules, rugby union and rugby league from autumn to September, and cricket during the summer. The heritage-listed Sydney Cricket Ground is one of liveliest arenas to watch sport, and attracts more than 1.5 million visitors each year.

Fireworks at Darling Harbour.

5. Darling Harbour on Saturday night and catch the fireworks.

Darling Harbour on the western edge of the CBD is a hive of activity on weekends, with a huge range of restaurants and bars, as well as live shows and fireworks every Saturday, usually at 8.30pm or 9pm. There are many restaurants to choose from, especially if you head towards Star Casino, where Osteria Balla is a stunning choice and New Yorker David Chang has the acclaimed Momofuku Seiobo, but for a view closer to the action head harbourside to the Blue Fish Seafood Restaurant where you can enjoy a seafood platter while the sky lights up.

6. Sundowners at Icebergs, Bondi.

While tourists go to Bondi for the beach, locals go to Bondi for Icebergs. Perched on the side of the hill above the ocean pool, and drenched in the sun, it has sweeping views of Australia’s most famous beach. If you’re feeling egalitarian, head downstairs to the swimming club for a beer with the sunkissed members, or for a swanky cocktail with the in-crowd, try Icebergs Dining Room and Bar upstairs for a casual Italian nibble and drinks to suit your mood. The bartenders are great!

7. Get active in Palm Beach.

While it may be an hour’s trip from Sydney’s CBD, the northern beaches are worth the visit. Palm Beach, at the end of the peninsula, is where the rich and famous have their weekenders (and the shooting location for Aussie soap Home and Away). The Palm Beach Boathouse serves delicious meals while surrounded by the beauties of Pittwater, and you can watch visitors coming and going by seaplane, go paddle boarding, or take a relaxing bush walk up to the lighthouse for more spectacular views all the way back to the city.

8. Take a ferry to Watsons Bay, walk at The Gap, then sunset drinks

Catch a ferry from Circular Quay to Watsons Bay, a beautiful little inlet dotted with colourful dinghies and powerboats, and the Watson’s Bay Boutique Hotel is great for a beer. Sunset is also a beautiful time of day to see the area, as the sun goes down over the Harbour Bridge to the west. From the nearby lookout point, The Gap, you can look out towards New Zealand (no, you can’t see it – it’s a three-hour flight away) and take in the sights at the entry point to Sydney Harbour.

One of the many lakes in Centennial Park.

9. Go for a run in Centennial Park.

Put on those running shoes and take a walk or run through Centennial Park, on the eastern edge of the city. Its immaculate grounds, peaceful water views and flocks of Australian birds Centennial Park feels a world away from the city. In summer, there’s also an outdoor cinema showing classics and new releases, and if you’re a rider, you can hire a horse and saddle up for a ride around the park.

10. Stroll down King Street in Newtown and find a cheap eat.

Wander down King Street in Newtown of an evening and take in the vibe of this colourful, alternative inner Sydney suburb. It’s a melting pot of culture, ethnicity, sexuality and lifestyles. Finding a single place to settle on is daunting, but the Vietnamese and Thai is always cheap and cheerful, while Bloodwood offers smart modern flavours, but is no booking – the adjacent Earl’s Juke Joint is a great spot to wait for a drink. Hartsyard offers a clever hybrid of an inner-city small bar and American diner. Then there’s Black Star Pastry for a treat, especially “ginger ninja” gingerbread men, and next door, Oscillate Wildly offers brilliant and great value degustation fine dining. We suggest you get a drink in one place, dinner in the next, and grab a takeaway dessert – Gelatomassi, Wow Cow or MooBerry for a froyo to keep cruising the street and taking in the sights.

11. Brunch at Bill’s in Darlinghurst.

A Saturday mid-morning ritual for many Sydneysiders, this is where, 20 years ago Bill Granger turned brunch into the most fashionable meal of the day. So pull up a chair at the large communal table and pick from the delicious menu – our choice is the ricotta hotcakes with honeycomb butter and banana. Yum.

The Newport Arms Hotel.

12. Sunday afternoon in Newport.

Newport is a cruisy beach suburb in Sydney’s Northern Beaches. As well is its laid-back people and great surf, the suburb is known for its Newport Arms Hotel, which also happens to be the biggest beer gardens in the southern hemisphere, and locals arrive in droves every weekend. Often the host of live music or showing the game of the day on the big screen, an afternoon in the sun here is an afternoon well spent.

13. Visit the MCA.

Even if you don’t consider yourself an art lover, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney is an experience in itself. Whether it be the latest luminous light show or an international exhibition, hours can be lost wandering the galleries of the MCA. Located in the Rocks, it’s accessible and easy to follow up with a nice dinner or harbour walk.

14. Picnic at Mrs Macquarie’s Chair.

In between Circular Quay and Woolloomooloo is a small headland known as Mrs Macquarie’s Chair in Sydney’s Royal Botanic Gardens, just a short walk from the Opera House. The edge of 30 hectares of themed gardens is exposed hand-carved sandstone rock, cut into the shape of a bench and made by convicts in 1816 for Governor Macquarie’s wife, Elizabeth. It’s the perfect spot for a picnic while taking in expansive views of Sydney Harbour.

15. Drive to Ku-Ring-Gai national park.

Hire a car and discover the winding roads and inlets of Ku-Ring-Gai national park. Weaving though Australian bushland, following rivers and the coastline, this drive starting from Terrey Hills can take many paths before popping out again at Church Point. Duck down to Akuna Bay or Cottage Point to break up the trip or West Head to take in the views. You’ll find some great restaurants by the water, including Cottage Point Inn, and if you want to get out on the water, you can hire a “tinny” – and aluminium runabout, for an hour for several.

16. Head to the Blue Mountains.

The Three Sisters, Blue Mountains.

The World Heritage-listed Blue Mountains National Park is a stunning scenic destination on the edge of Sydney, just a 90-minute drive inland. Blanketed with eucalyptus trees, the mountains are known for their characteristic blue haze and dramatic sandstone cliff faces. You can catch a train up there, but the drive along the winding the Bell’s Line of Road from Richmond, leading up to Mt Tomah’s cold climate botanic gardens is worth the effort (the gardens also have an excellent restaurant with views down to the Sydney plains). Along the way you might well see a koala or kangaroo among the native flora. We suggest staying a night in Katoomba – not only does it have The Three Sisters, an incredible rock formation with a dedicated lookout point, but the town also has spa retreats and nearby Leura is a good place to eat, especially Silks Brasserie, Solitary or Leura Garage.

17. Climb the Harbour Bridge, or go up to the Pylon Lookout.

A photo from atop the bridge is the ultimate souvenir – even Oprah’s done it. The Bridge Climb is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, but you’ll need to book ahead and it’s $350. The far cheaper, lesser-known option is the Pylon lookout. At the top of 200 steps, it puts you 87 metres above sea level while giving you quick snippets of information on the history and construction of the bridge. Don’t bother walking the length of the bridge, you’ll get over it half way in.

18 . Sink a few cold ones on the Glenmore Hotel rooftop in The Rocks.

Not only does this old-school pub have views of the harbour and Opera House, its rooftop, under the bridge, is second to none when it comes to elevated outdoor dining and drinking experiences in the city. Get yourself a schooner and some pub grub and park yourself in front of the view and enjoy.

19. Spend the weekend in the Hunter Valley wine region.

One of the many wineries in the Hunter Valley.

The Hunter Valley is one of Australia’s best known wine regions. A two and a half hour drive from Sydney, the region has wineries and eateries galore. It’s an easy escape for Sydney-siders escaping from the hustle and bustle of the city, where wine tasting is at the top of the agenda. The Hunter is best-known for its Semillon and Shiraz wine varieties, with Tyrells and Brokenwood vineyards a popular choice among those who favour these wines. In recent years more diverse varietals including Tempranillo have been springing up. It’s a stunning area with friendly locals and accommodation to fit all budgets.

20. Go snorkelling at Shelly Beach.

Near Manly Beach is this hidden little gem, a 10-minute walk south along the coastline path from the Manly surf club. BYO your snorkels and head out to the right-hand side of the bay where it opens into the ocean. It’s a marine park full of beautiful fish, especially the large blue groper, and you may even see wobbegong sharks and stingrays in the deeper water. Here you’ll find some of the best snorkeling in Sydney – and it’s completely free.

21. Experience a proper Sydney pub.

Here are a couple of our favourites: The London Hotel is the heart and soul of Balmain, one of Sydney’s oldest suburbs, once working class but now gentrified and a colourful and artistic hub with stylish cafes, bistros, and pubs. Try to find a spot on the balcony out front, otherwise grab a wooden stool in the beer garden. Now with a burger, liqueur and lobster eatery the list of burgers is enough of a reason to go.

On the other side of town, there’s the East Sydney Hotel, sometimes referred to as the last country-style pub in Sydney’s metropolitan area. Just a short walk from the Sydney CBD, the pub has open fireplaces, quality draught beer, and tasty pub food and snacks. You get jazz tunes on the weekend and during the week the bar is always full of characters from corporate big-shots to tradesmen, all enjoying a cold beer after work in a celebration of Australia’s famed egalitarian culture.

The walk from Coogee to Bondi.

22. Walk from Coogee to Bondi.

The coastal trail from Coogee to Bondi is a scenic treat. Not only is the 6km path a good way to exercise, but it also offers much to see and do along the way with plenty of picnic spots, rock pools to explore, parks for the kids, cafes and restaurants, and of course some quality people-watching. At the end of the hike, which includes plenty of cliffside pathways, treat yourself to lunch at North Bondi Fish.

23. See a movie, outdoors.

If you’re visiting in summer, catch a movie under stars at the St George OpenAir cinema, on the Fleet Steps at Mrs Macquarie’s Chair. Enjoy fine food and wine, and the best in new release films on a giant 350 square metre cinema screen, with the beautiful Harbour Bridge and Opera House as your backdrop.

24. Enjoy Friday afternoon drinks at Opera Bar.

Wedged between the Sydney Opera House and the Harbour Bridge, this is one of the best locations for after-work drinks in the world. Grab a cheese board or a pizza and your poison of choice and take in the pulse of the city as day turns to night. If you’re lucky, you’ll see one of the huge cruise liners departing, rattling the Harbour with blasts of its departure horn.

25. Grab a late-night pizza and whisky at Frankie’s Pizza.

With live music every night of the week, this dark underground pizzeria and whisky bar is a hidden gem favoured by those in Sydney looking to catch up with friends and listen to some cool music. The pizzeria out the front keeps it cool and casual, while the whisky bar, known by many as the Fun Room, is tucked away out the back.

26. Have a fine dining experience or cocktail at Altitude.

The Altitude Restaurant sits at the 36th floor of the Shangri-La Hotel and Sydney and serves some of the finest contemporary Australian cuisine and Australian wine in city. Surrounded by floor-to-ceiling glass, the Altitude has views of Sydney Harbour that match the sophistication of the restaurant.

The Island on Sydney Harbour.

27. For a unique celebration, book to go to The Island.

The Island is Australia’s first floating, open-air beach bar. With day beds, VIP cabanas and beach chairs, it’s the perfect summer hang-out for a special occasion. It can only be accessed by water taxi and you’ll need to book ahead for their weekend beach club parties, but it makes for a truly memorable experience.

28. Plan a visit to Vivid.

This winter festival of light transforms the city every evening for a fortnight between late May and early June. Some of the world’s leading artists create sculptures and project amazing colours onto the city’s buildings and more than a million people come out to see and experience the joyful glow of Vivid Sydney. There’s music and a festival of ideas to accompany Vivid, but you’ll never see an already pretty city look even more amazing than when it’s lit up like this.

Enjoy your stay!

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