Unexpected experiences and places to explore around this beautiful capital city will have reconsidering what you think you know about Sydney.
Bushland in northern Sydney & Royal National Park, Sydney NSW
Sydney is well known for its beaches and its beauty. But there’s far more to this diverse city to explore than the regular sunny days spent at Bondi and boating around the harbour.
If you’re in search of green spaces, go north. A veritable bushland haven, the north side of the city is pocketed, literally all over, with bushland filled with tracks and trails for all skill levels to explore.
A good place to start is anywhere along the Great North Walk. Winding its way all the way from Sydney to Newcastle, the epic trail begins in the centre of the city, before making its way across the harbour and meandering between pockets of bushland throughout the leafy northern suburbs.
Meanwhile down south, the Royal National Park is a popular (but very worthwhile) venture into seaside scrubland with stunning vistas straight out to sea. Forgo the well-trodden tourist tracks towards Wedding Cake Rock, and perhaps try out the Palm Jungle loop track beginning right down south.
Sydney’s Northern Beaches
Sydney’s Northern Beaches is home to, in my (and many locals’) opinion, the best and most beautiful beaches that all of Sydney has to offer.
An easy ferry ride over from the city, Manly attracts loads of visitors in the warmer months, and is a great place to start – bursting at the seams with hip cafés, swanky bars and restaurants, ice cream parlours, cool street shopping and a good patrolled beach. However, just a hop and skip up the coast, you’ll find less frequented, beautiful beaches with fewer tourists and welcoming, laidback locals.
There are several unpretentious beaches up north. For a few goodies – try out Whale, Avalon, Narrabeen and Newport. All offer a perfect combo of places to eat just a short walk from the beach and relaxed beaches where you’ll meet local northern Sydneysiders. For something even more quiet, take the (several) stairs down to Bilgola or tiny Turrimetta.
Historic places in Sydney NSW: Q Station
While you’re northside, be sure to head down to the Q Station at Manly North Head. Originally the historic Quarantine Station, where migrants and other arrivals to Australia were quarantined before entering the country, the station holds history in its walls.
Its days of quarantine began in the 14th century as a way to protect Australia’s coastal communities from plague epidemics, and between the 1830s and 1984, many migrant ships suspected of contagious diseases were required to dock and offload its passengers at the Quarantine Station before being admitted to the general population.
In the decades before and after its closure, the station has been used for other purposes, including tours that preserve its history. In the aftermath of Cyclone Tracy, which hit the Northern Territory on Christmas Day 1974, most of Darwin’s population was evacuated to other Australian cities, with many in Sydney housed at the Quarantine Station. My grandfather worked there at the time, and my father remembers handing out blankets and food to the evacuees as a kid.
Today’s reincarnation is the modern-day Q Station, where visitors can explore the grounds, take nightly ghost tours and stay the night in its original restored buildings.
Aboriginal history tours around Sydney, NSW
A short walk up to the headland delivers stunning panoramic views back towards the Sydney skyline unlike any other vantage point around the city (North Head is the furthest headland out from the harbour). The Sydney basin was once inhabited by 29 Aboriginal clans, collectively known as ‘Eora’.
A great way for visitors to explore Sydney’s Aboriginal history is on an Indigenous-led tour. In the city’s newest harbourside precinct, an Aboriginal Walking Tour around Barangaroo, provides some insight into the local natural environment and culture of the Indigenous people who lived here for thousands of years. Join an Aboriginal Heritage Tour when wandering the Royal Botanic Gardens to discover its Indigenous heritage through local plants, bush tucker, artefacts and storytelling.
Arts and culture in Sydney NSW
While expansive and epic at first glance, Sydney has an intimate and unintruding arts scene – which is so worth getting to know. Its cobblestoned laneways and backstreets swirl throughout the inner city suburbs, where unpretentious art galleries and secret rooftop bar doorways shyly poke their nose.
Though a big institution, there’s no going past the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) when listing the best arts and culture in the city. Modern art and multimedia exhibitions perennially fill its high-ceilinged halls, while the upstairs view overlooking the harbour is something else – a real hotspot during Vivid Sydney.
For something different, look out for MCA ARTBAR, which hosts themed events at the museum after dark four times a year, curated by a different artist or art collective each time.
In Redfern, Carriageworks cannot be underrated as fantastic arts venue. The versatile space, which is based around an old tram station, features art exhibitions year-round, (including the Biennale of Sydney), as well as weekly Farmers Markets and fabulously curated events like the Sydney Writers Festival.
Nightlife in Sydney NSW
For a night out, small bars, eateries and clubs line the streets throughout Surry Hills, Paddington and Darlinghurst – in this inner city triangle you’ll be spoilt for choice of almost any cuisine you could imagine.
Just south of the CBD, a tour of Archie Rose Distillery is a great way to quench your thirst while learning a little. The boutique distillery offers a range of experiences, such as its signature distillery tour, where you can learn how gin, whisky and vodka are produced. For an even more hands-on experience, try a gin- or whisky-making class, where you learn the art of whisky blending and gin botanicals, before taking home your own signature blend, and a little taste of Sydney, at day’s end.
Lead image: © Destination NSW