The city of Sydney…
We acknowledge Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the traditional custodians of our land ‘Australia’- with the Gadigal of the Eora Nation the traditional custodians of this place we now call Sydney.
The booming metropolis of Sydney and its surrounds is where a lot of travellers begin their Aussie adventure – and if they don’t, it will only be a matter of time before they end up here.
Famous for its unique Opera House, Harbour Bridge, amazing zoo, historical sites, stunning beaches and sordid history, Sydney is Australia’s oldest European settlement, the NSW capital… and is full of unexpected surprises!
Sydney Cove, on which Circular Quay is built, is one of the most significant places in Australia’s history as it was here, on 26th January 1788, upon the arrival of a fleet of convict ships from England, that the Colony of New South Wales was founded.
Today it is the hub of colourful harbour ferries that ply Sydney Harbour in all directions, cafes, restuarants, and bus and train terminals.
There are a selection of self guided walks in and around the city area covering history, heritage and attractions and we’ve spent many a day pounding the pavement around this port… but the short harbourside stroll from the ferry terminal to the World Heritage listed Sydney Opera House is always a favourite of ours.
Surrounded by the energetic harbour and overlooked by the gigantic Sydney Harbour Bridge – a constant image of Australia that is recognised around the world – the Opera House is also an Australian icon.
It hosts more than 1,600 performances a year in its concert halls and theatres and its prominent sails often become a brilliant canvas for incredible digital lightshows.
Further afield the Royal Botanical Gardens and Government House are the ideal vantage point to view the harbour and the famous bridge… as is Mrs Macquarie’s Chair situated at the tip of Mrs Macquaries Point, a peninsula that sits between the Garden Island Peninsula and Bennelong Point.
Established in 1916 on the site of the first farm of the young colony, the Royal Botanical Gardens is now home to an impressive collection of native and overseas plants.
On the Domain is the Art Gallery of NSW, Hyde Park Barracks Museum, the Anzac Memorial, the Australian Museum (situated on the site of the colony of New South Wales’ first government house), St Mary’s Cathedral and Parliament House.
Bordered by the Domain, Kings Cross and Potts Point, the harbourside suburb of Woolloomooloo is home to some iconic Sydney landmarks, including the Andrew Boy Charlton Pool, Woolloomooloo Finger Wharf and Garden Island Naval Base.
Garden Island is Australia’s main naval base and has been linked with the defence of Sydney (and eventually Australia), since the first fleet of convicts arrived in 1788. Its best kept secret is its spectacular 360 degree view of Sydney from the top of the old signal station.
Over the last few years, we have enjoyed many visits to the city but none more memorable than a visit to the Opera House with our granddaughter where we enjoyed the pantomime of ‘Possum Magic’… along with ‘The life of Carol King’ at Sydney Lyric Theatre and the musical ‘Mary Poppins’ at the iconic Capitol Theatre with our Sydney family.
The Capitol Theatres life began in 1892 as the New Belmore Markets and the market motifs of fruit and foliage can still be seen in the terracotta arches.
In 1916 the building was converted to specifically cater for the Wirth Bros circus… then in 1927, a renowned American designer of theatrically themed theatres, was commissioned to create the Capitol Theatre for its new tenant, Union Theatres.
For the more adventurous, the observation deck of the ‘Sydney Tower Eye’ is a popular spot for those wanting to view the city and surrounds from greater heights, as is Sydney Harbour Bridge.
Fondly known by the locals as ‘The Coat-hanger’ this bridge opened in 1932 and is the world’s tallest steel arch bridge towering 134-metres above the water… and for those wanting to experience the scenes of Sydney from another perspective, guided tours to the top are available.
On the western side of the city in the shadows of the bridge you’ll find Sydney’s oldest neighbourhood.
‘The Rocks’ began its life as an underprivileged area during early settlement and once housed many colourful characters including convicts.
Nowadays, it’s a thriving area of the city with its streets lined with boutique stores, galleries and lovely accommodation… and there’s still the colourful history to uncover with lots of interesting old historic buildings, famous pubs (that are some of the country’s oldest)… and a labyrinth of cobbled laneways that still echo tales of the 1800s. It is the perfect location to enjoy the best of Sydney’s past and present… and offers spectacular views of the harbour, Sydney’s iconic Opera House and the harbour bridge.
Past ‘The Rocks’ the beautiful Darling Harbour is a mix of leisure, tourism, and entertainment where you’ll find the Aquarium and the National Maritime Museum, the popular bar scene of Cockle Bay Wharf, and Chinatown.
The Chinese community has a long history in and around Sydney with Chinatown set almost in the heart of the city and displaying its culture proudly with ceremonial archways, monument lions and an inviting ‘Chinese Garden of Friendship’ – a calming sanctuary where towering weeping willows sway in the breeze and beautiful flowers fill the gardens.
Designed by Sydney’s sister city, Guangzhou, this Garden was officially opened in 1988 as part of Sydney’s bicentennial celebrations, with its name symbolising the bond established between China and Australia.
A must visit while at Darling Harbour is the SEA LIFE Sydney Aquarium where we’ve spent many an hour visiting the themed areas of Jurassic Seas, Sydney Harbour and Dugong Island, the underwater world of Shark Valley, the tunnel walk-though, the mesmerising Great Barrier Reef Zone and Macquarie Island.
This aquarium is one of the world’s largest with over 700 different species and 13,000 animals in an impressive six million litres of water. It is also home to the world’s largest variety of sharks and rays, as well as Australia’s most famed marine animals, including a dugong and tropical reef fish.
Looking out over the harbour from the northern side of the bridge the beaming face of Luna Park is just begging people to enter its jaws and enjoy the sideshows and fun rides at its restored 1930s fairground.
Not far away on the eastern side of the bridge, Kirribilli Point is home to the official Sydney residence of the Prime Minister.
Also occupying the wooded, rocky peninsular is Taronga Zoo.
Roar and Snore experience…
Another of our most memorable experiences on one of our many visits to Sydney, was the night we spent locked away with the animals at the zoo.
This unforgettable overnight ‘Roar and Snore’ experience allowed us intimate animal encounters, fascinating keeper talks, delicious food and wine and safari-style accommodation with spectacular views over Sydney Harbour and the bridge… not to mention the booming roar of a lion to wake us very early next morning!
Taronga Zoo and Taronga Western Plains Zoo at Dubbo are two of the world’s greatest zoos and both high on my list of must visit.
Another sight not to be missed while visiting is the infamous suburb of ‘Kings Cross’ – if only to see what all the fuss has been about over the years… and see the famous Coca Cola sign!
Kings Cross is known far and wide for its chequered past and reputation for crime, drugs, prostitution, gambling, and booze. It was also the key battleground of the Razor Gang Wars of the 1920s and 1930s.
And not much has changed in this ‘suburb that never sleeps’ it seems! Since the 1940s it has continued to develop its reputation as the centre of Sydney’s seedy ‘Red Light District’ attracting thrill seekers and partygoers to its many strip joints, bars and restaurants!
Sydney is a beautiful city, and the bustling harbour is always a favourite spot of ours to just sit for a while and enjoy the flurry of ferries, cruise ships and sailboats traversing its magnificent stretch of water… but as we all know, Australia is famous for it’s amazing beaches – and we love beaches!
Bondi Beach is one of the most iconic beach destinations in Australia – and the world, and has become a popular attraction in Sydney that just shouldn’t be missed.
Bondi’s laidback coastal lifestyle makes it poplular with millions of tourists and locals each year and it is because of its famous reputation this beach has now been listed as one of the National Heritage sites of Australia.
Along with its beautiful beach it is also home to the famous Bondi Iceberg pool, the most photographed pool in the world… and the shopping is not to be missed either!
You can spend an entire day at the Bondi Beach swimming, surfing, laying in the sun, walking the beach, people watching, visiting fashion boutiques, souvenir shops, book stores and the like – then after a hard day at the office enjoy one of the 102 cafes or a gourmet meal at a luxury restaurant or a classic pub meal. You’ll find it all at Bondi Beach!
Our whole country is blessed with thousands of beautiful beaches dotted all along its coastline and although this city can lay claim to one of world’s most sought after stretches of sand to soak up the sun – and one of the most photographed beaches (the historical landmark of Bondi)… it’s the Northern Beaches of Manly, Freshwater, North Curl Curl, Dee Why, Mona Vale, Narrabeen right down to Palm Beach where we like to dip our toes in the sea!
On the opposite side of the harbour the seaside town of Manly is considered the gateway to Sydney’s beautiful Northern Beaches and once you set foot off the ferry it’s like stepping into another world.
The 30-minute trip to and from Circular Quay is the favoured mode of transport for us when travelling into the city or from the airport and is the ideal photo opportunity to capture the Opera House, the Harbour Bridge… and Pinchgut Island can’t be missed towering 20-metres above the water.
This rocky outcrop was historically called ‘Mat-te-wan-ye’ by the local indigenous population before New South Wales’ Governor Arthur Phillip renamed it Rock Island when the British colonised the area in 1788… but it didn’t take long before the island took on a more sinister name when convict Thomas Hill was sentenced to a week in iron chains with nothing but bread and water to fill his stomach — that quite literally pinched his gut!
Manly is one of Australia’s most loved playgrounds, famous for its beautiful beaches, in particular its 2.4-kilometre beach… and its stunning harbour views.
With a century long surfing heritage, it is widely regarded as the birthplace of surfing in Australia and perched high on the headland overlooking nearby Freshwater Beach is a bronze statue of the legendary Duke Kahanamoku, the man who brought the sport of surfing to Australia between 1914 and 1915.
In 2010 Manly and Freshwater surf beaches were formally declared an Australian National Surfing Reserve.
This reserve stretches over 4-kilometres from Harbord Point to Fairy Bower and includes Freshwater Beach, Queenscliff, North Steyne, Manly Beaches and Shelly Beach to Fairy Bower Point and hosts the famous Queenscliff Bombora, Frenchman’s Reef, and the infamous Fairy Bower where you’ll find some of the largest waves ever ridden in Australia.
Other little-known facts about Manly are that it was the site of Australia’s first legal bathing in 1902; it hosted the first known body surfing contest in 1908 and was the launch site of Australia’s first official patrol boat in 1907.
A short stroll from Manly Beach, en-route to Shelly Beach, Fairy Bower Pool is a lovely little ocean pool built in a unique triangular shape by locals in 1929. The centrepiece of this pool is the iconic Manly Sea Nymphs sculpture of two curving creatures on the pools edge.
Back in the township of Manly a walk along ‘The Corso’ that separates the harbour from the ocean takes you past little boutiques, top brand surf shops, boutique stores and in the hidden laneways weekend outdoor markets where you’ll find all sorts of wares, restuarants, cafes and fashion shops.
There really is so much to see and do on the Northern Beaches and over the years we have had many adventures in this playground – from kayaking on Sydney Harbour, sleeping overnight at Taronga Zoo, walking the coastal tracks, hiking and paddling around Scotland Island, riding the lakes and bikeways, pounding the pavement, swimming in the seaside pools, body surfing the waves to standup paddleboarding on Narrabeen Lake.
Kayaking North Harbour and Middle Harbour…
On one of our many trips our kids shouted us a 4-hour self-guided kayaking adventure where we paddled the pristine waters of North Harbour taking in its exclusive beaches, elaborate mansions and stunning scenery. Manly Kayak Centre at Manly Wharf supplied the double kayak and paddles, life jackets and an area map so we knew where to explore.
On another occasion we explored Middle Harbour! At Spit Bridge we were fitted with equipment and given advice on where is best to paddle by the guys at Sydney Harbour Kayaks… then sent on our way to explore the wonderful waterways of Middle Harbour for 3- hours in a double sea kayak. Here we saw some amazing parts of the harbour – old ship wrecks and buildings, mangrove waterways that can only be accessed by a kayak, the scenery of Garigal National Park… and the solitude of some lovely beaches. Middle Harbour was truly a magical kayaking expereince with lots to explore.
Exploring North Head…
This headland frames the harbour entrance and protrudes so far out into the harbour that it is the ideal spot to enjoy stunning views of the harbour itself, watch the commuter ferries plying their trade, admire the Sydney skyline, watch the big cruise ships come into harbour, watch the start of the Sydney Hobart Race… or enjoy the fireworks on New Year’s Eve.
Being on the outskirts of the centre of Manly, North Head is a bit of a trek to get to but it’s well worth the effort… and for those not up to walking – you can drive yourself, or there are buses you can catch from Manly Wharf.
Once there there’s a great walking track taking in the surrounds of the early days of Sydney Harbour and a couple of lookouts providing amazing views – 1 over the city – and the other the headlands of the Northern Beaches and St Patrick’s Seminary built in 1879.
Pre 1788 North Head was a special place for the local Aboriginal people where they gathered to practice medicinal traditions.
Between 1828-1879 it served as a station for passengers on ships arriving in the colony… and by 1837 the whole of North Head was a quarantine reserve including a cemetery that catered for those suffering and dying from bubonic plague, smallpox, scarlet fever… and the influenza outbreak after World War 1. There are around 240 grave sites dating from 1881 to 1919.
North Head was also an important part of the harbours defence during World War II and was one of the most heavily garrisoned sites in Australia with heavy guns both here and at South Head to protect the harbour from enemy invasion. North Fort is now the home of the National Military Museum.
The Spit to Manly walk…
Be sure to pack your walking shoes for this walk because the views are not to be missed!
Being a 10-kilometre one way walk we left our car at Manly and caught the bus to Spit Bridge then following the coastline along a mix of paved walkways, boardwalk, maintained bush tracks and a few short sections of soft sandy beach we passed through Sydney Harbour National Park, bushland reserves and local streets back to Manly.
Along this walk there are several points of interest and side trips to rare Aboriginal rock art, the Grotto Point Light House and Arabanoo Lookout… and its worth stopping and pausing for just a few moments to take in the expansive views over Middle Harbour.
Manly Dam is also worth a visit and this dam is so much more than just a pretty lake to swim in. In the surrounding woods there are mountain bike trails that are rumoured to be the best in Sydney and lots of birds and wildlife to discover too!
Located in the middle of the Pittwater estuary is a small island. The first European settler to own land on this island was Andrew Thompson, who built a salt works there and decided to name it after his homeland… Scotland! The island was originally called Pitt Island by Governor Phillip in 1788 after British Prime Minister William Pitt.
Andrew Thompson arrived in Australia as a convict in 1792. He had been sentenced to 14-years transportation and exile for stealing 10-pounds worth of cloth.
5-years later he was pardoned and granted land for bravery during flooding on the Hawkesbury and eventually become one of the richest men in NSW.
Today this small, eucalypt wooded community in the middle of Pittwater is one of only two residential islands in the Sydney area. There are no gazetted roads and no vehicles on this island that was a once popular weekend family escape. It has now attracted more permanent residents since the arrival of electricity in the 1960s – but the only means of accessing it is still only via ferry or motor boat!
Exploring the island…
After driving as far as we could along the Northern Beaches Peninsular, we came to a vast expanse of water, marking the southern mouth of the Hawkesbury River and Church Point!
Church Point is the nearest ferry port that services Scotland Island.
It was an enjoyable journey across and after initially getting lost and asking directions of 2-lovely ladies, we spent the morning exploring the small landmass – scrambling up the side of hills where we were privy to some great views of Palm Beach and further afield to Newport, traipsing along muddy trails and over loose rocks thankfully surviving our ordeal with no broken or rolled ankles, and collecting a few hitch hikers along the way – a couple of very hungry and persistent leeches that stayed attached all the way back to Dee Why!
On another occasion we hired kayaks again.
Pittwater is an exciting area to paddle, and we could easily paddle from Church Point around Scotland Island and enjoy the beautiful little bays and coves.
Northern Beaches walking tracks…
With rugged coastline and jaw-dropping views at every turn, it’s easy to see why this coastline is a favourite hiking destination… so let’s lace up our hiking boots and explore some of the best walking tracks Northern Beaches has to offer.
Northern Beaches Coast Walk will eventually stretch for 36-kilometres from Manly to Palm Beach and what we could access showcased a spectacular coastline, offering stunning views from almost every vantage point along the way as it passes through the suburbs of Dee Why, Collaroy, Narrabeen as far as Mona Vale.
The walk from Manly to Queenscliff then to Freshwater and on to Curl Curl is a great 7-kilometre return coastal walk along a well-constructed boardwalk that has you yearning to stop for a swim at the beautiful beaches along the way!
From Curl Curl it then continues to North Curl Curl and on to Dee Why.
Like many of these seaside suburbs along this coast, Dee Why is predominantly residential with a substantial commercial area along and near Pittwater Road.
It is the heart of the Northern Beaches with yet another magnificent beach that, joined with Long Reef, forms a continuous 2-kilometre-long bay on the southern side of Long Reef Point.
Dee Why is part of the traditional land of the Guringai Aboriginal people (however it is believed that is not the name the local people used – they knew themselves the Dharug peole) – regardless, evidence of their way of life can still be found in the rock engravings at sites close by – Cromer and Beacon Hill.
Not surprisingly, one of my most frequently asked questions is ‘how did Dee Why get its name’… but strangely no-one seems to really know. Some say it came about by ‘DY’ – representing the shape of the lagoon, others from ‘deewae’ being the sound made by a small water bird living in the wetlands… but one thing I do know after a google search is it was named by James Meehan in 1814.
Dee Why is popular location and was once a favourite holiday destination for us to visit family. It has great ocean swimming pools, beautiful grassed beachside frontage incorporating elegant lamp posts, beach showers, a stunning Cenotaph, stylishly designed picnic and seating areas… and very popular restuarants and beach cafés lining the main street. Its a very special spot annually playing host to a popular Australia Day event, a New Year’s Eve fireworks event… and a moving ANZAC Service!
Next along the track is Collaroy.
This area was originally part of Narrabeen but was renamed after the collier S.S. Collaroy ran aground on the beach in 1881 during a storm.
It is home to various surf shops, cafés and restaurants as well as a local cinema lining its main throughfare… and is the quintessence of beachside living – although many homes have been bought undone with the rising tides and heavy surf undercutting many foundations from recent storms!
Halfway between Collaroy and Narrabeen in a suburb called Collaroy Plateau, McLeans Lookout is the hidden gem here that hardly any tourists know about. On sunny days this lookout affords stunning views of the middle part of the Northern Beaches from Narrabeen down to Collaroy Beach.
Of course, Narrabeen is a must-stop spot if you’re exploring the northern beaches.
This is where our family live… and as well as a few shopping centres close by, quirky eateries and bakeries and a great outdoor market on the 3rd Sunday of every month at Berry Reserve… there are stunning beaches, a picturesque lagoon, walking trails, bike routes – and the only beachside caravan park in Sydney!
Narrabeen Lagoon is always packed with people enjoying the sunshine while partaking in a spot of physical activity.
There’s great flat jogging/walking and riding track set in a bushland setting around the lagoon, stand up paddle boarding and kayaking on the lagoon, the northern end of the lake’s foreshore is lined with lovely cafes… and near the entrance to the lake, a small, protected beach is a great spot for families to relax and swim.
There’s also a scenic walk from Narrabeen to Mona Vale following the coastal track and crosses stunning cliffs with ocean views as far as the eye can see! Here the Northern Beaches Walking Track finishes with the remainder of the track to Palm Beach planned to commence in mid-2021.
Mona Vale Beach is a favourite of ours whether we’re combing the beach, body surfing in the waves, swimming laps in the pool or wading in the shallow rockpools that sit at the tip of a sand spit near the northern end of the beach.
There are 2-bathing pools – one a childs pool, the other a lap pool… and at high tide or in rough conditions it’s incredible to see both pools surrounded by crashing waves.
Next along is Avalon a small community with an RSL club, local cinema, bowling and sailing clubs, golf club, supermarket, various shops and cafes and schools and a lovely surf beach bordered by 60-metre-high sandstone cliffs and the rock platforms of Bilgola Head and Hole in the Wall.
On the northernmost point of the Northern Beaches you will find the historic Barrenjoey Lighthouse standing proudly on top of Barrenjoey Headland. The popular Barrenjoey Lighthouse walk will afford you the most spectacular views across the endless blue ocean, all the way from the narrow Palm Beach peninsula to Broken Bay and the Central Coast and along the gorgeous stretch of Palm Beach that fans of the TV show ‘Home and Away’ know as ‘Summer Bay’.
What we love most about the northern beaches is the spectacular beaches, quirky cafes… and the easy access to the National Parks situated almost right on Sydney’s doorstep.
In fact, there are more National Parks in the Hawkesbury Region than any other part of Sydney and situated on the other side of the bay from Palm Beach ‘The Basin’ in the Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park is the perfect spot to spend a couple of days away from the crowds.
There’s an idyllic picnic ground for day trippers, bush trails to explore… and with a little bit of advance planning, you can book a powered or unpowered campsite – but if you choose to arrive by car instead of ferry, you’ll be walking a 2.8-kilometre track from West Head Road carpark (with all your gear) to get to and from the campground.
We prefer to travel by ferry from Palm Beach where we leave our car in the seasonal carpark at the Careel Bay Sporting Fields, then catch the 199 bus back to the wharf. It runs every 15 minutes, and is just a short 5 minute ride.
Other National Parks in Sydney and its surrounds include Scheyville Scheyville Camp precinct, which has strong historical value, but also a moving one. Residents came to this site during times of great change in their lives, as Dreadnought boys, post-World War II migrants, or National Service Officers during the Vietnam War. The site is now a legacy to these people.
Cattai National Park also protects significant historical sites and offers camping, walking and bike riding… as do Yengo, Dharug, Wollemi and the World Heritage listed Greater Blue Mountains National Parks.
At this point I would really like to mention ‘The Great North Road’.
Wisemans Ferry is a tiny settlement on the Hawkesbury River. The town itself is little more than a few shops and some houses but it does have 2- ferries that provide access to St Albans and ‘The Great North Road’ on the other side of the Hawkesbury.
The icon Great North Road was constructed using convict labour and completed in 1836. It spans 264-kilometres between Sydney and the Hunter Valley with a 43-kilometre section of the original road that remains undeveloped and relatively intact and located within and adjacent to Dharug and Yengo National Parks. This is one 4WD historic convict trail well worth exploring!
There’s so much history in and around Sydney that you could spend weeks traipsing the trails … but no trip to this city would be complete without a trip to the famous Blue Mountains.
The Blue Mountains is a rugged region west of Sydney known for its dramatic scenery, steep cliffs, eucalyptus forests, waterfalls and quaint villages, picturesque valleys, famouse caves, Botanic Gardens, bushwalking trails, scenic railways…. and the storied Three Sisters sandstone rock formations.
Come with us as the Great Western Highway climbs into the mountains…