This city isn’t Australia’s capital, but with its history, melting pot of cultures, skyscrapers and endless things to do, Sydney is definitely the most well known of the nation’s big cities. It’s almost entirely defined by its iconic landscape, with the beautiful inlets and channels of Sydney Harbour, crossed by the massive Sydney Harbour Bridge, and the Sydney Opera House practically symbols of the city itself.
It revels in history, with the birth of the modern day city dating back to the first convicts sent to Australia: it was in 1788, eighteen years after James Cook initially landed in the area, that the ‘First Fleet’ of convicts – led by Captain Arthur Phillip – arrived at Botany Bay and founded Sydney, a then penal colony, and the first European community in Australia. But since convict transport ended in the middle of the 19th century, Sydney grew into an important colonial outpost – and then a global city.
As such the city is awash with different areas, some reflecting the old city, others suburbs of a time gone by, still more reflections of the city in its modern day evolution. Be prepared for heritage, museums and parks – and for lunches, brunches and beaches – as we take you through the best neighborhoods in Sydney.
Sydney’s top neighborhoods
2 Surry Hills
3 Bondi Beach
4 The Rocks
5 Manly (northeast of map)
6 Darling Harbour
Central Business District
Sydney’s Central Business District is the commercial centre of town and, as such, is home to most of the city’s skyscrapers. Unusually for a seemingly modern area, the CBD – sometimes simply referred to as ‘Town’ – is actually one of the oldest established areas in all of Australia, and has played a pivotal role in the country’s history. And though there are shiny tower blocks and cutting edge architecture housing international business and finance, there’s actually a lot of parkland located in this area, including Hyde Park, The Domain, and Farm Cove.
The Central Business District is also a centre for nightlife, with it being known for much more than just an after-work drinks destination: clubs and bars here are open late and ready for weekday, as much as weekend, partying. Staying in this well connected area is a definite plus, since the accommodation on offer is perhaps at its most diverse, with high end offerings available alongside more mid-range options.
Formerly known as the city’s fashion district only, this cool area continues to outdo itself with how cool it can actually be. That said, it is still very fashion-based, with many interesting boutiques, designer brands and flagship stores alike making Surry Hills the best collection of clothes shops that the city has to offer. As such, this area is known for its cool, laid-back appeal, with overlapping creative industries like media companies housing their HQs in the area, as well as artists and musicians – a mix of modern style and leftfield bohemian makes it a great area for a Saturday stroll.
What can you do here? There are a whole host of hipster eateries that you will never be able to sample in a short trip to Sydney, each one elegant in its simplicity, an understated look that makes eating out or grabbing a coffee here feel inviting and unfussy. Look out for music venues like the always popping Play Bar, buzzing uber-cool pub/bar/venue The Dolphin Hotel, US diner-themed The Soda Factory, or quirky art space The Bearded Tit – there’s more in terms of hip nightlife here than most other Sydney neighbourhoods.
The world renowned Bondi Beach is easily the most famous beach in Sydney by a long shot, and one of the most famous in the whole of Australia – especially from an outside perspective. The beach plays host to Sydney’s celebrities and is even the backdrop to TV shows, so as you might imagine this is a very popular beach. With that in mind it’s extremely accessible, of course, with buses dropping off and picking up almost directly on the beach every few minutes.
Sunbathing, surfing, and general beach activities such as these are the order of the day on Bondi Beach. But when the heat starts to get to you and you really need something to drink, and more importantly to eat, there’s a strip of restaurants and bars lining the golden sands. A host of chic beach houses and luxury apartments means you’ll be staying in style at Bondi Beach.
Although Sydney is and is seen as a modern city today, it is not without its history – and The Rocks is the place to soak in a boatload of the city’s historical side. This area is Sydney’s oldest neighbourhood, formed by the sailors and convicts who first called this cove home. It’s filled with quaint cobblestone streets, over 100 heritage sites, and more historic buildings beside. One of those heritage buildings is the oldest house in the city, Camden Cottage, built in 1816; nearby there’s the beautiful Government House; elsewhere, old pubs dot the waterfront.
Aside from walking tours which take in this historic side to The Rocks, it is located very near to some of the city’s most iconic views and landmarks, including the incredible Sydney Opera House and the very impressive Sydney Harbour Bridge, which can be climbed – albeit whilst attached to a walkway via harness and cable. Also within easy walking distance of this area are the tranquil Royal Botanic Gardens – perfect for a chilled stroll when the weather is good.
Situated a 40-minute ferry ride from Circular Quays, the northern beach area of Manly is accessible yet far away enough to feel like a secluded break from the city. If what you want is to chill at the beach without the overcrowding that can sometimes come with an activity like this, well this is the place for you. It’s a quieter alternative to the very famous Bondi Beach, and as such is popular with locals. Especially for those with families: the kid-friendly Shelly Beach is a great option in this area, and also features many family-oriented restaurants nearby.
When it comes to nature in Manly, the North Head National Park is a must-do. For sunset, and for top views of the city, this patch of coastal park located on the southern tip of Manly is a great option for nature-lovers and casual walkers alike. And if you have some time on your hands on your way to Manly, why not walk? The 10 kilometer coastal route from Spit Bridge in Mosman to Manly is a very convenient way to see Australian bushland without having to, you know, actually drive into the heart of the Bush.
Arguably home to most of the city’s most famous sights – Sydney Harbour Bridge, Sydney Opera House, for instance – Darling Harbour is adjacent to the city centre. Its location offers sparkling daytime harbour views, as well as a brilliant vista of glittering city lights as you look back on the Central Business District. Here you’ll want a hotel with a view, something up high, and there’s certainly a few of those to choose from.
Not only are those two iconic landmarks located here, but many other sights are to be found at Darling Harbour. There’s a big shopping centre, an aquarium, a branch of Tussaud’s waxworks, Sydney Wildlife World, a casino complex, and the lovely Tumbalong Park to visit in this area. Ferries connect this area to other parts of the city, whilst the genius of pedestrianised linear park, The Goods Line – a 500 meter walkway to Railway Square – takes visitors to bus and train services.
Flamboyant Darlinghurst, or ‘Darlo’ as it is abbreviated by locals and Australians alike, has pushed past a reputation for crime, drugs and seediness to become a thriving corner of Sydney. With more bars per capita than any other district in the city, it’s no wonder that the nightlife in this area comes well recommended – everything from 1950s themed bars to the modern and trendy are available for whatever venue you like the most with your alcoholic beverage.
Many of those bars are gay-friendly and can offer dancing until well into the morning. Darlinghurst is also well known for the Mardi Gras parade that roams through on Oxford Street, on the district’s south side. Aside from crazy nightlife, however, there’s a paradise for vintage lovers on Crown Street, with fashion boutiques to be found elsewhere on Bourke and Victoria Streets. If this sounds like you, then you’ll be pleased to know there are a range of budget and mid-priced hotels here – but for a more fabulous stay, there are more luxurious and quirky options.
For something a little different to European dominated Sydney, head to the Haymarket area, where you’ll find the city’s Chinatown. But this is actually the third location for Sydney’s main Chinatown, with a late 19th-century Chinese settlement located at The Rocks, later moved near to Market Street at Darling Harbour; it was only in the 1920s that it moved to its location now, centred around the area between the paifang (gates) that cross Dixon Street.
Staying in Chinatown is a great option if you want breakfasts, lunches, dinners – and snacks in between! – to be available to you within easy walking distance. It’s a great place to try new eateries, and is a completely must-stay place if you like Asian food. The range of hotels on offer runs from cheaper boutiques to modern chain hotels, meaning everyone has the chance to stay in the thick of this fascinating area.
This is another beach suburb of Sydney, and being somewhat out of town means that although the connections might not be as comprehensive as more central areas, the accommodation is a bit cheaper than elsewhere. That’s good news because Coogee really is a great place to be – the beachside location and quieter atmosphere of the area will definitely appeal to those wanting more of a city break than those wanting to dive right in to pound the pavements.
It’s definitely the place to stay for beach lovers, though, with its long stretch of sand and sea popular with both swimmers and surfers alike. Laid-back bars and pubs are spread out along the coast, and for a beautiful trail along the sea there’s Bondi to Coogee Coastal Walk. Nearby there’s some great snorkeling to be had at Gordon’s Bay, which teems with rich marine life.
The central location of Glebe is something that draws many different walks of life together for a fascinating cosmopolitan hotch-potch of cultures. University students come to Glebe Point Road to hang out, or to eat food in one of its many different nationalities of cuisine – from Mexican and Thai to Indian and Bavarian – and others come for the vintage clothes and bargains of the Saturday market at Glebe Foreshore, also a great place for a leisurely stroll. The views of Darling Harbour from here are fantastic.
Combine this laid-back socio-ethnic harmony with streets lined with heritage buildings, and you have yourself an area to spend a few hours, if not days. For example, you might want to check out Bellevue, a Victorian house built in 1896 turned cafe, or for something more fitting of the area’s cosmopolitan nature, there’s the Sze Yup Temple – a Chinese Taoist temple dating back to 1898 and in continuous use ever since.