Sydney travel guide - Rusty Compass

An independent travel guide to Sydney with candid reviews and recommendations. No sponsored content, no advertorial.

Sydney travel guide

Sydney Introduction

| 19 Jan 2023
Last updated 19 Jan 2023

Sydney is one of the world's most recognisable and best-loved cities. Its dazzling harbour setting and natural beauty are matched by a thriving cultural and culinary scene and a friendly and diverse population. This is our independent cultural travel guide to Sydney.

For a casual visitor, Sydney's hard to fault. There's the harbour, perfect beaches, an agreeable climate (climate change permitting), a thriving cultural life, a delicious culinary scene, and a diverse population predisposed to a friendly welcome. It's one of the world's great cities.

It's hard to beat the beaches and harbour and they devour the attention of visitors. There's also a multitude of cultural attractions - galleries and museums, live music, theatre. 

This travel guide includes the best of the city's cultural attractions as well as beaches, walks and more.

Sydney's newest harbour swim spot in 2023 - Marrinawi Cove, right by The Rocks
Photo: Mark Bowyer Sydney's newest harbour swim spot in 2023 - Marrinawi Cove, right by The Rocks

 

For an experience of the city where most of its 3.3 million residents live, head west. This is Sydney heartland. A fantastic mix of cultures from Asia, the Middle East and Africa, has gifted Sydney whole suburbs of culinary bliss. Remember names like Newtown, Marrickville, Ashfield, Bankstown, Auburn, Cabramatta and Harris Park for a deep dive into Sydney's multicultural culinary universe.

Parramatta is Sydney's second major metropolis and mixes Indigenous and colonial heritage with a booming commercial centre.

For a complete switch to nature, head further west to the Blue Mountains. Places like Katoomba and Wentworth Falls offer dramatic walks and hikes through spectacular National Park, for all ages and energy levels.

Sydney's an easy place to explore and there's a perfect balance of natural wonder, parks and gardens, walks, museums and galleries. The hotel and Airbnb scene is good too.

Sydney Modern opened in December 2022 and is a major expansion of the Art Gallery of New South Wales
Photo: Mark Bowyer Sydney Modern opened in December 2022 and is a major expansion of the Art Gallery of New South Wales
 
 

Sydney travel highlights

Sydney’s rich in possibilities for active, cultural travellers. That’s why we love the place.


Our Sydney essentials -


Walk Sydney: Sydney is one of the best cities in the world for walking. From the harbour to the beach, to the architecture of the city and the downtown neighbourhoods, stunning, fascinating walks for all levels of fitness abound.


Sydney Harbour: Sydney Harbour dominates the world’s imaginings of Sydney - it’s as beautiful in real life as it is in the marketing. Spend time on it, around it and in it!


See a show at the Opera House:
Opera, theatre, live music and film are all part of the daily offerings of Sydney’s iconic Opera House. Book a show in one of the world’s greatest architectural marvels.


Head to the beach:
Bondi or Manly? If you’re in Sydney long enough, do both. If not, do Manly. The Manly Ferry is the best inexpensive experience of Sydney Harbour going. Beaches of Manly (there are several) are fabulous and some are protected for less-confident swimmers. You could spend months exploring the rest of Sydney's beaches.


Museums and galleries: Sydney’s museums and galleries are world class. The main city gallery, the Art Gallery of New South Wales, opened a major “Sydney Modern” extension in December 2022. The original and the new shouldn’t be missed!


The Rocks: Right by the harbour in the centre of town, The Rocks is where Sydney’s British colonial penal colony was established in 1788. The long dispossession of Australia’s First Nations peoples started here. The Rocks is now Sydney’s best preserved old neighbourhood. There’s history, architecture, some of the cities oldest and best pubs, galleries and shops. Take a stroll in The Rocks.


Parks and gardens: Sydney’s parks and gardens are exceptional. In the middle of the city, the Royal Botanical Gardens date back to the early colonial years and were championed from afar by British Botanist Joseph Banks. The Botanical Gardens are huge and right by the harbour and the Opera House. Spend an afternoon wandering here. Sydney Harbour National Park covers spectacular expanses of foreshore land on both sides of the harbour.


A culinary powerhouse: Sydney’s ethnically diverse population, outstanding produce and local wines, has gifted the city an exceptional culinary scene. There’s some great eating in the heart of the city. To explore the best of the city, head to the nearby neighbourhoods - Haymarket (Chinatown) Surry Hills, Darlinghurst, Glebe, Newtown.


Sydney’s cool neighbourhoods: Marrickville in Sydney’s inner west consistently pops up in lists of great local neighbourhoods worldwide. A thriving Vietnamese community and eateries, small bars, live music, craft beer - it’s all there. Surry Hills, Glebe, Redfern, Newtown are great places for eating drinking and shopping close by the city. Sydney’s Asian community is huge so Chinatown and the part of the city between Town Hall and Central is alive with Chinese, Korean, Thai and Vietnamese cuisine - made for those who know these great culinary traditions best.


Head out town to the Blue Mountains: Sydney's coastal beauty is captivating. To the west, it's complemented by a mountain range every bit as glorious. If you can't spend a few days in the Blue Mountains, a day trip is a must.

Check out some of our specialist guides below.

Our Cultural travel guide to the best things to do in Sydney here

Our independent guide to Sydney's museums

Our independent guide to Sydney's art galleries

Our independent guide to Sydney's beaches and swimming

Our independent guide to Sydney's cemeteries

Sydney makes good use of its harbour.
Photo: Mark Bowyer Sydney makes good use of its harbour.
 
 

Where to stay in Sydney?

Most visitors to Sydney stay in the centre of the city. This is where most of the 5 Star hotels, other hotels and hostels are located. If you’re planning on staying in a smaller hotel or an Airbnb, here are some of our favourite Sydney neighbourhoods -

Sydney neighbourhoods close by the beach or harbour
If you want to be close to Sydney’s legendary harbour and beaches, head to Manly, Bondi, Coogee, Rose Bay, Potts Point, Elizabeth Bay, Kiribilli and neighbouring suburbs.

Other cool convenient Sydney neighbourhoods
If you're more interested in the neighbourhood than the harbour and ocean, check out King’s Cross, Darlinghurst, Surry Hills, Glebe, Redfern, Chippendale, Newtown, Annandale, Marrickville and surrounds. These are some of Sydney’s coolest areas. They should be a little less expensive than beach and harbourside areas. They are all within 20 minutes of the city and have great access to everything via public transport (including beaches and the harbour).

Check out Sydney's neighbourhoods - this is Darlinghurst
Photo: Mark Bowyer Check out Sydney's neighbourhoods - this is Darlinghurst
 


Sydney - getting there and getting away

Sydney’s Kingsford Smith Airport is Australia’s biggest international aviation gateway. Most major international carriers offer services here from points across the globe.

Most international visitors to Australia need a visa. For a large number of countries this is a straightforward application process that takes less than a week. For many it’s a longer process. So the impulsive visit to Sydney may require a little bit of time.

Australia’s Government visa issuing authority is the Department of Home Affairs. You can check its website here for tourist visa information.

An increasing number of visitors to Sydney arrive by cruise ship. Cruise visitors also require visas - check with your cruise operator.

If you’re already in Australia, you’ll arrive in Sydney by domestic flight (also at Kingsford Smith Airport), road or rail at Sydney’s Central Railway Station.

Getting from Sydney’s Kingsford Smith airport to the city

Sydney Airport is just 8km from the city centre. There are easy taxi, rideshare, train and bus options.

Taxis and rideshare to to the city from Sydney Airport
At time of writing, you could expect to pay $40AUD - $60AUD for a taxi to the city. Rideshare services will often be a little cheaper.

Train service to the city from Sydney Airport
If you’re staying in the centre of the city and not carrying too much luggage, take the train from the airport. Train will cost around $18AUD.

Sydney’s trains are usually excellent value for money, EXCEPT, the strange commercial partnership that controls the airport stations where you pay a special $16AUD surcharge on top of the normal fare. Be sure to note that the rest of Sydney’s train network does not impose this private charge. Every other train service in Sydney is good value for money.

Sydney Harbour from the Pylon Museum
Photo: Mark Bowyer Sydney Harbour from the Pylon Museum
 
 

Sydney - getting around

Walking Sydney

One of our favourite Sydney things is exploring the city on foot. This is one of the world’s great walking cities - get out and explore it. You can easily make a stay in Sydney focused on walking - especially if you’re staying in the centre of the city. Check out our orientation walk of Sydney here.

If you’re staying within a 5km radius (or more) of the city centre, you can experience the best of Sydney without a car. Buses, trains and ferries combined with taxis and rideshare options make a carless visit to Sydney easier, cheaper - and gentler on the environment.

Most of Sydney’s most popular attractions - Sydney Harbour, Opera House, galleries, Chinatown eateries, museums and The Rocks, are accessible on foot from the centre of the city - the new light rail service is a convenient option in the city centre too (tap on and off with your credit card).

Our sister company, Old Compass Travel runs historical walking tours of Sydney - have a look here.

If you want to head further afield to places like Manly and Bondi, ferries, trains and buses will easily get you most places. Add taxis and rideshare to the mix and you’re well covered.

Parking and driving in the centre of Sydney is not for the faint-hearted short-stay visitor - best avoided.


Public Transport in Sydney

A century ago, Sydney’s leaders committed to some fabulous public infrastructure and their foresight continues to reward the city. Recent decades have been less kind to train, ferry and bus networks, but for the short-stay visitor, Sydney’s public transport is inexpensive and convenient.

You can use your credit card to tap on and tap off buses, trains, ferries and light rail services (no tickets required - remember to tap off).

Sydney Ferries
Ferries are the nicest way to explore Sydney. They’ll take you to places like Manly, Watson’s Bay, Taronga Zoo and Cockatoo Island. You can even head west to Balmain and on to Parramatta by ferry. The Manly Ferry is a must-do Sydney experience and the best value tour of Sydney Harbour.

Sydney Trains
Sydney’s trains are a good inexpensive option for longer journeys. The network is extensive so if you want to explore cool neighbourhoods like Surry Hills, Newtown, Enmore, Marrickville, or head further out to Parramatta, trains have you covered.  


Sydney Taxis and rideshare services

Sydney, like most cities, has seen its taxi services degraded by rideshare services. Taxi trust levels are lower than they were. Check meters are on when you take a ride.

Uber, Ola and Didi rideshare services all operate in Sydney. Uber probably has the edge for ease of use and reliability. Ola and Didi are far more generous with their drivers. Ask drivers for more information.

It's hard to beat a Sydney Ferry for an experience of the harbour.
Photo: Mark Bowyer It's hard to beat a Sydney Ferry for an experience of the harbour.


Sydney Background

It's difficult to reconcile this most appealing of modern cities with its founding in brutality, dispossession, starvation, drunkenness and debauchery. This quandary has occupied commentators for decades.

For more than a century white Australia has looked past the horrendous founding of the city - the cruelty, bloodshed and war on the First People. In recent decades, a gradual surrender to the reality of that history is taking place in fits and starts.

Sydneysiders spend no more time pondering their origins than any other peoples. That means not much time at all. But their story deserves a good look during your visit. And this guide is directed at travellers who  want to get a deeper sense of the place and its past. 

Since the Second World War, Sydney's direct connection to its convict and colonial past has become more tenuous as the city's welcomed newcomers from across the globe to become one of the most multicultural places on earth. Sydney's modern multicultural character is one of its best features.

Sydney has a miraculous story. But the miracles have come at a high price - most of all for the First Nations People. The environmental toll has been high too. Many of the wounds are yet to heal. As a traveller, you'll get a sense of these issues.

There are some great books that'll help you make sense of your time in Australia's boldest, oldest, largest city.

Here are some of our favourites -

The Fatal Shore, Robert Hughes
Sydney Harbour, Ian Hoskins
Commonwealth of thieves, Tom Keneally

THESE PAGES ARE UNDER CONSTRUCTION, COME BACK AND SEE US SOON FOR MORE.

Mark Bowyer
Mark Bowyer is the founder and publisher of Rusty Compass.
Support Rusty Compass
Rusty Compass is an independent travel guide. We’re focused on providing you with quality, unbiased, travel information. That means we don't receive payments in exchange for listings and mostly pay our own way. We’d like tourism to be a positive economic, environmental and cultural force and we believe travellers deserve disclosure from publishers. Spread the word about Rusty Compass, and if you're in Saigon, pop in to The Old Compass Cafe and say hi. It’s our home right downtown on Pasteur St. You can also check out our unique tours of Ho Chi Minh City and Sydney at www.oldcompasstravel.com Make a financial contribution using the link below. Even small amounts make a difference. Thanks and travel well!