Sydney see and do guide

An independent selection of the best things to see and do in Sydney. No paid placements, no advertorial.

Sydney see and do guide

Introduction

| 12 Jan 2021
Last updated 12 Jan 2021

Welcome to the Rusty Compass independent guide to the best things to see and do during a stay in Sydney. Our guide to Sydney is skewed towards travellers with an interest in history, culture and the arts. You probably enjoy enjoy walking and a bit cycling too. Sydney offers all these things in spades. Check the list to dig deeper, or read on for the condenses version. We're still adding new ideas so come back again soon.

Everything we do - words, images and video - is original and independent. Read on....

Art Galleries of Sydney

Australia's unique Indigenous art heritage will be a highlight of your exploration of Sydney's galleries. Since colonisation, European artists have been interpreting the landscapes and the settlement. This work is another interesting feature of Sydney's galleries. The Art Gallery of New South Wales houses Sydney's finest collection of art. Not to be missed. The MCA - Museum of Contemporary Art - with its focus on the new is also very good. There are a number of excellent smaller galleries. All those that we list are free.

Check out our independent guide to Sydney's galleries here.

Art Gallery of New South Wales
Photo: Mark Bowyer Art Gallery of New South Wales
 

The Museums of Sydney

When travellers think Sydney, they're more likely to think beaches, the Harbour Bridge, the Opera House and outdoor life, than museums and galleries. And you get the sense that Sydney has dropped the ball a little on the museum game.  Sydney has nothing to match the great museums of Europe or North America. It's a patchy affair really. Some of the smaller museums and historic houses will be a a highlight.

Check out our guide to the best of Sydney's museums.

Chau Chak Wing Museum, Sydney
Photo: Mark Bowyer Tasmanian Tiger - Chau Chak Wing Museum, Sydney
 
 

Sydney Opera House

Sydney's Opera House is the best known performance space in the world. And with more than 10 million visitors per (non-COVID) year, it's the most popular tourism site in the city. The Opera House been grabbing global attention since well before it was opened by Queen Elizabeth II in 1973.

In 2007 the Opera House became the youngest World Heritage listed site. Few buildings are as well known and few are so proudly adopted by a city's residents. Make Sydney Opera House a recurring theme of your Sydney exploration. Get to know it well. And explore its backstory too.

Click here for more on Sydney Opera House.

Sydney Opera House - almost 50 years and fresh as ever.
Photo: Mark Bowyer Sydney Opera House - almost 50 years and fresh as ever.


Sydney Harbour Bridge

Sydney Harbour Bridge was the city's first iconic man-made structure of the post-colonial era. It opened to great fanfare in 1932 in the middle of the Great Depression and carries tremendous symbolism for the city. It has gone on to serve Sydney as a central piece of infrastructure for almost 100 years. It's also a formidable creation of design, engineering and planning. Take a walk across Sydney Harbour Bridge and walk around it too.

Check out our full guide to Sydney Harbour Bridge here.

Sydney Harbour Bridge - Observatory Hill
Photo: Mark Bowyer Sydney Harbour Bridge - Observatory Hill
 

Orientation self-guided walking tour of Sydney - heritage and highlights

This walk a a great way to get started in Sydney. You'll pass by many city highlights, museums and historical sights.  You'll get a sense of the city layout and places you'll be interested in taking a longer look at during your stay, including Hyde Park, historic Macquarie St, Royal Botanical Gardens, Sydney Opera House and the Harbour Bridge.

For details of our self-guided Sydney walk, click here.

Hyde Park Barracks and the Spires at St Mary's - Sydney
Photo: Mark Bowyer Hyde Park Barracks and the Spires at St Mary's Cathedral - Sydney

 

Royal Botanical Gardens, Sydney

Sydney's Royal Botanical Gardens were created in 1816, in the early decades after the British invasion. The focus was science. Botanist Joseph Banks was especially excited by Australia's unique flora and fauna after his visit in 1770 aboard James Cook's Endeavour. The gardens are stunning. The harbour setting sublime. Spend an afternoon or morning wandering in awe.

For more on Sydney's Botanical Gardens, click here.

Royal Botanical Gardens, Sydney
Photo: Mark Bowyer Royal Botanical Gardens, Sydney


The Powerhouse Museum

The Powerhouse Museum - or Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences - is all about technology, science and design in an old industrial setting. The old tram powerhouse, is spectacular (hence the name). It's enough reason for a visit. There are classic bits of Australian industrial history on display, as well as temporary exhibitions on design and technology. Admission Free.

For more on the Powerhouse Museum, click here.

Powerhouse Museum, Sydney
Photo: Mark Bowyer Powerhouse Museum, Sydney

Sydney's best swimming spots

From lesser known beaches and ocean pools, to harbour gems and suburban swimming centres - this is our list of Sydney's best places for a casual dip. They've been selected not just because they're amazing places to swim, but because they're in interesting, often beautiful settings. The settings will be at least as rewarding as the swims.

For our guide to Sydney's best swimming spots, click here.

Camp Cove, Watson's Bay
Photo: Mark Bowyer Camp Cove, Watson's Bay 

Hyde Park Barracks

The 1819 Hyde Park Barracks is one of the oldest convict sites in Australia. It's a serious piece of history designed by convict architect Francis Greenway under Governor Lachlan Macquarie. Inside is a museum remembering convict life, the building's time as a women's immigration depot, and Indigenous dispossession. Adults $24.

For more on Hyde Park Barracks click here.

Hyde Park Barracks, Sydney
Photo: Mark Bowyer Hyde Park Barracks, Sydney

Chau Chak Wing Museum

The Chau Chak Wing Museum opened in late 2020. It's Sydney's newest museum and one of its best. Located on the campus of Sydney University, it brings together the university's three old museums in a single gleaming new complex. Admission is free.

For more on the Chau Chak Wing Museum click here.

Chau Chak Wing Museum, Sydney
Photo: Mark Bowyer Chau Chak Wing Museum, Sydney

Watson's Bay - Camp Cove, The Gap, South Head Heritage Trail

You'll easily fill a leisurely afternoon or longer at Watson's Bay. The gateway to Sydney's South Head has a mellow village feel, dramatic coastal views, great walks, sweet harbour beaches and a fascinating history. Its location at the end of the peninsula feels pleasantly removed from the city and the neighbouring suburbs. It's where you'll find the site of Australia's oldest lighthouse, The Gap, historic Camp Cove and views across the harbour from South Head. A good supply of eateries will keep you covered through your visit too.

For more on Watson's Bay and what's there, click here.

Camp Cove
Photo: Mark Bowyer Camp Cove

Cemeteries of Sydney

If your interest in history runs to cemeteries - as ours does - we've compiled a collection of the most interesting cemeteries in Sydney. It'll take you from the coast into the suburbs with interesting things to see along the way.

Check out our full guide to Sydney's cemeteries here.

Waverley Cemetery, Sydney
Photo: Mark Bowyer Waverley Cemetery, Sydney


University of Sydney

The Chau Chak Wing Museum (above) is the main attraction of a visit to the historic campus of Sydney University. Sydney's newest museum sits in the grounds of its oldest university. The university is also interesting for a walk and a look - especially the original 1850s gothic sandstone buildings of the Main Quad.

For more on visiting Sydney University, click here.

The historic Main Quad at the University of Sydney
Photo: Mark Bowyer The historic Main Quad at the University of Sydney

Museum of Contemporary Art, MCA

Sydney's Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) is Australia's premier gallery of contemporary art. Indigenous art is well represented in the collection of more than 4000 works. Housed on the site of the former colonial-era Commissariat, the museum looks over Circular Quay to the Opera House. It's a fabulous location for a must-see gallery.

For more on visiting the MCA, click here.

Address: 140 George St, The Rocks - right by Circular Quay

Museum of Contemporary Art - MCA, Sydney
Photo: Mark Bowyer Museum of Contemporary Art - MCA, Sydney

 

Our independent selection of the best things to see and do in Sydney, kicked off in January 2021 and is in development. Let us know if you have any suggestions.

Read more introduction

Blue Mountains

The Blue Mountains National Park is a vast, dramatic landscape of forest, gorges, waterfalls, canyons and wildlife. The area... Read more

Manly Beach

North of Sydney's famed Harbour, Manly has been wowing visitors with its relaxed beach vibes and spectacular swimming and... Read more

Bondi Beach

A short drive or bus ride from the centre of Sydney, Bondi is Australia's most famous beach and a major tourist destination.... Read more

Sydney's best swimming spots

From classic Sydney suburban swimming pools to harbour gems - this is our list of Sydney's best places for a swim in a pool or a... Read more

Museums of Sydney

When travellers think Sydney, they're more likely to think beaches, the Harbour Bridge, the Opera House and outdoor life, than... Read more

Hyde Park Barracks

The 1819 Hyde Park Barracks is one of the oldest convict sites in Australia. It's a serious piece of history designed by convict... Read more
Hyde Park Barracks
Macquarie St, Sydney
$24 Adults

Chau Chak Wing Museum

The Chau Chak Wing Museum opened in late 2020. It's Sydney's newest museum and one of its best. Located on the campus of Sydney... Read more
Chau Chak Wing Museum
Sydney University, Parramatta Rd, Camperdown
Free

Powerhouse Museum, MAAS, Sydney

The Powerhouse Museum - or Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences - is Sydney's modest answer to London's V and A Museum. It's all... Read more
Powerhouse Museum, MAAS, Sydney
500 Harris St, Ultimo
Free during 2021

Watson's Bay - Camp Cove, The Gap, South Head

You'll easily fill a leisurely afternoon or longer at Watson's Bay. The gateway to Sydney's South Head has a mellow village... Read more
Watson's Bay - Camp Cove, The Gap, South Head
Watson

University of Sydney

Sydney University is Australia's oldest university. Founded in 1850, it is one of a handful of Australian universities that... Read more
University of Sydney
Sydney University, Parramatta Rd, Camperdown

Museum of Contemporary Art MCA, Sydney

Sydney's Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) is Australia's premier gallery of contemporary art - painting, sculpture, drawing,... Read more
Museum of Contemporary Art MCA, Sydney
140 George St, The Rocks - right by Circular Quay

Art Galleries of Sydney

This is our collection of Sydney's best art galleries for travellers. They're mostly focused on Australian art from both... Read more

Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney

The Art Gallery of New South Wales is a uniquely Australian gallery and Sydney’s premier art institution.  It's located not far... Read more
Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney
Art Gallery Rd, Sydney - short scenic walk from St James Station and Hyde Park

State Library of New South Wales

The State Library of New South Wales is the oldest library in Australia and another must-see Sydney stop for those interested in... Read more
State Library of New South Wales
Address: 1 Shakespeare Place, Sydney - near the Botanical Gardens and Martin Place in the centre of the city.

Sydney Harbour Bridge

Sydney Harbour Bridge is one of two iconic creations in the heart of the city, that have managed to complement one of the... Read more
Sydney Harbour Bridge
Sydney Harbour

The Australian Museum, Sydney

This is the Sydney museum you must see - make time. It's Australia's oldest museum set in a heritage building with a fascinating... Read more
The Australian Museum, Sydney
1 William St, Darlinghurst, Sydney - right by Hyde Park near Museum Station
Free

Cemeteries of Sydney

Sydney's cemeteries date back to the earliest years of the British penal settlement in Australia. They're interesting places to... Read more

Sydney Opera House

Sydney's Opera House may be the best known performance space in the world. And while it hosts many fine international... Read more
Sydney Opera House
Bennelong Point, Circular Quay, Sydney

Sydney Orientation Walk - highlights and history

This walk is perfect for getting started in Sydney. We pass by many of the things you'll be interested in seeing during your... Read more

Royal Botanical Gardens, Sydney

The Royal Botanical Gardens, right by Sydney's dazzling harbour, is the city's historic, green space. The gardens have played an... Read more
Royal Botanical Gardens, Sydney
Macquarie St Sydney or enter from the Domain

Beaches of Sydney

Sydney's beaches are legendary - they're a big feature of the city's summer lifestyle and a magnet for global travellers. Even... Read more