‘The best things about Sydney are free,” resident Russell Crowe has said. It is arguably the top metropolis on the planet for soaking up the scenery, but Sydneysiders don’t take these God-given gifts for granted. When they’re not out in the surf, swimming laps in an ocean pool, or sailing around the harbour, locals are barbecuing, picnicking, or finding other ways to enjoy the subtropical setting.
Being an east coast city, Sydney’s finest hour is sunrise, and the best time to surf, walk, or exercise is in the coral morning light. Head to the 90-year-old Icebergs swim club in Bondi Beach (pictured above) for sunrise laps, a sweat in the surfer-view sauna, or Yoga by the Sea, which offers classes to a soundtrack of crashing waves. Early morning is also the best time to beat the tourists on the Bondi to Coogee coastal walk, a 12km round trip of cornmeal coves, seawater swimming pools, and even ancient Aboriginal rock art.
• Bondi Icebergs , A$7 for the pool and sauna, plus additional A$20 for yoga, open every day except Thursday from 6am (6.30am at weekends)
The north side of Bondi Beach is where locals hang out in the mural-backed kiddie pool, on the orange-striped rocks around the Ben Buckler headland, and at the Biddigal Reserve, aka “grassy knoll”. It’s also where veteran Let’s Go Surfing staff can help novice surfers perfect their pop-ups, and where local legends own the greens at the refurbished Bondi Bowling Club (from A$12pp, subject to availability). Once the playing’s over, head up to Rocker cafe, a new breakfast and lunch outpost co-owned by Darren Robertson of Three Blue Ducks fame. Go for coffee and the maple-smoked bacon and egg roll, or one of the best poke bowls (raw fish salad) in Sydney.
• Let’s Go Surfing, from A$110 for a two-hour adult lesson
Sydney has no shortage of stunning coastal walks. One of my favourites starts at Nielsen Park in the posh suburb of Vaucluse and meanders for 2km beneath gum trees and over rocky bluffs in Sydney Harbour national park to Rose Bay. Along the way, hikers might spot cliff jumpers and iguana-like water dragons sunning themselves on rocks. It’s tempting to join them, but it’s worth waiting to reach Milk Beach – a small sand crescent with Opera House and Harbour Bridge views. Walk from south to north and end with a tea and warm scones smothered in clotted cream and house-made rosella jam on the verandah of the Vaucluse House Tearooms (fresh scones with tea or coffee from A$16)
Riding the ferry from Circular Quay to the northern surf ’hood of Manly is a thrill, even before rounding the bend from Manly Beach to spot the palm-fringed cove of one of Sydney’s best snorkelling and shore diving sites: Shelly Beach. As you fin your way over spiky yellow seaweed and lavender sea sponges in this marine reserve, keep an eye out for sightings of wrasse, cardinal fish, and eastern blue groper, as well as dusky whaler sharks, cuttlefish, weedy sea dragons and spotted nudibranchs. A rare west-facing beach, Shelly Beach is also a great spot for watching sunsets.
• Sydney Ferries run from Circular Quay to Manly, A$7.35 each way using the city’s Opal card. Dive Centre Manly offers snorkel and dive tours, from $75
The 200 hectares of ponds, playgrounds, and gardens that make up the Centennial Parklands are a great place to get acquainted with Sydney’s abundant birdlife: sulphur-crested cockatoos, pink-and-grey galahs, purple swamp hens and white ibis as well as flying foxes – giant fruit bats – that circle by the thousands on warm summer evenings. Human sightings include joggers and cyclists doing reps around Grand Drive loop as well as families and dog lovers soaking up the rustic surrounds of the Queens Park Shed (breakfast and lunch A$12-28), a tool shed turned cafe decorated with spades, pitchforks and a supply cabinet labelled for screws, springs and brass.
Cockatoo is the largest and most colourful of the Sydney harbour islands, and has many stories to tell. Originally an Aboriginal fishing ground, the island has also been home to a prison, a reform school for girls, and a naval shipyard during the second world war. Today, it offers walking tours and several outstanding events, including the 21st Biennale of Sydney (16 March–11 June), which will install a 60-metre inflatable boat by Ai Weiwei made from the same rubber that’s used in refugee vessels. The best way to experience the island is by booking a glamping tent to watch the city light up at night and wake up to birds and boats the next morning.
• Sydney Ferries run from Circular Quay, A$5.88 each way with an Opal card; self-guided tours are available from A$5pp; glamping costs from A$150 a night, cockatooisland.gov.au
The Rocks precinct is a tourist attraction for good reason. The cobblestone laneways and sandstone buildings of Sydney’s oldest neighbourhood offer a glimpse into the lives of convicts, publicans, sailors and wharf labourers. Locals stick to the pubs, such as the Lord Nelson Brewery Hotel, built in the 1830s from convict-quarried sandstone. But for the best panoramas this side of the harbour, take the elevator to the Henry Deane rooftop bar in the reimagined Hotel Palisade and toast your frosé (frozen rosé) or trumped up sour cocktail to the Harbour Bridge and the peak of Sydney Opera House shimmering back at you.
Accommodation in Sydney doesn’t come cheap, but one affordable secret is tucked among the palms and frangipani (plumeria) trees of south Bondi Beach. A former school, the Bondi Beach House (doubles from A$130 room-only in low season) has nine sunny rooms and suites, each decorated with tasteful antiques and Australian works of art. The Lotus Suite features French doors, a kitchenette and a dining area and the Palm View Suite has a sun room. Guests can hang out and use the free wi-fi in the shared kitchen, dining room, front terrace and backyard. And Bondi Beach is just steps away.
The world’s second oldest national park, established in 1879, is a banksia-shrouded sandstone wonder that graces the coastline just an hour south of Sydney (off the map). The park’s most popular overnight hike, the 26-kilometre Coast Track, hugs the cliffs and breakers from Bundeena to Otford, with North Era Campground available to campers. Cyclists can pedal the old Lady Carrington Drive carriage track, which follows the Hacking river to geological formations such as Gibraltar Rock and Palona Cave. From June to November, humpback and southern right whales migrate along the coast, and in summer waterfall-fed Wattamolla lagoon and Instagram-famous Figure 8 Pool beckon visitors for a post-hike swim.
• $12 per vehicle per day, nationalparks.nsw.gov.au
Named after the region’s blue haze that some attribute to oil droplets from over a million hectares of eucalyptus trees, the Greater Blue Mountains world heritage area is an otherworldly landscape of sandstone river gorges, waterfall-threaded cliffs, and ancient plants and animals from the glossy black cockatoo to the ancient Wollemi pine. For the perfect combination of cliffs and dips, you can’t beat the 4½km National Pass hike. If you come by car, recharge with a garden burger or Reuben sandwich at the Swiss Family Robinson-style Yellow Deli in Katoomba (lunch entrees around A$10), a US transplant run by members of the Twelve Tribes religious sect). The signature green drink and mango maté will make you forget that the staff might be in a cult.
• The National Pass track begins from the Wentworth Falls Picnic Area, a 1½-hour drive or 2½-hour journey by public transport from central Sydney
I love Mona Vale Ocean Pool at sunrise, when locals are already up swimming, and at high tide. It is beautiful from so many angles, in particular from the headland nearby.
Ignacio Palacios, photographer of Sydney Rock Pools
Swim off the rocks at Clovelly then head to Out of the Blue for a fish burger and barbecued octopus. The best place to eat them is 60 metres up at the cutting in Bronte Beach overlooking the ocean.
Mark Labrooy, chef, Three Blue Ducks
CMB Seafoods, in the southern suburb of Matraville, is one of the largest wholesalers of Sydney rock oysters. Load up with fresh oysters and prawns, and head to nearby La Perouse for a feed overlooking Botany Bay.
John Susman, seafood specialist
The beer garden at the Dolphin Hotel is perfect for afternoon beers or a glass of minimal-intervention wine. If the latter is your thing, make your purchase from the downstairs Wine Room and head upstairs for a night of balmy drinking.
Sarah Norris, editor Broadsheet Sydney
The Spit to Manly walk offers a real contrast of Sydney’s natural beauty and dazzling harbour, all within a short ferry ride from the city centre. While the walk’s end at Manly has plenty of cool beach culture (and cafes to refuel), plan a longer break mid-morning at Clonny’s on the Beach.
Tara Wells, co-owner, Sydney Coast Walks
Flightcentre has return Heathrow to Sydney flights from £459pp, book before 31 January for travel between 1-31 May. This is a phone only deal: 0808 278 6566.
Travelbag has 12 nights at the Ultimate Apartments Bondi Beach, room only, from £1,265pp, including return flights from Heathrow.
Best time to go
March to May and September to November, skirting high season prices and low season cold, when the average temperature is 20-23C. The Vivid Sydney light and music festival runs from 25 May-16 June; the Sydney Fringe festival runs throughout September. Sculpture by the Sea is held mid-October to early November on the Bondi to Coogee Coastal Walk between Bondi and Tamarama beaches.
£1 = 1.73 Australian dollars (A$)
Average price of basic lunchtime menu (including a drink) in the business district: A$16
Average price of a beer in a neighbourhood pub: A$8