Summer stroll through Sydney
Written by Brian Johnston
It’s easy to see why Sydney is celebrated for its beauty. Its harbour and coastline are public spaces that provide beaches, a national park, and dazzling water views. Go walkabout and soak up the spectacle for the best of a Sydney summer.
Without its magnificent stretches of water, Sydney would be just another city. With them, it dazzles. ”I despair of being able to convey to any reader my own idea of the beauty of Sydney Harbour,” wrote 19th-century English writer Anthony Trollope. “It is so inexpressibly lovely”. Little has changed since then, though the sails of Sydney Opera House have only enhanced the views, brilliantly complementing the yachts that dance on the water beneath. From here the harbour stretches on either side, convoluted into innumerable bays and indentations, to distant Parramatta and the ocean. Spend time exploring the city’s foreshores, and you’ll experience Sydney at its best. Even in suburbia you’ll find yourself with unexpected water glimpses at the end of streets, with the humped back of the Harbour Bridge sometimes sticking up like a dinosaur skeleton on a blue background.
Sydney’s oceanfront coastline is equally impressive, especially in summer, when Sydney becomes very much an outdoors city, best enjoyed on a beach towel or yacht, at a pavement café or a concert in the park. Budget time away from sightseeing just to be indolent in seaside suburbs such as Bondi or Coogee, with incredible seascapes and hangouts that lure with aromas of coffee. Then after a waterside walk up a headland, reward yourself with a café breakfast, a weekend institution in Sydney typically eaten nearer lunchtime.
For those with limited time, keep your walk short, simple, and stunning by sticking to the downtown area. Start under the steel of the Sydney Harbour Bridge in the oldest part of Sydney, The Rocks, whose many Georgian and Victorian houses have been imaginatively converted into restaurants, art galleries, and shops. You can take the stairs up the bridge’s pylon for spectacular views; the more daring can climb the soaring arch (firmly anchored to the girders with abseiling safety lines) for a dizzying bridge-top experience.
From the bridge, meander around the foreshore, past the Circular Quay ferry terminal and towards the jewel in Sydney’s crown, its fabulous Opera House. Beyond, the Royal Botanic Gardens provide more harbour views, and are also worth exploring for their duck ponds, tropical greenhouses, displays of native Australian flora, and famous flock of resident flying foxes. An Aboriginal tour of the gardens is an interesting way to learn about the Eora people who first inhabited this region.
While this might be the most obvious of Sydney’s watery walks, you get even more extravagant city and Opera House views by hopping on the ferry to Kirribilli for a stroll eastwards around bays, bushland, and the suburban streets of the upmarket North Shore, where cockatoos squawk and the chattering classes sip their lattes. Wander all the way to Mosman, where another ferry will bring you back to the city. Founded as a whaling station, Mosman is now one of Sydney’s chicest addresses, and provides gourmet dining, delicatessens, and boutique shopping.
Further out of the city centre, you’ll find a magnificent and much more rugged walk that is overlooked even by many Sydneysiders. You’ll find it by getting on bus 144 from Mosman to Spit Bridge, from which a well-signposted walk brings you to Manly in about three hours. You’ll pass over headlands with incredible views over Middle Harbour towards the skyscrapers of the city. Part of the trail passes through Sydney Harbour National Park, where red banksias erupt in flower, red-tailed skinks sun themselves on the rocks, and the sea scintillates below the cliffs. After the suburb of Balgowlah, the track turns to concrete and, still hugging the water, leads you along a flower-filled waterfront to Manly.
Manly, wedged on a peninsula between ocean and harbour, is Sydney’s best waterside suburb, and can also be reached on a 30-minute ferry ride from the city – one of the world’s most scenic public ferry rides. But before you return downtown, linger a while in Manly, which has a dozen beaches and al fresco eateries. If you still have reserves of walking energy, head up the hill to the Old Quarantine Station, established in the 1830s to isolate immigrants suspected of harbouring infectious diseases. Guided tours give curious insights into Sydney’s immigration history, and night-time ghost tours will provide the jittery with a suitable thrill. Further up the hill, you re-enter the national park. The walk ends at the cliffs that mark the entrance to Sydney Harbour at North Head. Gobsmacking views towards the city make this perhaps Sydney’s best vantage point.
Squint across the water from here towards South Head and you’ll just about see the lighthouse that sits on the headland above that other famous Sydney suburb, Bondi. Bondi is Aboriginal for ‘tumbling waters’, which is exactly what happens when the surf booms, much to the pleasure of a multinational shoal of salty-haired surfers. Like Manly, this coastal suburb has the atmosphere of a seaside town, and is full of ice-cream parlours, fish-and-chip shops, and boutiques selling the latest in surf fashion. The grand sweep of sand and rolling breakers often plays host to colourful summer surfing carnivals, and its streets are lively with markets and cafés, haunted by hip residents and backpacking Europeans and New Zealanders alike.
From Bondi, a terrific cliff-side walk leads south along the coast, starting at Bondi’s iconic swimming baths on the southern end of the sands. There are great views back towards Bondi Beach before the path leads around to Tamarama Bay, a popular sheltered spot for sunbathing, although somewhat dangerous for swimming owing to its strong currents. The next bay around is family-oriented Bronte, where the swimming is safer, and where a row of cafés is a favourite summer brunch spot. Walk on up the headland and through Waverley Cemetery, the splendidly sited resting place of several famous Australians, before finishing your coastal meander at Coogee, from where you can catch a bus back into the city. This beachside suburb has a particularly local atmosphere. Tuck into lunch, wriggle your toes in the sand, plunge into the surf: that’s what a Sydney summer is all about.
My dear Watson
Watson’s Bay is another gorgeous suburb, wedged between sheltered harbour and wave-pounded, ocean-facing cliffs, and favoured by Sydneysiders for its fish restaurants. Along the harbour, exclusive Vaucluse flaunts the palatial homes of the city’s elite. Vaucluse House, a Gothic-style mansion from the 1830s, is open to the public and boasts a beautiful 11-hectare garden. It was once the home of William Wentworth, one of Australia’s great explorers and a major figure in the early colony. Another fine waterfront walk leads from nearby Nielsen Park around to Rose Bay, with bright-blue views of the harbour and downtown Sydney.
Chinese Garden of Friendship
Seek out this city oasis, one of the best classical Chinese gardens outside China. Though petite, it squeezes in lily ponds, waterfalls, pagoda-topped hills, and a teahouse where you can sip green tea as carp gulp in the water.
1 Exhibition Place, Darling Harbour, +61 2 9240 8888
One of Sydney’s premier restaurants sits opposite the Opera House, with commanding views to match Australian-influenced European dishes from top chef Peter Gilmore. Two signature dishes are steamed pink snapper and slow-cooked duck; leave room for eight-textured chocolate cake.
Overseas Passenger Terminal, The Rocks, +61 2 9251 5600
Pullman Quay Grand Sydney Harbour
There’s no better launch-pad for exploring Sydney harbour than this hotel at the ferry terminal, a two-minute stroll from the Opera House. Windows have glimpses onto the Harbour Bridge, and locals favour ECQ for its meals and light-twinkled water views.
61 Macquarie Street, +61 2 9256 4000
Sydney’s zoo is located on the harbour below Mosman, making it an easy addition to a North Shore walk. It’s home to a variety of Australian wildlife, as well as rare snow leopards, orangutans, and red pandas, and provides breathtaking views across the city. Kids will love the overnight ‘Roar and Snore’ programme in onsite tents, which includes a night safari and behind-the-scenes morning tour.
National Maritime Museum
One of the country’s best museums, located in entertainment-rich Darling Harbour, the National Maritime Museum covers the story of Australia’s relationship with the sea, including its role in defence, trade, immigration, and the popular imagination. Kids will enjoy clambering around the old vessels moored on quays, which include a 1606 Dutch sailing ship, a modern patrol boat, and a decommissioned Royal Australian Navy submarine.
Thunder Jet Speed Boats
See Sydney Harbour from a different perspective on a high-speed jet-boat ride that will thrill kids with 360? spins – and a likely soaking. The ride takes you from the ferry terminal at Circular Quay past the Opera House and all the way along the harbour to its opening with the ocean, where waves rolling through The Heads add extra drama.
Distance: 12,380 km
Flight Time: 13 hours, 55 minutes