It’s not hard finding ways to fill 48 hours in Sydney. Being Australia’s biggest city and home to one of the most iconic harbours in the world any standard city guide will have your itinerary full before you can say the words “G’day mate”.
But like all such stereotypes the run-of-the-mill tourist trappings can feel a little soulless and lack the true reflection of the local culture, not to mention the crowds. A true experience of Sydney lies beneath its sunny surface, and if all you’ve got is 48 hours then we’d better get started.
Where to Stay
Most budget digs are situated around Kings Cross and Central Station (which isn’t as central as you’d think). There are also hostels around Bondi beach if your priority is sun and surf. Places around Circular Quay and Darling Harbour tend to be mid to high end (i.e; expensive), but in general Sydney is not a cheap place to sleep.
A dorm bed in a hostel will typically sit between $20-$30 AUD per night, three-star hotels are between $150-$200 AUD per night, while five-star hotels can start at $400 AUD per night.
When to Go
Sydney can be visited all year round. December to February is summer and though on average the temperature sits around the late twenties (Celsius) it will see days in excess of 30c. The winter months of June-August hover around 16c so it’s still pretty mild if not ideal for the beach.
Of more concern than the weather is the tourist seasons. December is peak with accommodation for New Years booking out well in advance thanks to the New Year’s Eve fireworks display along Sydney Harbour.
Much of Sydney’s central area can be walked, but when travelling further out the entirety of Sydney’s transport network can be accessed using the Opal card; this includes buses, trains, ferries and light rail. The card is free and can be picked up and topped up at participating outlets, such as stations, convenience stores and news agencies. Prices are capped at $15.80 AUD per day, so within two days you can’t spend more than $31.60 AUD, no matter how much you travel.
The only place this does not include is the airport, which will incur an access fee of $14.30 AUD each way. Otherwise a single train trip will start at $4 AUD, buses and light rail at $2-3 AUD, and ferries at $6 AUD.
Buses are typically the best way to get around. Aside from being more affordable their network reaches further than the trains do. Make sure you download the TripView app, this will tell you how to get to your intended destination, show full bus timetables as well as those for the rest of the transport network, and can be used offline if you don’t have data roaming on your phone. The lite version is free and has all the functions you need.
Most cafes will offer you the full spread of eggs, bacon, crushed avocado, coffee injected with all manner of liqueurs and smoothies made with green vegetables you’ve never heard of. But you’re on holidays, right? For a treat head over to local favourite, Pancakes on the Rocks (4 Hickson Road). There is almost nothing you can’t have with a stack of pancakes here and it is in a prime location to kick off a walking tour of Sydney’s central area.
Contrary to popular belief Australians are not running around throwing ‘shrimps’ on ‘barbies’, so your lunch and dinner options do extend beyond the common barbeque.
For an easy meal you’ll find a range of fresh sandwich shops, sushi bars or the local grilled-chicken chain Oporto (a double Bondi burger with chilli is highly recommended). Otherwise head to a pub and order a chicken parmigiana (or ‘parmi’ as the locals call it).
Cafes and restaurants using organic and locally sourced produce also have quite a scene in Sydney and are a great way to plug yourself into the local culture. Many cafes will cook you up an organic storm flavoured with their own personality, otherwise you can try one of Doughboy’s artisan pizzas (620 Crown Street, Surry Hills or 181 Bondi Street, Bondi) or pick yourself up a healthy burger over at Grill’d (various including Town Hall and Darling Harbour).
If you’re veggie or vegan you’ll be equally as spoiled. Alibi Bar (inside Ovolo Hotel, 6 Cowper Wharf Road) offers amazing high end vegan dining, or try Bad Hombres in Surry Hills (40 Reservoir Street).
The Rocks is an historic area just west of the icons of Sydney Harbour and is home to Sydney’s oldest pub, the Fortune of War.
The Rocks will try and throw everything at you, from artisan markets to fine dining but don’t get sucked in. These are just expensive versions of things you can find almost anywhere in Sydney. Apart from the pancake restaurant (which is where you can kick it all off with breakfast) the magic of The Rocks lies in the history of its old buildings, hidden alleys and more than 100 heritage-listed sites. It is the site upon which the first convict colony in Australia was built and has been occupied ever since. Stories of its histories and ghosts can be found on the free walking tour app, Walking the Rocks.
Once you’ve walked The Rocks it’s just a mere stroll over to Circular Quay, Sydney’s famous harbour showcasing the Opera House and Sydney Harbour Bridge. There are a few ways to soak in the views of the harbour:
- Climb the Harbour Bridge. A taste for heights is required for this one. Prices range from $263 AUD to $388 AUD and from 2.5 – 3.5 hours in duration, depending on what time of day you want to climb (dawn, day, sunset or night). The views are certainly impressive, especially at sunrise or sunset. Only a moderate level of fitness is required as the guide frequently stops to allow for rest and to tell you facts about the various points of the city that are in view.
- By boat. Many boat-cruising companies on Sydney Harbour will offer you the world but all you really want is the view and that can be seen on a ferry ride, which is part of your Opal card cap. Ferry lines 1, 2, 4, 6 and 7 will offer you the best views of the harbour, as they sail east and will allow you to snap that iconic pic with both the Opera House and the Harbour Bridge in view. Perfect if you’re heading to Manly anyway.
- Walking the harbour. This takes less than an hour, even at a casual pace and does have a vibrant vibe, even with all the crowds.
The Opera House is only worth going in if there’s a show or event on that you want to see, or if you are interested in the performing arts. The architecture and internal design are engineered to optimise sound but if you’re not interested in the science of it then it’s just a very big conference centre.
Arts, Museums and Sites around Circular Quay
In and around the area are a number of sites catering to different interests, and all within walking distance. These include:
- Museum of Contemporary Art.
- Museum of Sydney.
- Hyde Park Barracks – a world heritage site that once harboured Australia’s convicts.
- The Art Gallery of New South Wales.
- The Royal Botanic Garden.
- Sydney Observatory.
It might look like George Street and Circular Quay are the places to be, judging by all the crowds. But the best of Sydney’s nightlife can only be found by someone who knows where to look. Lucky you have me!
The underground bar scene in Sydney is massive with multiple themed bars hidden away from the bustle of the city. Here are a few favourites:
- Shady Pines Saloon – (4/256 Crown St) Welcome to Sydney’s premiere wild west saloon, if you can find it. Venture north along Crown Street and tucked just beyond Oxford Street in an empty, dimly lit alley are a number of doors on the left. Try them until one of them opens (or stand watch until you see someone come in or out of one) then make your way down the staircase to the world of cocktails, beer, laughter, themed music and mounted moose heads you never suspected was down here.
- Ramblin Rascal Tavern – (199 Elizabeth St) Vintage meets bearded biker in this say-it-like-it-is bar (upon entering you are greeted with a sign that says “Don’t be a dick”). Situated on Elizabeth Street in the darkness of the night you’d be forgiven for thinking this was just another part of the CBD closed for the evening, but in the shadows of a doorway stands a guard. Enter in, descend a staircase to your right, walk in and right up to the bar for a cocktail in a tin.
- The Baxter Inn – (152-156 Clarence St) This old-New York-style whisky bar is home to more than 700 whiskies and some gentlemen who know their liquor. Off Clarence Street head through an archway down an alley heading east. Turn right into the back alley it leads into and the furthest door on the right will take you down to a basement. Welcome to Baxters.
- Door Knock – (b2/70 Pitt St) As the name suggests this one requires a knock on the door for entry – once you find it that is. This wine and cocktail bar is hidden down a long corridor leading off Pitt Street. Look for the brass pineapple (you’ll know it when you see it).
If you prefer your watering hole above ground and easier to find then don’t worry, Sydney has that too. Local favourites include:
- The Winery – (285A Crown St) An oasis of gardens, wine and cheese platters tucked away on Crown Street. So quaint you wouldn’t even know you were in the city.
- Red Oak – ( 201 Clarence St) Head over to this bar and brewery on Clarence Street for some local craft beer.
- ‘The Spot’ in Randwick. If you’re after some cocktails and are feeling up to 15 minutes in an Uber (or a 25 minute bus ride) you’ll find some great little bars in this area, away from the crowds (and prices!) of the cocktail bars along Sydney and Darling Harbour. Bat Country is serving up a range of cocktails in this wild west themed bar (try the Old Fashioned, it’s a local favourite). At L’il Darlin let your imagination run wild with their choice of creative cocktails; everything from the ‘Kraken’ to the ‘Fairy Floss Martini’. And try “Sydney’s favourite Margarita” over at Del Punto, a Spanish-themed bar complete with tapas.
Do yourself a favour and avoid Manly and Bondi. They are just really busy versions of almost all beaches in Australia.
The only time I would recommend going to Bondi is to do the Bondi to Coogee walk (and that is literally arriving by bus into Bondi only to immediately leave it again on foot). The Bondi to Coogee walk is a coastal hike, if you’re up for it. It stretches 6 kms along the cliffs and offers some breath-taking views. It also meanders through coves and smaller beaches hidden away from the crowds of Bondi, so if you’re up for a swim then find yourself a quieter patch of sand along here.
Coogee is a good place to end the walk; it too being a beach. But with its cafes and beer gardens attracting the crowds it is the next up and coming Bondi. Still, there are worse places to down a cold beer after a warm hike.
Sydney Fish Markets
If all the walking and swimming has made you hungry hitch a bus back to Darling Harbour and mosey on down to Sydney Fish Markets (Corner Pyrmont Bridge Road &, Bank St). These are the biggest fish markets of their kind in the southern hemisphere. Even if you don’t like seafood it is a great day out (and I know this because I don’t like seafood and I love these markets).
The markets boast everything from seafood to baked goods, ice cream to coffee, fruit to fudge, local wines, homemade jams, you name it it’s here. You can order your seafood fresh and have them cook it on the spot for you. Or, like me, go buy yourself a burger. Then sit in the sun by the sea and soak up the vibes.
Though hot on the tourist trail Darling Harbour is still worth wandering around. Much like Circular Quay it is scattered with museums, sites and galleries catering to everyone. Some of the favourites include:
- The Australian National Maritime Museum.
- John Chen Gallery – specialising in drawing. Here you can get yourself drawn up life-like or in caricature.
- Powerhouse Museum – a museum exhibiting feats in science and technology.
- Sea Life Sydney Aquarium.
- Wild Life Sydney Zoo.
Darling Harbour is also home to a range of activities like bowling, laser tag, shopping, fun rides and fireworks on Saturday nights.
Get Outta Town
If you’ve got longer than 48 hours in Sydney then you might want to get out and explore the area around the city. One of the most popular day trips is to the Blue Mountains. Katoomba is at the end of the train line, around 2 hours from the centre of Sydney.
Follow various trails through eucalyptus forest, get recharged by waterfalls and get a lungful of fresh air away from the busy city.
Another rural escape is to Kangaroo Valley, also around 2 hours away. Get as active (or not) as you like, with options for hiking, kayaking or just enjoying the view and spotting kangaroos!
Even if you’ve got more than 48 hours in Sydney, you’ll find plenty of ways to keep yourself busy. Let us know your tips and suggestions in the comments below and don’t forget to share on social!
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