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Sydney (Australia) Overview
Sydney is a definite stop on just about any cruise that travels Down Under and often serves as a starting or ending point for ships that also travel to New Zealand. Australia's largest city, Sydney is also one of the world's most intriguing ports of call, with its appeal extending from a sophisticated and vibrant urban metropolis to stunning natural wonders.
Although it is a modern city strongly influenced by British roots and current American popular culture, Sydney's real character is derived from its exotic location and brash beauty. Walking through the glass and concrete downtown, known as the Central Business District, you could be in any other Western-culture metropolis -- until a fluorescent red and green lorikeet parrot swoops overhead or an unexpected flash of the brilliant blue harbor appears between the skyscrapers.
Any proper visit to Sydney must begin in the harbor, which is both the birthplace of the city and its current iconic centerpiece. The area is called Circular Quay (pronounced "key" by locals). It is hard to imagine a more picturesque setting for a city's heart than this, with the Opera House and Harbour Bridge displayed against the inlet's bright water.
Sydney spreads across a massive geographic area, but the majority of its most interesting areas can be found near the ocean coast in the area known as the Eastern suburbs, as well as in its delightful inner-city neighborhoods, which each possess a distinct vibe. Oxford Street, the main thoroughfare running east from downtown to the ocean beaches, hosts Sydney's famous gay and lesbian Mardi Gras parade each February and is popular year-round because of its upscale shops and cafes.
Sydney is a well-balanced blend of a big city lifestyle and the laid-back Australian mentality. Although Aussies who hail from other towns often disparage Sydney for its flashiness and hectic pace, urban inconveniences seem minor here compared to places like New York and London. Tourism is a huge industry around Sydney, and locals are accustomed and happy to providing visitors with service, helpful directions and a rousing welcome to the stunning city that they call home.
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Adelaide • Auckland • Brisbane • Cairns • Christchurch • Darwin • Dunedin • Hobart • Melbourne • Napier • Noumea • Perth (Fremantle) • Sydney (Australia) • Tauranga • Wellington • Whitsundays
English -- but be careful, because Aussies shorten everything when they speak. Breakfast becomes "brekkie," sunglasses are "sunnies," and a bathing suits are called "cossies" (short for swimming costume!). Even the word afternoon gets turned into "arvo." Other unusual expressions and words pop up in Australian English, as well -- to "spit the dummy" means to get upset, and to be "chuffed" is to be excited about something.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
Currency is the Australian dollar. Check www.xe.com for the latest exchange rates. ATM's are easily accessible all over the city. Money also can be exchanged at banks and bureaus. There is a currency exchange booth located in the main Circular Quay terminal, beneath the railway stop. The nearest bank is a St. George directly across from the main terminal at 20 Loftus Street.
Where You're Docked
Ships dock in two different spots, depending on size. Those that cannot fit underneath the Sydney Harbour Bridge will find themselves tied up at Barangaroo (Wharf 5) in Darling Harbour. Much more atmospheric, not to mention centrally located, is the cruise berth located on Circular Quay, adjacent to the Rocks, Sydney's original old city; ships, just underneath the bridge, have awesome views of the Sydney Opera House.
If you're docked at Barangaroo, there's a cab stand; some cruise ships will offer shuttle service to the CBD, or you can hike over to it (about 20 minutes' walk).
Those at Circular Quay are in the middle of everything. Water taxis, ferries, trains, cabs and buses all depart regularly from the wharf location.
A third location for ships in the increasingly popular Sydney Harbour is a tender position out beyond the Sydney Opera House. Ships transport passengers to Darling Harbour via tender boats.
There's not much reason to hang around at Barangaroo. There are absolutely no services beyond a temporary tented terminal.
On the other hand, the area around Circular Quay is delightful in itself, with ambience-filled bars and lounges located in the actual terminal (and open to all, cruise passengers or no). You can meander along the waterfront to the Rocks and the Opera House.
Darling Harbour is the city's premier tourist destination, with popular attractions like the Aquarium. There are taxis and public transportation to other parts of the city.
Mass transit options abound from Circular Quay. Trains (there's a stop across from the terminal) are easily accessed, as is the monorail, which serves downtown Sydney. Buses also serve the city, and many depart from the Quay's terminal.
Taxis line up at the terminal. Most accept credit cards, but make sure to ask first. Rides cost about $1.70 per kilometer, plus a $1.50 booking fee. You can get anywhere within the inner city for less than $10, but expect to pay at least $20 to get to the eastern or northern beach suburbs.
Rental car agencies such as Hertz, Budget and Avis have downtown Sydney locations. Rates start at around $45 per day, but unless you're planning to visit a spot that's not served by the city's excellent mass transportation system (this includes its water ferries), it's really not worth the expense and effort.
Take a tour of the world-famous Sydney Opera House. There are a handful of varieties (backstage, historic and what is called the "tour de force" for travelers with special interests in architecture, engineering or the arts). Guided tours are conducted between 8:30 a.m. - 5 p.m. daily. Of course, schedule permitting, travelers can also take in a show.
The most notable building in the CBD is Sydney Tower, a distinctive needle-shaped construction with a turret at its pinnacle that contains a revolving restaurant and outdoor observation deck. A few blocks from the tower is the Sydney version of Hyde Park, which is much smaller than its British namesake but definitely worth a visit for a stroll down one of its broad avenues lined with figs. Also appealing is the Queen Victoria Building, a former concert hall and municipal building now converted into a shopping center. It features ornate Byzantine architecture and several worthwhile shops, but visitors with limited time in the city would be better rewarded by traveling to one of Sydney's inner suburbs, such as Paddington or Bondi Beach.
The best way to see the harbor is to get a bird's eye view from the top of the Harbour Bridge on a Sydney Harbour Bridge Climb -- not your ordinary stroll across a bridge and not just for the young and crazy. The 3.5-hour trek up and down the famous landmark is safe, slow and suitable for people of all ages and fitness levels; you'll don a bridge suit and wear a bridge harness along the ladder-like stairways and narrow catwalks.
The climbs are guided tours and are offered during the day as well as at night. There are lots of rules and regulations, including: no kids under 10 (and children aged 10 to 16 must be accompanied by an adult), no women more than 24 weeks pregnant, climbers must wear rubber soled shoes, and all climbers must pass a breath-test (for a blood alcohol limit of less than .05 percent).
From the bridge, visitors can walk around the inlet to tour the always-crowded Opera House. It is easy to continue from there through the Royal Botanical Gardens, a collection of flowers and trees overlooking the water, where it is possible to see some of Australia's unique flora without having to leave the city.
Get your bearings in Sydney by taking a ride on the Sydney Explorer bus, an air-conditioned motorcoach that offers commentary (and hop-on, hop-off) options. The service stops at Circular Quay daily at 18-minute intervals, beginning at 8:40 a.m. You can also board the "Bondi Explorer," which offers the same kind of service to areas outside of the city, including Bondi Beach and the eastern suburbs. The Sydney Pass Network also offers a harbour ferry ride (morning, afternoon and evening).
Take a self-guided walking tour of the historic Rocks, Sydney's birthplace (it dates back to Sydney's beginnings as a British convict colony). There are numerous historic buildings (archeological sites and the like); plus, the neighborhood is a lively one, with many shops, restaurants and bars. Today, the narrow, twisting streets are free of criminals and fun to wander through. The shops here sell every kind of Australian souvenir imaginable, but the best come from the Rocks market, which is full of handcrafted and unique mementoes.
Explore Darling Harbour. While one main attraction is Harbourside, a waterfront shopping and dining complex, Darling Harbour is also a nexus for tourist attractions such as the Sydney Aquarium (open daily 9 a.m. until 10 p.m.), the IMAX Theater (open daily, with films screening every hour on the hour between 10 a.m. until 10 p.m.), the Australian National Maritime Museum (open daily from 9:30 a.m. until 5 p.m.) and the Powerhouse Museum (open daily 10 a.m. until 5 p.m.), which focuses on "creativity," whether through art, technology or science. There are also exhibitions, displays and impromptu music performances, plus numerous restaurants grouped around King Street Wharf. Also worth a visit is the Chinese Garden of Friendship (open daily from 9:30 a.m.), which features winding pathways, meandering waterways and exotic flora and fauna.
Visit Sydney Wildlife World, a brand-new exhibit of Australia's most exotic critters and plants (open daily from 9 a.m. until 10 p.m.). You may not be able to find wild koalas lounging around Sydney, but you can get up close with them at the koala sanctuary. The park includes nine sample habitats, such as the Rainforest and Wallaby Cliffs, that supply a peek into different climates and animal homes around Australia. The Sydney Aquarium is right next door, and combination ticket deals are available.
Get out on the water via Harbour Jet (departs daily from the Convention Jetty in Darling Harbour). It's not for the faint of heart -- the speedboat ride offers some commentary, but the real fun are the 270-degree spins, wild fish tails and other boat-acrobatic maneuvers. Captain Cook Cruises offers a gentler ride; there are two daily.
See Sydney from above on a Helicopter Tour. The tours are offered by several different companies and last up to two and a half hours. They offer views of Sydney's entire extensive coastline, as well as the harbour, the city and even the Blue Mountains out to the west.
Shopping options in Sydney include central areas like Pitt Street Mall, downtown and Castlereagh Street (from Hunter Street to Goulburn Street) for chi-chi designer stores. Also include the aforementioned Rocks and Darling Harbour, Oxford Street and Five Ways in Paddington. Sydney also has an excellent collection of weekend outdoor markets. Glebe holds its version every Saturday, while Bondi hosts a market each Sunday.
Been There, Done That
Check out Sydney's art scene with a visit to the edgy Museum of Contemporary Art (Circular Quay West, 10 a.m. until 5 p.m. daily). The Art Gallery of New South Wales (Art Gallery Road, The Domain, 10 a.m. until 5 p.m. daily except Wednesdays 10 a.m. until 9 p.m.) features a wide range of art, including Australian, Aboriginal, Western and Asian exhibits.
Want more art? Sydney's Paddington neighborhood (Oxford Street from S. Dowling Street towards Bondi) has a cluster of art and photo galleries. Paddington is also home to exclusive boutiques and cafes and restaurants. Other attractions include Fox Studios, a working film studio; Centennial Park (rent some roller blades); and, on Saturdays, the Paddington Bazaar street market is fantastic with unique fashions (many iconic local designers began there), crafts and foodstuffs.
A slightly different kind of museum is the Powerhouse, which is devoted to celebrating outstanding technology and design. An old power station in the former industrial district of Ultimo has been converted into Australia's largest museum. Exhibitions change continuously (recent topics have ranged from the Great Wall of China to Australian pub history), but are always fascinating, interactive and well-planned.
Take a seaplane tour of Sydney.
Go canoeing, sea kayaking or white water rafting in Sydney's waterways with Australian Bushsports.
Take a Crimes and Passions guided tour through King's Cross, Sydney's infamous red light district. This once-bohemian town is now in the process of gentrifying into one boasting fancy bars and upscale apartments, but this tour will take you through the Cross' seedy, sometimes sordid and always fascinating history.
Rent a car or hop on one of the bus tours that leave from Sydney and go wine tasting in Hunter Valley (a two-hour drive from Sydney), which features some 50 wineries. Boutique Wine Tours will take you from Sydney up to the Hunter in a Mercedes limo and ferry you from winery to winery for $88 AUD, approximately $73, per person. Info: 800-990-802 (from within Australia).
If you have a couple of days to spare, drive out to the Blue Mountains, where draws include beautiful scenery, bushwalking, rainforests, waterfalls, a scenic railway and more. The area is an hour and a half by car from Sydney. It's also a very romantic destination with lots of intimate inns.
Manly, accessible via a 30-minute ferry ride from Circular Quay, offers scenic walking, watersports ranging from windsurfing to parasailing, and numerous cafes and restaurants. Beyond sunbathing, rent a bicycle, and explore Sydney Harbour National Park and North Head, which overlooks the spot where the ocean meets the harbour. (We had an excellent experience with Manly Bike Tours, which offers cycles for independent rides and also guided tours.) Or take a hike on the famous Marley Scenic Walkway. The roundtrip cost of the ferry on our most recent visit was $14.
Bondi Beach (reachable by bus from Circular Quay) is Australia's best known, with lots of restaurants, shops and cafes. It's also the most crowded strip of sand in Sydney, fulfilling every notion of what Australian beach culture should be. Just don't be offended if you see half-naked women working on their tans, because topless sunbathing is accepted and common here!
A hiking path cuts through the cliffs between Bondi and Coogee, another beach suburb several miles south. The walk can be strenuous, but the views of the seemingly endless Pacific Ocean from the top of the cliffs are unbeatable, and there are several other beaches to make rest stops at along the way for a refreshing drink or swim. Looking out across the water makes you remember that you really are halfway around the world and thousands of miles from home.
There are so many -- and so many kinds -- of restaurants, pubs and cafes in Sydney that it's hard to go wrong. Here's a guide to neighborhoods (or, as Australians say, "eat streets") where there is a fun variety of restaurants from which to choose.
In the Central Business District, there are a number of waterfront cafes ringing Circular Quay. A popular spot (especially during inclement weather) is the food hall at David Jones, which offers a'la minute eateries, ranging from oysters and Champagne to grilled fish and a wine bar.
Fashionable and trendy cafes and restaurants abound in city neighborhoods like Paddington, Surry Hills, Darlinghurst and Double Bay. Among the best options there are Tigerbakers (292-294 Victoria Street, open 8 a.m. until 4 p.m.), a cozy casual cafe that has the best breakfast in town, Gertrude and Alice (78 Oxford Street, open 8 a.m. until 9:30 p.m.), a bookstore with an attached coffee shop, and the Victoria Room (235 Victoria Street), an upscale destination specializing in great tapas dishes and even better cocktails. (Open daily 6 p.m. until 11 p.m. and for high tea from 2 p.m. until 4 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays).
The Rocks offers elegant restaurants with historic atmosphere. Rockpool (107 George Street, open from 6 p.m. until 10 p.m.) and Altitude (176 Cumberland Street, open Monday through Saturday from 6:30 p.m. until 10:30 p.m.) both create superior meals prepared by chefs that have garnered considerable attention from international critics for their Australian cuisine. The fresh seafood is exceptional at both locations.
Head to Woolloomooloo Wharf for superb food and even better views. The row of restaurants along the wharf includes China Doll for Asian fusion (open Monday through Saturday from noon until 3 p.m. and from 6 p.m. until 10:30 p.m., and Sunday from noon until 8:45 p.m.) and the Italian Otto's (open daily for lunch and dinner).
Manly and Bondi are known for fresh seafood and many outdoor cafes that line their beachfronts. Try the fish and chips, especially at Fishmongers in Bondi, which serves the best battered barramundi in town. (42 Hall Street, open daily from noon until 9 p.m.). Another great spot, this one in Manly, is Moo Burger (Steyne Street, fronting the beach).
Darling Harbour's King Street and Coco Bay wharves have such mind-boggling variety that there's something for everyone. The wharves' collection of 14 restaurants and bars includes everything from the London's cheap noodle chain Wagamama to classy lounges like The Loft and Cargo.
In Sydney, Leichhardt (Norton Street) is considered a bit of "Little Italy." Grappa (266-77 Norton Street, open Tuesday through Friday from noon until 3 p.m. and from 6 p.m. until 10 p.m., and Saturday through Monday from 6 p.m. until 10 p.m.) serves up great pasta with genuine Italian flair.
For ethnic cuisine, head to Glebe (Glebe Point Road) where there are numerous Mediterranean, Asian and Middle Eastern restaurants.
Luxury: Sheraton on the Park (161 Elizabeth Street, Hyde Park) and the Park Hyatt (7 Hickson Road, The Rocks) cater to elite visitors and host most of the international celebrities who come to town. ANA Harbor Grand Hotel Sydney (176 Cumberland Street) and the 19th-century Observatory (89-113 Kent Street) also provide a fancy place to rest your head.
Boutique: Blue (6 Cowper Wharf Road, formerly the W) is one of the city's trendiest -- Russell Crowe lives in one of the apartments in the building. Also popular is the Establishment, a 35-room hotel connected to three of Sydney's swishiest nightclubs (5 Bridge Lane).
Moderately Priced, Good Harbor Location: Darling Harbour hotels are centrally located, on the water, and are generally affordable. One good option is the IBIS Hotel at Darling Harbour (70 Murray Street). The Novotel Sydney on Darling Harbour (100 Murray Street) is another value choice, as is the Sheraton Four Points (161 Sussex St.)
Great Value: For a multiday stay, try one of the city's numerous apartment hotels; we stayed in the Adina, located in the trendy neighborhood of Surry Hills, and its flats were spacious and value-priced (though maintenance and service were issues). Hotels right around the Rocks tend to be the most expensive, but if you're willing to venture up to the Holiday Inn Potts Point (203 Victoria Street), which is located in the heart of Darlinghurst cafe society, prices drop considerably. The charming and historic Russell Hotel, located in the heart of the Rocks district, offers very affordable rates. The Pacific International Suites (433 Kent Street) near Chinatown, and the Mercure Sydney (818-820 George Street) are also reasonable and centrally located.
Off the Beaten Path: Some of Sydney's best hotels are outside of the central city. The beaches have particularly attractive options, with small places like Ravesi's (corner of Campbell Parade and Hall Street) in Bondi and larger chains such as the Crowne Plaza Coogee (242 Arden Street) providing beachfront accommodation.
Staying in Touch
There are numerous Internet cafes in and around Sydney, but Global Gossip is a chain with convenient locations, including Bondi Beach (37 Hall Street) and Sydney (770 George Street). Another chain called Everywhere Internet cafes also has outposts throughout Sydney (in central city at the corner of Castlereagh and Liverpool Streets and at 155 Curlewis Street in Bond), which are large and reasonably priced.
For More Information
On the Web: www.australia.com, www.seesydney.com and Sydneyism.com
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--Updated by Carolyn Spencer Brown, Editor in Chief, and Tracy Elsen, Cruise Critic Contributor