Sydney is a definite stop on every 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 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 (CBD), 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 harbour appears between the skyscrapers.
Any proper visit to Sydney must begin in the harbour, which is both the birthplace of the city and its current iconic centrepiece. 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 neighbourhoods, 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 bars 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 (although the peak-hour traffic and public transport system are actually quite bad). Tourism is a huge industry around Sydney, and locals are accustomed to providing visitors with service, helpful directions and a rousing welcome to the stunning city that they call home.
Ships dock in two different spots, depending on size. Those that cannot fit underneath the Sydney Harbour Bridge will find themselves tied up at the atmospheric and centrally located Overseas Passenger Terminal in Circular Quay, adjacent to the Rocks, Sydney's original old town. Smaller ships dock at White Bay, near the residential suburb of Balmain, about 20 minutes' drive from the city centre.
Those at Circular Quay are in the middle of everything. Water taxis, ferries, trains, cabs and buses all depart regularly from the wharf location. Those at White Bay will need to catch a shuttle or taxi to the city, as there is no public transport.
A third location for ships in the increasingly popular Sydney Harbour is a tender position out beyond the Sydney Opera House. Passengers are transported to shore via tender boats.
The area around Circular Quay is delightful in itself, with some bars and eateries located in the actual terminal (open to the public), or you can meander along the waterfront to The Rocks and Sydney Opera House.
If your ship docks at White Bay, leave. There are absolutely no attractions, restaurants or services beyond the terminal.
Outside the main harbour, Darling Harbour is the city centre's premier tourist destination, with popular attractions like the Sydney 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. Buses also serve the city, and many depart a couple of minutes' walk from the Quay's terminal.
Taxis line up at the terminal. All accept credit cards, but rides are expensive. You can't get anywhere within the inner city for less than $20, and expect to pay at least $40 to get to the eastern. The Manly ferry is the best option for the northern beach suburbs. Water taxis are only for big spenders.
Rental car agencies such as Hertz, Budget and Avis have downtown Sydney locations. Rates start at around $55 per day, but unless you're planning to visit a spot that's not served by the city's public transport system, it's not worth the expense and effort.
Currency is the Australian dollar. ATMs 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.
English -- but be careful, because Aussies shorten everything when they speak. Breakfast becomes "brekkie," sunglasses are "sunnies," and a bathing suits are called "cozzies" (short for swimming costume!). Even the word afternoon gets turned into "arvo."
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 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. (262 Campbell Parade, open daily from 11:30 a.m. until 9:30 p.m.). Another great spot, this one in Manly, is Moo Burger (70A Campbell Parade).
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.