17 Top-Rated Tourist Attractions in Sydney & Easy Day Trips

Sydney the oldest, biggest, and most beautiful of all Australian cities, lies amid a seductive intermingling of land and sea. Glide along the glittering harbor on a ferry, see the white sails of the Opera House gleaming in the sunshine, and admire the graceful arch of the Harbour Bridge and it's hard to imagine this vibrant state capital was once a brutal convict colony. In 1788, it was at Sydney Cove where Captain Arthur Phillip, commander of the First Fleet, established the first British colony in Australia.

Today, visitors can explore Sydney's fabled history in the narrow cobbled laneways and historic buildings of the Rocks, at the city's excellent museums, and the rock paintings of the Gadigal aboriginal people who once thrived on this land. Sydney still fizzes with the adventurous spirit of its settlers. Visitors can climb the harbor bridge, surf the green-barrel breaks at Sydney's golden beaches, or fly over the city on a scenic tour. And national parks surround the city providing appealing day trip possibilities.

1 Sydney Opera House

Sydney Opera House
Sydney Opera House
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One of the world's great icons, the Sydney Opera House is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the star attraction on the glittering harbor. This graceful building, shaped like shells or billowing sails, perches on a finger of land surrounded by water. Snap a photo while gliding by on a harbor cruise, relax at one of the restaurants, stroll around its exterior, or take an organized tour of this magnificent structure, which encompasses theaters, studios, exhibition rooms, a concert hall, and cinema. Avid photographers head to Mrs Macquarie's Chair for one of the best photo opportunities.

Hours: Guided tours are available daily 9am-5pm

Admission: Free entry to the foyer and eateries, varies for guided tours and events

Location: Bennelong Point, Sydney

2 Sydney Harbour Bridge

Sydney Harbour Bridge
Sydney Harbour Bridge
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The Sydney Harbour Bridge or "Coathanger," as the locals call it, was the city's best-known landmark prior to construction of the Opera House. Supported by massive double piers at each end, it was built in 1932 and remains the world's largest steel arch bridge, connecting the harbor's north and south shores in a single curve rising 134 m above the water. Along its length run two railway lines and eight lanes for road traffic, the direction of which can be varied according to traffic flow. Increasing bridge traffic encouraged construction of a harbor tunnel in 1992 to ease congestion, but motorists can still drive over the bridge for blue water views. Pedestrians can stroll across on walkways or join a guided ascent through BridgeClimb for a breathtaking panorama of the city and harbor. To learn about the fascinating history of the bridge's construction, visit the museum in the southeastern pier.

Address: 5 Cumberland St, Sydney

3 The Rocks

The Rocks
The Rocks
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On a tongue of land protruding into Sydney Harbour, the Rocks historic area was once home to the Gadigal aboriginal people and later became the country's first site of European settlement. The name of the Rocks comes from the rocky coast on the west side of Sydney Cove, where the convicts pitched their tents. Today, more than 100 heritage sites and buildings jostle along the narrow streets including Sydney's oldest surviving house, Cadman's cottage, built in 1816.

First stop should be a visit to the Rocks Discovery Museum, which traces the area's fascinating transformation from traditional aboriginal lands, to convict slum, to tourist hotspot. Afterwards, wander around the narrow cobbled streets with their souvenir shops, restaurants, cafés, and aboriginal and contemporary art galleries, or shop at the market stalls. Guided tours run the gamut from aboriginal heritage walks to photographic excursions and nighttime ghost tours.

Address: 66 Harrington St, Level 6, The Rocks, Sydney

Official site: www.therocks.com

4 Circular Quay

Circular Quay
Circular Quay
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Built by convict labor in Sydney Cove, bustling Circular Quay is now home to the city's main ferry terminal. Thousands of commuters flood the area at peak hours, cafés abound, and street performers entertain locals and visitors along the sunny walkways. For tourists, this is a launching point for the popular harbor cruises, one of the best ways to appreciate Sydney's sparkling waterfront setting. Ferries also depart from here to prime spots such as Manly, Watson's Bay, and Taronga Park Zoo.

During the annual winter migration, whale-watching cruises take passengers out past Sydney Heads to view these magnificent creatures. From Circular Quay, head south along the waterfront promenade to the Opera House and Royal Botanic Gardens, while a short walk to the north leads to the Sydney Harbour Bridge and the Rocks historic area. To the west, the free Museum of Contemporary Art, housed in an Art Deco building, displays cutting-edge and, often controversial, exhibitions.

Location: Sydney Cove

5 Darling Harbour

Darling Harbour
Darling Harbour
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A hub for tourists and locals alike, Darling Harbour is a waterfront pedestrian precinct packed with shops, restaurants, museums, exhibitions, and entertainment venues. Families will love Madame Tussaud's, the WILD LIFE Sydney Zoo, and the SEA LIFE Sydney Aquarium, which contains the world's largest collection of Australian marine creatures. The Powerhouse Museum offers interactive exhibits on science, technology, design, and history, while nautical-minded history buffs can board a replica of Captain Cook's ship, Endeavour, at the Australian National Maritime Museum. Younger children will love the carousel, playground, and water park. An IMAX and 9D theater, harbor jet boat rides, simulated flights and racing car adventures round out the exciting attractions. Those seeking a tranquil patch of green amid all the excitement can slip into the Chinese Garden of Friendship and sip tea among the willows and koi ponds.

6 Queen Victoria Building

Queen Victoria Building
Queen Victoria Building
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A high point of Sydney shopping is the Romanesque-style Queen Victoria Building ("QVB"), linked by underground arcades with Town Hall Station. Originally built as a market hall between 1893 and 1898, this elegant building is crowned by a high central dome surrounded by 20 smaller domes. After decades of neglect and even plans for demolition, this grand sandstone building was restored to its original state in the early eighties. Today, more than 200 high-end shops line its light-filled galleries. It's worth a visit even for those who shun the shops, just to admire its successful restoration as well as its beautiful stained glass windows and mosaic floors.

Hours: Mon-Sat 9am-6pm, Sun 11am-5pm

Admission: Free

Address: 455 George St, Sydney

Official site: http://www.qvb.com.au/

7 Sydney Tower

Sydney Tower
Sydney Tower
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Soaring above the city skyline, the 309 m high Sydney Tower is the city's tallest building and one of its great landmarks (other than the Opera House and Harbour Bridge, of course). This golden spire-topped turret rises from the busy Centrepoint shopping mall. Express lifts whisk visitors to the observation deck at the top or to SKYWALK, an alfresco glass-floor viewing platform. While up there, sightseers can enjoy panoramic views of Sydney and its surrounding suburbs or grab a bite to eat at one of the revolving restaurants or the café. Also on offer is a 4D cinema experience, which provides an overview of the city's major icons.

Hours: Open daily 9am-10:30pm

Admission: Adult $18.20, child $10.50, extra for SKYWALK

Address: 100 Market St, Sydney

8 Sydney Beaches

Sydney Beaches
Sydney Beaches
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Sydney is famous for its fabulous beaches. Tucked around the harbor are many sheltered coves with calm water and sugary sands. Less than a 15-minute drive from the city, iconic Bondi Beach beckons with its great surf, café scene, and cosmopolitan vibe. For fantastic ocean views, take the coastal walk along the cliffs from Bondi to Coogee. Other ocean beaches include Cronulla (the only one easily accessible by train from the city), Bronte, Tamarama, and Maroubra. A 30-minute ferry ride from the city, Manly is a favorite seaside destination with its beachfront promenade, netted ocean pool, and excellent shops and restaurants. Further north of the city, surfers will find some fantastic breaks at Collaroy, Dee Why, and Narrabeen. Swimmers should stay between the red and yellow flags. Volunteer lifeguards patrol the surfing beaches on the Pacific during the summer and run popular lifesaving competitions.

9 George Street

George Street
George Street
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The oldest street in Australia, George Street was once a nameless track trodden by convicts fetching supplies of water. Today, it's one of the city's major traffic arteries where high-rise office blocks, shops, and historic buildings converge in an incongruous jumble. An architectural highlight is the elegant Romanesque-style Queen Victoria Building replete with graceful domes, stained glass windows, and high-end stores. Nearby, the Sydney Town Hall (1869) is a major city landmark sporting a medley of architectural styles (it's been compared to a richly decorated wedding cake). Another architectural standout is the neo-Gothic St Andrew's Cathedral completed and consecrated in 1868. Shoppers will find plenty of stores in the area. Designer boutiques and jewelry stores line the Victorian-style Strand Arcade, while Pitt Street Mall, one block east from George Street, is one of the city's major shopping precincts.

10 Royal Botanic Gardens

Royal Botanic Gardens
Royal Botanic Gardens
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A tranquil oasis amid the hustle and bustle of the city, the Royal Botanic Gardens at Farm Cove lies a short and scenic stroll along the waterfront from the Sydney Opera House. The gardens were established in 1816 and encompass 30 hectares of themed gardens with towering trees, palm groves, orchids, ferns, and flocks of fruit bats. Among the highlights is the Palace Rose Garden, which includes some 1,800 roses, and the Rare and Threatened Plants Garden. For the less energetic, a hop-on, hop-off train tours the grounds. After exploring the gardens, visitors can relax at the café or restaurants, or enjoy a hillside picnic with beautiful harbor views. Surrounding the gardens is the Domain, a popular event venue with open green space and sports areas. While at the gardens, visitors can enjoy views of Government House, the official residence of the governor of New South Wales.

Hours: October 7am-7:30pm, November-February 7am-8pm, March 7am-6:30pm, April & September 7am-6pm, May & August 7am-5:30pm, June & July 7am-5pm

Admission: Free

Location: Mrs Macquarie's Road, Sydney

11 Kings Cross

Kings Cross
Kings Cross Governor Macquarie
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About 2 km east of the CBD, Kings Cross or "The Cross," as locals call it, is Sydney's multi-faceted red light district with an intriguing, Bohemian past. The area was an artistic quarter around 1920, until it evolved into a popular haunt for beatniks during the 1950s and, later, hippies. During the Vietnam War, the area started its slow slide to depravity when large numbers of American troops came here on "rest and recreation" leave. Despite its less than savory reputation at night, during the day, it wears a different face. Backpackers from the many hostels in the area huddle at hip cafes, boutique hotels beckon, and foodies come here to dine at the trendy restaurants. Look for the large Coca-Cola billboard, at the intersection of William Street and Darlinghurst Road, which is often referred to as the "Gateway to The Cross".

Location: William St and Darlinghurst Rd, Sydney

12 Taronga Zoo

Taronga Zoo
Taronga Zoo
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Enjoy close-up encounters with exotic wildlife plus superb views of the Sydney skyline at Taronga Zoo. Nestled on a point along the north side of the harbor, the zoo inhabits prime Sydney real estate in the posh suburb of Mosman. Highlights include the Lemur Adventure Park, Koala Encounter, and Seal Show. From the city, buses to the zoo depart from Wynyard. Better still, visitors can hop aboard a ferry at Circular Quay. The zoo's lively events calendar includes "Roar and Snore" overnight zoo stays and a summer concert series.

Hours: Open daily 9:30am-5pm (Sept-April), 9:30am-4:40pm (May-Aug).

Admission: Adults $44, Children (4-15 years) $22

Location: Bradleys Head Road, Mosman

13 Hyde Park

Hyde Park
Hyde Park
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Amid all the din of the central business district, Hyde Park is a sanctuary of sprawling lawns, shady picnic spots, flowers, fountains, and fig trees. Like a mini Central Park, this welcome patch of green, named after Hyde Park in London, offers prime people-watching - especially at lunch when city workers come here to kick off their shoes. The park's bronze Archibald Fountain (1932) commemorates Australia's alliance with France during WWI, while the art deco Anzac War Memorial (1934), in the southern half of the park, honors its victims. At the north end of Hyde Park, in Queens Square, are three fine Georgian buildings, masterpieces of the convict architect Sir Francis Greenway: the Hyde Park Barracks, St James' Church, and the Supreme Court. Built by convict labor in 1817-19, Hyde Park Barracks was restored to its original condition in 1975-84 and now houses a museum on the history of Sydney portraying the lives of the first involuntary 'settlers'. On the east side of Hyde Park is the Australian Museum with the largest natural history collection in the country.

Admission: Free to visit the park and Anzac War Memorial

14 Art Gallery of New South Wales

Art Gallery of New South Wales
Art Gallery of New South Wales
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Surrounded by beautiful parklands, the Art Gallery of New South Wales is one of the country's most distinguished art museums. The building dates from 1885 and houses spacious light-filled galleries and Grand Courts with collections ranging from works by the European masters and Asian artists, to evocative contemporary art from around the world. The gallery also houses one of the largest collections of aboriginal art in Australia. After admiring all the masterpieces, art lovers can relax at the café or restaurant, or browse the gallery gift shop.

Hours: Open daily 10am-5pm, until 10pm on Wednesday

Admission: Free

Address: Art Gallery Rd, The Domain, Sydney

15 St Mary's Cathedral

St Mary's Cathedral
St Mary's Cathedral
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Facing Hyde Park, St Mary's Cathedral (1868-82) is a symbol of the spiritual beginnings of the Catholic Church in Australia. This striking landmark, in neo-Gothic style, is the seat of the Archbishop of Sydney. Topped by twin spires, the building was modeled on Lincoln Cathedral and its imposing façade reflects the design of Notre-Dame in Paris. Inside the cathedral, intricate stained glass windows cast beautiful patterns of light. Christmas is an especially evocative time to visit when the cathedral is adorned with lights and decorations.

Location: St Mary's Rd and College St, Sydney

16 Macquarie Street

Macquarie Street
Macquarie Street
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Stretching from Hyde Park in the south to the Sydney Opera House in the north, Macquarie Street was once Sydney's most fashionable street. Governor Macquarie commissioned the construction of many of the colony's grand public buildings along this strand, some designed by convict architect Francis Greenway. Impressive sandstone residences soon followed with verandas to capture the beautiful views of the surrounding parklands and Sydney Harbour. In 1816, the completion of Sydney Hospital on Macquarie Street encouraged doctors to set up offices along nearby. But the hospital's capacity exceeded demand and legislative offices moved into some of its buildings. Today, Parliament House occupies the hospital's northern wing and is open to the public when the New South Wales Parliament is in session. The old Sydney Mint inhabits the hospital's southern wing, which is now home to a library, central courtyard, and café. Also on Macquarie Street, is the State Library, the oldest library in Australia. Among its jewels are the journals of Captain Cook and Joseph Banks as well as Captain Bligh's log from the Bounty.

17 Chinatown

Chinatown
Chinatown Julie Fraker
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Inhale the fragrance of sizzling Szechuan spices, shop for Chinese specialty items, or feast on authentic Asian cuisine at Sydney's Chinatown. Framed by lion gates at each end, this small district lies in the pedestrian zone of Dixon Street between Darling Harbour and Central Station. Yum cha is a popular pastime here, and the Friday night market is a feast for the senses with everything from dim sum and Vietnamese pho to teppanyaki. On the first full moon after January 21, the streets of Chinatown come alive during the celebration of the Chinese New Year. Near Chinatown, Paddy's Markets, is a Sydney institution from Wednesdays through Sundays with hundreds of stalls selling fresh produce, bargain fashions, and souvenirs.

Location: Dixon Street, Haymarket

Day Trips from Sydney

Blue Mountains

Blue Mountains
Blue Mountains
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A UNESCO World Heritage Area of breathtaking beauty, the Blue Mountains is one of the most popular day trips from Sydney. The oil in the eucalyptus leaves scents the air and imbues a blue haze over the park inspiring its evocative name. Tourists and locals alike come here to immerse themselves in the 664,000 acres of unspoiled wilderness with dense eucalyptus forests, rugged gorges, waterfalls, aboriginal rock paintings, and more than 140 km of hiking trails.

Highlights include the massive rock formations called the Three Sisters, a photographer' favorite, Bridal Veil Falls, and the hair-raising ride down the Jamison Valley on the Katoomba Scenic Railway. Outdoor wilderness adventures run the gamut from abseiling and rock climbing to mountain biking, horseback riding, and hiking. Visitors can access the Blue Mountains by car from the city via the M4 Motorway, or hop on a train from Central Station in Sydney to Blackheath or Katoomba. Heart-stopping lookout points abound throughout the park.

Hours: Open daily

Admission: $7 per vehicle per day

Hawkesbury River

Hawkesbury River
Hawkesbury River
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About an hour northwest of Sydney, the Hawkesbury is one of the most beautiful rivers in Australia and played an important part in the early days of the colony of New South Wales. The first settlers arrived in the area in 1794 and established farms, which helped feed the colony. Today, farms still dot the surrounding area, while pockets of unspoiled bush flank the river. The small villages in the region and the main towns of Windsor and Richmond offer many tourist attractions such as heritage buildings, galleries, gardens, museums, and markets.

On the river, water sports abound, particularly in its lower wide reaches between Brooklyn and Pittwater. The best way to explore the sparkling waterways is by boat. Brooklyn, Bobbin Head, Berowra Waters, and Wisemans Ferry all offer boat rentals. Visitors can also book organized trips to Broken Bay. The Hawkesbury River is surrounded by four national parks. It forms a boundary of Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park to the north of Sydney and the southern boundary of Brisbane Water National Park. To the northwest is Dharug National Park, famed for its aboriginal rock drawings, and to the north of Broken Bay is Bouddi National Park. All offer excellent hiking opportunities and a slice of nature not far from the city.

Royal National Park

Royal National Park
Royal National Park
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Rimmed by 21 km of surfing beaches and cliff-fringed coast, heritage-listed Royal National Park is a haven for nature buffs and beach lovers. Established in 1879, it is the second oldest national park in the world and lies about an hour's drive south of Sydney's central business district, near Cronulla. The park sits on a sandstone plateau with deeply indented valleys and a covering of heathland. The Hacking River flows through almost its entire length creating fantastic opportunities for fishing and boating. On the upper course of the river, patches of forest offer prime bushwalking and picnic spots. Along the coast, swimming, snorkeling, surfing, fishing, and whale watching are popular pursuits. Other attractions in the park include aboriginal rock art and a vast array of wildlife, including more than 241 species of birds. To access the park, visitors can drive or catch a ferry from Cronulla, while some walking trails are accessible from nearby railway stations. A visitor center at Audley provides rest areas, informative exhibits, and a café.

Hours: Open daily 7am-8:30pm

Admission: $11 per vehicle per day

Ferry to Manly Beach

Ferry to Manly Beach
Ferry to Manly Beach
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Feasting on fish and chips at the beach is an Aussie institution and Manly is a top spot to indulge. From Circular Quay, this famous beachfront suburb is a scenic 30-minute ferry ride with plenty of photo opportunities en-route. Once here, visitors can soak up a classic dose of Aussie beach culture, bask on the golden sands, swim, surf some fantastic breaks, or head to the Corso, a sunny pedestrian mall, where shops, restaurants, and cafés await. At Manly SEA LIFE Sanctuary, visitors can view sea turtles, tropical fish, and sharks, and even organize a dive with these razor-toothed predators. And yes, there are plenty of fish 'n' chip shops at this seaside hotspot.

Editor's Tips

  • In contrast to the regular and spacious layout of the younger Australian cities, Sydney is a complicated maze of one-way streets and narrow lanes. Public transport is recommended for first-time visitors.
  • For some of the best views of the city's icons, such as the Opera House and Sydney Harbour Bridge, hop aboard a harbor cruise or ferry.
  • The best introduction to the sights of Sydney is a trip on a red Sydney Explorer Bus, which travels on a circular route and stops near the major sights in the city center and around the harbor. With a day ticket, passengers can get off and on the bus as often as they please.
  • Sightseeing flights in light aircraft and helicopters are a great way to appreciate Sydney's stunning topography.
  • Visitor information centers are located at key points around the city, including the Rocks and Darling Harbour.

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