Australia’s unofficial capital, Sydney blends liveliness and loveliness as one of the world’s greatest cities. Home to more than one-fifth of the continent’s population, Sydney is Australia’s major urban center, and it certainly looks the part, from the elevated monorail snaking through the skyscrapers to the twinkling lights of Darling Harbour and Cockle Bay Wharf.
For all of Sydney’s urban bustle, however, it’s refreshingly in tune with nature. Its beautiful architecture is famous throughout the world, most notably for the astounding structures found in Sydney Harbour and The Rocks. It’s the same harbor where the First Fleet of colonists and convicts first landed in 1788, and today, the iconic Opera House and Harbour Bridge define Sydney’s skyline and draw visitors to the water’s edge. Sydney’s obsessive beach culture also lures tourists to the ocean; glamorous Bondi Beach and the more peaceful Northern Beaches above the harbor let Sydneysiders soak up the sun.
Many travelers use Sydney as a springboard to other destinations, from the nearby Blue Mountains to the tip of Queensland’s Cape York. But after dining by the waterfront, raging in the clubs, relaxing on the beach, and marveling at the city’s vigor and dynamism, you might be ready to permanently relocate Sydney-side.
The Sydney metropolitan area is immense and seems to be contained only by the forces of nature: Ku-Ring-Gai Chase National Park to the north, the Blue Mountains to the west, Royal National Park to the south, and the Pacific Ocean, the Tasman Sea, and Sydney Harbour to the east. Sydney’s city center is of manageable size. The walk to Circular Quay along Pitt St. takes only 30min. from Central Station and only 20min. from Kings Cross. Outside the city center are the inner suburbs, like Glebe and Surry Hills, each of which has a distinctive feel. For a bird’s eye view of it all, ascend Centrepoint Tower.
The main sights of Sydney are concentrated within the city’s two main harbors—Sydney Harbour and Darling Harbour—and the historic district of The Rocks that’s situated at the base of the Harbour Bridge. Sydney is also known for its spectacular beaches, particularly the trendy Bondi Beach and southern Coogee Beach. However, each of the city’s neighborhoods has more than its fair share of entertainment, boutiques, and adrenaline boosts.
Click the links to explore and book tours or local guides to Sydney's top attractions.
Although Australian cuisine has been traditionally dismissed as an uninspiring offshoot of English “pub food,” Oz eats have recently undergone a multicultural makeover. European and Middle Eastern immigrants spiced up the Australian menu in the post-WWII boom, and Sydney's restaurant scene today is heavily shaped by Japanese, Thai, Malay, Vietnamese, and Chinese flavors.
Foreign influences aren’t the only new forces in Aussie diets. The emerging Modern Australian cuisine—“Mod Oz” in the culinary world—has taken Indigenous fare out of the bush and into the bistro. Traditional, native ingredients are prepared with a fusion of Asian methods, producing a unique and inventive culinary style. With the onset of Mod Oz, menus are increasingly inclined to incorporate wild “bush tucker” like bunya nuts, Kakadu plums, and wild rosella plums. Specialty meats like crocodile meat and Northern Territory buffalo are also making a showing.
Ordering “just coffee” is nearly impossible in Australia, particularly in Sydney, where cappuccinos and "flat whites" are de rigeur. Tea, often affectionately referred to as a “cuppa,” is also very popular. Sweet-toothed cafe fans may opt instead for iced chocolate, a frothy, creamy concoction of ice cream, cream, and chocolate syrup.
Australia produces some delicious brews, and Australians consume them readily. Share a “coldie” with your mates at one of the city's omnipresent pubs. Traditional payment etiquette is the shout, in which drinking mates alternate rounds. Skip the Foster's in favorite of a local brew - Sydney's craft beer scene is growing rapidly.
Australian wines are now among the best in the world. Overseas export started soon after the first vineyards began to produce wine in the early 1800s, and the industry gained renown after a post-WWII influx of European oenophilic talent. The Hunter Valley, the Barossa and Clare Valleys, the Swan and Margaret Rivers, and the Derwent and Tamar Valleys possess some of the best Aussie vineyards. Many cafes and restaurants are BYO.
The uninitiated may have trouble making sense of a sport in which players can “bowl a maiden or a googly to the stumps,” but even a novice will get swept up in the riotous national enthusiasm for these contests, which can last anywhere from an afternoon to five days. International teams stir up excitement during the summer, when they arrive to battle it out with the Australian national team in five-match tours through Melbourne, Sydney, Perth, Adelaide, and Brisbane. This season is never crazier than when Oz faces its archrival, England, in the Ashes series; the ’06-’07 series sold over 1.25 million tickets. Domestic cricket matches assume center stage toward the end of summer, ending with the Pura Cup finals in March.
For many Aussies, the Australian Football League (AFL) teams fill the winter void that the end of the cricket season leaves. Played on large cricket ovals between teams of 18 players, the game was originally designed to keep cricket players in shape in the off-season.
According to legend, rugby was born one glorious day in 1823 when an inspired (or perhaps frustrated) student in Rugby, England, picked up a soccer ball and ran it into the goal. Since then, rugby has evolved into an intricately punishing game with two main variants: 15-player rugby union and 13-player rugby league. On the international level, Australia has had a long history of dominance in the sport, winning the World Cup in 1999 and reaching the finals in 2003. Major tournaments such as the Tri-Nation Series (Australia, South Africa, and New Zealand) pack stadiums and pubs and grab the attention of devoted fans around the world. At home, the National Rugby League (NRL) attracts a large following, especially in New South Wales and Queensland, culminating in the NRL final in September. The only match that even approaches the intensity and popularity of the NRL final is June’s State of Origin series, in which Queensland takes on New South Wales. Both games promise a mix of blood, mud, and beer.
Punishing surf and big-time waves have made Australia famous among the world’s surfers, but prime surfing conditions are the norm all over the continent’s coast. Local surf shops are generally the best sources of information on competitions and conditions. Visit www.surfingaustralia.com.au for comprehensive coverage of competitions, camps, lessons, and conditions. Web surfers can also find information on the Association of Surfing Professionals (ASP) Australasia, the premier pro circuit in the region.
While Australia has only been producing canvases and novels for 200 years or so, art is woven into the fabric of the nation itself. The rock sculptures and paintings of Indigenous artists predate the arrival of Europeans by millennia. Today, a bevy of artists—both native and otherwise—are continuing Australia’s proud artistic tradition, working in disparate styles and genres that reflect the nation’s diffuse identity and evolving national consciousness.
Indigenous Australians have developed their own brand of literature through 50,000 years of oral tradition. Their stories revolve around the Dreaming, their creation legend, which is set in a mythological time where the landscape is endowed with mythic and symbolic status. Narratives of the Dreaming speak to a complex network of beliefs, practices, and customs that define Indigenous Australians’ spiritual beliefs and connection to the land.
Perhaps the first Western literary genre to emerge from Australia was the bush ballad, a form of poetry that celebrated the working man and the superiority of bush life to dreary urban existence. The most famous of these ballads is AB Banjo Paterson’s “Waltzing Matilda,” often considered the unofficial Australian national anthem. Henry Lawson celebrated bush life in both poems and short stories, with works like “The Drover’s Wife” providing a popular mythology for this heavily urbanized society.
Australia’s rich musical tradition stretches back centuries to a time when indigenous people sang “karma” songs that celebrated their ancestry. Different regions produced different styles and instruments, but the didjeridu is perhaps the most famous musical contribution of Indigenous Australians. Invented by northern people some 2,000 years ago, the prototypes of these droning wind instruments were created using tree branches.
Australians love a good yarn, so it’s little wonder that the Land Down Under also boasts one of the world’s most prolific, innovative film industries. The world’s first feature film was an Australian production; written and directed by Charles Tait, The Story of the Kelly Gang lasted 70min. and cost slightly more than AUS $2,000. The Limelight Department,which was run by the Salvation Army in Melbourne, was among the world’s first production companies and made several hundred short films around the turn of the century.
After the critical successes of the 70s, the 80s brought Australian films into commercial favor at the box office, both at home and abroad. Hits like Mad Max and Crocodile Dundee were wildly popular the world over. Films of the 90s were personal, Australia-specific, and often quirky—especially in intriguing character studies like Muriel’s Wedding and Shine. Recent productions, such as New South Wales-native Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge! and Phillip Noyce’s Rabbit-Proof Fence, demonstrate the multiplicity of themes and styles present in contemporary Australian film. The Land Down Under has sent an astonishing number of its stars abroad; these include Geoffrey Rush (Shine), Cate Blanchett (Elizabeth), Nicole Kidman (Moulin Rouge!), the New Zealand-born but Aussie-raised Russell Crowe (Gladiator), Guy Pearce (Memento), Hugh Jackman (the X-Men series), Toni Collette (About a Boy), and Mel Gibson (the Lethal Weapon series).
Known for their friendly informality, Australians are quick to adopt a first-name basis with new acquaintances and difficult to offend. However, it’s still best to avoid public pronouncements on sensitive topics like race relations or refugees, and you shouldn’t joke about Australia’s convict origins. “Aborigine” has become a somewhat politically charged term; “Indigenous Australian” is preferred.
Littering in Australia is not taken lightly by its environmentally-conscious populace.
For women, almost any clothing is acceptable if it steers clear of indecency. Tube tops, halters, and tank tops are all common. For men, pants or shorts are the norm. Cossies, swimmers, and togs (affectionate terms for Australia’s favorite garment, the swimsuit) are usually appropriate only at the beach.
The rule about tipping in Sydney is...there are no rules. Which makes it very confusing for travelers. Here's our take: tipping is not compulsory here, so you won't raise any eyebrows if you just pay the bill. But if you've had great service, go ahead and leave 5-10% gratuity.