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A Daydreamer's Guide to Central Sydney

  • Written by Kristine McCarthy

Sydney is undoubtably one of the world's most beautiful cities, blessed with scores of beaches, a show-stopping harbour and architecturally arresting buildings. The city centre sits on the south bank of Sydney Harbour, its landmark attractions including the Sydney Opera House, Sydney Harbour Bridge, the historic precinct The Rocks, the Royal Botanic Garden and Circular Quay — from where ferries depart across the water. Whether you're a foodie, love adventure, are on the hunt for culture and history, or are looking to indulge in retail therapy, Sydney never fails to wow. 

Highlights: 

  • Explore Sydney Harbour by ferry, kayak, water taxi or yacht 
  • Eat and drink with views of Sydney Harbour Bridge and the Sydney Opera House 
  • Discover Australian retail brands in heritage malls like the Queen Victoria Building and Strand Arcade

Where to eat 

Sydney has plenty of restaurants with stunning harbour views. Perhaps most lauded of them all is Quay, offering a degustation-only menu in a space overlooking the Sydney Opera House and Sydney Harbour Bridge. The city's other elegant favourite, Aria, also overlooks the Sydney Opera House and has a menu showcasing delicate, seasonal Australian produce in dishes created by chef Matt Moran. In between these two bastions is Café Sydney, on the rooftop of Customs House at Circular Quay. A reservation here puts you centre stage for Sydney Harbour vistas, your meal delivering contemporary Australian flavours. Nearby, the café atop the Museum of Contemporary Art not only has top views of the Opera House, but also an interesting menu of global bites. 

Head towards the city's heart to enjoy French classics and live jazz in underground, Parisian-styled eatery Restaurant Hubert; gyoza and bao at rock'n'roll Japanese joint, Kid Kyoto; or visit Chinatown for dim sum and salt-and-pepper squid at perennially busy Golden Century Seafood Restaurant.  

Families love Darling Harbour and adjoining Barangaroo in the city's inner-west for an Italian feast at firm favourite, Fratelli Fresh; some Southern fried chicken from Belles Hot Chicken; or a classic burger from Betty's Burgers.  

For casual eats and after-work bites, Sydneysiders flock to Door Knock Bar for mac-and-cheese croquettes and other homey bites, Kittyhawk for steak tartare and Burgundy snails, and The ArtHouse Hotel at The Galeries shopping mall for bulging buttermilk chicken burgers. 

Where to drink 

For a drink with a view, head to historic Glenmore Hotel in The Rocks for one of the best views over Sydney Harbour landmarks, or sip bubbles in a landmark at Opera Bar — this semi-open drinking hole is dwarfed by the building's white sails, and serves up seasonal fare with front-of-house water views. Tucked away on inner-city Millers Point you'll find cocktail bar Henry Deane perched atop heritage Hotel Palisade, once the city's highest building courtesy of its position on top of a hill. Settle upstairs on one of the pink couches and look out across to the Sydney Harbour Bridge. 

To hang with the hip after-work crowd, grab an ale in the garden at Dot's Rooftop, topping Hotel Sweeny's beside busy Town Hall Station; order a whisky at saloon-style basement bar Palmer & Co. in Abercrombie Lane; head to hidden Burrow Bar behind an unmarked door off George Street; or stop by The Ivy on George Street, home to popular summer drinking hole, the Pool Club, as well as delicious eateries Ash St. Cellar, Felix, Bar Totti's and Uccello. 

For a sophisticated cocktail as the sun sets, make a beeline for Sydney's drinking and dining precinct, Barangaroo, where you can enjoy tropical cocktails and colourful share plates at Untied or settle in at stylish lounge Smoke, both with spectacular Darling Harbour views. Another popular sunset spot is Bar One at Walsh Bay, with cabanas lining the Pier One Sydney Harbour hotel almost directly under the Sydney Harbour Bridge. 

Where to play 

Sydney city dazzles day or night, with great theatres, museums and galleries, and outdoor adventures. The Sydney Opera House is the jewel on sparkling Sydney Harbour, with fascinating guided tours (one taking you behind the scenes) and a year-round program of dramatic performance, ballet and music. Fringing this landmark is the Royal Botanic Garden, with grassy expanses, shaded nooks and free guided walks — you'll also find lookouts offering sweeping views of the water, plus Botanic House restaurant, enveloped by forest. It adjoins the Art Gallery of NSW, home to significant collections of Australian and international art. Not far away on the cultural trail you'll find the State Library of New South Wales, the oldest of its kind in the country and the gothic revival St Mary's Cathedral

In the heart of the city, seek out the whimsical installation Forgotten Songs in alleyway Angel Place, near Martin Place. Look up to see 120 bird cages suspended while listening to the sounds of extinct or threatened bird species, which once flourished in Sydney before urbanisation.  

There are plenty of ways to explore Sydney Harbour — on ferries, yachts, high-speed jet boats, water taxis or kayaks. And if you've ever dreamed of seeing humpbacks in the wild, make sure you join a whale-watching cruise from Circular Quay from May to November. 

From Circular Quay, explore cobblestone lanes and heritage buildings in The Rocks. Australia's oldest pubs are here, and the Argyle Stairs lead to Cumberland Street for access to the free Sydney Harbour Bridge walk, or a BridgeClimb tour to the top of the mighty steel arch. 

Where to shop  

The city centre is home to glamorous shopping at David Jones and Myer department stores, and at the enormous Westfield Sydney off Pitt Street Mall. Visit to browse collections from some of the world's most exclusive brands — among the 280-plus retailers you'll find Fendi, Coach, Givenchy and Chanel. Make the most of high-end services such as valet parking and personal styling, then zip to the top of the Sydney Tower Eye directly above for a bird's-eye view over the city.  

Nearby, The Strand Arcade is Sydney's only remaining Victorian-style shopping arcade; today, it's home to specialty shops such as Andrew McDonald Shoemaker, Strand Hatters and Rox Gems and Jewellery, as well as homegrown Aussie designers like Akira, Aesop and Bassike.  

Then there's historic landmark the Queen Victoria Building, an 1898 architectural masterpiece home to luxury global brands, high street retail and the legendary Queen Victoria Tea Room, famous for its high tea. 

Where to stay 

Nestled amid the historic lanes of The Rocks is The Harbour Rocks boutique hotel, a five-minute walk from Circular Quay — the garden terrace and contemporary rooms are particularly appealing. Nearby, the Rydges Sydney Harbour occupies a significant heritage building, topped by a pool offering dazzling views over Sydney Harbour. 

For the ultimate in harbourside luxury, the Park Hyatt Sydney is favoured by celebrities for its luxurious rooms and views of the Sydney Harbour Bridge and Sydney Opera House. The Sydney Harbour Bridge is also your backdrop when you check in to the Pier One Sydney Harbour, at Walsh Bay, replete with a private pontoon and plush rooms.  

Near the retail heart of the city, Sheraton Grand Sydney Hyde Park overlooks leafy Hyde Park and has slick rooms and suites reminiscent of luxury apartment living. The luxury Pullman Sydney Hyde Park hotel also overlooks this central Sydney refuge of fig trees and lush lawns.  

For those looking to linger in cultural and dining hub Barangaroo, West Hotel has design-driven rooms and a soul-lifting internal atrium, while the Novotel Sydney on Darling Harbour nearby is a comfortable and convenient stay for families. For a boutique experience on this side of the water, Ovolo 1888 Darling Harbour sits in a restored heritage building, its character-filled rooms boasting exposed brick and revived vintage furniture.  

You can also sleep in serious style at the Establishment Hotel on Bridge Lane — book one of the penthouse suites for added indulgence, and order room service from popular modern Cantonese restaurant Mr. Wong, which sits at the base of the hotel.  

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