Sydney is a modern metropolis, a veritable oasis of urban culture. It’s a big, international city with modern skyscrapers and a high-speed rail available to take you from center city to stunning beaches in minutes. In the middle of it all is the Sydney Harbor featuring iconic architecture such as the Harbor Bridge and Sydney Opera House and dotted with ferries and cruise ships navigating through the water connecting passengers with residential areas, beaches, and the central business district.
Downtown Sydney abuts the harbor and features a hilly landscape with stunning views of the surrounding blue waters. Sydney is typically sunny, like Los Angeles, and the combination of blue skies mixed with the blue harbor envelops the city with a sunny disposition.
The site of the oldest European settlement in Sydney — The Rocks was established in 1788 when Sydney was just becoming a colony. While today The Rocks is a bustling hub for tourists and luxury shopping, back then it was quite a scary place with ne’er-do-wells roaming the piers and causing fear and havoc. These days it’s fun to walk along the little lanes and alleyways taking in the historic neighborhood. Guided walking tours are also available.
One of the newer additions to the neighborhood is the overseas passenger terminal where giant cruise ships dock. The area has been a commercial pier since its founding and is used by merchant shippers, cruise liners, and ferries all coming and going from Circular Quay.
It’s also a one-stop shop for mega cruise liners that come in and dock for the day. Many of the vessels call Sydney their home base throughout the cruise ship season (October through May). The mammoth boats take up a very prominent position in the Sydney Harbor, right at the edge of The Rocks. Sydney is often a main point for starting and finishing cruises. The boats generally dock at 6:30 a.m. and then leave at 4:30 p.m., depending on harbor traffic. The process of getting in and out of the harbor is a very big logistical operation as there are many moving parts and the cruise ships are huge. The Sydney Harbor is one of the deepest natural harbors in the world but there are some tricky rock formations and a lot of wind to challenge captains steering the ships.
SYDNEY OPERA HOUSE
The iconic white shells of the Sydney Opera House are instantly recognizable as the star of the harbor. The range of performances hosted by the opera house include opera to rock and ballet to comedy. In addition to performances, the distinctive destination offers tours and several dining options. The Opera Bar is a great place to sip cocktails while staring into the harbor and when you are ready to move on to a fine dining experience then head over to Bennelong restaurant. Housed beneath the smallest sail of the Opera House, Bennelong features dramatic views inside and out. Acclaimed Chef Peter Gilmore leads the award-winning kitchen where the menu focuses on Australian food and wine. Main courses include trout, duck, and wagyu beef and don’t forget to try the show-stopping pavlova for dessert.
BONDI TO COOGEE COASTAL WALK
Lather up the sunscreen, grab your hat and swimsuit and make like a local to embark on the Bondi to Coogee coastal walk. Both Bondi and Coogee are Sydney beachside neighborhoods which are about 20 minutes by car from the central business district. The walk is filled with beautiful ocean views and takes about two hours at a brisk pace. Once finished at Coogee you can hop into the water at Coogee Beach after grabbing lunch at one of the many stylish eateries.
AUSTRALIA NATIONAL MARITIME MUSEUM
Australia’s museum of the sea is spectacularly located at the waterfront of Darling Harbor, just west of The Rocks. The Maritime Museum holds one of the largest and most diverse in-water fleets in the world including the cold war submarine HMAS Onslow, naval destroyer HMAS Vampire, and a stunning replica of Captain Cook’s tall ship HMB Endeavour. The interactive Action Stations experience shares the danger and drama of military life at sea inside a high-tech immersive journey that shows the inner workings of the Royal Australian Navy. The distinctive indoor/outdoor attraction offers great entertainment for the whole family.
Aside from the Sydney Opera House, the Harbor Bridge is the other most recognized part of the dramatic Sydney Harbor skyline. The Bridge was built in the 1930s and is the world’s widest single arch bridge accommodating eight lanes of traffic, two trains lines, two footpaths, two bike lanes, and a bus lane.
One of the best ways to experience the beauty of Sydney is to climb the Harbor Bridge. That’s right, groups of people strap themselves together and in a single file formation they scale the arch of the bridge. Climbs go every hour and include 14 people at a time. The entire experience takes three hours, including 90 minutes of prep consisting of safety demonstrations, putting on the (very unattractive) climbing overalls and harness, and administering a breath test to make sure all participants are sober. It is an incredibly beautiful sight to see and while not for the faint of heart, the experience is highly recommended.
On a clear day bridge climbers can see all the way up to the Blue Mountains to the west of Sydney. Reservations are required and interested parties can book direct or use your hotel concierge. The cost of the climb is $328 and you can’t take a camera or a phone on the hike because it is incredibly windy and the risk of dropping on the roadway is too great. While the experience is a bit daunting, the walkway is quite thick with handrails, and once you get to the top you are distracted by the beauty and forget to be scared.
ROYAL BOTANIC GARDEN SYDNEY
In a city rich with beautiful attractions, the most beautiful of all is the Royal Botanic Garden Sydney. The oldest botanic garden in Australia was established in 1816 and sits right next to the Sydney Opera House. The gardens include over 27,000 plants from around the world. Fig trees reign supreme in Sydney and the ones in this garden are incredibly impressive with massive trunks and branches that expand down into the earth. A guided tour is the best way to immerse yourself in the garden and on the Aboriginal Harbor Heritage Tour you’ll join a First Nations guide on a walk around the harbor and garden hearing stories about the Gadigal lifestyle, traditions, and connection to the community. “In our Aboriginal culture, our energy is one with everything; every living being is a part of us and we are a part of it. When you look out onto the harbor, you can feel that Gadigal connection,” says Kalkani Choolburra, guide at Royal Botanic Gardens.
From late autumn to early spring, over 30,000 whales travel north from the Southern Ocean along the New South Wales coastline to feed and breed in the warmth of the Pacific. They return south on the same route in spring to feed in the Antarctic over the summer. Known as the Humpback Highway, humpback and southern right whales are the most sighted, but you might also spot orcas, blue whales, minke whales, and sperm whales. Watch in awe as you witness these magnificent mammals display pectoral slaps and body rolls.
Sydney has a variety of vantage points to choose from to see the whales. Cape Solander in Kamay Botany Bay National Park is an unbeatable lookout during whale-watching season. Closer to the city, you can spot whales from Sydney Harbor’s North and South Head. At the tip of the northern beaches, Barrenjoey Head at Palm Beach offers an elevated viewpoint, while the Bondi to Coogee walk offers fantastic whale viewing opportunities. For on-the-water experiences, Captain Cook Cruises, FantaSea Cruising, Bass and Flinders Cruises and Manly Ocean Adventures are some of many whale-watching cruises that leave from Circular Quay, Darling Harbor, and Manly.
WHERE TO STAY
For the best views in the city, stay at the Four Seasons Hotel Sydney which is located next to the historical neighborhood, The Rocks. It’s an ideal location that is within walking distance of Sydney Harbor, Sydney Opera House, Sydney Harbor Bridge, Museum of Contemporary Art, and the ferry wharf where visitors can take ferries to Taronga Zoo, Manly Beach, Darling Harbor, and Watson’s Bay.
Of the approximately 500 luxuriously appointed guest rooms and suites, 60% of the rooms offer views of the Bridge, the Opera House, or both. When guests open their blinds, they let the glory of Sydney into the room and feel inspired to explore the stunning surroundings.
In addition to the gorgeous views, the Four Seasons Hotel Sydney has a knowledgeable and passionate staff who are happy to help plan a day of sightseeing or advise on which delicious cocktail to select at Grain.
All dining options at the Four Seasons are under the domain of Executive Chef Francesco Mannelli and include Mode Kitchen & Bar, Grain, the poolside Cabana, in-room dining, and all conference and event dining. Chef Mannelli, a native of Florence, Italy, travels throughout Australia, working hard to source top ingredients from Australia’s best local farmers and growers. Hand-picked Tathra oysters are found in the pristine waters of Nelson Lagoon, and Holy Goat organic cheese comes from 5th generation goats who roam free deep in the native Victorian bushland. Chef Mannelli has also managed to secure grass-fed English longhorn beef from South Australia and Glacier 51 toothfish caught a mile deep in the ocean between Western Australia and Antarctica. Says Chef Mannelli, “Respect for ingredients was instilled in me as a child. It is important to know how much hard work, effort and commitment is behind every single ingredient. Farmers, growers, fishermen, suppliers, and chefs; we are all part of the same chain.”
Mode Kitchen & Bar is the main restaurant at the Four Seasons and serves modern Australian cuisine. Located in the sunlit atrium of the lobby, signature dishes include the mouthwatering scallop crudo with ponzu dressing and finger lime, and the delectable Acquerello risotto with dry-aged parmigiano. You must leave room for the signature frozen pavlova which pairs seasonal flavors such as blueberry Chantilly cream, pepper berry, black currant, and green apple with the frozen pavlova.
If you’re keen on cocktails served by smartly dressed and charismatic bartenders then book a table at Grain, the ground-floor artisanal cocktail bar with a focus on grain. Says bar manager, Adam Lau, “The humble grain is a hero in every drink and dish at Grain Bar. Australia offers a wide variety of grains — wheat, oats, sorghum, triticale to name a few — and this enables us to elevate a cocktail by exploring the full potential of each grain, discovering flavors that surprise and delight the palate.” Signature cocktails include In Like Flynn with Widges gin, Amaro Montenegro, eucalyptus, and lemon and served with an adorable sugar-based koala print on top of the drink. If you don’t want to pour gin on an empty stomach then tuck into a Wagyu slider, crispy chicken bao buns, or polenta chips.
If you book a Club Room, Club Suite, or Signature Suite then you’ll get to enjoy Lounge 32. Located on the 32nd floor, the lounge features stunning views of Darling Harbor to the west of the Bridge and plenty of food options throughout the day and into the evening. There’s a hot buffet breakfast with a full array of espresso drinks, all-day refreshments, an open bar, and evening canapes. Additional features include private check-in and check-out, a dedicated concierge, access to meeting room space, and valet pressing.
Built on the site of a former colonial jail and overlooking Sydney Cove where Captain Arthur Philip landed in 1788 to establish the colony of New South Wales, the Four Seasons Hotel Sydney pairs modern luxury with historical reverence.