Last updated on 4th January 2020
The Capital of New South Wales
When I arrived in Sydney it felt as if the sun was shining directly into my heart. Eventhough my old friends, haze and rain, had followed me here, they could not stop me feeling amazed. The reason was that everything here was set in such nice way, that it felt comfortable to be here. I call this quality of life. And even the haze that was “greyifying” the sky due to bushfires north of Sydney, could not make the air smell as bad as I experienced before.
In comparison to the places I visited before: what a difference! The air to breathe was fresh(er), no insane traffic jam and clocked up roads, no stinking busses and lorries, no motorbikes and scooters zigzagging the traffic or skipping it on the sidewalks, no rubbish anywhere but recycle bins, no (visible) pollution, clean beaches and parks with playgrounds, no cooking on the streets, no eateries, no people sitting on the streets all day. It felt so normal and safe, people obeying the rules of social life, stopping at red lights and walking on sidewalks that have no holes.
The most amazing thing was that the lifestyle of the Sydneysiders seems to be very sporty. There are paths for biking and jogging everywhere and they are used frequently. Every road and every walkway has it and there are so many people jogging and biking. There are bike shops and sports shops all over the town, every other road has a gym and also swimming pools are numerous. Parks, beaches, walkways, hike paths are full of exercising people. Many places have an outdoor gym. And the Sydneysiders are really fit. It was amazing how fast and strong some people are and consequently, how good they look. And I think, they like to show off, but it is ok, they worked hard for it.
Apart from the fit sportspeople, everyone on a stroll does a little bit on those exercise stations, just because they are there and it’s fun. Yes, there are people just taking a walk, people walking distances because they enjoy it. Remember I wrote about Bangkok: Don’t walk. And so it was throughout all Asia. Here I see people voluntarily walking again. It is normal. You will not be the only one doing so.
I immediately fell in love with the city. Not only because of the sports. Also because the city is very nice with its mixed architecture, many parks and beaches. Sydneys unique harbour is one of the world’s largest natural harbours. The remarkable, wildlife rich surroundings of the city with the Blue Mountains and Hunters Valley in the north and the Royale National Park in the south make the place even more outstanding.
And the people here are so friendly with a very optimistic way of life. They seem to have the sunshine in their hearts. And they love dogs. Every other person has one or more dogs. They also love their beaches, their city, the cafes and restaurants, they love going out, especially on Fridays and Saturdays, they love music, hiking, swimming, surfing, chilling, shopping, exploring. It is a quite laid back atmosphere and most locals love their life and their country. You can’t avoid loving it too.
But there is a downside to it: the prices. Sydney is extremely expensive. Even though I knew it will be pricey it hit me hard, and the first days I dangerously exceeded my budget. Accommodation and food are incredibly expensive. I stayed in a “cheap” hotel for 120$ a night (with shared bathroom) but moved quickly into a hostel. Here I still paid 38$ on weekdays (going up to 40$ on Friday and 60$ on Saturday night) for a 4 bed dorm with public bathroom. Supermarkets easily charge 7$ for a bred or 2,50$ for a small yogurt. But then I discovered that Aldi is around – still expensive but a noticeable relief.
There are plenty of things to see and do in Sydney and once again I had to make a choice. I was lucky to have a local friend, Gary, who gave me a valuable list of ideas and I followed most of them. Also, there is a Free City Tour that is very interesting, highly entertaining and covers the most interesting places within a three hour walking course.
Here is what I did:
Opera House – Botanical Garden – Observatory – Stargazers Hill – Mrs Macquarie’s Chair – The Rocks – Sydney Harbour Bridge – Darling Harbour – Hyde Park – Bondi Beach – Manly Beach – Balmoral Beach – Watsons Bay – Sydney University – Kurraba Point – Blue Mountains
Sydney has trains, tram and busses for public transport which I have used for all the places I have visited. As a ticket they have the “Opal Card” Alternatively, it is much easier to pay with a contactless credit card. I would be used the same way, just tab on and off in busses and trains. The price is the same for Opal Card users and credit cards, but for credit cards the machine wont display any balance. That means one has no idea really how much was paid for the trip, but hey, less to worry about! There is a daily limit at the price of a day ticket. It´s actually really convenient and easy because no one must feed machines with coins anymore.
The Royal Botanic Garden
It happend that I stumbled into the Botanical Garden on my way to see the Opera House. And I was so amazed by this place that I spent quite some time here, wandering around and admiring the beautiful setting. The entrance is free. The gardens are located at the harbourside and that walkway along the waterside provides a beautiful view at the Sydney Opera House. I enjoyed the huge exotic trees and the calm atmosphere in the middle of the big city. But the best was the smell, there is the beautiful scent of flowers and blooming trees and bushes all over the place. The Botanical Garden has an app that allows to plan walks and learn about all the plants and their connection with Australian history. It’s free too.
The famous Sydney Opera House is a must visit and the first I wanted to see here. I went via the Botanical Garden but there is also access from Circular Quay. That is where most trains and busses stop and where the ferries depart. The Opera House is part of the UNESCO World Heritage and surely a unique building. But honestly to me it was looking rather like a typical building from the 70s that has a certainly unusual shape and was placed at a prominent place in the harbour. I learned on the Free City Tour that the Opera House was indeed built in the 1970s and I heard the interesting story of the poor architect Utzon who was not paid for his work properly.
Mrs Macquarie’s Chair
A walk through the Botanical Garden in the opposite direction of the Opera House took me to Ms. Macquarie’s Chair. It is a seat carved into the rock where Elizabeth Macquarie, the Governor’s wife, liked to sit and admire the view of the harbour. The view from Macquarie´s Chair, although somewhat different to what Elizabeth Macquarie would have seen, is still one of the best in Sydney.
Sydney Harbour Bridge
The massive steel bridge across Sydney harbour from the Rocks on one side to Milsons point at the other is a famous Sydney landmark. There is a road for cars, a track for trains, and on the eastside there is a walk for pedestrians, on the west side a track for bicycles. It is free to cross. The massive steel arch that spans above the road easily doubles the height of the bridge. Adventurous people can climb it if they book a Harbour Bridge Walk Tour and pay a few hundred dollars. The view must be spectacular. But for me the walk over the bridge was sufficient and the pylon lookout is already spectacular. The bridge provides a perfect perspective at the Opera House especially in the evening when the sun sets on the other side of the bridge. But similarly nice and a bit quieter would it be to watch the sunset from the Observatory.
The Rocks is the birthplace of modern Sydney. It is the strip of land on which European settlers first settled in 1788. Thanks to the engagement of its citizens many heritage buildings of The Rocks have been preserved until today. But the history of this area has been very eventful – from a settlement of convicts, soldiers, sailors and street gangs. The name of the Rocks comes from the rocky coast on the west side of Sydney Cove, where the convicts pitched their tents. The Rocks feature a lot of attractions like art galleries and museums, hip bars and restaurants and Australia’s oldest pubs. It is also home to the only, but tiny, Xmas market I found in Sydney at this time of the year. A stroll along the shores gives another stunning view of the Sydney Opera House.
Observatory and Stargazers Hill
A short way from the Harbour Bridge on a hill within the area of The Rocks lies the Sydney Observatory. It is one of the most significant sites in Australia’s scientific history as it played a central role in the history of timekeeping, meteorology and astronomy. It’s free to walk in and encounter the exhibition, and I found it definitely worth to walk through its beautiful garden with impressive trees and its panoramic views of Sydney Harbour. From here, or alternatively from the Stargazers Hill at the foot of the observatory hill at Millers point, one can admire the stars of the southern hemisphere at night. Millers point also features a nice little park and another view onto the harbour and the Harbour Bridge.
Darling Harbour is one of Sydney’s largest recreation and leisure areas and is very popular with locals and tourists alike. Darling Harbour is home to many of the city’s attractions. These include the Harbourside Shopping Centre, the Sydney Entertainment Centre, the Powerhouse Museum, the Sydney Convention and Exhibition Centre, the Sydney Aquarium, the Australian National Maritime Museum, the Sydney Wildlife World, Madam Tusseauds and the LG-IMAX cinema, which has the largest screen in the world, and the Chinese Garden of Friendship. I was there on a beautiful sunny day, enjoying walking along the harbour all the way up to Millers point, crossing the pedestrian bridge for the nice view and having fish & chips in one of the nice restaurants along the way. Beware of the seagulls which are very naughty stealing food from the tables even while people eating.
Amid the central business district, Hyde Park is a wonderful sanctuary of extended lawns, shady picnic spots, flowers, fountains, and really impressive fig trees. Like a mini Central Park this little patch of green was named after Hyde Park in London and offers some relaxation for city workers during lunch or after work. The park’s bronze Archibald Fountain commemorates Australia’s alliance with France during WWI, while the massive War Memorial in the southern half of the park honours its victims. On the east side of Hyde Park is the Australian Museum, with the largest natural history collection in the country, and the impressive St.Mary’s Cathedral.
This was not on my list and it hit me with surprise when I accidently came along the Sydney University during one of my joggings. The main building is such an impressive sight especially when in the evening the sun sets behind it. I was immediately reminded of Harry Potter, Cambridge and Oxford. It is Australia’s first and leading university and thanks to its campus it is regarded as one of the world’s most beautiful universities. I certainly can confirm the stunning ensemble of old and new buildings and came here twice to walk among them and investigate all the different faculties. It is also a good place for a quite different sunset experience.
Only 30min by bus from the city centre is the famous Bondi Beach. A TV show called Bondi Rescue must have contributed to its fame. It is a half-moon shaped, golden-sanded beach with clear waters and consistent waves ideal for surfers. And yes, it is absolutely beautiful. The beach is perfect for swimming and beach bumming but also a great surf place and famous for its café scene, and cosmopolitan vibe.
Unfortunately, when I visited, the weather was not in my favour. A stormy rain started. The towel I had with me for swimming now became my protection against wind and rain. But the rain did not last long and I went on the coastal walk towards Cogee along the spectacular sandstone cliffs via Tamarama Beach and Bronte Beach. I followed the track until I reached the remarkable cemetery on the clifftops of Bronte. I have never seen such a huge cemetery located so spectacularly: on a slope above the cliffs overlooking the ocean. I believe the relatives of the dead don’t mind to come here for a visit.
Already the ride on the ferry that took me to Watson Bay was very enjoyable, a good start for a delightful day out. Located on the southern head of Sydney Harbour’s entrance, the peninsula lies in Sydney’s east. My aim was the South Head heritage trail. It starts just left of the jetty behind the little beach. It leads past Lady Bay Beach and then on the tip of South Head where the red and white striped Hornby Lighthouse stands on high cliffs. Those cliffs offer a scenic view onto the ocean and the opposite cliffs of North Head. It’s said that sometimes whales can be spotted in the waters from here. I tried to find one but had no success. The trail is a short loop of not more than 500m and I was looking for a chance to extend the hike a little further.
It is possible to go around the government building and take the road on the left leading to it but before entering, which is not permitted, taking the road on the right. The road is closed for cars but hiking is fine. After a few hundred meters there is a building on the left and just before that there is a small trail going into the bush. That trail leads to the cliffs. Again I found stunning views from the edge of the cliff. The trail took me as far as the Gap Bluff and connects to the coastal walk.
The Gap is what the name suggests, a huge gap in the cliffs that allows a glimpse into the swirling waters of the ocean far below. Because of the deadly abyss the Gap became an unfortunate destination for suicidal attempts. Don Ritchie, who happened to live nearby, made it his personal concern and rescued several hundred people from killing themselves. Today, there is an engraving and a monument to remember his high spirits.
I followed this trail along the cliffs through rough bush land as well as lush green playgrounds via Signal Hill until the Maquarie Lighthouse. From there I turned right following the road leading downhill towards the other side of the bay, namely Parsley Beach, and crossed Parsley Bridge, a sweet old suspension bridge. From there it’s a short walk along the road back to the ferry jetty.
Another short but fantastic ferry ride from Circular Quay is the one to Manly Beach giving passengers a first class view at landmarks like the Sydney Opera House, Mrs Macquarie’s Chair and the Sydney Harbour Bridge. From the Manly ferry terminal it is only a short walk through the promenade full of lovely little shops, bars and restaurants to reach the beach. It is a really beautiful spot. Once more, the weather was not in my favour so that swimming was not an option. There were only a few surfers out to watch. Consequently, I took take the North Head Walking Trail for a hike to see the postcard-worthy lookouts and hopefully the panorama of Sydney harbour.
At the north end of Manly beach is a short walking path along the rocks to the sweet little Shelly Beach. At the parking area there is the entrance to the hiking trail that leads up the cliffs towards North Head. It is an enjoyable stroll with some fantastic lookouts and wild landscape formed by rocks, low trees and wilds shrubs. The trail is well maintained and signs pointing the way, easy to hike, many people even go for jogging here.
I passed North Fort which was built to protect Sydney from air and sea attack, important during World War II. There is a memorial walk and one can visit the remains of the old army posts along the way.
Finally I reached the North Head Fairfax Walking Track, a short loop to the very edge of the cliffs that offers the fantastic views I described. But as I was travelling with my best friend, the haze, I could only see a shadow of Sydney in the distance. Also no whales were passing between South and North Head. Anyhow, it still was a fantastic view and the hike through the unique landscape absolutely enjoyable. I headed back on the eastern part of Manly on the path parallel to the North Head Scenic Drive. The whole hike was a loop of about 10km. The ferry took my tired body back home safely – into the sun set!
Balmoral Beach is situated in Hunters Bay, which is inside Middle Harbour. The bus takes a little longer to go here, I think I needed 45 min. From the bus stop the way leads down some steep slopes and it feels a little like San Francisco, and the prestigious houses along the road underline this impression. The beach is actually two beaches, Balmoral and Edwards Beaches, divided by a little peninsula which connects a sweet little bridge. The natural beauty of this beach makes it worth a visit, it is a wonderful place for chilling. As all beaches there are changing rooms, a little marina for boats, shops and restaurants. For me it was too cold for swimming but it was sunny and I could relax on the beach.
I chose this place for my last evening in Sydney to watch the sunset. Kurraba Point is located about 2km eats of the northern end of the Harbour Bridge. I went there by train and walked the rest, for the way back I took the ferry to Circular Quay. It has a nice little park and sitting there with the beautiful view at Sydney harbour at sunset is very nice. I could see the sailboats coming in, the ferries crossing and watch the city lightening up in the evening.
Blue Mountains Day Trip
Two hours by train north east of Sydney are the Blue Mountains. Of course, they are not blue. But they appear bluish in the distance and that’s where the name comes from. But to tell the truth, this feature is not unique to those mountains as any mountain would appear bluish in the distance. Whoever likes hiking and mountains and the outdoors must see the “Grand Canyon” of Australia: The Blue Mountains are rather a huge valley than a mountain range, with high and steep cliffs on both sides and rivers, mainly the Kedumba River, rushing through it. So I got up one morning at 6 am and took one of the earliest trains to experience the dazzling nature out there.
It was a wonderful day, warm and sunny, with a clear blue sky promising best views. But unfortunately bush fires had started in the Blue Mountains and I could see helicopters going forth and back to the smoking area in the distance. Slowly over the day the valley filled with smoke and my old friend, the haze, did not allow seeing the other side of the valley in the late afternoon anymore. But I was lucky because, while I am writing this blog, just a few days later, the Blue Mountain area was closed for tourists due to the bushfires went out of control since my visit.
Near the train station in Katoomba are several Agencies providing help for the Blue Mountain explorers that arrive every day plentifully. From them I got some good idea which tracks could fill my day including the most desired highlights: The Three Sisters, Echo Point, the Scenic World and the Giant Staircase. I had added myself the Leura Falls as I still had time after the Three Sisters. I walked all day and was back at the train station at 6pm, very tired but very happy and relaxed.
My route was this: I arrived in Katoomba train station and went down the road, about 2km, to the edge of the National park and entered it at the Katoomba Cascades. I followed the Prince Henry Cliff Walk to the Scenic World. There is a cable car taking people to the other side of the cliff, and a steep railway taking people deep down into the valley. But I skipped that as I wanted to hike there, so I just admired the outstanding view from there over the entire valley of the Blue Mountains. It’s called Scenic World for a reason and it really does what the name promises. The Prince Henry Cliff Walk here is a short loop, so I further followed it until the sign pointed to the Furber Steps. Climbing them down is an adventure; they are really steep and close to the cliff wall. I passed several lookouts, like Juliets Balcony, and also the very beautiful and peaceful waterfall called Veras Grotto.
Down in the valley I followed the Federal Pass Walking Track until I reached the Giant Staircase. Of course, at some point I needed to get up the cliffs again and here it was: more than 900 steps up to the Honeymoon Bridge at the Three Sisters. I took it slowly and allowed plenty of time. And surprisingly it was much easier and faster to reach the top than I thought it would be. The stairs allow to climb nearly vertically up the cliff, it is breath-taking both the stairs hanging above the abyss and the views along the way.
The Three Sisters are three single standing rock formations that just happened to have not yet slid into the valley while the surrounding rocks already did. But slowly they will erode away too. But for the time being they can be admired, but not climbed anymore – closed to protect them. As I had time I followed the Prince Henry Cliff Walk again to the wonderful and refreshing Leura Cascades and falls, with many outstanding lookouts on the way. I walked the same way back and to finish at Echo Point with the best lookout the valley has to offer, I think. It was now late afternoon and eventhough the haze had decreased visibility, I still had a great view at the Three Sisters, and the lower position of the sun gave a nice light.
My legs where tired and my feet did not want to move anymore but I continued to Lady Darleys Lookout because I had to go in that direction anyway. I was not disappointed. What a magical place and another great view! An far less people as the crowds hang out at Echo Point!
At Lady Darleys Lookout I entered the road again and went back to the train station. What a day! It was an 18km hike including all the steps up and down and it took me 8 hours, including all my photo stops and resting times mostly next to the waterfalls or viewpoints. For just one day at hand and the first visit in the Blue Mountains I think that course was the best choice.
My next destination is Melbourne. I took the bus with Firefly and managed to get an overnight ticket on sale for just 35$. I arrived at 6:30 am a little tired but overall good: the seats were comfy and the bus ride was smooth.