After spending nearly a month and a half in Australia, it was hard to believe we still hadn’t really seen Sydney, save for one day back in the middle of February (between visiting the Great Barrier Reef and Lord Howe Island) when we spent a full day exploring the city. Interestingly, we actually planned this entire trip around Lord Howe Island. About 8 months before we left the U.S. (10 months before vising LHI), and before we were even sure we were committed to the idea of long-term travel, we booked our round-trip airfare from Sydney to Lord Howe, as well as accommodations at Milky Way Villas. Even ten months out nearly every room on the island was booked (and we couldn’t get the week we wanted) so we just went for it and made a quick reservation. Given that there was only one morning flight to Lord Howe on the day we were traveling, we decided to fly from Cairns to Sydney a day early in case of delays or bad weather – there was no way I was missing that flight. So, four weeks later, here we finally are – back in Sydney for a week (and with more time than we’d originally planned).
The Opal Card
For anyone planning to spend some time in Sydney, we would definitely recommend making good use of the Opal Card, a fantastic smartcard that gives you easy (and inexpensive) access to all of the city’s public transit lines – trains, busses, and ferries. For our one day in Sydney before flying to Lord Howe, we rented a car, thinking it would be the most convenient option. In the words of one wise green monster in a trash can, “Ding dong, you’re wrong.” Our total cost for one day including rental cost, gas, tolls, and parking came to $43USD. Additionally, Google Maps was not a useful tool in trying to navigate Sydney’s tangled road system. To clarify ‘not useful,’ I was convinced that Stephan’s head was going to explode off his neck on more than one occasion. In fact, I think that bulging vein on his left temple my still be dilated a month later.
After doing some investigating for our week in Sydney, we decided to forgo the rental vehicle, instead opting for the recently-introduced (fully rolled out just over a year ago), pre-pay Opal Card. Here are a few key details about using the Opal:
- A week of card use is defined as the period of Monday through Sunday.
- The card will ‘max out’ and stop charging you:
- after accrued charges of $60AUD over the one-week span.
- after a maximum of $15AUD charged per day.
- after reaching 8 total individual trips (trips are considered individual when separated by a span of at least one hour).
- on Sunday after a maximum of $2.50AUD is charged.
The card can also easily be topped off at a number of local businesses (transit stations, supermarkets, etc.) if the balance is low. If you learn how to finesse the system, though, balance shouldn’t be a problem. In our week in Sydney, we spent about $35USD ($50AUD) per person. After now becoming more familiar with the system, we probably could have lowered this cost even a bit further. Our tips for getting the most bang for your buck on the Opal:
- Try to get to the 8 trips first – that will likely be the cheapest & fastest way to reach the maximum weekly charge. For example, ride a city bus for one or two stops up the street and then don’t use the card again for at least one hour. The fare will cost a mere $1-2AUD, waste hardly any sightseeing time, and count as one individual trip.
- If you are going to/from the airport (and swipe your card at an airport turnstile), the cost is $13AUD. This was what hurt us when we arrived. A better suggestion is to walk 1 km up the street from the airport to the Mascot station to avoid the hugely-inflated fee (which is restricted to the two airport stations). A trip from Mascot will cost only a few bucks, like most other train rides into/out of the city.
- Be liberal with your card use on Sundays. The maximum you can be charged on a Sunday is $2.50AUD. We made Sunday our ferry day, and rode the 45-minute trip all the way out to Manly. We got great harbor views and got the $15AUD round-trip fare for only $2.50AUD… it was like a free harbor cruise!
We also put together a plan for what we thought could be the best Opal hack:
If Sunday was your first day, swipe the hell out of the card – and enjoy the ferries for basically nothing ($2.50AUD). Get to your 8 trips by Tuesday or Wednesday (super easy to do with a couple short bus hops). Enjoy the second half of the week riding around for free! The trains also go out to the Blue Mountains, so after you hit your maximum trips, enjoy a longer (and now free) ride to the scenic escarpments for a day hike. If you’re still around the following Sunday, your week is over but you’re back to the $2.50AUD maximum charge.
One thing to note is that money can only be added to the card in $10AUD increments, so start small, with maybe $20AUD. $10AUD likely won’t be sufficient to get you to the magic 8 trips, but $20AUD easily could, depending on your trip lengths (we stayed in a suburb about 16 km southwest of the city center). Check the fare table published online to most accurately calculate the projected expense. Remember, it’s easy to add more money at any time using the numerous machines throughout the city. And one added bonus: if you swipe on a bus/train but find you don’t have enough fare when you swipe off, it’s okay; the difference will just be deducted the next time you top off the card (if you are still using the card). If you do want to continue using the card, it is important return to a positive balance.
Overall, we loved the Opal – significantly cheaper than a rental and way less of a headache!
Bondi to Coogee Coastal Walk
Perched along waters of the Pacific, the eastern boundary of Sydney is lined with a number of small surf beaches. We decided to visit the beaches and enjoy the craggy coastline by taking the coastal walk that runs 6 kilometers from Bondi Beach to Coogee Beach. The walk only takes a couple of hours (unless you want to explore a bit more), and follows rocky outcroppings that descend to rolling azure waters, speckled with surfers. The walkway is a bit crowded in places, but it does make for a scenic afternoon beyond all the buildings and bustling sidewalks of downtown.
A must-do on just about everyone’s Australia list, Sydney Harbour really is a pretty spectacular place. Even though it is crammed with people at just about every hour of the day, it is definitely worth exploring. The Sydney Harbour Bridge is an impressive structure, and has been towering over the harbor since it’s completion in 1932. Nearby, the distinctive, white domes of the Sydney Opera House shimmer in the bright sunshine. There are a number of walking paths and green spaces winding around the water, and each offers a lovely perspective of what many consider to be the world’s most beautiful harbor.
We started at the neighboring botanical gardens and wandered around before descending a large, stone staircase to the opera house. A path running along the east side of the opera house leads to Mrs. Macquarie’s Chair, a scenic overlook providing a wonderful panorama of the bridge, opera house, and skyline of the central business district. In the heart of the harbor sits ‘The Rocks,’ historically serving as the site of the first penal facility for Sydney’s earliest convicts (sent from Europe in the late 1700s), but today offering a small greenspace and walking paths with another picturesque harbor view at the base of the imposing bridge.
To get an aerial view of the harbor, we strolled up to the bridge’s pedestrian walkway and also climbed up into the southeastern pylon (but only because the pylon entrance fee was waived with the purchase of our bridge climb tickets). If you’re not interested in climbing all the way to the top of the bridge’s iconic arch, the pylon provides a fairly reasonable view of the harbor.
And finally, because we didn’t think we had enough photographs of Sydney Harbour, we had to go back for an evening session. But really, what is a visit to Sydney without seeing the harbor at night, illuminated by the warm glow of the lamps around the perimeter of the opera house, with the bridge twinkling in the distance? Make a nighttime visit – it’s beautiful.
Museums & Restaurants
During our stay in the city, we ended up with a couple of mornings with some dreary weather in the forecast. We decided to make the most of the time, though, by visiting some of the free museums and a couple of tap houses, to scope out the local craft brew scene. Additionally, though we didn’t eat out regularly in an attempt to stretch the budget, we did stop some vegetarian restaurants so I could get a few delicious lunches while Stephan enjoyed his beer and burgers. If you are on a quest for some great vegan fare, check out Earth to Table (a little pricey but delicious), Ungaro Raw (great smoothies), Earth Food Store (amazing food at Bondi Beach), and Badde Manors (more great food in Sydney’s inner west).
A couple of the museums we selected were really because of location – it started raining and it was easy to duck inside for a bit. These included the Sydney Observatory and the Museum of Contemporary Art, both located right in the harbor district. The observatory was small, but contained a variety of old timepieces, navigation tools, and telescopes, including what is thought to be Australia’s oldest working telescope (from 1874). As for the art museum, I’m not going to lie – neither Stephan nor I are particularly interested in contemporary art. Frankly, I just don’t understand a few sticks glued to the floor in a checkerboard pattern, a collage of plastic housewares-turned-lamps, or a huge sheet of metallic mylar hanging in front of a fan, left to crinkle in the breeze. I am sure that there is meaning hidden somewhere in the works, but I guess I just don’t have the appreciation for the form that some do.
One gallery that we were both particularly taken with, though, was the Nicholson Museum at the University of Sydney – our one planned rainy-day venue. Housed in one of the buildings of the university’s gorgeous historic quadrangle (constructed from 1855–1862), the collection is made up of some 30,000 ancient Egyptian, Greek, Roman, and Cypriot artifacts. The galleries are beautifully displayed and organized, with small touch-screens that provide information about each individual piece. Some of the relics I found most fascinating were the Etruscan crematory urns from the 2nd century B.C., and the Roman funerary stones (1st – 5th century A.D.). The bottoms of the urns were “mass produced” using artistic molds, while the lids were decidedly individualized, often sculpted with a portrait of the deceased. Similar in beauty, the inscriptions on the Roman stones were carved with incredible precision, and often by an immediate family member (many were engraved by fathers in memory of their children).
The Nicholson Museum is definitely worth a visit; not only are the artifacts exquisite representations of the ancient cultures, but the blending of the older university buildings with the more modern construction brings a unique character to the large campus.
We ended up dedicating one of our days in Sydney to the area just south of the city, checking out the southern tablelands and some of New South Wales’ more southern coastline. Several months ago, Stephan had chatted with a fellow amateur photographer from Sydney in one of his favorite photo forums about our Australian trip. Eager to show us around some of his favorite spots, Lance generously picked us up from our townhouse in the ‘burbs and took us out for some birding and sightseeing. Unfortunately, some unanticipated rain washed out our birdwatching in the Barren Grounds Nature Reserve (a spot that would have been gorgeous in the sunshine). Instead, we forged onward to Kiama, a quaint, seaside town about 75 miles south of Sydney. The weather had improved a bit, and we went for a short stroll around the lighthouse, craggy cliffs, and blowhole, which shot powerful blasts of water skyward with each crashing wave.