There are tons of memorable spots in Australia’s most populous city: Bondi and Manly Beaches, the amazing Sydney Harbor and Opera House, the eminently walkable George St., Featherdale Wildlife Park
Walking in the shadows of downtown Sydney’s skyscrapers, it’s almost impossible to find a trash can on the streets. It’s even harder to find any trash.
Manhattan without trash cans would be littered with, well, litter. But the most populous city in Australia without trash cans is cleaner than probably any big city in America. The implication, maybe, is that Sydney’s 4 million-plus residents hold the same outlook that took about an hour to coalesce on a recent visit: this city is best experienced in the clean outdoors.
Over five days, the most memorable moments came with the sun beating down on me: strolling leisurely down George St. from the Gowings Bar and Grill to the Sydney Opera House, rumbling down the unspoiled canyons of the Katoomba Valley by Jeep, or shredding the ample Australian coastline in the back of a convertible or motorcycle.
In a large city spread out over 4,700 square miles, there’s no shortage of potential starting places. Many will begin their journey near Sydney Harbor, where the skyscrapers of the financial district tower over the iconic Opera House. After one climb to the summit of the Sydney Harbor Bridge, you understand why: The Opera House gleams above the water. The babes of Bondi Beach, the surfing mecca of Manly Beach, and the Sydney Cricket Ground are all a short cab ride away. You might even be able to kill a week in town traveling entirely by foot from here, never drinking at the same bar or eating at the same restaurant twice.
Better yet, grab a camera and hail a motorcycle. George’s Cameras (on George St., a walkable downtown thoroughfare) will rent you one. With a camera in tow, you can explore Sydney for anywhere from 45 minutes to four hours on the back of a rumbling Harley Davidson via Troll Tours. The chauffeured ride is unlike any other on the planet. A biker/driver will pick you up in front of your hotel, hand you a helmet and leather jacket, and rumble out on the town. The moment of departure is enough to make anyone hailing a taxi jealous. Since there’s only one passenger per trip, the tour is flexible. Stop, smell the roses, and take a picture when the moment demands.
One tour route swings past Manly Beach, home to some of the world’s premier surfing contests. The other local must-see sporting venue, Moore Park, is home to two increasingly versatile arenas. Built in 1848, the Sydney Cricket Ground became the oldest park to host a Major League Baseball game when the Los Angeles Dodgers and Arizona Diamondbacks visited in March 2014. The newer Sydney Football Stadium regularly hosts rugby and soccer matches.
To get a sense for Sydney’s breadth without wearing a motorcycle helmet, hit up My Sydney Detour for a guided urban adventure. Richard, the intrepid host, shuttles his wonderfully preserved 1964 Holden sedan from Bondi Beach around some of the city’s lesser-known treasures. On a first visit Down Under, this is the best way to get a sense for Sydney’s distinct neighborhoods. The highlight: getting out and walking a lush nature trail around a secluded public beach. Richard has an insider’s insight, including the best places to stop for coffee and grub. His combination of charm and knowledge makes the ordinary captivating.
When dining downtown, check out the Gowings Bar and Grill, located in the ultra-hip QT Hotel. Succulent comfort dishes like Wiener Schnitzel and Mashed Peas fill a fun menu that’s not exotic but never boring. The international flavors extend to the cocktail list, where caipirinhas and pisco sours flow freely. The colorful setting swells with colorful people.
A slower-pulsed but equally delicious restaurant just up the street is Mr. Wong: Dim sum by morning, dinner and drinks by night, set in a spacious, refreshed 1890s warehouse.
The Establishment, a well-appointed 31-room boutique hotel, is Mr. Wong’s upstairs neighbor in the historic building. Clean and modern with just a touch of rustic charm, there’s something essentially Australian about the Establishment and its location . The original British colony in Australia was founded a few blocks away at Sydney Harbor, where a ship full of prisoners landed in 1788.
Space at the Establishment is limited, so you might choose to stay across George St. at the Four Seasons. The local installment of the international chain is tall and thoroughly modern. Taking in the 270-degree view of Sydney from the Executive Lounge while sipping a Victoria Bitter, the preferred local beer, is a breathtaking experience. It’s also a nice warm-up to one of the many outdoor concerts at the Sydney Opera House — a 10-minute walk from the Four Seasons, past the historic district known as The Rocks.
Willie, who guides an aboriginal-themed tour of the Harbor, explains that the nickname stems from the fact that Sydney’s old brick buildings were made from the natural sandstone that abounds in the area. After a few quick street lessons in geology and botany, we stopped at the Spirit Gallery, a museum where boomerangs and other aboriginal art paint a picture of pre-colonial Australia.
For a better idea of the island’s natural diversity, head west. Traversing the entire Outback by bus or car takes days. However, within two hours of Sydney Harbor, you’ll find the CliffsNotes version of pastoral Australia: Mobs of wild kangaroos, a pettable koala, and a World Heritage-listed rai nforest.
Featherdale Wildlife Park offers a quaint, yet impressive alternative to the sprawling, urban Taronga Zoo. Tucked into a residential neighborhood on Sydney’s west side, it’s home to 2,200 animals and Australia’s largest native bird collection. Pet the koala, then observe an inland taipan, whose venom is the most potent of any snake on Earth.
Further west of Featherdale lie the Blue Mountains, a rolling grand canyon dominated by sandstone outcroppings and temperate rainforest. Its name, given on account of its color through a distant haze, is deceptive. The floor of the canyon is mostly green. For a quick-yet-satisfying Blue Mountains experience, ride the world’s steepest rail line down into the Katoomba Valley at Scenic World. Part theme park, part rainforest expedition, Scenic World features trails extending for 10-, 30- and 60-minute hikes around a small pocket of the Valley.
The rustic Lilianfels Resort and Spa sits at the edge of the Valley — almost literally — which makes it an ideal destination for an overnight stay.
Blue Mountains National Park is home to 2,300 miles of trail. Only 300 miles are marked and maintained, and Tim Tranter knows seems to know all of them. Tim leads guided tours of the valley floor, by SUV and by foot, from early in the morning (with fresh-brewed coffee) to late at night (with astronomy lessons). Once he found a prehistoric skeleton, albeit not while leading a tour. Another time he took a group of Catholic cardinals for a spin in the canyon. Tim said they were pleasantly eager to see the same species of finch that Charles Darwin observed here in the 19th century.
When Darwin visited Australia, he reached some profound conclusions that reverberated through history. You might not, but that’s OK. Go outside, explore a little, and be sure to throw away your trash first.
If you go…
Getting there: Qantas Airlines operates one-stop flights from LaGuardia to Sydney beginning at $867 one-way. qantas.com
Hotels: – Rooms at the Establishment (5 Bridge Lane) begin at $ 291 per night for the suites, $ 834 per night for the Penthouse. merivale.com.au
– Rooms at the Four Seasons, Sydney (199 George St.) begin at $ 274 per night for a deluxe city view room. fourseasons.com/Sydney
– Sydney BridgeClimb offers guided tours seven days a week, day and night, beginning at $118. bridgeclimb.com
– Troll Tours offers eight different guided tours of Sydney, beginning at $79 for a 45-minute tour. trolltours.com.au
– My Sydney Detour offers three-hour tours of the city beginning at $277. mysydneydetour.com
– The Spirit Gallery (Shop 8, The Rocks Centre, Argyle St.) is open seven days a week from 9:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. spiritgallery.com.au
– Admission to Featherdale Wildlife Park (217 Kildare Rd.) is $23 for adults and $13 for children 15 and younger. The park is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. featherdale.com.au
– Blue Mountains Limousine offers transportation for up to six passengers anywhere within Sydney. bluemountains.com.au
Hotel: Rooms at Lilianfels Resort and Spa (5-19 Lilianfels Ave., Katoomba NSW) begin at $150 per night for a Deluxe Resort View room. lilianfels.com.au
Tour: Tread Lightly eco tours offers 14 different guided tours of the Blue Mountains World Heritage region starting at $230. treadlightly.com.au.