Visiting Sydney: 24 Amazing Experiences
Updated: May 18
A travel diary of the incredible three weeks I spent in Sydney as a student and first-time visitor in Australia.
Australia had been my dream destination ever since I was a child, so you can imagine my excitement on the day when I found out that I had been chosen for a short, three-week study exchange Down Under. Just a few years ago, I was a fourth-year Political Science student at New York University Abu Dhabi, and I was blessed with the incredible opportunity to take a course about Aboriginal Art and Culture in Sydney. This post is a recollection of how I made the most of my three weeks there and what I would recommend other travellers to do, once they have landed their possibly longest ever flight and recovered from jet-lag.
1. I arrived to Sydney on the first week of a January, and my initial days were spent trying to get adjusted to the different time zone and weather. I flew from gloomy and wintery Budapest to sunny and summery Sydney via Dubai, and it took me around 30 hours to complete my journey. While this may sound incredibly long, flying with a layover on an Emirates flight made it quite bearable, and the only real challenge for me were the last 4 hours of my 14-hour flight from Dubai to Sydney. At that point, I couldn't feel my limbs or my back anymore - but if you asked me if it was worth it, I would say, totally yes!
2. I started my visit of the city from the historical neighborhood of The Rocks. This is where NYU Sydney's building is located, so it was very convenient for me to begin exploring from there. What impressed me about this area were the cobblestoned laneways, the traditional pubs with many people sitting outside, and the heritage buildings contrasting with the tall skyscrapers right in the background.
3. While exploring the corners of The Rocks, I noticed the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia. Though I wanted to take advantage of the Australian summer and be outdoors as much as possible, being a fan of contemporary and digital art, I couldn't resist stopping there to witness Swiss artist Pipilotti Rist's 'Sip my Ocean' exhibition. I was amazed by the immersive, almost dream-like environment.
4. Continuing my walk from The Rocks to the Circular Quay, I quickly found myself admiring the Harbour Bridge and the Sydney Opera House. On the way there, I stopped for my first of many avocado toasts, which became in no time my favourite go-to meal for lunch after my lectures in the morning.
5. Speaking about the Sydney Opera House, my 21st birthday happened to coincide with my time in Sydney, so even though at that point I was still a student on a budget, I decided to gift myself with a ticket to a show at the Opera House. I ended up watching Green Day's American Idiot with a friend on the night before my birthday. This was an amazing musical featuring Green Day's most famous songs. It was such a great way to celebrate my upcoming birthday, and totally worth the pricy tickets.
6. And, on the day of my actual birthday, our Professor at NYU Sydney organised a trip for us at the Blue Mountains National Park. Having gotten home super late after the show and some birthday drinks the night before, waking up at 6:30 am to go for a day-long hike wasn't exactly fun in the morning... let alone forgetting to take some allergy pills with me while knowing exactly that I was going to spend my entire day hiking in the nature, among bushes and trees. While the first half of the day was tough, once we made it to the top of the hike, the views were stunning. At that point, neither the exhaustion nor the allergy seemed to matter any more. Our guide had us sit down for a while and do a mindfulness meditation and breathing exercise. It reminded me to appreciate the present moment and nature around me, and the incredible blessing of being able to experience my dream destination at such an early stage in my life.
7. I already mentioned that the official reason for my visit to Sydney was my University class on Aboriginal Art and Culture. Up until the point that I took this course, I had no idea about the cultural heritage and wealth of paintings produced by the Pintupi, some of the most traditional people in Australia. I would highly recommend visiting the Art Gallery of New South Wales and the Australian Museum to learn more about this topic, and in particular within the Art Gallery of New South Wales, the Yiribana Gallery which is home to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Collection.
8. Nearby the Art Gallery of New South Wales, the Royal Botanic Gardens became another of my favorite spots to read books and relax after my classes. Beyond the lovely view on the Opera House, within these Gardens you can admire the myriad plants and flowers at the Fernery and the Rose Garden & Pavilion.
9. Speaking about gardens, another oasis of tranquillity that impressed me in Sydney was the Chinese Garden of Friendship, which provides insight into the Chinese culture through a traditional teahouse, and a garden with meany lakes and waterfalls. What mesmerised me the most about this place were the (huge!) friendly lizards running freely across the park. I had never seen so many of them, so close to me.
10. Not far from the Chinese Garden of Friendship, another place where I went for many evening walks was the Darling Harbour, a bustling waterfront area with plenty of trendy cafés. One of my favorite meals in Sydney was actually a seafood platter that I ordered at Adria, a restaurant there with a great view.
11. On my way from the Darling Harbour to The Rocks for my lectures, I would often cross the Central Business District and pass by the Queen Victoria Building, a Romanesque-style building that is home to many stores and totally worth checking out for its splendid, heritage-listed architecture.
12. And, just a few minutes away from the Queen Victoria Building, another attraction that I really enjoyed visiting was the Sydney Tower Eye, a landmark building which has an observation deck and an outdoor viewing platform with a breathtaking 360-degree view of the city. It's the tallest building in Sydney and chances are, you won't get a better panoramic shot of this stunning city from anywhere else.
13. Within the same area, I would also recommend checking out Hyde Park, a 16-hectare heritage-listed park located right within the heart of the vibrant Central Business District. You will see people having picnics on the green grass or exercising here, as it's a great place to take a break and breathe some fresh air (even though you're literally surrounded by the urban jungle of skyscrapers and people rushing to work).
14. Another excellent spot for a walk among grassy areas and leafy trees, with the bonus of a scenic waterfront view, is the Barangaroo Reserve, located on the edge of the Central Business District and featuring some of the best views of the Harbour Bridge I could capture. I would definitely recommend spending some time walking around this park and participating in the Aboriginal Culture Tour, a walking tour of the area thanks to which I learned more about the native history of the Sydney Harbour.
15. If I was to pick my favourite experience during my three weeks in Sydney, it'd be very hard to choose just one, but I would probably say it was the iconic 6-km coastal walk from Bondi Beach to Cogee Beach. This cliff-top urban coastal walk features some of the most incredible views of beaches, cliffs, rocks, and infinity pools above the sea that I have ever seen. Here are some of my favourite shots from Hunter Park, on the way from Bondi towards Tamarama Beach and Bronte Beach.
16. On the coastal walk from Bondi to Cogee, I would definitely recommend stopping for a drink at the Bondi Icebergs Club bistro. Chances are that your food or drink will be overpriced and not the highest quality you'll find in Sydney, but you will get the best views of their infinity pool which are 100% worth it.
17. This may come across as somewhat stereotypical - but I couldn't have possibly left Sydney without petting a baby kangaroo and seeing a koala (I had never seen either of these furry companions in real life). For this, I chose to visit the Featherdale Wildlife Park, which is about 1.5 hours away from the city by public transport. This was one of my favorite outdoors experiences in Sydney, and I finally got to tick off another item from my Australia bucket list - feeding a kangaroo (while getting super sweaty and sunburnt in the humid summer weather, to give you the least fancy side of it too).
18. Another visit that was organised by my NYU Sydney Professor, but definitely worth mentioning here, is the hike we did as a class at the Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park. This is a protected area north of Sydney which is famous for its bushland and numerous Aboriginal sites, such as rock engravings and ancient rock paintings made with red ochre. Besides the hike being a beautiful natural walk on the coastline, this is another great way to learn more about the Aboriginal art and culture in Australia.
19. You probably know by now that I really enjoy the sea and being as close to it as much as I can. A great way to do a boat-trip in Sydney and get some spectacular views of the Harbour is to take the ferry from the Circular Quay to Manly Wharf. This is the most scenic and convenient way to get to Manly beach too.
20. If you're passionate about hipster and unique coffee shops/eateries, I would very highly suggest visiting The Grounds of Alexandria, which is halfway between the city center of Sydney and the Airport. This used to be a pie factory converted to a coffee shop/bakery/restaurant. You can experience dining among the original brick walls and their organic plant garden where you can also admire a (real) parrot. Sounds cool, right? It was. Besides the vibe of the place, their smoothies and buttermilk pancakes were divine too.
Some final thoughts...
21. It's rare to be able to say that a trip was just perfect, but this was one of the few ones where I would actually not have changed a single thing. It was incredible just as it was and a dream come true. There are two minor things, however, that I would perhaps warn others to be careful with in Sydney.
22. Please make sure you do not get ripped off by scam cabs at the airport. This is a mistake I made - accepting to cab from the airport to my accommodation in Haymarket with a black taxi which was supposed to cost "as much as regular cabs", and of course it ended up being a trap. After being awake for 30+ hours, I frankly just wanted to get some rest and didn't overthink it too much, however, being wiser now, I reckon that I could have saved a bit by being less naïve and taking a regular, no-scam cab.
23. Another simple piece of wisdom: when visiting Sydney in January, make sure to always have a tiny umbrella with you, as sudden, quick showers are common - they will hit you by surprise, so 'be prepared'.
24. Finally, if you're on a budget, which was the case for me as a student back then - the Chinatown area at at Haymarket has some great noodle places which were both tasty and not ridiculously expensive. Also, we would often grab some fresh fruits at Paddy's market, which can be another hack to save as a student.
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