31 December is probably one of the most exciting nights of the year to be in the Sydney city centre (if you are not claustrophobic, don’t mind the noise and long waits for a drink and aren’t relying on a taxi to get you home). I will be spending New Year’s Eve in diametrically opposite circumstances – on a farm with a few friends. Christmas was much the same (although with more family angst … I will report on that soon, once I have a bit more space and perspective). It’s going to be great, although I do half wistfully wonder what New Year’s in Sydney would be like.
I was in Sydney recently for a work conference. The conference fell on a Wednesday and Thursday, so I took the Friday off and spent Friday and Saturday exploring Sydney before coming home on Sunday. Boy Robin joined me in Sydney on Thursday night, making for a lovely extended weekend getaway for the two of us before the Christmas craziness (a packed social calendar, family drama and what sometimes feels like bending over backwards to satisfy the etiquette surrounding gift-giving) descended.
Given it was only a short trip, we only had the time to have the briefest of tastes of what Sydney has to offer. Below is what I thought were the top 5 things to do in Sydney if you’re on a tight budget (time wise and money wise).
1. “Free” Walking Tour of Sydney Sights
This 3 hour whirlwind tour of Sydney takes you through Sydney’s journey from its early convict colony days to its present form of a bustling metropolis, known the world over for its iconic Opera House and Bridge. The guide is a Sydney enthusiast, who provides an engaging take on Sydney’s history, stopping at all the well known landmarks, as well as lesser known points of interest. Also covered were things to see and do in Sydney, especially free / inexpensive suggestions of things to do while in Sydney. At the end of the tour, you pay what you think what the tour was worth. They do not mind if you’re a cash-strapped backpacker and can only afford some loose change, although it’s appreciated if you can pay what you truly think it was worth (and think it was worth a bit of folding). It’s a brilliant way to start a stay in Sydney and help you find your bearings.
2. A drink at the O Bar
Don’t bother with the overpriced Sydney Tower – you can get a stunning view of Sydney from the O Bar. Boy Robin and I sipped our drinks (a beer and a cocktail respectively) while we sat in the revolving bar on the 47th floor for over an hour and soaked up 365 degree views of the city and beyond. What better way to get out of the rain and rest your feet after a day of intrepid exploring? Although I am quite partial to a cocktail, I hear that you don’t have to go the alcoholic route or meet a spend limit – there are no bans on sipping on an orange juice instead.
3. Ice-cream at Gelato Messina
Ohhh … this place was a little scoop of heaven when looking for dessert on a balmy Friday night. Repeatedly cited by the likes of Trip Advisor submissions and various print and electronic media as one of the top place to get your ice-cream fix in Sydney, Gelato Messina lived up to the hype. Sure, its Surrey Hills store is a humble little hole in the wall with minimal seating, but the ice-cream case was big and the flavours rich in taste and variety. While I wasn’t adventurous enough to try any of their more out there flavours (such as the special on the blackboard with combined, among other things, chocolate and potato chips), their salted caramel was delicious. Just beware of the line. We arrived in time to be served with 10 minutes, but when we left, the line was out the door and up the side walk.
4. The Overseas Passenger Terminal
The Overseas Passenger Terminal is located in the Rocks, right on Circular Quay. It was the final stop on our walking tour, but we revisited it during our stay. It gives you spectacular views of both the Sydney Opera House and the Sydney Harbour Bridge, without the crowds and people unthinkingly walking in front of your camera.
5. Walk through the Botanic Gardens
Sunday was our last day in Sydney and we had a couple of hours in the morning to kill before heading to the airport. I am so glad we decided to spend that time walking through the Botanic Gardens. Granted, it was a beautiful day and not much can spoil a day like that. After spending a few days in the city, it was nice to feel grass under one’s feet and breathe in the natural beauty. If we had more time, a picnic would have been the perfect way to balance the hustle of the CBD.
- The Swarovski Christmas Tree in the Queen Victoria Building was stunning and jump started feelings of Christmas cheer which were already bubbling below the surface. It reminded me of the Christmas Boy Robin, my now brother-in-law and I spent in Switzerland. The QVB is also beautiful in its own right.
- The David Jones’ Christmas window display added to the Christmas cheer. I grew up in regional Western Australia, but my mother’s extended family lived in Melbourne. One of the trade-offs of living in the middle of nowhere for most of the year was that we went to Melbourne (and to Adelaide to visit my father’s extended family) most Easter and Christmas holidays. The David Jones’ Christmas windows brought back memories of standing for what felt like hours in line in the Melbourne CBD with my grandmother, before standing in awe of the beautiful windows, while my mother whizzed around, buying Christmas presents and probably soaking up her dose of civilisation, to be stored and savoured over the coming year.
- The Rocks is a really vibrant area of Sydney. I wish we had spent more time there. I have sneaking suspicion that if we had, this would be a “Top 6” list instead. Don’t make the same mistake I did – spend time there, or better yet, do the Rocks at 6 Tour, run by the same people who do the three-hour walking tour above.
- Being able to catch the train to the airport. Quick, easy and inexpensive. Enough said.