Sydney is a beautiful city with a lot to do. Luckily we had a great tour guide, Jon’s cousin Marilynn, who was studying abroad.
Day 1 – Wednesday, March 25, 2015
It was rush hour when we arrived in Sydney. The traffic wasn’t as bad as DC’s, but it was about the worst we’d driven in during our travels abroad. We slowly made our way to our hostel and checked in. Parking was a big concern of ours, but the hostel provided us with a print out of four options, one of which was free street parking a mile away from the hostel. We dropped our bags, took the parking map, and drove to visit Jon’s cousin Marilynn who is currently studying in Sydney.
Marilynn lives in Newtown near the University of Sydney. We found her apartment easily and she took us to a Thai restaurant, ThaiRiffic. We enjoyed the meal, but even better was catching up. In her 6 weeks in Sydney Marilynn had done a lot and knew about all of the local sights, beaches, and parks. After eating we quickly stopped by her apartment and met her roommates. We made plans for the next few days and left her to her studies.
Back at the hostel, parking where they recommended was surprisingly easy and lots of spaces were available. Little things like that help put me at ease about a new place when we travel.
Day 2 – Thursday, March 26, 2015
We woke up in the hostel just a bit too late for Free Pancake Thursday. Apparently arriving 40 minutes after they start serving is too late. Jon had already spent some time on the roof deck having a coffee, calling home, and enjoying the views of the city skyline. We had decided to see the big Sydney attractions on our first day so we would have those done in case it rained later in the week, so we started walking towards the harbor.
The first place we came to was Hyde Park. Hyde Park was nice with sunny grass yards and shady, tree lined paths. In the park is the ANZAC War Memorial so we spent a few moments walking through it. We also had a nice view of St. Mary’s Cathedral from the park.
We walked through the park known as The Domain and into the Royal Botanic Gardens. Our goal was simple, to find good views of the harbor. Along the way we passed flowers, huge trees, a stage being erected for a theatrical performance, and a ‘wishing tree’ that you walk around three times and then three times backwards. We discussed whether “backwards” meant walking the other direction, or actually walking in reverse. Regardless of what was right, Jon convinced Alexis to walk in reverse three times around the tree.
At the end of the Royal Botanic Gardens is Mrs. Macquaries Point and a great a view of the iconic Sydney Opera House and the Harbor Bridge. After taking pictures we walked back across the gardens and towards the opera house. Along the way we passed ponds with eels, more huge trees, and specialty gardens.
At first we weren’t as impressed with the Sydney Opera House close up; the sails all seemed independent and the roof was ceramic tiles instead of some new age metal cladding. But, it started to grow on us. Up close you can see a pattern in the tile work that is continued throughout the entire building.
On the west side of the opera house is Circular Quay, the main ferry dock and a popular neighborhood. We were hoping to get something to eat there, but found it to be pricey. We continued to walk to the other side of Circular Quay to The Rocks neighborhood where we ate at The Rocks Cafe. We both agree that my steak sandwich was very good.
Next was the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA). The MCA is free to enter, has free wifi, and is a great place to spend some time out of the sun on a hot day. The temporary exhibit was about light and seemed small to me. Upstairs was a much larger gallery with pieces from the museum’s permanent collection which includes a few aboriginal works. In general, Jon and I were very impressed with the artwork, but it was a nice way to spend some time. On the fourth floor was a roof top cafe with a great view and a statue overlooking the harbor. At the time we visited though, a large cruise shop was docked in the harbor and blocked some of the view, including the opera house.
The Lonely Planet guidebook had a self-guided walking tour of The Rocks, so that is how we ended our day out sight seeing. The Rocks is the historic port town of Sydney. We did the walking tour in reverse and were taken past Cadman’s Cottage, up and down small laneways, and to the Big Dig. The Big Dig is an area where archeological excavations took place to uncover the original European streets and buildings in the area. Some new buildings have been erected above the dig sites, literally above the sites so that they are available for public viewing.
Walking around Sydney was very nice. We had a perfect 80 degree, sunny day. The streets were clean and lots of people were out enjoying the sun. For a city of its size and stature, Sydney seemed very friendly and open and not nearly as crowded as similar cities. On our way back to the hostel for a break, we happened to be near Marilynn’s returning ferry so we waited to surprise her and say ‘hi’ quickly and finalize our evening plans with her.
We met Marilynn again at Cooper’s Hotel in Newtown. Many bars and restaurants seem to be called ‘hotel’ even through they don’t provide accommodation from what I can tell. On Thursdays Newtown had a 2 for 1 dinner special which was great for us. We enjoyed their open air second floor and had a nice time catching up more.
Day 3 – Friday, March 27, 2015
One thing that we noticed early about Sydney is the incredible number of day trips that can be taken out of it. As soon as any Aussie heard we’d be in Sydney they’d suggest any one of a number of beaches, ferry routes, parks, and small towns that we should visit. On Friday we decided to visit the Blue Mountains National Park.
We checked out of our hostel and moved our bags to Marilynn’s apartment. While we were there she graciously cooked us a great breakfast of eggs, toast, and fruit. Then, we set off for the Blue Mountains. Unlike national parks at home, the Blue Mountains land seems to be cut up into different, non-joining areas. This allows for several small towns to be near park lands. We stopped first at Glenbrook to pick up a map and ask about hikes. The man working the front desk robotically took us through a list of the overlooks close to the highway and circled them on a map. Then we asked about hikes and he recommended two, the National Pass and one near the town Blackheath. He told us the National Pass was one of the top 10 hikes in Australia and we should do that.
We left the visitor’s center and drove along the Great Western Highway past several more towns to Wentworth Falls. Wentworth Falls was the site of the first few recommended overlooks, but also of the National Pass Hike. We found the town to be very small, but did manage to find a convenience store where we could get some granola bars for our hike. A map of the hike showed that it would pass the recommended overlooks, so we skipped those for the time being and drove to the Conversation Hut where the trailhead was located.
The National Pass hike turned out to be fabulous and we owe the man who recommended it a huge ‘thank you’. The trail starts by dropping steeply down rocky steps and we could hear running water. Eventually we had one distance glimpse of Empress Falls. We couldn’t see much, which is why the waterfall was a beautiful surprise when we finally reached it. For the next mile, the trail wound around mossy overhangs and walls running with water. The trail was beautifully carved with stepping stones through the watery areas. After a short uphill climb we reached the start of the National Pass. The National Pass is a thin trail which runs along the length of a canyon-like wall about half way up the wall where a layer of red clay made vegetation possible. It was like being on a shelf with shear cliffs rising 100 feet above you and dropping 100 feet below you. At the end of the hike you arrive at Wentworth Falls. Wentworth Falls is a waterfall with a few levels and is a popular view point for people to drive to even if they aren’t hiking.
To complete our hike and get back to our car, there were a few options. The Shortcut Track might have been the quickest route, but we were having a good time and thought the views from the Overcliff Track would be better so we took the long route to the car.
We got back on the Great Western Highway and drove to Katoomba. Katoomba is home to the Blue Mountains’ most popular attraction, the Three Sisters rock formation. We drove straight to the viewpoint at Echo Point to see the Sisters. Afterwards we wanted to grab a bite to eat, but found most of the cafes in Katoomba close their kitchens at 3pm. We had been told to continue on the Great Western Highway to Blackheath and Mt Tomah, but it was late and we wanted to get back to Sydney and eat so we turned around.
Later that evening we went to the Surry Hill neighborhood for dinner. We spent a few minutes walking around and then ate pizza, pasta, and wine at Franco Franco, an Italian restaurant. After dinner we treated ourselves to gelato at Messina. Marilynn had heard of Messina and it is very popular in Sydney. The long line in front of it was proof of its popularity. We walked more around Surry Hill and finally made our way to George St. There were a lot of people out for the evening. We picked a less crowded bar and had a drink before going back to Marilynn’s.
Day 4 – Saturday, March 28, 2015
The morning started out slow. We ate breakfast at Marilynn’s as she talked with some friends about their plans for the day. Around noon we met up with three of her friends and drove to Milk Beach. Milk Beach is located on a peninsula in east Sydney and has views of the opera house and bridge. Milk Beach had just become popular with the study abroad group after one of their friends went cliff jumping from there.
Our GPS led us to a small park. We walked towards the water and found a few small beaches connected by walking paths. None of the rocks we could saw looked safe to jump off of, they all seemed to have more rocks under them. We spent a little time taking photos on one of the beaches before asking a local about the cliff jumping. He told us to follow the footpath all the way to the end of the peninsula. When we got closer we could hear shrieks of other kids jumping into the water. We found a rock that was about 20ft tall over green water. A group of young girls, probably 9-14, were jumping into the water. We arrived right as one of them started to struggle with what we later heard was asthma but which gave us second thoughts about jumping.
We watched where the girls were jumping a few times before trying it ourselves. Marilynn was the bravest of us and jumped off first with far less hesitation than anyone else. The rest of us followed suit. Standing on the edge of the cliff was scary and dark patches in the water worried me about rocks (however the girls told us it was seaweed). The jump itself and hitting the water weren’t bad at all, but the climb back up to the top was a bit difficult. Several people got small cuts from the barnacles on the rocks. Looking back from the water, it was easy to see that the rock was actually an overhanging ledge. Marilynn continued to jump off of the rock more times than the rest of us and took videos of the jump on her gopro.
Before leaving we walked to the other area the local had recommended to us, what he called the shark net. It was actually a park, Nelson, with a beach called Shark Beach. A net out into the water was there to prevent sharks from entering the swimming area.
That night Marilynn and some of the other study abroad kids had to attend a rugby game for an Australia cultural class they were taking. Jon and I decided to go along and buy tickets for the game too. We took the train and a bus to get to Allianz stadium where the game was being played. It was an Australian Rugby Union game of the New South Wales Waratahs verse the Auckland Blues. On the way the girls mentioned that they knew of other classmates who would not be at this game even though tickets are provided by the class. Luckily, there were extra tickets and the nice instructor let us have them. The tickets were excellent and we were in the second row. The game was lively and even through the attendance was not huge at 16,000 people, we heard that it was one of the better sporting events the class had been too.
After the game we went out in Surry Hills again. We headed to Button Bar which Marilynn had heard about, but it was crowded and expensive. It reminded me of a speakeasy with no sign on the door and an extensive cocktail menu. Instead we picked Keg & Brew, a quieter bar down the street that happened to have the best selection of craft beers on our trip so far.
Day 5 – Sunday, March 29, 2015
Sunday was our last full day in Sydney, so we decided we should check out the most popular beach, Bondi. Marilynn had recommended that if we go to Bondi we walk along the coastal trail to Coogee. We arrived in Bondi close to noon and spent another half hour looking for cheap parking. We found a few streets with 2 hour free parking, but we knew we’d be longer than that. We didn’t see any options besides paying the $7/hour rate to park at the beach.
Bondi was very lovely. It was crowded, but not nearly as crowded as I thought it might be. The water was mostly full of surfers instead of swimmers. We walked to the water briefly, but soon started south along the coastal trail. The walk follows the coast line past several small beaches for about 6km. There were a lot of stairs up and down a long the trail. Taking pictures, it took us almost 2 hours to walk the trail. One interesting spot was the Gordon’s Bay Underwater Nature Trail. We didn’t do it, but the Gordon’s Bay Underwater trail was a marked route to snorkel or scuba dive.
When we reached Coogee we were hungry and needed a break from the sun, so we had a late lunch of fish & chips. To get back to Bondi we took the 362 bus ($3.80/person). By the time we reached Bondi again we only had 20 minutes left on our parking meter. Jon wanted to get into the water at least once, so we went down to the beach while he took a quick dip. The waves were pretty big, and as Jon went in a particularly big wave went by. He, and another lady swimming, noticed a large shape riding in the wave, which seemed to be 10 feet long. We later learned that a seal had been hanging around the bay and playing in the waves for a while.
Sunday night we relaxed at Marilynn’s, did some laundry, had take-out from Alice’s Thai, and watched an Australian movie with Marilynn for one of her classes.
Day 6 – Monday, March 30, 2015
We awoke to a gloomy, rainy morning. It was back to classes for Marilynn and time for us to fly to our next stop in Australia, Cairns.
Scenic World (in the Blue Mountains) – in Katoomba, Scenic World is best known for their aerial cable car and incline which provide views of the three sisters.
Sydney Harbor Bridge Climb – Jon and I had really wanted to do the Sydney Harbor Bridge climb, where you scale the suspension cables of the bridge. Eventually we decided it was too much of an expenditure, especially after seeing how touristy it was and that photography wasn’t allowed. Maybe next time!
Sydney Harbor Bridge Pylon – If you aren’t up for the climb, but still want a view of the city from the bridge, you can enter the pylon (tower) and ride an elevator to the top.
Free walking tours of the harbor (10:30am and 2:30pm) and of The Rocks (6pm). No cost for the tour but you are expected to tip the guide. http://www.iamfree.com.au
View point of the city – We didn’t do it, but heard that the 14th floor of the Parliament House has a cafeteria with a great view of the city. Plus the judges occasionally wear their powdered wigs there.
Getting around: Sydney has an extensive train, ferry, and bus system. We took the train and found the process more confusing than in Bangkok and Singapore, but over all were happy with the experience. The trains themselves are very nice.