Sydney is a magical city, made up of a series of harbours linked by silky blue ribbons of sea. With a great food scene, abundant cultural hotspots and a classic Aussie laid-back vibe, it’s a city break unlike any you’ll have had before. Katie Thomson heads down under.
Australia is a sort of bewitching cousin to most of us Brits; in looks and lexicon we are strikingly similar (minus the tans and healthy physiques), but that is where the similarities come to an abrupt halt. Australia is decidedly bigger, bolder and more bronzed, a vast country with three time zones, its own microclimates, killer animals both great and small and the cultural phenomenon that is Barbie and beer time. In a sense, we are two nations, divided by a common language. Australia’s major cities are very familiar to us, with Sydney’s iconic harbour views taking the top spot – so much in fact, that many incorrectly assume it is the capital city.
It certainly has all the makings of a capital: iconic architecture, a bustling business district, a vibrant and eclectic food scene and stunning botanical gardens. What sets it apart though is that incredible Aussie lifestyle of sun and sport right in the heart of city life with easy access to the sand and sea. Bondi Beach is perhaps its most famous sandy stretch, which offers amazing views and the chance to dip in the iconic Bondi Baths. Sydney’s coastline features a series of outdoor pools offering a unique swimming experience surrounded by ocean and sky and the Bondi Baths have been a landmark of the beach for over 100 years.
Whilst I do love a great hike or swim, which Sydney offers in abundance, owing to myself and my partner’s glutinous inclination, most city trips we head on revolve around eating so naturally that’s the first thing we research on any trip. Once again, Sydney is certainly no slouch in the food department and the choice was more about prioritising the places we didn’t want to miss. On the first morning of our trip, we headed out of our hotel and down to the station to navigate the metro system with our newly purchased Opal cards, which are the equivalent of the London Oyster.
We were headed for the original Bills restaurant in Darlingshurst. This is where the enigmatic chef, writer and presenter started to create his unique Aussie fusion cooking style as this was the first café in what has now become a worldwide franchise. When it opened in 1992 local by-laws meant that the number of seats they were allowed were limited, so the communal dining table was born and has now become a much-copied aspect of many cafes. We enjoyed a great brunch there of ricotta hot cakes with banana and honeycomb butter and gravlax with avocado, kale and poached eggs. It was a great nutritious start for our busy day of sightseeing and luggage chasing (our luggage at this point was enjoying its own holiday in Auckland – a lesson was learnt about always carrying a toothbrush and a clean pair of undies).
After that we strolled past the lovely Hyde Park to Kings Cross station to head down to Circular Quay. From my time living in Venice, I’ve learn that a great way to get to grips with the geography of a harbour city is to get out on the water – this is also where you can find some of the best views without jostling for viewing space! From the Circular Quay we were able to board a ferry to Darling Harbour, allowing us some great views of the Opera House and Harbour Bridge on the way. Darling Harbour has a real buzz to it, with waterside restaurants spilling out onto the pavements and great decorations celebrating Mardigras.
Darling Harbour is the place to go for all the major attractions in the city and is very family orientated. It is home of the IMAX Theatre, Madame Tussauds, the Aquarium and the Wildlife Sydney Zoo. It is a tourist centre, but it is a really lovely place to just while away some time even if you aren’t heading to the big attractions. If you find yourself in Sydney on a Saturday night from October – February, head to Darling Harbour for a stunning firework display, reflecting dazzlingly on the water below.
You may choose to eat in one of the restaurants in the Harbour, but like many tourist traps, you will find that the prices are inflated and the choice is limited – and you’d really be missing out on what this city has to offer. Instead we headed toward Reservoir Street on Surry Hills to visit Sugarcane. The Surry Hills area is a real hotspot of culinary invention and diversity, with a range of restaurants for every taste and budget. Sugarcane, an Asian Fusion restaurant, is immediately welcoming, with communal tables and low lighting creating a soft buzz, even on a cold and windy Monday night. The exposed brick walls are decorated with Thai street art and from the ceiling many silk bags embroidered with elephants are suspended creating a cosy feel. The food was just how I like it – lots of little intriguing plates which excited the tastebuds and left us guessing about just how they created such complex flavours. Standout dishes were the tortilla crisp with crab, apple and mint, a wonderful crispy pork coleslaw and delicious Malaysian roti with curry sauce. It was an excellent meal and I would have eaten there again had we had the time. After that we retired to our hotel, the Meriton Serviced Apartments in Zetland (www.meritonapartments.com.au/sydney/zetland), as we had an exciting day planned.
Being nature lovers at heart, and wanting to see a bit more of the rugged scenery we knew Australia was famous for, we had an early start as we headed a few hours out of the city to experience the wonderful Blue Mountains. After a fairly overcast day the day before, we were really pleased to see the forecast had improved, meaning we would have great visibility – vital for taking in the expansiveness of the scenery. Our guide was unusually perky for the time of day and before long he had us geared up for some serious sightseeing.
Before heading out of town we were shown some of the lovely sandstone buildings, all with the inevitable caption from our tour guide “this here, beautiful…built by convicts”! Sydney is full of historical buildings and getting to see a side of it we ordinarily wouldn’t was really special. The United Kingdom had for a long time been sending its convicts across the Atlantic to the American colonies. That trade was ended with the Declaration of Independence by the United States in 1776. Overrun with prisoners, Britain decided in 1786 to found a new penal outpost in the territory discovered by Cook some 16 years earlier. The colony was at first to be titled “New Albion”, but Captain Arthur Phillip, the man charged with establishing the new colony, decided on “Sydney” in recognition of Thomas Townshend, Lord Sydney and his role in authorising the establishment of the settlement. During the Mid-19th Century, when the convict transportation ended, the city has transformed from a colonial outpost into a major global cultural and economic centre that we recognise today.
I can’t tell you much about the rest of journey as I was snoozing away but in no time (in actuality about 2 hours) we had arrived at the cable car that would take us across the valley with a beautiful view of the famous Three Sisters rock formations. We were suspended about 200 metres above the forest floor, meaning we could see wild cockatiels flying beneath the suspended car.
This part of our trip was when we began to get a better understanding of Aboriginal culture. Unlike New Zealand, where the relationship between the indigenous people and those of European decent is more harmonious, there is historical tension that modern Australian’s are still trying to dissipate and may wrongs they are trying to right. The Three Sisters are a part of this Aboriginal culture, and their myth enthralls visitors. The legend goes that three sisters, Meenhi, Wimlah and Gunnedoowere turned to stone by their witch doctor father Tyawan to try and save them from the terrifying mountain beast ‘the Bunyip’. After he changed them, Tyawan found himself cornered by the Bunyip, forcing him to turn himself into a Lyre Bird. Everyone was safe, but Tywan has dropped his magic bone, the source of his power. The Three Sisters stand silently watching him from their ledge, hoping he will find the bone to turn them back to Aboriginal girls. As you look at the Three Sisters, you can hear Tyawan the Lyre Bird calling his daughters as his search for the lost bone continues.
This magical story only adds to the amazing sense of mystic surrounding these mesmerizing mountains. After riding the cable car, we headed deeper into the forest. The mountains and valleys themselves are actually coated with rainforest – the name Blue Mountains deriving from the blue haze that rises from the gumtrees as they warm up from the sun. The effect is stunning, as was our view spanning 120 kilometres into the horizon. Here we were able to understand the vastness that Australia is known for, its unconquerable wilderness. After the cable car we were able to ride the steepest downhill train (52 degree angle if that means anything to anyone!) for a tour of the mining shafts and tunnels that cover over 100km in the valley.
We then headed to the Featherdale Wildlife Park, giving us a chance to get up close to some of Australia’s most iconic animal residents. As well as seeing a nursery of koala (who’s name interestingly comes from the Aboriginal name for them which means ‘no water’ as they get all their liquid from gum leaves), we were able to feed kangaroos and wallabies, see rare birds like the Cassowary, catch glimpses of snoozing wombats, watch the Tasmanian Devil make its tracks around its enclosure, come close to a three metre saltwater croc and see the wonderful echidna hobble around its pen. After learning so much about the flora and fauna of New Zealand it was really lovely to learn about Australian conservation efforts and see some of these famous inhabitants.
After our wildlife encounters, we were driven down to the docks (via the impressive Olympic Park) so we could take a ferry back to Circular Quay. We headed through the waters until Sydney’s famous skyline was visible. Because of time, we weren’t able to attempt the famous Harbour Bridge climb, so it was a treat to be ferried underneath it for a unique view.
Our foodie appreciation of Sydney ended with a meal at Sagra, an Italian restaurant in Darlinghurst. We knew it was going to be good because there was a queue out the door and the portions were just on the boarder of pretentiously small (don’t come too hungry but expect dazzling flavours). The menu is a small one, with a handful of starters, mains and desserts. We opted for the grilled sardines with raisins and almonds, ox heart tomato salad with goat curd, ricotta filled tortellini and pappardelle with chicken liver. The standout dish was the tomato and goat curd salad – it tasted extraordinary, like tomato flavour distilled to its most heady summer flavour, complimented by salty-sharp cheese and metallic basil. We finished off with the tiniest but most delicious cheese board and walked back to our hotel to pack for the next leg of the journey to the USA.
If you want to visit a place where you can access all that we know and love about Australian culture – the great food, weather, lifestyle and natural beauty, you’d be hard pressed to find somewhere that encompasses it all as well as Sydney. With something to offer every kind of traveller, it’s a stop not to be missed on any Australian adventure.
Words and a selction of images from Katie Thomson