Australia

Sydney and Coogee Beach: Our Great Australian Adventure, Part 3

Sydney Opera House

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In the third segment of our Great Australian Adventure, we head to Sydney, New South Wales, and nearby Coogee Beach. If you missed them, catch up on part 1 about Cairns and the Great Barrier Reef and part 2 about the rainforest town of Kuranda in Queensland.

Logistics

Visa

U.S. citizens need to obtain an Electronic Travel Authority (ETA) visa to visit Australia. It’s a quick, painless process. Apply online (each person needs to apply separately) and pay a service charge of $20 AUD/person. We received the acceptance emails with our visas immediately. The ETA will allow a stay of up to three months. Citizens of other countries should check the list of eligible passports for the ETA under the Eligibility tab.

Another option for citizens of certain countries (but NOT citizens of the U.S.) is the eVisitor visa. The eVisitor visa is free and allows a stay of up to three months. Check the list of eligible passports to determine whether you are eligible to apply for this visa type; if not, you may have to apply for the ETA. The list of eligible passports does not include the U.S., so U.S. citizens must apply for the ETA.

If you plan to stay longer than three months (lucky you!), check the Australian Department of Home Affairs Visa List to find a visa that fits your needs.

Length of time

We spent about 3.5 days in Sydney and Coogee Beach, but we could’ve spent a lot more time in the area.

Flight from Cairns to Sydney

Note: for details on our international flights between Los Angeles, California and Australia, see our post about Cairns and the Great Barrier Reef.

After our time in Cairns, we flew budget airline Tiger Air to Sydney, a 3-hour direct flight. Be sure to check baggage weight restrictions in advance; what may be acceptable for the international flight to Australia may not jive with weight restrictions for domestic flights within Australia.

Sydney Opera House and Harbour Bridge
Sydney Opera House and Harbour Bridge

Daylight saving time

Although New South Wales (where Sydney is located) and Queensland (where Cairns and Kuranda are located) are both in the Australian Eastern time zone, New South Wales observes daylight saving time in the summer while Queensland does not. As such, between the first Sunday in October and the first Sunday in April there is a one-hour time difference between Cairns and Sydney. If you visit other Australian states during the summer, keep in mind observance of daylight saving time in addition to standard time zone differences.

Transportation

Rental car: We opted to not rent a car for the Sydney area. A car wasn’t necessary with Sydney’s extensive public transportation system and the availability of ride share services, such as Uber. We also didn’t want to mess with driving around a large city and paying for parking.

Ride share: Upon arrival in Sydney we took an Uber downtown to our hotel in the Potts Point/Kings Cross area. We could’ve taken the metro for about $12 USD/person, which may have required changing metro lines to end up at the station closest to our hotel. Instead, we opted for a $28 USD Uber out of convenience and ease. The few extra dollars were well spent, but, of course, Uber pricing can vary greatly. Had we experienced expensive surge pricing, we may have re-considered.

Public transportation: To get around the city, we either walked (a lot!) or took the metro. The awesome thing about public transportation in Sydney is you don’t have to load money onto a special transit card–and hope you don’t load too much money that you can’t cash out. If you have a contactless credit card, simply tap the card on the designated card reader when you board, and tap again when you get off. Simple. Just make sure to use the same credit card each time you tap.

If you don’t have a contactless credit card, you will have to get a free Opal card and load it with money. How do you tell if your credit card is contactless? Look for a WiFi-type symbol on the front or back of the card.

Circular Quay in Sydney
Circular Quay, the main ferry terminal, with public ferries coming and going

Credit cards

Speaking of credit cards, take along a credit card (or two) that doesn’t charge foreign transaction fees. If you’re not sure whether a card charges these fees, check with the card issuer. Additionally, contact your bank and/or credit card issuers about your foreign travel before you leave home so they don’t put fraud alerts on your accounts.

Credit cards were accepted pretty much everywhere we went in Australia; we hardly used cash. In fact, we were “forced” to spend our excess Australian dollars on Tim Tams (more on those toward the end).

Lodging in Sydney

This probably goes without saying, but hotel options abound in downtown Sydney. We chose the Holiday Inn Potts Point-Sydney, a hotel with easy access to a metro stop.

Plug adapter

Australia uses a Type I plug adapter. We purchased these plug adapters from Amazon before our trip, and they worked well for us.

Activities in Sydney

Sydney Opera House

Sydney’s famous Opera House is a must-see, and not just from the outside. Book a tour, see a show, or do both like we (unintentionally) did.

Sydney Opera House
Sydney Opera House

Opera and orchestra music aren’t really our thing, and whatever show was playing in the concert hall at the time did not sound interesting to us, so we chose to see a comedy. We hoped to do our own self-guided “tour” around the inside of the Opera House, without actually paying for a guided tour. However, our play was in a small, nondescript theater on the side of the Opera House, and we were unable to access the main part of the Opera House without tickets to the show in the large concert hall. To top it off, the comedy wasn’t particularly funny.

We decided last-minute to return the next day for a guided tour, and we’re so glad we did. The tour took us into the concert hall, which seats 2,679 people. It was magnificent! Note: book the tour online to save a few bucks over the in-person box office prices.

If we could do it over again, we would have booked tickets for a show in the concert hall, whether or not it sounded like something we actually wanted to watch. We are fortunate to have seen the concert hall at all; beginning in February 2020, the concert hall is closed for at least two years for renovations. The entire Opera House is undergoing a 10-year renovation. 

Whether you see a show or not, we recommend grabbing a meal and/or drinks at one of the two Opera House restaurants. On a nice day, you can sit outside with a view of the Harbour Bridge, Opera House, and Sydney skyline.

Royal Botanic Gardens

One of our favorite sights in Sydney was the Royal Botanic Gardens. A 74-acre green oasis in the heart of Sydney, one could spend hours strolling around the Gardens. Be sure to grab a map!

The Royal Botanic Gardens are home to a variety of themed gardens, including a rose garden, a rainforest walk, a succulent garden, an oriental garden, and many more. Temporary exhibits at The Calyx and throughout the Gardens frequently change, so check the Gardens’ website for current exhibits.

Australian White Ibises–white birds with long, black beaks–and crested pigeons roamed around.

Australian White Ibis
Australian White Ibis

We followed the Hello Koalas Sculpture Trail, a temporary exhibit on display when we were there. The Trail contained 22 painted koala statues with descriptions explaining the artists’ inspiration. We located all 22, and took photos of most. Here are a few of our favorites.

"The Mayor" koala statue with the Sydney Opera House and Harbour Bridge in background
“The Mayor” with the Opera House and Harbour Bridge in background

Mrs. MacQuarie’s Chair, a bench carved into sandstone on a peninsula at the north end of the Royal Botanic Gardens, is a popular spot for sunset photos.

Ferry ride from Circular Quay to Manly Beach

Circular Quay (pronounced “key”) is home base for multiple ferry and metro lines. Wanting to see more of the coastline around Sydney, we hopped on a 30-minute public ferry ride to the town of Manly, a popular beach town.

Reservations are not necessary for the public ferry. As with all public transportation, you can tap your contactless credit card before boarding the ferry. Note: Fast Ferries are NOT part of the public transit system and cost extra; they are geared more toward tourist activities. Be sure to choose the correct ferry for what you plan to do. The public ferry from Circular Quay to Manly cost $7 AUD (about $5 USD) each way per person.

View from ferry of Opera House and Sydney skyline
View from the ferry of the Opera House and Sydney skyline

Our early-morning ferry was quiet, so we had our pick of seats outside on the deck. Take along a hot cup of coffee and jacket, even in the summer. In Manly we grabbed a couple meat pies for breakfast–similar to Hot Pockets or small calzones–and sauntered along the beach for a while before boarding a ferry back to Sydney.

Although the air was hazy due to bushfires/wildfires north of Sydney, we enjoyed the views of Sydney, the Opera House, and Harbour Bridge from the ferry. The ferry was a relaxing way to start our day.

Sydney Harbour Bridge

We walked across the Sydney Harbour Bridge from The Rocks at the south end toward Bradfield Park at the north end.

Toward the south end of Harbour Bridge is the Pylon Lookout. Pay $15 AUD and climb 200 stairs to the top of this tower, which features historical exhibits and 360-degree views of the city. We skipped the Pylon Lookout and continued along the bridge.

View of Opera House from Harbour Bridge
View of Opera House and Sydney from Harbour Bridge

The walk across Harbour Bridge can take 15-30 minutes, depending on how many times you stop to take photos. Instead of returning on foot, we took a train back. You can also return by ferry.

Another option to experience Harbour Bridge is BridgeClimb Sydney. On this guided tour, visitors are strapped into a harness and climb to the top of the bridge. The BridgeClimb is pricey and probably not recommended for anyone with a fear of heights. We didn’t do the BridgeClimb, but we mention it because it’s a popular tourist attraction in Sydney.

The Rocks

Located near the south end of Harbour Bridge is The Rocks, the oldest part of Sydney and the location of the first European settlement in Australia. Follow a self-guided tour of the area and grab some grub at a cafe along Suez Canal or at a street vendor on Playfair Street.

The Rocks Christmas Lane
The Rocks Christmas Lane

Word of warning: this area is located on multiple levels with several staircases, so 1) it may be physically difficult for some to get around, and 2) following a map can be challenging if the map doesn’t adequately show the staircases, which we discovered while literally running to a dinner reservation.

Hyde Park

Hyde Park is a large city park containing statues of famous Australians, fountains, and walking paths. The park is bordered by St. James Church to the north, St. Mary’s Cathedral to the northeast, the Australian Museum to the east, and Starbucks to the west. You choose which is the most important to you. Unfortunately, the Australian Museum was closed when we were there.

Coogee Beach

After exploring Sydney, we packed up our luggage and took an Uber to the coastal town of Coogee, about a 20-minute ride from downtown Sydney. We stayed two nights in Coogee and spent a full day exploring the popular 3.7-mile (one way) Bondi to Coogee coastal walk.

Starting from Coogee Beach, the path takes you on a journey atop majestic sea cliffs, along sandy beaches, and through quaint villages to the town of Bondi. We passed the eerie cliffside Waverly Cemetery, established in 1877 and home to many prominent Australians. Colorful rainbow lorikeets chirped from the trees. Once in Bondi, we enjoyed a relaxing lunch and rested our feet before the return trip.

If we’d had more time in Sydney…

We could’ve spent MUCH more time in Sydney and its surroundings. If we’d had more time, we would’ve considered the following:

  • Day trip to Blue Mountains National Park: we would have either rented a car or taken the train from Sydney to Katoomba. The train ride is about 2 hours and costs less than $10 AUD/person each way.
  • Other national parks in the area
  • Other ferry rides around Sydney, such as the 27-minute ferry to Watson’s Bay and the South Head Heritage Trail.
  • Luna Park, an amusement park
  • Taronga Zoo
  • Centennial Park: a 467-acre park with ponds, gardens, and playgrounds.
  • Museums: we aren’t big museum people, but Sydney has several museums.

Local favorites/favourites

Vegemite is a thick, brown spread made from yeast extract, vegetables, and other stuff, and it’s usually served on toast. Australians love it, but we absolutely did not. If you’re out to breakfast and see a mini serving of Vegemite, try a small bite of it on toast–if you dare. You may regret it, but at least you can say you’ve experienced it.

Tim Tams are scrumptious chocolate cookies, filled with and coated in chocolate, and are heavenly dipped in hot coffee or tea. These are a must-try item. Grocery stores often have multiple shelves dedicated to variations of Tim Tam flavors and serve as an inexpensive place to, ahem, stock up on ALL the Tim Tams to take home.

Package of Tim Tams
YUM!

Honest assessment

Generally speaking, we prefer trips where we explore nature and the outdoors; cities are not as appealing to us. That said, we loved Sydney and wish we’d had more time to spend there. Due in part to its coastal location, Sydney reminded us of a larger version of San Diego, California.

Australia is an awesome country, full of national parks that would be incredible to visit. We will definitely return to Australia, whether to Sydney or to an entirely different part of the country!

So, how much did this trip cost?

Since we documented Our Great Australian Adventure over a series of three posts, we summarized the costs for the entire trip in a separate post. Be sure to read our other posts about the Great Barrier Reef and Cairns and Kuranda first before reading the trip cost summary!

Have you been? Would you go?

Have you been to Sydney? Did you do the BridgeClimb? WOULD you do the BridgeClimb? Tell us in the comments!

If you haven’t been there, would you go? Anything more you want to know? Let us know in the comments or contact us!


Sydney Australia sights you can't miss

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