Susan Wright

Australia's harbor city is diverse and surprising if you know where—and when—to look.

December 10, 2015

There's nothing wrong with Sydney's most famous attractions—in fact, no trip would be complete without a ferry ride around the harbor and an ice-cream break on the steps of the Opera House. But locals and savvy visitors know that the best of Sydney can be found away from the crowds, in neighborhoods and coastal areas that guide books neglect. Spend some time exploring these underrated things to do, and you'll be generously rewarded.

1. The Northern Beaches

Beaches of the Eastern suburbs, like Bondi and Coogee, may boast dramatic vistas and bronzed swimmers, but for an authentic Aussie ocean dip, travel north across the Harbor Bridge and investigate the scores of low-key coastal strips that make up the Northern Beaches region. This is a tourist-free zone, where surfers, families, and nature-lovers congregate. Many of the beaches—including Avalon and Curl Curl—feature outdoor swimming pools known as rock pools that are fed by tidal water, and are popular with lap swimmers.

2. Cheap Thai Food

Thai is Sydney's unofficial cuisine, and no-fuss Thai restaurants are ubiquitous throughout the metropolitan area. Recipes have evolved over the years to take advantage of Australia's bountiful produce (you'll find vegetables like red peppers and green beans in most curries), and seafood variations are particularly popular. Because Thai food is so common, and competition is high, you can eat handsomely for a fraction of what you would pay at the tourist-focused restaurants downtown. Try Thai on Wok, in Glebe, a local favorite. 

3. The Hidden Half of Kings Cross

The Cross, as it's known, is full of nightclubs, adult entertainment, and hostels for backpackers. You'll probably read about it in guide books and decide to steer clear. But reconsider: just streets away from the seediness are residential pockets that are among Sydney's most enchanting. Hidden between The Cross and the harbor is Elizabeth Bay, a secret enclave full of Art Deco apartments, leafy parks, and excellent cafes. Also nearby is Potts Point, which has long been a favorite of the city's bohemians and creatives.

4. High-Fashion Shopping

Australia is not known for home-grown designer clothing, and Sydney has long been considered secondary to Melbourne when it comes to boutiques stocking the best from overseas. But it is possible to find some world-class items here: try Harrolds, a luxury department store for men and women that stocks brands like Rick Owens and Comme Des Garcons, and Sneakerboy, which carries high-end urban wares from the likes of Raf Simons. Don't miss Song For The Mute, an internationally renowned avant-garde label that has its flagship store in a beautiful converted warehouse building in Glebe.

5. The May-June Festival Season

Locals know that the start of winter is Sydney's most fertile time for arts and culture. Three major festivals run almost back-to-back: there's the Sydney Writers' Festival, the Sydney Film Festival, and VIVID, which combines harborside light installations with a program of live music at the Opera House. All three events are marketed squarely to residents, meaning there's an array of culturally relevant content from local artists mixed in with international work.

6. Live Music

Melbourne is known as Australia's live music capital, but there's plenty going on in Sydney, too: you just have to look harder to find it. Newtown Social Club offers rock show most nights of the week, with popular Australian acts and cult international artists sharing the space, while underground venues like Red Rattler and Black Wire nurture active punk, jazz, and queer performance scenes. These venues are often ignored by the mainstream press, but you'll find vibrant work here that will help you understand the city—and the country—more fully.

7. Spring and Autumn

International visitors are encouraged to visit Sydney in Summer, but locals know that these months—December, January, and February—are the ones to avoid: the humidity is stifling, and many business close down for weeks at a time while their owners take vacations. The smarter move is to come in Spring or Autumn, when there are fewer tourists to deal with and distinctive seasonal delights to discover. During September, October, and November, the city is known for its stunning sunsets, evening thunderstorms, and beautifully mild nights; while from March to May, the ocean is at its warmest. These are the times that Sydney really stuns.

Dan F. Stapleton covers Australia for Travel + Leisure. Follow him on Instagram.

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