Chad Ehlers / Alamy
Nicholas Fonseca
October 24, 2014

There are very few destinations that have done a better job of catering to tourists than Sydney. Since the 2000 Olympics transformed the city and brought it into the 21st century—both literally and figuratively—Sydney has effectively overhauled many of its main attractions in a bid to keep the number of overseas visitors who brave that long flight at a steady level. It seems to have worked: each year, an average of 3 million international guests arrive to see what the fuss is all about. And what a worthy fuss it is: from the stunning beaches to a fantastic zoo to a bustling waterfront, the Harbour City knows how to entice newcomers. I’ve rounded up five key offerings worth your time (and in a couple of cases, virtually no money). They’re the spots you’ll want to spy before you head home, and one is a daredevil’s adventure that can’t come more highly recommended. Let’s just say it’s got…bite.

Taronga Zoo

Upon your entrance to this fantastic zoo located just a short ferry ride across the harbor in North Sydney, do not pass go. Do not collect $200. Go directly to the meerkat exhibit and start melting over their adorableness. Then you can peruse the rest of what’s here. I’m especially fond of the elephants, the koala bears, the kangaroos, and the giraffes, who will happily eat a banana straight from your outstretched hand.

Bondi Beach

The most popular sliver of beach in all of Australia is packed on summer weekends and gloriously quiet (but just as beautiful) in the middle of winter. Whenever you choose to visit, you’ll be rewarded with a beautiful view and a tinge of self-satisfaction—because you’ve managed to set food on the most famous sand in the land.

Cockatoo Island

Sydney’s own version of Alcatraz housed convicts for three decades in the mid 1800s, so it’s got plenty of character. It’s also a bit spooky. In summer, this UNESCO World Heritage Site is a playground for afternoon boozehounds who head here for the famous pop-up bar, art lovers who boat over for temporary installations, and campers who want to pitch their tents for an overnight stay.

Shark Dive Xtreme

If you’ve ever wanted to go swimming with sharks—literally—head to Manly Sea Life Sanctuary, where skilled guides will throw you into an actual shark tank for a seriously unique scuba-diving experience. It’s a fascinating, educational rush—and I promise you won’t get bitten. In fact, the Grey Nurse sharks who’ll swim over and around you are pretty friendly little dudes. 

Circular Quay

This is the bustling center of harborside life in Sydney and home to the Overseas Passenger Terminal and the Museum of Contemporary Art to the west, ferry docks and a train stop to the south, and a line-up of eateries, a movie theatre, and the good ol’ Opera House to the east. You’re bound to end up here during your visit. Take it all in.

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