The stylish harbor city of Sydney has it all: a thriving contemporary art scene, game-changing restaurants, and one-of-a-kind shops.

By Mark Ellwood
August 01, 2013

Five need-to-know neighborhoods.

CBD: The Central Business District is home to the Sydney Opera House, Harbour Bridge, and top hotels.

The Rocks: Centuries-old cobblestoned streets are filled with outdoor cafés and boutiques.

Darlinghurst: Bustling and chic Oxford Street is the main artery—and essentially the SoHo of Sydney.

Surry Hills: The onetime garment district is now a bohemian enclave with funky shops and some of the city’s most creative restaurants.

Bondi: This world-famous surfing beach is just a 20-minute drive east of downtown.

See our Sydney Destination Guide

Getting Around

The best way to navigate the city is on foot, so pack a pair of walking shoes. Tired? Cabs are also handy ($15 for 10 minutes) and can be hailed on the street.

Sydney: See + Do

The city’s latest cultural spots (beyond the Opera House).

BreenSpace: Owner Sally Breen’s gallery may be tucked away on the third floor of a nondescript building near Chinatown, but don’t let that fool you: inside are works by Australia’s top talent, including Mitch Cairns and Simryn Gill. 17-19 Alberta St., level 3.

Carriageworks: In a converted 1880 rail yard in Eveleigh, this multi-venue performance space has been painstakingly preserved. The original cavernous brick-walled interiors house Sydney’s most progressive theater and contemporary art. A highlight: “Playwriting Australia,” a series of plays by local writers. 245 Wilson St.

MCA Australia: Carve out an afternoon to explore the new wing of Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art. On view: “Possible Composition,” part of the 18th Biennale of Sydney, which features 48 works by 26 international artists. 140 George St.

White Rabbit Gallery: The well-curated collection of modern Chinese art at this spacious gallery was assembled by longtime collector Judith Neilson, one of Australia’s richest women. Fortunately, her taste level more than matches her deep pockets. We love artist Cang Xin’s 2007 sculptural series. 30 Balfour St.

Sydney: Shop

Where to find the best Aussie designers, housewares, and more.

Swing by the Intersection Paddington (Oxford St. and Glenmore Rd.), a high-end emporium carrying avant-garde and traditional Australian labels. Browse Alannah Hill’s colorful dresses fit for Katy Perry (No. 118-120); yummy-mummy staple Sass & Bide (No. 132), with its slinky denim and vintage-inspired separates; and Dinosaur Designs (No. 339), a local mainstay known for its Day-Glo resin jewelry and housewares. He Made She Made (70 Oxford St.) sells whimsical art and furniture, including graffiti-covered chairs, by emerging regional designers. Donna Hay General Store (40 Holdsworth St.), on a quiet residential corner in Woollahra, is run by Australia’s Martha Stewart. The designer has converted an old house into a pastel-colored shop filled with her signature streamlined products: 1940’s-style ceramics in white or seafoam green, scented candles, and white enamel bakeware. Drop in to Victor Churchill (132 Queen St.), even if you don’t need picnic fixings. This butcher’s shop looks like Willy Wonka’s meat-minded counterpart, down to the cast-bronze sausage links that serve as the front-door handle. Don’t miss the house-made goodies to go: mushroom tarts with Parmesan and parsley butter, duck rillettes, or galettes with smoked salmon and artichoke hearts.

Sydney: Stay

The six places to bunk down right now—each with a view of the harbor, of course.

Blue: Rooms at this gem on Woolloomooloo Wharf are loft-?style, with exposed beams and plush beds set against a chocolate-brown and aquamarine palette. Best For: Stylish quarters off the beaten path. $$

The Darling: Sexy and cutting-edge—that’s how to describe the newest addition to Darling Harbour. There’s black-and-red flecked wallpaper in the low-lit corridors, and the push of a button lowers your room’s blinds, turns on the TV, and adjusts the air temperature, all at the same time. Best For: Hipsters in search of a scene. $$

Four Seasons: From the sky-high atrium lobby to the clubby hotel bar and spacious outdoor pool, this classic in the Rocks never disappoints. Best For: Unbeatable service. $$$

Hilton: The glass-walled tower, designed by architects Johnson Pilton Walker (the team behind the Opera House makeover), is a quick stroll from the main landmarks. Best For: Easy access to sightseeing. $$

Park Hyatt: Fronting the Sydney Opera House and Harbour Bridge, the Park Hyatt occupies the city’s most coveted location. A $68 million renovation only adds to its allure, with new floor-to-ceiling windows and amenities from cult perfumer Le Labo. Best For: Knockout views. $$$$

Hotel Pricing Key
$ Less than $200
$$ $200 to $350
$$$ $350 to $500
$$$$ $500 to $1,000
$$$$$ More than $1,000

Sydney: Eat

From haute cuisine to comfort-food classics, Sydney has a restaurant for every type of traveler.

Retro-style Gardel’s Bar is like a vintage supper club with comfy leather booths, leopard-skin throws, and a young, tattooed staff. Come for the juicy chorizo-and-octopus skewers and hot dogs topped with chili and fried onions, then chance a game on the 1940’s foosball table. 358 Cleveland St. $$

Hidden in the industrial backstreets of Surry Hills, Reuben Hills is the place to sample the city’s best coffee, Aussie-style: ask for a flawless flat white from the apron-clad barista strolling the floor—he’ll take your order on his iPad. 61 Albion St.

The city’s latest hot spot? Neild Avenue, in Rushcutters Bay. Meze-style dishes are the draw here—there’s four-cheese arancini (deep-fried rice balls), buffalo halloumi, and baked duck-egg custards. The funky interiors, with paintings of centaurs on the walls, were designed by Italian-Australian duo Lazzarini Pickering. 10 Neild Ave. $$$

A bright blue doorway welcomes you to El Loco, which serves some of the finest Mexican food in the city, thanks to renowned chef Dan Hong. Sydneysiders gather at the colorful tables to munch on pork, beef, prawn, chicken, and tofu tacos doused in mouthwatering toppings. 64 Foveaux St. $$

Run by bad-boy chef Matt Moran, Australia’s answer to Anthony Bourdain, Chiswick dishes up signature unfussy modern food: wood-roasted lamb from Moran’s family farm, vitello tonnato sliders, and heirloom-tomato salad with crushed green olives. Caveat: tables fill up quickly, so call at least two weeks ahead. 65 Ocean St.; 61-2/8388-8688. $$$

Restaurant Pricing Key
$ Less than $25
$$ $25 to $75
$$$ $75 to $150
$$$$ More than $150

Sydney: Drink

In a city known for its beer, cocktail lounges are the newest obsession.

Text the number on the door of Sticky Bar (182 Campbell St., level 2)—the bouncer will appear within minutes to whisk you to the top floor; order a Lovegun (amaretto, Campari, and orange juice).

Mad-scientist-style cocktails are made using such ingredients as liquid nitrogen at the Roosevelt (32 Orwell St.). Try the Martini of Tomorrow.

For a standout negroni (and a 300-bottle wine list), head to Love, Tilly Devine (91 Crown Lane).

Sydney: Local Take

Three Sydneysiders share their favorite spots in the city.

Louise Olsen

Cofounder, designer, and creative director of Dinosaur Designs

Where I go for...
...a swim in the ocean:
Bronte—a wonderful little cove with a beach near Bondi. There’s great snorkeling.”

...a relaxing Sunday lunch: “Hands down, the cliffside Icebergs Dining Room & Bar ($$$), where you feel like you’re sitting on the water.”

...a casual cocktail and dinner: “At Miss Chu (178 Campbell Parade $$), you can order delicious Singapore Slings with spring rolls and fresh dumplings.”

Matt Moran

Chef, Chiswick restaurant

Where I go for... afternoon pint:
Lord Dudley Public Bar (236 Jersey Rd.) is one of my go-to bars: you can actually sit there and have a beer quietly.”

…burning off calories after lunch:Cooper Park has a huge hill that’s great for running. It’s very family-oriented, with tennis courts and plenty of open space.”

…an afternoon with my son: “The city’s best-kept secret is Gordon’s Bay. I go down to the beach with my little guy, and we feed the groupers.”

Liz Ann Macgregor

Director of the Museum of Contemporary Art

Where I go for... indulgent splurge:
“One of the most revered restaurants in Darlinghurst is Buon Ricordo (108 Boundary St.; $$$$), with truffle pasta to die for.”

…my morning caffeine jolt: “I never pass up a flat white at Artisan Focacceria.”

…takeout after work: Lucio Pizzeria (248 Palmer St.; $$$), in Darlinghurst, serves the best pizza in the city.”

Beyond Syndey

Follow the weekend crowd two hours west to the Blue Mountains, Sydney’s popular hilltop getaway. There, spend your days hiking the lush valley.

For an easier jaunt, hop a harbor ferry to the northern beaches on the city’s outer edge and stroll the Victoria Parade in Manly.

Seeking a more tropical escape? Head 138 miles south to Jervis Bay, which looks like the backdrop of The Blue Lagoon: white sands lapped by clear, blue water teeming with rays.

Bronte to Bondi Coastal Walk

This lovely coastal walk begins at Ben Buckler Point, on the northern end of Bondi Bay, and winds south for two miles along sandstone cliffs and white-sand beaches, ending at Waverley Cemetery. Don’t miss the Aboriginal rock carvings, such as the shark and whale south of Mackenzies Point. The path is paved and level (i.e., you don’t need to be an athlete to walk it); the scenery is spectacular; and you’ll meet all manner of Sydneysiders and visitors (and their dogs) along the way. Start from Bondi in the late morning, then grab lunch in the charming neighborhood of Bronte before heading back.

Blue Sydney

Set on a former shipping wharf in the eastern part of Sydney Harbour, this hip, industrial-chic hotel (the Taj Group’s first Australian property) manages to feel both removed from the bustle of downtown and in the middle of the action. The hotel’s 100 rooms are streamlined and modern, many with soaring girder-supported ceilings and soft neutral-colored fabrics that don’t compete with views of the passing boats outside (36 are open-plan loft suites, with king-size beds set upstairs and spacious living rooms below). The hotel is part of a larger wharf complex that includes the decadent Spa Chakra, a 17-meter indoor pool with sundeck, tons of dining options, and the cavernous atrium-esque Water Bar.

Blue Hotel

Situated inside a former cargo-handling facility, this wharf-side hotel is within a 10-minute walk of major attractions, such as the Royal Botanic Gardens and central business district. Inside, colored glass and metallic dome lights contrast with the building’s original architecture and machinery, including corrugated iron and oversize pulleys. The 100 guest rooms are decorated in mostly neutral tones, with blue-mohair accents, as well as floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the marina, botanical gardens, or Potts Point district. The Waterbar serves handcrafted cocktails beneath a curtain of Swarovski crystals, while five surrounding restaurants specialize in Australian, Asian, and Indian cuisine.

Hilton Sydney

Rising 43 stories above downtown, this glass-and-concrete hotel is centrally located across from the Town Hall railway station. Inside, the cavernous lobby is dominated by Bronwyn Oliver’s aluminium sculpture Vine, which hangs from the ceiling and spirals four stories to the atrium floor below. The 577 guest rooms are designed in a minimalist style, with hardwood floors, platform beds, and limited views of the cityscape or Sydney Harbour Bridge. Chef Luke Mangan helms the Glass Brasserie restaurant, while the Zeta bar is run by Grant Collins, named one of the world’s greatest hotel bartenders by Travel + Leisure in 2009.

Artisan Focacceria

Darlinghurst visitors may drop by this small café for a cup of coffee or a snack, and end up staying for an Italian entrée. A bit like Starbucks, but with a lunch menu, family-run Artisan Focacceria’s dark-hued walls and small tables set the tone for conversation or a working breakfast (the Nutella crepes are a favorite.) For lunch, a variety of focaccias and salads are offered, alongside a menu of heartier options, such as the lasagna with béchamel sauce and a baked eggplant dish.

Icebergs Dining Room & Bar

If this Bondi Beach restaurant had a motto, it might be “by the sea and of the sea.” Opened in 2002, it's located by the sea, specifically atop the South Bondi cliffs in what used to be a swimming club. “Of the sea” reflects the emphasis on local fare and seafood and the interior design of cool blue and green tones and an abundance of ocean views through picture windows. The menu offers starters like steamed crab served with polenta, lemon, and garlic, while main dishes focus on Italian cuisine, such as squid ink risotto with calamari and chili.

Four Seasons Hotel Sydney

34 floors of polished, updated rooms and public spaces, plus the city’s largest outdoor pool. From the sky-high atrium lobby to the clubby hotel bar and spacious outdoor pool, this classic in the Rocks never disappoints. Best for Unbeatable service.

Park Hyatt Sydney

Short of sleeping inside the Sydney Opera House itself (if only!), the next best thing has got to be snoozing at the Park Hyatt Sydney, which has snagged a brilliant spot curving around the point opposite just in front of the Harbour Bridge. This sinuous contemporary stone building is fairly low-rise, in keeping with its setting, but the heated rooftop pool still boasts stellar views. Kick back on a chaise lounge or nab a private cabin. The Spa is a great place to unwind, harnessing local iKOU products from the Blue Mountains. The 155 zen-sleek rooms and suites here are pretty snazzy, with neutral hues, huge windows, marble baths, balconies, and Aboriginal art. Personal butlers are available around the clock. Waterfront wining and dining means you won't want to leave.