When it comes to boasting iconic, Instagrammable tourist sights, Sydney has it in spades. There’s the famous Bondi Icebergs swimming pool with its impossibly azure waters and panoramic vistas of the Pacific Ocean; striking architectural icons such as the Sydney Opera House and Sydney Harbour Bridge; Bondi Beach, where sun worshippers flock to regardless of the season; and the Royal Botanic Garden that houses a bevy of manicured landscapes and rare, colourful flora.
The next time you find yourself in Sydney, consider taking a gander off the well-trodden tourist trail to explore some less-known – but equally, if not more, exciting – activities and attractions that are sure to delight both returning travellers as well as first-time visitors. Here are a few to consider when you next make it to the capital of New South Wales.
1. Explore niche galleries and museums
Besides more well-known offerings such as the Art Gallery of New South Wales and the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, Sydney is home to plenty of smaller establishments that deal with more specialised topics. Fans of Chinese contemporary art can visit White Rabbit Gallery, which is located on the site of a former Rolls-Royce showroom in the vibrant Chippendale enclave. It boasts one of the world’s most extensive collections of the genre, and focuses on works produced from 2000 onwards.
Meanwhile, a visit to the Sydney Bus Museum –where they are accepting bookings for visitors on the first and third Sunday’s of every month – will allow you to view over 70 single- and double-decker vintage buses, most of which operated in the city from the 1920s to the 1990s. And if you’re a history buff who wants to gain a deeper insight into Sydney’s working-class roots, do visit the Susannah Place Museum in The Rocks suburb, where you can find out more as you explore four historic terrace houses.
2. Feast on delicious regional Thai dishes
The truth is that you probably didn’t come all the way to Sydney to eat pad Thai or som tum. That being said, you would be remiss not to drop by at least one of Sydney’s top-notch Thai restaurants, some of which specialise in hard-to-find regional dishes. First on your list should be David Thompson’s (the maestro behind the Michelin-starred Nahm in London, as well as its Bangkok outpost of the same name) Long Chim. The latter specialises in flavour-packed street food fare, with dishes such as Sakoo Sai Gai (sticky chicken and tapioca dumplings) and Sweet Potato and Mustard Greens Hung Leh (a curry that includes banana blossom, shallots and pickled garlic).
Other standouts include the one-man-show Joe’s Table for moreish stir-fried dishes and the must-order fermented sweet glutinous rice served with mango and coconut cream; Boonchu for authentic Northern Thai cuisine; and Caysorn for food from Southern Thailand, such as a punchy pork rib curry and crispy fried fish battered with turmeric and garlic.
3. Wander through hidden parks and gardens
After you’ve strolled through the famous Royal Botanic Garden, you can continue your exploration of the city’s green spaces at a number of other urban oases. At the top of your itinerary should be Wendy Whitely’s Secret Garden. Located at Lavender Bay, the not-so-secret attraction is a lush and landscaped retreat that offers sweeping views of the Sydney Harbour Bridge in the distance. As for how to enter? Once you’re in the vicinity, keep your eyes peeled for a giant Moreton Bay fig tree and the white tower atop the property’s four-storey house.
In the Paddington suburb, there’s the heritage-listed Paddington Reservoir Gardens public park, which once operated as a water reservoir. The site contains a sunken garden with a pond, rooftop reserve and gorgeous murals on the walls. Finally, the Lex and Ruby Graham Garden on the eastern end of Cremorne Point Reserve merits a visit for its exotic foliage and narrow winding paths that lead down to the water’s edge.
4. Embark on a gin-tasting adventure
Australian gin distilleries have been steadily making their mark on the industry in recent years, with Melbourne-based Four Pillars clinching the prestigious International Wine and Spirits Competition (IWSC) International Gin Producer of the Year award in 2020 for the second year running. Sydney, for its part, boasts a clutch of forward-thinking distilleries that offer a refreshing local twist on the juniper-infused classic.
Begin your self-guided gin tour at Poor Toms Gin Hall in Marrickville, which is known for its delicate and refreshing Sydney Dry Gin that contains notes of fresh green apple, native strawberry gum leaf and chamomile. Over at Archie Rose Distilling Co. in Rosebery, you can sample their Signature Dry Gin that’s made with Australian botanicals such as blood lime, Dorrigo pepperleaf, river mint and lemon myrtle. Another brand worth sampling is Manly Spirits Co., which produces unique gins that are flavoured with novel Australian and marine botanicals: think sea lettuce, anise myrtle and rosella.
5. Go for a swim in remote rock pools
As far as rock pools go, the famous Bondi Icebergs is undoubtedly Sydney’s calling card. But there are plenty of other options should you wish to go for a dip while avoiding the accompanying tourist crowds. Over in the beachy suburb of Manly, there’s the triangular-shaped Fairy Bower Pool, which is known for the sculpture of sea nymphs (Oceanides by Helen Leete) perched on its edge. There’s also the Murray Rose Pool in the calm waters of Double Bay, which boasts views of the harbour, city and boats bobbing along the water. Bronte Baths is another solid option: founded in 1887, it’s one of the oldest rock pools on the coast and overlooks the crashing ocean waves, not unlike its more famous neighbour, Bondi Icebergs. Finally, the 25m-long rock pool at North Curl Curl in Sydney’s Northern Beaches offers a tranquil spot for a languorous afternoon swim.
6. Catch a flick at a gorgeous boutique cinema
Switch up your film experience by opting for an independent cinema over a run-of-the-mill big franchise movie theatre. Sydney has plenty of atmospheric picture houses that bring to mind the magic and thrill that an evening at the movies used to evoke. For starters, there’s Golden Age in Surry Hills, located in the former screening room of the heritage-listed Paramount Pictures Building. The movie hall is fitted out with 1940s cinema seats upholstered with plush leather, and there’s also an on-site bar where you can grab a couple of tipples to enjoy with your flick. Another solid bet is the Hayden Orpheum Picture Palace, a heritage-listed Art Deco movie theatre known for its eye-catching neon blue and pink signage and screening halls that bring to mind old Hollywood glamour. A few other places worth checking out are The Chauvel Cinema in Paddington; the recently opened Event Boutique luxury picture house; and Ritz Cinema in Randwick, another heritage-listed gem.
7. Browse the racks at homegrown stores
No vacation is complete without some retail therapy, and Sydney has a wide selection to choose from: be it behemoth department stores or small retail outlets. For something more unique, we like patronising independent designers or multi-brand boutiques that carry a well-curated mix of local and international names. A few to consider are Aje, which specialises in modern and feminine womenswear and counts Madonna and Kate Moss among its devotees; Incu, which retails a selection of emerging Australian brands, a spiffy in-house label and cult favourites such as A.P.C. and Ganni; quirky concept store Poepke that takes its name from a Flemish term of endearment; The Standard Store in Surry Hills for hard-to-find garments from European, Scandinavian and American brands; and Manning Cartell, a sustainable luxury womenswear outfit that produces each of their impeccably tailored pieces right here in Sydney.
8. Marvel at public art installations
Whether suspended above a pedestrian street or incorporated into the design of a railway station, Sydney is filled with thought-provoking public art installations that rival those found within the walls of its galleries and museums. You’ll find the Tower of Love at Central Park Mall in Chippendale – a bronze sculpture by artists Gillie and Marc that depicts various endangered animals balancing precariously on top of one another. Then there’s In Between Two Worlds by artist Jason Wing along Little Hay Street. Comprised of wall and floor cloud mural patterns and suspended figures, the installation is illuminated at night, adding an at-once futuristic and otherworldly vibe to the alley.
Over at Wynard Station, you’ll chance upon Interloop. This giant sculptural work by artist Chris Fox hangs above the escalators and pays tribute to the building’s heritage: it’s composed of the original escalator tracks. And artist Reko Rennie’s Remember Me at Carriageworks – created in response to the 250th anniversary of Captain James Cook’s first landfall at Botany Bay – is a stirring tribute to Australia’s original Aboriginal inhabitants.
9. Soak up the sun at secluded beaches
No trip to Sydney is complete without logging in some serious sun and surf time. But when big-name spots such as Bondi Beach and Manly Beach are overrun with fellow sun-seekers and you don’t feel like fighting for your slice of sand, you can simply hit up one of these less-crowded alternatives. Chinamans Beach in Mosman, with its long and narrow strip of sand, is a firm favourite among locals. It’s not visible from the road, so you’ll have to wander through Roscherville Reserve to get to shore. Another solid option is Collins Flat Beach, which is located a few minutes away from the ultra-popular Manly Beach. It’s a secluded, idyllic alcove that’s perfect for an afternoon of lounging and picnicking. Two other stellar beaches are Little Bay Beach in Randwick and Shark Beach in Vaucluse: the former is protected from large coastal swells and is ideal for swimming and snorkelling; while the latter offers great views of the harbour and an adjoining park.
Please check the establishments’ respective websites for opening hours as well as booking and seating requirements before visiting, and remember to adhere to safe-distancing measures while out and about.
This article was originally published in January 2021.