It’s fair to say many NSW residents have seen more of the rest of the world than their own capital city. But with international borders shut, and regional destinations heavily booked over school holidays, 2020 has offered up a unique opportunity to explore our harbour city. Sydney comes alive in December, as long days, and the buzz of Christmas casts a playful spell over its residents. Play tourist on a staycation or discover new local gems, with this guide.
You haven’t played tourist in the harbour city until you’ve viewed the Opera House and Harbour Bridge up close. Get even closer by embarking on the iconic Harbour Bridge climb for 360-degree views of the city as you climb 1,332 steps to the top. COVID-19 forced this bucket-list experience shut for a few months in 2020, but now that it is back open, operating company BridgeClimb is offering discounted $198 tickets (which were around $300 pre-COVID). Amid a year of uncertainty, book with confidence knowing you can reschedule your climb up to 24 hours prior.
Sydney’s other signature sights are the sandy beaches of Bondi and Manly. Level up your summer with surfing lessons from $99 with Let’s Go Surfing. Further north, you should tick off visiting the set of Home and Away and hiking to the magnificent lighthouse lookout at Palm Beach.
Live theatre and music are back after a rough year, and the highly anticipated Hamilton will hit Sydney Lyric Theatre in March 2021. This multi-award-winning musical sails to our shores after sold-out seasons on London’s West End and Broadway in New York.
Also on the music front, local artists like Tame Impala, Josh Pyke and Mallrat have scheduled Sydney concerts across December and January – Google for details. Californian rockers Guns N’ Roses also recently announced the world’s first stadium tour since the pandemic began, kicking off in Sydney in November 2021.
For a quiet reprieve from December heat, the blissfully air-conditioned Art Gallery of NSW hosts Australia’s most prestigious artworks. View the 2020 Archibald Prize-winning portrait of AFL legend Adam Goodes before the finalist paintings ship off for a national tour on 10 January.
International flights may be cancelled for now, but a tour of Sydney’s array of culinary offerings can take you around the world without leaving your table.
Be transported to a family home in Vietnam at Hello Auntie, which offers zesty salads, noodles and share plates, with none of the oily heaviness that can accompany some Asian cuisines. On a competitive menu, the must-order dish is the banh xeo, an impressive giant yellow crepe swaddling onion, bean sprouts and pork or prawns and dipped in a salty fish sauce.
You could be in Rome when tucking into a duck ragu and chianti at Pinos Vino e Cucina in inner-south Alexandria. This place is so authentically Italian that the copper pots and pans adorning the rustic timber bar are from the owner’s parents’ kitchen in Rome. Sail on to Istanbul for moreish Turkish food at Stanbuli and order up on the specialty charcoal barbeque meats.
Closer to home, the grommets of Sydney’s eastern suburbs grow up on a diet of sand and saltwater, but when they finally remember to eat it is at local fish ‘n’ chipper Out of the Blue in Clovelly. Step out of the Pacific Ocean and head straight up the hill for the best Aussie burgers in Sydney, complete with beetroot, of course.
Bills turned avocado toast into Australia’s top breakfast export and with lazy summer mornings comes ample opportunity for brunch. For the sweet tooths, Bills’ famous ricotta hotcakes with honeycomb butter and maple banana are a treat with a strong coffee or white peach bellini (it is holiday time, after all).
The Newport is a long-held Northern Beaches institution with something for families, couples, and partygoers alike. The authors find their happy place with a cold beer in hand while watching the sun set over Pittwater, but if you can’t sit still, the games area includes giant-sized Jenga, Connect Four and magnetic Scrabble.
Bondi Icebergs was once the only place for Sydney’s elite to be seen drinking in the eastern beaches, but the newly renovated Coogee Pavilion is now a fierce contender. Also fierce are the jalapeno margaritas with habanero syrup and mezcal. Just be prepared to pay top dollar to consume your beverage on one of NSW’s most-Instagrammed rooftops.
US President-elect Joe Biden’s campaign was resurrected in South Carolina, so it is timely to try a tipple at The Charleston before Inauguration Day. Cocktails range from the classic to the creative. Our pick is “Cool as a Cucumber”; gin, elderflower, cucumber, lemon, soda and mint cut through like a whisper of a southerly in the Sydney humidity.
Sydney is among the world’s best for al fresco dining and drinking, but our scorching UV rating can leave many scrambling for the air-conditioned comforts of an underground bar. CBD secret The Swinging Cat is tucked beneath a Subway store and cloaked in tribute to the jazz bars of New Orleans. Forget icy, soda watered down summer cocktails. Here, the best choices are short and strong, like the Vieux Carre, a brash, barrel-aged concoction of whisky, cognac and sweet vermouth with a twist of lemon.
If the words “free mini bar” and “free happy hour” appeal to you, Ovolo 1888 Darling Harbour is your pick of countless hotels in Sydney. This five-star boutique has done away with overpriced bottled water – instead encouraging guests to clear out the fridge and bar snacks, enjoy a free aperitif and evening pinxto (Spanish for appetiser), and make the most of high-speed Wi-Fi, continental breakfast and barista-made Will & Co coffee. You probably cover it in the room price (which starts at a reasonable $242) but there is still something thrilling about cracking a mini-bar beer without nervously peering at a price tag.
Ovolo 1888 is set in a trendy converted wool store built in – you guessed it – 1888 and enjoys a supreme location adjacent to the International Convention Centre in Darling Harbour. Light rail, buses, ferries, and Ubers regularly service this part of town, but it is a scenic stroll around the harbour to most of Sydney’s main attractions including Barangaroo, the Harbour Bridge, Opera House and Botanic Gardens. Planning a future staycation? Buy a $500 gift card to spend at Ovolo 1888 over the next three years and you’ll receive a signature goodie bag with luxury robe, slippers, make-at-home cocktail kit and edible treats to enjoy in the meantime.
Other options include the super-luxe Pier One Sydney Harbour, which is unrivalled in waterfront proximity and as close as you can get to Sydney Theatre Company’s wharf theatre. Meanwhile, the renowned Shangri-La claims one of the best views in Sydney from Altitude Restaurant on the 36th floor.
Sydney is as famous for Bondi as it is for the crowds that swarm there during summer. Looking for an empty patch of sand to roll out your towel? Drive one hour south to the Royal National Park for uncrowded surf breaks and beachside bushwalks. This is Australia’s oldest national park – the third oldest in the world after Bogd Khan Uul in Mongolia and Yellowstone in the US – so you know you’re in for a treat when you hand over your $12 car fee at the entrance. The 4km hike to Wedding Cake Rock offers the best views, and the Figure 8 rockpools are some of Australia’s most photogenic swimming holes. Just go early to avoid the influencers.
Head inland to the mist-shrouded Blue Mountains, about 1.5 hours’ drive west of Sydney CBD, to glimpse the iconic Three Sisters’ rock formation (spectacular at sunrise if you’re an early bird). This World Heritage-listed region of NSW coaxes hikers, trail runners and climbers to the rugged slopes of the Jamison Valley. But the historic mining towns of Katoomba and Leura are also popular among foodies, with hatted restaurant Darley’s a highlight, and the Black Cockatoo Bakery churning out carb-rich delights. Dip into the Megalong Valley for picturesque wine tasting at Dry Ridge Estate.
Did the words “wine tasting” catch your eye? The rolling green countryside of the Southern Highlands, where farm scenes from Australian film Babe were shot, is brimming with cool-climate wineries within a day trip of Sydney. Tertini, Artemis, Centennial and Bendooley Estate are popular options. But the al fresco Tuscan courtyard of Southern Highlands Winery is a less-crowded gem on sunny days, and its authentic Italian antipasti with mussels and toasted crostini bread pair perfectly with a Pinot Gris.