Suzi Petkovski maps out an inexpensive romp through Australia’s biggest tourist magnet, Sydney- on a budget.
Seductive Sydney is Australia’s top tourist magnet. It’s also top-dollar. Parts of the Harbour City scream: “You can’t afford me.” But Sydney can be an inexpensive date. In this extravaganza of a town, as in life, the best things are free … or pretty close to it. Assuming the extraordinary charms of Pittwater and the far northern beaches (Whale and Palm) are a bit beyond the scope of the short-term visitor relying on public transport and shoe leather, you could do worse than try these cheap thrills …
1. Splash and trek from the Spit Bridge to Manly
This ten-kilometre toddle hugs the harbour and takes in secluded little beaches, picnic spots, national park, Aboriginal rock engravings, stunning homes, sweeping views and bobbing boats. To top it off, chances are you’ll get one of those sun-splashed Sydney days that could have been conceived by a set designer.
Take one of several buses from Wynyard station in the city to the northern end of the Spit Bridge, head right and start walking. Doing the walk in this direction, roughly a backward S, means you can finish with lunch or dinner in Manly and hop on the ferry back to town (or you could return to the Spit Bridge from Manly via bus).
The first beach you come to on Middle Harbour is Clontarf, site of an assassination attempt on Prince Alfred, second son of Queen Victoria, in 1868. The shooter, an Irishman, was summarily hanged a month later. The prince recovered but the incident shamed the colony and inflamed anti-Irish sentiment. It also fanned interstate feeling when it was discovered that the would-be assassin was “a foreigner” – from Melbourne! A plaque at the eastern end of the beach marks the fateful spot.
The trail then heads south to Grotto Point and its 1911 lighthouse, which once guided ships through the harbour. Across the water is beautiful Balmoral. Heading north, before Cutler Road Lookout, are Aboriginal rock engravings in the sandstone. The track then climbs onto the bluffs of Sydney Harbour National Park, with giddying views out to the Heads and Manly. Descending again, you pass Reef Beach and Forty Baskets Beach, curving around North Harbour to Fairlight Beach, within sight of Manly Wharf.
Some low-level rock clambering is required, which rules out prams and wheelchairs. Even if fit, you should allow three or more hours because of the fabulous and frequent photo ops. This is a showy slice of Sydney’s beauty: the entire way provides a priceless view of blue.
2. Walk across the Harbour Bridge
Climbing the coathanger starts at $160 for an adult and maxes out at $225 for “twilight” ascents. But simply crossing the bridge on foot costs you zip, you don’t have to put on a dorky space suit, don’t have to wait for a group to assemble and don’t have to lose your lunch through vertigo. And the views are hardly less sensational. For a few bucks, you can climb the 200 steps to the viewing platform atop the south-eastern pylon (closest to the Opera House) and have a higher vantage point. From the city end, take the steps up from Cumberland Street. Across on the north shore, wander over to Luna Park and Lavender Bay. Right under the bridge is the splendidly located North Sydney Olympic Pool, site of many a world record in its glory days. Breast-stroke makes the most sense here, so you can enjoy the view while doing some gentle laps. You can take the plunge for a mere $4.70, or $9 for sauna, spa and swim.
3. Be dazzled by the QVB
Hard to believe that this gargantuan jaw-dropper, which anchors an entire city block bounded by George, York, Market and Druitt Streets, has survived the wrecking ball not once but several times.
Completed in 1898 as Sydney’s central market, it fell into neglect a mere 20 years later, as traders squabbled over rising rents. In the 1930s, the Queen Vic received an Art Deco face-lift to bring her more in line with the evolving skyline. In 1959 came the first call for demolition, then for years this jewel languished until Malaysian company Ipoh won the restoration contract (and a 99-year lease) in 1983. At the ceremonial reopening in November 1986 (after a $75 million makeover), the grand old lady was described by Pierre Cardin as the world’s most beautiful shopping palace.
Beautiful but not intimidating. Beneath the QVB’s massive central dome, in fin-de-siecle splendour, you can shop for prosaic PJs and smalls. Many of the 200 or so shops are chain stores (Country Road, Esprit, adidas, Body Shop, ABC Shop, etc), although, as you ascend the five levels, so do the price tags.
Plenty of coffee shops are here to fuel your retail spree. The QVB Jet Bar and Café, facing the Town Hall on the ground floor, offers one of the best latte locations in Sydney – just mind the noise and fumes from buses along York Street.
Even if you buy nothing, you can spend hours walking the endless galleries and marvelling at the mosaic tiles, the gleaming joinery and leadlight windows, the pretty paint-job and the painstaking attention to detail in this architectural behemoth. Guided tours, taken twice daily, can tell you more.
4. Wander around The Rocks and its weekend market
The birthplace of white Australia is an atmospheric jumble of cobbled streets, narrow cottages, kitsch-cool pubs and restored warehouses now housing restaurants and Australiana shops. The 19th Century ambience sits hard up against high-rise hotels and chi-chi apartments. This being Sydney, it works. Drop your camera and you’d still get a great pic.
Creepy night tours of this once rough and raucous precinct bring to life the ghosts of its violent past. Bubonic plague in 1900, spread by ship rats, saw the razing of several large areas, and the construction of the Harbour Bridge, starting in 1924, led to the demolition of many more blocks. The “green bans” by building unions in the early 1970s helped ensure more wasn’t lost. You’ll be thankful for that as you peruse the quality crafts at the weekend Rocks Market, which starts just under the Bridge at the top of George St.
On the western side of the Bridge is the less visited but no less charming Millers Point district. Here you’ll find the convict-built Garrison Church (1848), the oldest in Australia, and Argyle Place, set around a village green. Nearby, the Lord Nelson and the Hero of Waterloo both claim to be the oldest pub in Sydney. Give them both a shot and call it a win-win. Post-refreshment, head up to Observatory Hill, the highest point in the city, with (yawn) yet more wonderful views. You can wander the observatory and its grounds for free during the day.
5. Tour the Opera House and cross the gardens for a ’loo stop.
This is doable on foot but you may want to get a ride back. Swap the Botanic Gardens for the Domain, and you can bike it. From the Opera House – the basic tour is a reasonable $23 – head south into the gardens to gawk at the gothic pile of Government House. Entry is free, or you can just relax in the English-style garden. Then join the army of joggers and walkers along historic Farm Cove. You can criss-cross through the Botanic Gardens, maybe taking in the Herb, Rose and Succulent Gardens, or continue along the harbour to Mrs Macquarie’s Point with her eponymous chair, the best seat in Sydney. Head back south along Woolloomooloo Bay and you’ll sight another of Sydney’s famous pools, the Andrew (Boy) Charlton Pool, right on the bay. Follow Cowper Wharf Road past the redeveloped Finger Wharf and its airy apartments and al fresco cafes. Once the domain of wharfies, it’s now home to Russell Crowe, among other glitterati. Fuel up with a mushy-pea pie from Harry’s Café de Wheels, a Sydney institution since 1945. Head up the McElhone Stairs to Potts Point and Kings Cross, if you have the energy, or head back toward the city, stopping in at the Art Gallery of NSW. Entry to the excellent permanent collection is free.
6. Mingle with the multicultural mob in Bondi
Australia’s most iconic beach is so endlessly filmed and photographed that even first-time visitors are swamped by a wave of déjà vu. Yet Bondi is a must-do. Ironically of course, in this quintessential Orstralian setting, you’re as just as likely to bump into Russian residents and Japanese tourists as you are bronzed lifesavers and surf-loving supermodels. If the scene on the crowded sand runs out of interest, head out on the cliff-top walk (mind the jostling – every other jogger seems to be a triathlete-in-training), past yet another iconic pool, the Icebergs Club. The next beach you come to, set in a small deep bowl, is Tamarama (aka “Glamarama” on account of the photogenic qualities of the sunbaking set). You can continue on to Bronte Beach and all the way to Coogee Beach, a couple of hours away. Bondi’s funky market sets up on Campbell Parade on Sundays, but for personal and mental space, better to do the walk on a weekday.
7. Ogle the passing parade at Paddington Market and Oxford St
The Saturday market around the Uniting Church, on the corner of Oxford and Newcombe streets, is an essential Sydney experience, with fab vintage, high-end craft, homewares and out-there designs among the merchandise. It’s a crush of colour, with the high-maintenance people and poodles not least of the attractions. For more elbow room, take a seat at a café in Oxford Street, the loud and proud hub of Sydney’s gay community. The Mardi Gras takes place in late February/early March, but you can enjoy the passing parade here any time of the day or night.
8. Cruise Vaucluse
For blue-chip Sydney real estate, Vaucluse is about as desirable as it gets. If Double Bay is dubbed Double Pay, Vaucluse, in the exclusive east, is double pay with a very generous bonus and stock options. Its few winding streets, totally tailored to the view, mean you can cruise or easily walk around to take in the gob-smacking residences, which range from historic mansions to modern masterpieces worthy of Architectural Digest covers. But you don’t need to own to enjoy the best views. Take Vaucluse Road to Nielsen Park and wander down to Shark Beach (so called because of its shark nets). This is a great kiddies’ swimming spot and arguably the prettiest beach on the harbour. Nielsen Park Kiosk, overlooking the water, is a great spot for lunch. Around Vaucluse Point to the east, overlooking narrow Vaucluse Bay, is the turreted Vaucluse House, built in 1803 and still surrounded by ten sweeping hectares of gardens and grounds. A tour costs $7, or you can put that toward tea and scones at the Tearooms.
9. Watch the sun set from Watson’s Bay
Serving up seafood and superb views, Doyle’s at Watson’s Bay is probably Sydney’s most famous restaurant. For those who like their fish ’n’ chips on paper, not plate, there’s a takeaway window. Walk off some of the grease with a trek up to South Head and the postcard-pretty Camp Cove. The last beach before South Head is the nudie Lady Jane. On the ocean side, The Gap Park has (yet again) heroic views. Finish back at Watson’s Bay to watch the sun set over the Harbour Bridge before hopping on a ferry back to Circular Quay.
10. Plod through Paddy’s Markets, then chow down in Chinatown
Paddy’s Markets (not to be confused with Paddington Market), housed in a massive red-brick barn on Hay Street, has been going since 1834. Open Thursday to Sunday, it’s vast rather than interesting but a convenient stop for cheap traveller essentials. Chinatown, at the south-west corner of the CBD, centred on Dixon St (just across the road from Paddy’s), ticks the boxes for colour, bustle, tantalising sights and smells, and choice of chow palaces. You can spend what you like on exotic fare – sea cucumber and abalone, for instance – but if you can’t get a great cheap meal here, you’re not even trying.
By Suzi Petkovski