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Beach fringed and culture steeped, Sydney is a sparkling, cosmopolitan city offering a seemingly endless array of things to see and do. If you’re lucky enough to spend some time in New South Wales’s bustling capital, you’ll want to explore its iconic attractions: amazing buildings, sun-blessed beaches and beyond. Following are six of the city’s very best, including insider advice for maximizing each experience.

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Sydney Harbour, Australia, New South Wales, Sydney

Sydney Harbour

See Sydney Harbour by day—or night

Sydney’s spectacular harbor (yes, Aussies spell it with a “u”) is perhaps its most notable feature. Hence, its nickname of Harbour City. Experiencing Sydney by water is as easy as hopping on a ferry in Circular Quay on the northern end of the Central Business District, a.k.a. the CBD. The ferry ride to Manly is not to be missed, offering up-close-and-personal views of the famous Sydney Harbour Bridge, the Opera House and bright blue waters flowing out past the inner heads into the wide Pacific. This daily ferry service, which departs every half hour from Circular Quay, has been running since 1856. In Manly, don’t miss sunbathing on its famous strand.
Insider tip: Enjoy the dazzling cityscape at night on a harbor dinner cruise, such as one of those offered by Captain Cook Cruises. What could be better than a floating restaurant on Sydney Harbour? Nothing, mate!

Sydney Opera House

Don’t just Instagram the Opera House—go inside

The Sydney Opera House is a marvel of 20th-century architecture and one of the most recognizable buildings on the planet. With a roof made up of delicate-looking vaulted “shells” (also referred to as “sails”), and a prime location on Sydney Harbour, this sculptural landmark is photographed from all angles at all times of the day by tourists from all over the world. “See?” these photos declare, probably better than anything else can, “I’m in Sydney!” To really experience this architectural marvel, take a guided tour of the building and learn all sorts of fun facts to help you better caption your Instagram posts.
Insider tip: It might seem like a no-brainer, but the best way to get a more intimate look at what happens inside the Opera House is to attend a show at the multi-venue performing arts center, which features a diverse calendar of music, comedy, theater, dance and discourse. More than 40 events happen every week, so you should have no problem snagging a ticket.

Harbour Bridge, Sydney, Australia

Harbour Bridge at sunset

Don’t just admire the Sydney Harbour Bridge—climb it!

If you’ve done any research on Sydney, you’ve probably heard of BridgeClimb, in which ordinary people—and occasionally, some celebrities—pay for the privilege of “summiting” the Sydney Harbour Bridge by trekking up a series of staircases, catwalks and ladders wearing sporty blue-and-grey climb suits. Throughout the adventure, a climb leader entertains you (or, if you’re afraid of heights, mitigates your fear) with stories about the landmark bridge, facts and jokes. The views from the top—of Sydney Harbour, the Sydney Heads, and, on a clear day, the Blue Mountains in the distance—make the spine-tingling (and rather expensive) ascent worthwhile.
Insider tip: Book a sunset session in July and August (their winter), and you’ll be treated to a live music performance atop the bridge as the sun slips below the horizon and the sky turns riotous shades of pink and red. (Apparently, the crisp winter air makes the colors more vibrant.) These mini concerts are included in the standard ticket price of weekend twilight climbs in July and August.

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MCA Sydney, Australia, New South Wales

MCA of Australia lit up during Vivid Sydney | Flickr photo by David Minty

See contemporary art—and scenic views

Located across Circular Quay in the Rocks, a historic neighborhood lined with charming cobblestone streets, the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia is home to cutting-edge contemporary art from across Australia and around the world. Duck inside the boxy-looking, waterside building to take in a variety of exhibitions, featuring everything from painting and drawing to sculpture and new media. At this well-curated institution, there’s always something interesting to see.
Insider tip: The interior isn’t the only place that’s a feast for the eyes. After you’ve had your fill of art, head up to the rooftop terrace to enjoy a glass of wine or bite to eat, as well as breathtaking views of the harbor and fresh breezes, at the MCA Cafe.

Royal Botanic Garden, Sydney, Australia

Royal Botanic Garden

Stroll the Royal Botanic Garden

Established in the early 19th century, the Royal Botanic Garden, Sydney, is the oldest scientific institution in Australia and one of the oldest public gardens in the Southern Hemisphere. An impressive array of plants, with an emphasis on those native to Oz, make their home here, including palms, hoyas, eucalyptus, bottle trees, Australian fig trees and Kauri pine. Retreat to the garden to enjoy some moments of calm in the heart of the bustling CBD. It’s open every day of the year, and there’s no admission fee.
Insider tip: To make the most of your time in the park, pack a picnic. With a little notice, the on-site Botanic Gardens Cafe will even pack one for you, stuffed with meats, cheeses, sandwiches, fruit salad and dried fruits.

Bondi Beach, Sydney, Australia

Bondi Beach

Enjoy sun and sand at Bondi Beach

What would a trip to Sydney be without a stop at the world-famous Bondi Beach? Sure, there are plenty of other wonderful beaches to explore (for example the Northern Beaches—well worth a visit, if time permits), but a trip to Bondi is something you have to do at least once. Travel by train, bus, taxi, or a combination thereof, to this beautifully curved beach, tucked between two sandstone headlands, where surfers, swimmers, sunbathers and more make for great people-watching. Fun fact: Bondi is unique in that it faces south, whereas most of Sydney’s beaches face east.
Insider tip: Head to Bondi Icebergs, located at the beach’s southern tip. Here, you can take a dip in an iconic ocean pool, built in 1929, its crystal-blue waters splashing over the wall into the sea below. Or head to the Icebergs clubhouse—open to visitors and members alike—to sip a sparkling cocktail in a crisp, contemporary restaurant offering stunning beach views.

Where to stay in Sydney: Located in Darling Harbour, the Hyatt Regency Sydney is the largest hotel in the city. Easily accessible via a quick ferry ride from Circular Quay, it also offers close proximity to shopping (including the Queen Victoria Building and Westfield Sydney), great restaurants, public transportation and other conveniences of the CBD. The 892 well-appointed guest rooms feature clean, modern decor, free WiFi, iPod docks, refrigerators, flat-screen TVs and minibars. Best of all, many rooms boast awesome views of the city. After an action-packed day exploring Sydney, enjoy a cocktail at the open-air rooftop bar, Zephyr; dine at the Sailmaker restaurant; or simply order room service and watch as evening falls on Darling Harbour and Syndeysiders make their way home.

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Tagged: Australia

Laura Pearson

Laura Pearson

Laura is a travel-loving Chicago-based journalist who writes about art and culture. Follow her on Twitter at @tislaurapearson.

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