Wander by Sydney Harbour and you'll encounter the Harbour Bridge and Opera House. Venture a little further and discover parks with water views, the CBD's shopping strips and the famous golden beaches that stretch from the NSW capital's north to its south. But even if you know your way around, this city always has a few secrets up its sleeve…
Swim secret harbour nooks
“Everyone’s familiar with Woolloomooloo and Rose Bay and Watsons Bay,” says My Sydney Boat’s Mark Dalgleish, rattling off the routes travelled by most cruises around Sydney harbour. “But when you cross the heads into Middle Harbour, that’s where you’ll find spectacular bays and beaches that few people know about.” Dalgleish’s fleet of vessels are designed to reach crannies and coves few others can and his team of guide-slash-captains can customise your perfect day. Land at hidden Store Beach to find rock inscriptions that date back to colonial settlement, take an easy dip in the shallow waters at Castle Rock Beach and even sail out beyond the heads of the harbour to see seals and dolphins.
See big shows in unexpected places
Australia’s music greats have been keeping the guitars tuned and their drum kits tight in readiness for this moment. Now they’re bursting back onto stages in some surprising places. The Great Southern Nights event (18 March to 10 April 2022) is lining up big acts in venues dotted all over NSW cities and regional towns. Some of the highlights square perfectly with side trips from Sydney. You could catch The Whitlams at the Parramatta Riverside Theatre (book a table at champagne bar Nick & Nora’s or cruisy Italian trattoria Cicciabella for dinner before the show) on your way back from exploring the historic Hawkesbury town of Windsor. Or you could see Missy Higgins and Jessica Mauboy at Anita’s Theatre in Thirroul after a day hopping between the Wollongong coast’s pretty beaches. If you’re planning a road trip further afield, heads up: Peking Duk is playing in Byron Bay on 31 March and Julia Stone is in Albury on 10 April.
Eat around a mystery picnic trail
Mystery picnics run by AmazingCo work like an eat-your-own-adventure around some of Sydney’s best food neighbourhoods. You and a friend or two pick the starting spot, choosing from city locations like The Rocks and Darling Harbour, the east's Bondi Beach or, if you fancy putting a twist on a day trip, the Central Coast or Blue Mountains. The ‘picnic masters’ will then issue your smartphone clues for you to follow to collect ingredients from boutique producers and artisans. You’ll also get tips on detours and games to play along the way. A picnic set-up in a showstopper location awaits at the end.
One of co-founder Nick Brozovic’s favourite trails is the Mystery Picnic Date that hunts down “hidden gems” around the creative harbourside suburb of Balmain. “It’s a pocket often overlooked by travellers but the food scene is exciting. Even Sydney locals will be surprised by what they find.
Snorkel and dive like it’s the tropics
Think a big city isn’t a place for disappearing into a bright underwater world brimming with marine life? Think again. Scuba diving off Bare Island north of Botany Bay in La Perouse, an easy 17 kilometres from the CBD, is thrilling. “We get heaps of different species – big and small,” says Samantha Patterson-Ross from Abyss Scuba Diving. “There are big groupers that like to come up and say g’day. In winter, you’ll see giant cuttlefish hanging out under overhangs. Here, you’ll also find pygmy pipe horses – you don’t really get them anywhere else.” Abyss instructors lead shore and boat dives most weekends; just sign up and jump in.
Conquer an epic coastal bushwalk, easily
It winds 80 kilometres of craggy bluffs, bays and bush trails between Sydney’s two landmark beaches, so you’d need to be pretty committed – possibly one-week-level committed – to trek the entire Bondi to Manly coastal walk. But if you zoom in on short stretches you’ll wander some of Sydney’s prettiest harbourside real estate, discovering some of its most surprising secrets in a day or less. Get the feeling of a big escape but be back by happy hour.
The Harbour Bridge to Taronga Zoo section serves the best views of the city as you meander along bays bobbing with boats – be sure to detour into the lush Lex and Ruby Graham Garden that blooms with tree ferns and bromeliads. The section from Watsons Bay to Rose Bay delivers swims at sometimes-buzzing harbour beaches between stretches of solitude. And you can finish your trek with a cod-and-gravy roll from Charcoal Fish. Or pick the stretch between the Spit Bridge and Manly to discover Grotto Point and its awe-inspiring First Nations engravings.
Stay up later in style
Sydney after dark is back, baby – but it doesn’t have to be about dank, sweaty dancefloors (though you’ll get those, too, if that’s your jam). There’s plenty of late-night music, eats and atmosphere to keep you entertained. The Art Deco Golden Age Cinema and Bar in Surry Hills is best known for film screenings, but also hosts high-style live music shows. At velvet-swathed Restaurant Hubert, step back into old-world Paris as you descend the staircase into the underground bistro – there’s almost always a jazz band on stage and the restaurant’s Theatre Royal room hosts a line-up of one-off music and film events. After something grittier? New George Street hangout Mumu dishes up South East Asian street food with wicked cocktails until at least 11pm on weekends – and the big party vibes go on until 2am. In the cool Inner West, the much-loved Enmore Theatre’s 2022 gig guide includes the chill beats of Morcheeba and a host of indie bands.
Explore Indigenous history in the CBD
Sydney city is rich with Aboriginal culture. To experience the First Nations history and stories that give you a whole other, holistic take on things, take a bespoke full-day tour with Splendour Tailored Tours, guided by a local First Nations host. You might start by getting the real story on The Rocks, then head into the Botanical Gardens where your guide can help you imagine what it may have been like to see the first tall ships of colonisation enter the harbour. Your guide can also take you into the Art Gallery of New South Wales to gain an understanding of its vibrant collection of works from Aboriginal communities from all over the country. Finish with lunch in Bondi or on the Coogee headlands.