My family and I recently embarked on what was a dream trip for me. I’ve been obsessed with Australia since I was a child. My extensive koala bear stuffed animal collection filled my days along with learning the all the words to Australian nursery rhymes like Kookaburra Sits in The Old Gum Tree and Waltzing Matilda. When my husband said he needed to head to Sydney for work, I announced that his business trip would be a family vacation. We packed up our bags and headed Down Under. It took two planes and over 18 hours to get there but the minute we stepped off the plane, I felt excitement wash over me. The Sydney airport wasn’t anything specular and there was a layer of sweaty grime all over me but I was ready to get to know this city!
We opt’d to take a taxi to our hotel since we were weighed down with luggage but Sydney’s transportation options are endless. The city offers an extensive train system, buses, soon a light rail system and, my favorite way to travel through Sydney, passenger ferries which sail over Sydney Harbour offering spectacular views of Sydney. Snag an Opal card for all transportation fees. This card is all you need to pay for transportation around Sydney. Top up stations are located near every ferry wharf, train and bus station. Make sure to tap in and out when you exit. Rideshare bikes were everywhere in Sydney and most provide helmets for their riders to use. They appeared to have some of the same issues, Seattle is facing with bikes being tossed in the harbour and helmets being trashed.
In order to fight jet lag and check out the city, we decided to jump aboard a Hop On, Hop Off bus. I wanted to get my bearings but knew my kids weren’t up for exploring the city on foot. I highly recommend Hop On, Hop Off buses when visiting a new city. Yes, they are usually loud and huge and a little bit cheesy but it can be a great way to learn about the place you are visiting. The bus drove us around the city where my daughter spotted a tree full of cockatoos. It was a beautiful sight and not one I’d imagined seeing. Up until that moment, I had only seen cockatoos in bird cages but to see them in their true environment was breathtaking. The bus took us around the city and the audio tour provided a bit of history about Sydney.
Sydney was named for Lord Sydney, who was the British home secretary when Captain Arthur Phillip and the First Fleet arrived in January 1788 and soon became the site of Australia’s first penal colony. The English weren’t Sydney’s first inhabitants though. The Aboriginal people had occupied the area for at least 50,000 years before Phillips’s ship sailed into Sydney’s magnificent harbour and suffered greatly upon the arrival of the English. The 1850s Gold Rush brought much change to this city such as massive improvements to the city’s railway and port systems. Sydney was the capital of Australia from 1788 to 1900 when Canberra as named the country’s capital instead.
Over the past half century, Sydney has grown to be Australia’s largest city and one of the world’s most ethnically diverse. More than 180 nationalities call Sydney home. I was worried about sounding out place on our visit but more often than not we were asked if we lived in Sydney.
On our second day in Sydney, we decided to head out of the city to The Blue Mountains. Just about an hour west of the city are The Blue Mountains. The mountains are covered in eucalyptus forests giving them a blueish hue. Our tour guide, Dave picked us up at our hotel and we were on our way. The tour stopped first at Featherdale Wildlife Park, a wildlife conservatory. This was where my childhood dream of petting a koala was made. My husband made sure I headed immediately to the “Pet a Koala” area. Yes, it was a bit cheesy with the tree stump and the Koala chewing on eucalyptus but 8-year-old Rebecca was trying so hard not to squeal and scare the Koala. Once my childhood dream had been accomplished, we toured the rest of the park where we found kangaroos, wallabies, crocodiles, Australian birds and all sorts of other animals. I haven’t seen so many kangaroos in one location, ever. Once we had toured Featherdale, we loaded back into the van and headed toward The Blue Mountains. They were amazing. The dramatic views were breathtaking. Soon afterward we took two gondolas and a ride up the steepest railroad in the world at Scenic World. I’ll admit to feel a bit nervous on the railroad when we pretty much went straight up the mountain. After a bit of lunch, we headed back toward Sydney where we were given the chance to see the Sydney Olympic Park where the 2000 Summer Olympics were held. From there we hopped aboard a passenger ferry back to Circular Quay. My mind was overwhelmed by the end of the day with the vast beauty Australia had to offer.
Our next few days were spent walking Sydney, riding ferries and checking out all the city’s opportunities. We ambled through Chinatown and were surprised by a Chinese New Year Parade filled with loud firecrackers and dancing dragons. We walked through the The Royal Botanic Garden, into St. Mary’s Cathedral (which wasn’t even finished until the early 2000s) and through Hyde Park. We stumbled upon the New South Wales Museum which was hosting an exhibit on Mapplethorpe. We learned about aboriginal art and were stunned by some of the pieces.
One thing we quickly learned about Sydney was how expensive the food was. A simple lunch of three sandwich entrees with drinks was usually around $65. To combat pouring all of our money down our pie holes, I started making everyone eat at our hotel’s breakfast buffet. One meal was included with our hotel and a second meal was $30 while kids were free. The buffet was extensive and included almost every single kind of breakfast food you could imagine. What impressed me the most was the quality of the food. The eggs had the brightest yellow yolks I’ve ever seen and I have my own chickens so I’m used to good eggs. The breakfast sausage melted in your mouth and the juice was fresh. We’d load up on breakfast which would take us far into our daily adventures. We enjoyed some awesome dinners at Betty’s Burgers where I had a fried mushroom burger with gouda and gruyére cheese or the sushi inspired chicken burger I had at Gojima which came wrapped in fried rice and seaweed. Food is divine in Sydney and even our worst meal was better than many I’ve had in Seattle. We also consumed lots and lots of sushi.
When Monday came around, my husband had to head to work which meant explorations were left to just me and our two girls. We had a blast and checked out every crevice in the city. We spent almost an entire day at the Children's Playground at Darling Quarter. This giant playground features swings, a zip line, a huge climbing structure along with two water splash zones. If you bring kids to Sydney, make sure to allocate time to hang out here.
Later in the week, we made the trek to Taronga Zoo. Located on the shores of Sydney Harbour, Taronga Zoo Sydney is the city zoo of Sydney. Built on the side of a hill with access via gondola, the zoo opened in 1916 and provides exceptional views of the city. Their daily animal shows are great if you can catch one. Visit the zoo via ferry for a completely unique experience.
We also took the city ferries to Manly Beach and happened upon one of the many sea pools. I was delighted to take a dip in the salt water without having to deal with sand. The Fairy Bower Sea Pool is not large but is such a great experience. Built by local residents in 1929, the pool is one of a number of historic pools cut and blasted along the New South Wales coast. It turns out these saltwater pools have quite the history in Sydney. You can learn more here.
Unfortunately for my oldest daughter, Manly Beach involved some pain. While playing in the ocean she was stung by a jellyfish. I was quickly impressed by the sweetness of the Australians who ran over with fresh water to flush her leg and helped us over to the lifeguard. After flushing her leg some more, they announced she was officially an Aussie which she reported back to her dad with pride. Later on, we ran into a couple who witnessed the sting and they wanted to know how she was doing. Luckily by then she had recovered and was back to playing.
The people of Sydney are some of the nicest people I’ve encountered in my travels. They were all incredibly helpful and nice. There is no Seattle Freeze in Sydney! I also found them all very fashionable and fit though smoking is still very much alive in this city. The people of Sydney are very cosmopolitan and fashion forward so bring your fashionable duds to this city.
One day, we decided to hit up Luna Park for some old school amusement park fun. Luna Park Sydney is located at Milsons Point, just 600 meters from the Sydney Harbour Bridge. The original Luna Park was built in 1935 and has undergone a series of closing, renaming and openings over the years. Admission to the amusement park also includes swimming time at the nearby open air pool. You’ll find carnival games, Cooney Island inspired rides and lots of fun.
On our last day in Sydney, we made the long trek to Bondi Beach. We walked from our hotel to the train station and then jumped on a bus for the last leg of the journey. Bondi Beach is one of Australia’s most iconic beaches and rightfully so. The long sandy beach features reliable waves for surfers and a great beach for sunbathing. The nearby Icebergs ocean pool is open year-round with admission open to visitors for a small fee. I may have spent more time than necessary figuring out how I could live at Bondi Beach and belong to the Icebergs pool.
When it was time to leave, I didn’t feel ready. While I missed my animals and my home, I felt like Sydney and I needed more time together. I only scratched the surface of this city and while I did confirm that the toilet flushes in the opposite direction, I have so much more to learn about this place. As I boarded the plane for our 13.5 hour flight home, I promised myself that I’d be back. 10 days was just not enough.