Sydney Harbour from above

Sydney: The Coastal Australian City With More Than 100 Beaches

Rachel Lees

Rachel Lees

October 13, 2023

7 min read

There’s a reason Sydneysiders are so laid-back. Centered around a spectacular harbor, Sydney is home to more than 100 beaches and three of Australia’s most iconic sites: the Harbour Bridge, Opera House, and Bondi Beach. 

But if you think you’ve got Sydney figured out, think again. It’s currently reconciling with its dark colonial history. The strict drinking laws that put a damper on nightlife in this party-loving city are changing, plus, its vibrant modern arts scene has started spilling out of the confines of museums and into city streets and beaches.

Water under the bridge 

Sydney Harbour Bridge.

Sydney Harbour was once the lifeblood of the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation, along with many other Indigenous clans. Today, it’s one of Australia’s busiest waterways, used by thousands of vessels from cruise and naval ships to ferries transporting people to and from work. 

Outdoor enthusiasts love to hike through the city's miles of bushland, and kayak, swim, and sail its waters. And each year, Sydney kicks off New Year’s Eve celebrations around the world with a spectacular fireworks display. For the best views of the iconic Opera House and Harbour Bridge, hop aboard the Manly Ferry from Circular Quay, a commuter route that’s been making the 30-minute journey across the water since 1856. 

A change of tune 

The gleaming white sails of the Sydney Opera House are synonymous with Sydney, and the arts venue draws more than 10.9 million visitors annually. But the structure hasn’t been without controversy.

Then relatively unknown, Danish architect Jørn Utzon won an international competition to design the building, with a vision fusing ancient and modernist influences. Construction began in 1959 but Utzon never saw it completed, after being forced out of the project by the Minister of Works in 1966. Expected to take four years and AUD $7 million, it was completed in 14 years for an eye-watering AUD $102 million. 

Join a tour at the Opera House to learn more about its fascinating history, how the structure is heated and cooled by seawater, and what it takes to care for the more than 1 million tiles that line its exterior. 

Sydney’s traditional custodians 

Two centuries after British invasion, Australia is in the midst of a reckoning with its colonial history, which saw the widespread massacre of First Nations peoples. Recent political change has meant new reparations, including the addition of a permanent Aboriginal flag to Sydney Harbour Bridge. 

To gain insight into the life of Australia’s many Indigenous peoples, catch a performance by Bangarra Dance Theatre, a contemporary dance company telling powerful stories about ancient and recent Aboriginal history; take a walking tour of The Rocks area as the respected Dunghutti Jerrinja elder Aunty Margret explains the significance of the sunrise, saltwater and sandstone, and how she continues to connect with her ancestors in a built-up city environment; and, learn how to forage for bush tucker with an Indigenous guide at the Royal Botanic Garden.

Get the party started  

closeup of a cup of beer.

Long before lockdowns were a thing, Sydney introduced lockout laws. It was 2014 and the aim was to curb alcohol-fueled violence after five young men died in just three years. The laws meant 1:30am lockouts and 3am last drinks at venues in the city’s entertainment precinct, including Kings Cross, Darlinghurst, and The Rocks. Within four years, 418 licensed premises had closed in those areas. 

Now, as the laws are reeled back, a new wave of innovative cocktail bars are working to put Sydney back on the map, including Maybe Sammy and Cantina OK!, which both appear on The World’s 50 Best Bars list.   

Bigger fish to fry (or slow-cook)  

Flanked by the harbor and world-class beaches, Sydney is known for its seafood. Book ahead for highly acclaimed seafood restaurant Saint Peter, where chef Josh Niland utilizes every part of the fish, from the eyes and liver to the scales. Take the Murray cod, for example: its roe is turned into caviar, cod bones are roasted and made into a gravy for the rotisserie cod roll, and cod fat is cured for salami and used in the caramel ice cream.

However, the city’s most iconic dish is arguably the confit of ocean trout (part of a five or eight-course degustation) at Japanese fine diner Tetsuya’s­––but hurry, the restaurant is closing in August 2023. 

Wherever you dine, start with Sydney rock oysters. Renowned for their complexity and sweetness, they’re best eaten freshly shucked and raw with a glass of Hunter Valley Sémillon. 

Going swimmingly 

beach near Sydney.

From calm bays and hidden coves to pumping surf beaches, Sydney’s 100+ spectacular beaches are known for their golden sands and clear, temperate waters, but can also be treacherous if you don’t know where it’s safe to swim (answer: only between the red-and-yellow flags). Head to the ocean during the warmer months and you’ll find adults and children (“Nippers”) wearing the unmistakable red-and-yellow uniform that denotes Surf Life Saving lifeguards. 

There are 129 clubs throughout New South Wales but its origins began on Sydney’s Manly Beach in 1902, when William Gocher defied the law and swam during prohibited hours. Today, lifesaving is a proud Aussie tradition; trained volunteers patrol the beaches from September to April to ensure beachgoers stay safe. 

Stay cool 

With Australian borders closed for much of the last couple of years, Sydney’s travel industry ground to a halt. But it has restarted with renewed vigor and a spate of design-forward hotel openings. 

The 172-room Kimpton Margot delivers art deco elegance with a modern edge in the former headquarters of the Sydney Water Board, built in 1939. At The Porter House by MGallery, pressed tin details and leather furnishings throughout its 122 rooms nod to the hotel’s history as a tobacco and leather merchant in a building that dates to 1876. And for those seeking a more  affordable luxury, the minimalist 230-room Little National provides super king-size beds in compact yet efficient spaces.   

State of the art 

light show at Sydney Vivid.

Ask most people where Australia’s cultural capital is, and they’ll point to a city farther south than Sydney (ahem, Melbourne). The problem, says a recent report, is branding; Sydney relies too heavily on promoting its iconic landmarks. A disservice, considering it’s home to the Museum of Contemporary Art, where you’ll find more than 4,000 artworks by modern Australian artists, including Warrang by Brook Andrew, a flashing arrow that points to lines of poetry, which encourages visitors to reflect on the history of the museum’s site.

There are also plenty of fantastic outdoor art festivals. Creative light installations illuminate buildings all over the city for Vivid Sydney (May to June), a night festival that drew 2.58 million visitors this year alone with pieces such as Ephemeral Oceanic by Atelier Sisu, a set of 150 iridescent orbs floating on Walsh Bay. Meanwhile, Sculpture by the Sea (October to November) features impressive large-scale modern art, including Ukrainian artist Nikita Zugura’s Global Warming––two giant, yellowing cherries made from aluminum stainless steel––scattered along the Bondi to Tamarama walk.  

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Rachel Lees

Rachel Lees

Freelance Writer

Rachel Lees is an Australian travel writer. A former deputy editor of Singapore Airlines’ inflight magazine, her stories have appeared in several international publications including The Sunday Times, BBC, Lonely Planet, and Travel+Leisure Southeast Asia. Originally from Melbourne, Rachel spent 10 years in Sydney and six years in Singapore before returning to Sydney in 2019.

Published October 13, 2023

Last updated December 19, 2023

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