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5 Essential Sydney Experiences

Sydney is a brilliant hybrid, a dramatic and magnificent waterfront city that’s a mash-up of many places you may have been but unlike any of them. It reminds me of Vancouver and Hong Kong, thanks to towering glass and steel skyscrapers overlooking one of the world’s greatest harbors. Meanwhile, the pastel beach bungalows in the eastern suburbs recall equal parts Brighton and Malibu. Then toss in stately Victorian sandstone architecture that would be at home in Edinburgh, add an overlay of deep Asian culture, and you have some approximation of this marvelous place.

In the land of flat whites, footy, and koalas, here are five things you must do to realize that you have flown halfway around the world to a friendly and energetic city.

Bondi Beach and Icebergs

Half an hour by train and bus from the Central Business District, nothing prepares you for your first glimpse of Bondi Beach, a great half-moon of sand and surf, the heart of Australia’s surfing and beach culture. Head south along the beach, watching the surfers as you go, and climb the stairs to Bondi Icebergs, where a modest admission allows you to swim in a pool filled with ocean water as giant waves crash in every few minutes or so. After some chilly laps that will take care of any lingering jetlag, go up two flights for the spectacular food, wine, and views of the Bondi Icebergs Club restaurant.

Sydney Harbour Tour

The single most dramatic experience that you might have in Sydney is taking a cruise on the bustling harbor, the second busiest in the world after Hong Kong. It’s not just active but vast, stretching eastward past a series of bays until you reach the gates, where giant rollers wash in from the Pacific Ocean and crash into the formidable sandstone cliffs that frame the harbor mouth. There are any number of lunch and dinner cruises, but I opted for a small, fast boat tour called Sydney Harbour Icons, Bays & Beaches Morning Cruise. The boat maxed out at 12 passengers and offered a lively tour that stopped for seals, rode the great ocean swells coming in from the Pacific, and gave you a real sense of the watery life of Sydney.

Sydney Opera House

The white sails of the Sydney Opera House are instantly recognizable and eminently Instagrammable. The complex of six performance halls soars at the edge of Sydney Harbor and is one of the world’s most striking pieces of architecture. To experience how unique this structure is, inside and outside, attend a rehearsal or an actual performance. I did both, watching The Australian Ballet in class onstage at the Joan Sutherland theater, taught by artistic director David Hallberg in an intimate setting. I then attended a performance two days later of “Instruments of Dance,” showcasing three contemporary ballets by Justin Peck, Wayne McGregor, and Alice Topp. Accompanied by Orchestra Victoria, it was an opportunity to get a sense of the fantastic space and the incredible acoustics that allows a surround sound experience.

Barangaroo Aboriginal Cultural Tours

Barangaroo Aboriginal Cultural Tours is led by a team of Aboriginal educators, a great way to connect with the world’s oldest living culture. The tours explore the headland of Barangaroo Reserve, which has 75,000 native Australian trees and shrubs, the only public space in Sydney to boast this quota of native flora. It opens up the world of native history of Warrane (Sydney Harbour), Australia’s Aboriginal heritage, and its significance to the clans of the Eora Nation.

Australian National Maritime Museum

Seafaring has long been an integral part of the life of this island nation. You can still feel it when you gaze out on Sydney Harbor and watch the frequent comings and goings of ferries and pleasure craft. But to get a sense of the historical roots of ships and Australia, head to the Australian National Maritime Museum on Darling Harbor. The modern space has exhibitions that cover art, maritime culture, and Indigenous culture, including exhibits about migration, a defining Australian experience, documenting the four-week sea journeys from England that were commonplace until the age of jet travel. Even more interesting are the docked historic ships at the pier, like the HMAS Onslow submarine and especially the replica of the HM Endeavour, the ship that Captain Cook sailed on his epic world voyage from 1768-71 when he “discovered” Australia.

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