Then you can move on to the ocean pools, cut out of the rocks next to beaches including Bronte, Collaroy and Dee Why.
The Opera House isn’t white
“It wasn’t quite what I expected” is the general reaction after first time sightings of the Opera House. That’s partly because the Sydney Harbour Bridge dwarfs it, but partly because the tiles aren’t the gleaming white many anticipate. They’re an off-white, not quite beige colour – largely because if they were a purer white the glare factor would be crashing ferries and temporarily blinding tourists.
The harbour is splintered
The standard Sydney Harbour image – Circular Quay, Opera House and Bridge – is rather unrepresentative of the harbour as a whole. It’s a magnificent, multi-faceted entity of splinters and bulges. The mix of coves, gullies, high cliffs, yacht-filled bays and protruding headlands is best seen on the glorious 10km Spit Bridge to Manly walk.
You can see Aboriginal rock art
The Spit Bridge to Manly walk also passes Grotto Point, home to a substantial set of Aboriginal rock engravings.
It’s not the only rock art in Sydney, though – thousands of individual artworks have been uncovered around the city. The best way to combine several is the 4.4km Aboriginal Heritage Walk in the West Head section of Ku-Ring-Gai Chase National Park.
The bush is never too far away
Ku-Ring-Gai Chase is the best example of how Sydney is interspersed with genuine, wild bushland. That’s not just urban parks with a few trees, but genuine thick forest with free-running creeks and all manner of wildlife.
Lane Cove National Park and Cumberland State Forest in the north-west of the city offer similar, albeit on a smaller scale.
You can walk across the Harbour Bridge
It’s free, too. Alas, walking across the Sydney Harbour Bridge isn’t quite the exercise in sightseeing majesty that it could be. High fences, designed to stop anyone falling off, significantly obscure the view. The pedestrian walkway is also right next to the road deck, so that romantic stroll across the harbour is soundtracked by continual traffic roar.
The harbour beaches are lovely
That splintered harbour is lined with dozens of beaches. Granted, they don’t get the surf of Sydney’s better known ocean beaches, but the likes of Balmoral Beach and Camp Cove offer safe swimming and splendid views.
The real finds, however, are the small coves you have to walk to. Castle Rock Beach on the north shore and Milk Beach on the south shore are absolute beauties.
Western Sydney is enormous
Sydney’s CBD is absolutely nowhere near the geographic centre of the urban sprawl, as anyone attempting to nip to the Blue Mountains for a day quickly discovers. Western Sydney is essentially a separate beast to the relatively tiny chunk in the east that visitors see.
There are patches worth visiting, though – try Cabramatta for Vietnamese food, Parramatta for heritage, and the gigantic Western Sydney Parklands for walking.
There’s wildlife in the city
The Royal Botanic Garden, right next to the city centre, is brimming with bird life. In fact, you can pick up a leaflet telling you which species to look out for.
Hyde Park, meanwhile, is a popular hang out for possums, which can be spotted scampering between the fig trees once the sun has gone down.
It’s old enough to be an archaeological site
In the middle of the Rocks, much of it beneath the stilts of the Sydney Harbour YHA, is the Big Dig site. This excavation peels back the layers of history that have lumped on top of each other in Sydney’s oldest suburb, uncovering clues about the early convict population. Signs tell of the artefacts and sometimes salacious stories that have been uncovered.
Chippendale got cool
The inner west around Newtown has long been Sydney’s indie, cultural heart. But the bit between the CBD and Newtown used to be dire. Mercifully, Ultimo and Chippendale have undergone massive revamps in the last 15 years, and are now home to galleries, daring architecture and fun eat streets such as the Asian-themed Spice Alley.
Housing is often handsome
There are pockets of Sydney where the housing shows off the city’s surprisingly rich heritage. Go for a saunter around Paddington, Surry Hills or Millers Point, and you’ll come across hundreds of Victorian and Edwardian terrace houses, often with decorative iron balconies and verandas.
The ferries are actually useful
In many cities, ferries can be little more than touristy novelty items. In Sydney, they’re often the quickest way of getting from A to B. That’s certainly the case for the routes most popular with visitors – from Circular Quay to Watsons Bay, Manly and Taronga Zoo. But for less heralded routes across the harbour – and when flitting from Circular Quay to Darling Harbour – the ferry often just works better than faffing with trains and buses.
The trains don’t go to the beaches
Sydney’s public transport network is broadly not bad, but trying to get to the beach is maddening. Primarily because residents of the beach suburbs have long resisted train line extensions, the only way of getting to the likes of Bondi, Coogee and Collaroy is by bus. And those buses can be infuriatingly slow as they lumber their way through traffic.
Sydney never gets properly snow and icicles cold, but there’s a period of roughly six weeks during the winter months where you really, really want your Airbnb to have central heating. The mean minimum temperature in July is 8.1°C. And, at the very least, you’re going to want a jacket when you go out at night.
… but whales arrive
Other Australian destinations – notably Eden and Hervey Bay – do whale-watching better than Sydney. But nowhere does it more conveniently than Sydney. Whale Watching Sydney‘s boats reach the open ocean from Circular Quay in 15 to 20 minutes, and the season runs from May to November.
You don’t need an Opal card
Opal is Sydney’s public transport payment system. But unlike in some other Australian cities we could mention, there’s no need to buy a separate card and put money on it before getting on board a train, bus or ferry. You can tap in with your contactless debit or credit card for exactly the same price.
Dining with a view needn’t be expensive
Sure, there are some very expensive high-end restaurants around Sydney Harbour. But while there’s often a harbourside premium, a burger or pizza at the Opera Bar next to the Opera House will set you back less than $30.
For pub food with top views out over the harbour, though, head up to the rooftop of the Glenmore Hotel in the Rocks.
The writer has been a guest of Tourism Australia and Destination New South Wales.