Sydney Destination Guide

Sydney is known for its harbour, its beaches and its physical beauty. Yup, Sydney is ridiculously good looking. Scratch the surface a little deeper and you will find a city that is exploding with great places to eat and drink, beaches that are world-famous for a reason, festivals that are fun-filled and often free of charge, and a glittering harbour at the heart of it all. Being a mum of two young children has helped uncover parts of Sydney that I had never before discovered, despite living in Sydney for most of my adult life. These little secrets are included here for you to share with your own family.

If I were to fault Sydney on one thing (and I am not alone here) it would be its cost of living: Sydney’s beauty comes at a price. With that in mind, I have compiled a list of things to do in my little town that will not break the bank. It is possible to do Sydney on the cheap, and to do it well. The last decade has seen a baby boom in Sydney’s eastern and inner west suburbs. As a result, you won’t need to worry that the places that serve the best coffee are the least child-friendly; in fact it’s almost the opposite. Sydney is full of places that accommodate families who want to show their kids a great day without suffering for it themselves.

Sculpture by the Sea

PERSONAL BESTS

  1. A stroll around Marrickville Markets (see SEE&DO)
  2. Experiencing the magic of Wendy Whiteley’s Garden (see SEE&DO)
  3. A cool dip at McIver’s Baths (see SWIM)
  4. A trip to AGNSW and the Botanical Gardens (see SEE&DO)
  5. Escaping the city for the Blue Mountains (see OUT OF TOWN)

ORIENTATION

Australia’s largest city is fringed by the beautiful beaches on the Tasman Sea to the east, the Blue Mountains to the west, the Hawkesbury River to the north and the Royal National Park to the south.

The focus of the city is the spectacular, natural Harbour (it’s not called the Harbour City for nothing) which stretches 20km inland from Watson’s Bay to the Parramatta River. The focal point of the inner harbour is Circular Quay, home of the Sydney Opera House and the iconic Sydney Harbour Bridge. The CBD perches behind Circular Quay, and is ringed by a bunch of gregarious inner-city neighbourhoods like Kings Cross, Surry Hills, Redfern and Newtown. A genteel strip of posh suburbs unfurls east along the harbour to the ocean beaches including the famous Bondi. Heading west are former working-class areas, which have transformed into arty residential enclaves.

Sydney Sunset

SEE & DO

Wendy Whiteley’s Garden

Aside from its enchanted feel and physical beauty, the history of this garden is pretty special too. Wendy was the long-term partner of one of Australia’s most famous artists, the late Brett Whiteley. Following the tragic deaths of Brett and their only daughter Arkie, Wendy threw herself into transforming an old rubbish tip that lay between the foot of her castle like mansion and the harbour shores of Lavender Bay.  What has eventuated is a magnificent and mysterious hideaway, brimming with natural beauty and adventure for children and adults. Bring a picnic lunch; there are many beautiful spots to eat, play and explore. The ashes of both Arkie and Brett Whiteley are buried here, in an undisclosed location. FREE and always open | Clark Park, Lavender St, Lavender Bay

Marrickville Markets

Pick up some artisan bread, a kale smoothie (it’s not as bad as it sounds) and some vintage boots while your kids go on a pony ride, rock the jumping castle or get a quick haircut. That’s right, you can get a haircut here – she’s right next to the chai tent. Sundays 8am – 3pm |Addison Road Community Centre, 142 Addison Road, Marrickville

 Centennial Park

Hire a bike or a pedal car for the whole family, pack a picnic lunch and enjoy one of Sydney’s most beloved parks. With beautiful ponds, statues, cafés and two fantastic playgrounds, this is a great morning or afternoon trip for the whole family.

Art Gallery of New South Wales and Royal Botanic Gardens

I know not everyone is up for a trip to the art gallery with kids, but if you’re like me, you always try. During school holidays the AGNSW does great kid’s activities. At 11am. every day, an alien arrives to take the kids on a tour of the gallery and talk them through the artworks. Her costume seems to tickle even the youngest of art critics. Outside of school holiday times, it is still worth a visit, but best with very young babies or older children. Keeping toddlers fingers off the artworks can be infuriating. Lunch on the café terrace is a must and the children will love the kiddie’s pack, which comes with their choice of sandwich, fruit, juice, a biscuit and some activities. If you’ve still got it in you, take a stroll through the Botanic Gardens afterwards. Great pram access plus there is a bright red train that takes you on a tour all around the gardens. It leaves from the booth down by the opera house (you can leave your pram with them). End the day with a glass of wine on the forecourt of the Opera House, overlooking the harbour bridge. Ambitious, but you can do it!  Open daily 10am – 5pm | Art Gallery Rd |(02) 9225 1744

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Museum of Contemporary Art

The MCA has inspiring and interactive activities for children and adults most days of the week. Aim to get there in the morning; the activities usually start at 10am. Check out the website to find out what’s happening when you’re in town.
FREE |10am – 5pm | 140 George St, The Rocks (near Circular Quay)

 Luna Park

If theme parks are your thing, make a day of it. Expect to pay a small fortune and  eat nothing other than hot dogs and fish and chips, but the view of Sydney from the top of the Ferris wheel may make up for it. It’s also possible to do Luna Park on the quick and cheap – buy a $10 ticket that gives you access to Coney Island only – it has a touch of the creepy old world theme park to it and is loads of fun, with enormous slides, rides, mazes and games. 1 Olympic Dr, Milsons Point | (02) 9922 6644

Taronga Zoo

I wouldn’t include Taronga if it were any old zoo: Taronga is special. Situated with harbour views from all around, it’s a joy to wander with the kids looking at the animals, listening to the keeper talks and watching the shows. If you don’t have the time to spend the day at the zoo, you can always take the free sky safari, get a look at the harbour and the animals from above, jump back on the ferry and keep on going. Another option is to camp overnight at the zoo – the Roar and Snore sleep-over includes a two hour night zoo safari and a behind-the-scenes daylight tour. Bradley’s Head Road, Mosman | (02) 9969 2777

Darling Quarter Kids Playground

This is arguably Sydney’s best playground and has a 21 metre flying fox and an enormous water play area replete with pumps, fountains and buckets. It’s close to many other attractions and a great pit stop for a play. Note: they will get wet! FREE |1 Harbour St Sydney 

Cockatoo Island

Take the Sydney Harbour eco-hopper ferry (see TRANSPORT below) to this heritage-listed island in the middle of Sydney harbour. There is always something interesting happening over here. There are tours of the island, great activities and often art and music festivals. You can even stay overnight in the camping grounds or holiday houses. Check out the website to find out what’s happening while you’re in town.

SWIM

McIver’s Baths (The Ladies’ Baths of Coogee)

The ladies’ baths are located on the cliff face in between Coogee Beach and Wiley’s Baths (right behind the excellent playground). This is one of my favourite places in Sydney; just don’t come here if you’re a dude – these baths are for women and children only (including boys up to 12 years of age). Best for children of swimming age but also lovely for babies to float around in their mother’s arms. There is a very sweet entry fee of 20 cents that can be thrown through the gate into the tub. Old school. Always open, they never lock the gate.

Ladies Baths

Parsley Bay

Pretty much a local secret, this harbour beach is tucked away at the bottom of what looks like a long and winding driveway. Beautiful park, playground, ample shady spots to escape the heat, shallow calm water and cafe make this a perfect day out with the kids and a beautiful view of Sydney harbour. There is even a bush-walk to a little waterfall and bridge. Holer Avennue, off Parsley Road, Vaucluse

Bondi Beach

Arguably the Queen Bee of the eastern beaches, we can’t leave her out. Sometimes you just can’t beat an afternoon at the north end splashing around in the kids’ pool. It’s contained and beautiful and there is an ice cream van permanently parked 100m away. Sydney’s fashion set can usually be found sunning themselves on the grassy knoll and partying long after the sun goes down. Take your kids up to Campbell Parade for a bite afterwards at one of the many kid friendly establishments that line this famous beach (see EAT).

Bronte Beach

Not named after the Bronte sisters (unfortunately) but rather after Lord Nelson  (who was also Duke of Bronte, in Italy), Bronte has a super sweet enclosed rock pool known as The Bogey Hole. Situated at the south end, this is a great place for kids to swim and has lots of little rock pools for exploring and crab spotting. Bronte also has a sprawling park space, playground and your choice of any number of excellent cafés.

Maroubra Beach

Less crowded and fashionable than Bondi, Maroubra is more of a classic Aussie surf beach made famous by the legendary Australian gang, the ‘Bra Boys . Don’t be fooled, this place is more family than fisticuffs. Great spots to swim including the rock pool at the north end. The south end has a great playground and the Vietnamese rolls at the bakery on McKeon St are a must.

Wiley’s Baths

Established in 1907, you can kind of pretend you’ve gone back in time and need to don a swimming costume that goes down to your knees and a bonnet for your wee bairn. Wiley’s is a spectacular ocean pool where you can do laps, frolic with the kids, soak up the view and eat a $6.00 corned beef and pickle roll. Open daily | $4.50 

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STAY

  • Paddington Holiday Accommodation These modern terrace houses have been divided into self-catering apartments, perfect for families. Really convenient location near restaurants and shops, plus right on the 389 bus route which goes from Circular Quay to Watsons Bay (via Bondi Beach).
  • Number 71 Bed and Breakfast There are three rooms available at this homely B&B, which share a Gaudi-inspired cave bathroom. Filled with contemporary art, there’s also a lush tropical garden. An organic all-day breakfast is provided by the café on the corner.
  • Meriton Serviced Apartments Whether you want to be located in the city or in Bondi Junction, Meriton has a swag of furnished two and three bedroom apartments available.

EAT

  • With its abundant fresh produce and huge multicultural population, eating out in Sydney is always fun.
  • Yum Cha (Dim Sum) lovers will have a field day in Sydney’s Chinatown, in the south of the CBD, where round-the-clock restaurants rub shoulders with Thai, Korean and Chinese grocers and karaoke joints. From the mammoth choice of eats Din Tai Fung, East Ocean and Marigold are all firm favourites. In the inner-west, Marrickville (see SEE & DO) offers terrific Vietnamese food, particularly along Marrickville and Illawarra roads. Amid the plethora of identikit joints, PHD Restaurant (308 Illawarra Rd) and Bau Truong (185 Marrickville Rd) battle it out for the best pho (beef noodle soup) in town.
  • Another good area to wander is inner-city Surry Hills, which is packed with cool cafes and innovative chefs. We can’t go past Bourke Street Bakery and their ginger brulee tart.
  • But here are our family’s current favourites:
  • The Grounds of Alexandria Possibly the best coffee in Sydney and certainly the most diverse, with their roaster showcasing coffee from all corners of the globe. The Grounds is more than a café; it also boasts markets featuring live music, fairies, arts and crafts for the kids and baby farm animals – including the local porcine legend, Kevin Bacon. For the grownups, take a look at the fresh produce, vintage homewares, candles, The Grounds jams, hampers and fresh cut flowers. As I said, more than just a café!
  • Moo Gourmet Burgers The walls are lined with the kids’ artworks and the menu will satisfy the most discerning of both young and old burger aficionados. Tip – THE OREO MILKSHAKE!
  • Pompei’s Bondi This is a Bondi institution known for its gelati. Handmade on the premises everyday using organic milk and cream, this is what you are having for dessert once you’ve shovelled the last slice of pizza down and the kids have licked their spaghetti bolognese bowls clean. The staff pretty much expect that if you come in for dinner between 5-7pm, you will have a pram and some screaming offsiders. They know what to do.
  • Bondi Trattoria (The Tratt) The Tratt is always a favourite place to take out-of-towners, kids or no kids. The best thing is: they love kids. They will bring you a jar of pencils and paper as soon as they have secured your little ones into a high chair, and the food is as outstanding as the service. This is one place you can feel free to relax, enjoy a glass of prosecco and some seafood while the kids slurp up their meatballs.
  • Doyles on the Wharf Seafood Takeaway & Bistro It’s an Aussie tradition to tuck in to some good old fish n chips wrapped up in butcher’s paper after a long day in the surf n’ sun. Sunset at Watson’s bay is a perfect place to let the kids run riot, tuck into your dinner and watch the bobbing ships as the day comes to an end.

SHOP

Sydneysiders love shopping and while there has been a move in the last few years from the high street to the mega mall, small boutiques still abound. Areas that are as lovely for a wander as they are for their shopping include Crown Street in Surry Hills (great for vintage threads) and Darlinghurst Rd into Potts Point. The small streets off Oxford St (Glenmore Road, William and Elizabeth Streets) in Paddington and along Queen St Woollahra stock uber luxe labels, upmarket homewares and local design. In the city, Strand Arcade is a stand out.

Weekend markets like Bondi and Rozelle (the closest Sydney gets to old European flea markets) are always fun, as are smaller venues like the fortnightly East is East night markets which sell beautiful handmade goods.

Here’s a handful of individual boutiques worth a special visit for kids stuff:

  • About Life For supplies such as snacks for on the go, non toxic baby products including nappies, creams and supplements and organic fruit and veggies.
  • Gift shop at AGNSW Good for presents and educational/art books for children. A little on the pricey side, as gallery stores usually are.
  • Flying Penguin For gorgeous and ethically made toys and gifts to take to little people back home you’ll find eco Australian animal finger puppets, indigenous wooden puzzles and lots of books.
  • Infancy If you’re checking out the Rozelle Markets (above), you might want to stop in here for a wide range of hip presents, lovely clothes and quirky finds for the kids.
  • Kido Store On the pricey side but these boutiques have super stylish clothes, and you can find cute little toys and knick knacks that will not blow your budget. I frequent these shops as infrequently as possible, as I could do some serious damage – they also stock linen, rugs, homewares and killer kicks for kids.

SKIP

Avoid driving in and out of Bondi on a hot summer’s day. Getting stuck in traffic in a car with hot kids is unpleasant for everyone.

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TIPS FOR BABIES AND TODDLERS

  • The main supermarkets in Australia are Woolworths and Coles; these are probably the best places for you to stock up on baby supplies once you arrive. They will have the largest range and the cheapest price on all things baby- and toddler-related, and stock a good variety, from conventional to eco and organic products. In general, most corner stores will cover the bare basic needs if you are caught unawares and need a pack of nappies on the go, or a quick jar of Heinz baby food.
  • Most cafés and restaurants around the beaches and city have high-chairs. With kids, it is best to stay away from the little hole-in-the-wall café/wine bars in the inner city areas. There is rarely room to swing a cat, let alone a child, in these places, and the hostility can occasionally be palpable.
  • The Bondi to Bronte coastal walk is magnificent, but not with a stroller… for older kids this is a breathtaking coastal walk; for younger ones, choose to go at nap time and strap them onto your back. The sea air may even help them sleep longer…

EXPLAIN

The first people to ever live in Australia were Indigenous Australians over 40,000 years ago; they were known as the Cadigal people. They lived off the land and fished the waters of the harbour. They were the only people living in Sydney until about 230 years ago an explorer named Captain Cook sailed by in his ship and saw land. Captain Cook and his crew landed in what they named “Botany Bay” and they liked what they saw. They thought this would be a good land to send some of their people to. In 1788, the British sent the first fleet to colonise Australia. Sydney was established as a penal colony; a society made up mainly of criminals exiled from England. Sadly, most of the Cadigal people died as a result of diseases brought in by the British, lack of food and conflict with the colonisers. Very soon the majority of people living in Sydney were the original convicts, many of whom had by now become good citizens.  They built roads and bridges and soon more and more people came from England and all over the world, and began to create the society that Sydneysiders live in today. These days Sydney is home to people from many different cultures. It is the largest and most populated city in Australia.

OUT OF TOWN

From Manly up to Avalon and out to Whale Beach, Sydney’s northern coastline is truly special with idyllic beaches, bush, and an endless-summer vibe. An hour’s drive from the city (best avoided during peak hour), the region makes for an easy beach escape with the kids, and there’s enough to do to make even a cruisey day-trip feel like a holiday. For a local’s tips on where to hang beach-side, check out our Seven Suitcases Asks interview with Henrietta Gothe-Ellis.

If you’ve got time up your sleeve, rent a car and drive up to the Blue Mountains. Just a two hour drive away, the views are breathtaking and the old-world feel is pretty special. Take in high tea at The Avalon in Katoomba for some Art Deco glamour and browse the antique stores. Leura is more high-end – less grungy and happy-high-herbal than Katoomba – and  a picturesque, manicured visitor’s town with great places to eat and shop. Both towns are well worth visiting and are only ten minutes apart.

Scenic World

There is much to choose from at Scenic World and even more to see. Try the Scenic Railway, the steepest passenger railway in the world, which traverses the mountain at a 52 degree incline. Alternatively, view the world famous Three Sisters from 270 metres above the ancient ravines on the Scenic Skyway – through the electro glass cabin floor! The Scenic Walkway is 2.4 kilometres –  you know best when it comes to what your kids can handle…

Bushwalking
Fairfax track – Blackheath

This track is relatively short (a one-hour round trip) and flat and could be done with a stroller. The view and waterfall at the end are certainly worth the trip.

The Jelly Bean pool – Glenbrook

Just a 20 minute walk to a naturally formed water hole (you guessed it, in the shape of a jelly bean). There are stairs on the steeper parts of this track so leave the stroller in the car. Can be slippery after rainfall.

CALL THE SITTER

If you manage to wrangle some childcare for the evening, make the most of it and hit the town! We suggest Surry Hills for great restaurants and bars such as Porteno on Clevelend St for rockabilly cool with an Argentinian twist, Il Baretto on Bourke St for a sophisticated but relaxed meal or The Victoria Room in Darlinghurst for cocktails and colonial style glamour. If you are serious foodies, head down to Potts Point for delicious Greek fare at The Apollo or cocktails, Italian cuisine and good looking people at Fratelli Paradiso on Chalmers Ave.

WHEN TO GO

You just can’t beat Sydney in summer (December to February). The most well-known beaches do get crazy busy, but heading to some of the lesser-frequented swimming spots mentioned above, you don’t need to worry too much about the crowds. January also coincides with Sydney Festival, which hosts many activities and concerts in and around the city. If you want to beat the crowds and the costs, visiting Sydney in winter will also afford an array of cultural events including the Sydney Writers Festival, Sydney Film Festival, Vivid, Aroma and the Darling Harbour Jazz Festival. The Sydney Biennale also hits town every two years.

TRANSPORT

Cruising from beach to beach is certainly best with a car as the public transport system between beaches could be better. Plus taking into consideration wet towels, beach toys and exhausted kids, you’ll be glad once you reach the car. Cars are easily rented at the international airport, and at plenty of spots about town. For travels in and around the city and harbour, however, the public transport system is safe, fun with kids and accessible with strollers. A free city bus shuttle operates on a loop route every 10 minutes during the day, while Transport Sydney buses ply throughout the city to every conceivable destination.  The city and harbour is easy and flat and perfect for getting around on foot with strollers and skateboards. Alternatively, your younger ones will enjoy hopping aboard the Sydney Hopper Eco Ferry, which stops at Manly, Q Station, Watsons Bay, Taronga Zoo, Milsons Point, Luna Park, Circular Quay and Darling Harbour. Passes are good value, and are valid for 24 hours.  

PLAYLIST

Go to Rdio or Spotify, to put together your perfect Sydney-sider playlist:

  • You Am I – Purple Sneakers
  • Gotye – Learnalilgivinanlovin
  • Go Betweens – Streets of Your Town
  • Ben Lee – Ship My Body Home
  • Pnau – Arthur’s Pizza
  • Paul Kelly and the Coloured Girls – Darling It Hurts
  • Mental As Anything – The Nips are Getting Bigger
  • Richard Clapton – Girls on the Avenue
  • Cold Chisel – Breakfast at Sweethearts
  • Australian Crawl – Reckless
  • Little River Band – Reminiscing
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