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A Perfect Day in Sydney: Travelling Like a Local

  • Ethan Gelber with Jane Higgins
  • 20 March 2013

In 2005, when I moved to Sydney, Australia, it took a while for me to feel settled. That was only natural; any new foreign resident to any new land undergoes a period of discovery that is both exciting and destabilising. On the way to feeling like a local, everything is thrillingly new; everything is also disruptively new.

Sydney's Harbour Bridge and Opera House

Sydney’s Harbour Bridge and Opera House truly are great city emblems, beloved by both locals and visitors. Photo courtesy of Ethan Gelber

A general sense of deracination notwithstanding, I was very lucky to have a strong leader as I got my bearings. Shortly before arriving in Australia, I had married a lovely Sydneysider named Jane and was counting on all her home-field advantages to help me find my footing. I predictably got more than I bargained for. Not only did she translate sometimes harder-to-understand-than-expected Strine, she brought to life for me a city with far more than meets the eye. Which says a lot, because there’s already plenty to see.

As it has for many thousands of people before me, especially long-term visitors on working holiday visas, Sydney revealed more and more of its character to me through a very slow drip, as one would expect from any great urban centre. In keeping with its structure – it is more an assembly of discrete suburbs, each with its own (often banner-held-high) reputation, than it is a metropolis with a blend of neighbourhoods – I stumbled across its treats and its treasures one trove at a time.

It must be said that I was aided by my choice of transport. I have never owned a car, preferring both the liberation and limitations of travel by bicycle. Fortunately, Sydney is pretty bike-friendly. While not without its challenges for two-wheelers – hilly terrain, confusing one-way streets, huge and dangerous thoroughfares, aggressive drivers – it has a far-reaching network of bike routes, a weighty and outspoken body of devoted pedal-commuters, and a temperate and mostly saddle-suitable climate. Of Sydney I therefore saw a whole lot more than many people do simply because I was moving around in a way that made it easy for me to stop and explore.

Regardless, against my better judgment and ever lamenting all that I knew I didn’t know, I inevitably eased into a routine that became familiar if never quite comfortable. And then, after five years and the births of our two children, we moved to my native New York City.

So in homage to our home away from home in the land Down Under, this is a fond remembrance of Sydney, informed almost entirely by what I learned from Jane, who paved the way for me there and loved qualities of it that I learned to love on my own. We may not live in Sydney now, but our hearts remain with it, split between frustrating antipodal allegiances and affections.

Archibald Fountain at night, Hyde Park, Sydney, Australia

Day and night, Archibald Fountain dominates the top of Hyde Park and is within easy reach of the Sydney CBD’s historic buildings and greatest sites. Photo courtesy of Flickr/Crouchy69

Jane’s Perfect Day in Sydney

We wake up late to a bright summer sun over Darlington. We have ample time for coffee and brunch at Cafe Ella, a focal-point local eatery popular with university students. Most of it consumed by an extension of The University of Sydney campus, Darlington is a small suburb, its limited name cache and low profile something the locals love, especially in contrast to neighbouring Chippendale, Newtown and Redfern.

By the time our appetites are sated, it’s starting to warm up. We make a quick detour to pick up picnic materials at the weekend market near Carriageworks, the lively and always-worth-a-visit multi-venue arts and performance centre set in the suburb’s old, repurposed rail yard. Provisioned, we hop on our bikes (although it’s an easy trip by train or bus too) and cruise off to Sydney’s central business district, or CBD.

We dismount at Hyde Park, the oldest public parkland in Australia, and then walk the length of Central Avenue, a lane shaded by the enmeshed canopies of towering fig trees, some more than 25 metres (80 feet) tall. At the far north end, we pause in the refreshing mist of the Archibald Fountain, where giant bronze mythological figures gaze at the surrounding city.

At the heart of Sydney, this fountain is a perfect departure point for pretty much any of the central city’s attractions. Today our chosen destination is the Art Gallery of New South Wales. Free admission to its air-conditioning and large permanent collection makes it a perfect, cool and cultured retreat. Jane’s favourite rooms are the subdued Asian galleries, where shining buddhas, bodhisattvas and other gods and goddesses peer stolidly through dim light. We can’t leave without checking what the special exhibits are and taking in the lower level’s impressive Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander Collection in the Yirbana Gallery.

Back out in the summer heat, we head for relief: it’s time for a swim. A short pedal away is Andrew (Boy) Charlton pool, which almost always has us convinced that we’re swimming right in Sydney Harbour – without any boats to dodge.

Andrew (Boy) Charlton pool, Sydney, Australia

The view from near Mrs Macquarie Chair over Andrew (Boy) Charlton Pool takes in Woolloomooloo Bay and Finger Wharf of Sydney, Australia. Photo courtesy of Flickr/das21

Feeling energised after our aquatic exertions, we head west. In season, the entrance to Sydney’s nighttime open-air cinema is right here, which is something we keep in mind for later. For now, though, we’re right at the doorstep of Sydney’s phenomenal Royal Botanical Gardens. We head straight to the Fernery, an oasis of extra-green within an oasis of green.

Pangs of hunger don’t let us linger so we push to the gardens’ Farm Cove waterfront, where we find a shady spot for our picnic and resist the temptation to feed the bold free-ranging ibis and marauding seabirds. Within sight of Bennelong Point and its world-famous Sydney Opera House, we follow the coast that way around on our way to Sydney Cove. Here, at the Circular Quay travel nexus, the ever-lively street scene is a commotion of performers, tourists and commuters dashing for the ferries that reach all across Sydney Harbour.

We pause for a gelato and stand still amid the hubbub. We look at the posted ferry departure times and destinations and make a spur-of-the-moment decision to leap aboard one bound for Cockatoo Island, a fascinating former penal settlement and shipbuilding centre right in the middle of the harbour. We decide instead to alight much further east, at Watson’s Bay, Australia’s oldest fishing village, located on the southern head of the entrance to the harbour.

From the Watson’s Bay wharf, we take a walking path past Camp Cove and Lady Bay (a nude beach) to the striped Hornby Lighthouse at South Head and then make our way back to Doyles Restaurant‘s takeaway fish-and-chip outlet. We tote our dinner haul to the nearby park and watch the sunset to the squawk of hungry seagulls.

This post is part of the 100 cities to home swap before you die initiative from Knok.com. Check out how you could spend a perfect day in other cities around the world.

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Ethan Gelber

In addition to his freelance travel writing (Lonely Planet author, ex-AFAR Ambassador, Huffington Post Travel blogger and more), Ethan has agitated tirelessly for responsible/sustainable travel practices, family travel, keeping things local, and quality and relevance in publishing and destination marketing. Among many other things, Ethan is editorial director of the Family Travel Association, a co-founder of OutBounding, and tackles content projects for HomeExchange.com and RW Social, which produces the NY Trav Fest. Previously, Ethan was Chief Communications Officer of the WHL Group, for which he founded and edited The Travel Word (this now-independent blog); publications manager of the French government tourist office (Atout France) in NYC; and helped manage a Paris-based bicycle tour operator.
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architecture & landmarks, Australia, Australia & New Zealand, cities, inside word, local knowledge, markets, museums, Oceania, personal experience,

3 Responses to “A Perfect Day in Sydney: Travelling Like a Local”

  1. You really had a wonderful in Sydney, I like to see Archibald Fountain in person.

  2. Lara says:

    Sounds like a wonderful day 🙂

  3. CVA says:

    I have always wanted to go Sydney. It is so beautiful and still very remote I would love to go and see Sydney’s Harbour Bridge and Opera House. hopefully very soon.

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