Bondi from the air. The cliff walk to Bronte beach (at the left) is spectacular. Photograph: Phillip Hayson/Getty Images
From beautiful beaches to amazing brunches, cool bars and fascinating foodie suburbs – a weekend in Sydney is joyride for the senses
Paul Keating once said Sydney was the only place to live in Australia – the rest were camping out.
The New South Wales capital can certainly lay claim to being one of the most beautiful cities in the world. London and New York have a glamour, history and majesty about them, and San Francisco, Seattle, Auckland and Vancouver have gorgeous natural harbours, but Sydney manages to combine big-city polish with verdant nature and the glory of the world that is its harbour.
The CBD needs a bit of a facelift and an energy infusion – it can be fairly lifeless on weekends. But if you stick to some of Sydney’s more natural attractions, choose some of its new and exciting restaurants, try some small bars and take a trip out to some of the city’s lesser known foodie suburbs, you’ll have an incredible 48 hours.
4pm: kayaking, Point Piper
Head down to Rose Bay, towards the Point Piper end, and you’ll find the Point Piper Kayak Centre – which is essentially a shed under the shade, filled with kayaks and standup paddleboards. We are given the option of choosing fast, “racing” kayaks – easy to tip over – or the more sturdy, old-fashioned variety.
We opt for the later. It’s a gloriously sunny day on the harbour, with little breeze. We head left towards Double Bay, giving us superstar views of the Sydney Harbour Bridge (and a glimpse of the Opera House sails) and pull up our kayaks on the beach at Shark Island. There are few boats out on the harbour this afternoon and the paddling is peaceful – almost meditative.
But be warned: weekends can get hectic with pleasure crafts and you need to have your wits about you to avoid harbour traffic including ferries.
Kayaks start at $20 for the first hour then drop to $10 an hour after that.
6pm: drinks at Australian 18 Footers League, Double Bay
After kayaking, wander around to Double Bay where this small yacht club boasts a big view of the harbour. It’s relaxed, with mostly outdoor seating, and far away enough from the Friday-night city hordes to grab a good table.
Harbourside bars abound in Sydney and there’s none more popular than the Opera Bar in the Sydney Opera Housecomplex. If you want more of a buzz than Double Bay can offer and are happy to fight for a table, take a ferry from Double Bay to Circular Quay and follow the noise (it is noisy!) to the Opera Bar.
8pm: dinner at Acme, 60 Bayswater Road, Rushcutters Bay
One of the most unusual, and delightful dining experiences in Sydney is the newly opened Acme. It’s an Italian restaurant – but not Italian as I’ve had it before.
The team behind the restaurant promise “interesting and affordable pasta” which includes macaroni and bucatini with pig’s head and egg yolk or goat, spicy nduja and fresh mint. This is not novelty food but a wild mixture of flavours and a fusion of styles that work. We love the roasted carrots with ricotta and almonds, steamed pipis, lime, pepper and carpaccio parmigiana.
We nab a window seat so we can watch the passing parade of revellers heading into Kings Cross (if you’re there early enough you can see the fantastic sunset over Paddington) and enjoy wines from regional NSW.
9.30pm: drinks in Surry Hills
After dinner, take a cab into Surry Hills to experience some of Sydney’s classic old pubs
We drink at the Hollywood Hotel in Foster Street, Surry Hills, where there’s a mirror ball and friendly bar staff but none of the hipsters sometimes associated with this part of town.
We also drop into the Shakespeare Hotel, a fairly rough-and-ready drinking establishment that has been particularly popular with the journalists who work in nearby Holt Street and theatre staff from Belvoir. Once again, it’s unpretentious and there’s good, cheap food available upstairs.
If you feel like a late night, book a room at George Street karaoke bar Mizuya or Surry Hills’ Ding Dang Dong. Love of late-night karaoke seems to be a particularly Sydney thing – perhaps feeding into Sydneysiders’ narcissistic fantasy of being a rockstar celebrity.
8am: Bondi to Bronte hike
Get up early and head to Australia’s most famous beach. Wear your walking shoes – you’ll be doing the spectacular cliff walk – a distance of 3.5km from Bondi to Bronte.
Starting at the south end of Bondi – near the Icebergs pool – there are a few sets of stairs, but the view across to Ben Buckler, the point at the northern end, is gorgeous. The track is crowded with joggers and ambling sightseers so make sure you stick to the unwritten protocol of walking to the left – otherwise you could find yourself jostled off the path by one of the Glamazons who run it each day.
Breakfast can be taken in Bronte at one of the many cafes on the small hill that faces the beach. They’re all good for fresh juices, strong coffee and bacon and eggs, and are happy to serve you in your swimmers and towel – the vibe is casual. If you have the energy you can stay on the cliff walk past the sprawling cemetery to Clovelly or you can turn around and head back to Bondi for a swim either in the ocean or in the magnificent Icebergs pool and gym.
A swim in the saltwater lap pool can be bracing and challenging – if there’s big swell that crashes over the sides. Reward yourself with delicious coffee from the pool’s kiosk and a peerless view.
Noon: shopping, Paddington
After the beach head to Paddington for some shopping. Oxford Street was once thriving but is now looking a little on the sad side – with lots of shopfronts up for lease.
It’s still worth a look but my favourite shopping strip in Sydney is Williams Street, off Oxford Street. There are some fantastic independent stores in refurbished terrace houses along with a great chocolatier and a deli down the end of the road.
Keep walking and allow yourself to get lost in Paddington, Darlinghurst and Surry Hills’ lovely backstreets.
3pm: Art Gallery of NSW and Brett Whiteley Studio
As well as the main gallery – the impressive Art Gallery of NSW alongside the Royal Botanic Gardens – Sydney’s art scene is home to some wonderful smaller galleries.
In the back streets of Surry Hills, Brett Whiteley Studio is a monument to one of Australia’s great artists, who died too soon in 1992. See where he worked and some of his key pieces of art.
The Art Gallery of NSW (free) is also a collector of Whiteleys. His Lavender Bay series is worth seeking out – the harbour, in deep blue hues, is quintessentially Sydney.
4pm: White Rabbit Gallery, Chippendale
The White Rabbit Gallery (free), focuses exclusively on contemporary Chinese art, with exhibitions rotating through the white, cube-like spaces. Founded by Sydneysiders Kerr and Judith Neilson, it exhibits works produced after 2000. There’s nowhere like it anywhere in Australia and there’s a really cool gift shop attached.
6pm: early dinner at Din Tai Fung in Chippendale or World Square in the city
You don’t forget your first dumpling at Din Tai Fung – for a start, it could easily take the skin off the roof of your mouth.
The Shanghainese dumplings are filled with meat and/or vegetables and encased in a velvety pouch that is also filled with scalding-hot liquid. You are meant to pierce the dumpling and let the juice ooze out before dipping it into soy and chilli then popping it into your mouth. Sadly my friend didn’t pierce her dumpling and a boiling jet of liquid shot out, causing her mouth to blister. Staff are accustomed to this and have paw-paw ointment on hand to assist with burns.
But it’s worth the pain. These are some of the best dumplings in Australia and you can eat well for under $30. Favourites include the gem dumplings of different colours and the truffle dumplings. I also recommend getting a rice dish and trying the pork noodles. Delicious!
7pm: see a show (at Opera House, Angel Place, Sydney Theatre, Golden Age cinema or Belvoir St Theatre)
You’re in Sydney. You should see a show. The Opera House is an obvious spot to see the likes of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, the Australian Opera or a big-name touring production. The Wharf at Walsh Bay is one of Sydney’s most picturesque precincts, while Belvoir has some of Australia’s best actors and playwrights in its stable.
The Golden Age cinema in Surry Hills has a chic bar attached and is about as far from a multiplex vibe as you can get.
10pm to late: drinks at Baxter Inn or Frankie’s Pizza
Frankie’s is all checked-tablecloth Americana with a rockabilly feel, while Baxter Inn is a dimly lit basement bar that is great for a late-night whiskey.
Melbourne has long had the edge on Sydney in terms of the small-bar scene but Sydney is fast catching up.
9am: Nielsen Park – swim and breakfast
Sydney is home to a gorgeous string of harbour beaches – many on the eastern side of the city. Protected by shark nets, shaded by huge Moreton Bay figtrees, with views to the national park on the other side of the harbour (or else glimpses of Sydney’s CBD), Nielsen Park is one of Sydney’s gems.
Even better, there’s a lovely restaurant and kiosk so you can have a big breakfast after you’ve swum your morning laps.
11am Cabramatta – Food tour (I Ate my Way Through Cabramatta)
Thirty kilometres west of Sydney’s CBD and a 50-minute drive or train ride, Cabramatta is the Vietnamese food capital of Sydney.
On the day of our visit, locals are in traditional costume, preparing to honour the former prime minister Malcolm Fraser whose policy after the Vietnam war resulted in a large-scale resettlement of Vietnamese to Cabramatta. In Freedom Plaza, old timers play mahjong and drink coffee Vietnamese-style – strong, thick and with condensed milk.
Our guide, Amy Ta, grew up in Cabramatta and knows all the great dishes to order and where to get them. First off is a bowl (to share) of bun bo hue – subtly different from a pho, with thicker noodles. It is fragrant with beef and lemongrass.
As we queue on the footpath with dozens of others, Ta assures us the next little hole-in the-wall place does the best crispy chicken in Cabramatta. She’s wrong. This is possibly the best crispy chicken in Sydney. Dipped in sauce and enjoyed with mint and rice, it is still lingering in my memory as I write this weeks later.
We visit several other unassuming places to try their specialty dishes until at the fourth place we beg for the tour to stop. It is possible to eat so much you can burst. We pay $99 each, with food included.
By Brigid Delaney, www.theguardian.com