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Insider Guide: Best of Sydney
If Sydney wasn't so darned far from the rest of the world, everyone on the planet would move there.
Gorgeous. Vibrant. Sexy.
You’ll burn through plenty of adjectives and superlatives describing the best of Sydney, with its genuinely great beach options, top-notch restaurants and endless bars and nightclubs.
For a place that started out as a penal colony in the late 18th century (and for thousands of years before that, Aboriginal land), Sydney’s come a long way -- from opening its iconic Opera House in 1973 to hosting the Olympics in 2000.
These days, it’s a regular on all of those "top 10 places to live in the world" and "most expensive cities in the world" lists.
An overheated real-estate market means homes that sold for $160,000 in the late 1970s now go for more than $40 million. (That’s one example, but you get the idea.)
The creep of gentrification is claiming street after street, turning once-dodgy neighborhoods into havens for the trendy set worthy of that “best of Sydney” tag.
Government officials are working on plans to build a second airport. Living in a city that’s popular, cool and costly is a fact of life for Sydney’s 4.6 million residents, an outdoorsy and environmentally friendly lot.
They work hard and play harder. They’ll charm you with a “G’day,” “No worries” or “How ya goin’?” You’ll contemplate moving here so you too can enjoy being in paradise full time -- or at least talk like you do.
Failing that, you’ll consider extending your vacation or start planning a return voyage even before you hit the airport.
Every room at the Shangri-La has a best of Sydney view of the harbor, although some rooms (and views) are better than others.
Hotel operators spent $20 million in 2011 to refurbish 477 guestrooms and suites.
A modern Asian style focused on the oriental blossom now ties things together. A nice touch, but nothing tops sitting in your room and staring out at the Opera House and the Harbour Bridge.
When you’re not touring the city, you can park in the window seat and soak it all in, especially early in the morning or at sunset. Blu Bar on the 36th floor has some of the best cocktails in Sydney, all of which come with quite the view.
176 Cumberland St., The Rocks; +61 (0) 2 9250 6000; from $275 per night; shangri-la.com
The Four Seasons Sydney seems to have it all: great location in The Rocks, vast lobby, rooms with “Yup, I’m in Sydney” vistas and the largest heated outdoor hotel pool in the city.
And unbeatable beds and bedding. Designers gave the hotel a makeover before the 2000 Olympics (it was the base for the IOC during the Summer Games). Then in 2009, they updated the 531 rooms.
Some features still feel dated (doors, fixtures, wonky elevator buttons), but the views of the Opera House and harbor don’t disappoint.
The pool is a good place to lounge before or after schlepping around Sydney.
199 George St., The Rocks; +61 (0) 2 9250 3100; rooms from $265 per night; fourseasons.com
Viewed from the harbor, the Marriott looks that squat younger sibling getting muscled out by its bigger, five-star rivals and the other skyscrapers that populate The Rocks and Circular Quay.
But don’t be fooled -- it’s still among the best of Sydney hotels.
The operators spent millions renovating the rooms in 2011, giving them a more modern feel (although the beds at the Shangri-la and Four Seasons are a little bit better).
Staff are helpful and seem genuinely eager to debrief you on your day or assist you in planning your itinerary for the next one.
The Marriott is also a little closer to the Royal Botanic Gardens. Another bonus: the hotel has an Avis car rental outlet at its front entrance.
30 Pitt St., Circular Quay; +61 (0) 2 9259 7000; rooms from $269 per night; marriott.com
This place -- with its loft-like designed spaces and dimly lit hallways that smell of incense -- feels like your chic pied-à-terre in Sydney.
The majority of the 31 rooms (save two penthouses) have queen beds, sleek bathrooms (some with sliding walls), Bose sound systems, AppleTVs and iPads loaded with music, information on in-room dining and things to do in the city.
No harbor views here, but who needs those when you’re hanging at the cavernous Establishment Bar or the Ottoman-inspired Hemmesphere.
Breakfasts at Gin Garden (brick walls, soaring glass ceiling) are great, the pancakes in particular.
5 Bridge Lane, CBD; +61 (0) 2 9240 3100; rooms from $349 per night; merivale.com.au
Location. Location. Location. For anyone wanting to be in the thick of Sydney’s bar, restaurant and nightlife quarter, hotels don't come much better situated than this.
Some suites are on the small side, but there are great add-ons, such as free gym passes, iPod docks in rooms and cheap Internet connections.
The chic accommodations range from standard rooms to two-bedroom apartments.
14 Kings Cross Road, Potts Point; +61 (0) 2 9295 8888; rooms from $175 per night; 8hotels.com
Sydney Harbour YHA
This award-winning hostel has great, best of Sydney views of the harbor and access to Australia’s largest archaeological site, the Big Dig.
The builders spent $1 million on environmental initiatives, including air conditioning that shuts off when guests leave their rooms.
Accommodations range from six-bed mixed rooms to twins and doubles.
110 Cumberland St., The Rocks; +61 (0) 2 8272 0900; rooms from $46; yha.com.au
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Sepia made it to the top of Sydney’s restaurant scene in three short years thanks to the culinary and management skills of business/life partners, chef Martin Benn and Vicki Wild.
The Sydney Morning Herald called this eatery’s rise, “nothing short of meteoric” and gave Sepia its top award (three chef hats) in its “2012 Good Food Guide.”
Consequently, most nights are booked solid, with a waiting list of 300 for Benn’s tasting menu on Saturday evenings (now expanded to lunch as well).
Wild and Benn worked at Sydney’s top Japanese restaurant, Tetsuya’s, for a number of years, so their interest in Japanese cuisine is expertly woven through the menu.
Scallops coated with nori. Dollops of avocado cream posing as wasabi. You’ll even find seaweed in one of the desserts. Diners dismantle Benn’s elaborately prepared dishes with care.
One offering -- the Murray cod with its puffed skin and whipped-up foam of yuzu -- appears to be leaping out of the sea.
The signature dessert is a candied strawberry with frozen sorbet inside, which can be opened with the tap of a spoon.
Executive chef Peter Gilmore’s talent for dreaming up culinary creations landed Quay a spot on S.Pellegrino’s World’s 50 Best Restaurants of 2012 -- clearly one of the best of Sydney restaurants.
As the name suggests, Quay is located by the water, with floor-to-ceiling windows providing views of the Opera House and Harbour Bridge and interior mirrors reflecting it all back to diners, who flock here year-round and jockey for a spot on New Year’s Eve.
Staff in simple black outfits deliver dishes that all have their own creative touches, such as mud-crab congee or rhubarb-endive-beetroot salad on a bed of granules made from pomegranate-and-molasses-soaked bread. Really.
A team of sommeliers helps patrons navigate the extensive wine list and makes pairing suggestions.
Spoil yourself by ordering the eight-texture chocolate cake or Gilmore’s signature snow-egg dessert, which became a sensation after being featured on "MasterChef Australia."
Overseas Passenger Terminal, The Rocks; +61 (0) 2 9251 5600; expensive; quay.com.au
The menu for this hole-in-the-wall eatery is written on big blackboards and it changes daily.
Eaters share side dishes of grilled broccoli or farinata (pancake made of chickpea flour) and linger over plates of gnocchi and prawns or culingionis (Sardinian ravioli) of braised lamb with potato, olive and thyme as they work through the wine list.
Vini, which has a sister restaurant called Berta, serves a four-course set menu on Tuesday nights, highlighting a region in Italy.
3/118 Devonshire St. (on Holt), Surry Hills; +61 (0) 2 9698 5131; affordable; vini.com.au
Four In Hand
With its warm and intimate atmosphere, this gastropub is a favorite with locals and foodies, ranked by some patrons as, “the best place to eat in Sydney.”
As one member of the wait staff said matter of factly of the menu, “It’s good. It’s all good, really.”
Four in Hand dishes are heavy on the meat, but meat that has been lovingly prepared: 12-hour braised lamb shoulder with baby carrots and Irish-style mashed potatoes, roast beef rump with sweet corn and whole suckling pig with accompaniments (requires 48 hours’ notice and a minimum of 10 diners).
Head chef Colin Fassnidge, who has won endless praise since taking over in 2005, subscribes to the “nose-to-tail philosophy,” so don’t be surprised if the cow’s tongue or pig’s tail ends up on your plate.
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A hip, funky and fun place to eat and definitely one of the best of Sydney restaurants.
The atmosphere is lively, with people at tables for twos or fours, or long communal tables, chatting over the East-meets-West food.
The semi-industrial decor includes exposed wood and ropes. The Harbour Bridge can be spied off in the distance through a big picture window.
Menu highlights include corn on the cob basted with chili-infused sour cream and smothered in Parmesan cheese, beef and pork sliders and the Buddha vegetarian salad.
Ms. G’s takes reservations only for lunch on Fridays and Sundays, or for large groups, so show up early (or late).
The bar is partially wallpapered in black-and-white photocopies of old Rolling Stone, Hustler and Playboy covers (nothing naughty, though).
155 Victoria St., Potts Point; +61 (0) 2 8313 1000; affordable; merivale.com.au/msgs
Vegetarian (and vegan) heaven on Earth ... in Redfern.
Diners feast on Vietnamese and Latin American dishes under the watchful gaze of Queen Elizabeth II.
Dishes worth a try include the Pho-Evermore Nourished Soup, Pretty Dumplings and the Three Sisters (rice paper rolls stuffed with veggies and grains). A selection of non-dairy and wheat-free “cheesecakes” is on the dessert list.
Bring your own wine -- corkage is $3 per uvula -- and make a reservation well in advance.
315 Cleveland St., Redfern; +61 (0) 2 8399 0888; moderate
The nightclub sensation that has wowed people in New York and Las Vegas arrived this year in Sydney. Paris Hilton was at the opening -- like, where were you?
The club is more Vegas than Manhattan, owing to its location inside a casino. You’ll either love the crowd or hate it. Girls in skimpy skirts and tops. Guys in dressy attire or tight T-shirts. All lip-synching their way (flubs and all) through classic club songs and mixes that blend Toto with Kayne.
The Star, Harbourside Entry via Pirrama Road, Pyrmont; +61 (0) 2 9657 7737; cover charge typically $30, average cocktail around $14; marqueesydney.com
It’s not easy to find the Baxter Inn, and that’s how the regulars like it at one of the best of Sydney clubs.
On Clarence Street, look for the sign that says “Sprinkler room for 156 Clarence Street.” Take the walkway to an alley to find the doorman and the black velvet rope. Then go down a set of concrete stairs to a basement bar that's part pub, part speakeasy.
Exposed wooden beams and metal supports, low lighting and blaring blues music help set the mood, along with boxing and horseracing posters.
The mixed-age crowd is decked out in suits and skirts or T-shirts and jeans.
The drinks list includes cocktails and a fair number of wines. More than 450 whiskies sit on an eight-tiered shelf behind the bar, ranging in price from $7.50 to $115 for a shot.
There’s no door list, no bookings and no functions. “It’s just a good spot to hang out, to have great drinks and great service,” says one staffer.
Midnight in Paris. Madagascar Manhattan. This Little Piggy Drank Whisky. Just a few of the colorfully named drinks at Hinky Dinks, which aims to inject a bit of 1950s fun into Sydney’s serious cocktail scene.
Tiled floors, a swanky lounge area and red-leather stools (with piano benches thrown in for no good reason other than they’re comfortable) all help transport patrons to a bygone era.
The bar food menu is filled with tasty options, such as beer-battered onion rings, Spanish meatballs and pan-fried olive and Parmesan sandwiches.
185 Darlinghurst Road, Darlinghurst; +61 (0) 2 8084 6379; cocktails $16-19; hinkydinks.com.au
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People who love to sip Italian wine in an intimate setting have been making their way to this tiny best of Sydney spot for more than a year now.
The ever-changing wine list (on a blackboard) covers all of Italy’s 20 grape-growing regions. Glasses range from $6 to $15.
Patrons can buy a bottle from the cantina, which stocks more than 300 biodynamic wines from all over Italy, and pay a $15 corkage fee.
121BC, which has ties to the Italian restos Vini (just around the corner) and Berta, also offers a simple menu of dishes that can include olive and focaccia, balsamic pork ribs and ricotta with oxheart tomatoes and fried capers. Prices range from $6-16.
4/50 Holt St. (enter via Gladstone Street), Surry Hills; +61 (0) 2 9699 1582; 121bc.com.au
The Shakey is a straightforward, take-me-as-I-am pub that’s been keeping patrons well-fed and well-lubricated since 1879.
Schooners of Tooheys New, Bulmers Original Cider and Cascade Premium Light go for around $5 (cash only). Glasses of wine are in the same price range.
If the sight of the stained and trampled carpet hasn’t put you off food, there’s a range of picks -- none of the main meals is over $12.50.
The cheap options and the atmosphere make Shakeys a favorite with beefy local guys and quirky 20-somethings.
200 Devonshire St., Surry Hills; +61 (0) 2 9319 6883
The tour of this city’s (and one of the world’s) most iconic buildings is a clever mix of access, video and facts. Best of Sydney? Most definitely.
Good humored guides give insight into the origins, construction, controversy and conflict leading up to the opening of the Sydney Opera House in 1973.
It ended up more than a decade late and nearly $100 million over budget -- a national lottery helped pay it off in 18 months.
Since then, 110 million concertgoers and tourists have visited this place, which is home to the Sydney Symphony, Opera Australia and the Australian Ballet, all of whom you can watch rehearse, depending on the timing.
The Opera House has also hosted superstar musicians (Janet Jackson, Sting), sumo matches, boxing bouts and bodybuilding competitions.
You’ll find out about that, and why a chicken fell on a cellist’s head in the 1970s, if you go on the tour.
Oh, and why its creator, the late architect Jørn Utzon, never traveled to Sydney to see his masterpiece.
Bennelong Point, Circular Quay; +61 (0) 2 9250 7111; sydneyoperahouse.com
Wombats, koalas and kangaroos!
The Taronga Zoo, which sits on a sloping hillside above the harbor, is another iconic Sydney landmark.
Nearly a century after its opening, zookeepers are focusing more on conservation than display. So along with showing off elephants and gorillas, platypus and potoroos, they’re also actively helping to save species that include a couple of endangered frogs you’ve never heard of.
Look up the Corroboree and Booroolong if you’re curious, and the Tasmanian Devil, which is predicted to become extinct in the wild in 15 years if conservation efforts don't make a difference.
If you’re looking for something a bit more adventurous than walking around and staring at animals (keep in mind, koalas sleep 20 hours a day), make a reservation for the zoo’s “Roar and Snore” stay so you can camp overnight in safari tents and wake up to the sound of lions. One of the best of Sydney attractions, for sure.
Taronga Zoo, 1 Bradley’s Head, Mosman; +61 (0) 2 9969 2777; Adults $44, children (four-15 years) $22, under-fours free, families 15 percent discount; taronga.org.au
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Here’s your chance to be part of the crew on an America’s Cup yacht.
The Sailing Sydney team takes groups on three-hour trips into Sydney Harbour, getting participants to haul up sails or keep the boat on course.
You can also just sit and enjoy the scenery: sailing under the Harbour Bridge and waving to the people climbing it, breezing past the Opera House and surveying the city’s dynamic shoreline.
Crew members have loads to say about sailing. They’re also quick to point out the sights along the way and explain their significance.
Suite 110 Jones Bay Wharf, Pirrama Road, Pyrmont; +61 (0) 2 9660 9133; America’s Cup Experience costs $129 for adults and $99 for children (10-17 years); America’s Cup Racing Experience costs $169 for adults and $139 for children (10-17 years); sailingsydney.net
Hop a ferry
Sailing not your thing? Don’t let that stop you from exploring Sydney’s nautical side.
Dozens of ferries sail every day from the main hub, Circular Quay. One of the best ways to get around is to buy a Sydney Ferries MyMulti pass for a day ($21 for adults) or a week ($43).
It grants unlimited rides on government ferries, buses, light rail and trains (some zone restrictions apply).
Hop a ferry (and connecting bus) to visit the pristine and picturesque Balmoral, where you can soak in the calm atmosphere as you stroll along the beach.
The seaside municipality of Manly has alluring beaches, surfing, boutiques and myriad coffee shops (Bean Rush, Barefoot Coffee Traders and more).
A popular Watson’s Bay meal is fish-and-chips at Doyles on the Beach.
My Sydney Detour
It’s kind of cool to walk out of your hotel in the morning and see the mustachioed Richard Graham leaning against his port-sea blue 1964 Holden EH premier, ready to chauffeur you around the best of Sydney.
The 29-year-old designs intimate tours aimed at making visitors feel like locals.
His car -- with its original fixtures, two-tone horn and absence of power steering -- is a throwback to the days when Australians first got into motor culture, and it elicits stares, smiles and compliments.
"You're a local in this car,” he’ll tell you proudly as he takes you through off-the-beaten-track neighborhoods such as Redfern, Darlington and Newtown, stopping at tiny cafés for cappuccinos and chatting to you about Australian history, aboriginal issues and Sydney’s gentrification.
Graham’s tour takes you along the city’s gorgeous coast and makes stops at lookouts, cemeteries and exclusive neighborhoods.
He loves Bronte Beach, thinks Bondi Beach lacks soul and is obsessed with Captain Cook.
He’s quirky and makes for good company, taking you to places you wouldn’t otherwise see on your own or with a tour group. His detours can be customized.
177-179 Lawson St., Redfern; +61 (0) 404 256 256; My Sydney Detour costs $147 per person for three hours; mysydneydetour.com
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Shoppers will want to make a walk along Oxford Street in Paddington a priority, as there’s a wealth of boutiques between Victoria Street and Jersey Road.
Fleur Wood (464 Oxford St., +61 (0) 2 9380 9511) is an Australian designer who creates vintage-meets-modern-day-girl clothes for women.
Her eponymous store also has quirky accessories, such as the must-read picture book, “All my friends are dead.”
Come As You Are (443 Oxford St., +61 (0) 2 9331 3350) sells skinny jeans, silky designer pants and wispy cotton shirts by international labels such as Sweden’s Odd Molly, along with J Brand and Haute Hippie of the U.S.
The Other Side (441 Oxford St. +61 (0) 2 9360 2224) stocks a mixed bag of brands, but focuses on the Australian line Three Over One, with its blue-and-white striped tops, green twill trousers and sweats (traditionally for men, but now expanding to women).
In Paddington, a detour down William Street is worthwhile. Start off on the corner at T2, an outlet of the popular Australian boutique tea chain, which is looking to expand to Hong Kong, Singapore and London in the near future.
There are any number of cute stores (Just William Chocolates, Elegantly Scant fine lingerie and I Like Birds new and vintage homeware, to name a few) and you can get a panini, pasta and coffee at Paddington Alimentari.
Malls in the CBD
A couple of malls stand shoulder-to-shoulder in Sydney’s Central Business District, offering some of the best of Sydney shopping options to keep credit cards humming for a couple of days.
The Queen Victoria Building (455 George St., +61 (0) 2 9283 5211), a 19th-century sandstone structure that fills a city block, was originally designed to be a fresh produce market.
It’s now home to a diverse array of stores, from Adidas to Lush to Ralph Lauren, along with a few charming coffee shops.
Westfield (450 George St., +61 (0) 2 8236 9200) is the QVB’s modern younger sister -- a slick, six-level structure with stores to suit all tastes.
Shoppers can find alternative and accessible brands (Zara and Esprit, for example) on the bottom level.
Top designers like Hugo Boss and Diane Von Furstenberg occupy level three.
Level four is where you’ll find Australian designers -- Saba, Sambag, Little Joe and others.
Shoppers needing to refuel can find a gourmet food court on level five. It’s worth a look at least.
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The Rocks Markets
Local vendors and artisans trot their stuff out on the weekends (food stalls open Friday) at this outdoor market, open all-year round and among the best of Sydney browsing spots.
There’s lots of stuff to browse through -- bags, scarves, jewelry, artwork, handmade soap and boomerangs spring to mind.
You can also pick up “Roo Balls” for that special someone who needs kangaroo testicles (hair-covered scrotum included) attached to a bottle opener ($30 or $100 for four).
It’s a great place to get souvenirs, although a little on the pricey side.
George St., The Rocks; +61 (0) 2 9240 8717; therocks.com
Wine Odyssey Australia
This is one-stop shopping for anyone with an interest in fine Australian wine, encompassing a wine shop, wine bar, a couple of tasting rooms (the Wine Journey Room and the Tasting Theatre) and a restaurant.
The folks at Wine Odyssey, who opened in 2008 in a building that was once a brothel, buy exclusively from independent and family-run wineries.
No “Big Mac” wines, they’ll inform you, such as Wolf Blass and Jacob’s Creek.
Instead, you’ll come across names like The Standish, Savaterre and Cockfighter's Ghost.
Some of the critically acclaimed bottles include Tyrrell’s Hunter Semillon and the Bannockburn 1996 Pinot Noir, plus a solid selection of Barossa Valley Shiraz.
Wine Odyssey also has limited editions by small vintners, who make fewer than 1,500 bottles and adorn them with handmade labels.
Bottles run anywhere from $15 to $1,500.
39-43 Argyle St, The Rocks; +61 (0) 2 8114 0256; wineodyssey.com.au