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5 Exciting and Inexpensive Things to Do in Sydney

I've lived in Sydney since 1994 and have witnessed so many diverse changes over the years, but it is still a stunning city.

Looking south over Palm Beach from the top of Barrenjoey Lighthouse

Looking south over Palm Beach from the top of Barrenjoey Lighthouse

1. Take a Day Trip to Barrenjoey Lighthouse

Barrenjoey Lighthouse sits at the tip of the long peninsula from Palm Beach and is only open for guided tours inside on Sundays. There is approximately a 1km walk along the beach before arriving at a choice of two walkways up to the lighthouse, both of which will give you a good work out. (The stairs on the right are the more difficult option!)

The lighthouse sits amongst the beautiful Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park, which is free to enter. There are, however, car parking fees around the beach (unfortunately, council fees apply to most of the popular beaches in Sydney).

This beautiful building was built in 1881 of sandstone from the actual site and has a wonderful assembly of historical information inside. Once you step out onto the lighthouse landing up at the top, you have the most stunning views over the park, Palm Beach and the Tasman Sea in the direction of New Zealand.

Palm Beach is one of a long line of beautiful beaches in Sydney. It's 40km (roughly a 1-hour drive) north from the Sydney CBD. It's also well serviced by buses leaving from Wynyard and travelling via the Harbour Bridge. These buses usually take 1.5 hours...on a good day.

There are numerous shops and beaches along the heavily residential Northern Beaches route on Pittwater and Barrenjoey Roads before arriving in this very affluent suburb. As with many beachside suburbs, there is often only one road in and out, which is a constant source of grievance with Palm Beach residents and day-trippers.

Tips for Visiting Barrenjoey Lighthouse

  • Plan your trip for a weekday. The traffic is usually moderate to heavy most days, but on summer weekends, it's downright horrendous and the main road basically becomes a carpark. If you can't visit during the week, start off early or you'll have to park a couple of kilometres away.
  • Carry an umbrella and water. The sun is vicious, and there is not much shade as you walk up to the lighthouse.
  • Wear sensible shoes. If you plan on taking the steeper path to or from the lighthouse, do yourself a favor and wear a good pair of walking shoes. Sandals will have you slipping and sliding all over the place!
  • Make a stop at the visitor center. After a long drive, there are toilets within the carpark. There are no toilets or drinking water at the lighthouse.
View over the Harbour Bridge looking north (Kirribilli on the right and Lavender Bay on the left).

View over the Harbour Bridge looking north (Kirribilli on the right and Lavender Bay on the left).

2. Walk Up Sydney Harbour Bridge

There are 200 steps to climb, but there are three levels with exhibitions and rest areas, so you can take your time getting to the top. Once at the top, you can walk around the pylon and feel completely safe; it is enclosed within solid concrete walls with a glass viewer all around.

It doesn't reach the same height as the BridgeClimb, but the views over the harbour, city and north are still pretty majestic. You can also take your camera up—something you can't do on BridgeClimb because of the possibility of dropping it onto the traffic below.

The Sydney Harbour Bridge Pylon walk costs around $25.00 for adults (and less for children)—a tiny fraction of BridgeClimb—and you don't need to book ahead. Just turn up at the southeast pylon and buy a ticket.

The pylon walk is accessible via Cumberland Street in The Rocks on the south side of the harbour or Milsons Point train station on the north side and is open 7 days a week, from 10am to 5pm.

Stop for a Sunset Cocktail in Kirribilli

If you have walked up the stairs from Cumberland Street, stroll across the bridge after your climb and exit at Milsons Point train station at Kirribilli. This is a lovely little village directly opposite the Opera House with a wide range of cafés, restaurants and captivating walks under the Harbour Bridge.

After a day of walking everywhere, relax over a drink and nibbles in one of the many restaurants overlooking the harbour and Opera House. Drinks at sunset...that's a pretty nice way to finish the day.

The Royal Botanic Garden Sydney

The Royal Botanic Garden Sydney

3. Wander the Royal Botanic Garden Sydney

The heritage-listed Royal Botanic Garden Sydney is bordered by the city's exclusive Macquarie Street to the west and the Sydney Domain and the New South Wales Art Gallery to the south, while the Opera House and harbour waters gently lap the wall surrounding the north and east boundaries.

This impressive garden has many varieties of flora and fauna, including ancient trees and plant species, within beautifully designed spaces, creating a sublime piece of heaven—especially during Sydney's hot summer days. Giant umbrellas of shade from these magnificent trees carpet the lawn for family picnics, and the blooming colours of the flowers set against the blue of the harbour create the perfect romantic scene.

The garden is free to enter and opens at 7am, closing at 8pm in the summer and 5pm in the winter. You'll find a superb restaurant in the centre of the grounds, which is often the setting for weddings, and there's also a café underneath with toilet facilities close by.

Visit Garrison Church and the Sydney Observatory

After visiting the garden, take a walk past the Opera House and The Rocks and up to Millers Point. This is a lovely historical part of Sydney with the Garrison Church taking centre stage. I was lucky enough to spend some time painting in this gorgeous old church; I'd rung the Reverend the night before, and he opened up especially for me the next morning. Obviously it wasn't a Sunday! I thoroughly enjoyed the beautiful ambience all by myself for a few hours as I painted and ate my lunch.

Built in the mid-1800s, Sydney Observatory is a 10-minute walk up from here and is a very important astronomical and meteorological site. It's free to tour during the day, but if you want to go to one of the incredibly interesting lectures or look through the telescopes at night, a booking is essential. Inside the observatory, the beautiful wood-panelled walls and stairs are like something from another time, but the magic really happens once you arrive at the stunning old telescope at the top. If you are an astronomy fan like me, you will be blown away by this beauty.

Relax with a picnic on the lawn outside afterwards for a fabulous panoramic view looking west over the Parramatta River at sunset.

4. Visit Wendy Whiteley's Secret Garden in Lavender Bay

Wendy Whiteley's Secret Garden is easily the most magical place in Sydney. This enchanting hidden garden in Lavender Bay, beside Milsons Point, has been passionately cared for by Wendy Whiteley and her team of volunteers for over 20 years. There are spectacular views peeking through a lush oasis of twisted old trees and foliage towards the Harbour Bridge, across the water and up to Sydney Observatory at Millers Point.

You won't find any street signs directing you to this public space—to keep it 'secret'—and it is a steep, undulating site. If you are unsteady on your feet or on crutches, you might give this one a miss and get your friends to take a video for you instead!

Take Public Transportation to Avoid Parking Fees

The streets in Lavender Bay and Milsons Point are narrow, and you must pay to park in this affluent residential suburb. Because you will want to stay here a few hours, it's much easier and less stressful to take a ferry, bus or train, all of which are very accessible. Don't forget your picnic; there are plenty of places to sit down, and there are toilets nearby.

5. Spend a Day at Iconic Bondi Beach

Mention Sydney anywhere in the world, and most people will think of Bondi Beach, the Opera House or the Harbour Bridge. I'd venture a guess that Bondi would top that list almost every time.

The North Bondi side of the beach has a lovely pool area for the children, so a lot of families congregate down that end. It's also a more sheltered part of the beach. It's so relaxing to sit and watch the light change over the surf and sand as you enjoy an ice cream.

Sitting to the east of the city centre, it takes around 20 minutes to drive or go by train and 40 minutes on the bus. There is no train direct to the beach so you have to get a bus from Bondi Station, which adds another 10 mins to your journey. If it is mid-summer, that time can more than double; that's why the beach carpark is always full—because of the transport connections.

© 2020 Victoria Hannah

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