Sydney Tropical Centre
The Sydney Tropical Centre comprises the interconnecting Arc and Pyramid glasshouses – a great place to warm up on a wintry morning. The Arc has a rampant collection of climbers from the world's rainforests; the Pyramid houses Australian species.
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Royal Botanic Gardens
The gardens were established in 1816 as the colony’s vegetable patch and are now Sydney’s favourite communal backyard. Signs encourage visitors to ‘smell the roses, hug the trees, talk to the birds and picnic on the lawns’. Take a free guided walk, departing from the Gardens Shop. A trackless train does a circuit if you’re feeling weary.
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Definitively Sydney, Bondi is one of the world’s great beaches: ocean and land collide, the Pacific arrives in great foaming swells and all people are equal, as democratic as sand. It’s the closest ocean beach to the city centre (8km away), has consistently good (though crowded) waves, and is great for a rough-and-tumble swim (the average water temperature is a considerate 21°C). If the sea’s angry, try the saltwater sea baths at either end of the beach; these are perfect for kids.The two surf clubs – Bondi and North Bondi – patrol the beach between sets of red and yellow flags, positioned to avoid the worst rips and holes. Thousands of unfortunates have to be rescued from the surf each year (enough to make a TV show about it), so don’t become a statistic – swim between the flags. Surfers carve up sandbar breaks at either end of the beach; it’s a good place for learners, too. Prefer wheels to fins? There’s a skate ramp at the beach’s southern end. If posing in your budgie smugglers (speedos) isn’t having enough impact, there’s an outdoor workout area near the North Bondi Surf Club. Coincidentally (or perhaps not), this is the part of the beach where the gay guys let it all hang out.Bondi Pavilion has changing rooms, lockers and a gelato shop. Ice-cream vendors also strut the sand in summer. At the beach’s northern end there’s a grassy spot with coin-operated barbecues. Booze is banned on the beach.
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Sydney Opera House
Overcome with admiration for the Sydney Opera House, famous architect Louis Kahn said, ‘The sun did not know how beautiful its light was until it was reflected off this building.’ Danish architect Jørn Utzon’s competition-winning 1956 design is Australia’s most recognisable icon. It’s mused to have drawn inspiration from orange segments, palm fronds and Maya temples, and has been poetically likened to a typewriter stuffed with scallop shells and the sexual congress of turtles. While viewed from any angle it’s architecturally orgasmic, the ferry view approaching Circular Quay is hard to beat.The predicted four-year construction started in 1959. After a tumultuous clash of egos, delays, politicking, death and cost blowouts, Utzon quit in disgust in 1966. The Opera House finally opened in 1973. Unembittered, Utzon and his son Jan were commissioned for renovations in 2004, but Utzon died in 2008 having never seen his finished masterpiece in the flesh. Inside are six auditoriums where dance, concerts, opera and theatre are staged, plus the left-of-centre Studio for emerging artists. The acoustics are superb; the internal aesthetics like the belly of a whale. Most events (2400 of them annually!) sell out quickly, but partial-view tickets are often available on short notice. The free monthly What’s On brochure has upcoming listings, including info on Kids at the House – a pint-sized entertainment program with music, drama and dance (including introductory ballet with Australian Ballet dancers). There’s also a shop and the artsy-craftsy Opera House Market on the concourse.One-hour guided tours depart half-hourly (you’ll save a few bucks if you book online). Tours employ archival video footage to help tell the story of the iconic building’s construction. A highlight is the Utzon Room, the only part of the house to have an interior designed by the great man himself. For a more in-depth nosy around, the two-hour early-morning backstage tour includes the Green Room and stars’ dressing rooms. Disabled access is pretty good, although some sections require staff assistance (call in advance).
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A 12-minute ferry ride from Circular Quay or a short drive from Manly, Taronga Zoo has 75 hectares of bushy harbour hillside chock-full of kangaroos, koalas and similarly hirsute Australians. The zoo’s 4000 critters have million-dollar harbour views but seem blissfully unaware of the privilege. The animals are well looked after, with more natural open enclosures than cages.Highlights include the nocturnal platypus habitat, the new Great Southern Oceans section, the Asian elephants display, seal and bird shows, and the nightly Roar & Snore – an overnight family experience with a night-time safari, a barbecue and tents under the stars. Animal displays and feedings happen throughout the day; twilight concerts jazz things up in summer.From the wharf, the Sky Safari cable car or a bus will whisk you to the main entrance (for free if you’ve got a ZooPass), from where you can traverse the zoo downhill back to the ferry. A ZooPass from Circular Quay includes return ferry rides, the bus or cable car ride to the top and zoo admission. Parking is scarce – take public transport instead. Disabled access is good, (even if arriving by ferry), and wheelchairs are available.
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Museum of Contemporary Art
A slice of Gotham City on Circular Quay West, the stately art-deco MCA has been raising even the most open-minded Sydney eyebrows since 1991. Constantly changing controversial exhibitions from Australia and overseas range from the incredibly hip to in-your-face, sexually explicit and profoundly disturbing. Impressive. There’s a cool cafe and a museum shop here, too.
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This place brings in more paying visitors than any other attraction in Australia – even with its hefty admission charges. Aqua fans enter through huge, kitsch, metallic shark jaws into 160m of underwater tunnels, looking at 11,000 happy Australian sea creatures. Highlights include clownfish, an intimidating array of sharks in the Open Ocean section, and the Great Barrier Reef exhibit’s swoon-worthy Van Gogh coral colours. Latest additions are dugongs "Pig"and "Wuru"in the Mermaid Lagoon section. Needless to say, kids love it. Arrive early to beat the crowds (but less chatter makes it harder to ignore the piped-in indigestive whale noises). Disabled access is good. Booking online will save you a few dollars. Discounted combo tickets are also available accessing Sydney Tower and/or Sydney Wildlife World.
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Flanked by the new Darling Walk development, this grassy circle on Darling Harbour’s southern rump is refreshingly devoid of showy pretence. Sunbakers and frisbee-throwers occupy the lawns; tourists dunk their feet in fountains on hot summer afternoons. There’s also an excellent children’s playground with a rubber floor (kids don’t bounce), and a dinky ‘people mover’ train doing the rounds.
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More cultural centre than boat shed, the Mediterranean/Georgian-revival Bondi Pavilion (1929; aka ‘The Pav’) offers change rooms, showers, Bondi Openair Cinema, restaurants, exhibitions, and a plethora of courses and live performances.
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If in need of a swim, Will Wentworth would no doubt have strolled down to Shark Beach in Nielsen Park, once part of the then 206-hectare Vaucluse House estate. Today the park and nearby Greycliffe House, a beautiful 1851 Gothic sandstone pile (not open to visitors), are surrounded by a section of the Sydney Harbour National Park. Visit on a weekday when it’s not too busy: just mums, kids, oldies and people throwing sickies from work.
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A winning family-orientated beach hemmed in by sandstone cliffs and a grassy park, Bronte lays claims to the title of the oldest surf life-saving club in the world (1903). Contrary to popular belief, the beach is named after Lord Nelson, who doubled as the Duke of Bronte (a place in Sicily), and not the famous literary sorority. There’s a kiosk and a changing room attached to the surf club, and outdoor seating near the coin-op barbecues. Parking is hellish.
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It might seem odd, but this concrete-edged ocean channel is a great place to swim, sunbathe and snorkel. It’s safe for the kids, and despite the swell surging into the inlet, underwater visibility is great. A beloved friendly grouper fish lived here for many years until he was speared by a tourist. Bring your goggles, but don’t go killing anything… On the other side of the car park is the entrance to the Gordons Bay Underwater Nature Trail, a 500m underwater chain guiding divers past reefs, sand flats and kelp forests.
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Not really a pool at all (it’s a fenced-off section of Seven Shillings Beach), Redleaf is the closest swim spot to the city – as such, it attracts an urbane collection of inner- eastern locals. A boardwalk runs around the top of the shark net, and two floating pontoons are sought-after posing platforms for those who confuse beaches with catwalks. The pool is popular with families; the beach’s eastern end is colonised by gay lads.
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This historic lighthouse (1881) punctuates the northern tip of the northern beaches in an annexe of Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park. You’ll need some decent shoes for the steep 20-minute hike (no toilets!), but the views across Pittwater are worth the effort. On Sundays short tours run every half-hour from 11am to 3pm; no need to book ahead.
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