The hidden gems of Sydney, best explored by bus

There are treasures to be found riding the buses through Sydney’s CBD and suburbs. Keren Lavelle hops on and off three of the city’s busiest routes and explores Sydney by bus.

Top view of Mahon Rock pool in Sydney
  • Keren Lavelle
  • June 2018

To capture the full flavour of Sydney, it’s fun to travel around its different ‘villages’. Going by Metrobus is a relatively easy way of getting to know the big smoke at a local level.


Beaches, bars and bambiraptors

Route: M10 Leichhardt to Maroubra Junction

The inner west suburb of Leichhardt, where I wait for the bus, feels like a big country town with its grand Victorian town hall and the greenery of Pioneers Park. The suburb is still a hub of all things Italian, so I’ve had a coffee at Bar Italia, where a sign above the counter warns ‘no skim, no soy, no decaf’, and admired the cakes at Mezzapica, where a celebratory giant cannoli, stuffed with smaller cannoli, has prime spot in the window display.

Jumping on the M10 Metrobus, I have the clean and comfortable vehicle to myself. It heads into the city, weaving past Central and then Museum stations, where I decide to get off. Five minutes’ walk away is the Australian Museum, celebrating its 190th birthday this year. The museum mixes new and old, both in its style of building and approaches to display. Uncanny roaring sounds emanating from huge skeletons – some real, some fibreglass – startle small children (and adults) in the shadowy dinosaur gallery, and the Pukumani poles from the Tiwi Islands, in the First Australians Galleries, are very impressive ceremonial works.

Back on board, the earthworks for the forthcoming light rail are very noticeable along Anzac Parade. This street has an enviable choice of (mostly) Asian restaurants, so it's a great stop if you're feeling peckish.

At the last bus stop, Maroubra Junction, there’s a shopping centre, but the real attraction here is Maroubra surf beach, just 25 minutes’ walk away. Take your swimmers and a towel or just watch the surfers from the beach.

Highlight: At the delightfully eccentric Sinma Laksa House, a Singapore-Malaysian restaurant marooned on a roundabout on Anzac Parade, two elderly ladies sit trimming beans with scissors, and there’s a AUD $9.80 lunch special. The rice with sour fish curry, crispy chicken and chilli beans is a bargain. The chicken comes with fried curry leaves and oatmeal. I ask the manager what the dish is called. "Oatmeal chicken," he says. Of course.

From grunge to gracious

Route: M30 Sydenham to Spit Junction

A trip on the M30 route between Sydenham and Spit Junction is a fascinating study in contrasts. The difference between the gritty surrounds of Sydenham and the leafy enclaves of Spit Junction is vast. Sound-strafed by descending aircraft, the streets surrounding Sydenham Station are full of car mechanic workshops, panel beaters and food manufacturers. But this industrial area 8km south of the CBD is on the cusp of change, with recent arrivals to the suburb including art studios, microbreweries, galleries, design studios and performance venues. Dubbed the Sydenham Station Creative Hub, it’s all part of a plan to support new businesses such as bars, cafés and restaurants to open in the neighbourhood, and it’s already working.

At the other end of the route, Spit Junction in Mosman is a wealthy domain of magnificent Federation mansions, civic grandeur and designer shopping. But don't just ride from A to B – in between these two opposites lie some of Sydney’s most interesting neighbourhoods.

Mansions overlooking Mosman bay in Sydney
Mansions overlooking Mosman bay in Sydney

My first stop after Sydenham is across from Newtown Station where King Street meets Enmore Road. Two of the hippest ‘high streets’ in Sydney, they are both full of inviting restaurants, cafés, bars, gelateria, and quirky shops. Do you need antique buttons from The Button Shop? Or perhaps a Panama hat from Caramba? Order a piccolo latte and choose a window seat in one of the many cafés. It’s always entertaining to sit and watch the passers-by.

Just before the bus leaves the CBD, don't miss taking a peek at Barangaroo Reserve, Sydney’s latest public park, named after a remarkable Cammeraygal woman. Unlike her husband Bennelong, who adopted Western dress and travelled to England, Barangaroo was critical of the new arrivals, even intervening when a convict was flogged for stealing her fishing gear. From the bus stop at Wynyard Station, head north on foot, about a 15-minute walk, to this sculptured and landscaped reimagining of the original headland.

My next driver is listening to a stream of '80s hits from a radio station called OMG while whizzing onto the Harbour Bridge in the bus-only lane. I hop off in Cremorne to admire the art deco Hayden Orpheum Movie Palace. My ride terminates at Military Road, Mosman, directly across from a piazza, home to Mosman Council and my lunch destination – the Fourth Village Providore, a fabulous Italian restaurant and food market, flower shop and cheese room.

I walk off lunch by window-shopping in the leafy arcades of upmarket shops, but later head back to the other side of the tracks to check out the Camelot Lounge and Gasoline Pony, two live music venues on Marrickville Road that caught my eye from the bus window.

Highlight: Mosman Art Gallery is home to the Balnave Gift, a trove of Australian Impressionist (and earlier) paintings with a local focus. Keep an eye out for key works by Arthur Streeton, Ethel Carrick Fox and Margaret Preston.

Cats, culture and cockatoos

Route: M52 Circular Quay to Parramatta

Sydney, indeed modern Australia, started here at Circular Quay (aka Farm Cove – the adjacent Botanic Gardens began as a farm). The twin icons of the Sydney Harbour Bridge and Sydney Opera House never disappoint. Why not join the fascinating behind-the-scenes tour of the World Heritage-listed Opera House, and learn about the chequered history of this architectural wonder?

The Sydney Opera house and the harbour bridge
The Sydney Opera House and the Harbour Bridge

Even the M52 bus stop on Alfred Street has a great view. The bus tacks its way through downtown, past grand 19th-century sandstone buildings and behemoths of steel and glass. I get off just past the Iron Cove Bridge with retail therapy in mind.

My next driver is listening to a radio shock-jock. He finishes his shift at Ryde. I compliment the new driver on the grey and turquoise bus driver outfits, but another driver (who’s a passenger) complains how hard they are to iron. "Who can be bothered ironing?" a woman asks, and the jokes start to flow. The conversational camaraderie continues when a young woman taking her cat to the vet gets on. In Ryde I get off for lunch at Farsi, a Persian restaurant famous for its traditional charcoal-roasted meats.

Parramatta is another great choice for lunch options, thanks to its status as a melting pot of ethnic diversity. An expansive ‘eat street’ flourishes along Church Street, not far from the bus/rail interchange.

Cockatoo sitting in a Sydney park
Cockatoo sitting in a Sydney park

Parramatta is also the second oldest British settlement in Australia. Following a map from the visitor centre, I walk along a path by the river, past grand Georgian buildings, and see flocks of cockatoos grazing on newly mown grass. It’s an amazingly rural scene so close to office skyscrapers. At Old Government House (c. 1790), the ‘country home’ of 10 early governors, I end my day as it had begun – touring a World Heritage-listed grand house, both rich with history and in this case, stories of colonial Australia.

Highlight: Sydney's only bargain mall with a harbour view, Birkenhead Point Outlet Centre specialises in outdoor and active wear, attracting frenzied sales queues.

Bus basics

Metrobuses (mostly red, sometimes blue) run 12 hours a day, seven days a week: every 10 minutes during peak periods, every 15 minutes during other times on week days, and every 20 minutes in the evening and on weekends. The approximate adult fare for the routes featured here is around AUD $4.50 for a single journey from end to end (more if you break your journey for a stop lasting longer than one hour).

You’ll need a stored-value Opal card to travel on Sydney’s public transport (available to buy and to top up from most newsagents, post offices, convenience stores and supermarkets). ‘Tap on’ the card reader when you board, and ‘tap off’ before you leave.

For timetables, trip planners and guides visit transportnsw.info