Explore the city’s harbourside gardens
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The Royal Botanical Garden in Sydney’s CBD has 30 hectares of carefully kept parkland to explore but it’s also home to some of the city’s most postcard-worth views of the harbour – the point at Mrs Macquarie’s Chair is a particular highlight. Artist Wendy Whiteley’s self-cultivated public garden is another garden that’s truly a hidden gem – on the very edge of North Sydney’s Lavender Bay, it’s a small but lush oasis exceptionally close to the Harbour Bridge, made especially for the enjoyment of passers-by.
Picnic at Barangaroo Reserve
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There’s an entire suburb of activity at Sydney’s sprawling Barangaroo site but if fine-dining and bar-dwelling isn’t your scene, perhaps a picnic within the grounds of the expansive reserve would do the trick. The transformation of six hectares of industrial land is impressive: 75,000 native plants and trees now live among the waterfront locality, as well as some 10,000 Sydney sandstone blocks stacked dramatically up to the water’s edge.
Wander down a coastal route
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Blessed with a profusion of pristine, picturesque coastline, there’s still more to the Sydney shoreline than swimming spots. You’re spoilt for choice: Bondi to Coogee still stuns, Bradley’s Head to Chowder Bay has enough ruggedness to make it feel a little unexplored, the Hermitage Foreshore Track can be broken by periodic dips and the Manly to Spit cuts through one of Sydney’s most impressive national parks.
Walk across the Sydney Harbour Bridge
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Visitors pay a pretty penny to fly Down Under and see this harbour-hanging landmark but you don’t have to spend a thing to get the one of the best views in the city. It takes around 15 minutes to traverse the almost one-kilometre walkway on the bridge’s eastern side, though longer if you stop to snap the beautiful scene below. Our tip? Walk north to south so you can see the city as you approach.
Visit a lesser-known beach
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Bondi may get all the glory, but there are plenty of alternative swimming spots around the city that are often bereft of crowds. There are actually more than 20 swimmable beaches hidden amongst Sydney Harbour’s edges: Vaucluse’s Milk Beach has the city skyline in the distance, Little Manly Beach tops the local’s list for a quiet swim and lying on the sand at Mosman’s Chinamans Beach will make you feel like you’ve taken a South Coast getaway.
Get acquainted with aquatic life
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No need to head to the Great Barrier Reef for a little underwater adventure – snorkelling off the coast of Sydney can produce more than a few finds. Take Shelly Beach, for instance, where you might spot a blue groper or Clovelly, home to the legendary fish Bluey (whether it still lives is up for debate). At Gordons Bay, just one headland over, home to the 500-metre-long Underwater Nature Trail where to guide you around the hidden cove.
Hike to the Barrenjoey Lighthouse
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There are a few routes to the summit of Barrenjoey Headland’s Barrenjoey Lighthouse, perched 91 metres above sea level. Whichever path you choose, the view will be equally stunning: the peak overlooks both stretches Sydney’s northern beaches and the coves and inlets of NSW’s lower Central Coast, laid out below. While only about a kilometre to the top, it’s a steep climb so bring sturdy shoes.
Browse a bustling marketplace
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It doesn’t cost a cent to soak up the atmosphere at some of Sydney’s lively marketplaces: the historic area of The Rocks gathers trawlers from all over the globe with its souvenir-heavy stalls, while the food-centric Eveleigh Farmer’s Market more than tempts with its array of fresh, delicious food. Kirribilli Markets is a fashion fiend’s dream and its neighbour in the looming Harbour Bridge makes for a scenic backdrop and people watching alone is enough of a drawcard at the relaxed, coastal setting of Bondi Markets.
Appreciate an art exhibition
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Immerse yourself in culture by visiting one of Sydney’s multitudes of art galleries where creations from contemporary to ancient disciplines are housed. The Art Gallery of NSW offers free general admission to its permanent collection, as does Circular Quay’s Museum of Contemporary Art and smaller galleries like contemporary Chinese-focused White Rabbit in Chippendale or the ever-evolving Artspace in Woolloomooloo.
Take a dip in a rock pool
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If the occasionally wild waves of Sydney’s beaches put you off getting in the water, try diving into one of the city’s rock pools, which capture the beachside atmosphere with a little less swell. Trying to pick a favourite? Mona Vale has one stationed on a small peninsula jutting into the sea beyond where the sand usually ends, Bronte’s curved pool is one of the oldest incarnations and Coogee’s Giles Baths takes its edges from exposed rock only.
Tap your toes to free live music
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While your accompanying beverage will cost you, there are live gigs throughout the city every night of the week. Try Marble Bar on George Street on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights for bands and DJs, Opera Bar on Saturday and Sunday afternoons for tunes with a killer view or Golden Age Cinema & Bar in Surry Hills for something a little different on Thursday nights.
Catch a free flick
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Open-air cinemas are a favourite pastime in the usually balmy Sydney summer. While most require a paid ticket, the Night Owls Kids’ Film Fest at Darling Quarter shows free family-friendly movies at 6.30pm, such as Sing and The Boss Baby, and flicks that will please teens at 8.30pm on weekend nights until January 21. Movies by the Boulevard at Sydney Olympic Park is also on until the end of January with extra activities for kids on some nights.
Embrace the past at Q Station
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The North Head Quarantine station was only put out of use in the 1980s so there’s a lot of history to get through at the free visitor’s centre (the ghost yours and overnight accommodation incur a cost). Now a buzzing tourist attraction, its exhibitions and displays reveal a fascinating slice of Australia’s past, including the tales of what living in quarantine for 40 days was like for patients struck with the awful illnesses of the past.
Learn something at the Sydney Mechanics’ School of Arts
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Almost two centuries old, this schools of arts is home to the country’s longest-running lending library and runs regular talks, screenings and seminars that guarantee you’ll leave having learnt something new. Upcoming events cover topics as varied as the Humphrey Bogart film The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, a chat from the NSW Dickens Society on Oliver Twist and a food blogger sharing his tips and tricks.
Immerse yourself in Sydney Festival events
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Held in the long evening summer season of January, the Sydney Festival is a celebration of the city that isn’t just for paying customers. From operatic concerts under the stars in The Domain to complimentary language classes, the extensive program of 134 events has a range of inclusions that are completely free.
Try a cultural walk with help from an app
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Take a detour from your usual foot-powered commute to discover something new about the city. Whether you’re fascinated by Sydney’s colonial history, sculpture and public art, indigenous past or architecture, the Sydney Culture Walks app will guide you a path to pique your interest. The ferry over to Cockatoo Island might not be free but once you’re there you can download the free Ghosts of Biloela app, which combines a walking tour with fiction to shed light on some of the island’s past. Image credit: Tina Reynolds (CC BY-NC 2.0)
Discover a waterfall
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Do go chasing waterfalls at some of the beaches and sprawling national parks that surround the CBD. Collins Flat Beach Waterfall, between North Head and Manly Cove, is a fizzing spray off shelf-like rocks, while the falls and lagoon at Wattamolla in the Royal National Park are worth the hour in the car from the city.