|Step 2||Downtown (Walking Tour or Shopping or Gallery/Museum)|
|Step 3||Botanic Gardens (Mrs Macquarie’s Point)|
|Step 4||Ferry across the Harbour (Manly or Watsons Bay)|
|Step 5||Lunch by the Beach (Manly or Watsons Bay)|
|Step 6||Back into the city – explore The Rocks (Spirit Gallery or Rocks Discovery Museum or Susannah Place)|
|Step 7||Experience the Sydney Harbour Bridge (Pylon Lookout or Bridge Climb or Walk)|
|Step 8||Watch the Sunset (Mrs Macquarie’s Chair or Observatory Hill or Opera Bar)|
|Step 9||Dinner with a View (O Bar/360/Glenmore) or Dinner like a Local (Aus Heritage/Chinatown/etc)|
|Step 10||Experience the Sydney Opera House (a Show or Badu Gili)|
|Step 11||Dessert and/or Drinks|
|Bonus||Honourable Mentions & Extra Time Activities (Experience the Wildlife, Explore the Suburbs)|
Step 1. Breakfast
Welcome to Sydney, you have made it! (If you need help getting to the city from the airport, we have a handy video guide here!) Okay, so now that you have arrived, you are going to need some breakfast (and coffee!) so that you are fueled and ready to go. Luckily, not only do we have amazing coffee but there are plenty of breakfast options, too.
As a local guide at I’m Free, I’d recommend starting the day somewhere in Surry Hills, which is well-known for its great brunch options. Devon is right next to Central Station and has an incredible french toast. Four Ate Five is also a favourite of mine (they make a delicious shakshuka – poached eggs in a spiced tomato sauce).
Another good option is The Grounds of the City in Town Hall. It is set up in a 1920s Orient Express style, so the ambience is great and the food is super yummy. If you are more in the mood to grab something and go (time is of the essence!), grab a pastry and a take-away coffee from Bourke St Bakery (Surry Hills) or Black Star Pastry (Town Hall).
From either Surry Hills or Town Hall, you are perfectly poised for the next step of your Sydney adventure.
Step 2. Downtown
Alright, all you shopping fiends! This is your chance! Head over to the Queen Victoria Building (QVB) to admire the stunning architecture and invest in some goodies. Next, you can follow the tunnels through QVB over to Pitt St Mall, where you have even more stores to explore! Definitely take some time to head through the Strand Arcade, particularly if you are a fan of Victorian architecture and/or Australian designer brands.
If you are already in Town Hall, definitely take the chance to have a peek into the QVB and stare in awe at the beautiful tiled floors and fancy looking clocks. From here, you can walk through Strand Arcade, Pitt St Mall & Hyde Park on your way over to either Hyde Park Barracks or the Art Gallery of New South Wales. Both are relatively close together and it is very doable to have a peek at the Barracks from the outside while you are walking to the Gallery.
Hyde Park Barracks is one of the best museums in Sydney, focusing on the history of the old building and early convicts. The fully-immersive self-guided museum experience takes about 90 minutes. Open Thursday-Sunday from 10am-5pm. Adult tickets cost $24. Click here to buy your tickets!
Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW) is a favourite amongst locals and tourists alike. It is a pretty big gallery, with a whole variety of collections. The Yiribana Gallery (Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander art) is definitely the highlight and a good way to immerse yourself in Indigenous culture. Entry to permanent exhibitions is free, so this is a great budget-friendly option! Open daily from 10am to 5pm.
The I’m Free Sydney Sights Walking Tour is a great way to start a trip to Sydney, especially when you are short on time. The tour covers most of the important historical information and interesting cultural facts about Sydney, takes you to most of the well-known landmarks and provides you with a knowledgeable local guide to give you advice and recommendations. This is the perfect way to cover most of your bases in one fell swoop and if you do the tour at 10:30am, it leaves you the rest of the day to explore. Find out more and book your tour here!
Meet us in real life.
Join a free walking tour.
Step 3. Botanic Gardens
If you choose not to do the Botanic Gardens at this time, make sure you fit it in at some point during your day! The Royal Botanic Gardens here in Sydney is truly gorgeous and if you are a fan of plants (shoutout to any other plant parents out there!), definitely take your time wandering through these gardens to appreciate the gorgeous flora. My personal favourite spots in the Botanic Gardens are: the Sydney Fernery (the perfect spot to relax and enjoy the quiet); the Rainforest Walk (beautiful Australian plants) and; Cadi Jam Ora, the First Encounters garden (tells the story of the Gadigal people, the traditional owners of the Sydney city area). Also don’t forget the Calyx, a free exhibition space within the Botanic Gardens. You can check what’s on at the Calyx here!
The Gardens are pretty big, so if you are not as plant-obsessed as me and just want to see the most important part of the Gardens, I recommend entering from the Moorshead Gate (from Hyde Park Barracks), the Woolloomooloo Gate (from AGNSW) or the Opera House Gate (from Circular Quay, after the tour) and walking down to the famous Mrs Macquarie’s Chair. Once you reach this point, take some time to admire one of the most photographed views in Sydney – an unobstructed view out across the harbour, framed by the Opera House and the Harbour Bridge. Most famously, this is an iconic location to snap a photo of the sunset over Sydney Harbour. It is truly not to be missed – this view will make you awe-inspired and feels so quintessentially Sydney.
Once you’ve had your fill of the view, follow the path by the water all the way over to the Opera House. You’ve reached Circular Quay!
Step 4. Ferry across the harbour
Have a glance around and take in the bustling peace of Sydney Harbour. Now that you are in Circular Quay, the next thing is to get out on that water. This is so easy to do and is considered a Must-Do if you are going to have the best day in Sydney.
The commuter ferries are part of our public transport system, so all you have to do is tap on at the ferry terminal with any bank card that has contactless payment or with your Opal Card. We recommend catching the ferry to either Manly (30 minutes, Wharf 3 – the Fast Ferry from Wharf 2 is privately owned and therefore more expensive) or Watsons Bay (25 minutes, Wharf 2). Both head out in the direction past the Opera House, giving you an amazing view across the harbour in one direction and out to the ocean on the other side. The ferry trip will cost about $8 one way.
If you are interested in something a little fancier, there are a number of harbour cruises available that provide you with not only a nice glide across the water, but also commentary, food and/or drinks. Wondering what the best cruise is? Read our article here!
Step 5. Lunch by the beach
Okay, you have arrived in either Manly or Watsons Bay. Before you settle in for a meal, take a bit of time to walk around. Both of these coastal locations have short, easy walks where you can relax and take in the scenery. For more on Sydney’s coastal walks, check out our article here! Being beach-side is the perfect time to enjoy a meal and Manly and Watsons Bay are the ideal locations.
From the Manly Wharf, if you have the time I would recommend walking to North Head and then over to the main beach. This should take about 1.5 hours or so. Otherwise, head straight down the Manly Corso to the beach. You can pick up some fish & chips on the way and eat by the beach. If you would prefer to sit down at a restaurant, The Pantry and The Glasshouse are local favourites. Manly has a peaceful, laidback feel and has plenty of food options, particularly right by the beach.
In Watsons Bay, you can do the short Hornby Lighthouse walk if you are up for a little stroll. When you are ready to eat, your best option is Doyles! They have a sit-down restaurant and a little take-away kiosk if you want to eat while sitting by the water. Dunbar House and Beach Club are some other popular options.
For the adventurous and/or beach-loving people, it is possible to do both Manly and Watsons Bay in one day or even to include Bondi. But more info on that in the Bonus section further down!
If you are interested in going for a swim, don’t pass up your opportunity while you’re at the beach! Keep in mind that the water can be quite chilly, especially if it is not Summer, but don’t let that deter you because you will warm up pretty quickly while you splash around in the waves. Assuming you have already packed a swimsuit with the intention of going for a dip, make sure to also bring a towel and a change of clothes (plus an extra bag for your wet swimmers) so you can be comfortable for the rest of your ultimate day in Sydney. And please, take it from a local, wear some sunscreen!
Once you are fed, satisfied and relaxed by your coastal adventure, it is time to head back into the city centre to explore the rest of Sydney’s iconic places. From both Manly and Watsons Bay, it is as simple as catching the ferry back to Circular Quay.
Step 6. Explore the Rocks
Now that you are back in the city centre, it is time to explore the historic buildings and alleyways of the Rocks area! Feel free to just take your time wandering around, discovering the fun hidden shortcuts through the area and admiring the historic feel of the Rocks. We recommend starting your exploration at Argyle Place, and make sure to check out the Big Dig: the largest archaeological site in Australia!
If you’re interested in learning a little more about it, the Rocks Discovery Museum is free to enter, but unfortunately closed until further notice. It is rather small, so won’t take up a whole lot of time but it is a good overview of the history of the area. A personal favourite of mine is Spirit Gallery, an Aboriginal gallery and arts and crafts store. This is the perfect spot to learn more about Aboriginal culture and also to purchase Indigenous-made souvenirs. Another popular museum in the Rocks is Susannah Place. This is a four-house terrace building in the heart of the Rocks area, built by Irish immigrants in the 1840s. Susannah Place Museum is a great way to learn more about the lives of the people in the historic slums of the Rocks. Like the Rocks Discovery Museum, Susannah Place Museum is unfortunately closed indefinitely.
If you are a keen learner and interested in the convict and criminal history of the Rocks, I’m Free Tours also offers a Free Rocks Walking Tour at 6pm from Cadman’s Cottage. The tour explores the pubs, laneways, and terraces of the Rocks district, as well as the murders and mysteries, all in an easy to understand and fun for all format. You can find out more and book a tour here!
Step 7. Experience the Harbour Bridge
It is one of Sydney’s most recognisable landmarks, so there is no way that you can skip the Sydney Harbour Bridge! There are a few different ways to experience the Bridge and they vary quite dramatically in price, so it is easy to find something that will fit into your budget.
Your first, and most expensive, option is the Bridge Climb. This experience takes you all the way to the top of the arch of the bridge, giving you breathtaking views out across the water. This is an incredible experience but definitely not for the faint-hearted (it’s pretty high up!) and quite pricey. Prices range from $268 up to $403. You can book here!
The second option is to climb up to the Pylon Lookout. It is open 10am-5pm every day and only costs $19 to enter. It is about 200 steps to reach the top, with three exhibition levels exploring the history and construction of the Harbour Bridge along the way. Once you reach the top, you get an amazing view of the harbour where you can take photos to your heart’s content.
The cheapest (and perhaps the best) option is to walk across the bridge. The reason this is the cheapest is because it is completely free! You can access the bridge via the Bridge Stairs on Cumberland St or from Observatory Hill. Walking across the bridge doesn’t take very long (20-30 minutes) but gives you great views across the water. From the other side of the harbour, you can walk back across, catch the train back or catch the ferry from Milsons Point back to Circular Quay.
Step 8. Watch the sunset
Sydney may not be internationally known for its sunsets like some other cities around the world but watching the sun go down on that sparkling harbour is truly unparalleled.
Most people would agree that Mrs Macquarie’s Chair (Botanic Gardens) is the best spot in the city to view the sunset. They’re not wrong! It is certainly a beautiful location for watching the sun go down behind the Opera House and Sydney Harbour Bridge. However, it might not be the most convenient location and it is very popular.
Another brilliant option, favoured by locals, is Observatory Hill. This little hill nestled in the Rocks area gives you an unobstructed view of the sunset on the water and behind the trees. From here, you can see the Harbour Bridge but won’t be able to view the Opera House. Despite that, this is a really peaceful spot and my personal favourite. Especially because it provides amazing views of Barangaroo, the most modern part of Sydney.
A popular experience, especially for visitors, is to watch the sunset with a drink in hand at Opera Bar. This is a buzzing spot for sunset-viewing and it is popular for a reason! For those of you who like the vibe of high-energy environments and sharing happy experiences with other people, this is a great option. If you’re liking the vibes at Opera Bar, you can also stay here for your dinner and skip straight to step 10!
Step 9. Dinner
You can’t go wrong with dinner options in Sydney. For just one night in our brilliant city, I suggest either dining with a view or dining like a local.
Dinner with a view
There are a few options for dining with a nice view of Sydney Harbour but my top three options are Infinity Restaurant, O Bar & Dining and Glenmore Hotel.
Infinity Restaurant (previously known as 360 Bar & Dining) is the restaurant at the top of the iconic Sydney Tower. It is slowly rotating so will give you a stunning 360 degree view across the cityscape. This is a classy, fine-dining establishment focused on Australian cuisine, so it is rather expensive (e.g., a two-course dinner is approximately $100 per person) but truly incredible.
O Bar & Dining is another classy, rotating rooftop restaurant. It is not as high up as the Sydney Tower but is located closer to the Harbour, giving you a nicer view of the water, the Harbour Bridge and the Opera House. They also have a wider menu range, making it more adjustable to your budget. Saying that, be prepared to spend at least $50 per person on food/drink.
My personal favourite option is the Glenmore Hotel. This is a rooftop bar and restaurant in the Rocks area. While it is certainly not as physically high up as the other two (the building is not as tall), and it doesn’t rotate, the Glenmore is definitely the most affordable and most laidback of the three options, making it a favourite amongst locals. The Glenmore is the perfect balance between ‘dining with a view’ and ‘dining like a local’!
Dinner like a local
There are so many good options for more affordable and relaxed dining in Sydney. In Surry Hills, Maya Masala (Indian cuisine) and Gogyo (Japanese cuisine) are personal favourites. Head over to Chinatown for some of the best, cheapest food in an immersive environment (Chinese Noodle Restaurant has the best dumplings in Sydney). Spice Alley is a cute laneway close to Central station with a bunch of Asian food options tucked away beside Central Park Mall. This is definitely a local favourite dining option, it is perfect if you want to bring your own alcohol (BYO).
If you want options closer to Circular Quay, the Rocks is full of good drinking establishments with classic pub food menus. The Australian Heritage Hotel is brilliant and another local favourite. Not only do they have a full range of Australian beers but they also have a tasty menu, including the iconic half kangaroo/half emu ‘Coat of Arms’ pizza. There’s also the well-loved Fratelli Fresh (Italian cuisine) and Mary’s in Macquarie Place (burgers) and the iconic Frankie’s for pizza and a drink.
Step 10. Experience the Opera House
Finally! The iconic Sydney Opera House! This may be further down the list than you expected but only because I, personally, think it is best experienced at night. There is a certain charm to this area of the city in the evening and the Opera House in particular comes alive. As with the Harbour Bridge, there are a few things you can do to experience the Sydney Opera House and they cover a pretty wide price range.
Of course, the most obvious option is to go and watch a show at the Opera House. There are six venues within the Opera House that host a huge variety of shows, from opera and mainstream theatre, to ballet and circus, to lectures and music concerts. No matter where your interests lie, you will find something to entertain you at the Opera House. If you’re wondering how to go about the process of watching a show at the Opera House and how much it will cost, you can check out our article here.
For those of you who don’t necessarily have the time or budget to watch a show, a brilliant free option is to watch the Badu Gili light show on the sails of the Opera House. Meaning ‘water light’ in the language of the Gadigal people (the traditional owners of this area), Badu Gili is a light projection onto the small sail at the front of the Opera House. Exploring the ancient stories of the Indigenous people, these 7-minute projections illuminate the sails every single night at sunset, 8:30pm, 9pm and 9:30pm. Keep in mind that the projection is only on the side of the sail that faces away from Circular Quay (towards the Gardens), so you will need to walk around to see it.
If you’re interested in doing a guided tour of the Opera House, that is also an option but will have to be done during the day. The Opera House tours cost $42 and run for approximately one hour between 9am and 5pm. You can book your tour here! Please know participating in the guided tour or attending a show are the only ways to get inside and see the interior of the Opera House.
Step 11. Drinks
You champion! You have made it through your absolutely packed day in Sydney and it is about time you sat back and relaxed with some dessert and/or a few drinks.
Let’s start with dessert options, for all the sweet-tooths out there! There are some incredible dessert places all over the city. If you don’t want to wander too far, places like Guylian (chocolate cafe in the Rocks), Gelato Messina (ice cream in Circular Quay), Ananas Bar & Brasserie (fancier French restaurant in Circular Quay) and Pancakes on the Rocks (laidback dessert, the Rocks) are great options. If you’re willing to venture a little further into more downtown areas, Kurtosh (Hungarian pastry cafe in Surry Hills), 12-Micron (fancier dessert place in Barangaroo) and KOI (famous dessert bar in Chippendale) are also excellent.
Now, let’s talk about bars and pubs! Honestly, you’re a little spoilt for choice in this regard, Sydney is absolutely packed with great places to have a drink! Just in the Rocks area, you have the Australian Heritage Hotel (local pub, lots of Australian beer options), Glenmore Hotel (more relaxed rooftop bar), the Lord Nelson Hotel (our oldest pub brewery) and the Fortune of War (popular laidback pub).
If you’re into hidden bars, try Palmer & Co (1920s prohibition-style underground bar), Shady Pines Saloon (ultimate country vibes) or Stitch Bar (great cocktails). We don’t call them hidden bars for nothing, so definitely make sure you find a google image of what the barfront looks like before you go exploring!
For live music, my favourite options are Venue 505 (jazz club), Frankie’s (pizza place with a hidden whisky bar and live rock music) and Soda Factory (live performers/DJs behind a faux diner-front, great for a dance).
What if your day in Sydney doesn’t start in the morning? Or your ‘one day’ is more like ‘one day and a half’? No worries! We have got you covered, there are heaps of things to do in Sydney to fill up your time, no matter what your day looks like. First of all, it is super easy to shuffle any of the above suggestions around and do them at times that suit you, except maybe drinks, it’s probably not the best idea to start the day with drinks… But if you are looking for some other options, here are some of my honourable mentions that didn’t quite make it into my itinerary for one day in Sydney.
Experience the Wildlife
Coming to Australia and not seeing any of our native animals may feel a little disappointing. Luckily for you, there are quite a few ways to experience the wildlife in Sydney – but keep in mind that these activities can be a little time-consuming. That makes these options perfect if you have an extra half-day in Sydney!
First of all, I am sure that koalas and kangaroos are at the forefront of your mind. The good news is – you can see both of them in our zoos! The bad news is – you probably won’t be able to touch them. For more information on where/how to interact with our cuddly koalas and kangaroos, you can read our article here!
In the city centre, there are three main options for wildlife interaction. You have Taronga Zoo, Wild Life Sydney Zoo and Sea Life Sydney Aquarium. Taronga Zoo is definitely the most popular and biggest of these three options. It is primarily outdoors (so try to go on a nice day) and looks out over Sydney Harbour, but takes several hours to explore, so if you want to do more than just this during your bonus day in Sydney we suggest heading straight to the “Australian walkabout” section. Wild Life Sydney is a little smaller but with more of a focus on Australian wildlife and of course, Sydney Aquarium focuses on marine life (see Nemo and Dory!). Tickets for all these options are $35-$45 depending on whether you book online or not. The great thing is that you can purchase a combined ticket to Wild Life Sydney and Sea Life Sydney for an awesome discounted price!
If you can only visit one of these, I would personally recommend Wild Life Sydney! Particularly if you are short on time, it is better to focus on things that are unique to Sydney, Australia rather than things you can see anywhere in the world!
If you are willing to travel outside the city, Featherdale Wildlife Park is definitely the best zoo in Sydney! However, it is on the way to the Blue Mountains so it takes almost a full day. Another option for seeing local wildlife is to go whale watching. For more information, read our guide to whale watching in Sydney!
Explore the Suburbs
The areas and suburbs within/around the city centre are vibrant cultural hubs and really cool places to explore to get a feel for life in Sydney. There’s heaps of areas to explore, like Glebe, Pyrmont, Barangaroo and Darlinghurst. These are great places to wander through, have a look at the cute boutique stores and relax with a drink in one of the trendy bars.
Personally, I suggest finding all the cool brunch places and bars in Surry Hills, going street art spotting and thrift shopping in Newtown or learning about the Indigenous history and significance of Redfern. In fact, I’m Free Tours have made several ‘suburb spotlight’ videos, showcasing the best of some of Sydney’s famous suburbs and the areas in which us guides live. Click here to view them!