6 unexpected, secret Sydney experiences

The sparkling city of Sydney, with its iconic bridge and performance centre, is one of the most beautiful destinations in the world, but can you find some hidden treasures and see the harbour city in a new light?

Over, under and on the harbour

The Sydney Harbour Bridge, affectionately known by locals as the ‘coat-hanger’, stretches 1.1km across central Sydney to the northern suburbs, but as well as being able to walk across on a safe pedestrian walkway, you can also climb the steel arch structure and walk up to its summit of the world’s largest bridge, on a tethered walk. The gleaming white sails of the Sydney Opera House can be appreciated from many angles, and you can join a one-hour tour for insights into the controversial building’s history. But perhaps the best way to experience the bridge and the Opera House is at night on a Captains Dinner Cruise with Captain Cook Cruises aboard elegant multi-deck MV Sydney 2000. Complimentary bubbly is served followed by a three-course meal of contemporary Australian cuisine while the sleek vessel glides under the bridge and close to the Opera House – twice. After dessert, passengers can head up to the Star Deck for the stunning nightscape.

Shearing to sharing

Australia’s wealth is it said, was built partly off the sheep’s back. But in Darling Harbour a former wool store has been converted into a boutique heritage hotel, Ovolo 1888, with a quirky wine bar and bistro restaurant in its ground floor lobby. Named after a wool classer who left his name on the wall, Mister Percy (139 Murray St, open 5pm-11pm every day, phone 85861888, misterpercy.com.au) blends restored heritage with innovative cuisine, offering Mediterranean-inspired fare using fine local ingredients, with plates designed for sharing.

Turning water to vines

It is easy to pass on bustling Oxford Street in posh Paddington the iron, timber and brick framework of a former water reservoir has been transformed into a garden with ponds, walkways and greenery. The Paddington Reservoir Gardens (255a Oxford Street, 7am-7pm every day) were once hailed as a blend of ‘the ancient Baths of Caracalla in Rome and the Hanging Gardens of Babylon’, but you will only know if you take the escalator down to the sunken gardens.

Last stop on the line

Another landmark often ignored near Central Station, at the intersection of Regent and Kensington Streets, is the Regent Street Railway Station, which looks more like a chapel than a train station. Long ago the ornate Gothic-style building served as a mortuary, and the 10-mile train line took hearse carriages transporting up to 30 bodies at a time to their final resting place at the sprawling Rookwood Cemetery. The protected building is opened up on the 1stof November on All Saint’s Day, but visitors can peek through the iron fence at the angel and gargoyle carvings, and wonder if it is still haunted.

Intense Art

Nearby, things can be even more disturbing at the White Rabbit Gallery (10am-5pm, Wednesday to Sunday, free, 30 Balfour St, featuring one of the world’s finest collections of Chinese contemporary art. An old Rolls-Royce service depot now exhibits four floors of arresting and thought-provoking artworks, best savoured in tandem with the café serving up steamed dumplings and pots of exotic Chinese teas.

Behind bars

Australia still revels on its convict past, and fittingly, some of the best places to drink are tucked away down dark alleyways or in underground cellars. Queues are sometimes seen at night outside a door in an old loading dock in the CBD, where a hidden staircase leads to the secret whisky world of The Baxter Inn at 152-156 Clarence Street. With a ceiling-to-counter menu board, and whiskeys from the highlands and lowlands, the staff endeavour to find the right drink for each customer. Hungover? Try the Little Italy 1960s Bill and Toni’s at 72-74 Stanley Street for a fast-service cure, followed by coffee from the city’s finest coffee, served at Gumption in The Strand Arcade, a Victorian-style retail mall.

Comments (10)

  1. Ed says:

    I’ve thought about the high trek over the Harbour Bridge but I just don’t think that the fantastic views would overcome my fear of heights. Cruising below, having a great meal is much more my style.

    • Keith Lyons says:

      Yes Ed, it is like the choice between bungee jumping and lake cruise in New Zealand’s Queenstown, the thrills and fears,

      The bridge walk is quite expensive, and you can just walk on the path. I found the boat trip very relaxing and when you go out on the top deck, it is quite a stunning experience being able to look 360 degrees at the views and breathe in grandeur.

      That’s one of the great things about Sydney, there are so many options, to suit your own travel style.

  2. John Talbot says:

    Next year I’m hoping to spend around a month in Sydney so for me this is a really useful post. Over a month I should be able to do far more than tick off the usual tourist activities. What I like about these options is that I’ll be able to do far more than just scratch the surface of Sydney life, I should develop a real understanding of the place.

    • Keith Lyons says:

      Hello John

      Thanks for your comments, and glad to hear you are planning on visiting Sydney next year, and spending a month there in the harbour city.

      In writing and researching this story, as well as some main highlights I could find while preparing beforehand, such as art galleries, the bridge and the Opera House, it isn’t so easy to find out the local, small places. But if you are interested in quirky, off-beat and non-touristy places, places which give you an insight into the city’s pass and also an insider’s view, it is always good to get the ideas from locals or those who have lived there.

      In my case, some of my friends living there knew of some places, others had heard of it, but not visited.

      As well as find the places to go, it also depends on what time of the day or the week you go. Some places are buzzing at particular times, other places are empty.

      Enjoy your Sydney long holiday.

  3. Kirsty Miller says:

    I have relatives that live in Australia and have visited around Sydney quite a lot, but I’ve no idea how many of these they’ve checked out. I’ll have to pass on the post to them as these sound fascinating. I wonder how long it would take to realistically get around all 6 of these and experience them fully, as I’m not sure of the distance between them.

    Seeing the nightscene from a cruise boat would be incredible, the Harbour Bridge really is such a defining piece of Sydney. I wonder whether there are reports of hauntings at the Regent Street Railway Station? I don’t believe in such things myself but I do find it fascinating to read reports of others feeling a presence or seeing ghosts and the like. I can imagine this would be on the list of places to check out for those who like visiting haunted places given its history as a mortuary. I had no idea that’s what it used to be. The White Rabbit Gallery was another I’d not heard of but it sounds quite impressive on four floors. The image you’ve shared certainly looks different. I like galleries that bring something novel, something distinctive and diverse.

    • Keith Lyons says:

      Hello Kirsty,

      thanks for your comments and recommendation.

      To answer your question, central Sydney itself is quite compact and even walkable. The public transport is quite good, and soon they will have eased congestion downtown with the opening of a new metro line – currently a lot of road closures in the middle of town.

      We did our trip visiting all those places over 4 days, but you could do all in the list over 2 packed days, ie a weekend. It depends on how long you might want to spend at the art galleries, as there is also the MCA and NSW Gallery, quite central, well worth visiting as well as the White Rabbit. Note that parking is a hassle and expensive in Sydney. My friends told me weekdays difficult to get a day park anywhere. In the weekends some parking buildings have deals. Also, even in the inner suburbs, some parking restrictions and times when you will get fined it you linger.

      In terms of distance, the harbour bridge, the Opera House, botanic gardens, and NSW Art Gallery are all within walking distance and all close to the waterfront, making for a nice stroll with great views of each feature.

      With Regent Street Station, it was located next to another cemetery which filled out, that’s why they put the train line into Rookwood. There are reports that some of the exit/entrance tunnels and walkways around Central Station nearby are haunted, with reports of people hearing voices. The cemetery was closed and many bodies relocated, but not all.

      Speaking of rest, not featured in this story is our accommodation recommendation, which isn’t luxury, but is in a five-star location. You might be surprised, but the YHA Sydney Harbour – The Rocks is located above the Rocks, next to the bridge, with views of the Opera House, and actually from the room and rooftop enjoys better views than flash hotels nearby, which we found were a mix of plush and poorly-designed (yes, we visiting many hotels).

  4. Jack says:

    It is all just more evidence for my belief that Sydney is one of the world’s great cities. It’s such a cosmopolitan melting point with so much to do. It’s a world class venue for the arts and sports. When you are hungry it’s got buzzing restaurants offering a range of global cuisines. If you get tired of all that then there are some awesome beaches too. What more does anyone want?

    • Keith Lyons says:

      You are right Jack, Sydney really is one of the world’s great cities, with lots to see and do, with world-class culture and arts, a cosmopolitan mix, an innovative diverse eating scene, and some great beaches too. It is also one of most expensive cities, with high housing costs and living expenses, though the falling AU dollar means it isn’t as dear as it was when the AU dollar was almost one-for-one with the US dollar.

  5. Don Schuldes says:

    I live 45 minutes from city center. Truly one of the best cities the world has to offer.

  6. Dwight says:

    I love places with history or those that were converted for a different use. I visited a silo that was made into a store for organic honey products. It’s so cool that places are repurposed to give it new life and not just demolished and replaced with something newer. Ovolo 1888 looks like a cosy place to linger and enjoy good food after touring around Sydney.

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