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A day in sensational Sydney

By Shanon Cook
CNN

Editor's Note: An Australia native, Shanon Cook has lived and worked in Sydney in the past, including when she covered the 2000 Olympic Games.

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Climbing and touring the Sydney Harbour Bridge offers unbeatable views of the city.

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Sydney (Australia)
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(CNN) -- Forty-two seconds. That's how long it took for me to become a sucker for Sydney.

All I did was gaze out the airplane window the first time I flew over the heart of the city. It was a brilliant sunny morning, and Sydney Harbor was twinkling like mad. Ferries were chugging away, and there were quite a few sailboats about. The Opera House, sunlight reflecting off its gleaming white surface, seemed to wink up at me as if to say "Ahhh, now you see what all the fuss is about, don't you?"

You bet. I was mesmerized.

So the first thing you'll want to do when booking a flight to Sydney is request a window seat. And give the person sitting next to you strict instructions to wake you should you happen to doze off when the plane makes its approach. Tell him/her to slap you, pour hot coffee over you, stick a pretzel in your ear, whatever it takes. That view simply should not be missed.

Here's more advice: Stay a while.

Please don't be one of the travelers who thinks one or two days is all you'll need to see Sydney. It's not, and you'll realize that as soon as you arrive. International visitors often cram Australia's many other fascinations into their itineraries, but Sydney's not the place to skimp on time. Set aside at least three days. At least!

But if you do happen to be passing through Sydney faster than a kangaroo that's been bitten by a nasty wasp -- and believe me, that's pretty darn fast -- here are three things to do to get the most of your stay in this magnetic city.

And what better place to start than the centerpiece of that spectacular harbor.

1. Climb the bridge

If you stay close to your TV set every New Year's Eve, you've probably seen the impressive fireworks that blast from the Sydney Harbor Bridge. But every other day of the year, the mile-long steel beauty serves as a link between the city and North Sydney.

Since 1998, a company called BridgeClimb has offered visitors the opportunity to traverse the bridge's arch. Sounds pretty strenuous, doesn't it? But it's actually not too difficult. Anyone over 12 and in moderate shape can do it. And if you're still unsure, know that a 100-year-old lady has made the climb.

I'm telling you, climbing the bridge is a must. Not doing it would be like skipping the Eiffel Tower when in Paris.

The guides will hand out overalls that you'll have to put on over your clothes. You're not allowed to carry anything with you on the climb, to keep loose items from dropping on the eight lanes of traffic below, so you'll be asked to stash your belongings in a locker beforehand. You'll also have to pass a blood-alcohol breath test before you go up, so no beers with breakfast.

The 360-degree view from the top is priceless (even better than from the airplane window). You'll want to stay up there for hours, marveling at Sydney's glistening harbor and waving to the Opera House. It's so breathtaking you'll forget you're wearing those funny overalls!

2. Sample some Aussie pub grub

If you do climb the bridge, chances are you're going to be pretty hungry and thirsty afterward. So if your hamstrings aren't too sore, wander into one of Sydney's many great pubs.

One that's worth checking out is the Lord Nelson Brewery Hotel. Situated in the historic Rocks District (also home to BridgeClimb), this atmospheric pub claims to be Sydney's oldest licensed hotel. It was built in 1841 and has a warm, colonial Australian theme inside.

With six ales brewed on site, the Lord Nelson is a beer-drinker's dream. Try a pint of Three Sheets. It's very popular, and as the name suggests, it'll have you singing merrily in no time.

And to get a real taste of Aussie pub grub, look no further than the "pie, peas and mash," a meat pie sitting atop a pile of mashed potatoes. Heaped on top of the pie is a wallop of mushy green peas. And to add a bit more drama, gravy is drizzled over the whole stack. Trust me, it's yummy-good! But if you're a little afraid, you can't go wrong with the fish and chips.

3. Ferry to Watson's Bay

Although Sydney Harbor can be enjoyed by simply gazing at it, it's much more fun to get on it. To do that, ride a ferry. Catch one at Circular Quay (next to the Opera House) and ride it all the way to Watson's Bay. Not only will you enjoy a picturesque journey through the harbor, but you'll also end up at a spectacular spot to explore.

Watson's Bay is an old fishing village perched on the southern peninsula that separates the harbor from the Tasman Sea. When you get off the ferry, go for a walk up to South Head, the tip of the entrance to the harbor. On your way there, you'll be able to check out Camp Cove, the spot where the first fleet, Australia's first European settlers, initially stopped in 1788 on the way to found Sydney.

When you reach South Head, take a few deep breaths, and enjoy the views of sandstone cliffs and rugged coastline. You might also want to walk around to The Gap, another great vantage point on the ocean side.

Finish up at the waterfront village at Watson's Bay. There you can enjoy a glass of wine and a seafood lunch at the generations-old Doyles restaurant. Try the Watson's Bay Hotel for something a little more laid-back.

Just sit back, relax and listen to the little waves rolling on the shore, the tinkering of the sailboats in the bay before you, and the animated chatter of the Sydneysiders around you. This is the Sydney way.

Welcome to the suckered-by-Sydney club.

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