9 best things to do in Sydney: What you can't miss

Kate Springer, CNNUpdated 28th December 2018
(CNN) — Sitting on the edge of the world, Sydney is heralded as one of the world's greatest cities for a reason.
Located in southeastern Australia, the capital of New South Wales plays host to the photogenic Sydney Harbour (the world's largest natural harbor), the iconic Sydney Opera house, sun-soaked beaches, a vibrant art scene and some of the best restaurants on earth.
"Travelers often mistake Sydney as just a stopover city, thinking they only need a couple of days to see it all," Gwen Leung, a consultant at Charlotte Travel boutique travel agency, tells CNN Travel.
"There's much more to Sydney than just Bondi Beach and the Opera House. You can explore New South Wales, visit vineyards, stay on the islands and even go to the Blue Mountains (to the west) for hiking in the summer or skiing in the winter."
In other words: a weekend won't be enough. Need help narrowing down the itinerary? This shortlist of things to do and see in Sydney should point you in the right direction.

1. Explore Sydney's hottest neighborhoods

Discovering the many delights of Sydney takes more than just a weekend.
Discovering the many delights of Sydney takes more than just a weekend.
Destination NSW
Sydney is divided into distinct neighborhoods -- each with its own character.
Many of the big-ticket attractions can be found in or around the Circular Quay area, right by the harbor, in the city center.
Here, you can hop on ferries to outlying islands or go exploring on foot with the Sydney Opera House, Royal Botanic Gardens, Museum of Contemporary Art and Museum of Sydney all nearby.
A walk north along the water will lead travelers into The Rocks -- the first European settlement in Australia and now a historic cobbled village full of heritage buildings.
From this area, travelers can access the Sydney Harbour Bridge and stroll across -- it's about an hour each way (not including time for pictures).

2. Eat like a king

Bennelong is a fine dining restaurant inside the Sydney Opera House.
Bennelong is a fine dining restaurant inside the Sydney Opera House.
Whether you're here to devour Australia's best steaks or sample the super fresh seafood, Sydney is a gourmand's paradise.
"Sydney has a lot of migrants -- mostly from amazing food cities such as Hong Kong, Malaysia, Thailand, Japan, Italy and even Spain -- who have brought their culinary traditions to Sydney and mixed them up with local, seasonal produce," says Leung.
The cosmopolitan city is home to countless internationally acclaimed chefs.
In Circular Quay, Mr. Wong draws a crowd for its contemporary Cantonese cuisine and heritage setting.
Nearby, hotspot Hubert for great cocktails and French cuisine in an underground lair.
Or splurge on a waterside fine dining experience, such as a classic beauty like Quay, or a newcomer such as Bennelong.
Helmed by acclaimed Australian chef Peter Gilmore, the restaurant serves the best of Australian produce and wine inside the domed ceilings of the Sydney Opera House.
While in central Sydney, it's practically a rite of passage to stop by the harbor-hugging Opera Bar for a Sydney Sling (sabre gin, pomegranate, mint, lime and bitters) or a glass of vino.
Devon Cafe, located in Surry Hills, is a brunch hotspot.
Devon Cafe, located in Surry Hills, is a brunch hotspot.
Smudge Publishing- Katie Wilton
Meanwhile, one of the best culinary destinations in the city is Surry Hills. The village is heaving with restaurants and cafes, from classics like Loluk Bistro for French and Argentine hotspot Porteño (order the eight-hour lamb).
The neighborhood has also become synonymous with long, lingering brunches. This is the place to go for amazing brunch cafes such as institutions like Four Ate Five, Reuben Hills, and Devon Café.

3. Hit the beaches

"I've seen a lot of crazy stuff," says lifeguard Andrew Reid, who appears in hit reality TV show "Bondi Rescue."
Everyone knows about Bondi beach and the Icebergs pool and restaurants -- after all, the crashing waves are the postcard image of Sydney.
Bondi is a great place to start. But after you've caught some sun or taken a surf lesson with Let's Go Surfing, we'd suggest taking the Coogee Coastal Walk.
Beginning at Bondi Icebergs swim club, the 3.7-mile walk affords stunning cliffside views of rock pools and bays.
If you happen to be visiting in late October to early November, you'll likely catch the annual Sculpture by the Sea -- an extensive outdoor area exhibition that peppers the coastline.
Craving a Bloody Mary? Hit up Sydney's Coogee Pavilion.
Craving a Bloody Mary? Hit up Sydney's Coogee Pavilion.
Coogee Pavilion
After about three hours, you'll find yourself at the stylish Coogee Pavilion where well-earned Bloody Marys and craft beer awaits.
Elsewhere around Sydney, beaches such as Redleaf Beach (in Double Bay to the east), Milk Beach (inside Sydney Harbour National Park) and Parsley Bay (northeast of Milk Beach), offer low-key experiences.
Looking for a cosmopolitan scene? Developed coastal villages like Manly Beach -- about an 18-minute ride north on the Fast Ferry from Circular Quay -- provide hipster coffee shops and waterfront bars, plus a pretty stretch of sand.
Related content
15 best Sydney beaches

4. Catch a show

There's more than just opera at the Sydney Opera House.
There's more than just opera at the Sydney Opera House.
Sydney Opera House
Sydney is buzzing with events and performances every night of the week.
The first place that jumps to mind is the iconic Sydney Opera House, designed by Jørn Utzon.
A UNESCO World Heritage site, this incredible piece of architecture doesn't just do opera. You'll also find stand-up comedy, theater, ballets, indie concerts and more.
But it's not the only place in Sydney putting on a show. The 1920s State Theatre, in the central business district, is known to host international ballets, concerts and world-class orchestras -- all in a majestic setting.
"Each neighborhood has its own themed theaters and smaller venues that welcome all type of performers to Sydney," says Leung.
Travelers will find live music and comedy shows every night at Enmore Theatre, opened in Newton in 1908; The Metro in the CBD; and the Factory Theatre in Marrickville.
Meanwhile, in Surry Hills, the Belvoir Street Theatre puts on award-winning shows year after year.
And for movie buffs, there's the Ritz Cinema in the Randwick neighborhood, where travelers can catch the latest blockbusters in a gorgeous art deco setting.

5. Go out on the town

Inside Sydney's Stitch Bar.
Inside Sydney's Stitch Bar.
Stitch Bar
If you like Sydney's food, you'll love the bars. Sydney boasts an eclectic collection of watering holes, from craft beer spots to speakeasies and casual wine bars.
"I always head to the chilled out vibe of the small bars and music venues in Surry Hills, Enmore and Newtown neighborhoods," says Leung.
"And if you like whiskey and craft beer bars, this city is perfect for you -- these types of establishments are gradually getting more and more common."
Whiskey lovers will appreciate the library-like environment at The Baxter Inn, where suspender-clad connoisseurs ride around on a sliding ladder to pluck the best bottles, from Glendronach 15 to Highland Park 24-year Signatory.
Meanwhile, in Darlinghurst, The Baxter Inn's big brother Shady Pines Saloon is one of the busiest bars in town.
Go for a whisky with green apple juice -- the drink is a staple in Sydney's drinking dens, but the fresh, frothy tipple tastes especially refreshing among the taxidermy and old-school rock.
The spread at Black Bottle.
The spread at Black Bottle.
Alex Doctor
For craft cocktails, travelers may want to teeter over to Black Bottle, a French wine shop, restaurant and tapas bars that channels bon vivant vibes.
Along with cured meats, artisanal cheeses, and fresh seafood tapas, tipplers can sip boutique wines and cocktails -- like the bar's beloved Negroni.
Meanwhile, in the Central Business District, Stitch Bar does creative cocktails and upscale American diner-style food -- think sticky ribs and "Really Good" fried chicken.
And if you find yourself on Manly Beach, the two-story 4 Pines Brewing Company taproom serves its In Season IPA and a slew of fresh brews in a timber-clad setting.

6. Go to the zoo

Sydney's Taronga Zoo offers amazing views of the harbor.
Sydney's Taronga Zoo offers amazing views of the harbor.
Taronga Zoo
From the skyline views to the lush grounds, there's a reason Sydney's Taronga Zoo lures more than 1 million visitors every year.
Just a 12-minute ferry across the harbor from the Central Business District, the expansive space plays host to more than 4,000 animals, including tigers, giraffes, kangaroos, platypus, koalas, Komodo dragons, elephants, lions, chimps and more.
Visitors will also stumble upon concerts, a ropes course, a lemur forest, hiking trails, rainforests and even several beaches.
Love it so much you never want to leave? Stay the night in one of its luxury safari tents.

7. Climb the bridge

Sydney's epic BridgeClimb.
Sydney's epic BridgeClimb.
Nicknamed "the coathanger," the Sydney Harbour Bridge opened in 1932.
Like the Sydney Opera House, it was an engineering masterpiece that was way ahead of its time.
Sure, you can walk or cycle across the bridge, but the best way to appreciate the architectural marvel is up close and personal.
That's where the BridgeClimb comes in -- the vertiginous experience affords views of the Sydney Harbour and beyond from atop the steel archways.
There are a few options, starting with the easy "Taster" tour, which takes 1.5 hours to trace the lower, inside arc.
More comprehensive expeditions include dawn and sunset climbs -- with musical serenades from local musicians at the summit, 440 feet above the harbor.

8. Take a side trip

A kangaroo in the Blue Mountains, two hours west of Sydney.
A kangaroo in the Blue Mountains, two hours west of Sydney.
Destination NSW
One of the best things about Sydney? The amazing side trips.
Popular among outdoorsy types, the rugged Blue Mountains -- about two hours by train west of the city -- promise winter skiing, excellent hiking and kangaroo sightings galore.
Walking through the national park, travelers will stumble upon forests and waterfalls, caves, small villages and rock formations.
Traveling with an oenophile? Just north of Sydney, the Hunter Valley is the place to go.
The wine region is best known for its medium-bodied reds, such as shiraz, and crisp dry whites like the sémillon.
"Hunter Valley is Australia's oldest wine region," says Leung. "Most vineyards are family-owned and very innovative, mostly focusing on small production. Wine is more personal here."
Hot air balloon rides are a popular way to take in the Hunter Valley.
Hot air balloon rides are a popular way to take in the Hunter Valley.
Destination NSW
For a sampling of the valley's best grapes, Leung recommends visiting the decorated Tallavera Grove Wines to enjoy lunch at Bistro Molines and a diverse assortment of decorated varietals.
Meanwhile, at Gundog Hunter Cellar & Gourmet Pantry, cheese and charcuterie pair perfectly with the estate's award-winning shiraz.
Dubbed the "gateway to Hunter Valley," Peterson House is a must-visit thanks to its excellent sparkling wines and oyster bar.
If you're staying for a weekend, Leung recommends Chateau Elan at The Vintage -- the expansive resort is home to everything from luxury villas to a Greg Norman-designed 18-hole golf course.

9. Stay in style

The Langham Sydney offers easy access to the city's famous harborfront
The Langham Sydney offers easy access to the city's famous harborfront
The Langham
Sydney's hotels are among the best in the world, from downtown designer digs to rustic escapes.
The classic Langham Sydney is centrally located along the cobbled streets of The Rocks, just west of Circular Quay, offering easy access to the famous harborfront.
As you explore the posh corridors, look for contemporary artwork from around the world -- The Langham has one of the largest art collections (more than $1 million worth) in Australia.
A bedroom at Ovolo Woolloomooloo
A bedroom at Ovolo Woolloomooloo
Ovolo Sydney
For an edgy home base with no shortage of amenities, one of the best options is Ovolo Woolloomooloo, just east of the Royal Botanic Gardens and Sydney Opera House.
Built inside a heritage-listed building right on the Woolloomooloo Pier, the hotel promises colorful modern rooms and a social Lo Lounge with free snacks and happy hour.
Meanwhile, those seeking a more pared-back experience can go glamping on Cockatoo Island -- just a quick boat ride from Circular Quay.
Formerly home to a prison and shipyard, the UNESCO heritage-listed island has a fascinating history -- not to mention a few modern perks.
There are self-guided audio tours, barbecue pits, a handful of restaurants, an Australian cheese and wine experience and amazing views of Sydney's famous harbor.

Leung's travel tips

-- Use an Opal Card on the trains, buses and ferries -- fares are capped at $15.40 a day.
-- Leaving tips at the bar or for a cab isn't expected, but it's appreciated.
-- When riding in a taxi alone, it's customary to hop in the front seat.
-- Bring sunblock, sunglasses and hat -- no matter the season.
-- On Sundays, families enjoy discounted fares on Sydney's ferries and trains.
-- Beetroot is practically a mandatory ingredient in most Western dishes, so if you don't like it it's best to ask!
-- Get ready to BYOB: Most casual restaurants allow diners to bring their own wine for a few dollars.