Sydney: is it the smuggest city in the world?

Yes, writes Cameron Wilson, but with its beautiful harbour, great beaches and wonderful climate, Sydney has every reason to be pleased with itself.

 "The problem with you Sydneysiders is you've got the harbour and the beaches, so you just sit around feeling good about the fact you've got the harbour and the beaches."

My mate Dan, an impassioned Melburnian, can always be relied on to cut to the chase. And to be fair, his is a commonly held perception about those of us lucky enough to call the world's most famous harbour city home: the sun shines more often than not and as a result we're just a bit too pleased with ourselves.

Rather than be an apologist for this state of affairs, I set out to "do" Sydney in all its harbour-and-beaches glory, exactly the way a first-time visitor might if they had the best advice from a savvy local.

Staying harbourside is the first priority, so I check in to Establishment, a boutique hotel within shouting distance of Circular Quay ferry terminal. Establishment is otherwise renowned for having a couple of salubrious cocktail bars and a so-hot-right-now nightclub, which suggests the place should be noisy, but I arrive on a Sunday and my very stylish room is as quiet as a tomb.

I meet my Sydney mate Mike, and we walk around to Campbell's Cove and board the Danish-built tall ship Southern Swan for a two-hour harbour cruise with drinks and a barbecue. There are myriad options for getting out on the water in Sydney, from tours that focus on colonial history to genteel dining cruises and hair-raising jet boats, but for simple elegance, a traditional three-masted tall ship is hard to beat. The moment the skipper cuts the engines and the crew hoists sail, the only noises we hear are creaking timbers and the gentle slosh of waves against the bow.

A sliver of moon and the first few stars have appeared by the time we pass under the Harbour Bridge and it's all Mike and I can do not to congratulate ourselves that this is the city we call home.

My plan next day is to explore the harbour eastward as it expands into the Pacific and westward to become the Parramatta River. For this, I need a clutch of ferry schedules - handily available in front of every wharf along Circular Quay - and a day public transport card, good for all Sydney buses, trains and ferries.

Sitting topside on a SuperCat, I glide first past the glass-fronted sails of Sydney Opera House and then the Botanic Gardens before the skipper opens the taps and the ferry surges ahead, bound for the harbour's eastern bays. This should be a prosaic experience for someone born and bred in Sydney, but with shirt flapping in the breeze and hair tousled and salt-sprayed, I would happily take this trip every day for the rest of my life.

Coves bulging with yachts, tiny secret beaches, odd little lighthouses and beacons and the world's most expensive waterfront homes all slip by before the ferry fetches up at Watson's Bay wharf.

Returning to the Quay, I board a Parramatta River RiverCat and alight at Abbotsford, where Sydney Rowing Club is situated, right beside the ferry wharf. The restaurant overlooks the river and you don't need to be a member to get classic fish'n'chips with a cold beer or a decent bottle of wine.

I've planned to sneak in an afternoon swim, and as it's the tail end of the Australian winter, the Icebergs seems appropriate. Bondi Icebergs, one of Australia's most venerable swimming clubs (it opened circa 1890), is at the south end of Bondi Beach, with an extravagant restaurant, a bar bistro and the most stunningly situated Olympic-size saltwater swimming pool on the planet. It's also the perfect winter venue, as the entry fee includes use of the sauna, and the poolside deck is a great vantage point for whale-spotting.

However, a stiff breeze is rifling the pool's surface when I arrive, so I drive two beaches south to Bronte, where the (free) ocean pool is better protected from the wind. After a few lazy laps, I sit with my back against the sun-warmed stone wall like a lizard on a rock and watch some of Bronte's teenage board-riding whizzes make light work of the tricky reef break.

While the harbour is where any first-time visitor to Sydney is likely to want to stay and play, dining out near the water is rarely cheap, and my favourite alternative is to go inner-city cool and funky over on King Street, Newtown.

Bus 422 from the quay gets me there in 20 minutes, and I pick Green Gourmet at random, a bustling vegetarian place where every (tasty) dish comes in at well under $20. Newtown has some of Sydney's best live music venues, too, and I catch an indie-rock trio at the Sandringham Hotel, then grab a table at The Vanguard, a brilliant spot for live jazz and blues, New Orleans-style.

By the time a taxi drops me at my new harbourside digs, the Four Seasons, most streets are all but deserted. But the lights of ferries, water taxis and motor boats are still twinkling on the water, and on the Bridge, cars melt into a blur of colour and light. Dan won't want to hear it, but right now I'd be hard-pressed not to feel a bit chuffed that I get to call this harbour city home.



A one-day MyMulti pass for Sydney public transport ( costs A$20/$10 adults/children aged 4-15;

if you're in Sydney for more than a day or two, buy a weekly MyMulti pass for $41/$20.50.


- Bondi Icebergs, Bondi Beach, Mon-Fri, 6am-6.30pm; Sat and Sun, 6.30am-6.30pm; closed Thurs. Entry $5/$3 adult/child. Swim and sauna, lunch at the bistro(

- BridgeClimb ( offers tours up the famous bridge, but for a cheaper viewpoint, visit the museum and enjoy the panorama from the south-east pylon (0061 2 9240 1100;; $9.50/$4 adult/child.

- Opera house Early Morning Tours (9250 7111; are for real enthusiasts only as they cost a steep $150.

- Paddington Markets, 395 Oxford Street, Paddington (Sat 10am-4pm; Vintage and designer clothes, handmade jewellery, massages, Tarot cards and fortune telling; some designers who've graduated to the boutiques located just across the road started out hawking their wares here.

- Taronga Zoo, Bradley's Head Road, Mosman (daily 9am-5pm; Take the ferry from Circular Quay to Taronga Zoo wharf. A combined zoo/ferry pass costs $49.50/$24.50 adult/child, $140 family pass (two adults and two children).


Sydney Visitor Centre, The Rocks, Level 1, Corner Argyle and Playfair Streets (9240 8788;


Sydney Harbour YHA

A sparkling new property in the heart of the harbour-side precinct known as The Rocks (it opened in November 2009). Less a hostel than a pristine, well-run budget hotel, ideal for families and groups (110 Cumberland Street, The Rocks, 8272 0900;; from $159 for a harbour-view double, $210 for a four-share family harbour-view room).

Establishment Hotel

Offers 31 super-stylish rooms, swish dining, including a lauded sushi restaurant; there are also cocktail bars and a nightclub (1 Bridge Lane; 9240 3100;; doubles from $300.

Four Seasons Sydney

First-choice luxury option. A 32-storey harbourside hotel with fabulous views, a top-notch restaurant and heated outdoor pool (199 George Street; 9250 3100;; from $375.


Baroque Bistro, Bar & Patisserie

Modern take on French cuisine; relaxed atmosphere, good value and amazing pastries (88 George Street, The Rocks; 9241 4811;

Cafe Sydney

Sydney seafood in mood-lit surroundings by the Harbour. Ambitious and expensive wine list and killer cocktail list (Level 5, Customs House, Circular Quay; 9251 8683;

Sailors Thai

Contemporary Thai cuisine in an opulent restaurant downstairs or canteen upstairs (106 George Street, The Rocks; 9251 2466;

The Australian Hotel

Classic heritage pub; serves gourmet pizzas (options include kangaroo, crocodile and duck), pies and salads, and specialises in great beers from NSW boutique breweries (100 Cumberland Street, The Rocks; 9247 2229;


Sydney Airport transport and parking. The airport-city rail link costs $15.80 per person; a taxi is the most affordable transport option ($35-$42), especially for two or more people.

Expensive pubs. In some Sydney watering holes the price of a beer ought to invoke outrage, only the locals have got used to it; the average is $5-$6 for a 375ml "schooner" glass, but some publicans charge $7-$9 a schooner - an extortionate price.

George Street cinema district. Bounded by Liverpool and Hay Streets, this downtown precinct is at best grubby and uninspiring, at worst the haunt of thieves and occasionally the scene of violent feuds among drug syndicates.

Most visitors spend time on the beaches, but a jellyfish sting can sour the experience. In the summer especially, bluebottles (Portuguese Man of War jellyfish) drift onto the city's beaches, sometimes in huge numbers; locals can be a bit gung-ho and continue swimming, but a sting is genuinely painful and produces a nasty red welt. If you see bluebottles clumped on the shoreline, stay out of the water.

- The Sunday Telegraph, London