Why leave home when you haven't seen the city?
Imagine a holiday destination with no jet lag, no language issues and no currency conversions. A place with beguiling beaches, fantastic seafood and glorious wine. A city full of iconic landmarks and world-class attractions. Know where this is going? Of course you do.
Sydney attracted more than 2 million international visitors last year. It was the only Australian city to feature in Condé Nast Traveler US's Top 25 Cities in the World and it was also named Best Overseas City for Restaurants and Bars by the magazine's UK edition (take that Melbourne).
So put away your passport, top up your Opal card and check out the gem that's in your backyard. Here's a one-week itinerary to get you started:
Morning: Sleep in – you're on holiday. Now pack a bag and make your way to Circular Quay. Catch a ferry to Cockatoo Island, or, as you'll be calling it tonight: home. Sydney's largest harbour island has a range of accommodation from camping through to fully furnished houses that can sleep 10. For the best of both worlds, book a glamping package, which includes a pre-erected waterfront tent with camp beds, towels and linen, cockatooisland.gov.au.
Afternoon: Hire an audio guide from the visitors centre to learn more about the island's fascinating history, from its origins as a brutal penal settlement in the 1800s through to its shipbuilding heyday during World War II.
Evening: The campsite has a well-appointed kitchen where you can self-cater but if you fancy something livelier, check out The Island Bar – a waterfront venue with live DJs, cracking pizzas and dangerously drinkable cocktails. Round off your night with a stroll around the island at sunset. Wandering through its sandstone tunnels and cavernous warehouses with no one else around is magical, theislandbar.com.au.
Morning: Make the most of your waterfront setting with a leisurely breakfast (either BYO or pre-order a breakfast pack) while watching the ferries, sailboats and rowers scuttle up and down the Parramatta River. Take the scenic ferry via Woolwich, Birchgrove and Balmain back to Circular Quay and drop your bags off at your new residence – the swish Pullman Quay Grand Sydney Harbour. It's time to get back on the water, but this time in one of Oz Jet Boating's grinning red shark boats. If 30 minutes of spins, slides and fish-tails doesn't appeal, check out one of Captain Cook's more sedate coffee cruises instead, pullmanquaygrandsydneyharbour.com; ozjetboating.com; captaincook.com.au.
Afternoon: When you're scurrying around the city with your head down, it's easy to miss the architectural splendour soaring above you. A Sydney Architecture Walk will fix that. After two hours of gazing in neck-craning awe, you'll have a new appreciation for the city's landmarks, sydneyarchitecture.org.
Evening: Watch the sunset over Circular Quay with a cocktail at ECQ bar before moving downstairs to Q Dining for a tempting menu of local produce including freshly shucked oysters and lamb backstrap. You're steps from the Opera House so check out a show, then finish with a nightcap in the recently refurbished Opera Bar, sydneyoperahouse.com; operabar.com.au.
Morning: Have brekkie on your balcony overlooking Circular Quay then stroll to the Museum of Contemporary Art to check out Chuck Close: Prints, Process and Collaboration, a mesmerising exhibition of more than 200 of Close's portraits (until March 15), mca.com.au.
Afternoon: After lunch in the MCA's delightful rooftop cafe, jump on a ferry (or if you're feeling energetic, walk over the Harbour Bridge and along the northern suburbs) to Taronga Zoo. Recent arrivals include an adorable baby gorilla called Mjukuu, three baby chimps and the zoo's first bilby joeys, taronga.org.au.
Evening: Start with a cocktail in hidden gem Bulletin Place (ranked #19 in The World's 50 Best Bars 2014), then head next door to Tapavino for a glass of sherry and some excellent Spanish tapas. Take a post-dinner stroll through The Rocks, pausing at Hickson Road Reserve for a mandatory selfie in front of the Opera House, bulletinplace.com; tapavino.com.au.
Morning: Check out of the Pullman, but leave your bags there because you're heading to Manly. Activity is the order of the day and the beachside suburb has no shortage of options: hire a mountain bike and enjoy some off-road action around Manly Dam, grab a kayak and paddle to the idyllic Store Beach or jump on the latest fitness craze and try your hand at stand-up paddle boarding, manlybiketours.com.au, manlykayakcentre.com.au.
Afternoon: Enjoy a laid-back lunch at The Pantry, an elegant brasserie on the promenade with killer beach views, then catch the ferry back to the city. After two nights by the harbour it's time to relocate. QT Sydney's eclectic interiors sent style gurus into a frenzy when it opened in 2012 and it says something that it's still the CBD's premier design hotel 2½ years on. Ideally positioned on Market Street, you're stumbling distance from just about everything, thepantrymanly.com, qtsydney.com.au.
Evening: Kick off proceedings with a drink in Gilt, QT's swanky cocktail lounge, before dining downstairs in Gowings Bar and Grill, a buzzy European-style eatery with an impressive open kitchen. You're literally next door to the State Theatre so cap off the night with a show, statetheatre.com.au.
Morning: After breakfast in Gowings, hot foot it to the Art Gallery of NSW to check out Pop to popism, the most extensive exhibition of pop art ever showcased in Australia (until March 1). Highlights include Andy Warhol's iconic Triple Elvis and Brett Whiteley's expansive The American Dream. Round off your visit with lunch at Matt Moran's new Chiswick at the Gallery, a relaxed venue that showcases Moran's love of fresh produce with a side serving of magical harbour views, artgallery.nsw.gov.au; chiswickrestaurant.com.au.
Afternoon: Time for some retail therapy. From QT, you're a credit card toss from Myer, David Jones and Pitt Street Mall, not to mention the delightful Victorian-style Strand Arcade and the domed opulence of the Queen Victoria Building. If you need some assistance, Westfield can even provide a personal stylist. Return to QT in time for your massage at Spa Q, the hotel's intimate spa with hamam-inspired steam room. Hirsute gents can get their beards and manes tamed at the barber shop next door, westfield.com.au; spa-q.com.au.
Evening: Dining-wise, you're spoilt for choice. For special occasion indulgence, head to Sepia, winner of the SMH Good Food Guide's Restaurant of the Year for the last three years running. For something more casual, try Fix St James, an elegant wine bar opposite Hyde Park. Fancy a nightcap? Head to The Baxter Inn, a subterranean New York-style drinking den with more than 300 whiskeys, sepiarestaurant.com.au; fixstjames.com.au; thebaxterinn.com.
Morning: Sore head? I told you that fourth whiskey was a mistake. Recover over a leisurely breakfast at Metro St James, a French-style bistro in Hyde Park. If there's one thing guaranteed to cure a hangover, it's watching other people go to work, metrostjames.com.au.
Afternoon: When was the last time you visited Darling Harbour? Yes, it's a tourist magnet but for good reason – it's full of family attractions. Sydney Aquarium's new Dugong Island experience allows you to interact with the only pair of dugongs on display in the world; Sydney Zoo recently added a pair of koala joeys to its impressive range of Aussie fauna and the Maritime Museum has a brand new exhibition called Voyage to the Deep which allows little ones to get behind the wheel of a deep-sea submersible (until April 27), sydneyaquarium.com.au; wildlifesydney.com.au; anmm.gov.au.
Evening: It's the last night of your Sydney staycation, so it's time for something special – a romantic night on the harbour. From its base in Darling Harbour, Sydney by Sail will take you on a sail around the harbour on one of its luxury yachts before leaving you anchored in a secluded bay. Watch the sunset with a glass of wine, dine on gourmet platters of food and be lulled to sleep by the sound of water lapping against the hull, sydneybysail.com.
All good things must come to an end but waking up on the world's most beautiful harbour is a fitting finale. After breakfast onboard, your skipper will return to usher you gently back to reality.
If you chose the high-end options in the above itinerary, you'd be looking at around $7000 for two people. Sacrifice a harbour view here, a swanky meal there and you could knock it down to around $4500. That's a week's holiday for less than the price of two international air fares. And just think of the money you'd save on postcards.
The writer was a guest of the Harbour Trust, The Island Bar, Pullman Quay Grand Sydney Harbour, MCA, QT Sydney, Art Gallery of NSW, Chiswick Restaurant and Sydney by Sail.
FIVE MORE SYDNEY EVENTS FOR THE DIARY
HURLEY AUSTRALIAN OPEN OF SURFING (FEB 7 – 15)
This free nine-day festival at Manly isn't just about surfing, there's also skateboarding, music, art and fashion, australianopenofsurfing.com.
ICC CRICKET WORLD CUP 2015 (FEB 27 – MAR 26)
Watch the superstars of cricket compete for the sport's greatest prize. Games at the SCG include South Africa vs West Indies on February 27 and Australia vs Sri Lanka on March 8, icc-cricket.com.
LES MISÉRABLES (MAR 19 – JUN 14)
See Cameron Mackintosh's acclaimed new production of Les Misérables at the Capitol Theatre with a set inspired by the paintings of Victor Hugo, capitoltheatre.com.au.
HANDA OPERA'S AIDA ON SYDNEY HARBOUR (MAR 27 – APR 26)
Verdi's epic tale of love and war set against the majestic backdrop of Sydney Harbour. Does opera get any more spectacular? opera.org.au.
VIVID SYDNEY (MAY 22 – JUN 8)
This annual celebration of light, music and ideas illuminates the city with outdoor sculptures, contemporary music and lively discussion, vividsydney.com.
See sydney.com for more info.