Even many Sydneysiders seem unaware that one of the world's best urban hikes weaves right through their own city.
Manly Scenic Walkway takes in national parkland and wiggles around convolutions of bays and headlands within sight of the city centre. Its silver-and-blue harbour panoramas and honey-coloured cliffs remind you how beautiful Sydney can be, and how it can revive the spirits. Yet on a weekday, you'll scarcely pass a dozen people. At weekends, you'll find a modest flow of hikers, but never crowds.
The well-signposted, 10-kilometere walk runs along Middle Harbour between Spit Bridge and Manly. Start at Spit Bridge and you'll face towards the best views. In just a few hundred metres, traffic noise dwindles and steps lead you into a gully where waterfalls trickle down sandstone overhangs draped in ferns.
Then you clamber onto a low headland that overlooks a pretty section of Middle Harbour encrusted with moored yachts. Shortly, you find yourself at Clontarf Reserve, which has a glorious beach and a netted swimming area for children.
Now the path skirts low cliffs and lurches between dry, scrubby headlands and lush gullies where streams trickle. You could detour to Grotto Point, where you'll find a stubby 1911 lighthouse with views across Middle Harbour to Balmoral Beach. Skip this if you're keen to save energy, as the track – about 20 minutes return – is rough, and views are screened by bush most of the time.
On the main path, a climb partly via steps is the only heart-banging section of the entire walk. Your reward is Dobroyd Head, the walkway's highest point, where you'll find panoramas through the Heads to the Pacific Ocean, and up the harbour towards CBD skyscrapers. You can just see the top of the Harbour Bridge, a giant dinosaur's vertebrae outlined against blue sky.
Many walkers continue along the main track without noticing two short detours at Dobroyd Head. Before you crest the summit, barely off the path, you'll find Aboriginal rock carvings depicting fish, boomerangs and a large kangaroo. Meanwhile, on the hillside above, is suburban Tania Park, where Arabanoo Lookout gazes at Manly. As an added bonus, an ice-cream van is often parked here at weekends.
From here, the walkway tumbles down to sea level. Follow signs for Reef Beach at the fork for the most open views. At Forty Baskets Beach – a good spot for a picnic – national park is left behind. Now you're onto concrete paths and a very short section of road along the waterfronts of Balgowlah and Fairlight. The North Harbour scenery is tamer but attractive as you stroll between manicured gardens and miniature beaches beneath giant Norfolk Island pines.
The walkway takes you right to Manly ferry terminal, with ferries the best way to return to the city. Getting there from Spit Bridge takes about four hours at a leisurely pace, though you could make a day of it if you pause for lunch or a dip at a harbour beach. There are cafés at Clontarf Reserve and North Harbour Reserve.
Manly Scenic Walkway actually continues onwards from Manly on a 9.5-kilometre loop around North Head but, unless you're a fitness fanatic, you won't want to tackle both sections in a day. It's also part of the recently inaugurated 80-kilometre Bondi to Manly Walk, which reminds you almost every step of the way why Sydney is one of the world's most glorious cities.
Bus numbers 169, 178 and 180 get you to Spit Bridge from Wynyard. The Manly ferry returns you to the city, or buses 143 and 144 back to Spit Bridge. See transportnsw.info