If I Had A Bucket List, Sydney Would Have Been On It

I’m not one for bucket lists. But ever since I was a teenager, I’ve had a list of 5 cities that I wanted to visit (in no particular order): Istanbul, Barcelona, Sydney, Hong Kong, and Rio de Janeiro. I’ve been to Istanbul and Barcelona,  but didn’t think I’d make it to Sydney (simply because it was so far from the rest of the world). As luck would have it, our move to New Zealand opened up Australasia/Oceania for us to explore, and this past Christmas 2014, we made a quick trip to Sydney.

We arrived in Sydney on a very rainy Christmas Day evening. With the rain lashing down, there was no question of going out to explore. However, we were fortunate enough to land a room with a view and caught our first sight of the Sydney Opera House.

Sydney Opera House on a rainy Sydney evening

The next morning, Boxing Day, dawned bright and clear. Since we were still on NZ time, we were up before sunrise. Not wanting to waste the day, Aman and I got dressed and went out for a walk along the harbour. The sun coming up over a calm and empty harbour (a rarity during rest of the time) was great.

Circular Quay
Morning reflections of the Sydney Harbour Bridge
Downtown and The Rocks

We made our way to the Sydney Opera House. Up close, there are a lot of details to appreciate, from the curves of the roof to the individual tiles. Catching the Opera House when it’s practically deserted and bathed in the golden glow of the rising sun was a special treat.

Sunrise at the Sydney Opera House
Sydney Opera House
Felt somewhat unreal to be standing next to one of the most iconic buildings of our time
Opera House tile detail
Roof
Front view (facing the water) of the Opera House

Our plan for the day was to hit the beach. Spending Christmas on the beach is somewhat of a tradition in Australia/NZ, so we had to partake. And when in Sydney, Bondi Beach is apparently the place to go. So we caught a bus from Circular Quay and arrived at the brilliant strip of sand and blue water. With the temperature hitting 28°C, there were many people out. Most were clustered around the lifeguard-patrolled areas, while the rest of the beach was uncrowded, so we settled on an empty patch. The sun and sand were hot. The water was cool, but not that cold. The waves were great — moderate in size, with a few very large ones that went smashing over our heads – great fun to be playing in it. It was quite surreal to be spending Boxing Day/Christmas holiday at the beach. Not that I was complaining!

Christmas at the beach
Building sand tunnels

Because we wanted to explore the city as well, we stayed at Bondi through lunch. We took the bus back to Circular Quay and after a quick shower at the hotel, we went off to explore the western side of the harbour, including The Rocks, before dinner. The weather had turned cloudy by this time, but it was still pleasantly warm (but not muggy).

Sydney Opera House
Family portrait
From the waterfront path we could see across to North Sydney and its conglomeration of high-rises

We then turned to The Rocks. The Rocks is one of the first neighbourhoods that grew up when European settlers arrived in Sydney. It was the rough part of the settlement, populated by the convicts, visiting sailors, and prostitutes (the officers lived on the eastern/southern side of the harbour), and retained that character through much of history. It was in the 1970’s that the area was redeveloped/gentrified for tourist and commercial enterprise, while still keeping many of the original buildings intact. Today, the neighbourhood is a mixture of cafes, pubs, boutique clothing stores, and souvenir shops. Other than the historical significance of the buildings and the area, it is like any other tourist neighbourhood found in many cities.

Original buildings in The Rocks
The Rocks, leading to the Central Business District (CBD)
Every now and then we’d be reminded of the fact that it’s Christmas
Harbour Bridge looming over The Rocks

Soon it was time to make our way to dinner over in Woolloomooloo. Our walk to the restaurant took us through the beautiful Royal Botanic Gardens, a serenely green space; right next to the skyscrapers, but seemingly a world away.

Australian white ibis on the prowl
Royal Botanic Gardens
Tropical flowers abounded

We made it to Finger Wharf in Woolloomooloo for our dinner reservation. Given that it was Boxing Day, many restaurants were closed, but we’d managed to find a table at China Doll. I have to say, it was fantastic. We got a table outside, overlooking the city skyline. The food was very good, with service to match. Usually at most high-end Asian restaurants, when they say “spicy”, they’re overstating their case. Not so here. I ordered the Spicy Hunan lamb ribs and they were, just as the menu said, spicy. I even hard a hard time finishing off the last piece, something that only happens at hole-in-the-wall Asian eateries.

Dinner at China Doll

After dinner, I dropped Genevieve and Aman off at the hotel and continued on to Kirribilli on the North Shore of Sydney Harbour for some blue hour cityscapes. I made my way past Jeffrey Street Wharf and found a good spot. Unfortunately, the sky was completely overcast, so the good light that I was hoping for did not materialize. However, it was not a waste. The clouds glowed in the lights from the city and created a riot of colours.

The iconic Sydney skyline
Sydney CBD
The view that I waited a long time to see in person

The next morning we explored a bit of the Pitt Street mall area, the main shopping district in the CBD.

Pitt Street

We were pleasantly surprised by the Lego Christmas display, complete with a giant Christmas tree and a surfing Santa all made out of Legos.

Surfing Santa

After lunch on the harbour, we took a ferry over to Luna Park, a small amusement park at the base on the northern end of the Harbour Bridge. Luna Park is an old-fashioned park, first opened in 1935. And it’s old roots can be easily seen in the many faces (with all teeth bared) and decorations around the park. Quite freaky to be perfectly honest.

The Luna Park Face at the entrance — lit up at night for extra creepiness

The rides are pretty old-fashioned at rather tame compared to today’s modern amusement parks. But it was still an entertaining getaway from the city.

On the ferris wheel
View from the ferris wheel
Luna Park
Did I mention the freaky faces?

After a couple of hours at the park, we eschewed the ferry in favour of walking across the Harbour Bridge. It was an easy and pleasant stroll along the bridge (the hardest part was climbing up to the bridge level from the park). Some nice views of the city are to be had.

Sydney Harbour Bridge
Walking the bridge
The old of The Rocks against the new of the CBD
The Rocks from Harbour Bridge
Sydney urban living
The Rocks dwarfed by a behemoth of a cruise ship

After a bit of a rest…

…and a chocolate break…

…we headed back to North Sydney for dinner at Aqua. The restaurant’s location is great, overlooking the Harbour Bridge, city skyline, and the Sydney Olympic Pool. The ambiance was very nice, and while the food was very good, the quantity, especially of the price, left a bit more to be desired. But I guess you go there for the experience as much for the food.

The evening ferry ride back to Circular Quay was reminiscent of the ferry rides in Istanbul.

Speeding under the Harbour Bridge
Approaching Circular Quay

The weekend went by too fast and we were on our flight back to New Zealand the next morning. Sydney was great. It is a proper big city. Very beautiful and the skyline is just as spectacular in person as I thought it would be. However, in only three days, we did not venture far from the tourist areas, so it was hard to get a sense of the “real” city, the inhabitants, and neighbourhoods. We’ll need a longer trip to get better acquainted. The skyline has some great icons, like the Opera House and the Harbour Bridge. But the rest of the skyscrapers are rather nondescript — no great (or at least interesting) designs like the Sears Tower, the Shard, the Bank of China Tower, or the Chrysler Building. Great food, especially Asian, which is always a plus for me. All the waterfront makes it a very pleasant place to be, and never feels hemmed in (I love cities that make good use of their shorelines). A more laid-back culture than many large cities (although not as much as the Kiwi way). Access to beaches and other natural coastlines is great, as is the mild year-round climate.

 

All in all, Sydney is definitely pretty high on my list of favourite cities (along with Istanbul and London) so far. The skyline is one of the prettiest I’ve seen in person. We’ll definitely have to come back for a longer time to experience the city outside of the touristy stuff. Highly recommended for any city-lover!

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