Sydney belongs to that exclusive club of world cities that give you a sense of excitement from the first time you see them. Home to 4 million people, it is the biggest and most cosmopolitan city in Australia. Indented with numerous bays and beaches and gilded with a glistening Opera House, Sydney Harbour is the presiding icon for the city, and for urban Australia. But Sydney didn't have an easy beginning. The first residents were prisoners, flushed from overcrowded jails in England and sent halfway around the globe to live out their sentences and their lives. Sydney has long since outgrown the stigma of its convict origins, but the passage of time has not tamed its rebellious spirit. The city offers style, sophistication, and good-no, great-looks; it is an exhilarating prelude to the continent at its back door.
Most tourists spend their time on the harbor's south side, within an area bounded by Chinatown in the south, Harbour Bridge in the north, Darling Harbour to the west, and the beaches and coastline to the east. Most cruise ships dock at Circular Quay, but they sometimes dock in Darling Harbour Passenger Terminal, a short walk from the city center. Both locations are close to public transit, or you can hail a taxi.
Circular Quay. Sydney Harbour, officially named Port Jackson, is in its depths a river valley carved by the Parramatta and Lane Cove rivers and the many creeks that flow in from the north. Circular Quay is your gateway to the Harbour and its many attractions. Almost all ferries and tour boats leave from here.
Customs House. The last surviving example of the elegant sandstone buildings that once ringed Circular Quay, this former customhouse now displays an amazing model of Sydney under a glass floor. You can walk over the city's skyscrapers, all of which are illuminated by meters of fiber-optic lights. There's an excellent two-level library and plenty of art galleries. The rooftop Café Sydney, the standout in the clutch of restaurants and cafés in this late-19th-century structure, overlooks Sydney Cove. The building stands close to the site where the British flag was first raised on the shores of Sydney Cove in 1788. Customs House Sq., Alfred St.
Several pockets of land are now protected within Sydney Harbour National Park, 958 acres of separate foreshores and islands, most of them on the north side of the harbor. To see the best areas, put on your walking shoes and head out on one of the many well-marked trails. Circular Quay.
At Taronga Zoo, a natural bush area on the harbors north shore, you'll find an extensive collection of Australian fauna, including everybody's favorite marsupial, the koala. The easiest way to get here from the city is by ferry from Circular Quay. From Taronga Wharf, a bus or the cable car will take you up the hill to the main entrance. The Zoo Pass, a combined ferry-zoo ticket (A$39), is available at Circular Quay. You can also stay overnight at the zoo in what's billed as the "wildest slumber party in town." The "Roar and Snore" program includes a night tour, two behind-the-scenes tours, dinner, breakfast, and tent accommodation for A$165 per person. Bradleys Head Rd. Admission charged.
Art Gallery of New South Wales. This is one of the best places in Australia to explore the evolution of European-influenced Australian art, as well as the distinctly different concepts that underlie Aboriginal art. All the major Australian artists of the last two centuries are represented in this impressive collection. Art Gallery Rd., The Domain.
Australian National Maritime Museum. The six galleries of this soaring, futuristic building tell the story of Australia and the sea. In addition to figureheads, model ships, and brassy nautical hardware, there are antique racing yachts and the jet-powered Spirit of Australia, current holder of the world water speed record (set in 1978). An outdoor section showcases numerous vessels moored at the museums wharves, including the HMAS Vampire, a World War II-era destroyer. Wharf 7, Maritime Heritage Centre, 2 Murray St., Darling Harbour.
Chinese Garden of Friendship. Chinese prospectors came to the Australian goldfields as far back as the 1850s, and the nation's long and enduring links with China are symbolized by this tranquil walled enclave, the largest garden of its kind outside China. Designed by Chinese landscape architects, the garden includes bridges, lakes, waterfalls, sculpture, and Cantonese-style pavilions. The garden is a welcome refuge from sightseeing and Darling Harbour's crowds. Darling Harbour. Admission charged.
Hyde Park Barracks. Before Governor Macquarie arrived, convicts were left to roam freely at night. Macquarie was determined to establish law and order, and in 1819 he commissioned convict-architect Francis Greenway to design this restrained, classically Georgian-style building. Today the Barracks houses compelling exhibits that explore behind the scenes of the prison. For example, a surprising number of relics from this period were preserved by rats, who carried away scraps of clothing and other artifacts for their nests beneath the floorboards. A room on the top floor is strung with hammocks, exactly as it was when the building housed convicts. Queens Sq., Macquarie St. Admission charged.
The Rocks is the birthplace not just of Sydney, but also of modern Australia. Here, the 11 ships of the First Fleet, the first of England's 800-plus ships carrying convicts to the penal colony, dropped anchor in 1788. The Sydney Visitor Centre, once a mariners' mission, now offers insight into the history of the Rocks, with displays of artifacts and a short video. Informative Rocks Walking Tours depart from here as well. 106 George St.
Museum of Contemporary Art. This ponderous art deco building houses one of Australia's most important collections of modern art, as well as two significant collections of Aboriginal art. There's no permanent collection, but the continually changing program of exhibits has included works by such luminaries as Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, and Cindy Sherman. 140 George St., The Rocks.
Sydney Harbour Bridge. Sydney's iron colossus, Harbour Bridge was a monumental engineering feat when it was completed in 1932. The roadway is supported by the arch, not by the massive stone pylons, which were added for aesthetic rather than structural reasons. The 1,650-foot-long bridge is 160 feet wide and contains two sets of railway tracks, eight road lanes, a bikeway, and a footpath on both sides. Actor Paul Hogan worked for several years as a rigger on the bridge, long before he earned international fame as the star of Crocodile Dundee. Sydney-siders love of Harbour Bridge was displayed in earnest on March 18, 2007, when 200,000 people walked across to commemorate its 75th anniversary. Access is via the stairs on Cumberland Street, close to the Shangri-La Hotel.
Royal Botanic Gardens. More than 80 acres of sweeping green lawns, groves of indigenous and exotic trees, duck ponds, greenhouses, and some 45,124 types of plants-many of them flowering-grace these elegant gardens. Other reasons to visit include the many striking sculptures scattered throughout the park; the bird- and wildlife (100 species of birds are estimated to make their homes here, along with a large colony of flying foxes, or fruit bats); spectacular views over the harbor and the Opera House; and two lovely restaurants, the Botanic Gardens Restaurant and Pavilion on the Park. Guided tours are available. Domain North, The Domain.
St. Mary's Cathedral. The first St. Mary's was built here in 1821, but fire destroyed the chapel, and work on the present cathedral began in 1868. The spires weren't added until 2000. St. Mary's has some particularly fine stained-glass windows and a terrazzo floor in the crypt, where exhibitions are often held. The cathedral's large rose window was imported from England. College and Cathedral sts.
Sydney Jewish Museum. Artifacts, interactive media, and audiovisual displays chronicle the history of Australian Jews and commemorate the 6 million killed in the Holocaust. Exhibits are brilliantly arranged on eight levels, which lead upward in chronological order, from the handful of Jews who arrived with the First Fleet in 1788 to the migration of 30,000 concentration-camp survivors to Australia-one of the largest populations of Holocaust survivors to be found anywhere. 148 Darlinghurst Rd. Admission charged.
Sydney Opera House. Poised majestically on a harbor peninsula, the opera house has become a loved and potent national symbol. It's a far more versatile venue than its name implies, hosting a diverse selection of performance arts and entertainment. Guided one-hour tours depart at frequent intervals from the tour office, on the lower forecourt level. Bennelong Point. Admission charged.
Sydney Tower. Short of taking a scenic flight, a visit to the top of this 1,000-foot golden-minaret-topped spike is the best way to see Sydney's spectacular layout. This is the city's tallest building, and the views from its indoor observation deck encompass the entire Sydney metropolitan area. You can often see as far as the Blue Mountains, more than 80 km (50 mi) away. 100 Market St., between Pitt and Castlereagh Sts. Admission charged.
Harbourside, a glamorous, glassy pavilion on the water's edge, houses more than 200 clothing, jewelry, and souvenir shops. Oxford Street, Paddington's main artery, is lined with boutiques, home-furnishing stores, and Mediterranean-inspired cafés. Pitt Street Mall, between King and Market streets and at the heart of Sydney's shopping area, includes six multilevel shopping plazas crammed with more than 450 shops, from mainstream clothing stores to designer boutiques. The Queen Victoria Building, surrounded by George, York, Market, and Druitt streets, is a splendid Victorian building with more than 200 boutiques, cafés, and antiques shops.
Beaches. Sydney is paradise for beach lovers. Within the metropolitan area are more than 30 ocean beaches, all with golden sand and rolling surf. To the south of the harbor, wide, wonderful Bondi (pronounced bon-dye) is the most famous and most crowded of all Sydney beaches. To the north of the harbor, Manly is the beach of choice. Both can be reached easily by ferry from Circular Quay.
Port Photo: Anthony Winning/wikipedia.org