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Where To Stay In Sydney: An Insider’s Guide

So you’ve decided to visit Sydney?

Awesome! Sydney is beautifully diverse and you could spend months exploring this enormous city. There’s something for everyone; whether you have five days or five weeks, are backpacking or planning a luxury holiday, Sydney will not disappoint.

This guide is designed to help you plan your Sydney visit, whatever your demographic of traveller is. Where you stay is the central aspect of your visit (as I mentioned, Sydney is enormous), so I’m going to break down seven of the best areas a traveller would want to stay in. Of course, I’ll make sure to drop some insider tips for each area as well, so you can be sure to hit the ground running. Everything else you need to know to navigate Sydney as a first-timer, such as sim cards and transport options is detailed below as well.

IN THIS GUIDE:

1. Map of Sydney

2. Where to Stay?

  • CBD – old historic part of the city, touristy and close to attractions
  • Darling Harbour – near city center but more peaceful
  • Bondi – upper end, beaches, great for younger solo travellers and families
  • Manly – ocean beach, good for families looking for quiet or long stay travellers
  • Newtown – student area, popular with backpackers
  • Surry Hills – up and coming, like a fancier Newtown
  • Darlinghurst – funky and relaxed near the city center

3. How To Get To Your Accommodation

4. Things to do in Sydney

5. How to Get Around Sydney

6. How to Get a SIM card in Sydney

7. Safety Tips for Sydney


MAP OF SYDNEY

Above I’ve mapped out five suburbs that would be suitable for travellers visiting Sydney.

As you can see, Sydney is a spread out city, although much of the tourist-friendly areas fall around Sydney Harbour. The Harbour Bridge connects the CBD, southern and western parts of the city to the north.

I’ve chosen fairly diverse locations, as Sydney has numerous options and it all depends on the type of holiday you’d like. Each suburb is like a mini village within the city and they’re quite different, so it’s important to choose the right place based on what kind of atmosphere you prefer.

For example, if you want a funkier, young crowd and a student feel, you would head to somewhere like Newtown, whereas if you want something central and touristy with better transport options, Darling Harbour is your best bet.

As you can see, where you choose to stay can greatly impact your experience. Luckily by the end of this guide you should have a better understanding of Sydney as a whole and what the different suburbs have to offer. Of course if you still have questions, just comment below. I’m here to help!


Central Business District (CBD)

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The CBD is the most popular area for travellers, and ideally located near the heart of the waterfront. The CBD provides easy access to many top tourist attractions such as the Harbour Bridge, The Rocks, Circular Quay, the Opera House, Botanic Gardens and the Queen Victoria Building.

Being the most touristy area of Sydney, the CBD is where you’ll find many souvenir shops, street performers, city landmarks, plus the main transport connections. However, you should also be prepared to pay full price for drinks and meals, as central Sydney comes with a price premium for most things.

You should stay in the CBD if:

  • It’s your first time in Sydney
  • You’re after well-located hostels or backpacker accommodation
  • You don’t have a specific plan/idea what you’ll be doing on your visit
  • You plan on using all forms of public transit (bus, train, ferry)

Where to stay in the CBD?

For the Backpacker:

Stay at Sydney Central Inn. Rates in Sydney, even for hostels aren’t amazing, but if you’re looking for a great value location (just 5 minute walk from Central Station) and walkable to all the main attractions in the CBD, this is your best bet. There is a choice of dorm or private rooms, all with shared bathroom facilities, you can get a bed in a dorm for as little as $16 in low season. Best rates here.

For the Budget Traveller:

Wake Up Sydney Central! Is located just across from Central Station, offers private and dorm rooms as well as an onsite bar/nightclub. There is also a cafe below the hostel where you can get an affordable meal. Good value and location. Best rates here .

For the Luxury Seeker:

Located in the historic “The Rocks” area of the CBD, Rendezvous Stafford Hotel has everything; great location, swimming pool, fitness centre and quintessential Aussie charm. Luxury comes with a price, but you’ll be minutes from Circular Quay waterfront, the Harbour Bridge and numerous cafes and restaurants. Best rates here.

Insider tips: Some of the best gelato in the city can be found by the ferry wharfs in Circular Quay. Normally food sold near a busy transit and tourist hub is overpriced and overhyped, but the harbourside gelato stands are the real deal. I recommend a chocolate milkshake at Gelatissimo or Royal Copenhagen Ice Cream.

For something fun (and to work off that gelato!) check out the Sydney Dance Company. They have classes for every level of dancer and in every style from ballet to hip hop to pilates and yoga. Check out the class descriptions here. A little shy about putting on your dancing shoes? No problem, check out a performance by the professional company. Annual schedule can be found here. Please note the beautiful studios at the Wharf are under construction during 2018 – 2019 and classes will be held in Ultimo. More info on the renovations here.


Darling Harbour

Cockle Bay Wharf, Darling Harbour

Located in a picturesque cove within the main harbour, Darling Harbour was the main working port of Sydney. Then in the mid-80s, the NSW Government redeveloped the entire area. Today Darling Harbour is a pedestrian friendly upscale suburb with superb bars, restaurants and accommodation. The location is also ideal; near the city centre but far enough to have some peace if needed.

You should stay in Darling Harbour if:

  • It’s your first stay in Sydney
  • You won’t have a car
  • You don’t mind a ferry ride or walk to the city centre
  • You want to be near the city centre but not right in it

Where to stay in Darling Harbour?

For the Budget Traveller:

Not really anything that fits under “budget” or “backpacker” in Darling Harbour, but if you’d like comfort, style and good location for less than other luxury hotels in Sydney, the Hyatt is your best bet. You can choose city or harbour views. Best rates here.

For the Luxury Traveller:

If you’re happy to spend more than a few dollars, The Darling at the Star is for you. The hotel features a casino, day spa, numerous restaurants and an outdoor pool with it’s own bar. Views of the harbour come with a price, but if you’re feeling flush, why not. Best rates here.

Insider tip: While there is never a shortage of things to do or see in Darling Harbour for a truly exceptional dining experience check out Cafe del Mar. Some of the best views of the harbour (especially at sunset) along with a variety of music and DJs (jazz, funk, etc).


Bondi Beach

Looking North - Bondi Beach

Most visitors think of three main things when picturing Sydney; the Opera House, Harbour Bridge and Bondi Beach. And rightfully so, this is probably the best location in Sydney for entertainment, pristine beaches and a wonderful waterside walk. Just note it is popular with tourists and locals alike on a nice day, so if you want to avoid crowds, winter is the best time to visit.

You should stay in Bondi if:

  • You want to be close to a beach
  • You don’t mind being further from the city centre
  • You’ll have a car or don’t mind having fewer transportation options

Where to stay in Bondi?

For the Budget Traveller:

Stay at the The Baxley Bondi a cute bungalow style guesthouse that won’t break the bank. It’s walkable to Bondi Junction (shopping centre and transport hub) and just a 20 minute walk to Bondi Beach. Just note if you don’t pay a bit more for an ensuite you’ll be sharing a bathroom with other guests, but rest assured everything is sparkling clean! Best rates here.

For the Luxury Traveller:

There may be no better place for luxury relaxation in Sydney than QT Bondi. You’ll have a choice of guest rooms or full apartments, all just a 5 minute walk from Bondi Beach with numerous cafes and restaurants nearby. It’s a clear winner for luxury local living. Best rates here.

Insider tip: You know the famous Bondi to Coogee walk? Where you start at Bondi Beach and walk along the coast to Coogee? Yeah well I recommend making it the Coogee to Bondi walk. For some reason most guides/sites recommend starting at Bondi, probably because it’s a bit easier to get to by transport. But by starting at Coogee (just take the bus from Circular Quay) you’ll end in Bondi, where there are arguably more cafes and restaurants to refuel at. Not to mention, you’ll be going against the “traffic” of everyone who followed the advice of every other guidebook in the world.

While enjoying that Coogee to Bondi walk you may notice there are quite a few little beaches in between the main two. These are wonderful options for sunbathing, swimming and just avoiding the Bondi crowds. My favorite is quaint, barely there Tamarama.


Manly

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Manly is just a 30 minute ferry ride from Circular Quay but feels like a whole world away from the city. You exit the ferry terminal and are only a 10 minute walk from the main shopping promenade and beach. The entire suburb has a small beach town feel and that is exactly why people visit.

Stay in Manly if:

  • You don’t mind paying a bit more
  • You don’t want to be in the city
  • You want a small beach town experience
  • You want a beach AND easy access to public transport
  • You want less crowded beaches than Bondi & friends

Where to stay in Manly?

For the Budget Traveller:

As with most of Sydney outside the CBD, there isn’t much available for true “backpacker” or “budget” travellers, but if you want to stay in Manly without breaking the bank Sandy Bottoms Guesthouse has you covered. Ideally located 5 minutes from all shops and restaurants, 10 minutes from the ferry terminal and one minute from the beach! The guesthouse is simple, yet modern and clean and probably the best value in Manly. Best rates here.

For the Luxury Traveller:

While budget friendly accommodation in Manly may be hard to come by, luxury sure is not. If that’s what you’re looking for The Sebel Sydney Manly Beach will make your dream vacation a reality. You couldn’t ask for a more ideal location, oceanfront, 5 minutes from shops and restaurants and 10 minutes from the ferry terminal. You’ll be spoiled in luxury with two swimmings pools, a hot tub, and each room with a private balcony. Best rates here.

Insider tip: For cheaper eats avoid restaurants along the Ocean Promenade and The Corso (where you walk along from the ferry to the main beach). Head in a bit along Wentworth Street and enjoy cheaper (and just as tasty) eats sans view but also half price. DeVita has amazing coffee and treats as well as a mouthwatering brunch menu.

Additionally, if you desire more peace and smaller crowds while sunbathing, head down the path from the main beach to quaint Shelley Beach. Stop here for a quieter day or keep going all the way to North Head!


Newtown

King Street

Newtown is the young, hip and alternative suburb of Sydney, popular with students and home to The University of Sydney. Whether you’d like to browse book and op shops, relax in abundant parks or have some of the best ethnic food followed by the best coffee of your life, Newtown has you covered. Just note most accommodation is on or right off the busy King Street, providing plenty of people watching and entertainment, but also noise.

Stay in Newtown if:

  • You’re on a budget
  • You want to be near a student/younger crowd
  • You want to relax at cafes and browse op shops
  • You don’t mind being away from a beach

Where to stay in Newtown?

For the Backpacker:

Finally, a suburb that won’t break the bank. The best value you’ll find will likely be the Australian Sunrise Lodge a 7 minute walk from Newtown Station and right on King Street. Surrounded by bars, cafes, shops and restaurants, you’ll never be starved for something to do. Best rates here.

For the Budget Traveller:

Stay at the Sydney Park Hotel. Ideally located along the happening King Street above a pub, it is stylish yet unassuming. It is located near St Peters Station, on a quieter end of King Street. Just note there is no AC so come prepared in summer months. Best rates here.

Insider tip: There are plenty of offbeat and quirky (not to mention delicious) places to eat in Newtown. But for a truly interesting experience check out Lentil As Anything, a vegetarian restaurant with a “pay as you feel” pricing philosophy. Or if you’d like some of the afore mentioned “best ethnic food of your life” you can’t get any more authentic than Arabella Lebanese. Perfect for post-pub hopping late night eats, weekend belly dancing and Sunday morning breakfast!

Looking for some entertainment? Check out a comedy show or concert at the beautiful Enmore. Movies more your thing? Dendy has you covered, especially if you prefer foreign or indie films. Not to mention you can have a meal and drink while you watch from comfy couches and reclining seats. Much more homey and relaxed than the Circular Quay location.


Surry Hills

Terraces

Sometimes you just can’t make up your mind, you want to be in the city but not too close. Areas like Darling Harbour just seems too uppity and expensive. Yet you’d like to be near high end restaurants and bars, and oh! You want to shop too. If that’s you, check out Surry Hills, Sydney’s most up and coming suburb.

Like the Rocks area in the CBD, back in the day, Surry Hills used to be a bit rougher and uninviting. However, thanks to gentrification it is now an ideal location for a Sydney stay. It has plenty of good eateries, places to go out and accommodation. It serves a young (but not too young) crowd, think of it as a slightly older, more sophisticated Newtown.

You should stay in Surry Hills if:

  • You want young company, but not student young
  • You want city living, but more relaxed
  • You want to shop (like a lot)
  • You don’t mind paying a bit more than the CBD

Where to stay in Surry Hills?

For the Budget Traveller:

Stay at the Shakespeare Hotel. Right in the heart of Surry Hills, close to Central Station and Oxford Street for shopping. The hotel sits above the onsite bistro and bar and is like stepping back in time with antique furniture and paintings. There’s even aircon! All for $70 AUD in low season. Best rates here.

For the Luxury Traveller:

Stay at Little Albion. This guesthouse style historically renovated former convent is located in the heart of Surry Hills and walkable to Central Station. The owners treat it like a true guesthouse, making best efforts to great all guests personally and check in during your stay. It’s even pet friendly and has an “honour system” bar in the lobby! Best rates here.

Insider tip: Surry Hills is home to plenty of wonderful places to eat and drink, but if you want authentic Aussie pub, head over to Dove and Olive. Amazing craft beer, pub food and even great Sunday coffee in a relaxed yet stylish setting in the heart of Surry Hills. Not much of a beer fan? Don’t worry, The Winery has you covered. A charming urban garden setting will have you relaxed and feeling out of the city all while enjoying a slightly more upscale dining experience.

Want to relax? Head over to Prince Alfred Park where you’ll enjoy a large outdoor heated pool, BBQ facilities and a cozy cafe. Truly an oasis in the city.


Darlinghurst

Green Park Hotel, Darlinghurst, Sydney.

If you’d like a place with endless stimuli and where boredom is impossible then Darlinghurst is for you. Located between Surry Hills, Paddington and the CBD, Darlinghurst is the place to be and be seen. You can eat and shop for all your daylight hours, hit up endless pubs and nightclubs in the evenings. This suburb draws a similar, but perhaps wilder crowd than Surry Hills.

Stay in Darlinghurst if:

  • You want to be in the middle of it all
  • You want to go out a lot
  • You want a young and fun crowd
  • You don’t mind being further from a beach

Where to stay in Darlinghurst?

For the Budget Traveller:

Stay at the Sydney Boutique Hotel. Walkable to the city center and all the shops, restaurants and night haunts in Darlinghurst. Just note it’s in a noisy area, but that can be expected in most of Darlinghurst, especially in the evening. There is parking nearby (a rarity in the city) and aircon in every room. Best rates here.

For the Luxury Traveller:

One of the best 5 stay accommodations in Sydney, the Medusa Hotel will not disappoint. A quaint and tranquil oasis in the middle of busy Darlinghurst, it’s the perfect place to relax after a day of sightseeing. You’ll be able to walk to most sights and bars and restaurants nearby abound. All rooms feature aircon and a flatscreen TV, with some even being equipped with a kitchenette. Best rates here.

Insider tip: You’ll never be short of places to eat or go out in Darlinghurst. Local favourites include Eau de Vie where you’ll be transported back to the 1920s and enjoy an old-fashioned speakeasy vibe and cocktails. Looking for something a little more lively? Check out The Burdekin Hotel a classic early century setting with delicious drinks and constant events happening.


HOW TO GET TO YOUR ACCOMMODATION

From Sydney Airport, the easiest way to access the city is the train. Just follow the signs (or ask someone, Aussies are very friendly). There is only one line that goes to and from the airport, so it’s a much higher price than the regular train. An adult one-way ticket to/from the airport is between $20 and 25 AUD.

This is the easiest and most economic way to access the city – much cheaper than a taxi and no traffic. Make sure you ask your hotel for the closest train station, if it isn’t within the main “City Circle” (St James, Circular Quay, Wynyard, Town Hall or Central) you’ll need to get off at one of the last three (or Redfern) and swap lines.

Please keep your ticket as you’ll need it to exit the station at your final destination. You’ll need to get an Opal card (easily done at the airport) or an Opal single trip ticket.

If you’re going to be in town for more than a couple of days, think about getting an Opal card. The card itself is free and can be used to pay for trips on all trains, buses and ferries.

If you’re staying for a long stint in Sydney it would be worth it to register the card online at opal.com.au. Then you’ll be able to load money to the card online. You can also schedule “auto top up” to automatically load more money on the card when the balance gets low. Alternatively, you can top up at many retailers, customer service centres and top up machines around the city.

Taxi is also an option, but unless you’ll be staying outside the city or somewhere difficult to reach by public transport (like the Northern Beaches) just take the train. You’ll save yourself a traffic headache and money.


THINGS TO DO IN SYDNEY

There is plenty to do in Sydney, with plenty of guides written online about them all. So I’m not going to tell you about the Harbour Bridge climb, Opera House tour or to explore the Royal Botanic Gardens. I will however let you in on the best way to see all sides of the city: Walk. It’s truly as simple as that, with free walking tours and abundant trails all around the city. You could spend days, even weeks, wandering through the city centre, along the harbour and through forests and beaches. All within one city! Sydney truly has it all. I’ve detailed some local favourites below, all of which are accessible by public transport.

Manly to Spit Bridge Walk

This varied and scenic 10 km walk (or 6.2 mi for you American readers) takes roughly 3 – 5 hours depending on your pace. You’ll pass through Sydney Harbour National Park, follow the coast and wander local side streets. It is truly a walk through the heart and soul of the city.

How to get there: You can either start at Manly Beach (take the Manly ferry from Circular Quay) and end at the Spit Bridge, or take numerous bus routes from anywhere in the city to the bridge and end in Manly. Just note the 10km/6.2 mile distance is one-way.

Bradley’s Head (Taronga Zoo) Walk

This 8.2 km (5 mi) walk starts at Bradley’s Head and continues along the water all the way to Chowder Bay where you can enjoy swimming, scuba diving and a few nice eats. Allow roughly 2.5 hours round trip, a bit longer if you intend to spend time enjoying Chowder Bay. Additionally, you can continue past Chowder Bay to Balmoral Beach (a favourite for families) adding an additional 1.5 – 2.5km depending on the route you choose. You’ll walk through an old forest full of Sydney Red Gums and along the harbour for some of the best views of the Opera House, Harbour Bridge and city skyline.

How to get there: Take a ferry from Circular Quay or the M30 bus to Taronga Zoo. The ferry is by far the best option, taking less time (30 minutes while the bus take 45) and providing wonderful views along the water.

Watsons Bay Walk

This shorter 4.5 km walk is a nice escape from the city where you can look back on the city’s history. You’ll see two of the first Australian lighthouses, some of the oldest houses in the city and remnants of Australia’s involvement in WWII.

How to get there: Take a ferry from Circular Quay or Rose Bay to Watsons Bay. Just note it can get crowded on weekends!


HOW TO GET AROUND SYDNEY

Earlier I mentioned getting an Opal Card for public transport. Now I’ll go into detail about how exactly you can use it to get around the city.

Except for the Airport Line train, all intercity trains, buses and ferries are operated by Transport NSW. You can download the trip planner or Opal Travel app to see schedules and fares in real time.

When using the card, you’ll need to “tap on” and “tap off” each form of transport. What this means is you’ll need to tap your Opal card onto sensors when you enter and exit a station or ferry wharf. Remember to do this when you get on AND off your choice of transport, as there are officers who check, and I’ve been checked several times even on short visits.

If your journey requires a transfer, you’ll only pay for the additional distance (NOT an entire new fare) as long as it is on the same mode of transport and the transfer takes place within 30 minutes. Unfortunately if your journey involves multiple modes of transport, say a train to a ferry, you’ll have to pay two separate full fares.

You can also rent a car, but honestly if you’re not venturing outside of city limits it’s not worth the cost or time spent in traffic.

Train

This is probably the main mode of transport you’ll use. There are 8 train lines with 4 operating on the “City Circle” around main stops in the CBD and waterfront. Trips cost between $3.50 and $8.70 AUD during peak times if you have an Opal card and between $4.40 and $10.60 AUD for single Opal tickets.

Opal card holders receive $0.30 AUD discount when travelling on public holidays, weekends and off peak hours. Additionally, the amount you pay with your Opal card is “capped” meaning should the cost of your trips exceed the “cap amounts” you won’t pay anymore. As of 2019 the cap amounts are as follows; $15.80 AUD/day, $63.20 AUD/week and $2.70/Sunday. I really can’t emphasise enough how beneficial it is to purchase an Opal card at the airport.

Bus

While the train might be the quickest and easiest way to get around, there are some areas (looking at you Eastern Suburbs) that are only accessible by bus. Rest assured, Transport NSW buses are clean, have air con and friendly drivers! Most will have reader boards announcing which stop is next (unlike the trains which stop at every stop regardless) and if not, just ask, Aussies are always happy to help.

A bus trip with an Opal card will cost you between $2.20 and $4.70 AUD and single Opal tickets will cost you between $2.80 and $5.80 AUD. There aren’t discounts for travelling during off peak hours like the trains, but the same caps apply for Opal card holders; $15.80 AUD/day, $63.20 AUD/week and $2.70/Sunday.

Ferry

Arguably the most scenic and relaxing way to travel around. Most routes begin and end in Circular Quay. This means if you want to go to a destination that isn’t on the same route as your starting point (Mosman to Rose Bay for example) you’ll have to transfer at the Quay. As long as you do this in the same trip, it’ll count as a “transfer” and you’ll only pay for a bit more for the additional distance. You’ll pay between $6.01 and $7.51 AUD with an Opal card and between $7.40 and $9.20 AUD for single Opal tickets.


GETTING A SIM CARD IN SYDNEY

You don’t need a SIM card in Sydney, especially if you’re not planning a long stint. There are numerous WiFi spots throughout the city and once you get the hang of public transport you’ll be able to easily navigate tech free.

However, you may want one just for that tech safety net, or if you’re planning to be in the city more than a week. You can purchase one through a major carrier (Optus, Vodafone or Telstra) at Sydney Airport when you arrive. If you’ll be spending time outside the city Telstra typically has the widest reaching network. Sometimes, you can grab a free sim at the airport on arrival too. All the phone companies have booths right there when you come out of customs, make sure you check.


SAFETY TIPS FOR SYDNEY

Honestly, you don’t have much to worry about in Sydney, like the rest of Australian cities they rank up there as some of the safest in the world. Just use common sense as you would in any major city. Be mindful when travelling alone on public transport after dark, watch your drinks and let someone know when you’re going out late at night. Overall, even novice travellers should have very few safety issues in this city.

Enjoy Sydney! Any questions, leave them below 🙂

Photo Credits: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7

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