The City by the Sea
Approaching Sydney from the air, the topography reminded my dizzy, jetlagged mind of a Rorschach inkblot gone haywire. Stark black scribbles transformed into deep, sapphire-blue seas that swayed and bobbed and crashed around the most intricate maze of beaches, coves, harbors, islands, and peninsulas imaginable. Just inland from the honeycombed coastline, vaulting skyscrapers glimmered in the morning sun, the expansive suburbs stretching beyond in neatly assembled rows, a panorama of red-tiled roofs and the occasional blue rectangle of a backyard swimming pool. Blink and you're above boat-speckled Sydney Harbour, the majestic white sails of the Opera House and the arching Harbour Bridge—the two icons that say Sydney the way kangaroos and koalas say Australia—miniature yet close enough to touch before the Qantas 747 angles south toward the airport…
It's a magical, almost illusionary introduction to a country, especially after flying nonstop through the black of night for over 14 hours. Tack on the six hours it took to get from D.C. to New York, then from New York to L.A., and expectation had become my worst enemy. By the time I disembarked, I was on a serious bender—tipsy from a few whiskeys and reeling from the effects of Jacque Cousteau's favorite drug (jetlag)… No wonder I walked right past Leanne—my Aussie friend and photographer—and ambled aimlessly through the airport until she literally jumped in front of my unfocused eyes.
Leanne had told me long before I got my ticket that Sydney—a place Gore Vidal once described as the city that San Francisco thinks it is—was the shimmering gem of Australia, an international city on a par with Paris and New York, where the sun always shines and the beach is everyone's swimming pool. My aerial glimpse had convinced me that this perception was right…until we left the airport. New South Wales had endured a drought for over six years, but the day I landed, it started to rain. Seemed that the glittering landscape that'd greeted me was just Australia's oldest city showing off; as we drove toward the Central Business District, a steady drizzle fell from a blanket of gray clouds.
Foul weather or no, Sydney still shines. Its labyrinthine topography affords Australia's biggest city a small-village feel—a considerable feat given a population of 3.9 million, which may seem small when compared to other world capitals until you realize that accounts for over half the people in New South Wales. The city's neighborhoods are almost as diverse as its people: King's Cross is urban seediness at its most indulgent; nearby Darlinghearst has an established gay scene with great restaurants and boutique shopping; Bondi Beach excels at sun-worshipping excess; Newtown offers strings of pubs, restaurants, funky shops, and loads of Sydney University students; Darling Harbour is a tourist-trodden spot with an IMAX theater, the Maritime Museum, and access to sailing and jet-boat excursions in Sydney Harbour… and that's just the start of the list.
Yet the natural—not the urban—sits at the center of Sydney's modern identity. Sure, the Central Business District gives off an avenue-canyon urban vibe, while the city's history is palatable while walking the cobblestone streets of The Rock and Circular Quay. But the city and its immediate surrounds have more than 70 beaches with azure water clear enough for scuba diving and snorkeling and some of the world's best surfing. In addition to a slew of urban parkland and the expansive Royal Botanical Gardens, Sydney is practically surrounded by national parks. Sydney Harbour National Park sits at both heads of Sydney Harbour, offering scenic walks along the cliffs, staggering downtown views, Aboriginal carvings, and remote beachfront. To the north lies a 4.9-mile stretch of bushland called Garigal National Park, stretching from Bantry Bay and joining Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park further north at St. Ives, which also connects with Mudgamarra Nature Reserve. To the south lie Botany Bay, Heathcote, and Royal national parks, with miles of protected beaches and bushwalking. You can chose to take a leisurely walk along the serpentine coastline on the Bondi-to-Bronte Coast Walk, step it up for the daylong trek from Spit Bridge to Manly Beach, opt for the less active yet equally epic ferry ride from The Rocks to Manly Beach through the entirety of Sydney Harbour, or leave the city altogether and get lost in one of the surrounding national parklands.
Given all of Sydney's attractions, it's understandable that most mistake Sydney for all of New South Wales. Don't make that error. There's a wealth of attractions within close radius of Sydney, from the adventurous, World Heritage-listed Blue Mountains region to the verdant wine regions of Hunter Valley. All deserved to be seen, and many justify at least an overnight stay. Regardless of your itinerary, one thing is assured: Give Sydney one week and you'll wish you had a month.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication