It spans the world’s biggest natural harbor, so it’s fair to say that the best of Sydney lies on its waterfront. The Rocks, the first part of Australia to be settled by the British in 1788, sits at the base of the iconic Harbour Bridge. Now home to museums and some of the country’s oldest pubs, it overlooks Circular Quay – a busy wharf in the shadow of the Opera House. The nearby Central Business District’s grid of bustling streets is lined with office blocks mixed with colonial-era stonework. Exploring the city is pleasant but, in terms of cultural highlights, Sydney is often said to fall short against archrival Melbourne.
Thank goodness then for its natural beauty. In Sydney and its surrounds, there are plenty of walking trails to satisfy serious hikers and enough easy routes for casual walkers to enjoy.
The most well-trodden coastal walk is in the east of the city itself, from Coogee Beach to its iconic big brother Bondi. Coogee is family friendly and suburban, while the larger beach is packed with a mix of backpackers, personal trainers and Sydney’s hippest young things.
The path between them is almost four miles and takes in five smaller coves. Each has its own distinct charm – and coffee stops. Sydneysiders take their caffeine hits very seriously, and even the most basic of beachside spots will offer a decent brew.
The trail meanders through Waverley Cemetery, which dates back to the 1870s. Perched on a cliff-top, its 50,000 gravestones are hand-carved from white stone. Bathed in sunlight and looking out to sea, it’s far from gloomy and recognized as one of the world’s most beautiful resting places.
April to December is whale watching season as thousands of humpbacks head north and then return. So it’s worth keeping one eye on the water for a spout or even a playful leap above the surface.
As the path rounds the corner to Bondi, it passes the trendy Icebergs bar, which serves cocktails, brunches and seasonal Italian fare to hungry walkers. A little further inland is Hurricane’s Grill. An upmarket steakhouse, it’s a meat lover’s dream, serving legendary racks of ribs.
To the south and further afield lies the Royal National Park. At 58 square miles, there’s lots to explore, but if you’re not in the mood for a night wandering under the stars, it’s advisable to stick to the paths.
The park entrance at Bundeena is best reached by car. Those with more time to spare can take a train followed by a ferry across the bay. A highlight along the looped trail is Wedding Cake Rock, a formation of pure white stone jutting out in layers over the ocean. The precipice was once a popular photo spot but has – sensibly – been cordoned off. That hasn’t stopped fence-hoppers risking their lives for an Instagram post, but for a truly special shot head further south.
Experienced walkers can drive to Garrawarra Farm for a more difficult but rewarding hike to Figure Eight Pools. Low tide reveals a rock shelf that is home to the fairytale-like eight-shaped pool.
Hikes to the north of Sydney offer views of a stunning stretch of coastline. Catch a ferry from Circular Quay to Manly, nestled inside the grand harbor’s north shore. A stroll through the town leads to the open ocean above the harbor entrance and the golden stretch of Manly Beach.
From here, the roughly seven-and-a-half-mile hike to Collaroy is suitable for frequent walkers. Clinging to the coast over headlands, along sands and by lagoons, it includes several beautiful vantage points. Tea Tree Lookout is a hidden nook that makes for a picture-perfect picnic site overlooking Dee Why and Long Reef Point, 2.5 miles away. From the point, the shoreline sweeps away to the horizon revealing a majestic series of sandy bays. The best has been saved until last.
Climbing down the headland leads to a stroll along a volcanic shore and a bus back to Sydney. Right next to the stop is the Collaroy Hotel. Aussie “hotels” are actually pubs, and the Collaroy offers a range of local beers and top-notch pub grub for weary walkers. It’s possible to do the walk in reverse, in which case The Bavarian by Manly wharf can meet any stein needs.
Feel like a change of scene? To the west of Sydney are the magnificent Blue Mountains. Their hue comes from the tiny droplets of eucalyptus oil that escape from the forest that blankets them. The train from Sydney to Katoomba, the largest village, takes around two-and-a-half hours. A popular base to explore from, Katoomba has bars, cafes and souvenir shops. The Hop-on Hop-Off Tour Bus is an easy way to see the sights, with 29 stops on the audio tour, including the Three Sisters rock formation. A postcard favorite, the viewing platform looks across a lush valley.
From the Three Sisters, the aptly named Giant Stairway descends to the forest floor. The 800 steps lead down 1,000 feet to shaded trails. As many a tired hiker can testify, what goes down must go up. Following the Federal Pass path to the village of Leura is rewarded by a return climb lined with waterfalls. However, taking the trail in the other direction leads to The Scenic Railway and an effort-free ride back to the top.
For those who want to keep their hikes more urban and harbor-based, the best walks along its edge are from Manly to Taronga on the north shore and Rose Bay to Watsons Bay on the south. The Harbour Bridge peeks through along both routes, with the latter ending at the popular Watsons Bay Hotel and a traditional fish-and-chip shop. Sitting on the wharf with a takeout box in the sunshine is a fabulous way to wait for the ferry home.
The ferries from both Watsons Bay and Taronga lead back to Circular Quay where the Opera Bar awaits. Part of the Opera House complex, the open air eatery is the ideal place to rest aching feet, unwind with a glass of wine and watch the sunset over the water that makes Sydney such a captivating destination.