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What to do in Sydney, Australia - A 4-day itinerary for first timers

View of Sydney Opera House and Sydney Harbour Bridge in Australia from Mrs Macquarie's Chair Viewpoint

Views across to the Opera House and Harbour Bridge from Mrs Macquarie’s Chair

Sydney is one of the most visited cities in Australia and it’s not hard to see why. From its famous landmarks like the iconic Opera house and Sydney Harbour bridge to the gorgeous sandy beaches of Bondi and Manly, Sydney attracts tourists from all over the world.

If you are lucky enough to have several weeks in Australia, you might be planning to cover one of the country’s most popular traveller routes, along Australia's East Coast. If so, Sydney is a great starting point to set off on your road trip - just make sure you stop and spend a few days in the city before you hit the road!

Looking for another great Australian city to visit? Check out all the best things to see and do in Melbourne, Victoria

With so much to see and do in Sydney it can be overwhelming, especially if you are visiting for the first time and only have a few days. So if you’re asking yourself questions like, ‘How long do I need in Sydney?’, ‘What is there to do in Sydney’ and ‘Where are the best places to visit in and around Sydney?’, don’t worry, I’ve got you covered. In this short handy guide, I'll share the best things to see and do in Sydney (even if you only have a few days!), neatly packaged into a handy 4 day itinerary that you can follow.

How many days do you need in Sydney, Australia?

There are so many great things to see and do in Sydney, it is a big city and there’s something for everyone. However, I would say that 3-5 days is a good amount of time to spend in Sydney as a first-timer. This will allow you to see the "highlights" without feeling like you are zooming around in a rush. Of course, if you are tight on time you could spend just 2 days here by just staying in Sydney's CBD (Central Business District), but personally I feel that you would be missing out on some of the great things Sydney has to offer. We stayed for 4 days (5 nights) and felt that it was a good amount of time.

What are the best things to see and do in Sydney, Australia?

In this post I am sharing my full itinerary for how we spent 4 days in Sydney, which will cover all my top things to see and do in Sydney within those 4 days, including how we spent each day in the different areas of Sydney. If you would prefer to see a list with just the top places to visit, so that you can incorporate it into your own itinerary, I have written a separate blog covering 15 great things to see and do in Sydney which will give you a run down of the best places to visit.

Now, let’s see how I spent 4 days in Sydney…

How to spend 4 days in Sydney - a full itinerary

Day 1 - Wander around Darling Quarter and Darling Harbour - two of the best areas to visit in Sydney's CBD

We arrived in Sydney on the overnight Greyhound bus from Melbourne, and despite the bus being relatively comfortable, you never do sleep much on buses, so we were feeling a little tired. After checking into our hotel, we decided not to stray too far and walked to Darling Quarter and the Darling Harbour in the heart of Sydney’s CBD (Central Business District).

The iconic landmarks of the Sydney Opera House and Harbour Bridge have made Circular Quay one of the most visited spots in Sydney, however I much preferred the area around Darling Harbour. For me, Darling Harbour had a much nicer atmosphere than Circular Quay and it was far less industrial (as it is not the main ferry/cruise port). There are bars and restaurants all around the edge of the harbour, and you’ll also find the Australian National Maritime museum and Sea life aquarium here too.

Views across Darling Harbour in Sydney, Australia

Looking across Darling Harbour

Just set back from the harbour is Tumbalong Park, which is a great spot to sit on the grass, cool your feet in the water feature and watch the world go by.

After spending some time at the park and harbour, make sure you visit Darling Square, in the heart of Darling Quarter. There are some great shops in this area and it has a really nice vibe to it.

We spent the afternoon just wandering around Darling Quarter and Darling Harbour and enjoying the sun in the park with an ice cream. In the evening, we headed to the Harbourside shopping complex, which has a decent sized foot court, perfect for grabbing something to eat if you’re on a budget! After picking up some food, we took it outside to sit on the water’s edge overlooking the harbour. Who needs fancy restaurants anyway?!

You could easily spend a full, leisurely day around Darling Quarter and Darling Harbour, visiting all the shops and enjoying a long lunch, but if you prefer things at a faster pace, or you’re short on time, then it’s a great place to spend the morning or late afternoon and you could easily combine sightseeing here with a visit to Circular Quay. Whatever you choose, just make sure to visit! In my opinion Darling Quarter and Darling Harbour are two of the best places to visit in Sydney.

Darling Square is a great place for independent shops and food outlets

Day 2 - Visiting Sydney’s most iconic landmarks - the Opera House and Harbour Bridge

On the second day, we headed to Sydney’s most famous sights - the Sydney Harbour Bridge and the Opera House, which are located in Circular Quay. These two iconic landmarks are what Sydney is most famous for, so we wanted to really soak up the atmosphere and spend the day exploring this area of the city. When I visit a new place, I love devising my own walking tour. Personally I feel that strolling around on foot is the best way to see all the sights, it also just happens to be one of the best things to do in Sydney (or any city) for free!

The walking tour I created took us to some of Sydney’s most popular must-see spots including the Sydney Botanical Gardens, Circular Quay - stopping at the Opera House and Harbour Bridge, then onto Barangaroo Reserve, the Sydney Observatory and finally to the area of The Rocks. Here’s the full details of the route we took:

Arriving at Circular Quay, we walked past the Opera House and headed straight to the botanical gardens, enjoying a picnic on the beautiful lawns, with a view across the harbour. We then continued walking around the gardens, to the other side until we reached Mrs Macquarie's chair - a viewing point which offers fabulous views across the bay of both the Harbour Bridge and the Opera House. This is one of the best places to snap a photo of the Sydney Opera House.

The view of Sydney Opera House and Harbour Bridge from Mrs Macquarie's Chair viewpoint

Looking across to the Sydney Opera House and Harbour Bridge from Mrs Macquarie's Chair viewpoint

Leaving Mrs Macquarie’s Chair viewpoint, we re-traced our steps back through the botanical gardens to the Opera House.

After wandering around the outside of the Opera House and taking some photos, we followed the harbour round to the other side, to Hickson Road reserve - a small green area just underneath the Harbour Bridge. The Opera House and Harbour Bridge are the most popular sights in Sydney, so, as you can imagine, it does get busy around this area but these are both absolute must-see spots when you are in Sydney!

Standing under the Sydney Harbour Bridge at Hickson Road Reserve in Sydney, Australia

Standing under the Sydney Harbour Bridge at Hickson Road Reserve

From here, you might want to detour and get an adrenaline rush by booking tickets to climb the Sydney Harbour Bridge! This is one of the most popular activities to do in Sydney, but since my husband is not great with heights, we skipped the bridge climb and continued on the walking route.

From Hickson Road Reserve, we followed the road underneath the bridge and walked along Walsh Bay Promenade which led us to Barangaroo Reserve. This was a really lovely walk along the water’s edge and there’s several cafes along the way if you fancy a drink or get peckish.

After resting our feet at Barangaroo Reserve, we followed Argyle Street and walked up to the Sydney Observatory for great views of the Harbour Bridge and across the water towards Luna park (an old fashioned theme park) in North Sydney. The Observatory Hill Park has one of the best viewpoints over Sydney Harbour and is especially beautiful at sunset.

To finish the day we walked back down towards Circular Quay to explore the fashionable area of The Rocks. The Rocks is one of the best areas to explore in Sydney, especially if you’ve only got a couple of days in the city. This area is full of small lanes with cafes, restaurants, independent shops and boutiques. We were lucky as the weekend market was on, so we strolled through the market stalls with lots of crafts and artisan foods.

In the evening, the Opera House and Harbour bridge are illuminated and look really beautiful. When we visited, there was a light art installation at the Opera House, where patterns where projected onto the Opera House sails. So we watched this for a bit, before having a drink in the bar in front of the Opera House, looking across to the Harbour Bridge.

This was a pretty full-on day, with lots of walking, but we got to see A LOT! If you don’t want to walk as far as we did, then I would say skip the section between the Harbour Bridge and Barangaroo reserve and just head straight to The Rocks instead.

Sydney Harbour Bridge and the Opera House look magnificent at night!

Day 3 - A day trip to Manly - one of Sydney’s most popular suburbs and surfing spots

On our third day, we wanted to get out of the city, so we caught a ferry from Circular Quay across to Manly, a beach-side suburb in North Sydney. There are two ferry's that take you across to Manly, a 30 minute ferry and a slightly more expensive but 10 minute shorter 'fast ferry' - we just took the regular 30 minute ferry.

The ferry trip itself is one of the best activities you can do in Sydney because you’ll get gorgeous harbour views from the boat and some amazing photo opportunities!

Australia's East Coast has many great surfing spots, including the nearby town of Newcastle. But Manly is one of Sydney’s best surf spots. It is famous for holding the world’s first surfing competition, back in 1964. Annual surf competitions are still held in Manly and surfers flock to this beach every year, making the now iconic Manly beach one of Australia’s most famous beaches.

Manly beach, in North Sydney, Australia

Manly beach

Once we arrived in Manly, we followed the scenic coastal path from Manly wharf to North head. This was a lovely coastal walk, passing several small beaches along the way. We stopped for a bit at Collins beach, which was in a secluded little cove, complete with a small waterfall. We pretty much had the entire beach to ourselves, it was gorgeous!

From North Head, we walked back inland through Patrick's estate with an impressive English castle-like building, which we learnt was an international business college. Coming out of Patrick’s Estate, we ended up on Manly Beach.

This was a really nice, quiet circular walk around the coastline of Manly. Most tourists who arrive on the ferry to spend the day in Manly head straight into town or to Manly beach, so if you are looking to escape the crowds for a bit, then I would really recommend this walk, it is one of the best things to do in Manly.

A secluded beach, found along the Manly Coastal Path in Sydney, Australia

There were several coves and secluded beaches like this along the Manly Coastal Path

We were really lucky that Manly was hosting the world surf championship at the time of our visit, so after our walk around the coast, we took a leisurely stroll along the promenade before sitting down to watch the surfers.

I loved Manly, the centre of the town is pedestrianised with lots of surf shops and it has a really nice laid-back atmosphere, whilst still maintaining the aspects of city life that everyone loves - great cafes, shops and bars!

In my opinion, Manly is one of the best places to visit in Sydney, and if you have a couple of days, should definitely be included on your Sydney itinerary, we had a great time spending the full day and evening here. We caught the ferry back to Sydney around 9pm at night, and as we headed into Circular Quay, the views of the Opera House and Harbour Bridge whilst they were all illuminated were amazing!

Sydney Opera House looking beautiful all illuminated from the ferry at night

Sydney Opera House looking beautiful from the ferry at night

Day 4 - Visiting Sydney’s iconic Bondi Beach

We couldn't come to Sydney without visiting its most iconic beach - Bondi beach! Bondi beach is one of Australia’s most famous beaches thanks to its pristine white sand, plentiful restaurants, bars and proximity to Sydney’s CBD (which is just a short bus ride away).

One of the best things to do at Bondi beach (and in Sydney!), is the Bondi-Coogee coastal walk. The 6km walk follows the coastline from Bondi to Coogee and usually takes around 2-3 hours, but it depends how often you stop at the various swimming spots along the way!

We set off on the Bondi-Coogee coastal walk as soon as we arrived in Bondi late morning, stopping in Brontë for lunch along the way. We only went as far as Clovelly along the coastal walk, before heading back to Bondi as we had done so much walking over the past few days and weeks, we thought we would give our legs a rest! The coastal walk was beautiful and it is definitely up there as one of the best things to do in Sydney, rivalling the Port Macquarie coastal path.

The Bondi-Coogee coastal path is one of the best things to do in Bondi

We spent the rest of the day lazing on Bondi beach, but if you wanted to, you can go swimming in one of Australia’s oldest swimming pools - the Bondi Iceberg, located at the southern end of the beach.

We didn’t venture into the town of Bondi much as we just wanted to enjoy the beach and coastline, but passing through the streets on the bus journey, I noticed that there's so many shops, cafes and restaurants in Bondi to keep you occupied all day if you wanted!

At the end of the day, we treated ourselves to a sunset drink at one of the bars overlooking the beach before diving into steaks and red wine (a rare budget-blowing treat because it was my husband Lee's birthday that day!).

Of the two beaches we visited in Sydney, I preferred Manly to Bondi. Although Bondi was nice, it definitely felt more urban, with a busy road right by the beach and shops along the other side. I also expected Bondi to have more of a party atmosphere, with bars and cafes lining the beach front but there were only a couple of bars, which in fairness was quite nice. But if you are going to Bondi expecting a big party atmosphere, you might not get it. Perhaps it is because we were slightly out of season but I'm not sure. Either way, we had a great day at Bondi and I would definitely recommend visiting it, even just for the coastal walk, which was the best part of Bondi, in my opinion.

The famous Bondi beach in Sydney, Australia

The famous Bondi beach in Sydney

This wraps up my 4 day itinerary of Sydney - As first-timers to Sydney, we wanted to cover the main spots in and around the city without feeling rushed and I think 4 days was perfect for that. Of course, you could easily spend more time here by taking it even slower than we did, or by visiting even more of the attractions in and around Sydney.

If you want to get out in nature and do some hiking, then the Blue Mountains are only a 2 hour train ride from the city and are one of the most popular day trips from Sydney. Personally, I would recommend having several days to explore the area. The Blue Mountains are so beautiful and we really enjoyed the few days we spent there hiking.

I loved Sydney - it is such a vibrant city - and I completely get why it is such a popular place for tourists. You have everything you could wish for - the bustle of a city, laid back coastal towns and suburbs, gorgeous sandy beaches and even mountains nearby!

What is a good area to stay in Sydney, Australia?

We stayed in the Great Southern hotel, which was just a few minutes walk from the central bus and train station, at the end of George Street. George Street is the main street running through this part of the city, linking the central station to Circular Quay, where the Opera House and Harbour bridge are located. There is a tram which runs frequently running the full length of George Street which is really handy!

Staying in this area also meant that we were close to Darling quarter and the Darling harbour. Sydney is a big city, but basing ourselves here we found it really easy to get to all the main sights and also hop easily on a bus, tram and boat to go further afield. I would say the closer to the centre, the better, especially if you only have a couple of days here as you don’t want to spend long travelling in and out each day.

Is Sydney expensive?

As with any destination, there are luxury options and budget options. We were visiting Sydney as part of our Australian East Coast road trip and were backpacking, though I would say we had a moderate budget for a backpacking trip - setting ourselves a limit of £70 per person (including accommodation and transport). With that we were able to stay in a 3 star hotel and had enough left to cover food and drink and anything else we wanted to do.

When researching accommodation, I found that many of the hostels were actually more expensive than hotels for a private room, so my advice would be if there’s two or three of you travelling and you want a private room, definitely check out hotel prices before booking a hostel under the assumption that it would be the cheapest option.

Most of the activities we did in Sydney were essentially free - there’s so many places you can walk in Sydney and see something different that you don't actually need a big budget. We also saved money on food and drink by having picnics or getting takeaways and eating them alongside the harbour or in one of the parks on a couple of evenings or for lunch. The main thing we paid extra for was the tram, the ferry to Manly and the bus to Bondi beach, but again, these were all relatively low cost items.

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All links on this website are my own recommendations or sites I found useful when planning and are not affiliated. I do not receive any commission from including these links within this blog.

All links on this website are my own recommendations or sites I found useful when planning and are not affiliated. I do not receive any commission from including these links within this blog.

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