Many families traveling Down Under have just a few days in Sydney, as they are hoping to take in as much of Australia as possible during their stay. After living in Sydney for nearly nine years, and returning frequently since, I’m often asked to suggest an itinerary for friends who are planning to visit with their families. Though a week is ideal, three days is enough time to see Sydney and hit the highlights.
Metropolitan Sydney is divided into four main areas: the CBD (Central Business District), the Eastern Suburbs, the Inner West and the Lower North Shore. Being central is key for a short stay, so I’d recommend staying in the CBD or close to it. The CBD is, as the name implies, central. It sits on the harbor and is where you will find the iconic Opera House, the Botanical Gardens and Circular Quay (pronounced ‘key’), Sydney’s main public transportation hub. You can walk to many sights from here and easily access others.
Sydney’s public transportation is pretty good; it’s a mix of modern and dilapidated, fast and slow, but the public trains, buses and ferries will get you most anywhere. I recommend getting a MyMulti ticket 7-day Pass. These tickets allow you unlimited travel on trains, buses, ferries and light rail in metropolitan Sydney. Kids 4 to 15 years are half-price, and children 3 and under travel for free. A weekly pass is most cost-efficient and can be bought at stations as well as news agencies, convenience stores and post offices. If public transport isn’t your thing, taxis are readily available and renting a car is always an option. Having a car will give you access to places off the beaten path, but note that parking can be expensive and difficult to find. If you are coming from America you’ll need to adjust to driving on the left-hand side of the road as well.
Start your day at the Opera House – it is a must-do while in Sydney. Sure you can just take a walk around it, but I highly recommend taking it in like a local. Many visitors don’t know that the Opera House has a number of performances and programs just for kids. Be sure to visit the “Kids at the House” section of their website before you go to see what events are on during your visit.
If you have little ones between 2 and 5 years old, check out the Babies Proms. It’s nothing like a prom as it’s thought of in the U.S., but instead, an engaging musical program for tots that is just the right length of time for short attention spans. For kids a bit older there are junior tours of the Opera House, puppet-making workshops, and performances aimed at kids – some are even interactive. Everything mentioned will require a reservation, so book ahead.
Adjacent to the Opera House is the Royal Botanical Gardens and The Domain. There is a nice path along the harbor; follow it for about 15 minutes and you’ll come to Mrs. Macquarie’s Chair, a sandstone rock carved into a bench in 1810 for the governor’s wife, Lady Macquarie, so that she could watch the boats come into the harbor. This is another great vantage point and provides a different view of Sydney and the harbor. When ready, make your way back to Circular Quay and venture into the Gardens. These open gardens showcase the indigenous plants and trees of Australia and prehistoric-looking birds (Australian White Ibises) roam freely. It’s also nice to take advantage of the open space to run around a bit after being inside.
Be sure to look up at the trees; you are likely to see many sleeping fruit bats. They are a great, and perhaps unexpected, sight in the early evening as they take to the skies as well. After looking at the harbor all morning, you’ll be itching to get out on it, so make your way back to Circular Quay. There are a number of private boat tours available, and they are generally good, but I think the best way to get out on the harbor is on the state-run ferries. Most kids enjoy being on the water but find the 2+ hour private tours too long.
The ferry from Circular Quay to Manly takes about 30 minutes. Manly has a nice beach, actually three of them: the small harbor beach beside the ferry wharf, the main surf beach and Shelley Beach, which is a short, scenic walk from the southern end of Manly. Spend the afternoon at the beach of your choice or browse the shops and visit a café. Hugo’s is a nice spot for lunch or an early dinner; the food is good and it’s right at the wharf, so you can watch the ferries come and go as you eat.
Evenings are tricky, as everyone tends to be done in after a full day on the go. But if you have the stamina, take in a movie at one of the open-air cinemas. During the summer months, Bondi Beach, The Domain, and Centennial Park all offer these programs. Usually some kid-friendly flicks are in the mix. The Domain has the most stunning of settings, but on a Sunday, aim for the Sundae Sessions at Bondi Beach, which include free (all-you-can-eat!) Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. They often sell out, so book in advance if possible.
There are more than 100 beaches in and around Sydney. Those with young ones should consider visiting Shark Beach at Nielsen Park. Despite the name, this is a great place for little swimmers, as it is sheltered by the harbor. No riptides or big waves here – just a picturesque beach with white sand, plenty of shade and a lovely café for lunch or snacks. There is also a shark net in place to keep out unwelcome aquatic visitors. This is a lesser-known beach and is rarely crowded.
For older kids, or if you have a range of ages, head to Bondi (pronounced Bond-eye) Beach. This is perhaps the most famous beach in Sydney, and for good reason: It’s a beautiful beach with plenty to offer. The north end of the beach has a wading pool protecting little ones from the surf. Lots of families set up camp for the day at this end of the beach. It’s also where you will find the Let’s Go Surfing Surf School. They offer the “Bondi Surf Experience,” a 2-hour introductory lesson as well as 1 hour family private lessons.
At the opposite end of the beach you’ll find Bondi Icebergs, a swim club with two saltwater pools (a 50M and a kiddie pool). Family passes are available to purchase by the day. It’s great fun to be splashed by the waves coming into the pool when the surf is large. If your family is quite active and/or if it’s a bit too cold to go in the water, there is a stunning coastal cliffside walk that starts at the Icebergs. It’s about 3 miles if you go all the way to Coogee Beach, but there are plenty of options to bail out earlier (best options for finding a cab or public transport are at Tamarama, Bronte, Clovelly and Coogee). Bronte, Clovelly and Coogee are also lovely family-friendly beaches if Bondi is overcrowded.
The walk isn’t particularly strenuous, but there are some stairs and hills – especially in the first section between Bondi and Tamarama. Time this on a weekday if possible, as it’s popular with both locals and tourists so can get busy on the weekend.
Australia Beach Tips for Families
There are a couple of things to know about visiting the beach in Australia.
> Be sun-smart! Whether at the beach or touring around, always wear high-SPF sunscreen. The sun is extremely strong in Sydney, so better yet, follow the old Aussie adage and Slip, Slop, Slap! That means Slip on a shirt, Slop on the sunscreen, and Slap on a hat. You’ll be happy you did – trust me.
> Swim between the flags. The surf and riptides can be very dangerous, so lifeguards place red and yellow flags to mark the safest area of the beach. All swimmers (and waders) are advised to stay in the area between the flags.
> If you don’t want spend a full day at the beach, tack on a visit to Centennial Park (located in Paddington). Centennial Park is the Central Park of Sydney. It is immaculately looked after and there are generally many cockatoos and Ibises about. If you’re lucky you’ll catch sight of a rainbow lorikeet. You can rent a bike or surrey to pedal around the park or see it by horseback. Centennial Stables is just across the road near Fox Studios. A loop of the park is about 3 miles. There are a number of playgrounds for younger children throughout the park. My favorite is near the restaurant, Centennial Parklands Dining. This is a great place for breakfast before hitting the beach. You can opt for sit-down service or grab something quick from the attached kiosk. Information about the park and a free app that provides a walking tour can be found on their website.
Learn a bit about Sydney’s history at the Hyde Park Barracks Museum. This interactive museum, at the southern end of the CBD near Hyde Park, provides a day-in-the-life view of the convicts who first arrived in Sydney. Kids enjoy putting on the leg irons (especially on their siblings!), donning convict uniforms and following the “Rats’ Trail” for clues throughout the museum. Across Hyde Park is David Jones; stop in to their Harrods-style food hall (in the basement) for a quick treat.
After your visit, return to Circular Quay via Pitt St. From there, take the ferry to Taronga Zoo, which has something to offer for all ages. Little ones are happy enjoying the various native animals on hand, adults will enjoy the spectacular views of Sydney, and kids 12 and older can take part in an ‘Animal Encounter,’ a unique experience to get up close to koalas, penguins, giraffes, owls, and reptiles. The encounters are an add-on to general admission and take place between 11 and 3. You’ll leave with a special memory and a great souvenir photo.
If you can squeeze in a visit before or after Taronga Zoo, Balmoral Beach is a short taxi ride away. This is another of my favorite beaches in Sydney. It’s a beautiful little beach with excellent restaurants and of course excellent views. Head over for lunch or dinner — Bather’s Pavillion, Public Dining Room and Watermark are all fantastic on the higher end and Bottom of the Harbor does great fish and chips.
If you don’t book a bridge climb, this is a great way to spend the rest of your day. For those with a sense of adventure (and kids 10 and older) head back to Sydney for a climb over the iconic Sydney Harbor Bridge with BridgeClimb. Book ahead and time your tour for dusk so that you can enjoy the city as it lights up. Another alternative is to enjoy a free walk across the bridge using the pedestrian walkway on its eastern side. To get there, take the bridge stairs from Cumberland Street in The Rocks (this is another great area to explore if you have time) and stop by the lookout and museum in the South-East. The walk will take 15 to 20 minutes. Once over the bridge in Milson’s Point, you can opt to stay for dinner or return via train to Circular Quay.
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Editor’s Note: Photos by Leslie Rich
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