Sydney Harbour & The Rocks
Officially called Port Jackson, Sydney Harbour is the focal point of Sydney and one of the features—along with the beaches and easy access to surrounding national parks—that makes this city so special. It’s entered through the Heads, two bush-topped outcrops (you’ll see them if you take a ferry to Manly), beyond which the harbor laps at some 240 km (149 miles) of shoreline before stretching out into the Parramatta River. Visitors are often awestruck by the harbor’s beauty, especially at night, when the sails of the Opera House and the girders of the Harbour Bridge are lit up, and the waters are swirling with the reflection of lights from the abutting high-rises—reds, greens, blues, yellows, and oranges. During the day, it buzzes with green-and-yellow ferries pulling in and out of busy Circular Quay, sleek tourist craft, fully rigged tall ships, giant container vessels making their way to and from the wharves of Darling Harbour, and hundreds of white-sailed yachts.
The greenery along the harbor’s edges is a surprising feature, thanks to the Sydney Harbour National Park, a haven for native trees and plants and a feeding and breeding ground for lorikeets and other nectar-eating bird life. In the center of the harbor is a series of islands; the most impressive is the tiny isle supporting Fort Denison, which once housed convicts and acted as part of the city’s defense.
The Rocks neighborhood is compact and close to the ferry terminals at Circular Quay. Sydney’s historic district is hilly and crosscut with alleyways. Some of Australia’s oldest pubs are here, as well as boutique restaurants, stores, and hotels. Pick up a walking map from the visitor center and make sure to get off the main streets to see the original working-class houses that survived development. Today, there are 96 heritage buildings in The Rocks. The oldest house is Cadmans Cottage, built in 1815, while the Dawes Point Battery, built in 1791, is the oldest remaining European structure. On Observatory Hill you’ll find the three remaining walls of Fort Phillip, built in 1804.
Sydney Harbour Bridge -- One thing few tourists do—which is a shame—is to walk across the Harbour Bridge. The bridge, completed in 1932, is 1,150 m (3,772 ft.) long and spans 503 m (1,650 ft.) from the south shore to the north. It accommodates pedestrian walkways, two railway lines, and an eight-lane road. The 30-minute walk from one end to the other offers excellent harbor views. From the other side, you can take a train from Milsons Point back to the city.
As you walk across, stop off at the Pylon Lookout (tel. 02/9240 1100; www.pylonlookout.com.au) at the southeastern pylon. Admission is A$11 for adults, A$6.50 for children ages 5 to 12. There are four levels inside the pylon, with displays about the bridge’s history. On level two, there are observation balconies on both sides, and when you get to the top, 89 m (292 ft.) above the water, you get panoramic views of Sydney Harbour, the ferry terminals of Circular Quay, and beyond. The Pylon Lookout is open daily from 10am to 5pm (closed Christmas Day).
Another very popular way of enjoying the wonderful views from the Bridge is to climb to the top. The Sydney BridgeClimb is an exhilarating achievement, and one you won’t forget. BridgeClimb, 3 Cumberland St., The Rocks (tel. 02/8274 7777; www.bridgeclimb.com), offers three climbs. The Bridge Climb takes you along the outer arch of the bridge on catwalks and ladders all the way to the summit. The Discovery Climb takes climbers into the heart of the bridge. You traverse the suspension arch and then wind your way through a tangle of hatchways and girders suspended above the traffic. You also climb between the arches to the summit. Both experiences take 3 1/2 hours from check-in to completion. An Express Climb is the same as the standard Bridge Climb but with fewer people and a quicker preparation, which allows you to discover the wonders of the bridge in just 2 hours and 15 minutes. Climbers wear “Bridge Suits” and are harnessed to a safety line. You also will be given an alcohol breathalyzer test and are not allowed to carry anything, including cameras (the guide will take photos of you at a couple of stops along the way and at the summit). Daytime climbs cost A$235 for adults and A$148 for children ages 10 to 15 on weekdays, A$10 more on weekends. Twilight climbs cost A$298 for adults (A$308 on weekend) and A$208 for kids (anytime). Night climbs cost A$198 for adults and A$148 for kids (rug up, it can be cold up there!). A dawn climb costs A$308 for adults and A$208 for kids. Children under 10 are not allowed to climb. Prices are slightly higher in the peak time between Christmas and early January. The Sydney Harbour Bridge Visitor Centre, where you set out from, has good displays featuring Sydney’s famous icon. It’s open daily 8am to 6pm.
Sydney Harbour on the Cheap
The best way to see Sydney Harbour is from the water. Several companies operate tourist craft but it’s easy enough just to hop on a regular passenger ferry The best ferry excursions are to the beachside suburb of Manly (return after dusk to see the lights ablaze around The Rocks and Circular Quay); to Watsons Bay, where you can have lunch and wander along the cliffs; to Darling Harbour, for all the area’s entertainment and the fact that you travel right under the Harbour Bridge; and to Mosman Bay, just for the ride and to see the grand houses that overlook exclusive harbor inlets.
Fast Action on Sydney Harbour
For a thrill ride, you can board a 420-horsepower jet boat, which zooms about on three high-speed waterway tours at speeds of up to 40 knots (about 80 kmph/50 mph), with huge 240-degree turns and instant stops. Harbour Jet (tel. 1300/887 373 in Australia or 02/9280 4662; www.harbourjet.com) offers a 35-minute Jet Blast Adventure costing A$65 for adults, A$45 for kids under 15, and A$198 for a family. It leaves at noon, 2:15, and 4pm daily. A 50-minute Sydney Harbour Adventure costs A$80 for adults, A$55 for kids, and A$243 for a family. It leaves at 10:30am, 1:15, and 3pm daily. An 80-minute Middle Harbour Adventure cruise costs A$95 for adults, A$70 for kids, and A$297 for a family. It leaves at 9am daily. Rides are fast and furious and pump with rock music. The boat leaves from the Convention Centre Jetty at Darling Harbour.
Another option is Oz Jet Boat (tel. 02/9808 3700; www.ozjetboating.com), which departs every hour from the Eastern Pontoon at Circular Quay (on the walkway to the Opera House). These large red boats are a bit more powerful than the blue Harbour Jet ones, but you might not notice the difference. This company offers a 30-minute Thrill Ride for A$75 for adults, A$45 for kids under 16, and A$195 for a family of four. It leaves every hour from 11am to 4pm daily (5pm in summer). Kids must be at least 1.2 meters tall.
Seeing Sydney Harbour Through Aboriginal Eyes
The Deerubbun, a former Australian navy torpedo recovery vessel, makes quite an impression as it pulls up to the dock near the Opera House concourse with speakers blaring out a recording of clapsticks and didgeridoos. The boat, which is owned by the Tribal Warrior Association (an Aboriginal-operated nonprofit organization that aims to provide maritime training programs for Aboriginal youths) offers an Aboriginal perspective of the famous waterway, and every visitor to Sydney should do this trip. As the boat putters past the Royal Botanic Gardens, the guide tells stories of the early Europeans and their hopeless farms, and the smallpox epidemic of 1789. Mixed in with the observations of the landscape are tales of the first Aboriginal tour guides, who took early settlers inland from the harbor, stories of soldiers, statesmen, and farmers who came into contact with the Aborigines, and much more. Tourists disembark at Clark Island to see cave shelters with roofs stained black from ancient fireplaces, convict engravings, and a natural fish trap. Two Aboriginal guides, their bodies plastered in ghostly white ochre, beat a rhythm with hardwood sticks and growl through a didgeridoo as they beckon tourists to the Welcoming Ceremony. Then comes a repertoire of haunting songs, music, and dance. Aboriginal Cultural Cruises depart either at 1pm or 3pm, depending on the time of year, from the Eastern Pontoon at Circular Quay (near the Sydney Opera House). The cost is A$60 adults and A$40 children 5 to 14. For more information or to book, call tel. 02/9699 3491 or visit www.tribalwarrior.org.