How to Spend 3 Days in Sydney, Australia | First-Timers Guide
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Sydney showcases what the rest of Australia has to offer: stunning beaches, inspiring architecture, a vibrant and diverse food culture, and some of the most breathtaking nature within a couple hours drive. As Australia’s largest city, Sydney operates as both a thriving modern city but also as a relaxing beach town. Sydney has some of Australia’s most notable landmarks including the Sydney Opera House, Bondi Beach, and the Sydney Harbour Bridge. This guide details everything you need to know for planning your 3 days in Sydney as a first time visitor – where to stay, how to get around, and what to do.
Where to Stay
The Rocks & Circular Quay
The Rocks is old town Sydney, located right by the iconic Circular Quay Harbour with the Sydney Harbour Bridge and the Sydney Opera House. Many of the hotels and shops in the area are in beautifully historic buildings with an old-town charm. There are frequent open-air markets with handmade goods and street food. Some of the hotels in the area have wonderful harbor views, making them a bit more pricey. However, you can also find hostels and cheaper accommodations. If good restaurants and old-fashioned pubs are what you are looking for after a long day of sight-seeing, the Rocks is where you’ll want to be. Most hotels in this area are just a 5-minute walk from the Circular Quay Station and a 10-minute walk from the Royal Botanical Gardens or Sydney’s CBD.
Holiday Inn Old Sydney – A comfortable hotel in a historic building. This hotel has a rooftop terrace with amazing views of Sydney Harbour, complete with a spa pool. We stayed at the Holiday Inn and found it perfect for our needs. It was within walking distance to all of the major sights or the train station. We stayed here right before our cruise to New Zealand and the hotel is just a 2-minute walk down to the cruise port.
Four Seasons Hotel Sydney – For luxury with a view of Sydney Opera House. This hotel has all of the amenities you’d need – fitness center, spa, restaurant, swimming pool, etc.
Sydney Harbour YHA – If you are on a budget, the Sydney Harbour YHA is one of the very few hostels in the area. There are both shared and private room options, but either way, you are in the heart of the city.
CEntral Business District
If you want to be smack in the middle of the city, the Central Business District (CBD) is for you. This area is made up of government offices and large corporate buildings but also shopping centers and parks. Any direction you walk you will find some new exciting neighborhood to explore – Chinatown, Circular Quay, the Rocks, Kings Cross, etc. Being the main business district of the city, it is busy during the day but can be quite dead at night once the commuters leave. There will be a couple of options for late night dining, but you may need to venture to some of the more residential or touristy areas. The great location means you will likely be paying a bit more for your accommodations.
Swissôtel Sydney – This boutique-style sophisticated hotel has an excellent location and excellent views. A spa and fitness center are also included on-site.
Sydney City Studio Airbnb – For cheap accommodations in the CBD, look into apartments listed on Airbnb. You’ll be right in the middle of the city with access to a kitchen to save even more money.
Perfect for young families, Darling Harbour has become a tourist hot-spot with numerous hotel options and attractions for kids. You can find hotels with amazing water views that are close to the aquarium, plenty of museums, entertainment options, and waterfront restaurants. There are not as many train stations in this area, so you may need to walk a few minutes to get to the closest one. However, there are ferries that leave from Darling Harbour to connect you with the further out destinations.
Hyatt Regency Sydney – As Australia’s largest upscale hotel, the Hyatt Regency offers travelers a bit of luxury. The rooms are large with comfortable beds and an impressive bathroom. Many rooms have great views of Darling Harbour or the city of Sydney. We stayed here during our second trip to Sydney from New Zealand.
Ibis Sydney Darling Harbour – Located on the western side of Darling Harbour, the Ibis offers great views of both Darling Harbour and the CBD at the same time. It is also at a lower price point than the Hyatt Regency – meaning it is missing some of those luxury touches and large room sizes.
Siesta Sydney – This hostel is not only close to Darling Harbour but also close to the train station. This is the hostel for budget travelers who don’t want the party atmosphere of traditional hostels. It has shared bathrooms, laundry, and kitchen facilities, but the bedrooms are private.
Kings Cross and Potts Point
Once a red light district, the area around Kings Cross and Potts Point is now far more relaxes with Victorian homes and streets lined with trees. There is plenty of nightlife, cute cafes, great restaurants, and a more local feel. Compared to the previous three areas, you will not be quite as close to all of the tourist action – but that might be a good thing. Hotels should be less expensive, but still plentiful.
Charming Potts Point Airbnb – Stay in one of the cozy residential Art Deco buildings with this Airbnb. The location is perfect being within walking distance of the water and the Royal Botanic Gardens.
Heritage Home Airbnb near Kings Cross – If you are traveling with a family, check out this 1886 home able to fit 6 guests close to Kings Cross and Sydney’s CBD.
How to get to Sydney from the Airport
The cheapest and quickest way to get between the airport and downtown is by taking the train. Sydney’s airport has two train stations at the domestic and international terminals. The station is located just below the arrivals hall, near the baggage claim. Before entering the station, you can buy an Opal Card to pay for your fares. Opal Cards are Sydney’s contactless payment system for their public transit network. They work on all of the buses and trains in New South Wales. Normal fares range from $2.50 to $4, depending on distance. However, if you are leaving or arriving at the airport stations, an extra fee of $14.30 is added. The total cost to get between the airport and downtown is $16.77.
If you are getting an Opal Card for the first time at the Sydney Airport Stations or are topping off your cards, you will have to put a minimum of $35 on it to cover the journey from and back to the airport (regardless if you are going back to the airport during your trip). For our 3 days in Sydney, we placed $50 on our Opal Cards to use on the trains and buses. Unlike other cities, the Opal Card is free if you put at least $10 on the card.
There is only one line that services the airport: T8 that runs in both directions. After buying your Opal Card and tapping into the station at the gates, follow the T8 towards City Circle signs. Use Google Maps to figure out the best station to get off at for your hotel and if you will need to make any transfers.
The train takes 25 minutes to get between the airport and Circular Quay Station with trains leaving every 10 minutes. You can arrive at Central Station within 10-15 minutes.
Taxi or Uber
A Taxi or Uber will probably cost you between $45-$55 and will take 20 minutes, depending on the traffic. There are taxi ranks in front of the arrival terminals. For Uber, you will need to request a pick-up at the priority pick-up area.
If you are staying in Darling Harbour or a bit far from a train station, you may want to consider a taxi if you have 2+ people with considerable luggage. In most circumstances, the train or a shuttle is the preferred option.
You can also get a shared shuttle transfer directly to your hotel to avoid the hefty taxi costs. Shuttles typically cost $10-$15 per person with pick up at the terminals. This is likely the cheapest option, but you will be dependent on your booked shuttle arriving on time. Occasionally the shuttles run late due to traffic or bad organization. However, the shuttle will likely be more comfortable than taking the train and possibly less hassle if you have more than one piece of luggage per person.
Day 1: Bondi Beach & Royal Botanic Gardens
Many international and domestic flights arrive early in the morning. After you check-in to your hotel and drop off your bags, explore the best-known sights around Sydney.
Bondi Beach is about a 40-minute bus ride from Circular Quay (Route 333) with buses leaving every 8 minutes. One of the most famous beaches in the world, Bondi Beach is known for its great surf and large sandy beach. You can find surfers amongst the waves daily and a crowded beach when the weather is good. Depending on your interests, you could spend the whole day relaxing in Bondi or just as the start to a nice walk along the ocean.
Bondi to Bronte Walk
The Bondi to Bronte walk is one of the most beautiful walking trails in Sydney. It takes you from Bondi Beach to Bronte Beach passing Mackenzie’s Point and Tamarama Beach on the way. The walk starts at the Bondi Icebergs Club, just south of the beach. The coastal walking trail will likely be filled with other walkers or runners. There are numerous spots to stop and admire this famous coastline. Depending on how many times you stop, a one-way walk can take an hour (2.5km). The walk is fairly easy, but there are a few steep inclines and a few sections of stairs.
You can continue the walk all the way to Coogee Beach and Maroubra or stop at Bronte Beach. You can then take the bus from wherever you end up back to central Sydney to the Royal Botanic Gardens. We took the 379 Bus from Bronte Beach to Bondi Junction Station, where we took the T4 train to Martin Place Station (40 minutes). Check Google Maps for the best route when you get there.
Royal Botanic Gardens
Located in the heart of Sydney, the expansive Royal Botanic Gardens is an oasis in the middle of the city. Entry into the gardens is completely free. There are paths crisscrossing the whole park. It has several sections dedicated to different varieties of Australian plants and gardens. Sections for palms, roses, ferns, succulents, herbs, rainforests, etc and gardens dedicated to the different stages of Australian history from the aboriginals to pioneers to farming.
The English lawn is a perfect spot for a picnic while overlooking the bay. Pick up a sandwich at a nearby convenience store and eat amongst the locals on a lunch break.
The gardens also include the Government House of New South Wales, the Calyx (offering food and shopping and other events), an art gallery, and the Conservatorium of Music.
The Botanic Gardens sits right on the bay. You can sit on one of the many lawns overlooking the bay and watch the boats pass by in the distance. Walk along the seaside to the Sydney Opera House.
Sydney Opera House
One of the most easily recognizable buildings in the world, it is hard for your eyes not to be drawn to the Sydney Opera House once you see it. It is just as architecturally impressive as other opera houses found in Europe. You can spend your time exploring the outside of the opera house or go inside for a (paid) tour or a performance. Around the area are many pricey restaurants with beautiful views of the harbor and Sydney Harbour Bridge.
Walk along the Circular Quay harbor to get a different view of the Opera House, watch street performers, or go on a boat tour around Sydney.
Day 2: The Blue Mountains
For some natural beauty and an escape from the city, visit the Blue Mountains as a day trip from Sydney. Tall eucalyptus forests cover the rolling mountains. The area includes some strong sandstone cliffs and sculptures, canyons, and waterfalls. You’ll be enchanted by the beauty of the area with your time filled with many hikes in the National Park and thrills from the Scenic World adventure park.
For more details, read our post on A Day Trip to the Blue Mountains from Sydney, Australia
How to get to the blue Mountains
The two neighboring idyllic towns of Katoomba and Leura are the gateway to the Blue Mountains. The easiest, fastest, and most cost-efficient way to get to Katoomba is to take the train. The Blue Mountain Train Line leaves from Sydney Central Station at 30-minute to 1-hour intervals starting at 7 am. The train ride takes 2-hours as it passes through suburban Sydney up into the mountains. The train ticket costs $6 with your opal card.
You can also visit the Blue Mountains as part of a guided tour for your convenience or the benefit of a guide’s insights.
Once getting to Katoomba in the Blue Mountains, we used the Blue Mountain Explorer Bus to take us between the major sights. This hop-on hop-off bus allows you to do many of the one-way hikes in the area and avoid the hassle of renting a car or the less frequent public bus options.
Scenic World is a sort-of amusement park that provides a little more thrill to visiting the Blue Mountains. The complex is made up of four different rides – two different cable cars, a railway, and a walkway. You could spend the whole day at Scenic World re-riding the rides and walking through the raised boardwalk through the forest. Scenic world costs $40 and can be included in the price of the Blue Mountains Explorer Bus. Scenic World is great for families with small kids or anyone really. While Scenic World is not necessary for a great visit to the Blue Mountains, it does add a bit more to the experience.
The Three Sisters and Echo Point
The Blue Mountains national park has numerous hikes connecting different outlooks or notable sights. The most famous sight in the Blue Mountains is the Three Sisters, a set of rock formations overlooking a valley. One of our favorite hikes through the Blue Mountains takes you along the Prince Henry Cliff Walk to Echo Point, where you can see the Three Sisters.
After walking to Echo Point, you can take the bus to the start of your next hike at the Leura Cascades. After being dropped off at the Leura Cascades picnic area and parking lot, the hike takes you first to the Leura Cascades waterfall and then through the forest and along a cliff towards Gordon Falls. Along the way you’ll come across several lookouts out into the valley, some you will have to make short diversions to get to, others will be right on the way.
Day 3: Darling Harbour & Sydney Harbor BRidge
Our trip to Sydney was split, with the first two days done before we took a cruise around New Zealand and this last day from when we arrived back. Many travelers fly in and out of Sydney when visiting Australia and may choose to split their time between the beginning and end of their trip. For this last day, we stayed in the Darling Harbour area.
To the west of Sydney’s Central Business District is the waterfront district of Darling Harbour. This vibrant area of Sydney is great for pedestrians. Spend the morning walking across Pyrmont Bridge, strolling the waterfront, and enjoying breakfast or lunch at one of the many harbour-facing restaurants. The area also includes several attractions for families: Sydney Wild Life, the Sydney Aquarium, Madam Tussauds, and the Darling Harbour ferris wheel. The area also includes an Imax theatre and the Australian Maritime Museum.
From the harbour itself, you can take a ferry boat to Circular Quay or join a boat cruising around Sydney. To the south of Darling Harbour is the peaceful Chinese friendship garden that is definitely worth a visit. With everything in this area, you could spend a full day here alone. We were a bit less interested in the different museums and attractions, but spend over an hour walking around.
From Darling Harbour walk along Market Street towards Hyde Park. Hyde Park is a large park, surrounded by skyscrapers, that dates back to 1810. The park’s main walkway is lined with huge trees shading the path. On one end is the Archibald Fountain and the other has the Anzac war memorial.
Sydney Harbour Bridge Climb – There are only three bridge climbs in the world (Sydney, Brisbane, and Auckland) with the most famous and first of its kind being the Sydney Harbour Bridge climb. You are harassed onto a main rail and climb steps and steep ladders up the bridge’s main archway. You get the thrill of all of the cars rushing below you and an amazing vantage point only other climbers get to see. For the free or cheaper version, walk across the bridge at car-level or take the stairs up the bridge’s pylon. You will get a similar view of Sydney, just without all of that excitement.
Sydney Tower Eye – For those who are a bit too scared of heights to do the Bridge Climb or want a cheaper option, Sydney Tower Eye provides a panoramic view of Sydney 879 feet up.
Taronga Zoo – With all of the native Australian wildlife in one place, the Taronga Zoo is one the best Zoos in the world. The zoo is located across the harbor from Circular Quay and will require a ferry to access followed by a cable car providing an excellent view of the Sydney Opera House on the other side of the water. You’ll be able to see koalas, kangaroos, wombats, wallabies, kookaburras, and so much more.
Sydney Harbour Cruise – As a city built on the water, it is a shame to not get out and explore. There are many different ways to get out on a boat in Sydney, either with a thrilling jet boat ride or a relaxing dinner cruise.