After a a few days of rest and relaxation on Hamilton Island, it was time to head to my last stop on the trip for six days in Sydney. During my whole vacation I had heard people all over Australia discuss the beauty of Sydney, so I was excited to see what the city was all about. I arrived on Christmas Eve and left myself a lot of free time to explore and get properly acquainted with Sydney. I was wowed by the beauty of the harbour, and the stunning beaches such as Bondi, Bronte, and Manly. It is very easy to see why people fall in love with this city and its surroundings.
THINGS TO KNOW
- Everyone told me that the city would be quiet on Christmas, but I never expected it to be as much of a ghost town as it was. Very little was open, and almost everyone flees to the beaches or the suburbs. Many things open back up on or just after Boxing Day, but it's best to be aware that if you plan to come over the holidays a lot of things will be closed.
- The CBD = Central Business District. It's the downtown area of Sydney and Australians throw the acronym around a lot. There is also a CBD in Melbourne.
- Quay is pronounced "key". This will help you when you're asking others for directions to Circular Quay which is the main ferry terminal in the city right on the harbour. There are also a lot of restaurant names with the word "quay" in it, so it's always good to know how to say it properly.
- While the downtown area of Sydney is beautiful and busy, most locals choose to live in the surrounding suburbs and vacate the city in the evenings and on weekends. I found this very interesting and in contrast to Melbourne where many people live downtown. After seeing all of the incredible suburbs and beaches around Sydney I can see why this is the trend. New complexes such as Barangaroo are trying to bring more residents back into the city, and it is still unknown how successful that effort will be.
WHAT TO DO
- Tour of the Sydney Opera House: This was a quick 45 minute tour, but I think it was well worth it to see all of the magnificent detail of both the outside and inside of the Opera House. It is the busiest theater in the world and is open 7 days a week, 24 hours a day, for 363 days a year. It's astonishing to learn about how much is happening in the building on a daily basis, including up to eight performances a day! The Opera House sees over 1.2 million visitors per year which means there is never a dull moment, except for on Christmas Day and Good Friday. Our guide was theatrical and outgoing, and gave us a good sense for the history as well as the current day happenings at the Sydney Opera House.
- Bondi Beach Walk: The full walk most people reference is from Bondi to Coogee, but that one takes over two hours and generally is tough in the oppressive heat. Instead, I took a quick 15 minute Uber over to Bronte Beach and started there by grabbing a juice and a piece of banana bread at Jenny's Cafe. Bronte is a beautiful beach with a big park, and it was filled with surfers and families when I visited. I then took the coastal footpath to walk to Bondi Beach which was about a 30 minute walk in total. The walk is a beautiful one, and allows you to stroll along the top of the cliffs so you can take in the beautiful view. I stopped at Tamarama Beach on the way and finally arrived at Bondi Beach which was packed! I had lunch at Icebergs Dining Room (more below) which is a must, and then walked around the beach a bit and put my feet in the water. Note: the water at Bondi Beach is freezing. Even in the middle of the summer. The walk is really spectacular, and Bronte to Bondi was very doable and allowed me to take in some of the most beautiful scenery along the way before I rewarded myself with a delicious meal.
- Take the Ferry to Manly Beach: Most of Sydney was shut down on Christmas Day, but I realized that the ferry was still operating and used that to my advantage. I hopped on at Circular Quay and went over to Manly Beach which was only about a 25 minute ride. The ride is one of your best opportunities to get some amazing pictures of the Opera House and the Harbour Bridge from all angles. Manly Beach is beautiful and worth a quick day trip to hang out and relax. There are also a lot of cute shops and restaurants around the beach.
- My Detour Afternoon: I really wanted to see Sydney from a local's perspective, so my travel agent set me up with Richard and Jon for a private afternoon on their "My Foodie Detour". This gave me a chance to really get an inside look at what the food scene is like for Sydney residents. They picked me up in style in their luxury vehicle Otto, and we started the day by heading to the suburb of Newtown to check out Campos Coffee which was one of the first specialty coffee brewers in Australia. I learned about how the café and coffee culture in Sydney started in the 1990's and how large it has become today. We then went to Brewtown for breakfast followed by stops in Redfern and the new Barangaroo development in Sydney which was home to the Noma popup. We checked out Spice Alley in Chippendale, had lunch at Nielsen Park Cafe & Restaurant, and toured through gorgeous neighborhoods such as Rose Bay and Vaucluse. It was an awesome day, and I really felt like I saw things I would not have otherwise seen if I had been left to my own devices. If you can snag time with the folks from My Detour while in Sydney, I highly recommend it.
- Bridge Climb: I will start by saying that I was too afraid to do this, but everyone says this is such an incredible way to see Sydney. If you are not afraid of heights, this does seem like a necessary activity. There are a few different options and you can do the climb at dusk or a sunset, but either way it will give you a pretty impressive vantage point to take in all of the sights.
WHERE TO EAT
I was in Sydney for just shy of a week, and a lot of places were closed due to the Christmas holiday. I barely had a chance to make it through my very long list of restaurants to try, so this is by no means all-inclusive or a comprehensive recommendation list for dining in the city. Instead, this is a list of excellent places that I was able to try that I would recommend including in your consideration set should you get the chance to visit Sydney.
If you're looking for the perfect breakfast spot, look no further than Bills. Chef Bill Granger has three locations in Sydney including Bondi Beach, Darlinghurst and Surry Hills. I arrived to the Surry Hills location around 10 a.m. and there was a large mob of people waiting outside to score a table. I was seated at a communal table and started the meal with a fresh squeezed orange juice. I ordered their famous ricotta hotcakes, and as I looked around the dining room it seemed that every other table was doing the same thing. These hotcakes did not disappoint! They were piled high with a large dollop of honeycomb butter on top, and bananas on the side. Their other classic breakfast dishes with eggs and bacon all looked great as well, but you'd be crazy to come to Bills and not at least try the hotcakes. Bills is located at 79 Hall Street in Bondi Beach, 433 Liverpool Street in Darlinghurst, and 359 Crown Street in Surry Hills.
I was invited to join my new friend Allan Campion (my private food guide when I was in Melbourne), and his friends for dinner at Billy Kwong. I had heard a lot of great buzz about this Chinese restaurant which recently relocated to Potts Point for a bigger location, and was thrilled I had the chance to meet owner and chef Kylie Kwong. In addition, I was lucky to dine with a well connected group that evening so we were able to try many things on the menu to get a real taste for the cuisine. We decided to leave the menu up to the chef and we added beverage pairings to round out the meal. Some favorites included the crispy salt bush cakes with chili sauce (pictured below), the pork belly pancakes, and clams in a spicy Sichuan sauce overtop of crunchy noodles. Chef Kylie mixes traditional Chinese food with Australian cuisine by drawing on the greens that are indigenous to the land. The meal was inventive and thoughtful, and the beverage pairings were bold but worked incredibly well with the food. Billy Kwong is located in Potts Point at 28 Macleay Street.
My guides Richard and Jon took me to the Brewtown in Newtown for breakfast on our My Detour afternoon. The space is located in an old converted garage with exposed brick and a hipster crowd. I am told the waits are long on the weekends, but we snagged a table pretty easily during the week even though the place was still crowded. While Brewtown is a cafe where they roast their own coffee, it is also a full service restaurant with a great breakfast menu. I had the homemade bagel with smashed avocado, roasted tomatoes, charred corn, and feta cheese. It was a great blend of flavors with delicious ingredients, and I also got to try the sweet potato bread in addition to their housemade juice. Brewtown is also known for their bakery and they make cronuts that are apparently quite popular. One theme of Brewtown and a bit of the food in Sydney: it's a bit behind the times and almost where New York was ten years ago. I don't say that as a snobby American, even my Australian friends were the ones to offer up this conclusion. It doesn't make the food any less delicious, it's just clear that Australia is trying to find its footing when it comes to their "cuisine", and their place in the culinary world. However, Australians deserve all of the credit for avocado toast. They've been doing it for years. Either way, Brewtown was a fun spot in a lively setting. Brewtown is located in Newtown at 6-8 O'Connell Street and there is also a location in Surry Hills.
Over my few weeks in Australia I learned about the large Italian influence on the culture and the food. I decided to try Fratelli Paradiso for dinner one evening which is thought of as an Italian staple in the city for classics. I arrived to the restaurant in Potts Point and immediately liked the buzzy vibe. The restaurant is a wine bar with dim lighting and tables filled with both young and older diners. I immediately felt at home when I saw the Arianna Occhipinti Frappato on the wine list. Arianna is a Sicilian winemaker who has been embraced in the Washington, D.C. food and wine industry, and I have come to love her wines. I ordered a glass as well as the lasagnetta for dinner. The kitchen was slammed, every table was full, and the staff was moving at a fast yet hospitable pace. The piping hot dish was delivered to my table with cheese bubbling over the edges and a perfectly browned top. The meal was satisfying, comforting, and everything I had hoped for in a delicious Italian meal. I finished things off with their homemade tiramisu and was thrilled to see how well Fratelli Paradiso delivered on the classics. Fratelli Paradiso is located in Potts Point at 12-16 Challis Avenue.
If you plan to do any version of the Bondi to Coogee walk, you should center your plans around having lunch or drinks at Icebergs. The restaurant and swimming club is situated on a cliff overlooking Bondi Beach with a breathtaking view that can only be believed when you are there. Icebergs is a fine dining establishment that serves Mediterranean and Italian cuisine. I was seated at a table next to the balcony and they kept the door open so I could hear the crashing waves and feel the cool breeze come through on a blistering hot day. I had a refreshing glass of Pinot Grigio and snacked on some burrata with bresaola, croutons, and lemon as well as gamberetti with lemon aioli. It was the perfect lunch with a view and was a nice break from the beach and sun. Reservations are recommended here, so make sure you book a spot in advance so you don't miss out. There is also a bar on the level below if you aren't up for a full meal which would still give you the chance to enjoy the stellar view. Icebergs is located at One Notts Avenue in Bondi Beach.
This is a Sydney favorite. Every single person who sent me recommendations had Mr. Wong on the list. It's a beautiful restaurant located in the CBD that draws an international crowd. I made a lunch reservation and they placed me at the chef's counter which was perfect for a solo diner. While the menu is great for sharing, it was also easy to order a few different types of dim sum for myself to enjoy. I loved absolutely everything I had at Mr. Wong, but the Xiao Long Bao (soup dumplings) were my favorite. I also had the pan fried chicken and chive dumpling and the lobster and scallop dumpling with caviar on top. Paired with a few glasses of a dry and crisp Sancerre, and I was a happy camper. My only regret was not trying the steamed BBQ pork buns, but I could only eat so much as a solo diner. Next time I go back to Sydney I'll be sure to dine at Mr. Wong with friends so I can try all of the dim sum. Mr. Wong is located at 3 Bridge Lane and it's in a hidden alleyway so it's easy to feel lost even though you are in the right place.
I was so lucky to snag a seat at the chef's counter on Christmas Eve at Nomad. It also happened to be the last night of service of the year for this hot spot in Surry Hills. Nomad is a modern Australian restaurant with Middle Eastern accents, but it is also a wine bar at heart with an extensive wine list including countless options by the glass. The staff is friendly and welcoming, and helped guide my meal decisions for the evening. In addition, I loved sitting next to the kitchen and watching the chefs plate, but in particular I was able to watch the pastry chef prepare the desserts which ensured that I saved room for something sweet at the end of the meal.
Given that the menu is focused on shared plates, the waiter suggested that I order two dishes under the "snacks" section of the menu, and one dish under the "small plates" section. This was the perfect amount to allow for dessert. Without dessert, I would have ordered one more plate. The grilled scallop with salt baked celeriac and celery heart was one of the most beautiful dishes I have ever seen. It was served in a shell and styled to look like a flower. However, I like that even though it appeared fancy, the instructions were to pick it up with my hands and eat it. I obeyed the orders. The smoked brisket empanada was a perfect few bites with the smoky flavor coming through and paired well with a touch of hot sauce on the side. Finally, after watching the desserts being made all night I ordered the one that not only looked the prettiest, but I was told was the most popular: the ice cream sandwich olive oil parfait with halva crumble, pistachio and honeycomb on top. I was craving something cold, and the creamy olive oil ice cream was delicately balanced out with the sweetness of the honeycomb. The crumble was beautiful with this dish, but I also could have happily eaten it alone. It was that good. This was such a happy first dining experience in Sydney, and I am so glad I was able to fit it in before they closed for the holidays. Nomad is located at 16 Foster Street in Surry Hills.
There are a bunch of different locations around the city, but there's one right in Circular Quay which is quite convenient if you are touring around Sydney. Everyone will tell you this is the best gelato in Australia, and they are not lying. I had the chocolate mint which is made with fresh mint and huge chunks of chocolate. It was the perfect treat on a 100 degree afternoon. Messina Gelato has numerous locations, but the Circular Quay location can be found on Alfred Street in Gateway Plaza.
I'll admit that it's a bit cheesy and packed with tourists, but come on. You're in Sydney and what better place is there to grab a glass of wine or a quick bite than under the Opera House overlooking the harbour and the famous bridge? This is the spot. Whether you're grabbing a drink, small plates, or a full meal the key is to find a spot with some shade since the sun in Sydney can be pretty intense during the summer, but no matter what you will be impressed with the scenery. I enjoyed a glass of rosé and a cheese and charcuterie plate one afternoon, and it was the perfect snack with a fantastic view. The Opera Bar is located on the lower concourse level of the Sydney Opera House.
I was most excited to try Restaurant Hubert as I had heard this was a new and exciting spot in the CBD serving French food in a sexy atmosphere. Those who know me well know that I love all things France, and that Le Diplomate is my second kitchen at home in Washington. Hubert only takes reservations for groups of 6 or more, so I showed up on the early side to ensure my friend and I could snag a table. From the outside it looks like an unassuming office building, but as you wind down the spiral staircase into the basement you come across a sleek French brasserie with plush velvet seating, live music, and candlelight at each table. It's hard to not be enchanted by just about everything at Hubert. My friend and I waited in a very short queue for seats at the bar versus a 2.5 hour wait for a table in the main dining room. However, both sections remain on the same floor and still allow all guests to enjoy the great live music. We split the oysters and the french baguette with butter, and then we each ordered our own plate of steak frites. For dessert we split the creme caramel which was perfectly creamy and decadent. Restaurant Hubert makes you forget you're not in Paris, and for that I will always love this spot. Restaurant Hubert is located at 15 Bligh Street.
There are so many noteworthy restaurants in Sydney, and I didn't get to try many of them. Others on my list included:
Thanks to Sydney for a wonderful week, and for wrapping up this amazing trip in a neat bow. I had such a unique experience and got the best of city, sand, food, and wine on these 20 days exploring Australia. It was the trip of a lifetime and something I will never forget.