With the Australian dollar continuing to perform strongly, we’ve put together our favourite ways to explore Sydney without needing to spend a cent. Our suggestions make the most of Sydney’s unbeatable setting on one of the world’s finest harbours, with ideas for making the most of all the natural beauty at your feet…
Sydney Harbour Circle Walk
Sydney is one of the most walkable cities in the world. Miles of coastline lie within the harbour itself, offering a diverse spread of geological features from high cliffs and headlands to deep inlets and sandy coves. Discovering the area on foot is a free, healthy and leisurely way to get to grips with the lay of the land.
Walking Coastal Sydney lists a range of impressively detailed walks on its website but we’re highlighting the Sydney Harbour Circle Walk for its variety of landscape, proximity to various public transport points, and many optional loops. The route focuses on the harbour itself – life on the water, islands, bridges, urban bushland and the city skyline. You’ll wander along parts of the foreshore, through bush, down into bays and up on to headlands, passing by some of the city’s best viewpoints and neighbourhoods. The walk in its entirety is 59km long and takes a suggested four days to walk in full, but is easily broken down into no less than 35 shorter loop walks (which include part of the main route plus additional sections) of anything from 15 minutes to four hours.
Royal Botanic Gardens & The Domain
Sydney’s Royal Botanic Gardens and the neighbouring parkland known as The Domain lie to the south and east of the Opera House, wrapped like a horseshoe around the tidal inlet of Farm Cove. The 30-hectare gardens are the oldest in Australia and are home to a mesmerising collection of tropical plants and flowers, including the rare and ancient Wollemi Pine. Special features include individual gardens for begonias, camellias and succulents, and the shady Palm Grove and Rainforest Walk.
Up until recently the gardens’ most famous residents were a large colony of Grey-headed Flying Foxes – a species of fruit bat – who according to the management of the gardens were responsible for destroying scores of trees and plants. Earlier this year, after years of planning and legal wrangling, they were controversially evicted by a bombardment of loud industrial noises and banging sounds to encourage them to find a new home elsewhere. Most are said to have taken up residence in Centennial Park to the south, but a stubborn handful remain.
Access to the gardens is free except for the Sydney Tropical Centre, which costs AUD$5.50 ($3.30 for children).
Sydney’s free museums and cultural venues
Several of Sydney’s major museums are free to enter, including the Art Gallery of NSW which offers access to its permanent galleries and most exhibitions. Complimentary guided tours are also available, as are free Sunday afternoon storytelling performances for kids.
Sydney’s Custom House is one of the city’s landmark buildings and is home to numerous exhibitions and cultural events throughout the year. The Custom House library contains Australia’s largest collection of local and international newspapers and magazines, offers free internet access and a quiet Grand Reading Room. There are two relaxing lounges on the first and ground floor, where embedded under the glass is an intricate 1:500 scale model of the CBD.
The family-friendly Rocks Discovery Museum uses interactive exhibits to tell the story of the establishment of the English colony and how this historic area came to be populated by whalers, traders and sailors when it was still a wilderness.
Over at the northern end of Darling Harbour, there’s free entrance to the main gallery and permanent exhibitions of the National Maritime Museum. Outside, an impressive fleet of historic boats line the wharf including the restored tall ship James Craig and Cold War submarine HMAS Onslow. Best-known is the spectacularly accurate full-scale replica of Captain Cook’s ship the Endeavour, which circumnavigated the globe between 1768-71. Tours of the boats’ interiors incur a fee, but guided tours of the Cape Bowling Green lighthouse are free.
Sydney Olympic Park
The home of the 2000 Sydney Olympics has been transformed into a major sporting and entertainment venue and is now one of the most popular recreational areas in the city. There are more than 35km of bike trails, scenic boardwalks and walking paths which meander through mangrove forest and woodlands, past rare saltmarshes, wetland and waterbird refuges.
Curious kids with a penchant for police work and deciphering tricky puzzles can try their hand at cracking a mystery code that even many a grown-up has failed to conquer. Just head to the Visitor Centre and pick up an essential kit and compass to help collect all the clues. And if that doesn’t tire them out check out even more things to do in the Kids in the Park brochure, many of which are free or under $20.
Eveleigh Farmers’ Market
Eveleigh Farmers’ Market takes place undercover at the listed Blacksmith’s Workshop in Darlington, a suburb of the Inner West. While the produce itself is obviously not free, the market sells a huge variety of farm-fresh and locally-sourced produce every Saturday and most stallholders willingly give out delicious samples. Expect to find a cornucopia of treats from handmade falafel and biodynamic sausages to gourmet ice-cream sandwiches and pure Australian honeycomb. On top of all that, it’s just a lovely place to browse. An Artisans’ Market full of arts and crafts takes place every Sunday too.
And don’t forget to check out our previous feature on Sydney’s best beaches – the very best freebie of all!
Virgin Atlantic operates daily flights to Sydney via Hong Kong from London Heathrow.
Header photo © Alex E. Proimos