There’s always been a healthy rivalry between Sydney and Melbourne. Cosmopolitan Melbourne looks down its nose at Sydney’s brashness, while Sydney rubs its glistening harbour in Melbourne’s face. Antagonism runs so deep that, according to Australian legend, Canberra was established as the capital of Australia as a hasty compromise.
I grew up in Victoria, a train ride away from the heart of Melbourne. Suffice to say, I was “team Melbourne,” where the unofficial uniform is head-to-toe black. I would travel halfway around the world and live in two different countries (UK and Canada) before ever venturing 870-odd kilometres up the coast to Sydney.
It wasn’t until my sister and a good friend both moved to Sydney 10 years ago that I felt I had any reason to visit.
The first time I saw the Sydney Harbour Bridge (nicknamed “The Coathanger”), stretched across a stretch of wild blue water and juxtaposed with the billowing white sails of the Sydney Opera House, I confess it was enough to melt the heart of even the staunchest Melbournian.
My last visit to Sydney was my beau’s first. When it comes to taking in the beauty of Sydney Harbour, you want it to make it memorable. We caught a ferry from Circular Quay, sailing into the stunning harbour. Even in winter, sunlight skips along the water and the wind dances through your hair. The light feels different; the air free.
Travelling by ferry is my most favourite way to see this city. Even a short ferry ride will give you a taste. Take the ferry from Circular Quay (downtown Sydney Harbour) to Watsons Bay. Out on the open ocean, the ride offers up spectacular views of the South Head. Meeting friends and friends of friends, we spent the day at Watsons Bay doing nothing apart from drinking local beer in the hot sun and filling up on fresh fish and chips at the Watsons Bay Hotel.
I love that here, unlike in foodie Melbourne, food can be surprisingly unpretentious. Most of my most memorable meals in Sydney don’t come from a Michelin star restaurant. At Phillip’s Foote restaurant in The Rocks, the garden courtyard is dotted with industrial-sized barbecues. For $25, they’ll throw you a raw rump steak or a piece of fresh barramundi so you can cook your own — just how you like it.
For a lot of tourists, a visit to Sydney isn’t complete without a trip to the famous Bondi Beach. To be honest, I’ve never been. Early in my jaunts to Sydney, I was guided by my friend who lived in the low-key beach-side suburb of Coogee to take an early morning swim in the quieter McIvers Baths (the natural swimming baths were built in 1886).
On another visit, my sister took me to the Chinese Garden of Friendship for afternoon tea. Imagine The Secret Garden designed according to Taoist principles. Housed in Darling Harbour, the walled Chinese Gardens are a retreat from the rest of the world. The gardens are carefully designed to capture the principles of Yin and Yang. Secret paths with willow trees, lakes filled with Koi carp, turtles, and waterfalls. We sat in the traditional teahouse and drank tea and talked about family.
The beauty of visiting a city with family or friends is that you get to explore their city. Now my sister lives in the hipster suburb of Newtown (the traditional working class suburb is now home to artists, cafés, restaurants — and, this being Australia — pubs). If you want to party with locals, head to The Bank for a cocktail. Or settle in for the night and a fierce game of Connect 4 or Backgammon at Black Sheep. The hip bar with dark furnishings and chandeliers offers a small menu to go along with local beers and cider.
Each time I go back to Sydney, I discover a little more. Walking through the Royal Botanic Gardens gardens in the early morning with my two Canadian children (and reeling from jet lag), we marvelled at the morning dew caught in an enormous cobweb the size of a window. At dusk, flying foxes roosted in the trees. I still have a vibrant blue baby wrap, like the colour of the ocean, purchased from a local designer one Saturday at Paddington Markets. It hasn’t been used in a decade, but I hold on to it as a souvenir.
On my most recent trip to Sydney, I spent the last day walking along the coastal clifftop walk between Coogee and Bondi. After lunch, we stripped off to our bathers and braved the somewhat chilly water near Clovelly Beach. The day before I had been in Melbourne, the black-grey sky reflective of the local fashion. As I stood on the jagged rocks, a barnacle under my foot and the pale winter sun warming my skin, I thought, “I could live here.”
Jump on this Sydney history tour and take a step back to a magical time when rum was money and Sydney’s harbourside Rocks area was filthy rich with it.