10 free things to do in Sydney, Australia

While Sydney, Australia, is often thought to be one of the most expensive cities in the world, it is not impossible to travel there on a budget. Planning out some free activities for your trip can help curb your spending but still allow you to experience the city. To help with the trip preparation, here is a list of 10 free things to do in Sydney, Australia.

Hike the Blue Mountains

The area of the Blue Mountains is located in the central areas of the Sydney Basin and contains myriad hiking trails for people of all athletic abilities. You can do short strolls, intense all-day hikes, or longer treks that involve camping in the wild. Diverse flora and fauna inhabit the area, and deep valleys, jagged cliff faces, dark caves, streaming rivers, and dense rainforests help to diversify the scenery. There are also unique rock formations, like the Three Sisters, Orphan Rock, and Kings Tableland. So where did the Blue Mountains get its name? The area is covered in Eucalyptus Trees, which give off a mist of Eucalyptus Oil that appears as a blue haze under the sunlight. When you look from a distance, the mountains seem to be enveloped in blue smoke.

Click here for detailed directions on how to get to the Blue Mountains by car, train, and coach bus.
Stroll through the Royal Botanic Gardens

When I was living in Sydney, this was my favorite thing to do on a nice day. First of all, the Royal Botanic Gardens feature an array of natural trails and sites, like an Oriental Garden, the Australian Native Rockery, the Rare and Threatened Plants Garden, and the Sydney Tropical Centre. Moreover, it is located along the Sydney Harbour, giving visitors a peaceful ambiance as well as photo-worthy views of the Sydney Opera House and Sydney Harbour Bridge. For art lovers, public art and sculptures are scattered throughout the gardens, and those with talent often go with their sketch books to recreate the natural beauty of the place. If you’re interested in a free guided tour, they run at 10:30 AM daily and at 1:30 PM Monday through Friday, beginning at the Information Center.

Take a free walking tour with I’m Free

I’m Free Tours offers daily free walking tours at 10:30 AM and 2:30 PM. During the three hour tour, visitors will learn about the history of the city and culture (did you know that in its early days Sydney was a convict colony?) as well as see major sites like Hyde Park, the Sydney Opera House, St. Mary’s Cathedral, The Rock’s District, The ‘Rum’ Hosptial, and more. The tours begin in Town Hall Square on George Street. Click here to see a map.

Walk across the Sydney Harbour Bridge

Walking across the Sydney Harbour Bridge, the largest steel-arch bridge in the world, is a popular activity for both locals and tourists. The bridge was opened on March 19, 1932, after six years of construction and contains 6 million hand driven rivets and a surface area equivalent to sixty sports fields. Actually going across the bridge will give you a unique vantage point of the iconic landmark, which the displaced people of Europe viewed when coming to Sydney after WWII, as well as views of the city and harbour. While you can access the bridge from both sides, most people start their trek from the Rocks neighborhood, where you will be able to access the the pedestrian bridge path from Cumberland Street.

Take in the religious sites of Sydney

For those interested in learning about the religious culture of the city, Sydney has a lot to offer. St. Mary’s Cathedral is an English-style Gothic church and a symbol of the spiritual origins of the city, as it was the first Roman Catholic Church in Australia (the first stone for the project was laid in 1821). The stained glass windows of the church were made in England and bright mosaic floors are featured throughout the building. Fourteen large “Stations of the Cross” paintings, church bells, a fine organ, and the church crypt are also major features of St. Mary’s. On Sundays at noon, visitors can partake in free guided tours of the cathedral and crypt.

You can also visit the Sze Yup Kwan Ti Temple in Glebe. The temple was built in 1898 and is one of the only two temples that still exist in Sydney from pre-modern times.

View some art at a local gallery

Sydney is home to many excellent art galleries, some of which are completely free to enter. The Art Gallery of New South Wales, which showcases modern and contemporary art from around the world, is enormous, with five levels of galleries, rotating exhibitions, films, music, and more. The gallery also gives free one-hour guided tours. The Museum of Contemporary Art is also worth a visit, as it is the only art museum in Australia “dedicated to exhibiting, interpreting, and collecting contemporary art from across Australia and around the world”. Free guided tours are available on a daily basis. For something fun and unique, vist The Art of Dr. Seuss, where you can see limited edition prints, sculptures, and drawings by the legend himself.

Do the Bondi Beach to Coogee Beach walk

This is a very popular and worthwhile activity to do while in Sydney and even a bit historical as people have been doing it since the 1930’s. The walk, which includes many boardwalks but also a lot of uphill terrain, takes you along the coastline and gives you the opportunity to visit various beaches and parks, even a beautiful cemetery with Palm Trees, while taking in spectacular and natural views. At a little under four miles, walkers will visit the beaches of Bondi, Tamarama, Bronte, and Coogee while getting in a good workout.

Browse the many weekend markets

Weekends in Sydney feature an array of interesting markets that are fun and free to explore. The Rocks Market, an open-air fair located on the lower end of George Street on Saturdays and Sundays, features souvenoirs, art, gifts, jewelry, handmade goods, bath and body products, and more. The Paddington Market, open on Saturdays from 10 AM to 5 PM on Oxford Street, is also a great choice, with over 200 stalls of Australian-made goods. If you want something with more of a flea market feel, head over to Paddy’s Markets, which have two locations. One is open only on weekends and is located off Parramatta Road, a three minute walk from Flemington Rail Station and across from Sydney’s Olympic Park. The other is open Wednesday through Sunday and on public holiday Mondays in Haymarket on Hay Street, a five minute walk from Town Hall.

For a full list of Sydney markets, click here.

Be entertained by street performers and live music

Walking around Sydney, you shouldn’t be surprised by impromptu dancing, singing, and circus acts. If you’d like to heighten your chances of seeing a live street performance, there are a few places that are better than others. A visit to Circular Quay will almost guarantee you a live performance, as will a stop at Martin Place and the Central Station Tunnel. For some great live music venues that charge no (or a very cheap) cover, check out Scruffy Murphy’s on Tuesdays and weekends and 3 Wise Monkeys seven nights a week.

Get cultured at a museum

Museums, especially free ones, can be a great way to learn about the city you’re visiting while keeping your trip budget-friendly. The National Museum of Australia is free to enter and gives insight into the land, people, and culture of Australia. Another free favorite is the Rocks Discovery Museum, which tells the story of The Rocks area from its pre-European days to now. Also, on the first Thursday of each month it’s free to enter the Australian National Maritime Museum.

Sydney’s Darlinghurst neighborhood: charm, croissants, and cocktails

In a city chock-full of charming, Sydney’s Darlinghurst neighborhood is a tough contender. Not that it’s an easy choice. If it’s parks, quirky boutiques and specialty food shops, cafes, cheap ethnic or fine dining restaurants, bars, lattice-bedecked row houses, cliff-top beach paths, or Harbour views you want, there’s no shortage of neighborhoods that deliver.

Me, I’ll take Darlinghurst. This semi-residential Eastern neighborhood is wedged between the backpacker ghetto of King’s Cross, and the more sedate Potts Point and Surry Hills. What I love about Darlinghurst is that it’s possible to feel like a local if you make it your home base; something that’s not easy in tourist-thronged Sydney.

One of my favorite pastimes is looking at houses, and Darlinghurst has plenty of eye candy in the form of narrow, winding streets, sweet little row houses, and pockets of greenery. But the neighborhood is also a cornerstone for Sydney’s exploding “small bars” scene. Turn around, and whack! Another stylish spot to imbibe (and snack) has opened its doors.

Sydney also doesn’t want for coastal walking paths, and Darlinghurst is just a short stroll from the lovely Opera House to Royal Botanic Gardens Walk. Within minutes of checking in to my hotel, I was headed out for a run along the Harbour. It’s hard not to feel like the luckiest person alive when you have that kind of view for inspiration.

While Darlinghurst has a handful of accommodation options (depending upon budget, most visitors choose the janky hostels of King’s Cross, or opt for the diverse–and more costly–options in the nearby CBD).

%Gallery-124555%My pick is the groovy Kirketon Hotel, a member of Australia’s boutique Eight Hotels collection. Located on a leafy portion of Darlinghurst Road, it’s just steps away from bustling Victoria Street. After a full remodel in ’08, the 40-room Kirketon is now a swank goth/art deco/mod-hybrid. I love it, mirrored hallways, dim lighting, chandeliers, smokey color scheme, black facade, and all. It’s slick, sexy without trying too hard, and the bright, well-designed rooms are kitted out with comfy beds and modern amenities.

Despite the trendy vibe, the Kirketon is peaceful and not at all pretentious, thanks in part to the genuinely friendly, helpful staff. Come night, however, this hotel is hopping because of its award-winning bar, Eau de Vie (more on that, below).

Darlinghurst has lots of dining options, but for me, it’s all about breakfast. Right across from the Kirketon is La Petit Creme, a funky French coffee house serving delicious crepes, pain chocolat and other breakfast treats, and bowls of cafe au lait.

Arguably one of Sydney’s most beloved breakfast spots (equally wonderful for lunch) is Bill’s, owned by acclaimed chef Bill Granger. Granger is one of a handful of Aussie chefs who helped put “Mod Oz” cuisine on the map. Expect bright, seasonal fare inflected with Mediterranean and Asian flavors. It’s a total travel article cliche, but the ricotta hotcakes with bananas and honeycomb butter, sweet corn fritters, or toasted grain cereal with vanilla-poached fruit, yogurt, and honey really are the best way to start a day of sight-seeing.

My new breakfast (lunch/snack/drunken late-night munchies) obsession, however, is Infinity Sourdough Bakery, located around the corner from the Kirketon. I’m totally convinced that anything that emerges from the ovens at this adorable takeaway will be amazing. Four visits in a single day did nothing to disprove this theory (not counting other carbo-loading sessions). The almond croissants are life-changing, but the pizzettas, ham and cheese turnovers, bread, and other pastries are also excellent.

…and Drinking
Wherever you lay your head, be sure to stop by Eau de Vie, 2010’s Australian Bar Awards Bar of the Year. It’s a living room-like spot on the Kirketon’s ground floor, with a moody, Prohibition-era vibe (I’m of the “it can’t be a speakeasy if it legally sells cocktails” school of thought, because I’m a pain in the ass like that.)

Eau de Vie specializes in seasonally-changing, contemporized classic cocktails that, if a bit precious and theatrical, are crafted with the utmost precision. If you’re interested, one of the friendly mixologists–all of whom possess encyclopedic knowledge–will tell you everything you might care to know about your drink. Said drinks don’t come cheap, although there are plenty in the $16USD range. The $32USD syrupy smooth Old Fashioned made for me by “Dr. Phil,” however, was without a doubt the best I will have in this lifetime. Why so spendy? Ron Zacapa Centenario 23 (as in years-old) rum, housemade bitters, a puck of ice compressed to order in a copper Tyson ice mold, and open flame were involved.

In the small bar category, Darlinghurst boasts some of Sydney’s favorite newbies (all of the following serve bar snacky food/small plates). At The Passage, expect refreshing libations such as the Professor Plum (plums macerated in Queirolo plum pisco, shaken with lemon juice and Madagascan vanilla syrup), or a Coconut and Kaffir Lime Daquiri, served up with a garnish of pandan leaf.

Lotforty, a miniscule candlelit tapas bar, offers up jugs of sangria ($20AUD), as well as cocktails, and fried, grilled, and crispy treats such as “bbq” King Prawns with orange, fennel, and mint salad. At wine bar Love, Tilly Devine (named after an infamous neighborhood Madame of the 1930’s), the extensive list of international offerings is meticulously chosen and categorized. Sip with slow-roasted octopus with new potatoes and aioli, Macleay River rock oysters, or Burrawong duck liver pate with sweet and sour onions.

Technically, Sticky Bar is in Surry Hills (known for its eclectic shops and ethnic restaurants), just a short walk from the heart of Darlinghurst. Sticky is such a funky, sexy, odd little space I can’t help but include it. It’s a bitch to find (especially after a few drinks), as you need to enter through sister restaurant Table for 20, and climb a narrow flight of stairs to enter the bar. The decor is decrepit-Victorian-mansion-meets-Old-Hollywood: overstuffed vintage velvet chairs, leather ottomans, ornate chandeliers, exposed brick, and shadowy nooks and crannies. Order a glass of domestic wine or a wickedly strong cocktail from the blackboard menu, settle back, and watch the scene (the music’s loud).

Darlinghurst isn’t the best place if you’re a bargain hunter (try the vintage clothing stores in uni-district Glebe, instead). But if you have the cash (or are a bit of a masochist), you’ll find no shortage of on-trend boutiques featuring up-and-coming Aussie clothing designers, shoes, high-end vintage, luxe skincare products, book stores and whimsical home decor. Darlinghurst Road, Victoria Street, and Liverpool Street also have a fair number of shops. I like Blue Spinach, a “luxury consignment” store where you can score affordable treasures if you do some digging. Popular boutiques include Diederic the Cat, which offers American and Euro fashions, and Alfie’s friend Rolfe. This self-described “little Aladdin’s Cave of Australian designer labels” is heaven if you’re looking for quality sartorial souvenirs.

Getting There
Qantas flies non-stop to Sydney out of LAX and DFW, with extensive code share connections available from major cities throughout the country through the partnership with American Airlines. Tourism Australia’s website will provide you with all the information you need to plan a holiday.

Click here to watch one of Eau de Vie’s mixologists create a signature cocktail (don’t miss Dr. Phil’s “Whisky Blazer!”)

[Photo credits: cottage and Oxford St., Flickr user iambents]