When overseas visitors think of Australia, a lot of them tend to picture Sydney. Glittering waves crashing onto a cake-yellow beach sprinkled with bronze-limbed humans; the Harbour Bridge and the Opera House on a brilliant summer day; P Sherman, 42 Wallaby Way; kangaroos hopping past a billabong where our Prime Minister floats in an inner tube… Many a tourist has been deeply disappointed by the latter two not actually being a thing, but while Sydneysiders can get a bit blasé about the beach and the harbour, they really are exactly like the postcards when they’re at their best. If you’re visiting friends or family in Australia’s biggest city, insist on doing at least one touristy thing – they’ll secretly love you for it.
Of course it’s not all ocean-adjacent fun. Sydney’s fast-moving food and bar scene is full of gems, the City of Sydney’s devotion to big, free, communal outdoor events means there’s always a festival vibe somewhere if you know where to look, and further afield, whether you’re in North Sydney or Alexandria, you can find somewhere beautiful to relax for a meal or a movie, even (gasp!) without water views. Sydneysiders do love a new, hot venue or dish or party (and we’re willing to queue for it) but when we’re onto something good, we’re not shy about sticking with it. Here’s a long weekend’s worth of the good stuff.
1. The Opera House & surrounds
Now that people feel comfortable going to the ballet in tracksuits, it’s not quite as glam as it used to be. But hanging out on the terrace before a show with the moon beaming down is romantic as heck, and as many an awestruck performer will remind you from the Concert Hall stage, it’s an amazing, ridiculous building to get to stand in. It’s like going to see a band inside Big Ben.
And while Opera Bar might not be the best-value place in the city to grab a bite, it is the best place in the city to see the city. (And former Goodgod/current Secret Garden booker Adam Lewis is now in charge of live music and DJ lineups, so excellent free tunes now come standard.) Sitting along the water with a drink in your hand or wandering the concourse at sunset, as the day melts into the lapping water and the Harbour Bridge and the CBD get their sparkly evening dresses on, will make you feel like a human Instagram account. You haven’t been to Sydney if you haven’t done it.
2. Bourke St Bakery
The queues may be out the door but the goodies at Bourke St Bakery are worth it. The pastries, the tarts, the blackberry jam lamington – any queue-frustration, Monday-itis and lingering grudges against playground bullies melt away like butter when you bite into your treat. A pork and fennel or lamb and harissa sausage roll is mandatory if you eat meat. In fact, they might make you consider it if you don’t.
The Surry Hills shop is the original, but it’s perfectly acceptable to get your fix at the (often calmer) satellite locations. At the Potts Point store, there’s an extended food menu with both kinds of French toast: the eggy sweet kind, and croque monsieurs you’d wrestle a croc for.
Bourke St are also the creators of The Bread And Butter Project, a social enterprise that provides bakery training and jobs to refugees, recent migrants and other disadvantaged people. All the bread recipes are developed by Bourke St’s bakers, and all the profits from B&BP sales go back into making the Project better – something to feel extra good about as you tear carby chunks off that fresh, crusty sourdough bâtard.
3. Night Noodle Markets
This annual cluster of deliciousness is usually packed, and the food FOMO as you try and get one of everything can be lethal. But then you’re stuffing bao into your cheeks like an XO-sticky hamster, and the evening is balmy and the coloured string lights dance above your head and everything suddenly seems OK. The festival vibe, with live music, bars, chattering groups scattered haphazardly across the grass, and palm trees whispering, is one of the best ways to convince yourself that winter is really over.
While it’s only on for a few weeks each year, it’s also the food event that keeps on feeding. You can discover a devastatingly good noodle, dumpling or pancake from an unassuming eatery in a suburb you might never have visited, and hoard it away for your next food trek or Tinder date – and then casually be all, “Yeah, I know this great little place, killer gyoza”. It’s one of the quickest shortcuts to feeling (or at least looking) like a local.
4. Bondi Beach/Redleaf
As a great philosopher once observed, sand can be the worst. And if the temperature’s over 12° C, you might have an easier time getting into the actual housing market than snagging prime beach real estate for your towel. But then you leave the heat-thick air and get in the water, and even though nature tries to pummel you into the sea floor and the whole ocean sets up camp in your sinuses, you can’t help but be in awe of this ridiculously beautiful country. Traipse back up to your towel. Let the salt crust on you for that kind of awesome dirty-clean feeling. Get your hands on a Calippo, or a Splice, or a lemonade icy pole. Walk to Tamarama. Feel the serenity.
Of course, sometimes you just want to be near the water, dip your toes, and read on a beach towel without sand getting all up in your business, without the entire population of Sydney and without the effort. Redleaf in Double Bay is like your local bar, the only one in the neighbourhood that hasn’t been taken over by Korean sliders and twee beers. Redleaf is like Cheers, where everybody knows your name and you don’t have to give any damns at all. Just grab a book, roll your towel out on the grass and bliss out.
5. The Cremorne Orpheum
The Cremorne Orpheum is the most beautiful cinema in the city, a magical place to escape on a rainy day, and there are no XTREEM SCREENS anywhere. It’s everything a Picture Palace should be: a hodgepodge of restored, rebuilt and original Art Deco, warm neon, rich silks, sculptures and velour seats, with regular singalong sessions and “classics” screenings. On Mondays they do $5 tickets for students. They have a Wurlitzer that belonged to a movie house in Fresno from 1925 to 1973. They show The Room once a month. (They even provide spoons.)
The restoration, from the sandstone foundation to the original ceiling, is a true passion project, and every corner of this place oozes with love – not just for movies themselves, but for the whole movie-going experience. It might ruin modern cinema chains for you, but that’s not a bad thing.
6. Cow & Moon
When the Enmore institution took out a major global prize for their gelato, the only thing longer than the queues were the howls of outrage from local regulars who’d always known the best Wednesday night ritual was to order up a sujuk pide, bread and triple-dip from Sultan’s Table and then duck across the road for a take-home DIY pack striped with blackberry, strawberry-balsamic and mandarin gelato while dinner was baking. It’s calmed down enough now that this is once again a possibility; just keep it to yourself this time, OK?
And yes, yes, Messina is also quite good. You don’t need us to tell you that. But if you just want a really good scoop, without any pressure to get the gourmet tower of themed diabetes with the punny name, this unassuming local is a must visit for coneheads. (That’s what we’re calling ice-cream freaks now. Spread it.)
Confession time: I don’t much care for the Aussie pub’s standard burger-tower. If a burger needs to be held together with a skewer so the precarious stack of beetroot and fancy lettuce and meat-puck doesn’t topple over, you’re doing it wrong. What you have there is a vertical rissole salad.
So it’s a good thing Mary’s has rescued Sydneysiders from hitting up Macca’s for their squishy, saucy, perfectly-integrated American-style burgers. At the Newtown bar, tucked up behind the Courthouse, you can smash the hoppy house brew Slayer Juice and go to town on a Mary’s burger with special sauce, and lick cheesy, juicy burger-drippings off your forearm while you shout gleefully over the music to try and distract your friends so you can snake the last chunk of perfectly brined fried chicken.
If you find yourself in the city with a sore head one morning, though, help is at hand – Mary’s CBD takeaway joint makes the all of the above and a dustiness-conquering masterpiece of a breakfast burger. Pork-shoulder patty, house-made bacon, HP sauce, a hash brown – it’s the classed-up, dressed-down Sausage McMuffin of your don’t-wanna-get-out-of-bed-yet dreams.
8. The Grounds
Brunch is the best and most important meal of any day; queuing up at a hot brunch spot is guaranteed to give you an uncomfortable feeling that you’re The Absolute Worst. But it’s almost impossible to feel bad about waiting to get into at The Grounds of Alexandria – especially because you’re not standing around on a baking, crowded footpath in a line of ever-more disgruntled, ever-more hungry punters.
Instead, you get to wander around in the sunshine, investigating all the magical nooks and crannies and surprises of The Grounds. There are rustic little carts with nice candles and nuts and lemonades and flowers and trays of plums and other hipster-market goodies that you can mock while secretly planning your dream wedding to Chris Pratt there. And of course there’s Kevin Bacon the pig and the chickens and the goats, all sniffling and scratching about in their little pens. Out behind the leafy Grounds complex, there’s Salt Meats Cheese – one of the best fancy grocers in town. It’s basically Disneyland for people who love farmers’ markets.
And after all that, you also get to go inside and drink excellent coffee and eat damn good food, some of it grown literally metres from where you’re eating.
“Porteño” is a Spanish word for a resident of a port city – ehh, port, harbour, close enough. The brylcreemed bros behind tapas pace-setter Bodega launched Porteño in 2010, slightly before everyone and their mums bought a meat smoker, and Sydney still hasn’t fallen out of love with its inventive take on South American food – as you’ll realise pretty quickly if you get there after 7pm expecting to be seated right away.
Luckily, before you settle in at your table, you get to hang out in the bar, Gardel’s – with the vintage foosball table, more-awarded-than-Meryl cocktails and rich-retro décor. Then off you head to the dining room. If you’re one of those perpetually hungry people who was glad to see the back of the all-enveloping tapas trend, you’ll want to wear your stretchiest pants: between the pate, broccoli empanadas, sticky brussel sprouts, all kinds of gorgeous cuts of meat, chunks from whole animals slow-cooked in the asador (South American cowboy grate-BBQ) and treats for adventurous carnivores, like suckling pig head and veal sweetbreads… you won’t know what hit you, and you won’t care. This is what Sydney food looks like now: fun, indulgent, inventive, unfussy and generous. Get amongst it.
A recent fire partially gutted the beloved Surry Hills venue and its sidekick, Gardel’s Bar; aptly, like a deliciously marinated phoenix, the unflappable team will rise from the soggy ashes to a pop-up restaurant in Rushcutters Bay during the repairs; POPteño will open from January 28 with a special new menu.
10. Sydney Fish Market
For thousands (possibly millions) of Sydney households, a 5am trip to the Sydney Fish Market on Christmas Eve morning to fetch that most Australian of festive feasts – a literal mountain of prawns – is as much a December ritual as wondering where another whole bloody year went.
The Sydney Fish Market is basically heaven for pescavores – apart from the array of shimmering, gleaming heaps of all things finned, clawed and shelled, there are on-the-spot wonders like sushi that really needs a word for “fresher than fresh”, or the place that chargrills mornay and cheese directly on to an open scallop using a blowtorch. Even those less enthusiastic about fruits de mer can browse the gourmet greengrocers, fruit and flower markets, or just fill up on the best yum cha in Sydney at the massive Fisherman’s Wharf.
Of course, there’s also the seafood-market bit, where the haul is so fresh and cheap the fish are practically throwing themselves at you. Here’s a Fish Markets recipe that’s basically foolproof: grab a whole fish, or pearl-white fillets, swing by the bottlo for something cold and crisp and hit up the greengrocer for a bunch of parsley, a couple of lemons, some rocket and some foil. Find the nearest backyard or park with a barbeque, wrap up your catch of the day in loose foil parcels with lemon slices and torn-up herbs, and whack them on the fire for a few minutes until they’re just cooked. Ta-dah! You are Poseide-licious, lord of the seafood, deity of the harbour city. You’re doing it right.
(Lead image: Alex Proimos/Flickr)
By day, Caitlin Welsh is a freelance writer and editor. By night, she watches TV shows full of pop culture references, which helped her to get along in polite society for over 25 years without ever letting on that she'd never actually seen Cool Runnings. She has written for The Guardian, The BRAG, Mess + Noise, FasterLouder, Cosmopolitan, The Vine, Beat, dB, X-Press, and Moshcam; her first ever published review was in Esky (RIP).