This past December I, like many other Americans I know, began planning a trip to Cuba. I wanted to see the mysterious island of Castro, cigars and vintage cars. And I wanted to experience it all before the country became too “commercialized” and “Americanized.”
Yet I didn’t quite make it to Cuba. In fact, as standby travel would have it, I didn’t even make it close. Instead, in what turned out to be one of the most unexpected days in all of my travels, I found myself on a 15 hour flight to the largest city in the Land Down Under.
Sydney is a marvelous city–worldly, cosmopolitan and architecturally stunning. The city boasts an eclectic mix of beaches, parks and funky neighborhoods. It seamlessly integrates greenery into its cityscape and is perfectly positioned in a natural harbor. I spent three days in Sydney and divided my time between the city’s architectural highlights, its beaches and its nearby Blue Mountains.
I started my tour of the city with a visit to Australia’s most iconic manmade attraction—the Sydney Opera House. The world-famous Sydney Opera House faces the skyscrapers of Circular Quay and sits a stone’s throw away from the Royal Botanic Gardens. It is an innovative and dazzling urban sculpture, a masterpiece of 20th century architecture and one of the most recognizable buildings in the world.
From the Opera House, I made my way toward the imposing Sydney Harbor Bridge (the world’s largest steel arch bridge) via the Rocks–an early convict settlement that was once associated with drunk sailors and prostitutes. Today, the neighborhood has transformed into a pleasant area to visit. Filled with brewpubs, shops and cobbled streets, it is a great place to grab a bite to eat and wander around.
Australia is notoriously expensive and Sydney is no exception. In order to stick to my budget, I stayed in the University of Sydney dorms (a perfect budget option for those visiting Sydney during school holidays), ate at inexpensive eateries and took full advantage of the city’s convenient and easy-to-use transportation system.
Public transportation in Sydney centers on the reloadable Opal Card. The Opal Card is valid for buses, boats and trains. It is a pay-as-you-go system that caps off at $15 dollars per day ($5 on Sundays) and encompasses many of the neighborhoods and beaches within the Sydney city limits and beyond.
On my second full day in Sydney, I used my Opal Card to soak up the sun at the beach and enjoy the city’s coastal views. My first stop was the popular stretch of sand at Manly Beach. Manly Beach is vibrant and bustling. It is a magnet for shoppers, a haven for surfers and a launching pad for nature walks along the harbor shores. “Only seven miles from Sydney and a thousand miles from care” is a phrase often quoted when describing Manly. And it was immediately easy to see why. The beach feels worlds away from the city’s skyscrapers, its traffic and its suit-clad businessmen.
After our morning at Manly, I headed over to the famous Bondi Beach. Like Manly Beach, Bondi is a favorite place for tourists and Sydneysiders to hit the waves, lie in the sand and soak up a bit of Vitamin D. It is also the starting point of the Bondi to Coogee trail–a deservedly popular coastal walk that extends into Sydney’s eastern suburbs.
The coastal walk is six kilometers long and features stunning views, sandy beaches, neighborhood parks and rock formations. Along the walk, opulent buildings line immaculate crescents of golden sand and sculpted, sandstone cliffs face a tumultuous, azure ocean. The walk is a definite must when visiting the Harbor City.
Engrossed by Sydney’s natural beauty and greenery, I decided to spend the next day enjoying the nearby UNESCO-recognized Blue Mountains. Sydney’s public transportation network extends past the city’s western suburbs, to Katoomba. Katoomba lies two hours from Sydney by train and is an optimal launching point for hiking and admiring the sweeping mountain views.
The town itself is quaint and picturesque. Its downtown looks like the set of a Western film and I half expected to see cowboys sauntering by on their horses.
From Katoomba, I walked to some of the most recognizable viewpoints overlooking the Blue Mountains National Park. There, I marveled at the triplet spires of the Three Sisters, gazed out over the vast expanse of eucalyptus-covered land and set out to explore the park’s scenic trails.
Home to more than one hundred kinds of eucalypts and over 400 different animal species, this pristine wilderness is one of the most famous natural attractions in New South Wales.
Had it not been for the looming rain cloud, my inadequate footwear or the pesky flies, I would have likely spent more time hiking the trails that extend beyond the main observation areas. But as the flies and the weather and my shoes would have it, I headed back toward Sydney after a few hours in the Blue Mountains and spent my last evening in the city strolling around the Darling Harbor.
Sydney is full of things to see. And despite walking from sunrise till sunset to explore as many nooks and crannies as possible, my three days in Sydney barely scratched the surface.
I may not have intended to visit Australia this past December, but I thoroughly enjoyed my time visiting the attractions in Sydney and beyond. And while my visit to Sydney did little to quell my desire to visit Cuba, it was nevertheless the beginning of a wonderful and unexpected ten day jaunt to my sixth and penultimate continent.