Best Things to Do in Sydney – Explore Sydney in 4 Days
How to plan a 4-day itinerary that includes all the best things to do in Sydney? You will want to see Sydney’s world-famous architectural landmarks surrounding the Harbour, learn about Sydney’s history and Aboriginal culture, chill out on iconic Bondi Beach and maybe make a refreshing day trip into the renowned Blue Mountains… and so much more. Not least, you may want to pay a visit to the fabulous Taronga Zoo featuring a large number of unique Australian animals!
Ainnelise Niyvold Liundbye UPDATED: 13 FEB 2020
So what is the best way to get to see the essence of Sydney if you are left with 4 days in the Australian metropolis – which things to include and how to do it?
We have, based on our own experience, made up this itinerary for the Sydney area including both topmost sights and awesome things to do to get all the best of Sydney in just 4 days. The things we have included are based on our best experiences and judgment about what are awesome things to do in Sydney. In case you want to include other things in your itinerary, feel free to change this itinerary accordingly!
Day 1: Best things to do in Sydney – Sydney Harbour area
On your first day you will explore the area around Sydney Harbour. You will find a number of significant sights within a very short distance!
1. The Rocks
You will start the day taking a stroll in The Rocks on the western side of Circular Quay which is Sydney’s vibrant precinct featuring old sandstone buildings, uneven cobblestone streets and a wealth of galleries, artisan markets, trendy cafés and rustic restaurants. It is also the precise location where the European colonists once settled when they arrived in Australia towards the end of the 18th century.
Pass by the still existing historic buildings: Susannah Place, 58 Gloucester Street and Cadman’s Cottage from 1816 in George Street. Cadman’s Cottage is today the second-oldest residential building in Sydney, once a sailor’s home and a water police station. Susannah Place is now a museum, but in 1844 when it was built, it served as a grocery store and workers’ cottages.
To go even further back in time, visit the Rocks Discovery Museum (it is free). Here you will go all back in history with exhibitions right from the pre-European period before 1788, the colonist period (1788-1820), the port period (1820-1900) and modern Sydney (1900 onwards). You will get the chance to learn about the Aboriginal heritage in the Sydney region. It is a fine museum providing you with the historical understanding of Sydney’s development from a primitive, indigenous society to the world-class metropolis it is today – and of how the original Cadigal people were driven out of Sydney by the European colonists.
2. Sydney Opera House
You will now set foot on the stairs of the famous Sydney Opera House, designed by the Danish architect Jørn Utzon and completed in 1973 by Peter Hall. This specific architectural design was chosen among 233 contributions submitted in a design competition! Construction was initiated in 1959 and expected to take 4 years. However, it took 14! Not surprisingly, it is today a UNESCO World Heritage Site with over 8 million annual visitors!
When the Sydney Symphony Orchestra plays in the Concert Hall, the temperature is required to be exactly 22.5 degrees centigrade (72.5 degrees Fahrenheit) – to ensure that all instruments play in tune!
If you wish to take a tour inside the Opera House, you may want to book online ahead of going. There is a whole range of tours to choose from. A standard tour takes approximately 1 hour.
Alternatively, you can opt to enjoy the stunning architecture from the stairs outside and make some unique photos of the iconic Sydney landmark. Notice how the architect has played with the light in constructing the white tile shells. The tiles are covered with a glossy glaze developed with the Höganäs ceramics factory in Sweden which was very experienced in such solid tile productions. It gives the construction a very special shine.
After soaking up the atmosphere around the Opera House, it is probably by now time to grab some lunch in one of Sydney’s plentiful restaurants.
3. Royal Botanic Gardens
Now you get the chance to spend a few hours chilling out in the unique Royal Botanic Gardens. You will find Australia’s oldest botanic garden just behind the Sydney Opera House.
The Gardens really have a bit of everything. In particular, you can locate local plants and fruits that for hundreds or even thousands of years have been used by the Aboriginal Cadigal people as food ingredients – and for medical purposes to produce native medicine. You may well consider doing a guided tour to get insight into these special plant species and maybe try some real bush food!
There is a whole range of free guided tours, as well as self-guided tours inside the Gardens, so do check out the Royal Botanic Gardens’ website beforehand. There are so many exciting things to discover!
The park is a lovely green space in the midst of bustling Sydney. You will most certainly be overwhelmed by the number of species and the diversity of the plants and flowers. Stay for a couple of hours exploring, enjoying the Lotus Pond and the views to the harbour, the Opera House and the Harbour Bridge from the park lookouts.
4. Sydney Harbour Bridge
Bridge walking is next on your agenda!
Among the best things to do in Sydney is also a stroll on the Sydney Harbour Bridge from where you will get stunning panoramic views of Sydney. This is an experience you absolutely must allow yourself time to have!
Notice the impressive steel construction – it is the largest steel arch bridge in the world! 79% of the steel used for the construction was imported from England. It took about 8 years to complete the iconic bridge which was inaugurated in 1932. Today, it is one of the top landmarks in Sydney.
If you want to have a unique bridge experience, you may beforehand have made a reservation for a guided tour like the BridgeClimb Sydney, or you may want to ascend to the Pylon Lookout, providing you with the opportunity to enjoy outstanding views. Take into account that a guided tour/climb may take up to 3.5 hours depending on your choice.
If you just do the bridge walk, it will take you 15-30 minutes in each direction – still allowing you to enjoy the panoramic views and get the coolest photos through the steel construction. Ascending the bridge is free. You can get up on it on the eastern side on Cumberland Street.
Alternatively, you can opt to cycle, drive or take the train over the famed bridge. There are both pedestrian walkways, railroad tracks and a highway, so you really have all kinds of options to cross the Coathanger as it has been named by the Sidneysiders!
Back in the Rocks, it is now obvious to look for a restaurant here to have dinner! Clearly, there are lots of dining places to choose among – and they come in all styles, price levels and cuisines. There is really something for any taste – whether you are looking for a high-class restaurant, a fast food-like experience or a truly historic pub.
Day 2: Best things to do in Sydney – Zoo and beach
5. Taronga Zoo
No visit to Sydney without a visit to the renowned Taronga Zoo just across the harbour. It excels at featuring a wealth of Australian animals you cannot really see in a zoo anywhere else in the world – including a large number of marsupials!
Easiest way to get to the Zoo from Sydney CBD is to take the frequent Sydney Ferries from Circular Quay (usually departing every 30 minutes – but check with the website!). You may already buy your Zoo tickets on the Taronga Zoo website – or you can do it at the Wharf 4 ticket booth at Circular Quay where the ferry departs from. It is a short ferry ride – just 12 minutes across the waters – but it is an excellent sightseeing tour in Sydney’s harbour. You will get to see the Opera House from various angles!
You can even bring along a picnic to Taronga Zoo, if you like. The Zoo features a dedicated picnic area, so you have this lunch option. Alternatively, buy your lunch at the Food Market inside the Zoo.
First thing to do when you arrive at the Zoo is to take the cable car (included in your entry), the Sky Safari, from the terminal up to the very top. The Zoo is located on a hillside, and it is of course very convenient that you will only have to walk downhill during your visit!
The cable car will take you soaring over the entire Zoo – and you will both view the animals from above and at the same time get breathtaking views over the harbour and Sydney skyline! Check out the Zoo map.
If you haven’t got the time to see all the animals in the Zoo (which is understandable since they are plentiful – about 4,000!), do concentrate on the native Australian species that you cannot easily see anywhere else – and which you maybe haven’t been lucky enough (yet) to see in the wild in Australia! Go for the koalas, kangaroos, tree kangaroos, crocodiles, Tasmanian devils, emus, cassowaries, platypuses and wombats – just to mention a few.
On Taronga’s website for today’s animal encounters, shows and talks, you may find inspiration for zoo activities!
6. Bondi Beach
After the zoo experience you will now find your way to another iconic Sydney site. Catch the train / bus to Bondi Beach located approximately 7 km (4.5 miles) east of Sydney CBD – possibly with a change at Bondi Junction.
Bondi Beach is the popular and world-famous beach where Sydneysiders can enjoy a plunge in the crystal blue sea, ride the waves on a surfboard or simply chill out on the golden sandy beach. The sea is warm enough to have a dip all year round!
The reality TV show ‘Bondi Rescue’ gave Bondi Beach considerable fame abroad and has drawn international attention and many international visitors to the popular Australian beach!
The term ‘Bondi’ has its origin from an Aboriginal word meaning ‘water breaking over rocks’. Until 1882 Bondi Beach was privately owned and not accessible to the public. Additionally, it was not easy to reach the beach at all since there was no public bus service. Around 1930 an electric tram served the crowds arriving at the beach on a sunny day. Today, the trams have been substituted by a regular bus service.
In the very early days it was even forbidden to swim at Bondi Beach! A surf lifesaving club was opened in 1907 due to the strong waves that swimmers and surfers exposed themselves to. The lifesavers’ presence was justified on February 6th 1938, also known as Black Sunday. Massive waves wiped hundreds of people into the sea, and the lifesavers became true heroes in rescuing them.
There is also today some danger involved in swimming at Bondi. The lifeguard professionals save a large number of both swimmers and surfers every year, so you’d better be careful, if you make up your mind to take a dip!
Bondi Beach is also the place to do some people-watching. The Sydneysiders come here regardless of age and spend a leisurely day at the sea. Notice the vibrant graffiti on the walls along the beach – it is one of Bondi’s cultural facets.
Afterwards, take a stroll along the main promenade, discover the small shops and trendy restaurants.
If you are here during the humpback whale migrating season, find an elevated spot – maybe on the sloping grounds to the right – and look out for the huge animals playing in the sea! Another excellent spot to observe the giant marine mammals is at the Ben Buckler Point lookout.
If you are more up to an active experience, you may consider the Bondi to Coogee walk! It is a 6-kilometre (4-mile) or 2-hour walk along the coast with breathtaking views, cliffs, idyllic beaches and bays, as well as small parks for a picnic. Due to the rocky terrain there are some steep stretches of path and staircases along the way, so you’d better wear appropriate shoes!
Alternatively, you may choose to stay all evening at Bondi Beach and have your dinner here in one of the cosy restaurants.
Day 3: Best things to do in Sydney – Art and culture
Today you will dive into Australian art and explore the Sydney culture with a walk through some of the eastern Sydney districts.
7. Art Gallery of New South Wales
Just south of the Royal Botanic Gardens you will find the Art Gallery of New South Wales – one of the largest galleries in Sydney and Australia. Admission is free to the general exhibition showcasing Australian art, as well as European and Asian art. The Gallery’s first public exhibition dates back to 1874!
This is your chance to see great Australian art covering the periods from European settlement to contemporary art. The contemporary collection initially nearly exclusively represented Australian artists, but since then it has opened up to include international art as well.
The museum features some amazing art works with Aboriginal inspiration. The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander gallery, also known as the Yiribana Gallery, features works from the unique Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander collection. If you are in general fascinated by Aboriginal art, you absolutely have to see this part of the museum!
In olden days the Cadigal clan lived around the harbour in Sydney and was dependent on the sea for food, fishing fished with spears and kayaks. The tribe was one of seven tribes or clans living in coastal Sydney speaking the same language, believed to be a dialect of the Dharug language. They were also known as the Eora people.
In the Eora people’s language ‘Eora’ means ‘people’ or ‘of this place’, and ‘Yiribana’ means ‘this way’ (referring to the name of the gallery). It is therefore an acknowledgement of the location of the Art Gallery on the land of the Cadigal people. In the gallery artists from Aboriginal communities all over Australia are represented, as well as their works which manifest their cultural heritage.
Continue to the Australian galleries which present some of the finest Australian art. Sculptures and paintings by artists like Ralph Balson, Dorrit Black, John Brack, Grace Crowley and Russell Drysdale among others are on display. You will also find Aboriginal-style bark paintings by artists like Munggurrawuy Yunupingu and Mawalan Marika.
The collection of colonial and 19th-century Australian works is very impressive – and you should definitely take a look in here!
At the end of your visit you may want to have lunch in the gallery restaurant ‘Chiswick at the Gallery’ with stunning views or in the gallery café.
In the afternoon you will be exploring the eastern Sydney districts Woolloomooloo, Potts Point and Darlinghurst on foot. Up to the 1840s it was to some extent farmland here, but the European colonists divided the land into suburbs, now being Woolloomooloo, Darlinghurst, Potts Point and Surry Hills.
A walk through these districts is an interesting glimpse into the city development throughout the last centuries.
Woolloomooloo is situated a few kilometres east of the Sydney CBD and west of Potts Point. The word ‘Woolloomooloo’ is an Aboriginal term of which several interpretations have been suggested: ‘place of plenty’ or ‘young black kangaroo’. Woolloomooloo is a former dockland area and was in the beginning home to rich merchants with imposing houses.
Towards the end of the 19th century, factories appeared, and Woolloomooloo changed and became a Sydney working-class district with terraced houses and wrought iron balconies. You will notice these stunning houses on your way through the Sydney suburb.
Woolloomooloo has during recent years undergone a change through the influx of new, more affluent residents, although public housing to some extent still exists here among the new residential developments. It has a suburb character with an ethnic twist. You will also spot the occasional renovated industrial building which today serves other purposes – like a school.
On the harbour side, Woolloomooloo features the incredible construction of Woolloomooloo Bay Finger Wharf – originally built (1911-1915) as a wool-shipping timbered-piled wharf in Edwardian style for the sheep manufacturing industry. In the 1980s it was close to demolishment due to its dilapidated state, but the Green Ban in 1991 spared it – together with many other old buildings. It has been renovated and is now home to fine restaurants and is the upmarket residential dockside area in Woolloomooloo. You may want to try the iconic pie shop Harry’s Café de Wheels!
The suburb therefore today appears as an interesting mix between 1880 Victorian terrace houses along the laneways and the more modern parts with trendy restaurants and cafés.
9. Potts Point
Continue into the adjacent Potts Point, a more upmarket area, also set in historic surroundings. It is one of Sydney’s oldest neighbourhoods, named after the landowner Joseph Potts. Here you will find both the classic Sydney heritage character, townhouses, tree-lined streets, art deco and modern architecture. It is a bohemian suburb with a vibrant nightlife.
On the fringe of Woolloomooloo, Darlinghurst and Potts Point, you will arrive at King’s Cross. This is where designer fashion shops and upscale hotels lie side by side. The very large Coca Cola neon billboard from 1976 has become another landmark in the Sydney streets!
In the late afternoon, you will cross over to Darlinghurst, further to the south.
Darlinghurst was named after the former Governor Ralph Darling from the 1820s. Initially, Darlinghurst was a residential area of terraced houses and the location for many public institutions like the Darlinghurst Gaol and the Courthouse, as well as schools and industrial sites. Although the neighbourhood was already at that time somewhat mixed with both poor and rich, singles, families, workers… it was still quite a reputable part of Sydney.
However, from the 1920 s the environment turned more doubtful with gangs of criminals, drug trade and betting. It lasted until the middle of the century. Then, little by little, a process of gentrification has taken place. The suburb has changed with the migration of students, professionals, bohemians and artists who have replaced the working-class majority, the prostitutes and the drug traders.
The intricate history has contributed to the unique and vivid character that the neighbourhood has today – with a great vibe! As never before, it is now an attractive and popular part of Sydney – and as a consequence rents have increased considerably!
In Darlinghurst you will find many restaurant options for tonight’s dinner! This is one of Sydney’s most fashionable districts, featuring immense shopping facilities, top trendy bars, restaurants, entertainment venues and nightlubs – and it is especially popular with young people!
Day 4: Best things to do in Sydney – Day trip to the Blue Mountains
Today you will take the train from Sydney Central Station to the Blue Mountains west of Sydney. There is a direct line all the way to Katoomba taking approximately 2 hours. If you happen to go on a Sunday, you may even be able to take advantage of the Opal card Sunday offer – where you can use the public transport all day long for just a few dollars. It is also valid on the trip into the Blue Mountains! You’d better set off from Sydney as early as possible in the morning to get the most out of your day in the mountains – preferably no later than 8:30 am. Check out the train timetables.
You will make two stops in the Blue Mountains. The first one is at Glenbrook and the second one is in Katoomba. Today’s itinerary will both take you to places with spectacular views in the Blue Mountains and take you on a cool hike to intriguing Aboriginal cave rock art in the lush forest.
You may definitely consider bringing along a picnic for lunch – since there are not many other lunch options on your morning hike!
11. Glenbrook / Red Hands Cave
Halfway to Katoomba you will get off the train at Glenbrook Station. From the station walk a bit back in the direction the train came from, follow the road and the bridge over the rails to get into the National Park. Continue to the car park where you will find a map of the area and the tracks.
You will be doing the loop Red Hands Cave walking track which is an 8 km (5 miles) hike – following the very same trail that the Aboriginals used during thousands of years. It is a fascinating route where you will experience varied nature like remarkable rock formations, lush forest and small creaks. You may even include the Blue Pool swimming hole or the Jellybean Pool for a refreshing dip!
The hike will take at least two hours – and more if you find a scenic spot to have a picnic somewhere along the track!
You will eventually arrive at the Red Hands Cave – which is a semi-open cave featuring Aboriginal rock art. It is believed that the Aboriginals have inhabited the area here in the Blue Mountains for about 40,000 years – and they still do!
Specifically, it was the Dharug (or Darug) tribe that created the spectacular rock paintings at the Red Hands Cave between 500 and 1600 years ago. Their descendants have maintained the remarkable hand collage ever since. Not surprisingly, the colourful handprints of distinct hands are some of the sparse traces we have of the indigenous people living in clans in the Blue Mountains.
To be here is an awesome experience! When standing in front of the Red Hands Cave with its impressive, ancient ochre handprints, you cannot help sensing the breath of history! This is the heritage from Aboriginal Australia!
Around 12:30 – 13:00 you should be back at Glenbrook Station ready to get on towards Katoomba.
You will continue for another hour by train to Katoomba, located deep inside the Blue Mountains. It is the top visited site in the Blue Mountains – and only known since 1879 when the Katoomba Coal Mine was opened!
This is the place to get awe-inspiring views over the landscape. You now have many options for the afternoon.
The Scenic World presents you with some of the most spectacular sceneries in the area. The Scenic Railway will take you steeply down into the valley, passing the abruptly falling cliffs. On the way you will catch sight of the Orphan Rock, as well as pass through a small tunnel. It is actually the steepest railway in the world!
Another option is the Scenic Cableway. It will take you down and 545 m into the rainforest of the Jamison Valley.
On the bottom of the valley you can opt to do the Scenic Walkway snaking through the rainforest.
You may want to combine all three of them into a round-trip!
Finally, from the top, you can also choose to do the Scenic Skyway which takes you right across the valley! The views are breathtaking through the glass bottom floor!
Towards the end of the day, find your way to the Echo Point Lookout. Here you will have the most breathtaking view of the Three Sisters – with a good light around sunset! Perfect for photo shoots! There are several other lookouts on the rim, but you will probably not have time for them all.
Either you now have dinner in Katoomba before going back to Sydney – or you catch the train back to Sydney in due time for your dinner there (the train ride is approximately 2 hours!).
Read more about Australia: Sydney Harbour Bridge, Taronga Zoo, The Rocks… in ONE Day! and 10 Days Itinerary for Queensland in Australia
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