It’s no exaggeration when I say that Sydney may just be the most beautiful city I’ve ever seen. Its combination of public green space and striking buildings is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. I’m not alone in my admiration. According to the Mastercard Global Destinations Cities Index, Sydney is the 35th most visited city in the world. It’s no surprise why. Sydney has world-class hotels, museums, attractions, and dining. Even its wine and coffee scenes are legendary! Alas, there’s something else that’s legendary as well. Sydney is an expensive destination. Fortunately, with a little know-how, you can find plenty of bargains
1. Check Out A Fun, Nearly Free City Tour
A free tour sounds too good to be true, but the “I’m Free” tours of Sydney are some of the best fun. The company provides comprehensive, two-to-three-hour-long tours designed to introduce visitors to Sydney’s best sights and attractions. They also provide free evening tours of the historic neighborhood known as The Rocks. The tours operate on a “pay what you think it was worth” model. “I’m Free” prides itself on being independent — if they recommend a restaurant or museum, it’s not because they were paid to promote it. It’s the perfect activity to enjoy on day one of your trip.
2. Try A Totally Free Tour Of The Royal Botanic Garden
Sydney may be a major metropolis, but you wouldn’t know it based on the tranquillity inside the Royal Botanic Garden. This spectacular green space in the heart of the city offers some of the best views of Sydney Harbour and is filled with enough activities, special interest tours, workshops, and attractions to keep you busy for at least a day. The best place to start is with one of the free, volunteer-led tours. These 90-minute programs generally take place on Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday mornings. If your schedule permits, do this early on in your trip. The information you gain about Australia’s flora and fauna will enrich just about everything else you do in Sydney.
3. Enjoy Talks, Tours, And Treats At The Art Gallery of New South Wales
Set on the edge of the Botanic Garden, the Art Gallery of New South Wales offers free admission to the world’s premier collection of Australian art. It’s a lovely destination that’s thoughtfully laid out and easy to explore. While you might be tempted to pop in for a visit after seeing the nearby Botanic Garden, consider adding the gallery to your schedule for a Wednesday night. That’s when the Art After Hours program takes place. There’s a host of free activities, from “mystery tours” to public talks (during my visit, I listened to a music journalist talk about the origins of American rock and roll). You can purchase local beer and wine (not exactly free, but drinks are more economical here than at a trendy bar downtown) and there’s even a free shuttle that takes guests to various transportation hubs around the city so you can get home safely and easily.
4. Savor Great Views At The Museum Of Contemporary Art
Finding great art and great prices continues at the Museum of Contemporary Art. Their collection is free and they offer ample workshops, lectures, and special events (which are mostly free as well.) The rooftop MCA Cafe offers some of the best views of the city and serves light meals, most of which ring in at $20 or less (a bargain for Sydney!)
5. Load Up On History At Hyde Park
Hyde Park has the distinction of being the oldest public parkland in Australia and it contains some of the country’s most important monuments and memorials. It’s home to the ANZAC War Memorial and Pool of Reflection. This breathtaking, art deco-influenced memorial is rich in symbolism and is the site of the Australian ANZAC Day and Remembrance Day ceremonies. Hyde Park is also well known for its beautiful mature trees (including gorgeous fig trees lining the streets, creating a canopy effect). Other things to check out include the statue of Captain Cook, the Archibald Fountain, the sundial, and the giant chessboard.
6. Appreciate Architecture At St Mary’s Cathedral
The oldest church in Australia, St Mary’s origins date to 1788, though it wasn’t until 1821 that construction on the cathedral actually got underway. There were significant setbacks along the way, including a devastating fire, but the finished results were well worth the wait. St Mary’s has exquisite stained glass and is a superb example of gothic architecture. You can learn more about its history and design every Sunday during a free public tour that starts after the 10:30 a.m. church service concludes. Or, if you’re visiting nearby Hyde Park, you can pop in and enjoy a self-guided visit on most days. Note that St Mary’s is, first and foremost, a house of worship, and visitors should be quiet and respectful.
7. Explore New Heights At Sydney Bridge
If you’re flush with cash and daring, you can climb Sydney Bridge. However, if you lean toward frugality (or fear!) you can enjoy a calming bridge walk for free. There is a dedicated lane for pedestrians and the whole experience takes just 20 minutes (each way — you’ll have to walk back unless you’ve got activities planned for the other side!) You can read about points of interest, plus the best way to access the Bridge stairs, here.
For $15 (and the effort of climbing 200 or so steps), you can visit the Bridge’s southeast pylon, which is home to what may be the very best views of the city as well as the small Sydney Harbour Bridge Museum.
8. Bask In Beaches, Beaches, And More Beaches
For the cost of a local transit pass, some sunscreen, and some snacks, you can enjoy Sydney’s beaches to your heart’s content. The world-famous Bondi Beach is where beautiful people go to see and be seen. While it’s jam-packed by mid-afternoon (especially on weekends), savvy visitors arrive early in the morning to enjoy the quiet time with locals. Bondi’s cafe scene runs towards the pricey side of things, so consider packing a lunch to bring with you.
Shelly Beach, in the Sydney community of Manly, is perfect for nature lovers, snorkeling, and underwater photography. Meanwhile, its neighbor, Manly Beach, is ideal for all levels of surfing. Quiet Balmoral Beach, often overlooked, is perfect for families and has good restaurants nearby.
My personal favorite is Bronte Beach. It’s less busy than Bondi, has a surf scene to rival Manly, and has sea pools (like oceanside swimming pools filled with seawater) for safe swimming.
No matter which beach you choose (or maybe you don’t choose at all but visit all of these and more!), take the recommendation to bring sunscreen seriously. A wide brim hat and a spare shirt will also prove to be valuable allies against the harsh Australian sun.
9. Grab Bargains At The Rocks
If you’ve ever been tempted to stay in a hostel to save money, Sydney is the place to do it. At Sydney Harbour YHA The Rocks, private hotel rooms come with ensuite washrooms, small desks with a kettle and cups for instant tea and coffee, double beds, and spectacular views of the Sydney Opera House. As its name suggests, it’s located in Sydney’s The Rocks neighborhood and ongoing archeological work is all around you, including in the decorative displays of the hostel. If that wasn’t enough, the hostel is also one of the greenest buildings in Australia, using solar power, rainwater retention, green air conditioning, and low VOC building materials. Prices for private rooms start at $490 for seven nights with basic breakfast (that’s $490 total, not per night!).
Even if you don’t stay at YHA The Rocks, you’ll want to check out The Rocks Discovery Museum. Set in a former sandstone warehouse from the 1850s, this welcoming museum is free, family-friendly, and packed with special events and activities (including a free daily tour).
Pro Tip: See The Sydney Opera House For Less
You can catch a glimpse of the Sydney Opera House’s inner workings on a general property tour or an architecture tour for about $43 a person. But there may be a cheaper way to enjoy a visit. Tickets for performances can be as little as $25 a person. Admittedly, that’s not exactly an everyday price. You’ll have to search well in advance for mid-week deals on small shows, but a world-class performance might be more accessible than you imagine.