Flying into Sydney provides the first snapshot of Australia for most overseas visitors: toy-sized images of the Harbour Bridge and the Opera House, tilting in a glittering expanse of blue water. The Aussie city par excellence, Sydney stands head and shoulders above any other in Australia. Taken together with its surrounds, it’s in many ways a microcosm of the country as a whole – if only in its ability to defy your expectations and prejudices as often as it confirms them. A thrusting, high-rise business centre, a high-profile gay community, a clutch of fascinating museums and some vibrant art galleries, and inner-city deprivation of unexpected harshness are as much part of the scene as the beaches, the bodies and the sparkling harbour. Its sophistication, cosmopolitan population and exuberant nightlife are a long way from the Outback, and yet Sydney has the highest Aboriginal population of any Australian city, and bushfires are a constant threat.
You’ll need at least five days in this unique city to ensure you see not only its glorious harbourside but also its wider treasures. Delving into the surrounding inner-city areas of Paddington, Surry Hills, and Glebe reveal more of the Sydney psyche, and no trip to the city would be complete without at least one visit to the eastern-suburb beaches – for a true taste of Sydney, take an afternoon stroll along the coastal path that stretches from Bondi to Coogee.
The area around is laden with places to visit, which offer a taste of virtually everything you’ll find in the rest of the country, with the exception of desert. There are magnificent national parks – Ku-ring-gai Chase, where you can pat a koala, and Royal being the best known – and native wildlife, each a mere hour’s drive from the centre of town; while further north stretch endless ocean beaches, great for surfers, and more enclosed waters for safer swimming and sailing. Inland, the gorgeous Blue Mountains – UNESCO World Heritage-listed – offer isolated bushwalking and scenic viewpoints. On the way are historic colonial towns that were among the earliest foundations in the country – Sydney itself, of course, was the very first. The commercial and industrial heart of the state of New South Wales, especially the central coastal region, is bordered by Wollongong in the south and Newcastle in the north. Both were synonymous with coal and steel, but the smokestack industries that supported them for decades are now in severe decline. This is far from an industrial wasteland, though: the heart of the coal-mining country is the Hunter Valley, northwest of Newcastle, but to visit it you’d never guess, because this is also Australia’s oldest, and arguably its best-known, wine-growing region, where you can not only sample the fine wines, but enjoy some of the best food in the state.
The city of Sydney was founded as a penal colony, amid brutality, deprivation and despair. In January 1788, the First Fleet, carrying over a thousand people, 736 of them convicts, arrived at Botany Bay expecting the “fine meadows” that Captain James Cook had described eight years earlier. In fact, what greeted them was mostly swamp, scrub and sand dunes. An unsuccessful scouting expedition prompted Commander Arthur Phillip to move the fleet a few kilometres north, to the well-wooded Port Jackson, where a stream of fresh water was found. This settlement was named Sydney Cove after Viscount Sydney, then Secretary of State in Great Britain. In the first three years of settlement, the new colony nearly starved to death several times; the land around Sydney Cove proved to be barren. When supply ships did arrive, they inevitably came with hundreds more convicts to further burden the colony. It was not until 1790, when land was successfully farmed further west at Parramatta, that the hunger began to abate. Measure this suffering, however, with that of the original occupants, the Eora Aborigines: their land had been invaded, their people virtually wiped out by smallpox, and now they were stricken by hunger as the settlers shot at their game. Under the leadership of Pemulwuy, a skilled Aboriginal warrior, the Eora commenced a guerilla war against the colony for much of the 1790s. However, the numbers and firepower of the settlers proved too great, and in 1802 Pemulwuy was captured and killed, his severed head sent back to England. After this, the Eora’s resistance soon ended.
By the early 1800s, Sydney had become a stable colony and busy trading post. Army officers, exploiting their access to free land and cheap labour, became rich farm-owners and virtually established a currency based on rum. The military, known as the New South Wales Corps (or more familiarly as “the rum corps”), became the supreme political force in 1809, even overthrowing the governor (mutiny-plagued Captain Bligh himself). This was the last straw for the government back home, and the rebellious officers were finally brought to heel when the reformist Governor Lachlan Macquarie arrived from England with forces of his own. He liberalized conditions, supported the prisoners’ right to become citizens after they had served their time, and appointed several to public offices.
By the 1840s, the transportation of convicts to New South Wales had ended, the explorers Lawson and Blaxland had found a way through the Blue Mountains to the Western Plains, and gold had been struck in Bathurst. The population soared as free settlers arrived in ever-increasing numbers. In the Victorian era, Sydney’s population became even more starkly divided into the haves and the have-nots: while the poor lived in slums where disease, crime, prostitution and alcoholism were rife, the genteel classes – self-consciously replicating life in the mother country – took tea on their verandas and erected grandiloquent monuments such as the Town Hall, the Strand Arcade and the Queen Victoria Building in homage to English architecture of the time. An outbreak of the plague in The Rocks at the beginning of the twentieth century made wholesale slum clearances inevitable, and with the demolitions came a change in attitudes. Strict new vice laws meant the end of the bad old days of backstreet knifings, drunk-filled taverns and makeshift brothels.
Over the next few decades, Sydney settled into comfortable suburban living. The metropolis sprawled westwards, creating a flat, unremarkable city with no real centre, an appropriate symbol for the era of shorts and knee socks and the stereotypical, barbecue-loving Bruce and Sheila – an international image that still plagues Australians. Sydney has come a long way since the parochialism of the 1950s, however: skyscrapers at the city’s centre have rocketed heavenward and constructions such as the Opera House began to reflect the city’s dynamism. Today, Sydney’s citizens don’t look inwards – and they certainly don’t look towards England. Thousands of immigrants from around the globe have given Sydney a truly cosmopolitan air and it’s a city as thrilling and alive as any.Read More
Mardi Gras and the Sleaze Ball
Mardi Gras and the Sleaze Ball
The year’s highlight is the Sydney Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras (www.mardigras.org.au): three weeks of exhibitions, performances and other events, including the Mardi Gras Film Festival (www.queerscreen.com.au), showcasing the latest in queer cinema. Mardi Gras starts the second week of February, kicking off with a free Fair Day in Victoria Park, Camperdown, and culminating with a massive parade and party, usually on the first weekend of March. The first parade was held in 1978 as a gay-rights protest and today it’s the biggest celebration of gay and lesbian culture in the world. The main event is the exuberant night-time parade down Oxford Street, when up to half-a-million gays and straights jostle for the best viewing positions, before the Dykes on Bikes – traditional leaders of the parade since 1988 – roar into view. Participants devote months to the preparation of outlandish floats and outrageous costumes at Mardi Gras workshops, and even more time is devoted to the preparation of beautiful bodies in Sydney’s packed gyms. The parade begins at 7.45pm (finishing around 10.30pm), but people line the barricades along Oxford Street from mid-morning (brandishing stolen milk crates to stand on for a better view). If you can’t get to Oxford Street until late afternoon, your best chance of finding a spot is along Flinders Street near Moore Park Road, where the parade ends.
The all-night dance party that follows the parade attracts up to 25,000 people and is held in several differently themed dance spaces at The Entertainment Quarter in Moore Park. You may have to plan ahead if you want to get a ticket: party tickets sometimes sell out by the end of January. The Sydney Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras Guide, available from mid-December, can be picked up from bookshops, cafés and restaurants around Oxford Street or viewed online on the Mardi Gras website.
Sydney just can’t wait all year for Mardi Gras, so the Sleaze Ball is a very welcome stopgap in early October, and acts as a fundraiser for the Mardi Gras organizers. Similar to the Mardi Gras party, it’s held at The Entertainment Quarter, and goes on through the night. For those who miss the main event, the recovery parties the next day are nearly as good; virtually all the bars and clubs host all-day sessions after the parties, especially the lanes behind the Flinders Bar, which are packed with exhausted but deliriously happy party-people.
There are a tremendous number of places to stay in Sydney, and fierce competition helps keep prices down. Finding somewhere is usually only a problem around Christmas, throughout January, in late February/early March during the Gay Mardi Gras, and at Easter: at these times, book ahead. All types of accommodation offer a (sometimes substantial) discount for weekly bookings, and may also cut prices considerably during the low season (from May–Sept, school holidays excepted).
The larger chain hotels in The Rocks and the city centre generally charge upwards of $200 for a double room, although rates vary with demand: book early and you can often get a bargain. At such hotels, weekend rates are usually twenty percent higher than weekday rates, a pattern also found at boutique hotels, which get booked out in advance for Friday and Saturday nights. Rates in Kings Cross are much cheaper.
An increasing number of mid-range boutique hotels and guesthouses are smaller, more characterful places to stay, charging upwards of $150. Serviced holiday apartments can be very good value for a group, but are heavily booked.
Despite the number of hostels all over Sydney and the rivalry between them, standards are variable. Generally you get what you pay for: a couple of extra dollars may get you a less cramped dorm or airier room. Almost everywhere includes sheets and blankets in the price. Rates increase by around 10–20 percent from mid-December through to early February (especially at beachside hostels), but drop considerably in winter when three-for-two-nights deals and free breakfasts are common. Office hours are restricted, so it’s best to arrange an arrival time.
Big cities usually offer few options for camping, but Sydney is an exception, with walk-in camping right in the middle of Sydney Harbour at Cockatoo Island, and several more distant drive-in sites.
If the way its chefs are regularly poached by restaurants overseas is any indication, Sydney has blossomed into one of the world’s great culinary capitals, offering a fantastic range of cosmopolitan restaurants, covering every imaginable cuisine. Quality is uniformly high, with the freshest produce, meat and seafood always on hand, and a culture of discerning, well-informed diners. It’s also a highly fashionable scene, with businesses rising in favour, falling in popularity and closing down or changing name and style at an astonishing rate. All of New South Wales’ restaurants are non-smoking, except for reception areas and outside tables.
Sydney’s bland, pub-dominated wilderness has disappeared in the inner city and you’ll find a fashionable bar on almost every corner, offering everything from poetry readings and art classes to groovy Sunday-afternoon jazz or DJ sessions. Surry Hills and Darlinghurst are the places to go for “pop-up” bars, as well as a variety of drinking holes for all tastes. Circular Quay and King Street Wharf are more touristy, yet have harbour views that even locals still savour now and again. Not to be outdone, the traditional hotels are getting in renowned chefs and putting on food far beyond the old pub-grub fare. Sydney has many Art Deco pubs, a style notably seen in the tile work. Opening hours vary considerably: traditional pubs and beer gardens will be open 11am–11pm or later, while more fashionable cocktail bars may not open until the evening but won’t close until 2am (perhaps 4am or later at weekends).
From dark den to opulent fantasy, Sydney’s thriving club scene, attracting international DJ celebrities and impressive local talent, is likely to satisfy. A long strip of clubs stretches from Kings Cross to Oxford Street and down towards Hyde Park. The scene can be pretty snobby, with door gorillas frequently vetting your style, so don your finest threads and spruce up. Admission ranges from $10 to $30; many clubs stay open until 5am or 6am on Saturday and Sunday mornings.
The live-music scene in Sydney has passed its boom time, and pub venues keep closing down to make way for the dreaded poker machines. However, there are still enough venues to just barely nourish a steady stream of local, interstate and overseas acts passing through, peaking in summer with a well-established open-air festival circuit. Bands in pubs and clubs are often free, especially if you arrive early; door charge is usually from $5, with $30 the top price for smaller international acts or the latest interstate sensation. Sunday afternoon and early evening is a mellow time to catch some music, particularly jazz, around town.
There are several big outdoor summer rock concerts in Sydney. Homebake (www.homebake.com.au) is an open-air music festival in The Domain in early December with food and market stalls, rides, roving performers and a line-up of up to forty famous and underground Australian bands. The Big Day Out, on the Australia Day weekend (www.bigdayout.com), at the Showground at Sydney Olympic Park, is an institution and features big international names. Check out also Good Vibrations, a dance/hip-hop festival held in mid-February at Centennial Park (www.goodvibrationsfestival.com.au), and Future Music Festival at Royal Randwick Racecourse in March (www.futureentertainment.com.au).
Sydney’s main shopping focus is the stretch between Martin Place and the QVB in the CBD. Apart from its charming old nineteenth-century arcades and two department stores, David Jones and Myers, the city centre also has several modern shopping complexes where you can hunt down clothes and accessories without raising a sweat, among them Skygarden and Sydney Westfield (between Pitt and Castlereagh streets), and Centrepoint on Pitt Street Mall, on the corner of Market Street. Much of the area from the QVB to the mall is linked by underground arcades, which will also keep you cool.
Oxford Street in Paddington is the place to go for interesting fashion, with outlets of most Australian designers along the strip. You’ll find more expensive designer gear in the city at the Strand Arcade and David Jones department store. For striking street fashion, check out Crown Street in Surry Hills. The quality Australian bush outfitters R.M. Williams has branches on George St and is great for moleskin trousers, Drizabone coats and Akubra hats.
The Rocks is heaving with Australiana and arts and crafts souvenirs, from opals to sheepskin, and it’s the best place for souvenir and duty- and GST-free (VAT-free) shopping. Weekends are particularly busy when the touristy open-air market takes over George Street. The two best markets in the city though are the Paddington Market and Balmain Market, both held on Saturday.
If you’ve run out of time to buy presents and souvenirs, don’t worry: the Sydney Airport is attached to one of the biggest shopping malls in Sydney, with outlets for everything from surfwear to R.M. Williams, at the same prices as the downtown stores.
Gay and lesbian Sydney
Gay and lesbian Sydney
Sydney is indisputably one of the world’s great gay cities. There’s something for everyone – whether you want to lie on a beach during the warmer months (Oct–April) or party hard year-round. Gays and lesbians are pretty much accepted, particularly in the inner-city and eastern areas. They have to be – there’s too many of them for anyone to argue.
Even if you can’t be here for Mardi Gras or the Sleaze Ball, you’ll still find the city has much to offer. Oxford Street (mostly around Taylor Square) is Sydney’s official “pink strip” of gay-frequented restaurants, coffee shops, bookshops and bars. However, the gay–straight divide in Sydney has less relevance for a new generation, perhaps as a result of Mardi Gras’ mainstream success. Several of the long-running gay venues on and around Oxford Street have closed down and many of those remaining attract older customers, as younger gays and lesbians embrace inclusiveness and party with their straight friends and peers or choose to meet new friends on the internet instead of in bars. King Street, Newtown and nearby Erskineville are centres of gay culture, while lesbian communities have carved out territory of their own in Leichhardt (known affectionately as “Dykehart”) and Marrackville.
Little of the accommodation in Sydney is gay-exclusive, but anywhere within a stone’s throw of Taylor Square will be very gay-friendly. Best bets in our accommodation listings are City Crown Motel, Governors on Fitzroy, Kirketon, Arts Hotel and the BIG hostel. Most of the cafés and restaurants in the same area have a strong gay following; for a lowdown on the gay and lesbian club scene. Weekly event listings are included in the free magazines.
If you’ve come for the sun, popular gay beaches are Tamarama, Bondi and “clothing-optional” Lady Jane, while pools of choice are Redleaf harbour pool at Double Bay and the appropriately named Andrew “Boy” Charlton pool in The Domain. The Coogee Women’s Baths, at the southern end of Coogee Beach, are popular with lesbians.