At the southern end of Sydney Cove, Circular Quay is the launching pad for harbour and river ferries and sightseeing boats, the terminal for buses from the eastern and southern suburbs, and a major suburban train station to boot (some of the most fantastic views of the harbour can be seen from the above-ground station platforms). Circular Quay itself is always bustling with commuters during the week, and with people simply out to enjoy themselves at the weekend. Restaurants, cafés and fast-food outlets line the Quay, buskers entertain the crowds, and vendors of newspapers and trinkets add to the general hubbub. The sun reflecting on the water and its heave and splash as the ferries come and go make for a dreamy setting – best appreciated over an expensive beer at a waterfront bar. The inscribed bronze pavement-plaques of Writers’ Walk beneath your feet as you stroll around the Circular Quay waterfront provide an introduction to the Australian literary canon. There are short biographies of writers ranging from Miles Franklin, author of My Brilliant Career, through Peter Carey and Patrick White, to Germaine Greer, and quotable quotes on what it means to be Australian.
You could then embark on a sightseeing cruise or enjoy a ferry ride on the harbour. Staying on dry land, you’re only a short walk from most of the city-centre sights, along part of a continuous foreshore walkway beginning under the Harbour Bridge and passing through the historic area of Sydney’s first settlement The Rocks, then extending beyond the Opera House to the Royal Botanic Gardens.
Besides ferries, Circular Quay still acts as a passenger terminal for ocean liners; head north past the Museum of Contemporary Art to Circular Quay West. It’s a long time since the crowds waved their hankies regularly from the Overseas Passenger Terminal, looking for all the world like the deck of a ship itself, but you may still see an ocean liner docked here; even if there’s no ship, take the escalator and the flight of stairs up for excellent views of the harbour. The rest of the recently redeveloped terminal is now given over to trendy and expensive restaurants and bars.
Leading up to the Opera House is the once-controversial Opera Quays development, which runs the length of East Circular Quay. Since its opening, locals and tourists alike have flocked to promenade along the pleasant colonnaded lower level with its outdoor cafés, bars and bistros, upmarket shops and Dendy Cinema, all looking out to sublime harbour views. The distasteful apartment building above, dubbed “The Toaster” by locals and described by Robert Hughes, the famous expat Australian art critic and historian, as “that dull, brash, intrusive apartment block which now obscures the Opera House from three directions”, caused massive protests, but went up anyway, opening in 1999.Read More
The Sydney Opera House
The Sydney Opera House
The Sydney Opera House, such an icon of Australiana that it almost seems kitsch, is just a short stroll from Circular Quay, by the water’s edge on Bennelong Point. It’s best seen in profile, when its high white roofs, at the same time evocative of full sails and white shells, give the building an almost ethereal quality. Some say the inspiration for the distinctive design came from the simple peeling of an orange into segments, though perhaps Danish architect Jørn Utzon’s childhood as the son of a yacht designer had something to do with their sail-like shape – he certainly envisaged a building that would appear to “float” on water. Despite its familiarity, or perhaps precisely because you already feel you know it so well, it’s quite breathtaking at first sight. Close up, you can see that the shimmering effect is created by thousands of white tiles.
The feat of structural engineering required to bring to life Utzon’s “sculpture”, which he compared to a Gothic church and a Mayan temple, made the final price tag $102 million, ten times the original estimate. Now almost universally loved and admired, it’s hard to believe quite how controversial a project this was during its long haul from plan – as a result of an international competition in the late 1950s – to completion in 1973. For sixteen years construction was plagued by quarrels and scandal, so much so that Utzon, who won the competition in 1957, was forced to resign in 1966. Seven years and three Australian architects later the interior, which at completion never matched Utzon’s vision, was finished: the focal Concert Hall, for instance, was designed by Peter Hall and his team.
Utzon did have a final say, however: in 1999, he was appointed as a design consultant to prepare a Statement of Design Principles for the building, which has become a permanent reference for its conservation and development. The Reception Hall has been refurbished to Utzon’s specifications and was renamed the Utzon Room in 2004. He also remodelled the western side of the structure, with a colonnade and nine new glass openings, giving previously cement-walled theatre foyers a view of the harbour. Utzon died in November 2008.
“Opera House” is actually a misnomer: it’s really a performing-arts centre, one of the busiest in the world, with five performance venues inside its shells, plus restaurants, cafés and bars, and a stash of upmarket souvenir shops on the lower concourse. The best way to appreciate the Opera House, of course, is to attend an evening performance: the building is particularly stunning when floodlit and, once you’re inside, the huge windows come into their own as the dark harbour waters reflect a shimmering night-time city – interval drinks certainly aren’t like this anywhere else in the world.
The Harbour Bridge
The Harbour Bridge
The charismatic Harbour Bridge, northeast of Circular Quay, has straddled the channel dividing North and South Sydney since 1932; today, it makes the view from Circular Quay complete. The largest arch bridge in the world when it was built, its construction costs weren’t paid off until 1988. There’s still a toll to drive across, payable only when heading south; you can walk or cycle it for free. Pedestrians should head up the steps to the bridge from Cumberland Street, opposite the Glenmore Hotel in The Rocks, and walk along the eastern side for fabulous views of the harbour and Opera House (cyclists keep to the western side).
The bridge demands full-time maintenance, and is protected from rust by continuous painting in trademark steel-grey. Comedian Paul Hogan, of Crocodile Dundee fame, worked as a rigger on “the coathanger” before being rescued by a New Faces talent quest in the 1970s. To check out Hogan’s vista, you can follow a rigger’s route and climb the bridge with a dozen other jumpsuit-clad go-getters. If you can’t stomach (or afford) the climb, there’s a lookout point actually inside the bridge’s southeastern pylon where, as well as gazing out across the harbour, you can study a photo exhibition on the bridge’s history.
Sydney offers a wide choice of harbour cruises, almost all of them leaving from Wharf 6, Circular Quay, and the rest from Darling Harbour. While many offer a good insight into the harbour and an intimate experience of its bays and coves, the altogether much cheaper ordinary ferry rides, enjoyable cruises in themselves, are worth experiencing first. The best of these is the thirty-minute ride to Manly, but there’s a ferry going somewhere worth checking out at almost any time of the day.