When you find yourself unexpectedly on an unfamiliar large airplane, the captain refers to the lavatories as “toilets”, the flight attendants speak in an accent that comes close to the British one (only slightly different) and towards the end of the journey you find a container of Vegemite on your breakfast tray, you might be on your way to Down Under. Oz. Australia.
A common start and ending point of a journey to Australia is Sydney, the cleaner, more sterile eternal rival of the dirtier, edgier Melbourne. But it is hard to really find any arguments when Sydneysiders speak in greatest tones of their city. The harbor view with the world-renown Opera House and the Harbor Bridge is, frankly, hard to beat.
Heading here from Europe or the United States, the trek will be one of the longest ones you will likely ever undertake, with flights from the US West Coast lasting around 14 hours and, depending from where you depart, you will land at Sydney Kingsford Smith Airport after anywhere between 20 and 30 hours in the confined space of a metal tube, or, to be more specific, the ever so small pitch of an economy class seat. Upon arrival and making it through customs (an experience which seems oh so much nicer when compared to the ordeal when pleading for entry into the United States) you can make your way to the city using the Airport Train (which is part of the public rail system).
No matter where you are staying in Sydney, probably one of the first targets of your hunt for attractions is an obvious one: recognizable around the world by it’s distinctive shaped roof (the “shells”), the Sydney Opera House certainly does not have to do much to get your attention. Especially on a nice day, the building acts like a magnet for visitors. And who can blame them. Stunning to look at from the outside, with the glossy Swedish-made tiles reflecting the sunlight, it sits right on the water at Sydney Harbor. To however learn about the rather uncomfortable details surrounding the construction of the building and the resignation of architect Jørn Utzon in the process, one should take the Essential Tour and with some luck, the tour guide will take off his or her PR tainted glasses and also mention that the acoustics in the Opera House are actually pretty bad.
Right across from the Opera House, another landmark: The Sydney Harbor Bridge, which connects the CBD and the North Shore. Dazzling to look at, especially once it gets lit up at night, it nicely complements and balances the Harbor View and the Opera House to the east of “The Coathanger”, the nickname of the bridge due to it’s arch-based design. A special 3.5 hour experience awaits you if you dare to sign up for the Bridge Climb, however I am not sure your wallet will approve considering the price tag starts at about AUD 200 (depending on when you go and what time of tour you undertake). Keep in mind that, for safety reasons, you also need to leave your camera behind.
In a city so expensive as Sydney, it is especially gratifying to almost any traveler (on a tight budget or not) when he receives good and honest service for free. One example for this is the Free Walking Tour, offered by a group of students, but very well and nicely done. Since they do not work for the city (and do not have to report to anyone about what they tell visitors about it), they are also not holding back on some uncomfortable accounts about their home town (see bad acoustics in the Opera House above). You will be asked to give an appropriate tip at the end, but considering the quality of the tour, you should reward them accordingly for their service.
A visit to Sydney would, by no means, be complete without a visit to what is undoubtedly its most well known beach: Bondi Beach. There is no direct way to get to this sacred place, worshiped by surfers every day, so you need to take the train to Bondi Junction, and then board a bus to reach the sandy enclave. On a sunny day, which is naturally the best condition to enjoy a day at the beach, one can easily acknowledge why so many people not only love the beach, but also pay ridiculous real estate prices to stay as close to it as possible.
Crescent shaped, it is, especially on weekends, lined with myriads of people, either baking in the sun or riding the waves. Beautiful and very fit folks, I must add and, to a high percentage, members of the gay community. Interestingly enough, their concentration seems to increase towards the outdoor fitness facilities at the northern end of the beach. But no matter whereabouts on the beach they are spotted, they usually earn looks from both sexes passing by, with men usually having to suppress a secret jealousy, given the beautifully sculptured bodies of their gay counterparts.
Don’t expect to do much swimming at Bondi by the way. The surf is usually pretty rough, hence the popularity with all the surfer dudes. The ones fortunate enough (or cheap) to stay at a close by hostel usually just leisurely carry their surfboard to the beach for an ‘after work surf’. After you have soaked up enough sun (or felt early indicators of a sun burn), a stroll towards the south on the Coast Walk might be exactly what you need. A fully paved walkway takes you south, past the Bondi Icebergs, Tamarama Park (and Beach) and to Bronte Park and Beach and some astonishing cliff views. Cooling down in the Bronte Baths (where you can even do lap swims), you might wanna consider going even further to Waverly Cemetery for more scenic views.
So is Sydney living up to the hype? Is its constant #1 spot amongst the cities with the best quality of life justified? That depends on who you ask, obviously. Just don’t ask any Melbournians. Sydney does have it’s perks, with it’s ocean front location, giving it a spacious feel with the vibe of a busy city, but possibilities to find solitude and rest in one of the many green spaces. The city not only is literally clean (in the sense of efficient disposal of garbage) but also feels that way, very mature, international, driven and a sense for architectural and biological beauty. But between the lines you can sense a touch of arrogance, supported by the conviction that in Oz, there is only Sydney with a long way down to #2. And that #2 is certainly not Melbourne. Heaven forbid.