I’ve always associated Sydney with its stunning Opera House, one of the most distinctive and remarkable modern-day architectural structures in the world. As a result, I expected the city itself to be equally epic and soaring in scale, but Sydney is surprisingly small and very accessible. It’s similar to San Francisco in size, and the British influences and a large Asian population amidst a tropical setting remind me a lot of Singapore. The whole stereotype I had in my head of big burly Aussies and Nicole Kidman running amok in the Outback is largely untrue in Sydney.
My knowledge of Australian cuisine was also based on oversimplified images of Marmite and crocodile meat. I didn’t seek them out, as this sort of bizarre eats tourism doesn’t appeal to me, and of course, they didn’t even appear on the menus of any of the restaurants I went to. Maybe it’s because I ate Asian food everyday in Sydney, which is something I didn’t expect to do, but that’s what happened. And I’m glad I did, because Sydney’s Asian food scene is pretty impressive in terms of quality and variety. Asian fusion tends to be trendy, but the traditional stuff is also right at your doorstep.
Something else I learned about Sydney? The coffee is amazing, and apparently Sydney’s coffee isn’t even as good as Melbourne’s, so I can only imagine what a latte from the latter would taste like. I’ve become obsessed with flat whites, an Australian coffee beverage that combines a shot of espresso in warm milk, and now I can’t start my day without one. A city so close to the water also has great seafood, which was confirmed at both a small eatery in Bondi Beach and at an old, somewhat crusty Chinese restaurant. If you find yourself in Sydney for a few days, read below for an itinerary that mixes sightseeing centered around good restaurants. It might be disappointing to see that kangaroo meat doesn’t make the cut, but it’s much more fun to see a joey in a zoo, not on a plate.
Day 1 – The nearly 24 hour flight from New York to Sydney is brutal, and the last thing on your mind is thinking about where to go for lunch. But the best way to get over jet lag is to adapt to the time zone as quickly as possible. In a space as pretty as Mr. Wong, a glamorous old world Shanghai parlor meets modern day speakeasy, you’ll be too busy staring at your surroundings to fall asleep, and the delicious Cantonese cooking and yum cha creations will hold your attention. Sometimes these fancy Asian restaurants are more style than substance, but I was pretty impressed by the quality of the dim sum. The king prawn and bamboo shoot dumplings and the steamed BBQ pork buns were the best I’ve ever had anywhere. These, combined with the delicious sweet and sour crispy pork hock, a perfect cube of candied pork belly meat that ever was, are the things to get.
Grab a flat white afterwards to keep you going for the rest of the day. The flat white is creamier and more full-bodied than a latte or a cappuccino, but the flavor of the espresso still comes through, so additional sugar isn’t necessary. It’s perfect for when you want more than just drip coffee but you don’t want the fat and calories of a more elaborate mixed drink. The flat white usually comes in a small cup, but the caffeine level is still pretty effective. I loved my flat white at Mecca, a small coffee shop in the City Center, and the one from Toby’s Estate was pretty good as well (interestingly enough, Toby’s has a huge café in Williamsburg).
The best way to find your bearings in Sydney is to take the “I’m Free” walking tours, in which a knowledgeable and enthusiastic guide takes you to noteworthy landmarks within the downtown area for nearly 3 hours. This is really one of the city’s greatest bargains. You only have to pay what you think the tour was worth at the end, and with so much ground covered and some good historical tidbits thrown in, you definitely get your money’s worth.
After maybe one power nap, it’s time for dinner at Quay, the quintessential fine-dining restaurant in Sydney that is meant to impress in the most traditional way. It’s on the Top 100 San Pellegrino World’s Best Restaurant list, plus it boasts a stunning, front-seat view of the Opera House at night, so dining here certainly feels like a special occasion. Getting a table is not easy and reservations made several months in advance are essential, however, you may get lucky with a last-minute cancellation, which is what happened with me. I nearly missed my reservation at Quay twice, the first one due to my own carelessness of managing time zones, and the second due to a power nap that was a little too powerful.
Luckily I made it here in the nick of time and embarked on an elegant 4-course tasting menu that featured many local ingredients prepared in impressive fashion. The presentation was beautiful, but I wouldn’t rate this one of the best tasting menus I’ve sat through. It was a little too uneven to break into the top tier—the marron crayfish were served lukewarm, the whiting fish was as forgettable as a mid-season sitcom, and the tough, rubbery duck breast had been ruined in almost comical fashion by the classic mistake of overcooking. They made a comeback with the incredible uni risotto and, what I would deem the best dessert I’ve had this year, the beautiful, refreshing Snow Egg, but you could tell that this restaurant was showing its age a bit.
Day 2 – Something else Sydney has in common with the West Coast is a vibrant, outdoor culture, and one of the most well-known activities to do here is the Bondi to Bronte Coastal walk. You need to take public transit or a cab to get out here. The transportation system in Sydney is a well-oiled machine, there are tons of buses and trains running at all hours to take you everywhere around the city and to the outer suburbs. Be sure to buy an Opal card from any convenience store or newspaper stand, which gets you access to all modes of public transit, and every ride after $15 is free.
Unfortunately the rain put a damper on our beach hike, but we made it out to Bondi Beach anyway, which was about a 35 minute bus ride from the city center. Much like Venice Beach, Bondi Beach is home to a big surfer and skater culture, and even in the freezing rain people were donning their wet suits and riding the waves. We sought shelter at Bondi’s Best, a small seafood shop that cranks out smashing plates of fish and chips along with fresh seafood. The oysters were so sweet and briney, there was no question that the time they had spent out of water was minimal.
We took the bus into Surry Hills, which was described as the “Soho” of Sydney. It did have many interesting boutiques and restaurants, but it also felt a lot more quiet and residential. Window shopping in the rain wasn’t that much fun, so we went to the White Rabbit Gallery, which exhibits contemporary Chinese artwork, only to find it closed for the holidays. Something that wasn’t closed? The very popular Black Star Pastry shop, which makes its famous strawberry and watermelon cake, a very light sponge cake that reminded me a lot of the pastries in Asia due to the minimal sweetness and the refreshing, fruity nature. Asians love their fruity sponge cakes.
For dinner, we wanted something casual, and seeing the success we had with Asian food, we went to Marigold on a friend’s recommendation for an old school Chinese seafood dinner. This place looks like it was built decades ago and hasn’t been renovated since. The fixtures are dingy, the table linens are old, but the stir-fried mud crab and pippies in xo chili sauce are just as good as ever.
We capped the night with some drinks at The Baxter Inn, a classy, buzzy underground watering hole that attracts the late 20s to 30s crowd looking for good artisanal cocktails. There was a lot to celebrate that night. We made the most out of Sydney in these packed two days, despite the rain. A little culture, a little bit of the outdoors, some hipster shopping, and lots of good meals. There were some close calls with the jet lag, but Aussies are always so good-natured and flexible (“No worries!” seems to be a common response to everything), that no day can ever really be bad.
3 Bridge Ln, Sydney NSW 2000, Australia
Central Business District
+61 2 9240 3000
I’m Free Sydney Sights Tour
2 ½ – 3 hours
10:30am and 2:30pm Every Day from Town Hall Square
3, Overseas Passenger Terminal, George St & Argyle Street, The Rocks NSW 2000, Australia
+61 2 9251 5600
39-53 Campbell Parade, North Bondi NSW 2026, Australia
+61 2 9300 9886
Black Star Pastry (Pop-up location)
The Books Kinokuniya (CBD)
The Galeries Level 2, 500 George St NSW 2000, Australia
No phone number
White Rabbit Gallery
30 Balfour St, Chippendale NSW 2008, Australia
+61 2 8399 2867
The Baxter Inn
Basement, 152-156 Clarence Street, Sydney NSW 2000, Australia
No phone number