Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Cool days in Sydney - my first time in Australia

Australia! The country so big that it's also a continent - though it is the smallest continent. Australia was definitely at the top of my travel list, for one because of the excitement of being that far away from home but also for many of its natural wonders.

My journey in Australia would start in its biggest city, Sydney. I arrived to Sydney on a Monday afternoon, after my couple weeks of stay in New Zealand. I was a bit anxious to see how strict the local customs really were but really weren’t asked too many questions (the same set as in New Zealand - "where have you used those shoes", "are you carrying any fruits") and apparently my visa was in order too since they never asked to see any proof of it. Australia was only country I needed I pre-arranged visa on my entire trip! I took the train from the airport to the city which was really fast & convenient, considering I was staying close to the Central Station (and that was a good place to stay in my opinion). I had even managed to find a hostel with free wifi, amazing (first world problems...)! For the rest of my first day I did a bit of walking around, getting familiarized with my new surroundings and slowly started to feel at home again.

The next morning I had decided to join a free walking tour of the city. It was a similar concept as the tour I did in Valparaiso, Chile – the tour would cover most of downtown and you would tip the tour guide at the end of the walk. You end up getting to know more of the city than you would by walking around a day or two by yourself and they tend to include (or make up.. who knows) lots of small fun stories. The tour starts every day at 10.30 and 14.30 next to the Cathedral. There were around 20-30 people on the tour that day which is quite a lot. This tour guide wasn’t as good or as funny as the one in Valparaiso but I did like the tour and it really helps to get your bearings in the city. BTW, the same tour company offers also evening tours! The weather that was pretty crazy with a tropical storm that completed drenched everybody who was even 10 seconds without a shelter.. and then it was gone after 15 minutes with clear sky and sunshine. But that was the only bad weather I had, for the rest of the week it was mainly sunny - chilly at times but sunny.

Cathedral on George Street - the main avenue of Sydney
Sydney CBD - Central Business District
Of course I made sure I would see most of the famous Sydney’s sights such as the Opera House. I did actually go to Circular Quay, where you have a nice view of the house, a couple times and walked up to the building once. You can pop in the lobbies to see some of the inside but for a more comprehensive look you can take a (very expensive) tour – or perhaps see if they have some nice shows there to buy a ticket to! Close to the Opera House is Botanical Garden for a leisurely walk on a sunny day or on the other side of the Quay there’s the Harbour Brigde which is also popular for walks. There you can also climb all the way to the top of the Bridge (about 200 AUD). On the same side of the Quay, before the Bridge, there is a nice area of the city with lots of old buildings turned into café, restaurants and shop: the Rocks – actually one of the oldest parts of the town. 

Harbour Bridge
Circular Quay
View from the Circular Quay - Opera House
If you like parks, in addition to the Botanical Garden, you can stroll in Hyde Park where you’ll also find the St. Mary’s Cathedral. On the other side of the center there’s also a large green area before the Darling Harbour with heaps of fancy restaurants and the Chinese Garden. I really liked Darling Harbour although it was a bit out of a budget traveller's wallet to have dinner there. But it’s really nice to just spend a sunny afternoon there. If you’re looking for more free things to do there’s lots of museums and galleries that are free. I went to see the Chinese Art Museum with my local friend Norah who I had met in San Cristobal de las Casas, Mexico. It was pretty entertaining. Right now the Museum of Contemporary Art is also free – I’d definitely recommend that, at least go see some of the Clock: a 24h (non-stop) movie, or a collage of movies that features scenes with clocks. Every time you see a watch in the movie it will display the actual current time. I even managed to see a glimpse of a Finnish movie in that one!

Botanical Garden
Hyde Park and Saint Mary's Cathedral
Darling Harbour
I enjoyed my extended stay in Sydney. It’s always great when you find a nice hostel and meet some lovely people you start feel more at home and don’t mind staying longer. It’s easy to spend a lot of money in Sydney – eating out and grocery shopping will set you back even more than in Northern Europe. BTW, a nice place for a Sunday brunch, in the corner of Devonshire and Crown there are a handful of artsy cafes that were packed (people standing outside) with hipsters – a really nice vibe! You can also go crazy with shopping in Sydney. I stayed on my budget but did particularly like window shopping in the Queen Victoria Building! There’s plenty of activities in Sydney: Aquarium, the Luna Park (amusement park), the Zoo… Or if you’re more adventurous you can do a skydive (around 300 AUD). 

Beach life in Sydney (would be nicer if it was summer...)

You can also do some nice day trip inside Sydney: go to one of the beaches. If you’re there during the summer a visit to one of the beaches such as Bondi or Cogee is a must! I really wanted to visit Manly beach since I’d heard great things about it – and the ferry ride you need to take there, to the other side of the bay. And indeed it was gorgeous! There are a couple beaches in Manly and you make a nice 10km walk even on the so called scenic walkway. Manly is a like a nice small town with a pedestrian avenue lined with shops and restaurants. I could have spent hours just walking there (and I did!). The ferry ride was also really good (14 AUD), you get to see all around the Opera House when the ferry leaves from the Circular Quay towards Manly and during the day there were hundreds of sailboats dotting the bay.

Rockpools on the scenic walkway (leaving towards left from the harbour)

Pedestrian avenue in the middle of Manly - nice shops and cafés!
Beach in Manly lined with pine trees

Returning to the city on the ferry at sundown - perfect timing!

Back at Circular Quay once again
My last view of the Opera House: not a bad one!

A day in the Blue Mountains

There’s also some popular day tours out of Sydney and I certainly wasn’t going to miss a visit to the Blue Mountains! The tour started pretty early in the morning and we first stopped for breakfast in the pretty small town of Leura. After that we continued to the main site in the Blue Mountains - the Three Sisters.  Close to the Three Sisters there's an aboriginal centre where they have dance and music shows if you'd like to see that.

Three Sisters on the left
 A bit up the road was the next stop, Scenicworld, basically three-four different cable cars, gondolas and trains you can take down to the valley. I decided to walk the path down (just follow the signs, it's a bit hidden but you'll find the path starting left of the parking lot) and get to see the Katoomba Falls close up! The walking trail down was pretty easy - lots of steps but not dangerous like the ones Peru... It took about an hour to walk all the way down and I took the cable car (11 AUD) back up. You can have lunch at the Scenicworld but you can also pack some snacks and eat your own lunch there. 

My tour also included a visit to the Featherdale Wildlife Park which was one of the reasons why I booked that tour, I really wanted to see the koalas and kangaroos! And there were lots of them, most just roaming freely!! You'll find most of Australia's native animals there: dingos, tasmanian devils, wallabies, alligators, lots of birds and reptiles... The two hours we had there went really fast!

After that we continued back to Sydney and passed by the Olympic Park where the 2000 summer games were held. The tour ended with a cruise down the Parramatta river at sundown, I really enjoed that part, especially getting to see Sydney all light up when we arrived to first Darling Harbour and then to Circular Quay.

Darling Harbour

Circular Quay

A day tour like that will set you back 75-200 AUD or you can do the trip on your own as well with a car or catch a train to Wentworth Falls, Leura or Katoomba and take a hop-on-hop-off bus around the Blue Mountains.


All in all I spent about 10 days in Sydney - I had a couple very chilled out days but there's plenty to do there. You can see the main sights in about three days though if you're not in a hurry you will find a week passing by quite fast! Especially if you happen to be a latin dancer .... but more about dancing in Sydney in my next post!!

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