You can't forget about the harbor, but do venture further afield

Plan a Trip to Sydney Like a Local

According to Destination NSW, international visitors spend about 12 million nights a year in Sydney. As a local, I always wonder what they think they are coming to see when they plan a trip to Sydney. I see them around Circular Quay and the Rocks. I see them buying Ugg boots. But what I really wonder is whether they have the opportunity to experience Sydney like a local. While we appreciate the harbor, Bondi beach, and Taronga Zoo, I’d like to think that most tourists would like the opportunity to plan a trip to Sydney like a local. And it’s not that hard.

Getting around Sydney like a local

Like most big cities, Sydney is a nightmare to get around. Traffic is awful and the public transport really isn’t much better. Having said that, I’ve picked a number of options for you to experience Sydney like a local that are truly public transport friendly.

If you are in Sydney for more than a day or so, the best way to use public transport is to buy an Opal card. You can buy them from railway stations (not on buses) and newsagents, and convenience stores.  They are the standard pre-loaded transport card that you then tap on and tap off when you enter and exit your public transport. They can be used on trains (you can go all the way to the Blue Mountains or Newcastle with an Opal card), buses, light rail, and ferries. Check the Transport NSW website for more info on how to make the most of your Opal card when you visit Sydney.


Eating and drinking and Sydney

In Sydney, coffee definitely rules
In Sydney, coffee definitely rules

Firstly, I need to talk about coffee. Coffee is serious business in Australia, and we are a nation of coffee snobs. Melbourne and Sydney may debate who has the best coffee, but regardless, coffee in Sydney is something you can’t ignore.

What you need to forget about when you are buying coffee is the filter coffee that dominates every diner and café in North America. We don’t like it and we don’t drink it. Instead, most coffee sold in even humble cafés and hole in the wall coffee sellers is genuine European barista coffee. Yes, just like in Italy or France. We also like it strong. And many places don’t serve decaf (and the ultra-snobby won’t serve soy milk either). Coffee in Australia also has a particular language.  Here are a few Australian coffee terms to help you talk coffee just like a local:

  • Short black: an espresso (really strong and served in those tiny cups);
  • Long black:  a short black with hot water added to make a bigger cup of coffee (usually still quite strong);
  • Flat white:  a long black with unfrothed milk added;
  • Cappuccino:  just like they make it in Italy with frothy milk and cocoa powder on top;
  • Café latte (usually just referred to as a latte):  like a flat white but with the milk frothed.  Often served in a glass rather than a cup;
  • Double shot:  your choice of coffee but with twice the amount of coffee grounds used;
  • Skinny:  skim milk.  (So if you want a plain coffee with skim milk, you ask for a skinny flat white – easy!)

And before you ask, we hate Starbucks.  There are hardly any Starbucks in Sydney.  If you need your sweet, sticky, flavored coffee-like beverage, try the local Gloria Jean’s instead.

Food is easier.  As a new country and a country of immigrants, Australian cuisine is very eclectic. We use native ingredients, just like our indigenous peoples did, we use our British and European influences and our proximity to Asia means we also love it hot. So what is hot in Sydney food? Thai is eternally popular, along with “modern Australian”. We love casual dining (often out on the street), and we like street food style served in restaurants.

The best places to eat are away from the city (unless you want to go to one of the fabulous high-end fine dining establishments). Head to areas like Surry Hills, Newtown, Redfern, or basically anywhere within a 5km radius of the central city area (use your Opal card for either train, bus, or light rail. For eating at the beach, it’s easy – pass by the trendy cafés with their beautiful people and go for fish and chips to eat out of the packet on the beach. Perfect.


Where to go in Sydney

You can't forget about the harbor, but do venture further afield
You can’t forget about the harbor, but do venture further afield

I know you are going to want to see Sydney Harbor. It’s gorgeous and you’d be crazy not to.  You might want to take in an Opera House tour or a Bridge Climb. And you’ll want to go to the beach, right?  Bondi (pronounced Bon-dye, not Bon-dee or Bond-ee) is probably the beach you’ll want to go to.  But I’ve got a better idea. I say Balmoral Beach is the best beach in Sydney. It’s a harbor beach rather than an ocean beach, so good for kids and inexperienced swimmers, and it’s almost tourist free. It’s pretty and unpretentious – and its chip shop does the best fish ‘n chips.

If history and culture are more your thing, you may enjoy a walk around the Rocks or up Macquarie St. Both are home to some of the oldest surviving architecture in Sydney, including our very special convict architecture. A little further afield, a visit to Vaucluse House in Elizabeth Bay, or Old Government House in Parramatta give you a little peek into how the other half used to live in Sydney (and Old Government House does a very mean high tea).

If you know anything about Australians, you probably know we love our sport. You’d be unlucky to visit Sydney when there were no “big” sporting events going on. So what are the biggest sporting events in Sydney? Any Australian Rules football game featuring local team the Sydney Swans (games played between late May and September), the Sydney cricket test match (big, big, big!) is normally played at the historic Sydney Cricket Ground around New Year’s Day, and then Rugby – both Union and League between March and September.  Pick your team, grab a pie and sauce (highly traditional) and enjoy!

So when you plan your trip to Sydney, I suggest you think like a local.  Don’t forget the big tourist sites, but ask a local what they would like to do today, and take it from there. You won’t go wrong.


About Our Guest Blogger

Jo Karnaghan is Chief Frugalista at  She has lived in Sydney for twenty years and still gets a buzz of excitement when she crosses the Harbour Bridge or catches a glimpse of the Opera House. Jo spends her own time in Sydney visiting local farmer’s markets (the Addison Rd market in Marrickville is a favorite) and continuing her quest for the best high tea in Sydney.