How to Spend 36 Hours in Sydney

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You have 36 hours to spend in Sydney, Australia.

I know, I know — “That’s it?” you say, “That’s not enough time!” But you’re only stopping over in Sydney on your way from Wellington to Perth to visit your uncle, whom you haven’t seen in 5 or 6 years. You decide an overnight stay in Sydney could be fun, and have no idea you’ll end up loving it so much. Hindsight is 20/20, so they say.

So, back to these 36 hours. With such a limited amount of time to explore Australia’s flag city, what do you do?

Sydney, Australia in 36 Hours

Stay somewhere central

Sydney has a pretty good public transportation center, but you want to make sure to choose accommodation that will allow you to properly utilize it.

The Rocks, where the Sydney Harbor YHA is located

When I visited Sydney for my one singular night, I booked at bed at YHA Railway Square. The hostel is right around the corner from Central Station, meaning you’re in a prime spot to get anywhere else in the city (there’s a handy tunnel right outside that will get you to the trains in less than 5 minutes). The hostel was friendly, clean, and I even got to stay in an old train carriage that had been remodeled into a 4-bed dorm room.

Another popular hostel downtown is YHA Sydney Harbor. Located in The Rocks near Circular Quay, this hostel is the place to stay if you’re looking for those iconic Sydney landmarks. It has rooftop views of both the Sydney Harbor Bridge and Opera House, and proximity to some great nightlife.

Buy a day pass

While in Sydney, I purchased a Day Tripper transport pass for each day I was in the city. The pass cost around $16 and gave me unlimited rides on Sydney trains, buses and ferries. These passes have since been renamed the “MyMulti Day Pass,” and now cost $20. But, if you’re planning to be using a lot of public transportation while in Sydney, these become invaluable. Australia is great, but it’s not cheap.

Visit Circular Quay

This is probably the most-visited area of Sydney. You have the impressive Harbor Bridge on one side, and the iconic Opera House on the other. Not to mention you’re close to The Rocks (the oldest area of Sydney), and have your pick of cafes, gelato stands and more. After taking my fill of pictures, I grabbed some mango gelato and watched a duo of Aboriginal men playing didgeridoos near the wharf.

Sydney Harbour Bridge


I was on a budget in Sydney (and strict time constraints), but, if you aren’t, two popular things to do in Circular Quay are to take a tour of the Opera House, and to do the Harbor Bridge Climb.

Take the ferry to Manly

Hop on a ferry boat at Circular Quay bound for Manly. The half-hour ride will sail you past the Opera House and into one of Sydney’s most popular suburbs. Once in Manly, you can rent a bike to explore the area, or do what I did and stroll down The Corso to Manly Beach. The Corso is a quaint, beach-y strip of cafes and souvenir shops that still manages to be charming, despite its level of kitsch.

Manly Beach

Once at Manly Beach, consider walking along one of the many coastal tracks for a bit, or simply grab a seat and do some quality people-watching.

Try to time your ferry ride back to Circular Quay to coincide with sunset. The views of the sun setting behind the Harbor Bridge, casting an orange glow over the Opera House, are well worth it.

Explore Darling Harbor

Hop a ferry to Darling Harbor from Circular Quay. They’re not very far apart, but the ferry ride is worth it — you’ll glide under the Harbor Bridge and past Luna Park, Sydney’s amusement park.


Once you get to Darling Harbor, there’s a ton to do and see:

  • Check out the Australian National Maritime Museum.
  • Take a stroll across the Pyrmont Bridge, which is solely for pedestrians and cyclists.
  • Grab lunch at a café at Cockle Bay Wharf (but watch out for the bold seagulls, intent on stealing your food…).
  • Walk through the Palm Grove and Tumbalong Park.
  • Go shopping, or see a movie on the largest IMAX screen in the world.
  • Visit the Chinese Garden of Friendship.
  • Explore Sydney Wildlife World, or the Sydney Aquarium.

Obviously, doing all of these things would take up far more than just a couple of hours. I didn’t even have time to do half of them while in Sydney, but was impressed at the variety and number of things on offer at Darling Harbor.

Hit the beach at Bondi

No trip to Sydney is complete without visiting Bondi Beach — one of the most popular beaches in Australia. Getting to Bondi involves taking a train to Bondi Junction, and then hopping on a bus to the beach.

A windswept Bondi Beach
A windswept Bondi Beach

The long, curving beach is popular with tourists, and with surfers. If you have the time (and desire to swallow lots of water), sign up for a 2-hour surf lesson with Let’s Go Surfing.

Take a stroll through the Royal Botanic Gardens and Domain

Just across from the Opera House near Circular Quay sits Sydney’s Royal Botanic Gardens and Domain. Allow yourself some time to walk through the sprawling gardens, keeping an eye out for the flying foxes that call the area home.

Walk along the edge of Farm Cove to the Fleet Steps and Mrs. Macquarie’s Point and Chair. Mrs. Macquarie was the wife of Mr. Macquarie, who was Governor of Sydney for a time back in the early 1800s. Her “chair” is a bit of carved rock in which she’d sit to watch ships coming in and out of the harbor. Today, all three sites are great vantage points from which to see both the Harbor Bridge and Opera House (and fit them both into one photo like on all the postcards).

My camera battery died before I could make it to the Fleet Steps (naturally), but I would still recommend the walk through this quiet bit of Sydney.

Get up close with koalas at Taronga Zoo

The one thing I didn’t do in Sydney that I wish I had was visiting Taronga Zoo. The zoo is kind of on its own little island, so the preferred way to get there is by ferry. Once at the zoo, you can take a gondola to one of the entrances, allowing for great views of Sydney Harbor. I imagine the zoo isn’t much different from many zoos I’ve already visited… though I would have loved to see koalas in Australia!

Next time.

Have you visited Sydney with only a short amount of time to devote to the city? What are some of your must-see suggestions for travelers?

"It's a dangerous business, going out your door. You step onto the road, and, if you don't keep your feet, there's no telling where you might get swept off to." - JRR Tolkien

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42 Comments on “How to Spend 36 Hours in Sydney

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  1. Interesting – the say “botanic” and not “botanical”.
    Beautiful city, I’m sure!

      Yes, very beautiful city, especially around the harbor!

    Bondi Beach looks so empty in that photo! Was it winter? The last time I was there it was Australia day and there were over 50,000 people there!

      Yeah it was winter – August, to be exact!

        For anyone traveling to Sydney, you could probably add to that list: Do the Harbour Bridge climb and catch a water taxi from one side of the harbour to the other.

          Doing the Harbour Bridge climb is definitely on my Sydney bucket list for next time! I know it’s quite pricey, but everyone I know who’s done it says it’s well worth it!

    Great post! I love Sydney and consider it my second home. And although Toronga is fabulous, Featherdale Wildlife Reserve offers a more up close encounter with the animals. It’s a bit outside the city but accessible by train and well worth the trip. Also next time you go make sure you do the beach walk from Bondi to Coogee – it’s incredible!

      Ooo, thanks for the tip on Featherdale, David! I will definitely keep that in mind. And yes, the Bondi to Coogee walk is also definitely on my list!

    Great guide! I will refer back to this post when I’m in Sydney later this year 🙂

    Just reading your post on Sydney, I haven’t actually ‘been’ to Sydney – I’ve been to the airport on the way to New Zealand, so seen the opera house and bridge from the air… It’s funny how so many of the comments focus on seeing koalas in the zoo… We had a koala that lived in a tree at school! Although I think that a majority of koalas in the wild suffer from syphilis or something, and they tend to look quite mangy 🙁

      Haha, it’s funny to see/hear what others like or remember best about your home country, isn’t it?? I mean, we don’t have koalas (or kangaroos or emus or wallabies for that matter) here in North America, so obviously it’s so cool to see them in Australia. But for an Australian, I imagine it seems kind of baffling that people find them so amazing!

        Ive been living in the beautiful Sydney for almost 2years now and even working here, have never quite been able to stomach the 230 dollars per person it costs to climb up the bridge (ouch!!)…instead of this for 300 dollars we hired our own boat from Rose bay and sailed/drove/floatedwith a motor? under the bridge ourselves champagne in can fit up to 8 people in the boat and in four hours can go anywhere in the harour you choose stopping off for swimming at some of the more secluded less accessible harbour beaches was a particular highlight!

    This is such a good guide. I’m going to Sydny next month (luckily for 3 days) but its so good to see something like this so I can try and fit as much in as possible!
    Your photo of the sunset behind the bridge is beautiful x

      Thanks, Jen! I’m really glad you found this helpful. Have a great time in Sydney!! It’s a really fun city, and there’s so much to do!

    I wish I had even an hour to go to Sydney! If and when I get there, I’ll be doing all of these things 🙂 Especially seeing koalas at the zoo!

      Sydney was a cool city. I just regret not spending more time there! Hopefully one day I’ll have the chance to go back and do it right, though.

    I recently did a 48 hours in Sydney post! We did a lot of the same things, only I didn’t get to make it to Manly OR Bondi (much to my dismay) as the weather wasn’t cooperating–it rained and was cold during my two days in Sydney. Instead, I exercised my credit card up on Oxford Street in Paddington! =)

    I could have used 48 days in Sydney…48 hours is such a tease.

      Ah yeah, bad weather wouldn’t have made trips to Manly or Bondi very enjoyable! Probably best that I never wandered into any of the shopping areas, as I was on a really tight budget… haha.

      I wish I would have allowed myself more time in Sydney. There really is so much to see and do!

    I’ve visited most of the sites you mention and they are a good pick. Gives an overall look at Sydney with limited time available. Would just like to endorse the “get a day pass” suggestion for travel within the city. It will make things so much easier.

    Is Lunar Park still there! Use to frequent it a lot during my big OE as a teenager.

      Yeah, the day pass really was nice. It saved having to buy new tickets everywhere, and I certainly got my money’s worth out of it, based on how many different forms of transport I used.

      And yes, Luna Park is still there, though it wasn’t open when I visited. I’m pretty sure it does still operate, though.

    Sydney is my absolutely my favorite city in the world (so far 😉 ) and I think your post really hits all the must-sees on the head and Rebecca makes a good point to just based on how much time you have in the city because it needs to be taken in for what it is, as well as enjoyed for all the other things it has to offer (like cuddly koalas!!).

    I never got to hold the koala while I was there but really wanted to, it was so overpriced at the Taronga Zoo (which is one of my favorite things in Sydney, I think I was there 3 times in 5 months) but I hear there’s a great Koala Sanctuary in Queensland which is definitely on my list for next time I’m in the country.

    Beautiful pic of Bondi by the way!!!

      I can see why so many people fall in love with Sydney. I definitely want to make it back there someday soon, and really explore it! I don’t know that you can hold koalas at the zoo anymore. I remember looking on their website before I went, and it said you couldn’t touch them. 🙁

      Glad you liked the Bondi shot! It’s one of my favorites I took in Sydney, I think.

    I personally couldn’t spend another 36 hours in Sydney again! I went there for a weekend and just hated it. Maybe it was just a bad weekend to go, but it was packed everywhere you went. Traffic was at a standstill. Prices of everything were sky high. A lot of the things we wanted to do were fully booked or not operating…. the best part of the trip was the Zoo but even then a lot of the animals were “Temporarily not on view”. People were just generally rude.

    Again, it could have just been a bad weekend to have gone, but I’ve been to much nicer places.

      I’m sad to hear you didn’t like Sydney! I suppose I was there in the “off-season” though (in August, when it was technically still “winter” there, even though it was 70 degrees F!), so I didn’t have to deal with any crowds at all. Circular Quay was bustling, but not crowded, and I easily walked onto trains, buses and ferries without having to wait at all. Prices were a little high, but I feel like that’s OZ in general.

      Maybe you should give it another try some time, and see if it changes your mind!

    I LOVED! the toronga zoo, one of my favorites in the world. I think it was the whole combo, the ferry, the gondola ride and we went in the afternoon so all the animals were awake, plus tossing in the opera house and bridge in the background to EVERYTHING (plus, don’t forget your student ID for a WICKED discount!) and it was like the best! afternoon! ever!

    And unless you are there on the 3 days of the year that it rains (total exaggeration, but not much!) don’t spend a second of it inside. You can shop and see movies anywhere:-)

    Gah! This post makes me want to post the 3-day itinerary I wrote for my friend a few months ago. If I only had 36 hours, I would just lay in the Botanical Gardens near the Opera House all day and nap (oh wait, I did do that when I was in town for 12 hours once!)


      The Taronga Zoo is definitely high on my list for “next time!” As is the bridge climb, I think. I could have easily just sat outside a cafe at Circular Quay for the entire 36 hours… I loved that area!

      And you totally should post that 3-day itinerary!

    Wow, that sure is a lot to cram into 36 hours but sounds awesome! It’s quite sad that I live so close to these great places yet haven’t seen them since a fleeting visit when I was a child.

    Must change that before our RTW and get up to Sydney for a weekend in the new year! Thanks for the ideas!

      It IS a lot to cram in. (And I didn’t do anything in any of these areas except walk around and look at things). But I feel like most people probably have more than 36 hours in Sydney… I wish I would have! But yes, you should definitely pop up to Sydney for a weekend! It’s a cool city.

    Fantastic post, Amanda 🙂 Such good tips! The zoo is definitely a bit expensive, so if it is koalas you’re after, you can always just go to the Sydney Wildlife World on Darling Harbour.

      Thanks, Brooke! I didn’t have time to go to either one, but it could have been possible if I’d gone to Sydney with any sort of plan. I really had no goals while there, except to see the bridge and Opera House. Haha. But, I think it worked out better that way, because I stumbled upon a lot of cool spots!

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