There’s more to Sydney than meets the eye. Go off the beaten path as you discover Sydney by seeking out the city’s hidden gems.
By Ashlea Wheeler
Laneway bars, sunken gardens, and ocean baths... Sydney has so many hidden gems that it would take years to discover them all. We explored this secretive city and found all the best spots that you probably won’t see listed in guidebooks.
There are plenty of amazing viewpoints of Sydney Harbour, but Observatory Hill stands out as one of the best. Just a 10-minute walk from Circular Quay, this small hill offers an amazing vista that not many people know about. Astronomy-intrigued visitors will also love Sydney Observatory which sits atop the hill. This historic building houses a museum which is free to enter and also offers guided tours for a small fee. On the night tours, you might even get a chance to look through the telescopes at the array of stars and planets in the night sky.
Most visitors to Sydney will have heard of BridgeClimb, but many people don’t know about the cheaper, lesser-known way to get elevated views from the Sydney Harbour Bridge – the Pylon Lookout. The pylon, situated in the southeast corner of the bridge, is accessible from the pedestrian walkway leading away from the Rocks. Inside you’ll find a small museum dedicated to the history and construction of this iconic and impressive structure as well as an observation deck offering a spectacular vista of the city.
In a quiet alleyway off George Street, Angel Place holds an Instagrammable art installation with a magical quality. Hanging above the alley is an array of mismatched birdcages, and while you’re looking up to admire the display, you may notice the sound of birdsong quietly drifting through the air. It was originally made as a temporary artwork but as people flocked to the alleyway to see the “Forgotten Songs” installation, it became a permanent fixture. The piece represents the 50 species of bird that once inhabited the city but were forced out with European settlement.
Sydney’s GPO (General Post Office) building is a truly wonderful example of classic sandstone architecture. On the corner of Martin Place and George Street, this landmark building shows off its impressive heritage-listed façade which was constructed with locally mined stone in the 1860s. Inside is a grand, light-filled atrium featuring a food court of classy restaurants and bars, and for a secret treasure, seek out the exhibition space for the original Tank Stream which is hidden in a nook on the lower level. Here, you can see a section of the tributary system that supplied Sydney with water in the late 1700s and early 1800s.
If you want to drink in Sydney’s best laneway bars, you’ve got to know where to find them. An obscure service alley off Clarence Street (between Market Street and King Street) will lead you to three hidden small bars. The Baxter Inn, which is entered through an unmarked fire door, serves a huge variety of whiskies in an old-timey basement bar. The Duke of Clarence feels like a homey London pub on the inside, complete with a roaring fireplace and walls lined with old books. The Barber Shop (which is also accessible through an unmarked door in the back of a real barber shop on York Street) has a classy cocktail list served in a hip venue.
A narrow laneway branching off Kensington Street in Chippendale leads to Spice Alley - one of Sydney’s most exciting foodie destinations. The hawker-style eateries here serve a variety of Asian dishes from Singapore Noodles to Hong Kong Yum Cha. Seating is available in the style of an open-air courtyard, so you can pick any seat under the hanging lanterns after choosing a few dishes to try. And the best thing? It’s BYO, so feel free to bring along a bottle of wine.
The people of Sydney love fusing old with new, with modern experiences often created in historic spaces. In the leafy suburb of Glebe, an old tram depot has been transformed into a modern dining destination named the Tramsheds. Restaurants and cafes fill the space with local produce, culinary delights, and a fresh atmosphere. Easy to reach via public transport (just hop on the light rail to Jubilee Park Station), the Tramsheds feature both permanent and pop-up retailers as well as a vintage tram on display.
Paddington Reservoir Gardens
This sunken garden is one of the best kept secrets in Sydney. Paddington Reservoir once held the city’s water supply until a larger and more efficient system came into use in 1899. The unused reservoir was eventually converted into a stunning garden in 2009 and is now a place where you can relax in a peaceful city haven. The gardens have been restored with much of the original framework which features towering rows of brick arches alongside modern metal and stone pathways. While you’re in the area, stroll through the fashionable shopping strip of Oxford Street and wander down William Street to see the eclectic mix of retail stores and traditional Victorian terraces that Sydney is so well known for.
A free public swimming pool is always a treat during Sydney’s hot summers, but the ocean baths at Bronte are a level up from your average pool. Bronte is one of Sydney’s best beaches, and unlike its better-known neighbour of Bondi, Bronte is hidden away from the crowds and frequented mostly by locals. Bronte Baths, considered one of Australia’s best ocean pools, are situated at the south end of the beach and are open to the public year-round. The historic baths were opened in 1887 and have been a local favourite ever since. Once you’ve finished taking a dip, see some gorgeous scenery on the Bondi to Bronte coastal walk.