Paddington Reservoir Gardens, Sydney, NSW © Josef Nalevansky, City of Sydney
Sydney’s hidden gems
It may be home to its fair share of Australia's icons, but Sydney is still full of surprises.
By Ashlea Wheeler
Laneway bars, sunken gardens, and ocean baths are just a few of the quirky secrets hiding in Sydney. If you think you've seen and done it all, it's time to think again.
Where: 1001 Upper Fort St, Millers Point
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.
Paddington Reservoir Gardens
Where: 251-255 Oxford St, Paddington
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.
For an inexpensive harbour cruise, take the ferry from Circular Quay to Manly. You'll be rewarded with outstanding views of the bridge, Opera House and city skyline.
Where: the southeast corner of the Sydney Harbour Bridge
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 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.
Where: 1 Martin Place, Sydney
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.
Take a walking tour with Culture Scouts to see the city's modern urban design, heritage architecture, and the public art hiding in plain sight.
Where: Angel Place, Sydney
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.
Where: Clarence Street, Sydney
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.
Where: Kensington Street, Chippendale
A narrow laneway branching off Kensington Street 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 (bring your own), so feel free to bring along a bottle of wine.
Where: 1 Dalgal Way, Forest Lodge
The people of Sydney love fusing old with new, with modern experiences often created in historic spaces. In the leafy suburb of Forest Lodge, an old tram depot has been transformed into a modern dining destination named the Tramsheds. Restaurants and cafés 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.
Where: the south end of Bronte Beach
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, is 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.