There’s no getting away from the fact that Sydney's a pricey place. Locals love to flash the cash and spend it, and you’ll find that eating, drinking and sleeping can all seriously drain your hard-earned travel fund.
But the flip side is that so many of Sydney’s genuine highlights are absolutely free – there’s absolutely loads to do that won’t cost you a cent. The great outdoors is key: Sydney’s magical array of beaches and national parks are all free to access. The city center also has a lot going on in terms of free historical attractions, galleries and museums. Here are our top picks for experiencing Sydney without going bankrupt.
1. Hit the beach
Sydney’s soul is found on the sand. With some 40 ocean beaches stretching over nearly 88km (55 miles) of coastline, as well as dozens more in Sydney Harbour and Botany Bay, you are totally spoiled for choice. The expansive crescent of Bondi is deservedly famous, but you’re sure to find your own favorite.
The Eastern Beaches run south from Bondi and are easily accessed by bus; the Northern Beaches are further from the city core and a little wilder. Many have seawater pools, which allow for calmer swimming away from the pounding breakers. Sydney's smaller harborfront beaches offer more sedate water, which is excellent for younger children.
Local tip: At the ocean beaches, be sure to swim between the flags to avoid strong currents, and so the lifeguards can keep an eye on you.
2. March across Sydney Harbour Bridge
Iconic and enormous, the majestic Sydney Harbour Bridge (circa 1932) spans the harbor right in the heart of the city. The best way to appreciate its scale and location is on foot. Stairs and elevators climb up the bridge from both shores, leading to a footpath on the eastern side (the western side is a bike path).
Getting the train to Milsons Point and walking back toward the city is the most spectacular way to do it: the approaching skyline and epic harbor vistas are breathtaking. It's the next best thing to shelling out for the popular, if expensive, BridgeClimb, which is a guided tour right to the very top of the bridge.
3. Cliff-hop along the Bondi to Coogee Trail
Getting you up close and personal with some epic Sydney scenery, the Bondi to Coogee Coastal Walk should not be missed. The city’s most renowned and popular pathway takes you along a series of stunning beaches, the rocky headlands that bracket them and the wide blue ocean. Whales are often visible offshore. Both ends of the walk are well connected to bus routes, as are most points in between should you feel too hot and bothered to continue – although a cooling dip at any of the beaches en route should cure that (pack your bathing suit).
Local tip: Carry water and apply plenty of sun protection, as this walk offers minimal shade.
4. Board the Manly Ferry
Plenty of cruises show off one of the world’s most spectacular harbors, but you can get the very same views by jumping on a ferry.
Okay, technically the ferry isn’t free, but the small public transport fare represents a massive saving once you’re out on the water, watching the glorious bays and foreshores slip past. The half-hour ride to Manly from Circular Quay gives you the best experience, giving you a long look at Sydney’s slick eastern suburbs before taking you past the heads that guard the entrance from the ocean. But ferries to Watson’s Bay are also a great option, as are the Rivercat services up to Parramatta.
5. Luxuriate in the Royal Botanic Garden
Draped around the harbor in the heart of town, the Royal Botanic Garden was established in 1816 and features verdant plant life from around the world set against an unforgettable backdrop. Within the gardens are hothouses with palms and ferns, as well as the Calyx, a striking exhibition space featuring a curving glasshouse gallery with a wall of greenery and plant-themed temporary exhibitions. Look out too for the pop-up bar that opens in summer by the water.
The gardens include the site of the colony's first paltry vegetable patch, but their history goes back much further than that. Long before colonization and the arrival of the convicts, this was an initiation ground for the Gadigal people, the original inhabitants of central Sydney. Free 1.5-hour guided walks depart from the visitor center at 10:30am daily.
Local tip: Book ahead for a (paid) Aboriginal Harbour Heritage Tour with an Indigenous guide.
6. Dive into Australia’s past and present at the Art Gallery of NSW
With its neoclassical Greek frontage and modern rear, the much-loved Art Gallery of NSW plays a prominent and gregarious role in Sydney society. Blockbuster international touring exhibitions arrive regularly and there's an outstanding free-to-visit permanent collection of Australian art, including a substantial Aboriginal art section. Next door, you’ll find the art gallery’s latest addition: The Sydney Modern Project. The gorgeous new building is all light and perspective. The gallery also plays host to lectures, concerts, screenings, celebrity talks and children's activities.
Local tip: A range of free guided tours are offered on different themes and in various languages. Check the art gallery’s website for more information.
7. Feel the vibe in the Inner West
The coolest cats in Sydney hang out in the Inner West, a series of suburbs stretching south and west of Sydney’s downtown core. It’s a bastion of students, socialism and long-standing Aboriginal and immigrant communities, with gentrification having brought craft breweries, seriously good cafes and eye-watering rental prices into the mix. Redfern, Glebe, Chippendale and Marrickville are all appealing for a stroll and a bite or meal, but Newtown’s humming vibe of restaurants, street performers, pubs and quirky characters make an evening out here a great Sydney experience.
Local tip: Plenty of the cheaper restaurants in this area are BYO, meaning that you can “bring your own” wine to drink for a small corkage fee.
8. Immerse yourself in harbor heritage at Cockatoo Island
The short ferry hop to Cockatoo Island transports you straight to Sydney’s past – the island is strewn with evidence of a history that has seen it be a prison, a shipyard and a naval base. Stroll the photogenic industrial relics and explore the atmospheric tunnel that bores right through from one side to the other.
A wide range of tours add levels of insight to the experience and regular art exhibitions and installations occupy some of the buildings. It’s a fascinating day trip, but you can make a night of it too if you want to splash out – there’s a campground offering various levels of enticing glamping accommodation.
9. Take a stroll and a dip at Barangaroo Reserve
Where dockworkers once toiled, families now stroll at this pretty headland park that offers gorgeous harborside paths, an exhibition space and a pretty little swimming cove, Marrinawi. Formerly a dockyard, the park links the excellent eating scene near Barangaroo ferry stop with the picturesque wharves of Walsh Bay, home to theater and dance companies.
10. Learn about Aboriginal history at the Rocks Discovery Museum
The excellent Rocks Discovery Museum may be situated in the heart of the Rocks tourist precinct, but still manages to fly under the radar. It digs deep into Sydney’s history with artifact-rich displays divided into four sections: Warrane (pre-1788), Colony (1788–1820), Port (1820–1900) and Transformations (1900 to the present). It’s a particularly good way to learn about the Rocks’ original inhabitants, the Gadigal people; there are also intriguing tales of early colonial characters.
Local tip: The third floor holds temporary exhibitions, which you can check out in advance on the museum's website.
11. Feel the drama at North Head
Memorable North Head, looming over the entrance to Sydney Harbour, offers dramatic cliffs, lookouts, secluded beaches, pretty paths through the native scrub and sweeping views of the ocean, harbor and city. It's great to explore by bike or on foot. Plot your own path past former military barracks, World War II gun emplacements, a quarantine cemetery and a memorial walk commemorating Australia's military. At the tip, Fairfax Lookouts offer dramatic clifftop perspectives.
A roughly 9km (5.5 mile), four-hour walking route loops around the park; pick up a brochure from the visitor center. Also here is the historic Q Station, once a quarantine stop for incoming ship passengers and well worth exploring. North Head is believed to have been used as a ceremonial site by the native Cammeraygal people. These days, most of the headland is part of Sydney Harbour National Park.
Local tip: Get here from central Sydney via the ferry to Manly.
12. Hike through the Royal National Park
A huge expanse of subtropical rainforest, windblown coastal scrub, sandstone gullies dominated by gum trees, freshwater and saltwater wetlands, secluded beaches and dramatic cliffs, the Royal National Park is a fabulous spot south of the city.
Traditionally the home of the Dharawal people, there are also numerous Aboriginal sites and artifacts. Established in 1879, it is the second-oldest national park in the world after Yellowstone in the USA. Walking trails include the spectacular 26km (16-mile, two-day) Coast Track, accessible by public transport at each end. Importantly, most beaches are not patrolled and rip currents can make them dangerous.
The Instagram-famous Figure Eight Pools are particularly perilous and should be visited on a guided tour. (If you decide to go it alone, check the National Park website for the tide forecast on the day of your visit and only visit if it’s safe to do so at low tide.) Garie, Wattamolla, Era, South Era and Burning Palms are popular surf beaches and Werrong Beach is "clothing optional."
13. Get insight into an artist's mind at Brett Whiteley Studio
Acclaimed local artist Brett Whiteley (1939–1992) lived fast and without restraint but his bad-boy reputation was matched by the scale of his talent. Many of his awesome paintings were created in this hard-to-find studio (look for the signs on Devonshire and Bourke Streets), which has been preserved as a gallery, open weekends only.
Pride of place goes to his astonishing Alchemy, a giant multi-panel extravaganza that could absorb you for hours with its broad themes, intricate details and humorous asides. The upstairs studio room gives insight into this masterful draftsman's character and off-the-wall genius.
14. Venture down the rabbit hole at White Rabbit
In many ways Sydney's best contemporary art gallery, White Rabbit is tucked away behind the Central Park development in Chippendale. It's the project of billionaire philanthropist Judith Neilson, who has amassed one of the world's largest collections of cutting-edge, contemporary Chinese art (works produced since 2000) and has so many pieces that only a fraction can be displayed at one time. You'll find art here that is edgy, funny, sexy and idiosyncratic.
Local tip: If you get hungry, an on-site cafe does specialty teas and dumplings, or head to nearby Spice Alley.
15. Delve into the past at the University of Sydney
The University of Sydney sits in sandstone splendor at the beginning of the intriguing suburbs of the Inner West. A genuine gem is its Chau Chak Wing Museum, an eclectic collection of art and artifacts housed in a relaxing modern display. The highlight is the fascinating classical and western Asian archaeological collection, which includes a Lego model of Pompeii that is an absolute must-see. Make sure to leave a bit of time to stroll the university’s pretty grounds.
Local tip: An afternoon visit here makes the ideal precursor to an evening checking out the bars and restaurant scene of nearby Newtown.
16. Nose around the city’s weekend markets
Sydney’s thriving market scene brings character and color to the city’s weekends. Originating in the 1970s, when they were drenched in the scent of patchouli oil, the Paddington Markets are considerably more mainstream these days. However, they are still worth exploring for their new and vintage clothing, crafts and jewelry. Meanwhile, Glebe Markets keep the hippie vibe alive, while the farmers’ market at Carriageworks has produce of all varieties. Look out for events by Blak Markets, who run lively markets at La Perouse and other city locations. It’s a social enterprise with all that you spend going directly into the pockets of Aboriginal stallholders.
17. Immerse yourself in Australian art at the Museum of Contemporary Art
Right on the harbor by Circular Quay, the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) is a showcase for Australian and international contemporary art, with a rotating permanent collection and temporary exhibitions. Aboriginal art features prominently. The art deco original building has had a modern space grafted onto it, the highlight of which is the rooftop cafe with stunning views over Circular Quay and the harbor. There are free guided tours daily in several languages.
18. Praise the architecture at St James' Church
Built from convict-made bricks in 1819, St James' Church is Sydney’s oldest. It’s also widely considered to be architect Francis Greenway's masterpiece. Greenway was a liberated convict who initially designed this as a courthouse, but the brief changed, and the cells became the crypt. Check out the dark-wood choir loft, the sparkling copper dome, the crypt and the 1950s stained-glass "Creation Window." It's worth reading the marble plaques along the walls for some insights into early colonial life and exploration. A more recent plaque commemorates former prime minister Gough Whitlam and his partner Margaret.
Local tip: The church has an active program of music, with regular lunchtime concerts and other choral events.
19. Snorkel among marine life at Shelly Beach
The Sydney Aquarium may be pricey, but you can see plenty of marine life in its natural habitat at Shelly Beach. This pretty, sheltered, north-facing ocean cove is an appealing 1km (0.6-mile) walk from the busy Manly beach strip. The tranquil waters are a protected haven for marine life, offering wonderful snorkeling.
Local tip: You can easily combine this with an exploration of nearby North Head (see above).
20. Feel the poignancy of the Anzac Memorial
The dignified art deco Anzac Memorial commemorates WWI soldiers of the Australia and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZACs). The interior dome is studded with 120,000 stars, one for each NSW soldier who served. These twinkle above Rayner Hoff’s poignant sculpture Sacrifice. The downstairs Hall of Service features names and soil samples of all the NSW places of origin of WWI soldiers.
There's a daily 11am remembrance service here; alongside is an exhibition with stories and artifacts of some of those who fought. Pines at the southwestern entry grew from seeds gathered at Gallipoli in Turkey, the site of the Anzacs' most renowned WWI campaign. Near the memorial, a modern sculpture of bullets titled Yininmadyemi commemorates Aboriginal service personnel and the location of a former Gadigal ritual contest ground.
21. Peruse the tomes at the State Library of NSW
Among the State Library of NSW's more than five million books are James Cook’s and Joseph Banks’ journals and William Bligh’s log from the mutinous Bounty. It's worth dropping in to peruse the elaborately sculpted bronze doors and grand atrium of the neoclassical Mitchell Wing (1910); note the beautiful map of Tasman’s journeys on the mosaic floor. The main reading room is an elegant temple of knowledge clad in milky marble. On this level and upstairs are some excellent exhibition galleries highlighting the breadth of the collection.
22. Unwind in a Secret Garden
On the shore of Lavender Bay, Wendy Whiteley's Secret Garden is one of Sydney's hidden treasures. The public garden was created by artist Brett Whiteley's widow (an artist herself) on an old railway siding and is accessed through Clark Park, off Lavender Street. You can stroll on from here to McMahon’s Point, where there’s an awesome view of the bridge and Opera House as well as a ferry back to Circular Quay.
23. Gaze in awe from Barrenjoey Lighthouse
This historic sandstone lighthouse (1881) sits at the northern tip of the Northern Beaches in an annex of Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park. You've got two route options – shorter stairs or a winding, convict-built track – for the steep hike to the top, but majestic views across Pittwater and down the peninsula are worth the effort. The top is also good for whale watching. The route starts from the car park in the reserve at the northern end of Palm Beach, runs along the beach on the Pittwater side and then up the hill.
Local tip: There are no toilets at the top.
24. Get outdoors and active at Centennial Park
Scratched out of the sand in 1888 in grand Victorian style, Centennial Park, Sydney’s biggest, is a rambling 190-hectare (470-acre) expanse full of horse riders, runners, cyclists and in-line skaters, as well as lower heart-rate strollers, nappers and picnickers. Grab a park map at any of the entrances or the information center in the middle.
Local tip: Keep your eye out for free events in Sydney's warmer months.