While we’d never describe Sydney as cheap, one of the joys of the Harbour City is how much there is to do that won’t cost you a cent. The great outdoors is key, with Sydney’s magical array of beaches and national parks all free to access. The center holds some excellent historic attractions that don’t charge entry, and a network of museums and galleries will keep you more than entertained on an indoorsy day. Here are our top picks for experiencing Sydney totally gratis.
Hit the beach
Sydney is sand city and with some 40 ocean beaches stretching over nearly 40 miles of coastline as well as dozens more in Sydney Harbour and Botany Bay, you are definitely spoiled for choice. The luxuriant 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 downtown and a little wilder. Make sure you swim between the flags so the lifesavers can keep an eye on you. Sydney’s smaller harbor-front beaches offer more sedate water, which are great for younger children and less confident swimmers.
Traverse the Sydney Harbour Bridge
Sydneysiders are proud of the giant Sydney Harbour Bridge, which opened in 1932. The best way to experience this majestic structure 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 skyline and harbor vistas are breathtaking. It’s the next best thing to shelling out for the popular, if expensive, BridgeClimb which takes you to the very top of the bridge with a tour guide.
Walk the Bondi to Coogee Clifftop Trail
The city’s most renowned and popular walk, the Bondi to Coogee coastal path really shouldn’t be missed. It gets you up close and personal with some epic Sydney scenery: a series of stunning beaches, the rocky headlands that bracket them and the wide blue ocean, with whales 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). Carry water and sun protection as it’s comparatively exposed.
Explore North Head
Memorable North Head, guarding 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.
The 5.5-mile, four-hour Manly Scenic Walkway 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.
Stroll the Royal Botanic Garden
The Royal Botanic Garden was established in 1816 and features plant life from around the world set against an unforgettable harbor 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 temporary plant-themed exhibitions.
The gardens include the site of the colony’s first paltry vegetable patch, but their history goes back much further than that. Long before the convicts arrived, this was an initiation ground for the Gadigal (Cadigal) people. Free 1.5-hour guided walks depart from the visitor center at 10:30am daily, plus 1pm on March to November weekdays. Book ahead for a (paid) Aboriginal Heritage Tour with an Indigenous guide.
Admire the collection at 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. And it’s only getting better, with Sydney Modern set to become a spectacular new addition when it opens in December 2022.
The gallery also plays host to lectures, concerts, screenings, celebrity talks and children’s activities. A range of free guided tours are offered on different themes and in various languages. Check the website for more information.
Learn Aboriginal history at the Rocks Discovery Museum
Right in the heart of the Rocks but flying under the radar, the small but excellent Rocks Discovery Museum digs deep into Sydney’s history with an artifact-rich display. Divided into four sections – Warrane (pre-1788), Colony (1788–1820), Port (1820–1900) and Transformations (1900 to the present) – this is particularly good to learn about the Rocks’ original inhabitants, the Gadigal (Cadigal) people; there are also interesting tales of early colonial characters. The third floor holds temporary exhibitions.
Hike through the Royal National Park
Encompassing pockets 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, south of the city, is a fabulous spot.
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 16-mile (two-day) Coast Track. Most beaches are not patrolled, and rips can make them dangerous. The Instagram-famous Figure Eight Pools are particularly perilous, and should only be visited on a guided tour. Garie, Wattamolla, Era, South Era and Burning Palms are popular surf beaches, and Werrong Beach is “clothing optional”.
Get insight into an artist mind at Brett Whiteley Studio
Acclaimed local artist Brett Whiteley (1939–1992) lived fast and without restraint. Many of his multimillion-dollar 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.
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 studio room upstairs gives insight into the character of this masterful draughtsman and off-the-wall genius.
Take in the 1930’s vibe of Luna Park
A chip-toothed clown face (50 times life-sized) forms the entrance to Luna Park, an old-fashioned amusement park overlooking Sydney Harbour. It’s one of several 1930’s features, including the Coney Island funhouse, a pretty carousel and the nausea-inducing Rotor. You can wander through without buying a ticket, though the rides do charge admission.
Go 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. An on-site cafe does speciality teas and dumplings.
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 hidden gem is its Chau Chak Wing Museum, an eclectic collection of art and artifacts housed in a relaxing modern display. The highlight is the archaeological collection, which includes a Lego model of Pompeii that is a must-see. if you have time stroll the university’s pretty grounds.
Check out Australian art at the Museum of Contemporary Art
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 on to 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.
Peruse the star-gazing equipment at Sydney Observatory
Built in the 1850’s, the copper-domed, Italianate sandstone Sydney Observatory squats atop Observatory Hill, overlooking the harbor. Inside is an intriguing collection of vintage apparatus as well as background on Australian astronomy and transits of Venus. The observatory was originally built to determine the correct time via astronomical observations. On the roof, a signal ball still drops at exactly 1pm. The hill was also used to signal to ships from two high flagpoles, one of which has been reconstructed. Research at the observatory ceased in 1983.
Read the plaques at St James’ Church
Built from convict-made bricks, St James’ Church, Sydney’s oldest (1819), is widely considered to be architect Francis Greenway’s masterpiece. It was originally designed 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.
Experience Sydney’s hub of faith at St Mary’s Cathedral
Sydney has traditionally been quite a Catholic city, and St Mary’s Cathedral is the hub of the faith. Built to last, this 350ft-long sandstone Gothic Revival–style cathedral was begun in 1868, consecrated in 1905 and substantially finished in 1928, though the massive, 250ft-high spires weren’t added until 2000. The church is free to visit, though there’s a small $5 admission fee to see the crypt, which has bishops’ tombs and an impressive cross-shaped terrazzo mosaic floor depicting Creation, inspired by the Celtic-style illuminations of the Book of Kells.
Listen in at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music
The historic Sydney Conservatorium of Music, Australia’s premier musical training institution, showcases the talents of its students and their teachers, with frequent free recitals during semester. The castellated “Con” was designed in 1817 by convict architect Francis Greenway as the stables and servants’ quarters of Governor Macquarie’s new house. Partly because of the project’s extravagance, Macquarie was ousted before it was complete. In 1915 the stables were converted into a conservatorium, now part of the University of Sydney. Subsequent renovations (equally extravagant) created five world-class venues.
Snorkel among marine life at Shelly Beach
The Sydney Aquarium may be pricey, but you can see plenty of marine life in their natural habitat at Shelly Beach. This pretty, sheltered, north-facing ocean cove is an appealing 0.6-mile (1km) walk from the busy Manly beach strip. The tranquil waters are a protected haven for marine life, so it offers wonderful snorkeling. Take the Manly ferry and some swimming goggles.
Go for a run at Centennial Park
Scratched out of the sand in 1888 in grand Victorian style, Centennial Park, Sydney’s biggest, is a rambling 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. Keep your eye out for free events in Sydney’s warmer months.
Browse the 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 but are still worth exploring for their new and vintage clothing, crafts and jewelry. Meanwhile, Glebe Markets keep the hippie vibe alive, while the farmer’s market at Carriageworks has succulent produce of all varieties.
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.
Peruse the tomes at the State Library of NSW
Among the State Library of NSW‘s more than five million tomes 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 in 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 new exhibition galleries highlighting the collection.
Unwind in Wendy Whiteley’s 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.
Gaze in awe from Barrenjoey Lighthouse
This historic sandstone lighthouse (1881) sits at the northern tip of the Northern Beaches in an annexe 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. Note: there are no toilets at the top.