It wasn’t my intention to write a post on free things to do in Sydney, but I had such a fun day wandering around the city for just a few dollars (lunch and dinner) that I thought I would share. Australia is definitely not the cheapest place to travel, and sometimes a day spent just walking around checking out the sites can be great on the budget while getting to know the city. Here are the things to do in Sydney for free.
Visit Sydney Observatory
The Sydney Observatory was built in the 1850s as has a prime location on a hill right near the Sydney Harbour Bridge. In fact, from the lawns out the front, there are great photo opportunities of the bridge. It seems to be a popular location for wedding photography as we saw two groups in the area taking photos.
The Observatory itself is free to enter and have a look around. They do offer paid tours, but I think for someone who only has a mild interest, just looking around is enough. If you happen to be here at 1pm you can observe the timeball on the roof dropping. In the past this was used by ships out in the harbour, as well as the Sydney General Post Office, to ensure their clocks were right on time.
Walk across the Sydney Harbour Bridge
There are a few options to enjoy the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Of course you can do the famous bridge climb, but that can cost hundreds of dollars. Another option is to pay to climb up inside one of the pylons for a view over the harbour. Walking across the bridge though is free, with almost the same fabulous views – and some may argue better views because of the angle.
We spent around half an hour walking across the bridge and back taking copious photos of the Opera House, ferries, the magnificent harbour and the bridge itself. Definitely feels like I have finally ticked something off my bucket list.
Explore The Rocks
The historical Rocks area was one of the first settled by Europeans in Australia. It now consists of some original buildings and narrow laneways right near the Sydney Harbour Bridge and Circular Quay. In more recent times this area has become a hub for visitors with many trendy restaurants, small museums and boutique stores, perfect for some fossicking for a unique souvenir. From Friday to Sunday markets run in the area giving it an even more festive atmosphere.
Visit the Museum of Contemporary Art, Australia
Located right next to Circular Quay, the Museum of Contemporary Art is free to enter and take a look at the main exhibitions. I am no art connoisseur, but we spent an enjoyable half an hour or so wandering through the galleries. There’s a big clock that sits in one of the galleries with the back open to see the mechanics and I was completely mesmerised by how it all works. For those who are interested, there are extra temporary exhibitions, but they do have an entry fee.
There is also a cafe and a terrace on the roof with some great views of the Sydney Harbour bridge and Circular Quay, so it may be worth popping in just for the view.
Soak in the Circular Quay atmosphere
There’s no better place to while away some time than Circular Quay. There is always plenty of action, with ferries coming in and out, buskers dotted around, many locals and visitors alike in the area. There could be a cruise ship in port and of course there are stunning views of both the Opera House and the Sydney Harbour Bridge.
We grabbed a quick bite to eat in this area and sat on a bench enjoying our lunch and views over the harbour. Of course there are many restaurants and cafes around to grab a meal, but most of these places and not great for those on a budget.
Admire the Opera House
Arguably one of the most recognisable buildings in the world, the Sydney Opera House just out into Sydney Harbour on it’s own little piece of land, surrounded on three sides by sea. The Opera House is home to multiple performing arts areas, and holds over 1500 different events each year. Even if you are not attending one of the events, you are still able to visit. Take a walk right up close to the famous sails and explore the public areas of the Opera House.
At certain times of year the Opera House becomes a work of art in itself with images projected onto the sails. This will be common during the Vivid festival in May/June, but it can happen any time, such as recently when the sails commemorated the huge effort the volunteer firefighters made during the recent bushfires in Australia.
If you are really interested in the Opera House, there is also a paid tour available to have a good look around and learn all about it.
Stroll Through the Royal Botanic Gardens
Escape from the hustle and bustle by taking a stroll through the Royal Botanic Gardens. There is plenty of space here to relax. Perhaps pack a picnic for lunch and enjoy it on one of the many lawns. You could also explore the various gardens, from the Herbarium to the Australian rockery or the Oriental Garden.
Keep an eye out for events too, as some of them may be free. During our visit we came across the Tomato Festival Sydney which consisted of some food and drink stalls with things to try and food and drink to purchase. .
Take in the views at Mrs Macquarie’s Chair
While in the Royal Botanic Gardens take a walk to Mrs Macquarie’s Point and sit in her chair. The person in question was Elizabeth Macquarie, the wife of the then-governor Major-General Lachlan Macquarie. The chair is actually a carved sandstone rock created by convicts in 1810. The story goes that Mrs Macquarie liked to sit on the rock and watch the ships coming in and out of Sydney Harbour.
From this point today, there are also great views back towards the Opera House and Harbour Bridge. My favourite photos of the harbour, including the one at the top were taken as we walked along the foreshore on our way here.
Check out the Reading Room in the State Library of NSW
As we left the Royal Botanic Gardens we spotted the State Library of NSW. I’ve seen many other beautiful libraries around the world but had never heard a thing about this one. It’s an impressive building from the outside, and we were not disappointed by the inside either. I just loved the stained glass windows in the Mitchell Library Reading Room.
There is an exhibition and display area that has changing local information and things to do. During our visit we saw some Aboriginal story telling. I thought an up coming exhibition regarding local burial sites in the city centre could be interesting too.
We just wandered around a little, but the library is a great option is you need access to free wifi or some space to work quietly for a while.
Step back in time in the Queen Victoria Building
The Queen Victoria Building was completed in 1898 and has been kept in that same style so visiting gives the feeling that you have stepped back in time. It is filled with boutique stores and lovely little tea rooms making it an elegant place to stop for a sweet treat.
The QVB is also well known for it’s elaborate decorations at different times of the year. During this visit it was celebrating the recent Lunar New Year and the beginning of the Year of the Rat. On a past visit I saw a beautifully decorated Christmas tree rising up three or four stories in the main atrium.
People watch in Darling Harbour
Another precinct in Sydney that is worth a visit for the sheer pleasure of people watching is Darling Harbour. This area is often bustling, especially in the evening as there are many restaurants and nightclubs to be found here. As the sun goes down the buildings light up making a pretty backdrop.
Make sure you are down here on Saturday night if you are in Sydney to see the fireworks that happen each weekend. The normally happen about 9pm.
More Free Things to do in Sydney
These things are not ones that I was able to squeeze into my day, but perhaps you will be able to fit them into your time in Sydney
Free Walking Tour
I love free walking tours and I saw plenty of them as we walked around. While I’ve not done a Sydney Tour, I have done a Melbourne one with this company and I really enjoyed it. They offer two free tours in Sydney, one of the general Sydney sights, and another through the historical Rocks area.
Bondi to Coogee Walk
Walking along the cliffs from Bondi to Coogee is one of the most popular free things to do in Sydney. This beautiful walk is around 6km long and takes 1.5 – 2 hours to walk. The path takes walkers past five beaches, an interesting cemetery, and numerous cliffs and parks.
Go to the Beach
What’s more iconic in Sydney than a visit to the beach? There are dozens of beaches to choose from, but the most popular two are Bondi and Manly. Both can be reached easily by public transport. Bondi is the most well known, especially since the tv show “Bondi Rescue” made the surf lifesavers famous. Bondi is always busy and always fun. Manly, on the other hand, has the advantage that you need to take a ferry to get to it. While this is not free, it’s the cheapest harbour cruise around. The ferries leave from Circular Quay, and drop you a short walk from Manly Beach. Manly is possibly even more beautiful than Bondi, and the area is filled with delicious eateries and great shopping. Take your pick of either beach.
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Free Things to do in Melbourne
Things to do in Adelaide
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Josie is a forty-something budget traveller. She only discovered travel in her late thirties, but since then has travelled extensively including taking an adult gap year. She is now based in Australia and loves sharing all she has learned about travelling on a budget but with the comforts a Gen Xer requires.