The best ways to experience Sydney Harbour
By Maxim Boon Posted: Thursday October 24 2019
There’s a good reason why Sydney is often called the Harbour City: this place is defined by its connection to the water. Which is hardly a surprise, given Sydney has a heck of a lot of H2O and a heck of a lot of ways to enjoy it.
Beyond the headlands, Sydney’s shores are dotted with some of the best beaches in the world, as well as picturesque coastal paths, buzzing seafront neighbourhoods, and between May and November, awesome whale watching. But the more sheltered waters of the Harbour have their own irresistible charms.
Whether you’re in it, on it, or simply admiring it, here are our top recommendations for the best ways to experience Sydney Harbour.
At the beach
The classic stereotype of the Sydney beach is one of golden sands, with ocean all the way to the horizon. But within the harbour, there are dozens of beachfronts that can easily hold their own next to their flashy sea-facing cousins. Within its sheltered estuaries, the waves are far calmer, making harbour beaches – such as Parsley Bay, Balmoral, Camp Cove and Store Beach – the ideal place for a swim or snorkel without the risk of rip tides or wipeouts. Many of these harbour shores are also wonderfully secluded, which is why several allow visitors to go nude, should your exhibitionist side need some fun in the sun.
On a ferry
A familiar sight crisscrossing the harbour, the fleet of 32 Sydney ferries nimbly navigate the length and breadth of both north and south shores every day. The aquatic workhorses of Sydney’s public transport network will get you efficiently from A to B, but the journey itself is also a joy. Stout and sturdy, these emerald and beige beauties chug along at a relatively leisurely pace, so you can really take in the harbour’s wonders. A trip to Cockatoo Island takes you beneath the Harbour Bridge, so you can get an up-close glimpse of its iron underbelly, whereas catching the boat to Manly offers a whistle-stop tour the harbour’s lush eastern edge. Looking to up the thrill factor? Catch the fast service to Manly and enjoy 18 minutes of bracing speed and salty spray.
On a boat
The ferries are by no means alone on the water; Sydney Harbour is the stage for an intricate ballet of boating traffic. Taking your own private yacht out for a spin is beyond the reach of most of us, but fortunately, there are plenty of other nautical adventures that are more readily available. Self-charter services put you in the captain's chair, and clearly marked Destination berths and marinas allow you to drop anchor and take advantage of amenities like Wi-Fi, public bathrooms and wash down facilities. Simply look for the green and blue flags. If you’re a landlubber who needs a more experienced mariner behind the wheel, services like Flotespace, jet boats, dining cruises, whale watching excursions, and water taxis can help you take to the waves.
At a waterfront bar
As the stunning Sydney sunset sparkles on the harbour, is there anything more satisfying than looking out on that expanse of blue, a perfectly mixed cocktail or ice-cold beer in hand? If there is, we sure haven’t found it. In fact, no matter what vibe you’re chasing – be it relaxed and pubby or up-market swank – you’ll find something harbourside to suit your taste. The Bavarian in Manly is perfect for a chilled-out pint, or you can dive into the hustle and bustle of the Opera Bar, ideal for people-watching against the world’s most true blue backdrop. For sheer sophistication, head immediately to Bennelong, the Watsons Bay Boutique Hotel or the city's most storied restaurant, Quay. However, if it’s views you’re after, the glass walls and sweeping aspects of Henry Deane's Millers Point perch can’t be beaten.
At an outdoor pool
Sydneysiders are blessed with a truly world-class collection of outdoor pools, several of which happen to be right on the water’s edge. The Andrew Boy Charlton (that’s ABC to those in the know) hugs Woolloomooloo Bay and is as much a hub for socialising as it is for swimming. When it comes to the question of which pool has the best view, it’s a close-run contest between McCallum and North Sydney Olympic. With the sprawling vista of the CBD on the horizon, McCallum has a picture-postcard perspective. North Sydney Olympic, on the other hand, sits in the shadow of the Harbour Bridge, with unrivalled views of the Opera House and Luna Park. Which is best? You decide.
By kayak or paddle board
Gnarly dudes and bitchin’ bettys have been carving up A-frames on Sydney’s shores since surfing was first introduced Down Under in 1915. Inside the headlands, however, the waters are a little less tubular and a little more zen. Hire a paddleboard from the Balmoral Boathouse, and you'll experience the serenity of being out in nature, unplugged from the hustle of daily life. You can up the physicality a notch by exploring the harbour by kayak. There are many kayaking clubs and hires on offer, but our favourite has to be Sydney by Kayak, which begins its tours at dawn so you can be out on the flat-calm as the sun rises on the Pacific.