Top 5

Former Sydney resident David Whitley shares his top five local secrets for those who want to go beyond the usual Bondi and Opera House trail


Admittedly, I’m biased here, but I doubt there’s a better city in the world for a holiday than Sydney. You could spend weeks exploring it, getting equal doses of nightlife, culture, beach-bumming and the great outdoors. But to get the most out of Sydney, you need to venture beyond the highlights reel. And here are five great ways to start...


1.The Northern Beaches 

Pretty much everyone who goes to Bondi Beach finds it something of a disappointment. The reason Bondi is famous is not that it’s Sydney’s best beach, but that it’s the closest one to the city centre. If you want genuinely lovely beaches, then head north of the harbour.

Beyond the rather tourist-trappy Manly, a string of them line the coast all the way up to Barrenjoey Head. Some – such as Narrabeen/ Collaroy and Palm Beach – are impressive because of their size, while others are beautiful because so few people go there. Bilgola and Bungan beaches are classic examples.

2. Middle harbour – by kayak

There’s far more to Sydney Harbour than just going on a cruise. Sure, you can see most of the main sights from a boat, but intimate explorations need to be conducted by kayak.

The most fascinating stretch is Middle Harbour, a craggy branch-off that bursts into the north shore like a lightning bolt. The cliffs, creeks, rock pools and stretches of untamed greenery are genuinely magnificent and taking them in at a slow pace makes them much more rewarding.

The duck’s eye view of the yachts and ferries is pretty special too.

Sydney Harbour Kayaks, based at the Spit Bridge on the north shore of the harbour, hires out kayaks and conducts kayaking tours of Middle Harbour

3. The Cricketers

Unless you’re a walking backpacker stereotype, a sports obsessive or a preening princess who likes to go to places purely to look good and have drinks bought for you by slimeballs in suits, then Sydney’s bar scene is atrocious.

Recent licensing law changes have attempted to address the problem by allowing specialist small bars to compete with the giant poser barns, but only a few interesting candidates have trickled through so far.

There is the odd gem once you get out of the city centre, however. My favourite is the Cricketers Arms in Surry Hills. By rights it should be a sporting meat-market as it’s close to the main stadiums, but it retains a young, muso vibe and a grungey cool.

4. The bats of the Botanic Gardens

Sydney has one of the best zoos in the world – a visit to Taronga should be on any visitor’s schedule – but the city’s most extraordinary wildlife encounter comes in the Botanic Gardens. Look carefully at the trees, and you’ll see thousands of flying foxes dangling from them. During the day, it’s a bizarre sight, but it’s magical when they wake up.

Head to the Botanic Gardens at dusk and you’ll see them all take off in search of food – hundreds can be spotted flying at once, almost in formation.

5.Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park

When I was living in Sydney, my dad came to visit once. He said one thing that will always stay with me – “Wow! There’s jungle in the middle of the city”.

Jungle is pushing it, but Ku-ring-gai is still an amazing stretch of wilderness that is scandalously underappreciated by Sydneysiders themselves. Inside the National Park is an amazingly peaceful world of walking trails, Aboriginal rock carvings and occasional water views. It’s a perfect slice of largely forgotten bushland, and it feels totally detached from one of the world’s major 24 hour cities.


More photos here


Sydney wander


David Whitley attempts to tick off Sydney’s must-sees and cultural attractions – but ends up on a glorious walk to nowhere.


Noble intentions and savage hangovers don’t tend to mix that well. And that’s my excuse for spending 20 minutes shambling around the Museum of Sydney before conceding to myself that I wasn’t taking anything in. Sydney is my second home. I lived there for just under five years, and enjoyed the experience enormously. But as is so often the case when you live somewhere, I was a bad tourist whilst there. There are so many things to do and places to see in Sydney, but I’d only scratched the surface during my stint as a resident.


So today’s mission was supposed to be a bit of a cultural trail, checking out the museums and attractions around Circular Quay and the Rocks that I’ve never bothered to go in before. Unfortunately, while there are lots of things to see and do in Sydney, I also know a lot of people there. And, predictably enough, the first day turned into a marathon alcoholic blur. A picnic in the park turned into a day-long festival of binge drinking, out-of-tune singing and catching up on the latest interpersonal scandals.


Therefore my cultural tour the next day, packing in one museum after another, turned into a few hours of aimless wandering.  And you know what? Aimless wandering is thoroughly underrated. Sometimes it’s great to put the map down, banish any must-sees from your mind and just walk where your whims take you. Sydney is magnificent for this (well, right up until the point where you spend two minutes at each pedestrian crossing).


It’s not all about the Opera House and the Harbour Bridge (although the latter is magnificent). It’s the little things - like father and son slurping on gelati, getting equally messy faces, or grandmothers scampering out of the way of those rubbish tourist trains that plough around the waterside areas with a scarcely concealed menace. 


Then there’s the ferries jostling on the harbour, the didgeridoo players trying to drum up custom, the bats hanging from the trees in the Botanic Gardens and the water taxis fizzing across to the North Shore. There’s the jugglers standing on stepladders, the buzzy bar/ restaurant terraces, the kids persuading mum to let them go on the carousel and the possums hiding up trees in the park. There are old haunts, new developments, little yappy dogs taking on much bigerg adversaries and fashionistas with ridiculous haircuts reading the paper over breakfast. 


I must have meandered for around three-and-a-half hours. In that time, I didn’t do anything I was supposed to, pay an entry charge or go into anywhere important. There was nothing more frenetic in the itinerary than sitting down on a bench with a sandwich. But it was blissful. And it’s sometimes the experiences like these that we miss out on. It’s all too easy to concentrate on getting through as much of the highlights package as possible – but more joy is often derived from skipping the lot and becoming lost in your own little world.


More photos here


Sydney Rain



Despite its Neighbours-enhanced reputation of people playing cricket in the street and constantly rustling up barbies, Australia isn’t continually swathed in sunshine and beautiful blue skies. Sydney, for example, gets quite a lot of rain (although it does tend to come at once rather than in the form of perpetual drizzle and grey skies). The problem with this is that most of Sydney’s celebrated highlights – harbour cruising, Bondi to Coogee walk, Botanic Gardens, sitting on the beach etc – are all wholesome outdoor pursuits. So what do you do in Sydney when it’s absolutely shafting it down? Well, here are a few suggestions...



Hyde Park Barracks

Originally constructed in 1819 as a place to house the hordes of convicts being sent over from Britain, the Hyde Park Barracks has since been an immigration depot and a court complex. It’s now a museum, largely focusing on Australia’s convict history. It’s an extremely good one too. Ghost stair rails show the original layout, and the exhibits are handled with inventive panache. The Convict Sydney section is particularly good. A huge map shows where convicts were shipped to during the period where transportation was seen as the cure to society’s ills. It wasn’t just Australia – considerable numbers were packed off to Bermuda, Gibraltar and what is now Singapore as well. The French were at it too – they got rid of their undesirables by shipping them out to far-flung colonies. The really neat bit is that a massive mural on the wall depicts the whole process from the industrial revolution slums in Britain to life in the colonies. There are scores of little details to look at, and the mural is recreated on scrollable screens where you can zoom in on these details to find out more about them. They turn into tales of spending six months in leg irons and people committing crimes just so they could be sent out to join their loved ones in Australia. Another room is devoted to the shocking tales of the 4,114 Irish orphan girls who were shipped over from Ireland with very little indeed and expected to make a life for themselves.


Justice and Police Museum

If you’re more interested in the naughty boy side of the convict era, then the Justice and Police Museum goes into much of the salacious detail. It’s in the old police and court building – you can peek into the cells and pose for all manner of cheesy dock and magistrates’ bench photos in the old courtroom. Many of the cells are converted into small exhibition spaces, concentrating on different themes. The most gruesome is the room full of devices used to restrain and get confessions out of prisoners. Surprisingly, the more up-to-date stuff grabs the interest more than the colonial era displays. There’s a chance to swot up on some of Sydney’s most infamous murders and disappearances, while the seemingly never-ending gangland turf wars in Kings Cross should raise an eyebrow. Especially when you discover the extent of the police corruption. 


The Queen Victoria Building

Accessible underground from Town Hall Station, the QVB is one of the most impressive buildings in the Sydney CBD. It’s worth a look, even if you’re not planning on buying anything from the shops inside. But if you are fancying a shopping expedition, it’s the perfect starting point. The malls and shopping centres of Sydney’s CBD are connected through a maze of overpasses, underground entrances and food courts, essentially meaning that you can blitz through most of what you want without getting wet. That said, with the current exchange rates, you’ll probably need a rich daddy to be able to afford anything.


Art Gallery of New South Wales

The Art Gallery of New South Wales is inside a pompous old building that seems to think it’s a grand Roman or Greek temple. And even the curators would admit that it’s not the greatest art gallery in the world. But if you can battle through the herds of school children that appear to be kept inside the building to keep them off the streets, there is some good stuff in there – and it’s a chance to get to know some Australian artists that you’ve probably never heard of. Probably the most interesting three are Russell Drysdale, Sidney Nolan and Arthur Boyd. Drysdale is famous for heavily stylised scenes of Outback folk, Boyd is often rather dark and Nolan has an obsession with Ned Kelly.



Govindas is a long-standing backpacker staple, with the dinner and movie packages coming in at under $30 a head. This Hare Krishna-run Darlinghurst hideaway provides an enormous vegetarian buffet, where you’re encouraged to eat as much as you like as long as you don’t ask for a bit of dead cow, but this is the pre-amble. Once you’ve stuffed yourself, you go upstairs to the small private cinema, lounge back on seats that are closer to beds than traditional cinema chairs and watch whatever movie they’ve got scheduled for that night. It’s an excellent date option for the relatively cash-strapped, incidentally...


Other indoor options

Those interested in the universe should head up to the Sydney Observatory - there’s a big astronomy exhibition, a 3D space theatre, and plenty of detail on how indigenous Australians have always interpreted the night sky.  Other museums worth seeing include the Powerhouse, which is great for big kids who like pressing buttons and interactive exhibits. The Australian National Maritime Museum is superb as well, telling a lot of stories about the early exploration of Australia that most people don’t know. The bits on the Dutch explorers who turned up way before Captain Cook did are particularly fascinating. If you’re of the mind that aquariums are worth going to, rather than being a poor man’s zoo with all the good animals removed, then Sydney Aquarium at Darling Harbour is pretty good. You can also go ten pin bowling in Darling Harbour, visit the Comedy Store near Fox Studios or watch arthouse movies at the Dendy Cinemas in Circular Quay and Newtown. Up in The Rocks, The Rocks Discovery Museum takes you through thousands of years of history in the area, while the Museum of Contemporary Art seems deliberately designed to get old people tutting.






David Whitley gets ready to roll in Sydney


I step out through the glass door with a beer in hand, ready to go old folk-spotting. After all, that’s what bowling’s about isn’t it? A nice way for retirees to get some exercise in their gleaming whites. It’s fair to say that bowling (the outdoor on a green type, rather than the ten pin version) doesn’t really have the sexiest of reputations across most of the world. But in Australia, this isn’t the case. In the last ten years, the sport has undergone a remarkable resurgence and become cool amongst hip young trendsetters.



This is apparent as I step outside at the Paddington Bowling Club in Sydney’s Eastern Suburbs. There’s no wrinkly pageant here. Straddling either side of the greens is an army of twenty and thirtysomethings, most of whom look like they’d be more at home in a nightclub or sleek bar than on the hallowed turf. Actually, there’s a strong possibility that they may have stumbled out of some such venue. Most have sunglasses on, many are nursing a hair-of-the-dog drink, and just about all are sloping around in lazy weekend wear.


There are no prim white uniforms and bowling shoes - just a sea of shorts, fashionably crumpled shirts and bare feet. The Barefoot Bowling trend started as a way of protecting the greens from unsuitable boots and shoes, but caught on. Many now shed the shoes as a matter of course, not even questioning why others do it and just finding it a cool way of doing things.


It’s a scene that can be found replicated on the weekends across Australia. Not all bowling clubs have cast aside the old stuffiness – indeed many are still just as traditional as they have always been – but a fair few have cottoned on to what the younger generation want. For the bowling clubs, it’s not really about introducing the sport to new players, it’s about making money behind the bar. Those in trendy urban areas, in particular, cottoned on quickly. Turn the game into a social occasion, and more people will not only come, but they will spend money on drinks. They’ll also bring friends to a spot they may never have considered visiting before.


As a consequence, the Paddington (or Paddo) Bowling Club is thriving. The same applies to other clubs in the more sought-after areas of Australia’s big cities. It’s far more about the social aspect than the sport itself, but due to Australia’s climate and largely fine, warm weather, bowling has become an outdoor equivalent to pool or darts.


The transition to hipness came about in the late 1990s and the early noughties. The St Kilda Bowling Club in Melbourne is generally regarded as being the place where things started turning around. A dwindling membership at one of Australia’s oldest clubs led management to try and attract a younger audience. It worked, and then the TV cameras came along. 


The Secret Life of Us was one of Australia’s hippest – and most watched – TV programmes of the early 21stcentury. Set in St Kilda, it was a slick and occasionally gritty drama about twenty and thirtysomethings in Melbourne and their love lives. It was shown in the UK on Channel Four, and made stars of numerous members of the cast. When the characters weren’t sleeping with each other, bitching about their bosses and having personal crises, they could often be found on the bowling green. The St Kilda Bowling Club was the setting, and became a regular filming location. And if the coolest characters on TV are bowling, then others will follow in real life.


This was boosted in 2002 by the release of Crackerjack. It was a film about a typical Aussie bludger who decided to join a lawn bowls club in order to get a free parking space. It’s not the greatest comedy ever made, but it was the highest-grossing Australian film of the year, and clearly captured the imagination. The Secret Life of Us brought in the cool kids, and Crackerjack took a slice of the mainstream. Suddenly, people were venturing into long-forgotten bowling clubs, the shoes were coming off and the beers were flowing.


There was a high chance of this being a passing fad, and indeed the buzz has died down a little, but the bowling clubs prepared to cater for the younger market are still thriving. They’ve accepted that the game can’t be taken too seriously, and that it’s almost secondary to the socialising. And, as a result, the greens are heaving every time the sun comes out on a weekend. Part of the joy of bowling is that it’s relatively simple to understand, even for the complete beginner. I have the rules explained to me by Paul, an ex-pat ad salesman who lives in Bondi. “Essentially, you throw down the white ball, or jack, and whoever gets their ball nearest to it wins.”


Each player gets four bowls, although if playing as pairs, this can go up to four per player and a crowded green of 16 in total. Each goes in turn, trying to get as many bowls as possible near to the jack. If - for example - Player A has three bowls closer to the jack than the nearest of Player B’s bowls, he scores three points. It’s very simple to get the basics of, but hard to master. There’s also a certain amount of strategy involved. The bowls are not perfect spheres, and they’re weighted at one side. Try and roll one dead straight, therefore and it will tail off to one side. 


“The trick is to use that curve,” says Paul. “Aim slightly to the side, and use the natural arc to make the bowl travel around the others.” It soon becomes clear that it’s not about getting every bowl as close to the jack as possible. Some are left short, blocking the path. Others are sent further back in case the jack is struck in that direction at any point. Others are used as piledrivers to clear any irritants out of the way. As the game progresses, it becomes more engrossing. Paul and I try and play to each other’s weaknesses when we take it in turns to throw down the jack. He’s stronger when it goes a long way; I have more control when it’s left short. 


Paul isn’t a regular player – and many fit into this category. While some will make a regular thing of it – like a round of golf – others will just drop by when a group decides to get together and do something over the weekend. In practice, this means that nobody gets particularly good, and most games are fairly evenly matched due to similar levels of hopelessness. With our game meandering to a close, Paul manages to knock his own bowl – which had been closest to the jack – away into the gutter at the back. “Ah nuts,” he says lackadaisically, taking another sip of beer. It’s a moment that sums the barefoot bowling phenomenon up. Nobody really cares who wins, although there can be some gentle mickey-taking and gloating. It’s just something fun, and relatively wholesome, to do in the sunshine.




Sydney pools




David Whitley fights the jetlag in Sydney by surrendering to what the city does best – splashing around in the water.


It’s 6.30am, and I’ve already been awake for two-and-a-half hours. Such are the joys of jetlag. Eventually, I’ve given up trying to get back to sleep and figured that if I’m wide awake, I may as well use that awakeness. Hence I’m stood at the edge of the Andrew Boy Charlton pool – arguably the most beautifully-sited public swimming pool in the whole world. It sits on the cusp of Sydney’s Botanic Gardens, looking out over the harbour and the warships at Woolloomooloo.


I’ve never been here this early. Previous visits have been at the weekend, when the Boy Charlton pool seems to turn into a gay social club. I’m not alone, though. Before me, people with sickeningly toned bodies are pounding up and down the lanes with a relentless ferocity. At home, I end up in the fast lane purely because it’s the only way I can avoid being stuck behind middle-aged women doing breaststroke extraordinarily slowly whilst trying to stop their hair getting wet. In Sydney, I’m a middle-laner at best.


For all the agreeable aspects of Sydney – and there are many – few hold a candle to the joys of being in the water. Swimming is part of the lifestyle here, and not just at the laned outdoor pools such as the Andrew Boy Charlton. Many of the beaches along Sydney’s coastline (and there’s a phenomenally greedy number of them) have walled off seawater pools alongside them. The spray of the surf still slops over the edge, but you can still go for a safe swim amongst the coastal rocks. 


Along the harbour are numerous safe swimming beaches, where the surf gives way to the placid harbour waters. Balmoral on the north shore is the most famous of the harbour beaches, but Lady Bay at the South Head is the braver choice. It’s Sydney’s most famous nude beach, and if you enjoy the sight of leathery testicles dangling from paunchy old men, you should be in heaven. Ignore your immediate surroundings, however, and there’s a liberated joy to be gained from skinny dipping in the world’s most famous harbour. Jumping out to give a ‘wave’ to passing ferries is always a marvellous form of entertainment, too.


But if it’s that’s what you’re after, there’s no finer free entertainment than heading to the beach for the day and taking on the surf. You don’t have to go anywhere near a surfboard to enjoy it. Jumping the waves as they crash into the shore takes you back to childhood, whilst trying to ride the breaks and bodysurf your way back to the beach is a gloriously simplistic way to pass the hours. Some beaches are better than others for this – Coogee puts you through something of a washing machine effect, Bondi can have hundreds of bodies in the way, Bronte tends to attract a fair bit of seaweed. But it’s a key part of why Sydney’s my favourite city in the world.


Disclosure: David was a guest of Tourism New South Wales ( and arguably the world’s coolest hostel, the Sydney Harbour YHA ( It hovers above an archaeological dig and has awesome harbour views from the rooftop terrace.