All Articles 5 Sydney neighborhoods you don’t want to miss

5 Sydney neighborhoods you don’t want to miss

Go beyond the harbor.

Katie Dundas
By Katie Dundas5 Apr 2024 7 minutes read
Cityscape at dusk, Sydney, Australia
Image: Vijay Anand/Getty Images

I’ve made Sydney my home for over 10 years and ever since I first stepped out of Circular Quay station and stared in awe at the marvelous Opera House, I’ve never failed to admire it each time I pass by. But this vast city is so much more than its opera house and iconic harbor—the Greater Sydney area consists of over 650 suburbs, each packed with stunning beaches, cafes (Sydneysiders love their flat whites), and history to explore.

Seeking out the best of Sydney’s beaches, restaurants, and unique secret spots has long been a fascination of mine, so here are some of my favorite areas of the city—beloved by both locals and tourists.

The Rocks

Australia, New South Wales, Sydney, The Rocks area and Sydney Harbour Bridge
The Rocks neighborhood in Sydney
Image: Walter Bibikow/Getty Images

As Sydney’s oldest neighborhood, the Rocks is a charming step back into the city’s past, when larrikin gangs ruled its narrow stone alleyways and rowdy sailors let loose in port. Today, historic sandstone architecture and cobblestone streets, proximity to the Harbour Bridge and the Opera House, and plenty of irresistible pubs make the Rocks a favorite haunt.

Here, you’re just steps away from the Museum of Contemporary Art, with a vast Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander collection, and The Rocks Discovery Museum, telling the story from the First Nations people to modern-day Sydney. You’ll find plenty of fine dining restaurants, casual bistros, and watering holes to enjoy—all just a short stroll away from Circular Quay train station. From the Rocks, you’re also within walking distance from the rest of downtown Sydney, known as the Central Business District (CBD), Barangaroo, and even Darling Harbour.

You can truly feel the history as you’re exploring the Rocks, so be sure to join in on an evening walking tour, like the Rocks Pub Tour, to imagine the city as it used to be. On weekends, the popular Rocks Markets are a great opportunity to pick up trinkets or browse the boutique shops along George Street for something special.

Where to eat: Despite its historical significance, the Rocks is a delight for modern Australian cuisine. Pony Dining has long been a favorite for seafood and wood-fired steaks, or visit the Tea Cosy for a traditional Devonshire tea, set in a gorgeous heritage building, and end the evening with cocktails at Doss House.

Hotel pick: For lux, boutique-style accommodation, the Harbour Rocks Hotel always wins rave reviews. However, you don’t need to spend big to enjoy million-dollar harbor views, as the YHA Sydney Harbour welcomes guests of all ages, with an irresistible rooftop for barbecues. It’s also innovatively built just above the Big Dig, one of the most important archeology sites in the Rocks.

Tip: While the Sydney BridgeClimb is a once in a lifetime experience, it doesn’t come cheap. The Pylon Lookout offers similar views for a fraction of the price.

Manly

Manly Beach in Sydney, Australia
Manly Beach
Image: Walter Bibikow/Getty Images

The peninsular beach suburb of Manly, in Sydney’s Northern Beaches, is a popular day trip, but it’s even better if you stay longer, once the throngs of tourists have caught the late afternoon ferry back to the city.

Manly is ideal for active travelers, with plenty of hiking opportunities (that’s bushwalking to the locals), kayaking, scuba diving, and, of course, surf lessons. If you’re fresh off an international flight, stretch your legs on the Manly to Shelly Beach walk. It’s an easy 20 minutes each way, hugging the spectacular coastline and ending at Shelly Beach, one of eastern Australia’s only west-facing beaches and home to Cabbage Tree Bay Aquatic Reserve, one of the best snorkeling spots in the city.

A visit to nearby North Head Sanctuary, part of Sydney Harbour National Park, is also a great addition to any Manly itinerary. Here, you’ll discover epic cliffside views (perfect for whale watching in Sydney’s winter months), along with lots of great walks and former military tunnels and bunkers, built to protect the coastline during World War II.

Getting there: The ferry ride between Manly and Circular Quay is arguably one of the world’s most beautiful, and also your fastest mode of transport at just 30 minutes long.

Where to eat: Get an early start and grab a coffee from Rollers Bakehouse before a sunrise beach walk, or enjoy a leisurely sleep-in and brunch at Barefoot Coffee Traders, known for their deliciously sweet waffles. For dinner, Garfish is a longstanding local favorite, known for fresh seafood, or try your luck at grabbing a table at Chica Bonita Manly, serving up some of the best Mexican street food in Sydney.

Hotel pick: You’ll find inviting hotels all along the waterfront, but for something truly unique, stay in one of Q Station’s historic cottages and suites. While you’re there, tag along for one of the hotel’s evening ghost tours for insight into the site’s past as a quarantine center for ships carrying sailors and immigrants suspected of carrying diseases like Spanish influenza and smallpox.

Tip: Manly is home to the only breeding colony of little penguins on the NSW mainland. They can sometimes be spotted in the evenings near the Manly Wharf during breeding season, which spans from August to February.

Marrickville

The Grifter Brewing in Sydney, Australia
The Grifter Brewing Co.
Image: Management/Tripadvisor

Marrickville may not be on your radar yet, but this suburb has proven to be one of not just Sydney’s best, but the world's—in 2023, Marrickville was named one of the world’s coolest neighborhoods by TimeOut. It’s the place to be if you want to live like a local during your stay, exploring hip microbreweries, cafes, and bars. You’re also close to the popular suburb of Newtown, another top foodie spot in the city, and just a short train ride away from the CBD.

If you’re partial to hops, Marrickville is the perfect base for exploring the area’s microbreweries and distilleries, either on a DIY bar crawl or on a guided tour with Urban Legends Tour Co. Stop by the Grifter Brewing Co or Batch Brewing for a delicious ale and a bite to eat from a local food truck; you’re sure to meet some interesting locals eager to talk up the merits of their hometown.

Or, pop into the Factory Theatre for a live gig, live dangerously and spend an afternoon trying out axe throwing at MANIAX, or pack a picnic lunch and enjoy nearby Enmore Park, an inviting and spacious public park with an indoor swimming pool.

Where to eat: All along Marrickville Road, you'll be spoiled for choice when it comes to cafes and local joints. Don’t miss Baba’s Place, a quirky diner with a menu designed to celebrate the suburb’s diversity, or Okami, an all-you-can eat Japanese eatery. Top local cafes include Two Chaps and Coffee Alchemy.

Hotel pick: Marrickville is more of a residential neighborhood, but there are great accommodation options nearby. The Urban Newtown is a cheerful and convenient budget option or nearby Mascot offers plenty of premium stays, including Meriton Suites Mascot Central.

Coogee

Wylie's Baths in Coogee, Sydney, Australia
Wylie's Baths
Image: Overflightstock Ltd/Getty Images

Coogee, in Sydney’s eastern suburbs, offers a beach just as beautifully blue as nearby Bondi, but it tends to feel less crowded, especially outside of the peak summer months. Coogee Beach is (usually) a calm surf beach, ideal for a lazy float or swim. The beach’s promenade dates back to 1889, a beautiful throwback to the suburb’s Victorian past.

Just one bay over, Clovelly Beach is another local favorite, with easy snorkeling and concrete sunbathing platforms. Or, if the surf isn’t for you, you’re also just a stroll away from some amazing ocean pools, a beautiful addition to the Sydney coastline. Wylie’s Baths dates back to 1907 and is one of Sydney’s oldest.

From Coogee, be sure to also tackle the four-mile Bondi to Coogee walk (you can do it in reverse). It’s one of Sydney’s most famous coastal walks, thanks to its amazing sandstone-cliff views and the blue froth of the sea below.

Where to eat: There’s nothing better than fish and chips on the beach, served up fresh daily by Costi's Fish and Chips. Other dining standouts include Osteria Coogee and Bohäus Cafe, or Coogee Pavilion, a popular bar and restaurant, particularly for Sunday afternoon drinks.

Hotel pick: Congee’s relaxed, welcoming vibes make it the perfect spot to chill out for a few days, with nearby Bondi offering plenty of exciting nightlife, bars, and activities. The Crowne Plaza Sydney Coogee Beach, steps from the sea, is the best choice for staying in the heart of it all, or Coogee Sands Hotel and Apartments is a popular alternative for a slightly lower budget.

Surry Hills

The Clock in Sydney, Australia
The Clock
Image: Management/Tripadvisor

If you want to be near the CBD, but prefer a more local experience, the inviting streets of Surry Hills are a top choice. This vibrant, leafy suburb offers everything you could want, including some of the city’s best bars and restaurants, locally-owned clothing and artisan shops, and eclectic art galleries.

One of the best is the Brett Whiteley Studio is another great place to explore, managed by the Art Gallery of New South Wales and home to some of Whiteley’s best works. And just a short walk away in Chippendale, the free White Rabbit Gallery is home to one of the largest collections of contemporary Chinese art.

However, sometimes the best plan for a day in Surry Hills is not having a plan at all. Meander along Crown Street, snag a coveted balcony bar stool at The Clock, and people-watch with a cold lager or cup of coffee. The neighborhood is ideal for souvenir shopping too, with plenty of treasures to be found at Oscar and Friends Booksellers, The Standard Store, Mrs Red and Sons, or one of Surry Hill's vintage shops.

Where to eat: Start with a filling breakfast at Reuben Hills, one of the best cafes in the area, then spend the day exploring until dinner at Bad Hombres, a stylish vegan Mexican joint, or tuck into delicious Lebanese at Abduls. Finish the day with drinks at Hollywood Hotel, opened by actor Doris Goddard, who also became Sydney's first female publican.

Hotel pick: Arguably one of the city’s most stylish hotels, the Ace Hotel offers boutique-style accommodation in stylish, industrial-chic rooms, built within a former brick factory—some rooms even come with a turntable and records.

Tip: If you’re in Surry Hills in February, it’s the perfect base for attending the popular Sydney Mardi Gras events, including Fair Day.

Katie Dundas
Katie Dundas is a freelance journalist based in Sydney, originally from the US. You can often find her hiking, swimming, or planning her next adventure.