Australia is a popular bucket list item for a lot of people, myself included, but it was always in the far off distance. “I want to go to Australia one day,” I had so often said, so when my husband, Jesse, started putting together a summer trip for us, I was beyond ecstatic.
Since Sydney is such a big, sought-after area, we decided to spend our full eight days there, and we were so glad we did. We were never at a lack of something to do, and Sydney surpassed any expectations we might have had. In fact, Sydney, Australia took our number 1 spot for favorite destinations (as of now). The best description I can give is it was a mix between Seattle and San Francisco with a sprinkle of New York City and the weather of Tampa Bay. For us, it was perfect.
Jesse was able to take leave in June, so we planned our outback adventure to coincide with our birthdays. What a birthday present! Australia’s seasons are the opposite of the States (and Japan for that matter) so even though we left in our summer, it was their winter. The temperature remained in the nice mid-60s, and we both agreed that if this was their “winter” we might never leave. The locals were obvious. They were the ones with huge down jackets, beanies, and gloves. The tourists had light cardigans and shorts.
TIP: EVERY person visiting Australia MUST apply (and pay) for an Electronic Travel Authority (ETA/Tourist Visa). We didn’t know this, and could not get our boarding tickets until this was completed. We had to find a free wifi spot, visit the site (below) and complete the form. It takes only about 5 minutes, but since we were traveling with four (yep, infants have to have one too), it took us about half an hour. Fortunately, we arrived three hours prior to boarding, so we had the time, but we were told by a Qantas employee that she has witnessed several tourists who arrived within an hour or so from their flight and were unaware they needed the VISA. Unfortunately, they didn’t make it. Be prepared. Complete the form BEFORE you get to the airport. It’s about $20 per person, and you need your passport!
If you decide to take advantage of the weather and visit Australia in their winter, I highly recommend going during Vivid. Vivid is a three-week festival where the city is lit up by massive light displays.
We didn’t even know about Vivid and coincidentally booked an airbnb overlooking Darling Harbor. Every night, we got to witness a spectacular light show accompanied with fireworks and music over the harbour. The opera house was lit up with different scenes and colors every night. There were ferries that could be taken and allowed visitors to see all the different displays. It was absolutely amazing and beautiful, and this year happened to be the 10th anniversary. Talk about our luck with timing!
As usual, it was a family trip, so we had our munchkins tagging along. Even with them, there was no shortage of fun things to do. Here are our Top 10 recommendations if exploring Sydney (with or without children):
1) Australian museum:
Our flight landed around 7 in the morning, but we couldn’t check in until 2pm, so we had to find something to do to kill a few hours. By the time we got through customs, grabbed our luggage, and had breakfast, we still had about five hours to kill. Typically, this wouldn’t have been such a tough decision, but on this particular day, it was raining, so that eliminated all outdoor tourists spots. Jesse absolutely loves museums (my love is actually growing for them too, but don’t tell him ;)) so we decided to start our vacation visiting the Australian Museum. We weren’t going to lug around two suitcases, plus carryons, so we grabbed a bagbnb a block away, dropped off our things, and started the tour. (Side note, bagbnb is amazing! Do NOT pay to store your luggage at an airport. It is very expensive. If you can store it at your hotel for free until check-in, great. If that isn’t an option, save some money and utilize this service).
When purchasing tickets, guests have the option to ad on the Mammoth tour. DO IT! It’s only a few dollars more, but feels like an entirely separate museum, and there is a real baby mammoth on display (sad, but completely fascinating). The Museum’s main focus is on Australian animals, past and present, but there is also an entire aboriginal section with the history of how Australia came to be and dinosaur area with actual fossils.
We killed several hours there, and actually went past the 2:00pm check-in, so we had no issues once we left. If you like museums, than it is a no brainer to visit this place. If you’re on the fence, I promise you, it’s worth it.
2) Sea Life Aquarium:
I was so excited about visiting the aquarium that it was our first stop on our second day. Australia is known for having some of the deadliest sealife in the world and lots and lots of sharks, so I was curious to see what all exotic creatures were displayed.
Although I didn’t see the deadliest jellyfish or a great white, it was still pretty impressive. My family loved viewing the manatees, whale sharks, colorful fish and dozens more creatures of the Ocean. Also, guests can take advantage of a financial savings when purchasing aquarium tickets. We were given the option to purchase the “Sydney Big Ticket.” This allowed us access to not only the Sea life aquarium, but also The Sydney Tower, Madame Tussauds, Wild Life Sydney Zoo, and the 24 hour Hop-on Hop-off tour bus for only $99 per person (kids under 4 were free). Since we were interested in visiting at least the tower and touring the city on the bus, it was an easy decision for us to grab those tickets! (Tip-Get to the acquarium early. We were there before the doors opened and still had to wait about an hour to get in. Those who came later in the day had a two hour plus wait.)
3) Wild Life Sydney Zoo/Madame Tussauds:
We knew we wanted to visit the Tarango Zoo, and I had been to a Madame Tussauds before, so if we had not purchased the the package deal, we most likely would not have visited these places; however, we enjoyed ourselves nonetheless.
The Wild Life Zoo focused just on animals and reptiles from Australia. It was not a huge zoo, but much bigger on the inside than it appeared. We were able to walk around and discover the deadliest snakes, massive crocodiles, hungry kangaroos, and a crazy Tasmanian devil.
The kids ended up passing out in the stroller, so this was the perfect time for Jesse and I to explore Madame Tussauds. He had never been to one, so it was a unique experience for him. This museum focused more on Australia’s founders and celebrities, so we saw Captain Cook, the Hemsworth brothers, Rebel Wilson, Mel Gibson, Keith Urban, Nicole Kidman, etc. but there were still some good ol’ Americans sprinkled in such as Lady Gaga and Taylor Swift.
This Madame Tussauds did have some areas that allowed participation of guests such as a live recording studio, a model runway, and a chance for visitors to jump on an air vent with the iconic Marilyn Monroe and recreate her famous blown white dress scene. Visiting Madame Tussaud’s was a nice change of pace from all the animals and sea life we had already experienced during the day.
4) Sydney tower:
If one of our destinations has a tower, we are going to visit it! There is just something about being above the entire city and looking over its beauty that I absolutely love.
The Sydney tower was a very simple stop to access. We waited about 5 minutes in line before entering the 4D cinema where we watched a 10-minute show that portrayed various angles of Sydney via a drone. After the movie, we walked onto the elevator and ascended 1,000 feet to the top.
The 360 degree roof give guests every possible viewpoint, but if that’s not enough, and you’re a daring (and child free) individual, you can even participate in the tower’s Skywalk. The Skywalk places guests in individual harnesses and gives them an open air view. At around $60 a person, it’s a fairly affordable price for such an exhilarating experience.
5) Hop-on hop-off bus:
Similar to the tower, if there was a city tour bus, we were going to be on it! There were two routes, each lasted an hour an a half. On our second full day, we took the loop that sent us by the Opera House, Botanical Gardens, and historical sites.
The bus tour pass was only good for 24 hours, so we made sure to hop the second loop the following day, which focused more on beaches. Bondi beach was a huge tourist spot. Although we visited in the winter, and hadn’t planned on spending any time at the beach, it gave us the opportunity to drive by to see the stunning view. The cold water didn’t seem to bother everyone though since the ocean was full of surfers. Chilly or not, we made sure to sit on the open air top of the bus!
6) Opera House
The Opera House was an obvious staple to visit, but both Jesse and I were surprised by how much we just loved being there.
We didn’t tour the inside, but walked among the shops and had lunch at the outdoor restaurant. It was pricey, but as I said to my husband when he questioned eating there, “How often do we get to have lunch at the Opera House?” If I had been given the chance to actually attend an opera, I believe that would have been my most memorable experience. It didn’t happen for us, but maybe for you?
7) Whale Watching:
Growing up in Florida, I was used to dolphins, but whales? I had only seen whales in aquariums.
To have the opportunity to see them in their natural habitat was beyond amazing. We caught a three-hour whale watching tour out of Darling Harbor and weren’t on the ferry for 20 minutes before we saw our first spout. For the next two hours we saw up to 35 whales splash, blow, and breach. It was beautiful, peaceful, and mesmerizing. An experience that I would be happy to repeat. We used this company, and they were pretty great:
8) Shop ’til you drop:
The multi-story Queen Victoria Building (referred to QVB) was built and completed in 1898 during a time of severe recession and specifically built to accommodate warehouses, coffee shops, tradespeople, and a concert hall.
When we entered the Romanesque architecture , we immediately heard a a pianist playing ballads from the top floor that radiated among several stories. The mall boasted more unique, high end boutiques and after walking through, we took the elevator to the bottom floor (underground), and a new world opened up.
The QVB attached to the Westfield Mall. Walking through, we found more escalators that took us right back to street level, but blocks away from the QVB. We realized the shopping didn’t end there. Alleys upon alleys were lined with stores ranging from H&M and Gap to Gucci, Louis Vutton, and Christian Louboutin. Street performers entertained and there were countless restaurants. I was glad we planned at least an entire day to shop.
9) Tarongo Zoo:
We saved the zoo for the prettiest day of the week. One of my favorite parts about visiting the Tarango Zoo was the journey to get there.
We had to catch a 20 minute ferry from Darling Harbour that gave us incredible views, including a different angle of the Opera House. Once we reached land, we then took a sky ferry up to the actual zoo. The Tarongo Zoo had the same animals and reptiles that the Wild Life Sydney Zoo had, but on a much grander scale. In addition, they also had the standard zoo mammals such as giraffes, elephants, gorillas, etc. One thing that stood out to both Jesse and I was how close we could get to these creatures. Often, just a simple rope kept us away. The one exception was the Tiger Trek, which the zoo was very strict on keeping as close to their natural habitat as possible, meaning only a select number of guests could go into the Tiger exhibit at a time (and those tigers did not look happy to see us). It was wonderful zoo with absolutely breathtaking sights that are second to none.
10) Visit Darling Harbor:
We booked an airbnb overlooking Darling Harbour. Darling Harbour is not only an attractive spot, it has quick access to anything: ferries, shopping, attractions, etc. With the exception of the bus and museum (both which were a 10 minute walk), all of our attractions left from Darling Harbour. On the opposite side of the Marina is a mall with loads of shopping and lots of dining restaurants. Since we had a toddler and an infant, we tried to make our dining experience as easy as possible, so with the exception of eating at Hard Rock one night (also located at Darling Harbour), we ate at the food court each evening. There were tons of options (it is one of the largest food courts I have ever seen), so we never got bored. On the second floor, there were play areas for children, so after dinner, we would let Maddox play a bit. There was even a massage studio that I stepped into one evening for a foot reflexology session. I was able to watch Maddox through the glass play while I was pampered (don’t worry, Jesse stayed with him).
When Jesse and I visit places more than once, we always like to stay in different locations so we can get a variety of experiences. This is the first exception we’ve had where we both said we would stay at Darling Harbour again. Beauty plus convenience is hard to beat.