Sydney attracts around 16 million tourists every year, flocking to witness its grand architecture, celebrated restaurants, sun-baked climate, and more. As a Sydney visitor, you probably already have the Opera House, Sydney Harbour Bridge, and Darling Harbour on your to-do list, and for the sake of not repeating the obvious, in this article, we’ll explore some of the less famous attractions of the city, which won’t cost you a cent to enjoy.
Here are our top five free things to do in Sydney, to keep you entertained during your visit.
Royal Botanic Gardens
Image from Sydney Living Museums
There are more than 140 botanical gardens in Australia, and Sydney’s is one of its best. They are designed to showcase a huge variety of native and foreign plants, for the purpose of education, entertainment, conversation, and scientific research.
Sydney’s Royal Botanic Gardens is at Farm Cove, which sits along the north east perimeter of the CBD, just behind the Sydney Opera House. It’s a 30-hectare site filled with gorgeous plant and animal life, deep blue lakes, and stunning architecture. Many of us adore the soothing power of nature—it relaxes us in a way that nothing else can, and the Royal Botanic Gardens is nature at its best. You can spend hours wandering around the gardens, reading the placards of every lofty tree and vivid plant, identifying the colours and warbles of the local birds, or just spreading out on a pristine lawn and enjoying a coffee from a nearby cafe. When you’re enveloped by immaculate greenery, shielded from the traffic of the adjacent CBD, it’s easy to forget you’re in the middle of one of the busiest cities in the world.
If you’re keen to visit the Royal Botanic Gardens, the closest train station is Circular Quay—also the best station for the Sydney Opera House and the Sydney Harbour Bridge.
Art Gallery of New South Wales
Image from Museums & Galleries of NSW
The Art Gallery of New South Wales is one of the country’s best art museums, with inspiring collections of Aboriginal, Australian, European, Asian, and contemporary art. There’s a variety of art types to enjoy—traditional crafts and paintings, modern art, film, and audio, and the building itself is a stunning classical-style that looks straight out of ancient Rome. The gallery has something for everyone and is well worth a visit.
The gallery is also located on the northeast corner of the CBD, just south of the Royal Botanic Gardens. If you’re keen to visit, Kings Cross is the closest train station, although Circular Quay also works. You’ll want to give yourself between 1 to 2 hours to properly experience the gallery.
South Head Heritage Trail
Image from NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service – NSW Government
The South Head Heritage Trail is a short 1km loop that skirts the western cliff of the South Head peninsula. It offers gorgeous panoramic views of Sydney’s harbour, the various landmasses that jut out into it, and the city itself, making it one of the best free places to visit in Sydney.
Included on the trail are mammoth 19th-century cannons and rifle walls—a small part of the fortifications that were installed after the US Navy snuck into the harbour on 29th November 1839, shocking the locals into beefing up security1. You’ll also pass the iconic red-and-white-striped Hornby Lighthouse, and if you’re visiting between late June and early July, you may be lucky enough to see a humpback whale or two2.
The South Head peninsula is about 12 kilometres east of the city, so driving is the best way to get there (even better, save the hassle by letting us drive you). If you’d rather get public transport, you can get the F9 train from Circular Quay to Rose Bay Wharf, and then jump on a 324 or 325 bus to Watsons Bay. But this will take around an hour, as opposed to 25 minutes in the car.
St. Mary’s Cathedral
Image from Shutterstock
Religion has been the reason for heaps of beautiful buildings, and St. Mary’s Cathedral is one of them. Completed in the 1920s to meet the religious needs of local Catholics, the ambitious structure went through a number of hiccups before getting there, including two fires that razed it to the ground. Today, its imposing gothic spires dominate the skyline of Hyde Park along which it sits, inviting your admiration.
The cathedral’s interior is equally as beautiful as its exterior, with soaring golden columns that form pointed archways, and vibrant stained-glass windows that depict various biblical tales.
St. Mary’s is located in the middle of the city, sitting along the eastern perimeter of Hyde Park. The closest train station is St. James, which sits underneath the park itself.
Image from Sydney, Australia
Sail a few kilometres west of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, and you’ll find Cockatoo Island—a former penal colony that was home to British convicts who committed offenses after arriving in Australia. It also became one of Australia’s biggest shipyards, operating from 1857 and 1991. The mishmash of purpose has given the island a rich history packed with stories, which can be experienced by visiting its prison barracks, military guard room, underground grain silos, and industrial shipping sites. It also offers another perspective of central Sydney, particularly the momentous Sydney Harbour Bridge, which arches across the horizon.
While it’s free to roam around Cockatoo Island and its buildings, it’s also worth paying for one of its excellent tours, which you can find more about on their official website. You’ll also need to factor in the cost of the ferry, which costs between $5 to $7 from Circular Quay (F3 and F8 ferry services).
- Sydney’s Fortifications, Visit Sydney Australia
- 2020, The Ultimate Guide to Whale Watching in Sydney – From Land and Sea | Sightseeing, Sydney Expert