I didn’t plan to be here, at least not yet, and was more than a little miffed that I wasn’t deep in the Aussie outback. Nothing against Sydney. It was on my Aussie itinerary, only a few weeks down the road, and the only reason I was in the city was because of an airline delay. But, with the choice between spending 24 hours in an airport hotel or a quick jaunt into the city, I headed downtown.
The hotel concierge directed me to a subway stop only a few blocks from the hotel and gave me a brief lay of the land. This was invaluable given my knowledge of the city was limited to images of the Sydney Opera House and a few scenes from Crocodile Dundee. I didn’t have a clue what to look for.
I headed for Darling Harbour, a place I was told where there was plenty to eat. After that, what to do was anyone’s guess, but I’d learned while travelling through Aussie coastal cities that having no plan can be the best plan. Get your bearings, start walking, and see what happens. Australia likes to show its visitors around and makes walking a joy.
Darling Harbour is a redeveloped commercial port and rail yard. While no vibrant bohemian enclave, it is what it’s creators designed it to be, and that is fun. Street performers, aquariums, carousels – your jaded urbanite might scoff at the triteness of it all, but for someone looking for a place to start exploring the city, it was great – plenty of Aussie sunshine, lots of friendly people, food and drink everywhere, and a traversable, car-free waterfront that seemed to go on forever.
I ate and started walking. Sydney Harbour reputedly has 60 kilometers (37 miles) of trails and walkways along its shores and I was confident I would run into a few of them. Sydney did not disappoint.
I took in the carnival atmosphere of Darling Harbour’s Cockle Bay Wharf then continued north along the waterfront. Eventually the carousels, aquariums, and restaurants faded away, replaced by the Barangaroo waterfront development project. Barangaroo, a downtown Sidney neighborhood next to the harbor, is slated to become a fancy residential, recreation, and commercial district, but it’s not there quite yet. My waterfront walk turned decidedly industrial.
I could have turned around there, but instead followed a path that directed me inland. After coming this far, I figured it wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to get to the Sydney Opera House. Sure enough, with the help of some strategically placed signs, I found myself at the Sydney Observatory with a spectacular view of Sydney Harbour Bridge and a stone’s throw from the iconic theater.
In typical Aussie fashion, there were plenty of signs directing me how to get there. I traveled through a pedestrian underpass, crossed Sydney’s colonial-era “The Rocks” neighborhood, and landed in Circular Quay, heart of Sydney Harbour and gateway to the Opera House. I also came across more accessible waterfront and more walkways. I was on a roll, so I kept going.
I figured the waterfront walkway would take me around Circular Quay and end at the doors of the cultural center. After a sight like that, where else would you want to go? But beyond the doors of the arts center the walkways and signs continued, and it got greener. Sydney Botanical Gardens fronts Farm Cove adjacent to Circular Quay and offers an array of trails and information about the local plant scene. Again, I turned inland and followed the signs.
I was downtown and figured this pedestrian friendly, no-car zone had to end somewhere. And it did, but not before I connected almost seamlessly with Hyde Park, a 16-acre gem in the heart of the city. A canopy of fig trees line a wide path that cuts through the park, which is the oldest in Australia and home to an impressive collection of statues, fountains, and monuments, including the ANZAC Memorial. With the day fading and having just logged my 10th kilometer (6 miles) I took some time to learn about Australia’s fallen warriors, then caught the subway back to my hotel. A missed flight had never felt so good.