Swagman #8 – A Month Down – A Cheap Guide To Sydney
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia
I’ve now been in Sydney for over a month and have somehow, inexplicably and unintentionally, managed to avoid just about every tourist attraction that requires a fee. I’ve done this before. I lived in Florence, Italy, for four months and spent my last two days there darting around the city like a squirrel with a brand new guidebook in hand, taking in the Uffizi Gallery, David, Boboli Gardens, and running up the steps to the top of the Duomo for the view of the city. I lived five blocks from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City for ten months before finally peeking inside.
Maybe it’s because I don’t feel like a tourist. I am living and working here and I know that at some point I will get to it. But there is also a part of me that just likes to wander around. I’d rather see what goes on down quiet streets than stand in line with a camera slung around my neck. So most of my free time here I have just strolled, which really is the most perfect word. Getting lost is the best part because it forces you to really study where you are and is a natural way to talk to people on the street.
Sydney is the name given to a collection of unique and distinct suburbs that circle two of the most beautiful harbors in the world. If you pick up a postcard here, the odds are good that the image will be of one of the two. Sydney Harbor is the most recognizable, with the Harbor Bridge, The Rocks, Circular Quay, the Opera House, and the Royal Botanical Gardens. It is probably the best place to start, if only for the reason that it was where colonization started over 200 years ago. The area is full of chic boutiques and restaurants, but still has a firm grip on the historical feeling of being monumental as the starting point of what Australia is today.
Circular Quay is the go to spot for all ferries and harbor cruises, with a collection of cafes along the water. The image of the Opera House is forever infused with Sydney. Like the Statue of Liberty or the Roman Coliseum you have seen it so many times in picture and film but still manage to feel awe when you first stand in front of it. It’s such a distinct architectural work of art that it’s easy to forget that there are over 3,000 performances a year of everything from music and dance to plays and yes, even operas.
Every major city requires a good park and the Royal Botanical Gardens fares well. The walkway along Farm Cove leads to Mrs. Maquarie’s Point, where you will take no less than six pictures of the image of the Harbor Bridge with the Opera House in the foreground.
Darling Harbor lies west of the Harbor Bridge and dips south into the city. Restaurants, a shopping center, and tourist attractions reside around it’s edges like a horseshoe which begins with the Sydney Aquarium and ends with the Australian National Maritime Museum. The Harbor separates the city center from Balmain, Pyrmont, and Ultimo. There are numerous ways to cross the harbor on foot, but the best is the Pyrmont Bridge, a foot bridge with stunning views of the harbor and the monorail which glides by overhead.
As is often the case, the most beautiful areas of a city become the most visited. Attractions are built around these areas. Restaurants and gift shops soon follow. A McDonald’s opens. Prices in the area skyrocket. The area is now officially dubbed “Tourist” by the locals and backpacker purists. But if you go all the way back through the progression, the foundation is the fact that the area is naturally gorgeous and should not be passed over. One of my fondest moments in Sydney has been walking across the Pyrmont Bridge heading home from work at 6am as Sydney is just starting to face the sun. Everything is closed and quiet, all of the tourists are between crisp white hotel linen, and it’s just me, a few birds and the harbor. By noon the area would be crawling with people and boats, but at that time it is perfect.
Of all of Sydney’s neighborhoods, the one that has the best and worst rap is King’s Cross. Basically it has the healthy reputation of being unhealthy. It’s seedy, and so are some people, so they are there. Other people think seedy is hip, so they are there. Other people just think seedy is interesting, so they are there. It’s a collection of everything from strip joints and porn shops to million dollar real estate and award winning restaurants. I’ve read that it is officially the most densely populated area in Australia. The name is not based on its London counterpart. A century ago it was called Queen’s Cross until the change in the monarchy. It is called “cross” as a reference to the crossing of the three major streets. Despite its name, it is written as Kings X, which I guess looks cooler than Kings +. Basically you can get whatever you want, whenever you want it there. It’s a big hit with backpackers – there are hostels and internet cafes everywhere and there are a lot of 24 hour pubs and eateries.
You hear many horror stories about the Cross, and I almost expected to be mugged the second I passed the enormous Coca-Cola sign that signals your arrival. I found its fearsome reputation to be over-hyped, although I wouldn’t wander down the quiet streets there at night. Similar to Amsterdam, the area undergoes a change as the sun dips and everything gets dark. There’s the day Cross and the night Cross, and it’s the hush-hush things that go on behind the scenes in the latter that make the place legendary.
Sydney is a relatively safe city, although it is after all a major city and has its share of crime. I have only seen three police cars in the month I’ve been here, but I have seen them move into action pretty quickly when summoned. On Saturday night, after we had closed the pub and were inside drinking, a man came knocking on the window. His shirt was torn and he had blood running from his head down to his shoulder. He rambled that he had been jumped and hit with a vodka bottle. We called the police and they arrived within a few minutes and carted him off.
In regards to transportation, learn to use the bus system. The train system is most effective when traveling outside of the city area. Many taxis are absolutely hopeless. They are very easy to find, but are extremely expensive. A five minute ride could easily cost $10-$15. Worse, the driver often as no idea how to get to where you want to go. Although, despite how spread out it looks in maps, it is easy to get around Sydney on foot. The walk from the Central Station to the Rocks takes around 20-25 minutes, as does the walk from Darling Harbor to Kings X.
They say there are four meals a day in Australia – breakfast (brekkie), lunch, dinner, and beer. With so many immigrants in the city, it is easy to find most types of food. Pubs are plentiful and beer is cheap. Most pubs and restaurants shut down at midnight, which does not work out well for someone who works nights, like me. There are a few 24 hour bars, most notably the Pyrmont Bridge Hotel. I’ve been there a few times for the sunrise, which isn’t a pretty picture. Light begins to pour in through the windows and everyone cringes. A visit to the PBH is often accompanied by a visit to 7-11 across the street or one of the numerous 24 hour kebab places.
There’s so much more to the city but it’s late and I intended to go to the Aquarium today. I need to do some shopping though and I’m hungry so I might just put it off. I’m sure I’ll get to it at some point though, along with everything else.