Sydney, New South Wales: Downtown

One of the highlights of any trip to Australia has to be visiting Sydney, the largest and best-known city to be found Down Under. Boasting a total population of approximately 5.2 million people at the time of writing, Sydney is known far and wide for its beautiful harbor and iconic opera house. Sydney is one of the most visited cities in the world each year despite its remote location, as tourists flock from far and wide to enjoy its towering skyscrapers and its sandy beaches. Our time in Sydney was cut short by the disastrous airplane shenanigans detailed on the previous page of this trip, but we were still able to enjoy two full days in the quintessential Australian metropolis checking out some of its most famous sights and sounds. This page covers our first day exploring the downtown portion of the city, while the next page details our trips to the Taronga Zoo, Harbor Bridge, and Bondi Beach.

We had landed in Sydney much later than expected at about 9:30 PM, and barely managed to pick up our luggage and rental car before the airport vendors shut down for the night. We drove to our hotel and pretty much just collapsed on arrival after an extremely stressful day of travel. The next morning it was time to get up and explore Sydney for the first time, with our main scheduled activity involving a tour of the Opera House at 9:00 AM. We were staying in the Pyrmont neighborhood of Sydney, which is located on a small spur of land just to the west of the main harbor area. The concierge at our hotel suggested taking one of the ferries over to Circular Quay, and that seemed like the best way to get a sense for the local geography while also making the commute over to the Opera House. These pictures were taken along the docks at the Pyrmont Bay ferry stop, looking across the narrow waters of the bay at the downtown proper. There were office buildings galore over there and another skyscraper going up along the edge of the harbor, which we later learned was a casino under construction.

The ferry boat did prove to be an inspired choice for this first trip to Circular Quay. Unlike the dreary weather that we'd experienced throughout our time in Cairns, the skies here in Sydney were a gorgeous bright blue devoid of any clouds, and we were treated to spectacular views of Sydney Harbor as the ferry rounded the corner of Millers Point and headed towards the famous Harbor Bridge. It helped that the ferry was mostly empty of other travelers and we could walk around taking pictures from any angle that we wanted. If there were downsides here, they came in the form of the somewhat slow nature of the ferry and the steady wind blowing over the open waters. It was actually cold out in the harbor, a rarity for Sydney, although of course this visit took place at the height of the Australian winter in August. It was probably still a better time to visit as compared to the scorching summers that take place in Sydney.

Soon enough the ferry passed underneath Sydney Harbor Bridge and pulled into the central portion of the habor. This is the iconic image of Sydney as a city, with the majestic buildings rising up from the water with the Harbor Bridge on one side and the Opera House on the other side. The city was definitely showing its best side on this morning and we were loving every minute of this approach by sea. We would be back to Sydney Harbor Bridge the next day to take part in the BridgeClimb tourist attraction; for now, we had a tour to take at the Opera House.

Thanks to the slow pace of the ferry, we just barely arrived in time to catch our morning tour of the famed Opera House. These are some of the pictures of the interior of the concert hall building, one of three main buildings that make up the total opera complex. Our tour guide did an excellent job providing some of the background history of the Opera House, with a great deal of discussion concerning Danish architect Jørn Utzon who put together the award-winning design for the facility. If anything we thought that they gave a bit too much praise to Utzon, whose original design was totally impractical for real-world usage; he conceptualized the Opera House buildings as being open to the air on each side, and didn't bother with the mathematical calculations that would ensure the structure could support its own weight. Nonetheless the building is indeed a marvel of design, and has rightly become the iconic image associated with the city of Sydney. We were able to see the interior of the main concert hall but not able to photograph it due to a performance that was in the process of being set up. Here's the image from Wikipedia for the curious.

After we passed through the concert hall building, we walked outside across the short distance to the neighboring theatre building, the one used for actual opera performances. There are five different venues in total contained at the Sydney Opera House, ranging from 2700 seats in the concert hall down to 280 seats in the intimate studio performance room. We were able to photograph the Joan Sutherland Theatre, which was between performances at the moment and therefore didn't have any copyright issues to worry about. On the outside of the buildings, we were also able to see up close the "shells" that make up the roof of the Opera House. These glazed ceramic tiles have several different shades of white, which allows them to reflect an ever-changing amount of sunlight throughout the day and create the unique appearance of the complex.

We continued to poke around the exterior of the Opera House buildings after our tour concluded, even as the area continued to swell with the arrival of more tourists. The first picture above depicts the third and final building that makes up the Opera House, a much smaller structure that contains the expensive Bennelong Restaurant. Each one of these buildings is designed to appear like a sailing ship on the ocean, and the two main structures (the concert hall and the theatre) run parallel to one another, with the little restaurant trailing along in their wake. Sydney Opera House is also a fantastic place to capture views of the harbor and the rest of the downtown, with its elevated platform sitting a little bit above the rest of the docks. There was a patio area between the Opera House and the water that provided some of these views, and we even saw a sign mentioning that seals sometimes sun themselves at the edge of the water here. Finally, I included a rare depiction of the Opera House from the landbound side, something that almost never appears in popular depictions. You always see pictures of the Opera House from the water or from one of the sides, never from the "back" of the buildings on the landbound side. The structures almost looked a little bit like whales from this angle, about to swim off into the waters of the harbor.

Finished with the Opera House for the moment, we started walking to the south towards the rest of the downtown portion of Sydney (known locally as the "CBD" for the Central Business District). The Opera House is situated right next to the Royal Botanical Gardens, and it was more pleasant to walk through the gardens for a bit as opposed to the busy city streets. The northern end of the gardens contained this formal structure known as Government House, which looked something like a medieval castle plucked out of Europe and deposited here in metropolitan Sydney. Government House was constructed during the 1840s in Gothic Revival style (thus the medieval look), and it has been the home of the Governor of New South Wales since its founding. That use continues to the present day and this is still an active building used for formal state gatherings. We did not stick around to try and take a tour of Government House, and instead paused for a few minutes to admire the exquisitely manicured grounds surrounding the building.

These are a few of the pictures from the Royal Botanical Gardens as we passed through them on our walk. The bright weather outside made this an enjoyable experience as we took in a wide array of different trees and flowering plants. The highlight was spotting this kookaburra perched on one of the signs in the park, a chance for us to see one of Australia's national symbols in the (sort of) wild. One of the things we noticed about Australia's ecology was a higher concentration of birds than would be found in areas with similar climates elsewhere. For example, Australia doesn't have squirrels and it was strange to walk through a large public park like this without any of them present. Instead Australia seems to have birds, lots and lots of birds of all different shapes and sizes, and their calls to one another filled the air anywhere that automobile noise wasn't present. The isolated nature of Australia definitely makes it a unique place in terms of its wildlife.

The southern end of the Royal Botanical Gardens gives way eventually to a series of government buildings that run along Macquarie Street. The first one of these that we encountered was the State Library of New South Wales. This is the oldest library in Australia and dates back to a founding in 1826, although the building that we were seeing here was more recent and dated from the first decade of the 20th century. The library contains more than 5 million items in its collection, including all of the state papers of the government of New South Wales and a number of artifacts associated with the early days of Australian colonization. The most impressive location was the main reading room, a large open space with stacks of bookshelves running along the sides. We were able to walk through and take pictures but didn't want to linger because there were researchers at work at the desks. Other parts of the library were more modern in nature, and there was an excellent bookstore here that we spent some time poking through. For book-lovers like us, this place was worth a stop.

Next to the library was the Parliament of New South Wales, in this somewhat blocky two story colonnaded building constructed in the Georgian style of colonial architecture. The rather humble nature of the building is a testament to its early date of construction; it was completed in 1816 and has become one of the oldest buildings in the city. Liz didn't even realize that this was the parliament building at first which wasn't exactly a ringing endorsement of its design. There was a public protest taking place on the day that we visited, with an anti-abortion group protesting against a bill related to abortion which was under debate at the time. I don't know enough about Australian politics to describe the bill under consideration in more detail, but in any case, we were able to gain entry to the building without any issues.

These are some of the images from the interior of the parliament building. We were only able to visit the Legislative Council room, the upper house in the New South Wales Parliament, since the Legislative Assembly (the lower house and somewhat confusingly the more important of the two) was in the process of debating that controversial piece of abortion legislation. The New South Wales government is modeled on the British parliamentry system, and therefore the Legislative Council room that we visited was roughly the equivalent of the British House of Lords or the Canadian Senate. The physical room itself even maintained the same "red" coloring, a pattern that we would see repeated again when we traveled to Canberra later on this trip. With all of the attention focused on the debate taking place in the Legislative Assembly, we were able to wander around the deserted upper chamber without anyone paying much attention.

The one other location of note that we saw in the parliament building was this place known as the Jubilee Room. It was constructed as a reading room for the library in 1906 and still contains archival records of the various laws and statutes passed by the New South Wales Parliament among its stacks of books. However, the Jubilee Room no longer primarily functions as a library reading room, and instead sees use for committee meetings and public functions. This would certainly be a beautiful setting for a conference discussion to take place. Up at the top of the room was an elaborate stained glass ceiling, with the central crest stating "Knowledge is the mother of wisdom and virtue". There were even two of those giant old-fashioned globes in the corners of the room, one depicting the earth and the other showing the constellations in the night sky. All in all, this was an impressive room to see and I'm glad that we ran into it by chance as we were wandering the halls of the parliament building.

After stopping to grab a quick lunch at a cafe, we continued onwards down Macquarie Street until reaching St. Mary's Cathedral and Sydney's version of Hyde Park. St Mary's Cathedral is a Catholic church built in classic Gothic style, with its medieval architecture looking badly out of place in the midst of the otherwise modern structures in the downtown. This cathedral is both one of the largest and the oldest to be found in Australia, with construction first beginning in the 1860s (after two previous churches on the same spot were destroyed by fire) and lasting for long decades afterwards due to lack of funds. The main nave wasn't finished until 1928 and the spires on the towers weren't added until the year 2000. We tried to enter St. Mary's but had the unfortunate timing to arrive right when a mass was beginning, and didn't end up returning later to photograph the inside. Here's an image from Wikipedia to provide a sense of the interior; based on everything that I can see, it looks like a standard Gothic design without making any major departures from the usual template.

The cathedral sits next to Sydney's version of Hyde Park, which is significantly smaller than the more famous London green space that shares the same name. The Australian Hyde Park is divided in half by the presence of Williams Street, and the southern half of the park contains a reflecting pool and Sidney's Anzac War Memorial. For those who aren't from Australia/New Zealand and don't happen to be military history buffs, the ANZAC soldiers (standing for Australian and New Zealand Army Corps) were the men who fought on the British side in World War I, most notably on the horrible battlefields of Gallipoli. The bravery of the Anzacs in the face of otherwise pointless slaughter was an important part of the emerging national identity in both Australia and New Zealand, and there are many memorials to their memory across both countries. There's a war memorial to the Anzacs in the capital city of every Australian state along with the national capital of Canberra. The Anzac War Memorial in Sydney was constructed in 1934, consisting of a square Art Deco design made out of white marble containing a large open area on the inside. The main focus of the interior is a bronze sculpture of a deceased youth, representing a soldier, who was controversially depicted in naked form to suggest its role as a sacrificial offering. The memorial is a solemn place and we couldn't help coming away feeling moved by its presentation.

Underneath the memorial was a surprisingly large space with additional exhibits for visitors. We first encountered another memorial dedicated to the servicemembers of New South Wales, which included a soil sample from every single town in the state. Every the smallest little places like Milbrulong (which I looked up at random and Wikipedia claims has a population of 366 residents) were represented here on the walls. The circular floor also had soil samples from every combat zone in which New South Wales veterans had been stationed, everywhere from Gallipoli to Afghanistan and Iraq. Then there was also a small museum dedicated to the Anzacs in this underground portion of the memorial:

This area provided both a broad overview of who the Anzacs were as well as focusing on some of their individual stories. Liz was particularly interested in the section that discussed the medical corps attached to the Anzacs, which included hundreds of women who provided invaluable assistance to the cause. There was also a small but well-run library attached to the museum which focused on various aspects of Australian military history, staffed by veterans who were more than interested in talking about the subject matter. I was most impressed here by some of the tactical ordinance maps preserved from World War I, used by artillery teams to place their shells as part of the offensives that took place along the Western Front. I think we ended up spending more time here than we were expecting due to the size of the collections on display.

Across the street from the Anzac War Memorial was the Australian Museum, the place where we headed next. The Australian Museum is dedicated to showcasing natural and cultural history, with a lengthy history of its own dating back to its founding in the early days of the colony in the 1820s. The current sandstone building housing the museum was opened to the public in 1857, and the museum has been expanded repeatedly over the decades since to keep pace with the growing size of its collections. The most interesting of the museum's permanent exhibits was the one showcasing aboriginal artwork and way of life, everything from wooden shields and spears to didgeridoos. There was an extensive discussion here of the many challenges facing aboriginal communities, and a look at how the changing environment has affected their traditional way of life.

The Australian Museum was also exhibiting a featured section on the 100 most interesting artifacts in its collections, which held a random assortment of unusual objects. There were various artifacts from the native peoples of Australia and Oceania, the preserved taxidermy of exotic animals, the first bank note to be issued from an Australian bank, a 10 kilogram gold nugget, and even a full skeleton of a man riding another skeleton of a horse, both life-sized and made of genuine bones. The upper floor of the same room was dedicated to 100 of the most unique and innovative people in Australian history, providing a brief background on who they were and what they had accomplished. We had barely heard of any of these individuals but that was probably due to not being from Australia.

The upper floors of the Australian Museum were more focused on natural history and didn't prove to be as interesting. Yes, it was kind of neat to see the taxidermy of little penguins and a huge crocodile, but there had been better stuff elsewhere in the museum. We did appreciate the views from the small cafe up at the top of the building, however, where we could look out at St. Mary's Cathedral in the light of the setting sun. Off to the northeast we had a view looking towards Potts Point where there were more ships docked in the harbor and kids playing soccer in one of Sydney's parks. It was a beautiful ending to the day and we were very much enjoying the improved weather as compared to earlier on our trip.

It was a short walk from the Australian Museum over to Sidney's Town Hall building and the center of the business district. The official-looking building with the clock tower was the Town Hall for the city, home to the Lord Mayor and Sidney's local government offices. This structure was built in 1889 in French Second Empire architectural style, and it's probably best known today for having one of the city's busiest rail stations located underneath it. On the other side of the street was the Queen Victoria Building, easily identified due to the presence of the long-reigning queen in the form of a statue outside its entrance. This structure is a Romanesque Revival design completed just before the turn of the century in 1898, one that evokes the grandeur of the fin de siècle period before everything fell apart in the Great War. The Queen Victoria Building was designed for use as a marketplace, and after being used for a variety of different purposes over the years, has one again returned to its role as a commercial shopping mall, albeit a very upscale one. It wasn't that interesting from the outside, but the interior was a different story.

The inside of the building proved to be an elegant structure made from steel and glass. Stained glass adorned many of the windows and the central part of the building was capped off by a tall dome. Everything in here radiated expense, luxury, and high class. There were five different floors in all and the experience of looking down from the top level was a bit vertigo-inducing. We poked into a number of the stores only to find that the prices were as excessive as the building's ornamentation. This was practically the defintion of high end retail - only shop here if you're prepared to spend a great deal. Fortunately the Queen Victoria Building was only one of many shopping areas in downtown Sydney, and if anything the number of stores in this part of the city was overwhelming. We looked at a couple of different restaurants in one of the nearby malls before deciding on a different and more novel approach to dining for that evening.

We decided that we would combine sightseeing and dining together by visiting the revolving restaurant at Sidney Tower. This is the tallest building in Sydney standing at a height of 309 meters (about 1000 feet), and although the Auckland Sky Tower in New Zealand beats this out for the title of tallest building in the Southern Hemisphere, the observation deck at Sydney Tower is slightly higher than the one at its New Zealand counterpart. Construction on Sydney Tower was completed in 1981 and although the building is somewhat of an eyesore it's also among the most popular tourist attractions in the city. We looked at the cost of getting dinner and discovered that if we subtracted out of the cost of visiting the observation deck (which we had been planning to do anyway), the dinner was a relatively reasonable cost of about $30. While that was still on the pricey side, this was a unique experience and a great way to view the city of Sidney from above as night fell.

The dinner was an all-you-can-eat buffet with an excellent variety of choices. We both enjoyed the chance to devour unlimited amounts of sushi and made sure to check out some of the more exotic local options for cuisine. Kangaroo steak was on the menu again and proved to be a decent option, but the surprise winner of the night was the emu sausage. The emu meat tasted closer to beef than to chicken, and it proved to be absolutely delicious. I think we both went back for seconds of the emu. As for the views outside, we found that the tower took about 30 minutes to rotate completely around the central spire. It was fun to see many of the places we'd visited earlier that day from above, like St. Mary's Cathedral and the Anzac Memorial. Unfortunately we didn't have a clear view of the harbor due to other skyscrapers in the downtown blocking the path, which meant no pictures of Sidney Opera House and only a glimpse of the Harbor Bridge. It also proved difficult to get a clear image due to the darkness outside, with only a handful of our many attempted photos coming out looking at all decent. This was one place where having our original camera would have been a godsend. It ended up being a wonderful end to our day, even if we did end up eating a little too much food in the process.

That was the conclusion of our first day in Sydney. The next page covers the remainder of our time in the city, focusing on the Taronga Zoo, the Harbor Bridge climb, and our final excursion to Bondi Beach.