If you’ve been following my blog, then you know how much this girl loves excursions. There’s something to be said for aimlessly wandering the streets of a new city, but when you only have a few days to squeeze in all the sights of a bustling city, excursions are the most efficient way to see the most in a compact amount of time. One of the nice things the tour company Grey Line offers, at least in Australia, is two-day combo tours, which were appealing mostly because of cost savings. I mean, we were going to do both anyway, why not save a little money along the way, right?
walking tour of the rocks, sydney’s oldest neighborhood
On our second day in Sydney, we were slated to do the first day of our Sydney City Tour with Harbor Lunch Cruise/Blue Mountains Day Trip Combo Tour. We met our Grey Line bus over by the marina bright and early, with our first stop being a short walking tour through The Rocks, one of the oldest areas of Sydney and the place where the first Europeans settlers (many of whom were convicts exiled from Britain), first colonized. Thus, The Rocks has a rather sordid past (which I find ridiculously fascinating). Because America had effectively separated itself from England during the Revolutionary War, England, whose prisons were overcrowded, could no longer send its convicts to America (you’re welcome, Australia). So instead, they gave prisoners a choice: either they could go to Australia, or they could be hanged. Some, fearing the unknown, chose to be executed, but over 160,000 chose to go to Australia over the span of about 80 years. It took the better part of a year to arrive there by boat in those days, with many people facing illnesses and even death before they could step on Australia’s sandy shores, but if they made it, many were able to apply their trades in the new colonies, and once they served their sentences, the ex-convicts could join the “free colonies,” some of them actually becoming well-known politicians and the like (go figure).
We were there a bit early in the morning, unfortunately, but on the weekends, markets pop up throughout The Rocks’ cobbled and storied streets, selling everything from fresh foods to local art. The Rocks also boasts some of Australia’s oldest pubs and most popular restaurants. (Try Pancakes on the Rocks if you’ve got time for breakfast one day—I had the cinnamon roll pancakes and they were to die for.)
mrs. macquarie’s chair
Our next stop was Mrs. Macquarie’s Chair, which isn’t so much a “chair” as a crudely carved sandstone bench (the handiwork of convicts, thank you very much), for Elizabeth Macquarie, the governor’s wife. The governor, Lachlan Macquarie, is kind of a big deal in Sydney’s history, as he had a heavy hand in its transition from penal colony to free colony. From Mrs. Macquarie’s Point are some pretty awesome views of the Opera House and Harbor Bridge (and a random Navy ship that I honestly know nothing about, but it was kinda cool, if not super random).
After that quick stop, we headed to Bondi Beach, one of Australia’s most iconic and well-known beaches, especially for surfers (it was the only one I had heard of prior to going). It was a bit grey and chilly that day, so not many people were out, but I can only imagine how packed that place gets when the weather’s nice. It’s quite a long stretch of beach, but there’s only a small area where you can swim (indicated by yellow-and-red flags); everywhere else is too dangerous, at least without a floatation device, because of strong rip currents, which actually is the case at a lot of Australia’s beaches.
sydney harbor lunch cruise
We ended our half-day Sydney tour with a two-hour leisurely lunch cruise. The buffet had a pretty generous and varied spread of hot and cold dishes, a little bit of every kind of ethnic food you could think of—Asian, Indian, Italian, Spanish. I was definitely stuffed afterward—and my husband certainly ate enough to get our money’s worth. The lunch cruise disembarked at two different ports, Darlington Harbor or Circular Quay (pronounced KEY, which totally threw us), which is where we got off because it was closest to the Opera House, which was our next destination.
sydney opera house guided tour
I chose not to book our Opera House tickets in advance. Because the Opera House offers guided tours every half-hour, it seemed like a safe bet that it was something we could book the day-of, if time allowed. For convenience, I booked our tickets on Viator once we disembarked the lunch cruise, but you can’t select a specific time. I assumed, being a jerk who didn’t read the instructions in the confirmation email, that we could just show up to whichever half-hour suited us, but alas, you actually have to check in with the box office for “official” tickets (which, in my opinion, totally negates the ease of buying them online, but I digress. I share this with you only in case you’re a jerk like me who doesn’t bother reading instructions. ;))
I’ll admit I was a bit skeptical about this tour, but the tour, at an hour long, is just long enough and actually quite interesting. Did you know that the iconic building you see everywhere now was actually the winner of an international design contest? True story. In 1957, Danish architect Jørn Utzon came up with its unique design, which is a feat of engineering and design and actually required the expertise of several people to make it architecturally possible. You can read more about its troubled history and the amazing “Spherical Solution” here. The moral of the story is this: There’s a reason it’s the most-visited site in Australia. It truly is awe-inspiring and though I’m sure you’ve seen photos of it everywhere, photos truly don’t do it justice.
After our Opera House tour, we a had a little time to kill; we wanted to be back at the Opera House at sundown to see the Indigenous light show, which is projected on the side of the cafe, a miniature version of the Opera House itself. It was cool, but I wouldn’t necessarily say you should go out of your way to see it. If you’re in the area, cool, check it out; if not, check out videos online and you’ll get the gist.
To kill time, we headed to this “secret” bar I had read about called Bulletin Place. I don’t know how “secret” it really is (’cause it was hoppin’ when we were there), but there’s no signage on the street, so if you’re not looking for it, it would be really easy to miss. It’s located down this narrow cobbled lane, with a hand painted on the wall inside pointing upstairs. There’s a friendly bouncer (yes, that’s a thing) who polices who goes up there, primarily because it’s freaking tiny and only so many people fit up there. The cool thing is that they have a new cocktail menu every day, written on butcher paper hanging on the wall above the bar, each a custom creation devised by the bar’s three owners and resident bartenders. It’s a quirky, dim-lit place with exposed brick and interesting old artifacts and newspapers clippings scattered haphazardly throughout; I found it quite charming and the drinks were rather unique.
After our drinks, we weren’t particularly hungry, but we wanted a little something to snack on, so we popped into the Ship Inn, known for its pizzas. I’d come across mention of them in several blogs and “best of” lists when I was doing my hardcore Sydney research. I remember it being a tasty pizza, but I don’t remember which one we got (which I guess says something—maybe it was the Chicken Delight?). Regardless, I was properly satiated as we headed to the Opera House once more to catch the light show, and we ended the night with ice cream cones from one of the shops located by the train station.
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