Sydney is the oldest, largest, and most beautiful of all Australian cities. While expensive, there are still plenty of things to do in Sydney on a budget.
Located on the world’s largest natural harbour and leading deep into the Blue Mountains to the west, Sydney sports seductive scenery where land meets the sea.
As I relax at Opera Bar admiring the uninterrupted views over the harbour and watching the white sails of the Sydney Opera House gleam in the sunshine, it’s hard to imagine that this area was once a convict colony.
A Brief History of Australia
Without going into too much detail, it’s important to know the key events and names of Australian history. After all, travelling should always be about learning something new.
When you explore Sydney, you will stumble upon statues and monuments dedicated to those who played a significant part in Australian history, this will help you piece the puzzle together.
Long before the first British settlement in the late 18th century, Australia was inhabited by indigenous Australians for some 50,000.
The first Europeans to set eyes on Australian were Dutch explorers in 1606. They charted the whole of the western and northern coastlines and named this new continent “New Holland” but made no plans to create a settlement.
It wasn’t until in 1770 that things started to change.
Captain James Cook (you’ll want to remember this name), sailed along and mapped the entire east coast. Naming the region “New South Wales” after Wales, he claimed for Great Britain.
Known in Australian history as the First Fleet, Captain Arthur Phillip (another key player) led the first British settlement in 1788 and governed the settlement until 1792.
The day the First Fleet of 11 ships entered Sydney Cove was on 26 January 1788 and is celebrated as Australia Day.
How did Sydney Get its Name?
Sydney was named after the British Home Secretary at the time, Thomas Townshend, 1st Viscount Sydney (1733-1800).
Also spelt, Sidney, the surname literally means ‘dweller by the well-watered land’.
As a fun tidbit, someone from Sydney is called a ‘Sydneysider’, a reference to living by the seaside.
Still with me? Good.
I couldn’t just share my tips on free and cheap things to do in Sydney without first sharing some of its history.
While Sydney isn’t the most expensive city in the world, it certainly can leave a dent in your wallet if you’re not careful.
Follow my 25 tips on things to do in Sydney on a budget and she’ll be apples!
1. Take a stroll across Harbour Bridge
See one of the best views of the city by walking across the Sydney Harbour Bridge, for free!
If you’re a thrillseeker and your budget allows it, then go for the Sydney Bridge Climb otherwise, enjoy the same panoramic views from the lower level.
This pedestrian only path stretches 1.4 kilometres and can be taken from either The Rocks or Milsons Point. From Milsons Point, you can either walk back or catch a train from Milsons Point Station to Circular Quay Station. Alternatively, grab one of Sydney’s famous water taxis near Luna Park.
2. Watch the Sunset from Mrs Macquarie’s Chair
For the iconic photo of Sydney Harbour, head straight to Mrs Macquarie’s Chair at sunset.
An exposed sandstone rock cut into the shape of a bench was named after Mrs Macquarie, the wife of Major-General Lachlan Macquarie, Governor of New South Wales from 1810 to 1821.
Folklore has it that she used to sit on a rock here and watch for ships from Great Britain sailing into the harbour. She was known to visit the area and sit enjoying the panoramic views of the harbour. The peninsula itself is named Mrs Macquarie’s Point
3. Take a Tour Inside the Sydney Opera house
You can’t visit Sydney and not go inside this Australia’s most iconic building and UNESCO World Heritage site.
At only $27, the Sydney Opera House tour is short but informative, covering all of the building’s history including the inspiration for its design, materials used, and you’ll even learn the surprising fact of how it was paid for!
The tour gives you access to areas that are normally off-limits to the public, plus entry into each of the theatres . That’s right, there’s not just one!
4. Walk Along Australia’s Old Street, George Street
George Street is the oldest street in Australia and was once a track used by convicts to fetch water supplies. Today, it’s one of Sydney’s major traffic arteries running through the centre of town.
Dotted with high-rise office buildings and shops, you find architectural gems such as the Romanesque-style Queen Victoria Building filled with high-end shops. Located opposite, is the Sydney Town Hall (1869), built on the former Old Sydney Burial Ground. While next door is the neo-Gothic St Andrew’s Cathedral completed and consecrated in 1868.
5. See the Great Australian Clock
Located inside the Queen Victoria Building (or QVB), are two impressive mechanical clocks. Each featuring moving figures from moments in history.
The Royal Clock activates on the hour, displaying six scenes of English royalty accompanied by Jeremiah Clarke’s trumpet voluntary.
For me, the impressive of the two is the Great Australian Clock. It includes 33 scenes from Australian history, seen from both Aboriginal and European perspectives. An Aboriginal hunter circles the exterior of the clock continuously, representing the never-ending passage of time.
6. Wander Beneath the Canopy of Birdcages
Located in Angel Place, this hidden treasure was originally a temporary art exhibit. It rapidly became so popular with locals that it was left in place.
Designed by Michael Thomas Hill with the local council, the installation is called “Forgotten Songs” and serves as a reminder of the abundant birdlife that was in the area prior to English settlement.
The empty birdcages symbolise the birds that have long since flown away.
Day or night, as you wander beneath the cages, you’ll hear the sounds of birds tweeting according to the time of day.
7. Visit Captain James Cook’s statue
You know the name, now meet the man who literally put Australia on the map.
Located in Hyde Park, the statue was erected to commemorate Captain Cook`s discovery of the east coast of Australia in 1770. The statue depicts Cook holding a telescope in his left hand, with his right hand upraised.
Apparently, more than 60,000 people attended that statue’s unveiling in 1879, and 12,000 joined the procession.
8. Take a Free Guided Tour Inside St. Mary’s Cathedral
Regarded as one of the finest examples of an English-style Gothic Cathedral in the world, St Mary’s Cathedral is also one of Sydney’s oldest and grandest buildings.
A little know fact is the ability to take a free guided tour on Sundays after the 10.30am mass. The tour lasts for about 1.5 hours and includes the Cathedral’s ornate crypt, which features a mosaic floor and an exhibition on the first Australian Catholics.
9. Have a Picnic on Observatory Hill
Back in 1796, Observatory Hill then called ‘Windmill Hill’, was the site of the first windmill in the colony. Today, it’s a grassy park with a spectacular vantage point over the Sydney Harbour and Harbour Bridge. Very popular amongst locals, Observatory Hill is a great spot to relax in the sun and enjoy a picnic.
You’ll also find historical buildings here including Sydney Observatory, the Signal Station, the remains of Fort Philip, the National Trust Centre, and a Rotunda.
If exercise is your thing, you can take advantage of the park’s exercise stations and tennis court.
10. Pay Your Respects at the Anzac War Memorial
On April 25 each year is the national day of remembrance for Australians and New Zealanders. Originally, Anzac Day only honoured the members of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) who fought at Gallipoli against the Ottoman Empire during World War I. Today, it includes all those who have served their country in the armed forces in wartime or on peacekeeping.
Located in Hyde Park is Anzac War Memorial. The centrepiece of the memorial is The Hall of Memory with a domed ceiling. The amber glazed windows on each side great fill the hall with the golden light, representing the hope of tomorrow.
11. Have Lunch on The Rocks, Sydney
Located just five minutes from Circular Quay is The Rocks, a historically important area of Sydney and full of cobblestone streets and cul-de-sacs. It is considered the birthplace of modern Sydney.
Back in 1788, convicts settled here and soon had a reputation as a slum. While back then it was often frequented by visiting sailors and prostitutes, today, it’s full of elegant boutiques and galleries.
Take a step back in time and check out some of Sydney’s oldest pubs found here, each offering live music and locally-brewed beer.
I recommend buying a special souvenir directly from local Australian artists who have pop-ups here. You’ll find everything from stylish, hand-crafted jewellery to gourmet bush tucker condiments.
If you’re interested in learning more about the history of the area, head to The Rocks Discovery Museum.
12. Relax in the Tea House at the Chinese Garden of Friendship
For a change of scenery, head to the Chinese Garden of Friendship for beautiful bamboo plants and glistening waterfalls.
Designed by Sydney’s Chinese sister city, Guangzhou in China, the gardens are modelled on the typical private gardens of the Ming Dynasty and symbolise the bond between China and Australia.
Some of the highlights include the Dragon Wall, symbolising the bond between New South Wales and Guangzhou, the Water Pavilion of Lotus Fragrance, the Twin Pavilion and The Tea House that offers traditional Chinese tea and other refreshments.
13. Take a Free Walking Tour around the Botanical Gardens
Located very close to Sydney Opera House are the Botanical gardens, which occupy 30 hectares (74 acres). Now, I don’t expect you to explore all 30 hectares, but you can take a free 1-hour guided tour to see the highlights.
Running everyday at 10:30 am, you’ll see the top 10 attractions in the gardens, including Australia’s oldest wall, exploring the glasshouse and fernery, walking amongst over 300 species of palm trees, learning about Australian birdlife at the Lotus Pond, and admiring the gardens oldest and largest bottle tree swollen with water.
14. Go Whale Watching!
I think I’ve saved you enough cash thus far to justify slipping in something is well worth the price at under $55AUD.
Go whale watching! You won’t regret it.
Nothing compares to or can accurately describe being in the presence of these majestic giants. Hearing the tails of two massive humpbacks in unison crashing into the water had me in tears in joy. They are truly remarkable.
While I’m the first to jump at any whale watching opportunity, first, I always do my due diligence with checking up on the tour companies.
Back in October 2015, I went on two whale watching tours with Whale Watching Sydney. I highly recommend these guys. Not only are they a research vessel, they also take the wellbeing of the whales seriously.
There are strict laws prohibiting fishing boats and tour companies from approaching the whales too closely and these laws are usually broken for the sake of boasting at being the best tour company. Not cool!
Almost anytime is whale watching season off the coast of Sydney, from early May to late November you’ll see Humpback Whales and Southern Right Whales.
15. Visit Cockatoo Island, Sydney
Either take a ferry or hop in a kayak and head towards Cockatoo Island. This UNESCO world-heritage-listed island is located in the middle of beautiful Sydney Harbour with uninterrupted views of the harbour.
There’s so much to see and do on this tiny island. Follow your passion for maritime, explore the old convict prison, or if you’re short on time, see the island’s top attractions on a self-guided tour.
You can even stay overnight in the campground or holiday houses and wake up to the best view in Sydney.
16. Take a Stroll Around Hyde Park
Hyde Park is the oldest public parkland in Australia and famous for its magnificent fig tree-lined avenues. And in case you’re wondering, it is indeed named after Hyde Park in London.
Hyde Park has numerous monuments and statues so be sure to scout out the Archibald Fountain, donated by J.F. Archibald in 1932 in honour of Australia’s contribution to World War I in France and the statue of Captain James Cook. Also, look out for the water fountain dripping in ancient mythology. The fountain features a bronze Apollo surrounded by horses’ heads, dolphins and tortoises.
All year round the park is full of life with festivals, pop-ups, and events, especially in the summer months.
17. Visit the Captain Arthur Phillip monument
Located in the Botanical Garden is the impressive commemorative monument to the first governor of New South Wales, Captain Arthur Phillip. from 1788-179.
The statue was unveiled in 1897 in the celebration of the 60th year of the reign of Queen Victoria.
18. Explore Sydney’s Buzzing Circular Quay
Referred to locally as ‘The Quay’, Circular Quay is the main ferry terminal in Sydney and the most central point for visitors to the city. From here it’s just a hop, skip and a jump away from Sydney’s major attractions, Sydney Harbour Bridge, The Rocks, and Sydney Opera House.
Wander around Circular Quay if you’re looking for good quality souvenirs, art galleries, designer fashion as well as historic pubs, outdoor cafes and waterfront restaurants.
19. Dine at Darling Harbour
Darling harbour not only boasts some of the greatest dining options in Sydney, it also has a full calendar of outdoor events, as well as plenty of indoor activities and some fabulous places to stop and soak up the sun.
Hit up King Street Wharf for sleek dining establishments, trendy bars and funky nightclubs. Drop into Cargo Bar, Bungalow 8 or The Loft to mingle when the sun begins to set.
20. Get a Unique View from Milson’s Point
Head south across the bridge to Milsons Point for a unique view of the Harbour Bridge and Opera House. Named after James Milson (1783–1872), a free settler originally from Lincolnshire, Milson’s Point offers a unique perspective underneath the southwesterly side of the bridge towards the Sydney Opera House. The grassy hill is usually empty making it a perfect spot to relax.
If you’re budget allows, then head to Luna Park for candy floss and unlimited rides.
21. Art Gallery of New South Wales and the Museum of Contemporary Art
I love galleries and museums, but I love them even more when they’re free!
The Art Gallery of New South Wales and the Museum of Contemporary Art are both free and located in picturesque locations by the harbour.
The Art Gallery displays international and Australian art in expansive, light-filled spaces, offering stunning views of Sydney and the harbour. There are also galleries celebrating the arts of Asia and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art.
The Museum of Contemporary Art is Australia’s only museum dedicated to exhibiting, interpreting and collecting contemporary art from across Australia and around the world.
22. Have Fish ‘n’ Chips at Manly Beach
Hop on the short ferry ride from Circular Quay over to Manly on the Northern Beaches for some good old Aussie Fish ‘n’ Chips.
Manly Beach was named by Capt. Arthur Phillip for the indigenous people living there. Philip wrote that “[the indigenous people’s] confidence and manly behaviour made me give the name of Manly Cove to this place”.
Nestled between a tranquil Sydney Harbour beach on one side and a popular Pacific Ocean surf beach on the other, the laid-back character of Manly Beach seems a thousand miles from busy Sydney, yet it is only a ferry ride away.
The 1.5 kilometre-long golden Manly Beach has a sheltered ocean pool at one end. Queenscliff, at the northern end of the beach, there is a great spot to learn to surf as well as for experienced surfers.
23. Walk Sydney’s Magnificent Bondi to Coogee Trail
See Sydney’s finest ocean views by taking the Bondi to Coogee Walk. This cliff top coastal walk extends for six km in Sydney’s eastern suburb and links the most beautiful beaches in New South Wales. There are also plenty of cafés en route, interesting landmarks and naturally, some great swimming spots.
24. Get a Birdseye View from Sydney Tower
For uninterrupted views over Sydney’s skyline, make a beeline for Sydney Tower.
Hot Tip: Buy your tickets online in advance for a discount!
25. Take a Scenic Ferry Ride on Sydney Harbour
Taking a ferry from Circular Quay to Watson’s Bay will give you enough time to appreciate being on the Sydney Harbour while getting a cheap tour of the cute towns and pristine bays lining the river.
Over to you!
Have you visited Sydney? What did you enjoy the most? What other things to do in Sydney on a budget would you add?
Let me know using the comments section below or join me on social media to start a conversation.
Thanks for reading and I hope you enjoyed this post.
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