Sydney Australia: 5 Pretty Places to Escape the Crowds

Stunning view of the Sydney Harbour Bridge from the entry to Wendy Whiteley's Secret Garden

I had trouble getting Tony to commit to a lengthy stay in Sydney since it is such a big city. We usually avoid the hustle bustle, but I knew Sydney Harbour would offer ample beautiful and peaceful spaces. Plus, I was enamored by the idea of their transit system and large network of walking tracks. Fortunately, neither of us was disappointed. I wouldn’t say Tony is a die hard Sydney fan now, but he’s warming up to it. Especially since we managed to find several wonderful free places without crowds, all within easy reach of the CBD by convenient ferries, trains, buses, or by foot. You can scroll through and read our tips and top choices, or use the links below to jump ahead to the sections.

Sydney Harbor in Australia

Basic Info for Visiting Sydney Australia

Sydney is a world renowned destination, and for good reason. It offers a web of heritage sites, planned parks, picturesque spots, artistic attractions, diverse entertainment, and international dining. And everything is connected by one of the best transit networks in the world, in my opinion. It’s also located along the coast in a relatively moderate climate that rarely gets too hot or too cold. In other words, it’s hard to go wrong when planning a trip to Sydney Australia. That said, we still have some notes and tips that I think you’ll find helpful.

When to Go

Sydney is coastal, and equivalent in latitude to Los Angeles, but the weather is just a little cooler and a little rainier. If you’re beach bound, the air and ocean are warmest in February and March, which is also a good time to avoid Australian school holidays. In these months, the air temperature has average highs around 78ºF (25.6ºC) and lows of about 65º (18.3ºC) at night. And the sea hits a high of around 75ºF (about 23.9ºC). Sydney has a subtropical climate, so this is also a more humid time of year with a heavier amount of rainfall. December and January are a little less rainy, and still good months for fair beach and ocean temperatures. But these months do overlap with school summer holidays.

If you prefer land activities and aren’t seeking a tan, August and September are great shoulder months with low rain, cooler temperatures, and fewer travelers. The midday weather will be perfectly pleasant for walks and hikes, but you’ll want to pack some warm items for the chillier nights.

Where to Stay

My only advice is to stay near your preferred choice of public transit. We always try to stay near a train station or ferry terminal, because we prefer these modes of transport to buses. We stayed in Mascot, which was actually a good spot for us. It’s a neighborhood that’s just north of the Sydney airport and on a main train line. It takes just minutes to get from Mascot to Sydney’s CBD via train (which run from 4am to midnight), and to the airport. Plus, Mascot has inexpensive lodging options and a little central walking area with a grocery store and some restaurants. If we were staying longer, we would probably stay in Potts Point (for price and restaurants) or Manly (for nature), but that’s just personal preference. Sydney Expert has a great post on how to choose where to stay.

How Long to Stay

Sydney is so big, and offers so much to do, that you could easily stay for months. But if you are on holidays and want time to see some of the major highlights, stay for at least three full days. A week is ideal for getting to see more of Sydney, and two weeks is great if you want to do some day trips to places like Blue Mountains National Park, Royal National Park, or the massive Australian Botanic Garden Mount Annan.

Getting Around

I’m not even going to cover renting a car in Sydney, because the transit is so good. If you leave the city, you might want to rent a car. But it’s more of a hassle than a help if you’re staying local. Sydney has two light rail lines in the CBD, train lines branching out to the suburbs, ferries whizzing around the harbour, and buses connecting everything in between. And it’s all on the same transit network.

How to Use Sydney Public Transit

Sydney is on the Opal Card system (just like Newcastle), but you don’t need to get an Opal Card. It helps to download their free app for trip planning, but you can simply pay with your credit card. Before boarding the light rail, train, or ferry, locate the opal card stand and tap your credit card. It will “bing.” When you get off the transit, locate the opal card stand and “tap off” with your card. This signifies the end of your journey so you don’t get charged for a longer route. The buses are the same, tap on and tap off, but the card reader is on the bus.

The beauty of the “tap on, tap off” payment (beyond the ease) is there are daily and weekly caps on how much you get charged. The trains, ferries, light rail, and buses are all included in the cap. Even if you don’t reach the cap, your credit card or Opal card will give you discounts if you tap on during off-peak times. At last check, off-peak times were Fridays, weekends, public holidays, and between 10am and 3pm or after 7pm on all other days. You get all of these benefits whether you use an Opal Card or your credit card. There is no difference.

Tip: If you don’t live in Australia, make sure your credit card doesn’t charge foreign transaction fees every time you use it in Australia. This could add up with tapping on and off! If you don’t have a fee free card, you can get an Opal Card. You have to keep the card topped up (which you can do when getting on transit), so it’s more like a debit card.

Ferries coming and going from the Circular Quay in Sydney

5 Pretty Places in Sydney to Escape the Crowds

We usually stay a while in destinations, but our Sydney visit was shorter. And we had even less time for exploring since we hit a big stretch of very rainy weather. But even within those limitations, we were able to enjoy all of these amazingly free spots. We experienced each location with just a smattering of other tourists. And at times, we were all by ourselves.

Royal Botanic Garden Sydney

This is Australia’s oldest botanic garden, but it hasn’t aged a bit. The sprawling grounds and tangled network of footpaths are meticulously maintained and take hours to explore. It is a popular tourist spot, but with 74 acres of coverage, it’s nearly impossible to get caught in a crowd.

We followed the sea wall path first, for a beautiful harbourside walk. It leads you past Mrs Macquarie’s Chair. This is a serene little spot at the end of the peninsula overlooking the water. But if you head up the stairs, you’ll find Instagrammers snapping pictures of the beautiful Opera House and Bridge view. This was, by far, the busiest spot in the whole park. We continued south along the sea wall, where the ocean literally lapped up onto the pathway. Then we ducked into the heart of the park.

There are numerous beautiful gardens, large sculptures, and habitat ponds throughout the vast space, and a plethora of different birds that seem immune to tourists. It really is difficult to avoid taking a ridiculous number of pictures when visiting the Royal Botanic Garden.

  • Flower Bed Lawn overlooking the harbour at Sydney Royal Botanic Gardens
    Flower Bed Lawn overlooking the harbour at Sydney Royal Botanic Gardens

Tip: The gardens open at 7am, but close at sunset, a time which obviously changes throughout the year. But The Calyx building with floral exhibition has a firm and earlier closing time. If you are arriving in the afternoon, hit up that exhibit first to make sure you don’t run out of time.

Getting There: Take a look at any map. The big chunk of greenery on the east side of Sydney CBD is impossible to miss. You can enter it from various points. But the most pleasant way to enter is to take the train, light rail, or a bus to Circular Quay. Walk east along the wharf and you’ll see several entry points to the gardens. You can continue north along the wharf to check out the Opera House first. There is an entrance to the gardens right next to the Opera house.

Lotus Pond at Sydney Royal Botanic Garden

Dawes Point & Barangaroo Reserve Walk

The Rocks can be crammed with tourists, but most people stick to the charming main streets. If you hug the seawall and walk west past the bridge, you’ll escape the crowds and discover some rather pretty spots in Sydney’s CBD. On the short journey back, the little lanes of The Rocks can also be relatively peaceful, if your timing is right.

When a cruise ship isn’t parked in the Circular Quay, you can walk along the water in front of the terminal. A pleasant shoreline path starts up at the end of the terminal, and takes you to the Dawes Point Battery and under the bridge. This was one of my favorite places for perspective in Sydney. It feels like a hidden spot where you can really admire the size of the bridge and get a beautiful city-style view of the Opera House.

Keep walking into Dawes Point, and through the piers. You’ll eventually enter Barangaroo Reserve, which is a shoreline park with a pretty sandstone seawall and a large slope of lawn. Once you’ve wound around the park, you can take the steps up to Stargazer Lawn at the top, or take the elevator in The Cutaway (an events center that’s cut into the sandstone hill).

At the end of the Reserve, find your way to Argyle Street via Munn Street. You can detour up to Observatory Hill Park for a lookout (be prepared for instagrammers!). Then cross back under the bridge toward The Rocks. Once you’ve passed under the bridge, walk south to The Big Dig. It’s a random but interesting little archeological spot right in the city. From there, follow the signs to the Nurses Walk. This is a pleasant little hidden lane of shops that runs parallel between busier George and Harrington Streets.

  • The Rocks neighborhood at Circular Quay in Sydney
    The Rocks neighborhood at Circular Quay in Sydney

Tip: As mentioned, it’s best to checkout these neighborhoods when there isn’t a cruise ship docked at the Overseas Passenger Terminal in the Circular Quay. Cruise ships block off a large section of the wharf and bring a flood of tourists to The Rocks and neighboring areas. See the Cruise Ship Schedule to help time your visit to this area.

Getting There: These neighborhoods are in the heart of Sydney CBD, on the small northern peninsula. This route is an easy walk from the Circular Quay, where the train and ferries converge.

Under the Sydney Harbour Bridge by Dawes Point Reserve

Wendy Whiteley’s Secret Garden

This strange little oasis in a bustling city isn’t much of a secret anymore. It’s on more “things to do in Syndey” recommendations than I can count. Yet somehow, it’s still not very busy. Perhaps that’s because Wendy Whiteley’s Secret Garden is a bit hidden. There isn’t a sign, so you have to keep an eye out for the informal staircase, trust your instincts, and head down into the lush greenery.

Wendy Whiteley’s Secret Garden is quite the opposite of the Royal Botanic Gardens. The latter offers vast open areas with manicured trees, habitat sections, and perfectly placed flowers. Wendy’s creation is rather intimate and crowded with wildly growing plants, shady trees, offbeat garden sculptures, and a random assortment of unique flowers. It’s beauty amid chaos.

The style isn’t surprising, since Wendy was the wife and muse of the late Brett Whiteley. His work ranges from abstract to expressionism, and has a rather frenetic feel. Wendy seemed to emulate this disorderly nature, but with a more serene and winsome feel. The garden sits at the foot of the their family home in Lavender Bay. You can read her full story in the book, Wendy Whiteley and the Secret Garden.

  • The stairway down Wendy Whiteley's Secret Garden (from Clark Park) and up to the Whiteley family home
    The stairway down Wendy Whiteley's Secret Garden (from Clark Park) and up to the Whiteley family home

Tip: Before you head down into the garden, pause and snap an amazing picture of the Sydney bridge and harbour. The main entry to the gardens, at the top of the stairs, provides a flowery framed in view through the trees (it’s the featured image of this post!).

Getting There: Go to Clark Park and walk through the park, toward the ocean, until you hit what looks like the end of the park. You should see a wooden railing and stairs that funnel down to Wendy Whiteley’s Secret Garden. To get to the park from Sydney CBD, you can walk across the Sydney Harbour Bridge, take the train across to Milson’s Point, or take one of the various buses. We’d rather walk in nature or along seawalls than across a busy, loud bridge with fencing up. So we took the train back, which does go on the bridge.

The flowers speak to Wendy's whimsical side in Wendy Whiteley's Secret Garden

McMahon’s Point to Balls Head Reserve

This easy route is an interesting and pretty section of the North Sydney Circle Walks. It winds along the water, around multiple bays, and through an array of parklands. We started from the McMahons Point Ferry Terminal, and headed west through Henry Lawsons Reserve and around Blues Point Reserve. These are great spots for photos of Sydney Harbour Bridge and Opera House.

A 5 minute walk on neighborhood roads leads you to Sawmillers Reserve. Here you’ll see the remains of a wrecked hopper ship, remnants of Eaton’s timber yard, and a peaceful little trail. At the north end of Sawmillers Reserve, the path continues on a wooden walkway over the water (not shown on google maps). The path ends at a boat repair area. You will need to walk a little uphill and on neighborhood sidewalks for 10 minutes, until you hit Waverton Park.

Waverton Park turns into Carrabah Park, which is a former BP site that housed 31 oil storage tanks and ancillary facilities. The area has undergone a huge transformation, and now celebrates the industrial heritage among a regenerated environment of bush and wetlands. A lower path runs along the water for perspective of where the oil tanks once stood, while a higher path follows above the carved out sandstone cliffs. We took the lower path first, and circled back on the higher path when returning from Balls Head Reserve.

Waverton Park transitions right into Balls Head Reserve, which is a contrasting area of wild parkland, hidden trails, and the historic Coal Loader grounds. It’s a pretty cool space, complete with the massive coal loader building that you are free to walk through and on top of. This reserve has that near the beaten path feel with heritage industry spots, nature, and only a few other tourists.

  • View of Sydney Harbour Bridge and Opera House from the shores of Henry Lawson Reserve.
    View of Sydney Harbour Bridge and Opera House from the shores of Henry Lawson Reserve

Tip: On the short neighborhood walking sections, always take the road closest to the water. There’s a great map of this walk on Walk My World. The Lavender Bay portion of the walk (aside from Wendy Whiteley’s Secret Garden) wasn’t appealing to me, so we skipped it. We took the ferry to McMahon’s Point (for a ride under the bridge), and followed the walking route from there to Balls Head Reserve. Then we caught the train at Waverton Station and stopped at Milsons Point Station to visit Wendy Whiteley’s Secret Garden. We hopped back on the train back to Sydney CBD, and enjoyed the train ride over the bridge. You could alternatively walk from the Secret Garden down to Milsons Point Wharf to catch the ferry across. You can do this route in reverse if you want to be facing toward Sydney CBD for more of the journey.

Getting There: There is parking at Balls Head Reserve, if you don’t want to deal with transit. But the Central Coast & Newcastle Train Line pretty much runs right along this walk and takes you straight to and from the Circular Quay. As mentioned, you can take the ferry right to McMahons Point or Milsons Point. There are also buses servicing the area.

Picturesque Berrys Bay on the Balls Head Walk in North Sydney


We were spoiled by Bather’s Way in Newcastle – stunning views, beaches, and ocean baths without crowds. So we chose not to do busy Bondi to Bronte, which is similar, on our limited days in Sydney. Instead, we headed to quieter Manly where many great walks await. It was raining (again!), so we didn’t venture too far and stayed on the paved routes. This included a walk up to the Manly Wormhole and back down to Shelly Beach via the coastal walking track.

Manly Wormhole has quite an unappealing name, but it’s actually a stunning spot. In fact, it might have been my favorite sight in Sydney. You have to do a little rock scrambling just past the Queenscliff Rock Pool to get there (best at low tide). It’s a short distance, but be very careful and go when the tides . Once there, you’ll discover a cave that tunnels through to the other side. The views are amazing at both ends of the Wormhole, which was reportedly carved out by local fishermen as a shortcut in 1908.

  • The Town of Manly in Sydney
    The Town of Manly in Sydney

Tip: I wish we’d had at least a week to explore all of Manly. Perhaps we’ll do that soon. In the meantime, Walk My World offers a great guide to Manly’s best walks. All of the walks are pretty easy, but still offer a half day or very full day of Manly scenery.

Getting There: A direct ferry quickly shuttles you all the way across the bay, from Circular Quay to Manly. The “Fast Ferry” is now on the Opal Card network and is the same price as the regular ferry. So pop on whichever ferry is departing when you arrive, and consider yourself lucky if it’s the fast ferry! When you arrive in Manly, it’s easy to walk from the dock to the little downtown area, to the beach, and to several coastal walks. There are also buses servicing the area if you opt for one way journeys, want to get a little further, or need to let your feet rest.

The Manly Wormhole might be even more beautiful on a stormy day

Bonus: Sydney Rainy Day Ideas

Going outside is actually a great way to escape the crowds when it rains. But sometimes, downfalls dampen the fun a little too much. There are dozens of fabulous indoor sites in Sydney. But heading into spaces crowded with wet people escaping showers isn’t my idea of a good time. Here are a few favorite suggestions to help avoid this dilemma.

  • Hyde Park Barracks – People often skip this museum on rainy days since it appears to be an indoor-outdoor experience. In reality, there is just one outdoor spot between two building, and they provide umbrellas for dry passage. This is a free UNESCO World Heritage site that shares stories of the convicts and female immigrants who called these barracks home. And it’s just a 3 minute walk from two train stations.
  • Ocean Pool Swim – You’re going to get wet anyway, so why not enjoy seaside salt water swimming when it rains? There’s even a chance you’ll have the pool all to yourself. Sydney offers 44 baths carved into rocks along the coastline. And on a rainy day, I can guarantee you’ll have your pick! The ocean baths are typically free to use, but usually close one day a week for cleaning. Check the pool details before heading out.
  • State Library of New South Wales – There are many great museums in Sydney, but many people don’t realize the central library is a historical spot with exhibition galleries. It was established in 1826, and is the oldest continuously operating library in Australia. You can tour the exhibits, relax in a reading room with a local book, or use their wifi and computers – all for free. The library is just a 3 minute walk from the train station and from the Hyde Park Barracks.

More Fun Things to Do when it Rains in Sydney

Sydney has no shortage of free museums and art galleries. We popped into the modestly-sized Museum of Sydney for a little art and history. We had hoped to visit the highly-rated Justice & Police Museum but it was closed for an event when we went by. Londoner in Sydney and Destination NSW have great lists of many more specific suggestions.

Hyde Park in Sydney Australia on a Rainy Day

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