Updated: September 21, 2018
The Best Areas to Stay in Sydney
This vast thriving metropolis was initially built around various craggy bays across the extensive Sydney Harbour before it spread inland as the population ballooned to about 5 million. The city center is dominated by businesses, so it buzzes during the week, but is surprisingly quiet on weekends despite all the theaters, malls, and historical buildings.
On the northern edge of the CBD, and boasting Sydney’s poshest hotels, Circular Quay is also the hub for ferries – often the quickest, and certainly the most scenic, way to reach outlying suburbs, such as Manly. Adjacent to Circular Quay, The Rocks is a renovated historical area with sublime views and plenty of trendy bars and pricey bistros. Nearby, Darling Harbour is also somewhere to stretch the credit card limits.
Other areas in the inner city have different appeals and individual vibes. Kings Cross is a vibrant but seedy area that merges into upmarket Potts Point and the difficult-to-spell Woolloomooloo, home to some more renovated dockyards. In contrast are the tranquil and upmarket areas of Double Bay and Watsons Bay. Popular for its choice of cheaper accommodation is East Sydney, while further afield, but still easily accessible by train, taxi or ferry, are the iconic Bondi and Manly beaches and North Sydney, a mini-city just across the famous Harbour Bridge.
The Best Places to Stay in Sydney
- Best Neighborhoods in Sydney for Sightseeing: Circular Quay and The Rocks
Merging at the base of the Harbour Bridge, Circular Quay and The Rocks are ideal places to stay and eat. On the northern edge of the city, the former is the hub for buses, trains and ferries, while The Rocks features cobbled-stone lanes lined with classy bistros, fashionable bars, tempting shops and historic buildings. Always within eyesight are the iconic Harbour Bridge and Opera House, and a short stroll away are the Royal Botanical Gardens, shopping precinct of Darling Harbour, and city center.
- Best Neighborhood in Sydney for Nightlife: Kings Cross
Most theaters are in the city center, while The Rocks area boasts old-fashioned but trendy pubs, often providing live music and outdoor seats with marvelous views. For something more vibrant, if not a little sleazy, Kings Cross is packed with bars (sometimes featuring women in various stages of undress), as well as dingy cinemas, cheap eateries, and gambling areas. With so many places open 24 hours, the streets are often busier at midnight than midday.
- Best Neighborhood in Sydney for Food & Restaurants: The Rocks
The Rocks is a charming historical area of stone laneways alongside the harbor, with the omnipotent Harbour Bridge and Opera House dominating the horizon at every angle. The area offers all sorts of stylish bistros, many with prices guaranteed to raise eyebrows, and more low-key cafés with outdoor seating. With numerous old barracks and warehouses to explore, and a weekend market to potter about, the area is conveniently adjacent to Circular Quay for excellent connectivity via buses, trains and ferries.
- Best Neighborhoods in Sydney for Families: Bondi and Manly
Sydney is, of course, crowded and noisy, and the traffic can be horrendous, but the business district in the city center can be surprisingly serene during weekends. A quieter and more affordable base still within walking distance (or a short bus or taxi trip) of the city center is East Sydney. Better still, head to the beach. Bondi is an iconic curved bay barely 8km from the city center, with oodles of grassy areas near the water, and a coastal path linking even prettier beaches. With parklands, plenty of space, and 2 bays, Manly Beach offers loads of fun stuff like surfing, swimming, hiking and cycling.
- Best Neighborhoods in Sydney for Beaches: Bondi and Manly
Most of the far-ranging Sydney Harbour is coated with rocks and cliffs, but the occasional pockets of sand are very scenic and accessible along suburban streets. As the nearest ocean beach to the city center, Bondi boasts considerable surf, which can make swimming problematic, and there is little or no shade. To the south, and accessible along a coastal pathway, the beaches at Tamarama, Bronte and Coogee are smaller and quieter, but accommodation is very limited. The isthmus at Manly is lined with 2 beaches – 1 harbor-side and calm, the other sweeping and wavy. What’s more, the area bursts with shops, cafés, pubs and hotels, and the ferry trip there is dazzling.
- Best Neighborhood in Sydney for First-timers: City Centre
Those visiting for the first time will probably want to avoid local transport, which can be confusing, and walk to many of the city’s attractions. Remarkably quiet on weekends, the city center still provides countless places to shop, drink, and eat every day. There’s also plenty of fascinating museums, historic theaters, and world-class boutiques, and within walking distance are Kings Cross (for nightlife), Circular Quay (for transport), The Rocks (for restaurants) and Darling Harbour (for even more shopping). If that’s not enough, trains and buses head from downtown to the beach at Bondi, and ferries chuff across the harbor to Manly.
- Best Neighborhood for Shopping: Darling Harbour
While the city center has several sophisticated malls (such as the Queen Victoria Building) and bustling markets (particularly Paddy’s), and The Rocks offers plenty of souvenir shops, the prime shopping precinct is still Darling Harbour. The u-shaped bay is flanked by Cockle Bay Wharf and Harbourside. Both provide several levels of places to spend, spend, spend above an array of ground-floor cafés and bars overlooking the harbor.
- Best Neighborhood for Transport: Circular Quay
Sydney sprawls across numerous bays, so ferries are an integral part of the local transport network. On the northern edge of the city center, Circular Quay is the nucleus for ferries to attractions such as Manly Beach, Watsons Bay, and Taronga Zoo. Also well linked by trains and buses to the rest of the city (and airport), Circular Quay is within walking distance of the city center, Darling Harbour, Royal Botanical Gardens, and The Rocks.
- Most Romantic Neighborhood in Sydney: North Sydney
Only 2 or 3 train stops from the city center, North Sydney is a mini-city offering numerous places to stay, eat, drink and shop. The coastline and backstreets of historic Kirribilli and vibrant Milsons Point under the famed Harbour Bridge are ideal for walks and romantic dinners at stylish cafés overlooking the harbor.
- Best Neighborhood in Sydney for Walking: Eastern Beaches
Iconic Bondi Beach is renowned for swimming, surfing, sunbathing, and shopping. For something more rewarding than strolling along the esplanade and suburban backstreets, a coastal path heads south of Bondi. With boardwalks and numerous benches to sit on and admire the sweeping sea views, the path leads to the comely Bronte Beach, via the pocket of sand known as Tamarama, and then continues to Coogee, almost as popular as Bondi.
- Safest Areas of Sydney: Manly and Double Bay
Although a crowded and hectic city of about 5 million, Sydney is not particularly dangerous, with the very infrequent crimes mostly opportunistic (e.g. bag theft), or perpetrated by people known to the victims (e.g. assault). With more locals than tourists, the suburban beach of Manly is spacious and well-lit. Also safe are upmarket harbor-side suburbs such as Double Bay.
- Unsafe Area of Sydney: Kings Cross
While admirably trying to clean up its streets and image, Kings Cross is still seedy, bordering on sleazy. It does boast leafy roads and pleasant cafés, but some of the side-streets are used by lowlifes and the less fortunate. While safe enough during the day (with the usual precautions), the area becomes increasingly unappealing and potentially dangerous as the night progresses.
The Best Neighborhoods in Sydney for Tourists
Boisterous and congested, yet unexpectedly quiet on weekends, the city center is the business hub of Sydney. It also offers the finest theaters, several fashionable shopping precincts, numerous historical buildings, and plenty of eateries and upmarket hotels. It’s walkable to major attractions, such as Darling Harbour, the Royal Botanical Gardens, and The Rocks, and easily connected to the rest of Sydney by ferries from Circular Quay and trains from several downtown stations.
As the nearest ocean beach to the city center, Bondi is popular among tourists and Sydneysiders for its curved bay and iconic status. The sand is bleached-white, but the waves are often more suitable for surfing than swimming. The other disadvantages are the lack of shade, the diabolical crowds on summer weekends, and the absence of a direct train or ferry. Arguably nicer, and certainly quieter, are the nearby beaches of Bronte, Tamarama and Coogee, all linked to Bondi and each other by a coastal path.
- Best Hotel: Hotel Bondi
Virtually a mini-city with its own skyscrapers, this area boasts superb views of Sydney and its harbor, opera house and bridge, and offers plenty of hotels, cafés, bars and shops. Barely 3 stops by train from central Sydney, it’s a considerably more affordable base, with some hotel rates half of those charged just over the bridge. North Sydney is also convenient for short trips to nearby attractions, such as Taronga Zoo and the Luna Park amusement centre.
- Best Hotel: The McLaren Hotel
Still undergoing renovations and expansions after several decades, this former dockyards area is home to a multitude of places to shop, drink, eat and enjoy, such as the Sydney Sea Life Aquarium and Madame Tussauds wax museum. Not as scenic as The Rocks, or as convenient for transport as Circular Quay, it is nevertheless, very popular, and safe for families. The bay is flanked by 2 malls – Harbourside and the Cockle Bay Wharf – with no shortage of admirably affordable cafés. Several top-notch hotels dominate the skyline, and it’s easily accessible from the city center across the footbridge.
Sydney was initially developed around an area now known as The Rocks. Winding cobblestone laneways are lined with lovingly-restored bistros, fashionable bars with outdoor seating and live music, and boutiques selling better-than-average souvenirs. And the weekend street market also pulsates. With dominant views of the Opera House and Harbour Bridge at every turn, it’s adjacent to Circular Quay, the city hub for all forms of transport.
- Best Hotel: Pier One Sydney Harbour, Autograph Collection
The sole city terminal for ferries across Sydney Harbour is also a major focal point for trains and buses. With plenty of commuters, and tourists visiting The Rocks alongside, Circular Quay is heaving with quirky shops, buskers of varied ability, and eateries suitable for all budgets. Boasting several 4- and 5-star hotels (but nothing more affordable), the area is within a short stroll of attractions such as The Rocks, Darling Harbour, and the Royal Botanical Gardens.
- Best Hotel: Pullman Quay Grand Sydney Harbour
Heading away from the inner-city greenery of Hyde Park, East Sydney is considerably more affordable than the city center, Darling Harbour, and The Rocks. With boutique hotels and scruffy hostels for the budget conscious, and abundant cafés and bars along leafy narrow streets, this area incorporates the suburbs of Paddington, Surry Hills and Woollahra. All are within walking distance of the nightlife at Kings Cross, the famous Sydney Cricket Ground, and the vast Centennial Parklands. Paddington hosts the famous Paddington Markets each Saturday, while Surry Hills and Oxford Street are the epicentre for Sydney’s proud gay community.
- Best Hotel: The Hughenden Boutique Hotel
Love or loathe it, Kings Cross is vibrant to some, seedy to others. While fairly harmless during the day, the area is always fairly tacky. It offers very few upmarket hotels, with most accommodation budget-priced, and inevitably, noisy. Always crowded, especially at night, the streets are lined with cafés, mini-marts, and bars (many featuring strippers). Unsurprisingly, it’s not that safe after dark, so better areas to stay which are still within walking distance are Potts Point, which heads down to the craggy harbor, and Darlinghurst, which is more urbane.
- Best Hotel: Simpson’s of Potts Point
Far easier to say than spell, Woolloomooloo is an inner-city converted docklands area of minimal architectural merit and low-class housing. The highlight is the renovated Finger Wharf, home to the 5-star Ovolo hotel, lavish apartments, and a row of stylish harbor-side cafés. Within an amble are the city center; Circular Quay (for ferries) and The Rocks, both via the magnificent Royal Botanical Gardens; and Kings Cross for nightlife (of mostly dubious quality).
- Best Hotel: Ovolo Woolloomooloo
The coastline along the inner southern harbor curves east from the Royal Botanical Gardens as far as the exclusive suburbs of Vaucluse and Watsons Bay. Along the way, Double Bay provides a modest but inviting range of accommodation and plentiful upmarket boutiques. Watsons Bay offers magnificent harbor views, a quaint cove (home to the world-famous Doyle’s seafood restaurant), and several hidden beaches, mostly known only to locals. Both bays are easily accessible by ferry from the city center, and by bus from Bondi.
- Best Hotel: InterContinental Sydney Double Bay
Half the attraction of visiting Manly is the ferry ride from Circular Quay in the city center. This trip offers full-frontal panoramas of the Harbour Bridge and Opera House (but waves can be scary however, in bad weather, and ferries are occasionally cancelled). Along an isthmus, Manly offers 2 beaches. The one inside the harbor is scenic and calm, while the other, lined with palms and pines, faces the sea, and is ideal for surfing. Both beaches are linked by a delightful pedestrian mall, enjoyed by cyclists and skateboarders alike, and the nearby headland is home to a national park. Seemingly endless cafés, bars and ice-cream shops add to the permanent holiday vibe.
- Best Hotel: The Sebel Manly Beach