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A local writer provides the lowdown on where to swim, shop, eat, and frolic in Australia's Olympic host city.

tourists at the Sydney Opera House, image
Photo caption
The iconic Sydney Opera House has multiple performance spaces and hosts over 1,500 performances a year.

As the 2000 Olympic Games loom, there's a buzz in the air about Sydney, Australia, an excitement born of pride in our city and delight at hosting the world. The city crackles with energy. Revelers throng the streets. The economy, turbocharged by the pending games, is surging. Gleaming new hotels to accommodate visitors and chic bars and world-class restaurants for them to wine and dine in have seemingly sprouted overnight. We expect 111,000 visitors from overseas and nearly 500,000 from throughout Australia to flock to Sydney from September 15 to October 1 for the Olympics—and we're prepared. When it comes to visitors, nothing is too much trouble for us Sydneysiders. We say "No worries" a lot and seem to have few. If you're one of the lucky mates heading Down Under, you'll also want to explore our city.

Perfect beginnings

Every visitor's first morning should start at Bondi Beach. Just a 10-minute drive from Sydney's business district, this beach is best early in the morning when the sky is turning from the deep purple of a South Pacific night to daybreak violet. If you come during our spring, summer, or autumn, the temperature will be hotting up by 6 or 7 in the morning. Find a place on Bondi's white sand to leave your towel and keys, and then stroll, or jog if your jet lag has cleared, the long crescent beach. As you go, say "G'Day" to the scantily clad Sydneysiders getting their beach fix before work. Scan the deep red craggy headlands that bookend the beach. Watch the white gulls that wheel and caw in the tangy salt spray that hangs above blue rollers commandeered by surfers ages 7 to 70.

Back at your towel, you'll feel like taking the plunge, too. Bondi water is like no other: It seems lighter, aerated, somehow crisp. Stroke gently out to sea, to where the waves are forming. Now, turn and face the beach, start to swim, synchronize your momentum with the approaching wave, catch it just before it breaks, and ride it in to the shore. Collapse exhilarated onto the sand.

On the promenade, take a bracing cold shower followed by a breakfast of crispy bacon, scrambled eggs, ricotta hotcakes in honeycomb butter, fresh fruit, and coffee at an open-air café on surfside Campbell Parade. Your Sydney day is under way and you're primed to explore one of the most gorgeous, exciting, sophisticated, and surprising cities on earth.

Bay watch

Sydney's harbor is our proudest possession. We swim and fish in it. We travel to work across it in ferryboats, hovercraft, and water taxis. We eat and party in the restaurants, beaches, and parks lapped by its waters. We live around it. We skim its sparkling surface in fast-tacking yachts. Visiting ocean liners ply its waters like huge, floating cities. Fishing boats return to it from the open sea, trailed by noisy clouds of birds. Joseph Conrad called the Sydney Harbour "one of the finest, most beautiful, vast, and safe bays the sun has ever shone upon." His opinion seems to be shared by Alex, a 40-foot, 50-ton southern right whale who cruised into the harbor last August and stayed nearly two weeks, delighting us with his breaching, headstands, and thunderclap thrashes of his fluke. Fingers crossed he'll be back for the Olympics.

The best way to see the harbor is to catch a ferry from Circular Quay at the foot of Sydney Cove. Here you can stroll the walkways of the quay (pronounced "key"), which host buskers, jugglers, and Aborigines playing didgeridoos. Housed in an art deco building that fronts the harbor, the Museum of Contemporary Art features changing exhibits from all over the world. Some of Sydney's top hotels, such as the Regent, Renaissance, and Park Hyatt, ring the cove and offer views of the Sydney Opera House and Sydney Harbour Bridge.

The Sydney Opera House squats on Bennelong Point. Often likened to a clamshell, or a gathering of nuns, its soaring white-sail roof reflects the sun by day and the moon at night. Time magazine called the building one of the 20th century's five outstanding architectural accomplishments. The opera house was designed by Jørn Utzon. Work began on it in 1959, but it was not completed until 1973 due to changes in the original design and a series of personality conflicts. In its theaters and halls, audiences enjoy some 2,300 events annually, including opera, ballet, theater, and orchestral, rock, and pop concerts. There are also guided backstage tours offered daily, but it's best to see a show.

Around Bennelong Point is the lush Royal Botanic Gardens (established 1816), a good place to see an open-air play or concert. The 74-acre oasis is alive with native and imported flora, including South Pacific plant life so exotic as to have seemingly come from Mars. Fruit bats hang upside down in the trees and there are pelicans, rainbow lorikeets, kookaburras, and ibis. At the main entrance is a sign: "Please walk on the grass. We also invite you to smell the roses, hug the trees, talk to the birds, sit on the benches, and picnic on the lawns."

Anyone who marveled at Sydney's millennial New Year's Eve celebration in person or on TV knows the star of the extravaganza was the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Finished in 1932, the single steel-span arch bridge, colloquially known as the "coat hanger," is 53,000 tons of gray metal held together with 6 million rivets. Carrying trains and cars, it links the north and south sides of the harbor and takes 12 years to paint.

Sydney's hottest new tourist activity is the BridgeClimb, advertised as "the climb of your life." So long as you are older than 12, in fair health, and happy to take a Breathalyzer test to prove your sobriety, you can climb the span, 1,310 steps to a platform at the bridge's highest point, which is 443 feet above the water. You'll be rewarded for your bravery with panoramic views. Gaze west past the Olympic complex at Homebush Bay to the Blue Mountains; to the east are the opera house and the open sea.

Nestled in a cove west of the bridge is Darling Harbour, a glitzy trove of tourist shops, restaurants, convention centers, and nightly laser shows. The harbor is home to the National Maritime Museum, where you'll find the world's fastest boat; an 1888 racing yacht; and the 1956 HMAS Vampire, a Royal Australian Navy destroyer. Tours of this ship are accompanied by battle action sound-and-light simulations. Other highlights of the area are the Chinese Garden with its traditional teahouse, and the Sydney Aquarium, where you can stroll through underwater glass passages as razor-toothed sharks glide overhead.

Life on the beach

Outside the harbor and along the coast are 20 or so of the world's best surfing beaches. About 25 miles north of Sydney, languid Palm Beach is frequented by the jet set. Manly, 12 miles north of Sydney, is modeled on England's Brighton. Bondi is, well, Bondi: inimitable. Sydney's most breathtaking walk is the two-mile cliff-top stroll from Bondi via fashionable Tamarama Beach (a.k.a. Glamarama) to Bronte Beach on a path high over the crashing surf. There are sculptures and ancient Aboriginal caves and carvings along the way. Depending on conditions, Sydney's beaches can be benign or murderous. Beaches are patrolled by life savers (don't call them lifeguards) and are protected from sharks by nets. There is a greater chance of being struck by lightning than of becoming a "shark biscuit," to use the Aussie vernacular.

Bush tucker and floaters

When it comes to seafood, we Sydneysiders don't settle for anything less than fresh. Savor local prawns, lobster, oysters, Balmain bugs, and crab at swish restaurants such as Rockpool, the Bathers Pavilion, and Doyles on the Beach at Watsons Bay. For a cheap, scrumptious treat, visit the Sydney Fish Markets at Pyrmont, where fishing boats unload their precious catch.

You can also dine on delectable seafood, in addition to high-quality meat and fresh produce, at Sydney's many unique restaurants. Book a reservation at Tetsuya's in the inner-western suburb of Rozelle, where chef Tetsuya Wakuda serves a miraculous combo of Japanese and French cuisine. MG Garage in Surry Hills is a restaurant in a car showroom. Listed on the menu is an "MG 5-speed convertible with 1.8 litre engine, $45,000." Pass on the car, perhaps, but enjoy the innovative fare, which comprises local ingredients cooked with Greek influences. For Australian bush tucker, it's Edna's Table II, specializing in crocodile, barramundi, and kangaroo. It's not exactly haute cuisine, but Harry's Cafe de Wheels at harborside Woolloomooloo has been a Sydney institution since 1945 when the original Harry sold meat pies from a pushcart there. Today, Harry's heir still sells the famed "floater," a meat pie doused in a green pea puree.

From shabby to chic

In the shadow of the southern pylons of the Harbour Bridge is The Rocks, Sydney's first non-Aboriginal settlement. It was here in 1788 that Governor Arthur Philip established the British penal colony of New South Wales. Twenty years later, when William Bligh was state governor (yes, the William Bligh of Bounty fame), The Rocks became a lawless and disease-ridden area. Brawling, drunken gangs preyed on anyone braving its labyrinth of cobbled alleys.

Today, The Rocks is safer and rewards visitors not with a mugging but with a rollicking good time. The area teems with restaurants and grand old pubs, such as the Lord Nelson, which, at 159 years old, is Sydney's oldest. The Rocks is also souvenir heaven: Ken Done prints, Aboriginal artifacts, pottery, art, glass, opals, books, and woolen wear.

North Shore's suburb of Mosman is home to Taronga Zoo, a nature reserve with sweeping water and city views. There are nearly 1,800 creatures at Taronga, including native kangaroos, wombats, platypuses, and koalas, as well as lions, gorillas, and giraffes.

Across the water is Paddington (called "Paddo" by locals), a village of restaurants, pubs, art galleries, and bookshops that's distinguished by its winding streets lined with 100-plus-year-old row houses. Previously slums, this area has been gentrified. Today, the restored homes, with their striking color schemes and iron grillwork (known as Paddington lace), are a tourist magnet. Paddo also has Sydney's most eccentric flea market, the Paddington Bazaar, held on Oxford Street every Saturday. Frequented by the very cool, wealthy, black-clad crowd, the market is a place to be seen as much as to shop. Among the vendors, you'll find everything from second-hand musical instruments to handmade jewelry and freshly baked cookies.

Darlinghurst and Surry Hills were once, like Paddington, seedy areas infested by bootleggers, prostitutes, and razor-wielding gangsters. Nowadays, the suburbs are still cutting edge, but for the right reasons. Young artists, actors, and writers fill Darlinghurst's cafés—meeting spots like the Tropicana and Dov. Every March the area hosts the annual Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras—a three-week-long party culminating in a riotous street parade cheered on by an enthusiastic crowd of 600,000.

Let the games begin

In Sydney, we are sports mad. We are players and spectators and bettors. It's said a Sydneysider would bet on two flies crawling up a wall. Australians excel at swimming, tennis, yachting, and equestrian. We are the defending Olympic champions in women's field hockey and in two rowing and two shooting events, among others. There could be few more fitting Olympic host cities.

Homebush Bay, 10 miles west of the city, with its roller coaster–like stadium, will be the heart of the 2000 Olympic Games. There is a four-pool Sydney International Aquatic Centre, a basketball and gymnastics Superdome, and a tennis center, but the centerpiece is Stadium Australia. Its mix of blue colors and design, says guide Ted Hornby, "reflect the sea, surf, waves, and coastline." The arena has been tested to ensure all will operate smoothly in September. "To test the numerous toilets, organizers flushed all 1,500 at once," Hornby says. "They worked."

Sydney is an appropriate city to accommodate visitors from all over the world. One in three Sydneysiders is an immigrant or a child of immigrants. We are a multicultural melting pot whose British, Italian, Greek, Pacific Island, and Asian influences make us both industrious and hedonistic. You'll find us relaxed, friendly, and welcoming. We sometimes overindulge and make a lot of noise. We love to party. And in September, we're staging the biggest party in our city's history when the Olympic Games comes to town. Join us, and, like Alex the whale, stay awhile.

Photography courtesy of Rtype909/Wikimedia Commons

This article was first published in July 2000. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.