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Friday Fishwrap: Random Jottings at Week's End
SYDNEY: Luxuriating in The Land of Oz

By Charles Olken

It seems to me, as I contemplate what I want to tell you about one of my favorite cities in the world, that I am about to write a short story. There is no blog entry, no short article, no collection of several hundred words that can paint the story of this magical place. I need a book. I need days and days just to sort through the various images I want to attach to this piece. I want you to feel what I feel, and that is simply not possible in the space allotted. So, I am going to do the next best thing. I am going to list the first twelve wonders that strike me and let it go at that. I will deal with some of Sydney’s restaurants in tomorrow’s blog.

I love great cities. Places like New York, London, Paris, Barcelona, San Francisco, Amsterdam—and Sydney. Yes, I also like the near great, the smaller, wonderful places too. Boston, Copenhagen, Bilbao, Melbourne, Lyon, Edinburgh, Buenos Aires, Venice, Chicago, Seattle, Vancouver. I will even admit to liking Los Angeles if you promise that you will not ask me to repeat that sentiment again.

And I like Sydney. It is, as I said above, a magical place that is like no other. Some cities are great because they are so big that they offer the best of everything. Sydney is not that big—more like Chicago in size. But Sydney is not just a great city. It is a great place in ways that are unique and exciting. It took me most of my adult life to discover Australia, but I have been back many times and will go again. It is a travel experience that is simply exhilarating if you, like me, love special urban places.

Here are a dozen reasons why.

  • THE SETTING: Built on water and dominated by that water yet dominating it as well, Sydney is a place of amazing vistas. Restaurants, houses, boats, ferries, waterside museums, even a zoo built on a hillside overlooking the water and downtown Sydney such that one minute you are walking in an enclosure with kangaroos and wallabies and the next, you are gazing at a view that is simply captivating.
  • THE BOTANICAL GARDENS: Lots of cities have great parks. Indeed, great open spaces are part of what makes a city into a great city. The Botanical Gardens, located right in the heart of the city is just such a place. It is part sculpture garden, part arboretum, part historical storyland. I have walked it from stem to stern and from every direction. And yes, it sits on the water. One of the great urban walks take you from the state museum to the Opera House with half a dozen places to stop in between.
  • THE ART GALLERY OF NEW SOUTH WALES: Every city in Australia has a “State” museum, and each one of them is worth the visit. Sydney’s is perhaps the most extensive, and every time we visit we find more and more to like. There are three or four special features not to be missed. The collection of aboriginal art in this museum is second to none in the world, and perhaps more importantly, the museum’s collection chronicles the evolution of native art as it made the transition, in just over the last forty years, from unknown to some of the most attractive modern art in the world. And if you are interested in Australia’s modern art, the Gallery is also the place for you. There seem always to be local artists on hand doing something, and the museum’s restaurant with its view out over The Botanical Gardens and the water has become one of the Olken’s favorite lunch spots.
  • THE OTHER MUSEUMS: Great cities have a variety of great museums and Sydney is no different. No need to list them here except to say that they run the gamut from science to maritime to contemporary to historical.
  • THE OPERA HOUSE: You have seen it a hundred times in advertisements, in travelogues, but until you see it in person, you cannot begin to understand its complexity and its beauty. We have watched performances in two of its four theaters and eaten in its spectacular restaurant. And when we stay in Sydney, we always stay in a hotel with a view of the water and the Opera House. It is that beautiful.
  • THE CIRCULAR QUAY: This harbor within a harbor is the hub of Sydney’s water life. Because the main harbor, the largest natural harbor in the world, is essentially a long east-west inlet with housing on both sides, Sydney relies on the water for a very large portion of its transportation system. The Circular Quay is more rectangular than Circular. On the tip of its eastern arm sits the Opera House. From the Opera House to the base of the Quay, there are restaurants, shops and all kinds of attractions. At the base of the Quay is a set of wharves from which the hundreds of ferries that the ply the harbor leave all day and night. Think of it as a central train station for ferries. And on the other arm is a collection of museums and shops, galleries, markets and hotels known as The Rocks.
  • THE ROCKS: Every city has favored places to stay. In Seattle, I want to be near the Pikes Market. In Edinburgh, on Princes Street. In London in Mayfair and in Paris on the Left Bank. In Sydney, I want to stay in The Rocks. Not only are there hotels that range from affordable to fancy, not only are some of Sydney’s great restaurants here, not only does the Saturday street market offer unique items from down under, The Rocks and its hotels all have views of the Circular Quay and the Opera House. There are plenty of good hotels in the commercial heart of Sydney. They are fine for commercial visitors. Go to a hotel in The Rocks. You won’t be sorry.
  • THE HARBOUR BRIDGE: The four-hour tour and climb up the bridge, leading to one of the most spectacular outdoor views in the world may be for the hardy, or even the foolhardy if you ask Mrs. Olken who eschewed the opportunity, but think of it this way. You cannot climb to the top of the Golden Gate Bridge or the George Washington Bridge, but you can climb the Harbour Bridge and get an unsurpassed view of the largest natural harbor in the world. Oh, and by the way, it truly is a beautiful harbor.
  • EATING and DRINKING WELL: I began my love of wine as a foodie. I was the cook for my grad school house, and if I had not married an even better cook, I suspect I would still be a very good cook. As it is, I have retired and am now a very good eater and the family sommelier. Sydney offers an amalgam of world cuisine, local cuisine and almost everything in between. It even has a Thai restaurant so good that the Thai government hired its proprietor to come to Thailand to teach the locals how to elevate the quality and authenticity of their cooking. Look for details tomorrow. And don’t worry about the wine. It is everywhere.
  • THE TARONGA ZOO: Sydney proper sits on the south side of the elongated harbor. The Zoo occupies a privileged location on the north side. To get there, you take one of the many ferry options from the Circular Quay. When you alight, you take the suspended cable car (Ski Safari) to the top of the hill, pick up a map and walk back down talking an hour or a half day to get there. And don’t miss the walkthrough enclosures where the roos are just feet away.
  • SYDNEY OLYMPIC PARK: Most cities that house the Olympics spread their venues over very wide areas using existing facilities as much as possible. Sydney built their own for their Olympics and the Park still stands. Sporting enthusiasts, of which I am one, will enjoy a couple of hours wondering around the area and touring the facilities.
  • BONDI and MANLEY BEACHES: Both of these beaches are on the ocean at the very eastern extremes of the greater metropolitan area. Bondi, with its fancy restaurants and beautiful people, is the more famous. Manley, which is on the north shore, requires a lovely ferry boat ride that traverses the entire length of the harbor from the Circular Quay to the place where harbor meets the ocean. You alight from the ferry inside the harbor and walk along the pedestrian mall to the beach. Take your pick—Bondi or Manley, fancy or quiet. Both are worth the visit. Although truth be known, I prefer Manley.

There is a lot more to this short story, but, you will find far more details and more extensive graphics in books and on the Internet. And, if you have hankering for a holiday that does not involve one of the usual suspects in this country or in Europe, Sydney may well be the place for you. And the Hunter Valley and other wine areas are not all that far away. For the most famous Aussie wine districts, however, you will have to venture further. And there is no harm in that either.

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