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How to do Sydney on a budget

Bondi Icebergs
Bondi Icebergs' entry fee of AU$9-10 (£4-5) is a small price to pay for a day’s access to an iconic (and almost century-old) site - Getty

Sydney’s exorbitant cost of living might have exiled many of its locals, but it has done little to dissuade eager British tourists flocking to the Emerald City – particularly during Australia’s balmy summer months. And who can blame them? It may be one of the most expensive metropolises in the world, but it’s also one of the most beautiful (trust me on this: my “commute” was once a ferry ride across that glistening harbour).

And though a slice of Sydney summer can come with a hefty price tag, it doesn’t have to. With a little insider know-how, swapping the British winter for a holiday in the Harbour City needn’t cost a fortune. Little can be done about airfares – flying half-way round the world is always going to set you back a bit – but the same needn’t be said of on-the-ground costs. Not all attractions demand a fee, and you can often get a far better feel for the city by thinking outside the box and sidestepping its big-ticket sights.

Beaches are almost too obvious to mention, yet what would an article about Sydney be without them? There are over one hundred of these sandy sweeps, ranging from the vast 5-kilometre of Lady Robinson’s in Rockdale, to Turimeta near Manly, so diminutive that it vanishes at high tide.

In Sydney, there’s no better way to spend your time than basking and bathing, and as a bonus, your biggest outlay is likely to be sunscreen. If waves and surfers aren’t your thing, head to one of Sydney’s many ocean pools instead: most are part of the beach, and free; others, such as the Bondi Icebergs, charge an entry fee – though AU$9-10 (£4-5) is a small price to pay for a day’s access to an iconic (and almost century-old) site.

Sculpture by the Sea sits on the Bondi to Tamarama Beach coastal walk
Sculpture by the Sea sits on the Bondi to Tamarama Beach coastal walk - Destination NSW

The Icebergs has another allure, however, and that’s the venue under which its tides swell and foam. A three-course meal at the eponymous Dining Room is pricey (AU$155/£80), so treat yourself to a cocktail and then head downstairs to the Bistro, which has the same incredible views and a more affordable menu.

This is also the starting point for the 6km cliff top walk to Coogee – a stretch worth tackling simply for the views and people-watching, but which takes on added wow-factor each spring, when the free outdoors exhibition Sculpture by the Sea takes over.

Naturally, a Sydney stay demands time on and around the Harbour, surrounded by its waters; its “coathanger” of a bridge; and the gleaming, shell-like curves of its Opera House. And though these are undeniably city’s supermodels, exploring them on a budget needn’t relegate you to a day of only strolling a snapping.

Circular Quay is a major entertainment, dining and transport hub in Sydney
Circular Quay is a major entertainment, dining and transport hub in Sydney - Alamy Stock Photo

A night at the Opera? General tickets start at AU$79/£41, but there are special offers granting access to selected performances (plus dinner and a drink at a harbourside restaurant) for AU$99/£52. The adjacent Botanic Gardens are also free for the general public to wander, and if you loiter near “The Con” (the Sydney Conservatorium of Music), you’ll likely be treated to the sounds of future musical luminaries, too.

A harbour cruise from nearby Circular Quay will set you back around AU$65/£34, but hopping on a green and yellow ferry provides exactly the same views for comparative pennies (AU$3.20/£1.60). While onboard, be sure to smugly direct your gaze up to the tiny climbing figures inching across the arch of the Harbour Bridge: they’ve paid upwards of AU$150/£78 for the privilege.

Sculpture by the Sea
Sculpture by the Sea - Destination NSW

Give them a wave from the ferry, then disembark and walk for free across the Bridge’s pedestrian section at your leisure. Next, head for Pylon Lookout – yes, you’ll need to climb just over 200 steps to reach the top, but you’ll be rewarded with 360° views over the harbour and access to the onsite museum, all for just AU$24.95/£13.

On which note: yes, the views from Sydney Tower – the city’s highest vantage point, punctuating the skyline with its distinctive yellow, space-age structure – are pretty grand. But for the price of adult admission (AU$35/£18), you could instead drink two glasses of Yarra Valley Prosecco at the Shangri-La’s 36th-floor Blu Bar, from which views of the harbour are magical (and free).

A ferry is a budget friendly way to see the city
A ferry is a budget friendly way to see the city - Alamy Stock Photo

Many of Sydney’s museums and galleries are also free of charge, including the Museum of Contemporary Art, with its harbourside setting, and the Art Gallery of New South Wales, where the permanent collection showcases early colonial works alongside First Nations art.

But a holiday in Sydney isn’t all about ticking off the attractions: you’ve got to eat, too. In a city so renowned for its cuisine, dining out is a serious business – but a budget approach needn’t mean missing out. Try cheap, tasty dumplings at Chinese Noodle House; legendary Italian at Bill and Toni’s; rice paper rolls at VN Streetfoods; or authentic Indian at Chatkazz in Harris Park, then use the pennies you’ve saved for a one-time splurge at a big-name restaurant, such as Quay or Bennelong.

Granted, not all of these locations are central, but to visit Sydney and remain solely within the coo-ee of the harbour would be a mistake: this city’s pulse beats strongly, even at a distance from its famed heart. Shopaholics can trawl outlet stores in Homebush, or scour the suburban charity shops for designer cast-offs, while walkers should head for the bushland and coastal trails which wind, enticingly, through Ku-ring-gai National Park, to the north, and Royal National Park, in the south.

The Art Gallery of New South Wales is free to enter
The Art Gallery of New South Wales is free to enter - Art Gallery ofNew South Wales / Zan Wimberley

Do not, by any means, miss a visit to the delightful suburb of Manly with its buzzing Corso strip, but don’t make this your sole Northern Beaches excursion. Continue along the 36km Northern Beaches Coast Walk towards Palm Beach, and discover lesser-visited beachy suburbs like North Curl Curl and Narrabeen. It’s here, against a backdrop of public artwork, uncrowded sands and local beachside cafés, that the bold, beautiful heart of Sydney shines brightest. And you really can’t put a price on that.

Essentials

British Airways and Etihad fly from London to Sydney from £1,010 and £1,222 return respectively.

The Moxy has doubles from AU$176/£91 per night; the W Sydney has doubles from AU$759/£394 per night, both including breakfast.

For more information, visit Destination NSW.

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