How much can you fit into a 3-day visit to Sydney? Plan your itinerary carefully and you can cover quite a bit of ground. Today we are going to help you out with a perfect itinerary for a first-time visit to Sydney.
- How to spend three days in Sydney on any budget
- Before you leave home
- How to spend 3 days in Sydney on a first-time visit
- 1.Exploring Sydney Harbour and Circular Quay
- 2. Spend a day visiting Sydney’s famous beaches
- 3. Meet the locals – Wildlife and Sydneysiders
- Alternatives Day trip ideas
How to spend three days in Sydney on any budget
Sydney is a big city with more attractions that you can comfortably fit into three days, so the first thing you need to do is accept you won’t see it all and hone in on things that interest you most.
These itineraries will help you make the most of your time regardless of the size of your wallet. We have chosen activities for backpackers and those on a tight budget, mid-range travellers and ideas for those who want to splurge on a once in a lifetime or bucket list trip so let’s get planning!
What makes us qualified to give this advice?
We are locals who have spent more than almost 2 decades showing people around our Sydney. This experience has given us a good insight into what is most popular with visitors, and it’s not always what locals think. We have added some insider tips too because we want to make sure you have the best time in our hometown.
Our goal with these itineraries is to give you general ideas that will suit most visits. We have lots of specific articles if you are travelling with kids or teens or if you have special interests like street art or bushwalks.
If you are after even more ideas, join our Facebook Group to ask for local advice.
Before we begin, let’s go over some basics, like where to stay and how to get around. If you already have these covered then scroll down to the itineraries and dig right in!
Before you leave home
Deciding where to stay
When I am visiting new cities the hardest decision for me is usually deciding on the best area to choose as a base. With that in mind, we have written a few accommodation guides to help simplify things for you.
First up read this article on where to stay in Sydney to get a lay of the land. On this page, we go over the various parts of the city, the pros and cons of each section and give our favourite hotels and apartments in each spot.
We have also written specific guides for:
- Budget travellers looking for the best hostels
- A range of hotels under $150 per night
- The hotels with the best views – perfect for a honeymoon or special occasion
- Hotels and areas that are best for families and groups
How to get around Sydney
You should definitely get yourself an Opal card to use public transport across the city. Having a card will save you 30% off the standard fares, and while you can tap on and off with your credit card or phone these days the Opal caps and discounts only apply to Opal cards. Credit cards don’t work on the buses yet either.
We have written a range of articles on using public transport in Sydney and also guides for the airport.
- A comprehensive guide to using the Opal card that will help you understand how they work but take my word for it, it’s super easy
- A guide to the public transport network to help you figure out your options for exploring
- our insider tips for taking the airport train
- A guide to Sydney Airport that covers all the transfer options
How to spend 3 days in Sydney on a first-time visit
To make this easier, I like to split the main sites into three themed days.
- A day exploring the Harbour and its surrounds
- A day at the beach and along the coast
- A day meeting the locals – both the wildlife and local Sydneysiders
These days can be super busy, and you can pack lots in, or you can take your time, leave some bits out and relax a little more. If you have longer in town check out our 5 days in Sydney itinerary.
Choose the order you do the days based on the weather and your energy levels. You may find you want to mix some of the budget suggestions with a few splurges; the beauty of these ideas is that you can mix and match to suit.
Sydney is all about the Harbour and to get that pinch yourself moment when you finally realise you are actually here you are probably going to want to head down to the Opera House and the Bridge and take in the view. After what was probably a very long flight it will make it all seem real!
1.Exploring Sydney Harbour and Circular Quay
Today we will cover the cities iconic landmarks and spectacular harbour foreshore. We will spend some time in the cities oldest quarter and watch the sunset over the water as the day draws to an end. Explore Circular Quay, The Rocks, Harbour Bridge and Botanic Gardens, take a ride on the harbour and walk around the harbour foreshore
Exploring the harbour for Budget travellers
Start your morning at Circular Quay with a quick breakfast, then jump on a ferry to Milsons Point for your early morning walk. Wander around the foreshore to Lavender Bay and back to Kirribilli before taking the stairs to the Harbour Bridge. If it is a Saturday, you might be lucky enough to come across the Kirribilli Market.
Find the staircase up onto the Harbour Bridge and take the 20-minute stroll across the bridge; there are plenty of opportunities to snap photos of the harbour at work below.
If you have a spare $15 in your pocket head up to see the Pylon museum and lookout. It’s the best value way to see the city from above and the museum is quite interesting.
When you reach the end of the bridge, take the stairs down and follow the signs to Observatory Hill to view the Bridge from a different angle.
Retrace your steps and head back to Cumberland Street. Have a wander along the cobblestone streets, slowly making your way back to Circular Quay. If you need a coffee head up to the top floor of the MCA Gallery for a coffee with a view.
Once back at the Quay pop into Customs House to see the city model, it’s on the ground floor and impossible to miss. The model is a great way to get the lay of the land.
It is likely hunger has struck by now so perhaps join the city workers and head to Gateway shopping centre and grab some lunch. There are take away options in the food court on the ground floor or head upstairs for a more substantial meal.
After lunch head, make your way along East Circular Quay to the Opera House. I suggest you walk right around the building, get up close to the sails and take it in from all angles.
When you have had enough make your way to the Botanic Gardens and take a stroll over to Mrs Macquaries Point and the famous “chair”.
In the summer months, Busby’s Bar is set up on the lawn just near the eastern gates and makes an excellent place to rest a while.
If you have been keeping a good pace, you might like to continue around to the Art Gallery of NSW (free entry) and explore both the indigenous and Australian collections.
You can walk back to the city via the Domain and Macquarie Street. You could also visit Hyde Park and St Mary’s Cathedral.
Head back to the Rocks for Happy Hour and have a few beers before joining the free 6 pm Rocks walking tour. Alternatively, do your own Rocks Pub Crawl.
You can either spend the rest of the night exploring the pubs of the area or head up to Chinatown on the bus for a cheap Asian dinner. Try 1909 dining precinct on Level 3 at Market City or the downstairs options if the budget is tight.
Ideas for harbour day for mid-price travellers
If you are an early riser, then a morning walk or run around the reserve at Barangaroo and through the Rocks to the Quay is a lovely start to the day. There are plenty of cafes along the way, so stop at one that takes your fancy. I like La Renaissance Bakery and Cafe in The Rocks if you can get that far before you eat.
You can also take a look at our post on the best breakfasts in Sydney for some ideas.
After breakfast, make your way to Cumberland Street and the steps or elevator onto the Harbour Bridge for a visit to the Pylon Museum. This museum at the top of the southeastern pylon gives you some background into the building and design of the bridge as well as some of the most amazing views of Sydney from above. It’s guaranteed to be the best $15 you spend in Sydney.
Check out our photo guide to the museum, and you will see why we recommend it so highly.
After you finish on the Bridge make your way down through the Rocks and the Opera House, make a pit stop in Customs House to see the city model and pick up some brochures and maps from the information centre there.
Head around to the Opera house for a 1 or 2 pm tour. Tours run for 1 hour and are offered many times a day. Find out more here.
At peak times of the year, popular time slots for these tours can sell out, so it is best to book at least the day before if you have your heart set on a specific time.
Next up I suggest you spend a little time in the Botanic Gardens where you will find some fantastic photo opportunities and an extensive range of gardens to explore including a native garden and a rare endangered tree from the Jurassic period only discovered a few years ago.
Call into the visitor’s centre for a map or download their app if you are a garden lover.
One of the most memorable ways to end the day on Sydney Harbour is on a sunset cruise. After trying out a lot of them over the years, the one that has stuck in my memory is the Sydney Harbour Tall ships offering. There is something special about being on a historic old tall boat and sailing around the harbour in the pretty afternoon light that is hard to beat. There is usually someone playing folk tunes on the boat, and once a few drinks have done down, people are happy to join in.
After a rest in your hotel head to the revitalised inner suburb of Chippendale for a cheap and cheerful dinner in Spice Alley or one of the nearby restaurants. We love the menu at Mekong if you fancy sitting somewhere more comfortable.
There are also Italian, French and Modern Australian options. Gin Lane, a small bar on Kensington Street, sells some great local gin’s and further along Handpicked wines to taste a variety of Aussie wines. Chippendale is a short walk from Central Station.
Splurge on a day on the harbour
Grab breakfast coffee on your way to the Opera House. Book an early morning backstage tour of the Opera House for a chance to learn the fascinating history of the building and also experience behind the scenes areas and see how the place works. You are also treated to breakfast in the green room at the end of the tour.
If the sun is shining, make your way into the Botanic Gardens for a short stroll and coffee break. Be sure to check out some of the 30 or so sculptures hidden along the way.
Once you have seen enough retrace your steps back to East Circular Quay and head up the glass elevator to the Cahill Lookout. You can take a short cut and exit the gardens via the Macquarie Street Gate where you will find the sculpture “Memory is Creation without End. From here cross Macquarie Street and take the staircase to the Cahill Walk.
Once you have snapped some pics along the Cahill walk, take the stairs down to Cumberland Street in the Rocks. Make your way to the Bridgeclimb office for your one a once in a lifetime view of Sydney Harbour from above.
The pre-tour talk and walk will take about 3 hours, and you are likely to have worked up an appetite so celebrate your achievement with a nice cold Aussie beer flight from the Australian Heritage Hotel and a hearty late lunch. (in summer you might want to reverse the morning and afternoon to do your bridge climb before the day warms up.)
Head back to your hotel for a snooze and freshen up for dinner tonight at one of the cities favourite harbour restaurants, Bennelong, Quay or Cafe Sydney are all top picks.
Alternatively, you could take in a show. If you fancy sunset drinks try either O Bar or Bar Blu at the Shangri La hotel.
2. Spend a day visiting Sydney’s famous beaches
Ask 100 Sydneysiders which beach they prefer, Manly or Bondi and they almost always have a preference. The split is usually 50/50, so today you really need to pick a team or put on your running shoes because seeing both Manly and Bondi in one day is a huge call.
So north, east, or an action-packed day, what is it to be? I am going to give you instructions on doing the whole thing, but you can stop whenever or where ever you like.
The easiest way to cover both beaches is to use the Captain Cook cruise between Watsons Bay and Manly Beach as your way of reaching the northern from the eastern suburbs. This costs a little more than the local green and yellow ferries but will save you a trip back to the quay and about 50 minutes of travelling time.
If you are travelling with kids or have any mobility problems I highly recommend Manly as your beach option.
Budget travellers guide to Sydney beach life
The budget travel option includes packing both beaches into one day. Read through all the options here before you decide if this is for you otherwise slow the pace and pick one side of the bridge.
Start the day by taking an early bus to Coogee Beach to begin the Bondi Coastal Walk. I like to walk in this direction so you can finish the walk in Bondi which, in my opinion, has a better range of dining options for lunch. The trail is 6km in total but if you don’t fancy walking quite that far feel free to start at Bronte which will cut the walk in half.
If you have not eaten you might like to stop at one of the cafes in Bronte or Tamarama beaches along the way.
Once you arrive at Bondi check out the Bondi graffiti wall along the edge of the beach. Most of the work here changes every six months; however, there are two permanent murals, one on Anzac Day (above) and a Bali Bombing memorial piece.
Head across the road to the shops and gather together the makings of a picnic before you jump on the 380 bus to Watsons Bay. There is a supermarket but also a few great speciality stores on On weekends you might like to check out the markets in Bondi Public School.
Once you arrive at the last stop, you have a few options. You can take a walk to the Gap lookout, set up a picnic in Robertson Park or walk out to the Hornby Lighthouse (4km return). It’s a lovely walk, although it can get a little cold in winter. The views back across the city and over to the cliffs at North Head are well worth your time.
If you are not planning to head to Manly, you can linger here as long as you like however if Manly is on the agenda it’s time to head to the pier for your ferry to Manly.
In the summer you will arrive in Manly with plenty of time to head down the Corso and visit the tree-lined beach, it is quite different from the one you saw this morning.
There are lots of restaurants on the wharf and it’s a lovely spot to watch the sun go down. A burger from Betty’s is excellent value for money, as are the mid-week specials at the Manly Wharf Hotel.
You might also like to try your luck spotting fairy penguins on the beach by the wharf as the sun goes down. They are usually around over the winter from mid-May until late January. If you fancy kicking on, then visit one of the local pubs but remember to check what time the last ferry leaves – it is usually between 11 pm and midnight.
Mid-price travellers Beach ideas
Bondi Option – Head to North Bondi for breakfast at local favourite Speedo’s cafe. After breakfast, you can either join a tour of the coastal headland with an experienced local lifeguard that includes a tour of the surf lifesaving operation or take a beginners surf lesson with Let’s Go Surfing.
If you prefer to do your own thing, then begin your day at Coogee and follow the budget itinerary for this morning.
Manly Option – If you have decided on Manly for your beach day then take the green and yellow public ferry over. Once here get yourself some breakfast from one of the many cafes between the pier and the beach. I like Sonoma on the pier or The Bower on the path to Shelly Beach.
Shelly Beach is home to a marine reserve and a great place to go snorkelling. You can bring your own snorkel and flippers or join a 2-hour snorkelling tour with a guide or enjoy a swim and stroll along the length of the beach.
Bondi option – It’s time to move on to Watsons Bay. Take the 380 bus to Robinson Park and make a quick detour to the Gap lookout. Climb the steps for a fantastic view back across the city. If you have not had lunch, there are a couple of choices, midweek either the takeaway fish and chips from Doyles on the Wharf or otherwise check out the menu at Watson’s Bay hotel.
After your lunch stop head around to Camp Cove beach for some swimming and sunbathing or walk off your lunch on the 4km return track to the Hornby Lighthouse.
Manly option – Grab a rideshare and make your way to North Head Sanctuary (you can also follow a bush track from Shelly Beach if you have the energy) if you plan to do this pick up a map from the visitor’s centre at the pier. There is lots to see at North Head, including old war bunkers and memorials or the Quarantine Station complex. The Bella Vista Cafe at North Head has lovely meals and a fantastic view back to the city.
Bondi option – After all that walking and or swimming it might be nice to head back to your hotel or accommodation for a freshen up before heading out for dinner.
If you have not already visited Barangaroo, go ahead and try one of the restaurants there. My favourites are Barangaroo House and Anason. Alternatively, head to Darling Harbour, it looks beautiful at night and has food options at all price ranges.
Manly option – If you still have some energy, you could have sunset drinks at the wharf, craft beers at Four Pines or dinner at one of the many nearby restaurants. Queen Chow is popular as is Hugos.
The ferry back to the town after dark gives you a chance to see the city lights on the way home. If you are not ready to end your night, Opera Bar is a lovely spot for a nightcap.
Splurge travellers do the beach in style
Choose a day tour and let someone else worry about transport and traffic! You could also follow either of the itineraries above if you prefer to be more independent.
Bondi option – If finding your way between beaches sounds too much like hard work, why not go on a small group guided tour. This tour will take you from Bondi to Watsons Bay and then over to one of my favourite harbour beaches Balmoral. It’s a 5-hour outing will finish at Taronga Zoo Wharf.
From here you can take a ferry back to the city or pop into the zoo to visit the koalas and kangaroos!
Manly option – Manly is the best known of the Northern Beaches; however, there are plenty more stunning beaches along this part of the coast. They are less visited than the east so if you want to get a bit off the beaten track. A tour like this 7 hour Northern Beaches and Ku-ring-gai National Park Tour will take you up to Palm Beach and include a chance to visit the places they film TV Soap Home and Away as well as stops to see Aboriginal Rock art and pristine bushland. Lunch at Palm Beach Golf club is included. The tour ends at Manly Wharf in the late afternoon.
Sydney does Asian food well, and I highly recommend you try some while you are here. Try Chin Chin (Thai) in Surry Hills, Mr Wong (Chinese) in the centre of the city or Cho Cho San (Japanese) in Potts Point or Ho Jiak (Malaysia) in Haymarket. If you fancy a degustation meal, then Nel (Mod Oz/British) in Surry Hills is a current favourite.
Find more choice on our list of where to eat in Sydney
3. Meet the locals – Wildlife and Sydneysiders
We will start today visiting the local wildlife. If you are planning on visiting Qld, you might want to give this a miss and do your wildlife spotting up there at either Australia Zoo, Currumbin Sanctuary or Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary instead.
When you have limited time spotting kangaroos and other local wildlife actually in the wild and without a ticket price attached is relatively difficult. If your visit is limited to Sydney, then you will need to visit a wildlife park.
Budget travellers local day
If you have decided to go see the animals, then you will need to part with at least $32. You have three choices which I explain in more detail here but to save a few dollars be sure to pick up the Official Sydney Guide. You find them in the arrivals hall at the information kiosks around the city. The guides have a bunch of vouchers with 15-20% off Taronga and Wildlife Sydney Zoo at Darling Harbour. With limited time these are your two best options.
If you are happy to leave the wildlife spotting to another day consider booking a Sydney Greeter. The service is free ( you should offer to buy your greeter a drink or coffee) and a local will help you see a part of the city through their eyes. Ask them to take you to one of the cities villages, Potts Point and Elizabeth Bay or Balmain are good choices.
Take the train to St Peter’s in the inner west to see some of Sydney’s best street art. Once you get off the train, head up to the main road, King St and then snake in and out of the streets that run along King Street, gradually making your way to Newtown Station. This small area includes a ton of great street art, several social enterprise businesses and plenty of small retailers offering something different to the chain stores of the city.
You will also find fantastic food and some great local beer. We have a couple of Newtown walks you could follow a short walk that hits a few highlights and a longer walk that covers the length of King Street.
Kick on in Newtown with some of the cities best cheap eats; you can easily eat here for under $15 and have something pretty good. Lentil as Anything is a vegetarian social enterprise cafe that charges what you can afford to pay.
I suggest a $15 minimum as they need to cover their costs to keep the service operating. If you can afford more, then feel free to support them. Duck into a local pub, perhaps the Courthouse or Newtown Hotel.
Mid-price travel like a local
So who’s hungry? Start your final day with breakfast with the Koalas at Wildlife Zoo. It’s a small zoo, but when time is limited, this is a good way to meet the Koalas up close.
Once you are done, make your way to mid-city for a quick visit to Hyde Park and St Mary’s Cathedral, Pitt Street Mall Shopping area and the Queen Victoria Building. From Town Hall, you can easily reach the areas mentioned below for your afternoon exploration.
This afternoon exploring the streets of Sydney’s inner east or west where art, history and funky city lifestyles are all on show.
These small suburbs that the city council labels “villages” have lots of hidden gems. We have individual guides to these places, so click through and see which one grabs you. You can easily reach these areas by bus or train in under 20 minutes.
It’s time to go bar hopping. Sydney quite a lot of small bars – there is a high concentration centred in the Northern part of town between Town Hall Station, Wynyard Station and Martin Place.
Meet the locals and splurge a little
If you didn’t pop into the zoo yesterday, then this morning make your way over to Taronga for their 2-hour Wild Australia Experience. This tour, given by one of the zookeepers focuses on koalas, wombats, platypuses, feathertail gliders, and bilbies.
It includes the opportunity to take your photos with Koalas and Kangaroos and visit the kitchens to learn more about what they eat. Once the tour is finished, you are free to explore the rest of the zoo. Alternatively, you could have breakfast with the Koalas
Head out with Culture Scouts on a Private tour – choose from exploring the art of Redfern and Chippendale or Street art in Newtown or a bespoke tour that covers your specific interests. I love these tours because they have been put together by a team who know and love Sydney as much as I do.
They have taken the time to curate tours that allow you to really learn more about Sydney’s “villages” and their residents. Alternatively, try your hand at booking a free Sydney Greeter.
Head to Potts Point tonight, if you arrive before dark take a walk along the main block to get a bit of a feel for one of my favourite parts of town. Begin near the Giant Coco Cola sign on Darlinghurst Road. Make your way along this street to the El Alamein fountain, a local landmark since it was built in the 1960s. It was the first Dandelion Fountain anywhere in the world.
Stroll down Macleay Street, past some significant art deco apartment buildings, the first built in Australia and then turn up and admire the beautiful old Victorian homes. Pop into the Roosevelt or Dear Sainte Éloise in Orwell Street for a cocktail before continuing back to Macleay Street.
Turn up Challis Ave and head along Macleay Street to Challis Ave. This short street will bring you to Embarkation Park and views back towards the city. Turn left onto Victoria Street, admiring the beautiful old terrace houses along the way. For dinner, I suggest The Butler (great cocktails), Ms G’s, (Asian Fusion) Cho Cho San (Japanese) Yellow House (vegetarian) and local Greek favourite The Apollo.
Alternatives Day trip ideas
- Absorb a little of the cities history by walking along Macquarie street, be sure to pop into the free galleries at the State Library and the small but fascinating Museum of Sydney.
- Check out the shops, particularly the QVB and Pitt Street Mall – Depending on where you are travelling from and the exchange rate you could pick up some great deals
- Ride to the top of Sydney Tower and take in the views – Merlin Entertainment runs the Tower, and they have some great combo tickets that include the Sealife Sydney and Madame Tussauds if you hit wet weather.
- Skip or condense the days above and spend a day in the Blue Mountains.
- Take a Hunter Valley Wine Tour
- Rent a car and head to the Royal National Park