The Ultimate Sydney Layover Guide

Sydney Opera House Cahill walk

Do you have a short layover in Sydney?  Not sure what you can see with just 6, 8 or 10 hours in the city?  Well grab a seat and get comfy cause I am about to give you lots of ideas of things to do on your Sydney layover. 

If you have a stopover in Sydney, you might be wondering:

  • Is it worth leaving the airport?
  • Do you need a visa to exit the airport?
  • What can you see in 6-8 hours in Sydney?
  • What are the rules regarding check-in at Sydney airport?
  • How long does it take to travel from Sydney airport to the harbour and the city?
  • How long do I need to clear immigration for my onward flight?

Well, let’s work out if you have time to leave the airport and if you do, what you can see in your limited time in the city.

Sydney Layover Logistics

Do you need a visa to leave Sydney Airport in transit?

If you are an international passenger in transit and would like to leave Sydney airport, you will need a visa to enter Australia. There are a few options; a free transit visa is available to travellers from some countries that will let you into Australia for up to 72 hours. This transit visa allows you to leave the airport. Travellers from countries not covered by the transit visa will need to get a visitor visa. There are several types, so it’s best to check the details for your country on the Immigration website.

What is the minimum time needed to leave Sydney Airport on a layover?

In my opinion, the absolute minimum layover required to explore Sydney on a stopover is 5 hours for a domestic connection and 6 hours for an international flight – personally, I would want 6 hours regardless, I get nervous about missing flights. Only you can decide what is right for you. If you miss your flight, it’s on your head lol.  Please plan for worst case scenarios, cancelled trains, long queues at the airport, etc. and make a decision you are comfortable with.

Upon landing, you need to pass through customs and immigration- on a good day (and depending on the time of day), this can take 20 minutes but it is often more like 40 minutes, and it is not unknown for it to be over an hour on busy early morning arrivals. Tripadvisor forums will highlight many less successful transit times. A 6 am arrival can be chaos due to Sydney’s flight curfew that limits landings between 11 pm and 6 am. You can get an idea of how many flights will be landing at the same time as you by checking the arrivals information on the airport website.

Is there luggage storage at Sydney Airport?

In a perfect world, you would have your bags checked through to your final destination. If not you can store them with Smarte Carte in the arrivals section of both the domestic and international terminals (near McDonald’s). You will need to factor in time to collect them before you clear customs on return.

What is the best way to get to the city on a short layover?

Airport Station Sydney International terminal

Take the train to the city; it is the only viable option if you want to save time. Anything else will take longer. Return train tickets cost $36 for an adult and $30 for a child.  The trip to Circular Quay (Sydney Harbour) takes 18 minutes from the Domestic Terminal and 22 minutes from the International Terminal. Yes, there is a cheaper way but really on such limited time would you bother?

How long before my flight do I need to be back at the airport?

For international flights, it is recommended you arrive 3 hours before departure – if your bags are checked through, and you have your connecting boarding pass you could do it in 2 hours.  For domestic flights 2 hours is fine.

How much time do you really have on your layover?

Allow 30 mins of travel time each way.  Allow 30 mins extra on the return trip for any unexpected issues, so be cautious,  that is 1.5 hours for a return trip. Make sure you also take into consideration the check-in requirements above.

How much time do you have – Sydney Airport layover times

If you already have your boarding pass, you only need to be at the gate by the boarding time listed, but lines at security and immigration can be long on occasion.

If your Transit Time is Then your Time to explore is really…
5 hours 2-3 hours – Only for the adventurous!
6 hours 3-4 hours – Stick to Circular Quay
7 hours 4-5 hours – Keep an eye on the clock
8 hours 5-6 hours – Comfortable
9 hours 6-7 hours – Great
10 hours 7-8 hours – Perfect

Ideas for exploring Sydney in under 4 hours

To make sure you get back to the airport on time I suggest you set the alarm on your phone for 30 minutes before your train back to the airport.  Remember you will have to watch the clock carefully on a short visit!

Must-See Sydney for the time poor traveller 

Botanic Gardens Opera House View
The Canna Lillies and the Opera House make a nice shot

With less than 4 hours you only have time to take in the around Circular Quay. From the train, you can walk to the Opera House in 5 minutes. There is no need for an official tour, just walk around the outside and wander into the foyers if they are open to get a feel for the inside.

Next up enter the Royal Botanic Gardens and take a short loop of the bottom half before exiting the way you came in. Head back towards the train station, as you reach the end of the walkway, you will see a glass elevator that will take you up onto the roadway above the station. This road is called the Cahill Expressway, along with being an ugly monstrosity, it hosts a viewing platform that offers a great view of the harbour and is a top spot to get some Instagram-worthy photos of Sydney.

If you have less than 90 mins left on the clock double back the way you came and spend some time exploring the other side of the foreshore and under the Harbour Bridge.

If you still have more than 90 mins left then keep going. Head along the walkway to the other side, and you will find a staircase that will take you to the back of The Rocks or onto the Harbour Bridge. If you are fast, you can take a quick jog to the middle of the bridge for a quick look. Now double back into the Rocks and wander the back streets for half an hour or so before returning to the station if there is time to pop into the MCA Rooftop Cafe for a flat white with a view.

If all these suggestions have you scared of getting lost you could always head straight to Opera Bar for a quick lunch and sit soaking in the view till it’s time to head back.

Ideas for exploring Sydney in 5-6 hours

Explore Sydney on Foot

Iconic Sydney – Visit the Harbour’s East and Western shores

Take the train to Circular Quay and follow the walkway to the Opera House. Enter the gate to the Royal Botanical Garden and continue along the path that hugs the cove. In the end, you come to Mrs Macquarie Point, and from here you can capture the postcard Sydney view.

Postcard view Sydney from Mrs Macquarie's Point
The view from Mrs Macquarie’s Point at the end of the Botanic Gardens 

Retrace your steps back to Circular Quay Wharf and around the other side of the quay.  Pop into the MCA and take the elevator to the level 4 cafe for flat white or espresso with a view.

Circular Quay walk
Explore Circular Quay and the Museum of Contemporary Art

When you exit the gallery walk up Argyle Street through the Argyle Cut until you come to the Hotel Palisades (Henry Deane) and the Barangaroo Reserve. The Palisades is a great spot to grab a beer; the ground floor bar has been restored to its old-world glory and offers delicious counter meals. Head to the rooftop Henry Deane Bar for upmarket share plates, served with spectacular views.

From here walk into Barangaroo Reserve before making your way to Barangaroo Ferry Wharf, depending on how much time you have left you could take an F4 ferry back to the Quay for a ride under the Harbour Bridge. Check the ferry timetable before you decide. If you prefer, you can follow the signs to Wynyard Station and take the airport train from here.

Sydney Harbour explorer walk
Sydney Harbour East and West walking route

Plan B 

If you are a bit jet lagged a ride on the Hop on Hop off bus, or a harbour cruise is a stress-free way to see the sights in limited time.

  • The HOHO bus stops opposite the station and makes two loops. One loop covers the City area, and the other goes to Bondi and the eastern suburbs. Each loop takes 1.5hrs.
  • A Captain Cook Harbour Cruise takes about 2 hours, and you can get food and drinks on the boat.

Explore the Harbour on a public ferry

Sydney Harbour Ferry ride

There are so many different ways to explore the city by ferry.  Below are the ones I think work best on short visits. I have several more detailed elsewhere on the blog including my favourite Sydney ferry rides.

Option 1 – The Manly Ferry: 6 hours minimum

Take the train to Circular Quay, after quick photo stops to capture the Bridge and the Opera House jump on a Manly ferry. It is a 30 minute trip across Sydney heads to Manly. The Wharf has recently been redeveloped and now hosts some great dining options.

Manly Beach in March

If you’re not hungry, then take the 8-minute walk down the Corso to the beach. Check your timing for the return trip, and if you still have an hour or more up, your sleeve take the 20-minute walk to the waterfront to Shelly Beach. Alternatively, you might also like to stop in a classic Aussie pub on the Corso like the Hotel Steyne for a beer.

Option 2 – Under the Bridge and Back: 4 hours minimum

Opera House from Milsons Point
Take the ferry to Pyrmont (this one goes under the bridge and past Barangaroo to the Star Casino. You can either get on the ferry and explore the Darling Harbour/Barangaroo vicinity or stay on and return to Milson’s Point.

When you arrive back at Milsons Point get off the ferry and take the pedestrian walkway back across the Harbour Bridge to Circular Quay.

If you have time, you can head up to the Sydney Harbour Bridge Pylon and visit the museum for a bird’s eye view of the harbour.

Option 3: Watsons Bay and South Head: 5 hours minimum

Watson's Bay Beach

Take a ferry to one of Sydney prettiest spots, Watson’s Bay in the gorgeous eastern suburbs.
Once you arrive, you can:

  • splurge on a special meal at Sydney’s oldest seafood restaurant
  • take a walk out to the Hornby Lighthouse on the edge of South Head
  • grab some fish and chips from the take away on the wharf to eat on the small harbour beach
  • down a few beers in the perfectly positioned Watson’s Bay Hotel
  • visit the infamous Gap Lookout

Make sure you check the timetable for your return trip to Circular Quay before you set out as these ferries are not as regular as others and the bus ride back to the city takes over an hour!

For an extended visit, you can also take a bus from here to Bondi Beach and continue exploring.

Sydney Shopper


Spending your limited time on a short stopover shopping is probably an option best suited to those visiting from smaller cities, repeat visitors, or those whose currencies are very strong.

Option 1: City Shopper

Alight at St James Station – visit Pitt Street Mall, the Strand Arcade, Market Street for luxury brands & the gorgeous Queen Victoria Building. Take the train back to the airport from Museum Station OR walk down Pitt Street till you reach Circular Quay and catch a quick glimpse of the Harbour before catching the train from Circular Quay Station.

Option 2: For repeat visitors

If you have been to Sydney before and seeing the harbour is not the key motive you can take the 400 bus to either Eastgardens, which is about 15 mins from the airport and is a large suburban shopping centre or Bondi Junction which is 30 mins away and has more high-end brands. Traffic around the airport can be quite congested, so you might want to take the train to Mascot only ($8.25) and then grab an Uber ($20 on average to Bondi Junction).

Explore Sydney’s Past – a minimum of 5 hours

Historic Sydney walk – The cities best colonial architecture

Take the train to Museum Station and follow my Historic Sydney walk.  It takes in Hyde Park, St Mary’s Cathedral, Colonial Sydney Buildings along Macquarie Street including Parliament House and the State Library and leads you to the Botanic Gardens and the Opera House. There is also a shorter walk that includes the Art Gallery and a little less history.

Explore The Rocks – Sydney’s oldest quarter

The Hero of Waterloo Hotel in The Rocks

Start at the Rocks Discovery Museum and the try the self-guided walk around The Rocks. Depending on how long you stop at each place you can cover this walk in 2 hours and leave time to have lunch or visit some of the historic pubs

Ideas for an 8-10 hour layover in Sydney

For the organised traveller – Sydney Harbour Bridgeclimb

Book a Bridge Climb – The climb takes a minimum of 4 hours, and you must book in advance, so this one will take some planning. After you finish your climb have a wander through The Rocks Quarter and finish up with lunch by the waterfront before returning to the airport. You can also check this list of other places to eat after your bridge climb

For the outdoor lover – Sydney Harbourside Walking Tracks

The perfect Sydney layover walk
This view of the city from Cremorne was taken just left of  MacCallum Pool 

If you want to see the harbour from a different angle, then jump on the ferry to Cremorne Point and follow this harbourside walk to the Zoo. Beautiful homes, beautiful gardens and breathtaking views around every corner. At the end of the walk, you can either take the cable car up to the zoo entry and visit some of our furry friends or jump a ferry back to the Quay and take a ferry ride to another lovely harbourside spot.

For adventure lovers – Surf, Swim, SUP or Kayak

Propose in Sydney on a Kayak

 

Take a ferry to Manly and get active. You can rent kayaks or SUP’s here by the hour, take a surf lesson, or rent a bike and ride along the coast.

For lovers of street art and urban culture – Visit Newtown

Newtown Street Art Sydney layover ideas

Just a short trip from the airport is Newtown, Sydney’s subculture capital. Street art, great food and eclectic shopping. While you can easily wander the main streets and back lanes and uncover fantastic murals and quirky cafes this self-guided street art walk might appeal to those who like a little more structure.

Sydney Layover with Kids

Let me start by saying I would not be brave enough to attempt leaving the airport with kids unless I had at least 8 hours. I am not sure I would be brave enough to do it at all lol… but if you are here are some ideas to consider. It’s been a while since I have had to think about children in my holiday plans so you might want to check some of the places in this list by Adventure Baby on the Best things to do in Sydney with kids. Most of the items listed in the city or Darling Harbour would be suitable for a layover visit.

Image Credit: the yes man

Visit Taronga Zoo – Minimum 8 hours

Sitting on the northern side of the harbour the zoo has fantastic views back across the city, and there is plenty to keep you occupied for 3-4 hours. If you don’t have that much time then grab a map from the entry and head straight for the Australian animals. Check the timetable of shows and talks and plan your visit. If you have limited time getting you zoo ticket sorted in advance will save you queueing on arrival.

Darling Harbour

With a great play area, Sydney Aquarium, Madame Tussauds, Wildlife World and The Maritime Museum, this part of Sydney has plenty to keep kids busy. If you are planning to visit two or more of these attractions, then a combination ticket could be a good idea.

Harbour Bridge and Luna Park

Ferris Wheel at Luna Park

Catch the ferry to Milson’s Point where you will find Luna Park, stroll through the amusement park, take a photo of the giant face, and perhaps a ride or two. Just behind Luna Park is Wendy’s Secret Garden which is a fun place for kids to run around and let off some steam. From here walk back along the boardwalk and take a ferry back to the Quay.

A full 12 hour Sydney Layover Itinerary or How to spend one day in Sydney

Watsons Bay Sydney layover ideas

Take the train to Circular Quay and walk around to the Opera House (grab a flat white if you need a wake me up drink). Walk back to the ferry terminal and take the F7 ferry to Watsons Bay (usually from Wharf 6). When you arrive at Watson’s Bay, I suggest you take Watson’s Bay walk outlined here, but if that seems too strenuous, you could walk up to The Gap lookout instead.

When you have finished exploring the area jump on the 380 bus to Bondi (pronounced Bond-eye), there are lots of great food options here; you might like to check out the Icebergs club for a meal with a view or a drink at the North Bondi RSL for some real Aussie culture. There is also the legendary deep-fried Mars Bar (or fish and chips) from Bondi Surf Seafood.

Bondi Beach in spring

Now to burn off some of those calories, I suggest you tackle the Bondi to Coogee coastal walk. This reasonably easy 6km walk takes about 2 hours to complete. You could also choose to complete a shorter section. For example, the Bondi to Bronte is only 2.5km and takes about an hour; you can also stop at Clovelly about another 30 mins along. Buses leave from both of these beaches back to Bondi Junction train station.

Bondi to Coogee Walking path
The full Bondi to Coogee walk is 6km.

If you do go all the way to the end of the path, then reward yourself with a beer from the rooftop bar at the Coogee Pavilion. From Coogee jump on the 370 bus back to Green Square station where you are just ten minutes train ride from the airport.

 

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25 Comments

  1. Eight of us are traveling to Bali this summer with a 10 hour layover in Sydney. We would love to take the kids to see a Koala bear if possible. But was wondering if there was time to do that and to visit the harbor and see the opera house. We
    would also love to see Bondi beach. Is it possible to do all? What would you cut out? We are four adults two 15 year olds, and two 12 year olds. Is Featherdale worth the visit?

    • Hi Denise, Sorry for the delay, I have been off travelling. I don’t believe 10 hours is long enough for a visit to Featherdale. If it was me and the kids really wanted to see a Koala then I would take the train to Wynyward, walk around to Wildlife world down at Darling Harbour, see the kangaroos and koalas there then take a ferry to Watsons Bay (45mins) – this will take you under the bridge and around to Circular Quay to get a good view of the both the bridge and Opera House. When you get off at Watson’s Bay take a quick look around before jumping on the 380 bus to Bondi (10 mins). From Bondi take the bus to Bondi Junction and train back to the airport (change at Central not Town Hall as it is much quicker).

  2. Hi great article. apologies for re-posting – not sure if previous attempt to post worked. What are options for a beach transit – somewhere with deck chairs and beach umbrellas for a 5 hr snooze btwn flights? Any ideas much appreciated. Thanks!

    • Hi Bob, paid deck chairs are not really a thing in Sydney. Your best bet if you really want chairs is at Bondi Beach. Towards the north end of the beach, there is a hire stand that has sun loungers and the like. I have no idea of the prices sorry. You could take the 400/410 bus from the airport to Bondi Junction and then change to a beach bus however you will lose close to an hour doing this. If your budget is not tight perhaps take a uber. Alternatively, head to Coogee and lay on the sand.

      A closer beach – with no loungers is Brighton le Sands which is only a 10 min uber ride away.

  3. Thank you for the post. This is really helpful and I am so glad that I’m able to stumble on this article before I travel to NZ with more than 8 hrs lay over in Sydney. I’ll be traveling this coming June .

  4. I love taking advantages of long layovers! Getting out and getting an introduction to the city is way better than sitting in the airport. I’ll keep this itinerary for if I ever find myself on a Sydney layover.

  5. Layovers always bring to the fore questions like what you have highlighted here. Many a time one does not venture out of the airport as you do not have proper information and are paranoid about getting back in time. Your post addresses these issues and the information provided is very valuable for people transiting through Sydney.

  6. I love how you divided each section based on the time limit for layovers, that’s extremely helpful! I’m with you though, I don’t think I’d risk missing my flight if my layover was really short (5hr or less). I’d just suck it up at the airport and get some work done!

  7. I have never been to Sydney, but if I happen to layover there I have plenty of ideas now. I would love to visit most of the things on your list anyway.

  8. I am getting dizzy just reading this. For heavens sake, skip the layover and just stay for a few days. Sydney is such a fantastic place you’ll love every minute of it – and you won’t have to keep stressing about getting back to the airport to make your flight.

    • Hi Lyn, I agree Sydney is well worth 3 or more days, in fact, my blog is full of reasons why you should stay a week and how you can fill your time 🙂 However many visitors don’t have the luxury of a longer visit. People in town for conferences or business meetings often only have a day or so to see what they can between flights. Visitors who fly through Sydney on their way to New Zealand or another state. I am hoping this article will help them make the most of whatever limited time they do have.

  9. It is great to have all this great information in one location. It’s always a little nerve-wracking leaving an airport during a layover, but sometimes seeing the destination is too hard to pass up.

  10. This is good information to know. It is especially helpful for someone on a layover. Also, the pictures show me how beautiful Sydney is. Hopefully I get to go one day!

  11. Paula, I commend you for putting together a great layover guide for Sydney! These are exactly what I would also have recommended for visitors. There is so much to see and do within easy reach of Sydney Airport so I definitely support your recommendation to get out of the airport on a longer layover.

    • Thanks Anne, it was a lot of work however I get emailed these questions so often I thought it was time I put all the answers in one place! I hope it proves helpful.

  12. Hubby is always terrified to get out of the airport for long layovers, while I’m always telling him there’s so much we could do! I’ll definitely show him your useful guide, thank you!

  13. This is a very useful post with lots of detailed information, which would be extremely useful for someone stopping over in Sydney. I wish that i had a guide like this when i stopped over in KL a couple of years ago.
    This is worth printing out or offering as a PDF download.

    • Thanks Dave – good idea I will have to investigate putting a PDF version up. I have done 7 KL stopovers in my time, perhaps I should get working on that too 🙂

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