The Ultimate Sydney Layover Guide
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.
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Sydney Layover Logistics
If you have a stopover in Sydney, you might wonder:
- 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.
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?
The absolute minimum layover required to explore Sydney on a stopover is:
- 5 hours for a domestic connection
- 6 hours for an international flight
Personally, I would want 6 hours regardless, I get nervous about missing flights. However, only you can decide what you are comfortable with. 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 give yourself enough time to check in before your gate closes
Does the time of day you land make a difference?
Yes, it does. Sydney Airport has a curfew, meaning flights can not take off or land between 11pm and 6am. This results in an early morning peak hour with dozens of flights landing between 6 and 9am.
Upon landing, you need to pass through immigration and customs. 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. You can get an idea of how many flights will land 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?
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.
Must-See Sydney for the time-poor traveller
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 7 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 magnificent view of the harbour and is a top spot to get some Instagram-worthy photos of Sydney.
If you have less than 90 minutes 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 over 90 minutes 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 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 is time to head back to the station.
Ideas for exploring Sydney in 5-6 hours
You can see quite a bit in 5-6 hours – decide on the best option according to how much energy you have.
Explore Sydney on Foot – Visit the Harbour’s Eastern and Western shores
This itinerary will show you Sydney’s Icons in all their glory. 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.
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.
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 brilliant 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.
- The HOHO bus stops in George Street a couple of minutes’ walk from the station. The bus offers two loops. One covers the city area, and the other goes to Bondi and the eastern suburbs. Each loop takes 1.5 hours.
- 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
There are so many ways to explore the city by ferry. Below are the ones I think work best on short visits. I have a detailed list of my favourite Sydney ferry rides you can work your way through next time you are here.
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. If you want to get off the ferry and explore Manly, check out our list of things to do in Manly for ideas.
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
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
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 Shopping Layover
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
Get off the train at St James Station – from here you can 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 from the airport to either Eastgardens a large suburban shopping centre about 15 mins from the airport or Bondi Junction which is 30 mins away and has more high-end brands.
Traffic around the airport can be quite congested, so 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
A history lover on a layover in Sydney is in luck as most of the important structures from colonial Sydney are concentrated in The Rocks, Circular Quay and Macquarie Street.
Historic Sydney walk – The city’s 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
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 Harbour Side Walking Tracks
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
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
Just a short Uber ride 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.
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.
Explore 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.
Walk the Harbour Bridge and visit 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
This full day itinerary will guarantee you get a good sleep on the next flight!
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.
After you explored the area jump on the 380 bus to Bondi (pronounced Bond-eye), there is no shortage of great food options here; you might like to check out the Icebergs club for a meal with a view or a grab a drink at the North Bondi RSL for some real Aussie culture.
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 beaches back to Bondi Junction train station.
If you 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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