OK, so Sydney is pretty spectacular as a city but there’s so much more to discover.
I’ll be the first to admit that Australia wasn’t on my bucket list.
Apart from the after-school ritual of double-billing Home And Away and Neighbours, and religiously listening to Kylie and Jason on cassette tape when I was seven, my only real experience with Australia came when my pals all scarpered off there during their gap year sometime in the late 90s.
Other places ranked higher on my globetrotting ‘hot or not’ barometer and for some reason, despite making countless Australian friends throughout my life, the prospect of travelling to the other side of the world didn’t appeal.
Then a few months ago I got the opportunity to visit Sydney – capital of New South Wales and one of Australia’s largest cities – and after just a few days seeing what this incredible metropolis had to offer, I was made to eat my words.
Think a hearty slice of humble pie with lashings of Vegemite.
Not only is Sydney vibrant and exciting, populated by miles of white beaches, diverse wildlife and more beautiful people than you can shake a surfboard at, the city also happens to sit on New South Wales’ magnificent state doorstep.
Think vast mountain ranges, kitsch coastal towns, lush vineyards and acres of wild, beautiful bush, all waiting to be discovered just a few hours’ drive from the city.
And don’t think you can’t cram this all into a short trip.
If you’re prepared to deal with a tiny bit of jet lag, you can legitimately nail this list without having to book too much time off work.
I recommend taking a tour with a planned itinerary to maximise your Aussie adventure.
This way not only do you capture some of the area’s most beautiful spots in one fell swoop, but you’re also guaranteed to make some serious buds along the way.
Here are my top five things to see in Sydney and beyond.
Snap a selfie at the Sydney Opera House
There’s a legit reason why it’s an icon.
Not only is the Sydney Opera House one of the most distinctive buildings ever constructed, but seeing it IRL will kickstart your Australian experience.
For the perfect selfie spot, try to get to Milsons Point, under the Sydney Harbour Bridge, where you’ll capture the structure in its full glory.
Do yourself a favour and visit the Opera House at night when the white seashells truly come alive.
Check out the bars and restaurants lining the building’s vast underbelly and immerse yourself in the buzz.
The drinks may be a bit on the spenny side, but you really can’t put a price on that jaw-dropping view.
Grab an iced coffee at Manly Beach
Super-chilled and jam-packed full of surfer types, Manly Bay is less than an hour’s drive north from the city, although it’s also possible to get here via Sydney’s main ferry terminal, Circular Quay, and will take about 30 minutes on the water
This soft, sandy strip of coastline is one of Australia’s most famous surfing beaches — the world’s first surfing championship was held here in 1964 — and it’s impossible not to tap into the town’s laid-back surf vibe.
Stroll along the tree-lined promenade until you get to one of the many cute bars and cafes that line Manly’s front, and treat yourself to a brain-freeze-inducing iced-coffee, spiked with thick vanilla ice cream and sprinkles.
Then take it down to the beach, throw down a blanket and chill while the surfers do their thing.
Sandboard the dunes in Port Stephens
The beautiful coastal region of Port Stephens is about two-and-a-half-hours’ drive north of Sydney, and boasts a staggering 26 beaches, including Zenith Beach, Shoal Bay and the stunning windswept, camel-populated expanse of Anna Bay.
Here you can take a thrilling 4WD ride into the heart of Stockton Bight sand dunes and try the Australian pastime of sandboarding: think surfing, only less wet and with a shedload more sand in your knickers.
with the largest moving sand dunes in the Southern Hemisphere, Stockton feels like you’ve stumbled into an intergalactic landscape, Star Wars-style.
Rippled sands snake like sidewinders across the slopes, rolling onwards and upwards to meet the staggering blue of Australia’s perfect skies.
Climbing up the dunes is tough work, but worth the burn once you’re hurtling down the slopes at breakneck speed.
Note: be sure to slather on the sun cream, and don’t wear skimpy shorts.
Sand burn is very real and hurts like hell.
If you’re staying over in Port Stephens, be aware that the town is also famous for its seafood.
To try Australia’s saltwater barramundi, head to the quaint waterfront restaurant Little Beach Boathouse overlooking Nelson’s Bay, where you’ll savour this delicious fish alongside broccolini, green olive and macadamia nut tapenade, chorizo and cauliflower puree.
Grab a table on the deck: if you’re lucky you might spot a manta ray swimming in the shallows below.
Taste everything in Hunter Valley
And I mean, everything.
Synonymous with wine, the legendary Hunter Valley, two hours north of Sydney, is home to more than 120 wineries, gourmet restaurants, breweries and artisan outposts.
Boasting everything from semillons to bespoke chocolatiers, whiffy cheese shops to award-winning vodkas, the Hunter Valley really is a food junkie’s playground.
I’d recommend spending a full day here to sample all the Hunter Valley has to offer and it’s worth doing some research beforehand, especially if there’s a particular vineyard you want to visit. It can get busy depending on the time of year, plus you’re in luxury wedding territory.
Be on the look-out for marauding kangaroos in the vine-dappled valleys and make extra room in your backpack – you’ll want to bring loads of stuff home.
If you get the chance to try grape-stomping, do it. Do it for the ‘gram.
Be humbled by the Blue Mountains
Check your jaw at the door, because this mountain range is about to blow your mind.
Situated west of Sydney, the World Heritage Area of the Blue Mountains – named such because of the blueish haze engulfing them – are an absolute must-see, especially if you like walking trails, snapping dramatic vistas or feeling at one with the natural world.
The iconic Three Sisters can be seen from Echo Point in Katoomba.
If you time it just right, the sunsets here are nothing short of spectacular, so make sure your panoramic skills are on point.
Think untamed wilderness and breathtaking views.
Travelling with a loved one? Get ready to feel romantic.
How to get there and where to stay
A five-day Topdeck Sydney Discovery Tour includes: four nights in motel, lodges and hostels; four breakfasts and one dinner; transport in a modern air‐conditioned vehicle with wi‐fi; and a Topdeck driver guide.
Prices start from £369 a person. The group size 24.
Flights are not included, but return flights to Sydney via Heathrow start at £526 via Etihad.