Between accommodation, dining out and booking day trips, Sydney is a fairly pricey city to visit. However, with its natural beauty and if you know where to go, there are plenty of free things to do. Next time you’re visiting, try some of these free things to do in Sydney.
BONUS: Scroll to the bottom to check out some of the affordable accommodation options in Sydney. (Yes, there are a few!) I’ve dug up some interesting yet cheap places to stay in Sydney, whether you want to stay in a hotel or hostel, or experience camping in the middle of the harbour.
Note: This post contains affiliate links, which means I may receive commission if you make a purchase using the links.
1. Walk Across the Harbour Bridge
One of the best free things to do in Sydney is to walk across the Harbour Bridge. Yes, it’s possible to pay hundreds of dollars to climb the bridge at the centre of Sydney. But it costs nothing at all to walk across it. Climb the steps and follow the foot path on the eastern side for over a kilometre to the northern shores of the harbour. Along the way take in views of the Opera House, the city skyline and boats down below. If you’re feeling fit, you can also jog across. Or take the bike path on the western side if you are on a bike. Don’t forget to be careful with your hat if it’s a windy day!
2. Go for a Swim
It’s hard to justify visiting Sydney and not going for a swim at one of the many beaches, although for most locals the main swimming season is only from November through to March or April. Go to the world famous Bondi Beach, or head further south to Bronte Beach or Coogee Beach. To the north of the harbour, give Manly Beach a trip. Or walk south along the footpath to the calm Shelly Beach (see above), also a great spot for snorkelling.
3. Picnic in the Botanic Gardens
Just past the Opera House are the Royal Botanic Gardens, founded in 1816. Located on the picturesque waterfront, and with many beautiful sunny lawns to spread out on, this is a beautiful spot to take a picnic and some wine to enjoy, either at lunchtime year round or during the evening in summer (gates are open until 8pm from November to February). For a different type of picnic, there are also two more botanic gardens located to Sydney’s west, with the Australian Botanic Gardens in Mount Annah and the Blue Mountains Botanic Gardens in Mount Tomah, also free to enter. For more information, click here. Other great picnic spots include Centennial Park and Glebe Bicentennial Park.
4. Explore the Exhibits at the Museum of Contemporary Art
The Museum of Contemporary Art (or just the MCA) is located in the Rocks area of Sydney, close to Circular Quay station and the ferry wharves. Most exhibits at the museum are free to enter, except for some ticketed exhibits. On rotating display are artworks from the museum’s collection, featuring contemporary artwork from Australian artists since the 1950s. There’s a particularly strong showing of recent indigenous artwork. Plus there’s new temporary exhibits every few months. Afterwards, relax with a drink or something to eat at the cafe on the Sculpture Terrace, with its beautiful views across to the Opera House. For more information on the current exhibits and free guided tours, see the website.
5. Catch some Free Music at the Opera Bar
Another great spot to have a drink on the harbour in Sydney is the Opera Bar, located on the waterfront just steps from the Opera House. Whilst the drinks are definitely not free, there is free music on offer every day of the week. A variety of songwriters and bands perform, ranging from low-key to funky. There are daily shows on Monday to Thursday at 7:30pm, plus multiple shows on Friday (5:15pm and 8:30pm), Saturday (2:30pm and 8:00pm) and Sunday (2:30pm and 6:00pm). Check the website for the artists playing each week and any changes to the timings.
6. Head to the White Rabbit Gallery
Located in the inner-city suburb of Chippendale, just minutes from Central Station and the new Central Park development, is the White Rabbit Gallery. Owned by a private art collector, it features four floors of contemporary Chinese art. The displays changing twice a year. (Make sure you check the website in advance, in case the gallery is shut for the change over period.) If you want to spend longer in this hip neighbourhood, the teahouse on the ground floor is worth visiting. It serves a wide selection of Chinese teas and handmade dumplings between 11:00am and 3:30pm. Plus the surrounding streets are home to many smaller commercial art galleries and artist-run spaces.
7. Complete the Bondi to Coogee Walk
Whether you’ve just finished swimming at Bondi or it’s too cool for a dip, except on the hottest of days of the year the Bondi to Coogee Walk is a popular free option. Starting at the souther end of Bondi Beach, it meanders for 6km along the ocean front of Sydney’s Eastern Suburbs. It passes through Tamarama, Bronte, Clovelly and Gordons Bay, before finishing at Coogee Beach. It’s hard to resist stopping along the way at one of the many cafes or for a swim. For more details and a map, check out this site.
8. Or Walk from the Spit Bridge to Manly
Another popular walk close to the centre of Sydney is the walk from the Spit Bridge to Manly, on Sydney Harbour’s northern shores. More of a bush walk than an oceanfront stroll, it takes 9km to complete one way. Both ends are accessible by bus, plus there’s option of returning from Manly to the city by ferry. Along the way you’ll pass through Clontarf Beach, parts of the Sydney Harbour National Park, Aboriginal rock engravings, many vistas of Sydney harbour and multiple small beaches to swim at. For maps and notes, see this information pamphlet from Wildwalks, a great website that also has many other details of walks around Sydney.
9. Catch a Free Festival
Year round in Sydney there are a multiple of free festivals to catch, so there’s bound to be something happening when you’re visiting Sydney. Some of the stand out festivals that happen every year include:
- Vivid Sydney: View the free light installations along the Sydney waterfront plus in other inner city locations. Runs from late May to June each year, free except for ticketed program of events.
- Sculpture by the Sea: For a couple of weeks from late October to November, the headland south of Bondi Beach and Tamarama are populated by over 100 sculptures, all free to view. It’s very busy on the weekends; try and catch it during the week.
- Sydney Festival – Every January in Sydney its Sydney Festival time. Whilst the bulk of the music, theatre, dance and arts program is ticketed, there are free concerts to see most weekends in the Domain, plus free parties at Parramatta.
While in Sydney, check out my recommendations for cheap eats in Sydney
Cheap Accommodation #1: Camp on Cockatoo Island
Cockatoo Island is nestled in the western half of Sydney Harbour and is easily accessible by ferry. After previously operating as a penal settlement and dockyard for building warships, it’s now open to the public. Plus, it’s also the site of a far from typical camp ground with magnificent views stretching to the Harbour Bridge. Multiple options are available:
- Bring your own tent and hire a 4m x 4m camping site for up to 4 people. It costs a measly $45 Monday to Thursday or $50 Friday to Sunday.
- Spend a little extra to hire a ready erected dome tent, mattresses and 2 camp chairs. Just bring your own sleeping bags and pillows. This option costs $89/$99 for up to 3 adults or 2 adults and 2 smaller children.
- Splurge on glamping for $150/$175 for 2 people. You’ll get a pre-erected safari tent, along with camp beds, linen, towels, sun lounges, a cool box (esky), a lantern and even toiletries from Appelles Apothecary.
On site are toilets, hot showers, BBQ areas and a communal camping kitchen with a fridge, microwave and boiling water. Plus there’s the option to hire a range of products including sleeping bags.
Cheap Accommodation #2: Sydney Harbour YHA
Some hostels are fancier than others, and Sydney Harbour YHA is definitely one of them. Regularly recommended by backpackers as a great introduction to Sydney, the YHA is the only backpacker hostel located in the historic Rocks precinct. That means its a short walk from all the major tourist sites. It also comes with panoramic views of the Opera House and Harbour Bridge, including from the rooftop dining and BBQ area. Other features of this modern, recently built hostel include a large fully-equipped kitchen, free wi-fi, ensuites for all rooms, plus the remnants of an archaeological dig site underneath.
As it is fancier than usual, the hostel is also more expensive than your typical hostel, even for Sydney. Prices vary by season, with the cheapest prices during winter. For YHA members, winter prices per night are $48-$50 for a bed in a 6/4 bed dorm or $168-178 for a double/twin room. Non-YHA members will fork out $54-$56 for a dorm or $188-$198 for a double/twin room. Membership costs $25 for 1 year. There’s also a variety of specials available, generally for longer stays.
Cheap Accommodation #3: Australian Heritage Hotel
Also located nearby in the Rocks, but of a far older vintage (built over 100 years ago in 1913), is the Australian Heritage Hotel. Probably most famous as the pub that serves the Australian coat-of-arms (kangaroo and emu) on a pizza, the hotel also offers old-style hotel rooms up on the first floor. The downside to old-fashioned hotel rooms is they don’t have ensuites, instead sharing common bathrooms. But the rooms are decorated with antiques and there is a comfortable guest parlour. Queens rooms start at an unbeatable $115 per night, including a continental breakfast.
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