Free things to do in Sydney on a first visit
It might be one of the world’s most expensive cities to live in, but Sydney has endless free things to entertain a first-time visitor. From gardens and galleries to beautiful beaches and iconic landmarks, these are 12 of the best things to do for free.
Walk across the Sydney Harbour Bridge
It’s the city’s most famous landmark and you can experience it any time without opening your wallet. Built in 1923, the Sydney Harbour Bridge is the world’s tallest steel arch bridge and stretches more than one kilometre across Sydney Harbour. Walk along the pedestrian footpath for incredible views over the city, the Sydney Opera House and the ever-changing vista of boats on the water.
Admire the Sydney Opera House
Perched dramatically on Bennelong Point at the edge of the water, the Sydney Opera House is a masterpiece from any angle. Take a walk around the perimeter to admire Jan Utzon’s iconic white sails, covered in tiles that gleam in the sunlight. On winter nights, the sails are illuminated by Badu Gili, a six-minute light projection that celebrates Indigenous artists.
Tackle the Bondi to Coogee track
Snaking around the clifftops between two of Sydney’s best beaches, the Bondi to Coogee coastal walk is a favourite of first-timers and locals alike. Stretching for 6km, you can complete the whole track in a couple of hours or you can make a day of it, stopping off to swim at Tamarama and Bronte, snorkel at Gordons Bay, and admire the Aboriginal rock carvings at North Bondi. While this is the city’s most famous coastal walk, there are lots of others to choose from.
Join a guided tour of the Royal Botanic Garden
Curving around the edge of Sydney Harbour, the spectacular Royal Botanic Garden is the oldest scientific institute in Australia, dating back to 1816. It’s home to thousands of plants from all over the world, plus sculptures, greenhouses and sprawling lawns. Join one of the twice-daily guided walks through the garden that will give you insight into the incredible diversity of plant life from all over the world. The walk is free but you will need to register on the website to save your spot.
Get arty at the city’s best galleries
Three of Sydney’s most famous art galleries, the Museum of Contemporary Art, Art Gallery of NSW and White Rabbit Gallery, are all free to enter, so you can admire thousands of paintings, sculptures and installations. Don’t miss the collection of Indigenous and First Nations art on display in the striking new Sydney Modern building at AGNSW. (Note that there may be an entry fee for some special exhibitions.)
Take a dip at Bondi Beach
Arguably the most famous beach in Australia, you can’t visit Sydney and not go for a swim at Bondi. Golden sand, rolling waves and plenty of beautiful people make for a picture-perfect day by the water. If it’s too cold for a swim, you can still walk along the sand and watch the surfers in action off the point.
Go back in time at a museum
History buffs are spoilt for choice when it comes to museums in Sydney – and many of them are absolutely free. You could spend a whole day (or more) at the enormous Australian Museum, home to Indigenous artefacts, dinosaur skeletons, native fauna and flora, and other uniquely Australian treasures. Learn about our proud seafaring traditions at the Australian Maritime Museum, step into Sydney’s dark side at the Justice and Police Museum, and discover a remarkable collection ranging from ancient Rome to contemporary art at the Chau Chak Wing Museum at the University of Sydney. (Note that there may be an entry fee for some special exhibitions.)
Snorkel in the calm waters of Shelly Beach
Tucked into the quiet cove of Cabbage Tree Bay, just next to Manly, Shelly Beach is one of Sydney’s best snorkelling spots. Part of an aquatic reserve, the waters are teeming with life from blue groupers, giant cuttlefish, wobbegongs, (harmless) Port Jackson sharks and rays to huge schools of fish. If you’re very lucky, you might even spot a dusky whaler shark, turtle or dolphin. To come face to mask with more underwater wildlife, dive into these snorkelling spots.
Delve into history on a Rocks Walking Tour
The oldest European settlement in Australia, The Rocks was the birthplace of modern Sydney. Narrow cobblestone streets, historic buildings and centuries-old pubs have preserved the harbourside area’s historic charms. Join The Rocks Free Walking Tour that runs every evening to learn about the convicts and characters who built this community more than 200 years ago.
Marvel at St Mary's Cathedral
You don’t have to be religious to be impressed by the majesty of St Mary’s Cathedral. The dramatic, Gothic revival-style building is built of honey-coloured Sydney sandstone and construction took more than 60 years, starting in 1866. Marvel at the spectacular architecture, watch the sun stream through the ornate stained-glass windows and venture down into the crypt, famed for its terrazzo mosaic floor.
Stroll through Centennial Park
Centennial Park in Paddington is the green lung of the city, and its vast 190 hectares is ideal for walking, picnics and watching the water birds, including pelicans and black swans. A one-hour stroll takes you around Grand Drive under giant fig trees; add another 30min for the Wetlands Maze and 45min for the Lachlan Swamp Nature Trail through paperbark forest.
Be awed by architecture
Sydney is dotted with glorious buildings dating back to the early 1800s. Start in Macquarie Street, where you can admire the heritage architecture of the State Library of NSW, Parliament House and Hyde Park Barracks. In the city centre, admiring the ornate interiors of the Queen Victoria Building and Strand Arcade won’t cost you anything – though the great shopping inside will.