11 free things to do in Sydney, including secret beaches and cliff walks

Ariela Bard
At beautiful Palm Beach there are ideal spots for swimming including an ocean pool that’s great for laps - Kokkai Ng

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It's easy to find free things to do in Sydney, owing to the city's natural assets. There are the beaches, with ocean pools, underwater snorkelling trails and surf, plus cliff walks (with the chance of spotting humpback whales if your timing is right), and Sydney's answer to Central Park. If you're after some inner-city activities, there are farmer's markets and arty neighbourhoods to explore. 

Eastern suburbs

Go snorkelling at a secret bay

One of the eastern suburb’s most secret beaches also happens to be one of its most beautiful. Tucked discreetly between Clovelly and Coogee Beaches, Gordon's Bay is a picturesque, rocky beach with clear blue waters and its own underwater nature trail. Like a bushwalk, but underwater, the trail is about 600 metres long and is simple to follow. Information about local marine life is displayed on steel plaques and, on a clear day, can even be seen from above the surface. Note: Gordon’s Bay is accessed via a short trail.

Address: Major Street, Coogee

Gordon's Bay is a picturesque, rocky beach with clear blue waters and its own underwater nature trail Credit: Justine Oh

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Take a walk on the whale’s side

It's not anywhere near as famous as the Bondi to Bronte clifftop walk, but The Federation Cliff Walk is equally beautiful. This 5km walking trail from Dover Heights to Watsons Bay travels across sandstone cliffs and through parklands with unbroken views across the Tasman Sea. If your walk falls between April and December, you might just be rewarded with a glimpse of a passing humpback whale. Be aware that parts of this walk deviate onto the road and you will need to follow signs occasionally to get back on track. 

Address: start at the end of Raleigh Street, Dover Heights

The Federation Cliff Walk is a 5km walking trail that offers unbroken views across the Tasman Sea Credit: © Andi Surjanto/Andi Surjanto

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Have a picnic by the duck pond at Sydney’s answer to Central Park

Centennial Park is situated on 540 acres of land that was once a huge expanse of swamps and sand dunes and home to the Gadi people. With seasonally changing formal gardens, 10 ponds full of birds and marine life (Duck Pond in particular is very popular for bird watching), the park is often busy, but rarely feels crowded. There are many picturesque spots for a picnic and nearby Queen Street in Woollahra has delis at which to stock up. Find a quiet spot and do refrain from feeding the ducks – the geese, in particular, are insane.

Contact: 00 61 2 9339 6699; centennialparklands.com.au
Opening times: Daily: April, 6am-6pm; May-Aug, 6.30am-5.30pm; Sep, Oct, 6am-6pm; October-March, 6am-8pm

Centennial Park boasts seasonally changing formal gardens and 10 ponds full of bird and marine life Credit: MikeFernandes2/MikeFernandes2

Take a drive to one of the oldest national parks in the world

Less than one hour’s drive from the centre of Sydney, The Royal National Park is one of the oldest national parks in the world. There are over 15,000 hectares of rainforest gullies, bushwalking trails, secret beaches and dramatic cliff tops. The figure eight rock pools are a (much-Instagrammed) drawcard but should only be accessed with caution. Check the conditions of the day; they are only accessible at low tide, when the swell is small. Note: there is an AUD$12 (£6) fee for vehicle entry.

Address: Sir Bertram Stevens Dr, Royal National Park
Contact: 00 61 2 95420648; nationalparks.nsw.gov.au
Opening times: daily, 7am-8.30pm

There are over 15,000 hectares of rainforest gullies, bushwalking trails, secret beaches, dramatic cliff tops and rock pools in The Royal National Park Credit: © Peter Pesta/Peter Pesta Photography

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City Centre

Paint the town all colours at the world’s largest festival of light

As the weather cools down, the city lights up with Vivid Festival, which illuminates parts of Sydney from May to June annually. Vivid is the world’s largest festival of light, music and ideas and brings both local and international talent together in a cacophony of events across the city. A different artist illuminates the sails of The Sydney Opera House every year, and the Botanic Gardens, Taronga Zoo and new Barangaroo precinct become a treasure trove of installations. International performers are also a drawcard.

Contact: 00 61 2 9931 1111; vividsydney.com
Opening times: May 25-June 16

Vivid is the world’s largest festival of light, music and ideas and brings both local and international talent together in a cacophony of events across the city

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Enjoy a champagne sunset at an idyllic viewing spot

Lachlan Macquarie served as Governor of New South Wales from 1810 to 1821, and his wife, Elizabeth, loved coming to this spot so much her husband enlisted some convicts to the carve her a seat there out of sandstone. The story goes that she liked to sit there and watch for ships sailing from Britain into the harbour. Perhaps she was homesick? More than 200 years later, Macquarie's Chair is still an idyllic spot at any time of the day and spectacular at sunset. End a day in The Royal Botanic Gardens with a bottle of bubbles and enjoy a champagne sunset; Liz would approve.

Address: Royal Botanic Gardens, Sydney

Mrs Macquarie’s Chair is an idyllic spot at any time of the day and spectacular at sunset Credit: Kokkai Ng/kokkai

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Inner City

Hit the farmers’ market with a side serve of art

Carriageworks is the largest arts centre in Australia, and home to exhibitions and installations, performances and festivals throughout the year. It is situated on the historic site of the former Eveleigh Rail Yards. Every Saturday the space comes alive with the Eveleigh Market, a farmers' market where you can grab a single-origin coffee, sample some delicious cuisine, pick up a loaf of Bread and Butter Project sourdough (baked by asylum seekers), and purchase organic and locally-sourced produce from over 70 sellers from all over NSW.

Contact: 00 61 2 8571 9099; carriageworks.com.au
Opening times: The building is open daily, 10am-6pm. Eveleigh Market: Sat, 8am-1pm
Nearest metro: Redfern station

Every Saturday Carriageworks comes alive with the Eveleigh Market, a fantastic farmers' market

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Dose up on architecture and art in Chippendale

One of Sydney’s most celebrated buildings, One Central Park, is a 117-metre-tall residential tower designed by Jean Nouvel and is known for it’s impressive vertical gardens and cantilevered section. Just behind it, in the backstreets of Sydney’s gentrified suburb of Chippendale, is one of the most significant private art collections in the world. The White Rabbit Gallery is home to one of the largest collections of contemporary Chinese art. Housed in an old warehouse, the collection has nearly 1,000 works by more than 350 artists spread over four floors.

Contact: 00 61 2 8399 2867; whiterabbitcollection.org
Opening times: Wed-Sun, 10am–5pm

The White Rabbit Gallery is home to one of the largest collections of contemporary Chinese art

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Sydney Harbour

Take a ferry to an abandoned island in Sydney Harbour

Cockatoo Island is the largest, and possibly creepiest, island in Sydney Harbour. In the last 200 years it has been a penal yard for convicts, one of Australia’s largest shipping yards, and a reform school for wayward girls. With a spectacular backdrop of both industry and natural beauty, it is a space unlike any other in Sydney. After being off limits to the public for a hundred years, the island has undergone a dramatic transformation and is now offering tours, playing host to music and art festivals.

Contact: 00 61 2 8969 2100; cockatooisland.gov.au
Opening times: Ferries from Circular Quay from 6.15am; last ferry leaves the island for Circular Quay at 11.10pm
Nearest metro: Take the ferry from Circular Quay

Cockatoo Island is the largest, and possibly creepiest, island in Sydney Harbour Credit: Kokkai Ng/kokkai

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North Sydney

Drive to your new home away from home

If the scenery looks familiar at Palm Beach that’s because its alter ego is Summer Bay, home of the popular Australian television series Home and Away. But it’s not just the celebrity status that’s bringing in the crowds. Known as the jewel of the Northern Beaches, head south and you’ll find an ideal spot for swimming, including an ocean pool that’s great for laps. The north end is where you’ll spot the surfers as you walk up to the historic Barrenjoey Lighthouse, as good a spot as any for a picnic lunch.

Address: Palm Beach, New South Wales 2108

Palm Beach's alter ego is Summer Bay, home of the popular Australian television series Home and Away Credit: © Peter Pesta/Peter Pesta Photography

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Jump on a ferry to another Northern Beach

Captain Arthur Phillip gave Manly Beach its name after being struck by the ‘manly’ behaviour of the indigenous residents. The beach is a two-kilometre stretch of sand majestically backed by a guard of towering Norfolk pines. Popular with surfers, many people think Manly lacks the pretence of the eastern beaches. To the south lies the Manly to Shelly Beach Walk and to the north is Freshwater Beach, a local surfing spot with a large rock pool. You can take the ferry from Circular Quay to Manly Wharf.

Address: Manly Beach, New South Wales

Manly Beach is a 2-kilometre stretch of sand majestically backed by a guard of towering Norfolk pines Credit: Kokkai Ng/kokkai