Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Sydney: my insider tips

So, last week I arrived in the city of Sydney, New South Wales. And that doesn't really make me an expert... but I'll still share some of the budget traveller tips that I've collected in case they prove useful to you.


Hotels here are expensive, as you might expect. But there's a range of backpacker hostels in the heart of the city for only $25 a night. If you're in a group of 3-4, consider camping on Cockatoo Island - a quiet retreat in the middle of Sydney Harbour with a free ferry service to the mainland - for $45 split between you.

Cockatoo Island - cool place for camping or a day trip
But for travelling alone, nothing beats couchsurfing.org, especially in Australia where it's widely used. Be sensible - only go to stay with verified people who have a strong network of friends and references on the site - and you'll find that there are incredibly friendly, helpful and trustworthy people out there who can really give you an insider's viewpoint. I was lucky enough on this trip to stay with two different people who I got on really well with and who enjoyed doing the 'tourist thing' with me as well as introducing me to their friends in the area.

Two of my new couchsurfing friends, Hannah and Hassan

Of course restaurants can be really expensive, especially in the top tourist destinations. Every beach has a fish and chip outlet and the city centre is packed full of options. Unfortunately, if you're on foot in the middle of town, buying your own groceries doesn't save a lot - normal supermarkets like Woolworths (not to be confused with the defunct pick-n-mix shop!) really raise their prices to scary levels.

Outside of the main centre, though, there are Aldi stores so grab one when you see it!

And if you're looking for a nice meal out, consider Chinatown - a big Asian migrant population means there are plenty of high-quality restaurants, some at surprisingly low cost. I can heartily recommend a Japanese restaurant called Ramen Kan - it has no proper front door, just a scruffy old elevator to the first floor, making it a really secret spot. Once you're inside, it's casual and comfortable with quick service and a fantastic menu.

Three hungry people, two courses with drinks: $50.35
The good thing about Sydney restaurants is that a very large proportion offers 'bring your own booze', sometimes with a corkage fee. Ramen Kan above, for example, charges $2 per person drinking wine and you can bring as much as you like.


This has been a real problem... hotels that profess to 'provide WiFi' are actually offering to charge $40 a day for the privilege, and those claiming to 'provide free WiFi' are actually offering a service so restricted that BBC iPlayer thinks you're offline and Facebook spends 17 minutes just trying to display your friend's new profile pic. Even Starbucks issues thirty-minute vouchers if you remember to request it with your drink purchase - if you want more time, you buy another drink.

Apparently broadband is just damned expensive to provide. Those who know how simply nick bandwidth from their neighbours or make use of their office supply, rather than paying extortionate rates for the convenience of having their own provision. But the 3G service has been excellent throughout the city. This means that the trusty Kindle 3G continues to do a great job of keeping in touch for free, and a Lebara visitors' mobile phone package (with no minimum contract length) provides heaps of included data. You can order a SIM before you leave or just pick one up at the airport.

Techy enough for ya? We'll move on...


There are great public transport connections across the city: ferries (to cross the harbour and visit the beaches), trains and buses. Each has its own ticketing system and I haven't managed to work out how it's priced exactly - it seems to be a fixed cost per 'zone' and there doesn't seem to be any benefit in buying a return.

Unlike London, it is possible to drive and park around Sydney. It can be fun finding a space on a Saturday night but the option is still there.

What I have worked out is that the airport train stations take an extra charge of around $12, making the trains a less cost-effective way to get into the city. You can jump onto shuttle bus services to most hotels for $6 or, if you're heading for the South side of the city or if there are more than 2 of you, just grab a taxi. I know it's counter-intuitive but it's the best option!

Things to see

Well no surprises here: walk around the Circular Quay, past the Opera House and round the bay to get a picture-perfect view. Then walk back through the Botanical Gardens, chatting to the birds on your way. Luna Park is an old 1930s theme park - you can walk around it for free but it's nearly $40 for a day pass on the rides (I skipped that). You can walk across the Harbour Bridge and tour The Rocks (an old housing area with traditional markets) and check out a free exhibition in the museum there - I was lucky enough to catch an Aboriginal demonstration. And of course, you can chill out on one of the many beaches, soaking up sunshine and watching surfers at work.

Compulsary view
The one attraction I did pay for was the Justice and Police Museum, based in an old Police Station. It tells the story of convicts first arriving on Australian shores and how a system of policing was introduced and developed over the next 200 years. I normally try to avoid museums but this one was really interesting and worth the $10 entrance fee. Tip though: go with someone. The place is full of fantastic photo opportunities, such as lying on a wooden 'bed' in an old prison cell, if only you've got a friend to hold the camera up!

Result of putting the camera on 'timer' and wedging it into a crack in the plaster...
In conclusion, I think a week is long enough assuming you're full of energy and keen to get involved. And you can do it very cheaply indeed by focusing on free destinations, staying on people's couches and buying cheap delicious Asian food. Have fun!

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