A Big Summer Bucket List of Sydney Beaches, Pools and Swimming Holes
The perfect waterside escapes for when it's calm you crave.
September 14, 2018
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Sometimes, you need to take a break from your city, to get out and soak up the sun somewhere new. The sun-plenty city of Sydney is the perfect destination, it's bursting with beaches, pools and swimming holes, where you can enjoy the water, catch some rays and let your worries dissipate. But you don't want to get stuck visiting the same old tourist traps, beaches with screaming kids, expensive eats and way too many people.
To help you out, we've partnered with Qantas and created the big summer bucket list of Sydney. We've pulled together our favourite spots for cannonballing, diving and lapping. Jump straight to Sydney's best swimming holes, secluded beaches, harbour beaches, outdoor pools, ocean pools, night swimming spots or surfing beaches. Pick one. Any one, and do as the locals do.
Members of Sydney's toughest swimming club, The Icebergs, have been proving their mettle here since 1929. To stay in the gang, they must meet every Sunday throughout winter and swim at least one lap of the pool, regardless of icy temperatures or inclement weather. If that sounds too traumatic for you, stick to a weekend visit. One of the best-equipped pools on the list, the Icebergs comes with a sauna, gym, masseuse, yoga lessons and cafe. Entry is $6.50. Once you've worked up an appetite, head to renowned Sydney restaurant Icebergs for a post-swim tipple and enjoy exceptional panoramic views.
NORTH CURL CURL ROCKPOOL
Curl Curl's exposed, east-southeast position makes it one of Sydney's most exciting but dangerous beaches. The southerly swell surges in, driving waves to heights of 1.5 metres or more and powering hazardous rips. Lap up all the action from the safety of the North Curl Curl Rock Pool. Carved out in the mid-1930s, it has a natural floor and rocky platforms for sunbaking (slip, slop, slap, please). At high tide, access is only available via a coastal walkway. Pack a picnic for an authentic Sydney-style lunch.
Opened in 1887, Bronte Baths is one of Sydney's oldest and most photographed pools. Its best-known regular was Evelyn Whillier, who at 18 competed in the 1936 Berlin Olympics, and at 20 won gold in the 1938 British Empire Games. In the 1990s — in her late 70s — she'd head to Bronte at 5am every day to squeeze in a few kilometres. You'll meet all kinds of swimmers here — from similarly serious lappers to kids in floaties. There's ample room on the surrounding rocks for lazing about. Consider a night swim on balmy evenings. While in the area, check out iconic Bronte eatery Three Blue Ducks and enjoy one of its famed straw-stuffed coconut concoctions.
MAHON POOL, MAROUBRA
Mahon's intertidal position makes it subject to fierce doses of Pacific swell. Drop by when the water's high and the wind's a-blowing for the biggest waves and most adrenaline-fuelled fun. The pool lies at the northern end of Maroubra Beach. It's hard to spot from above, but make your way down the staircase from Marine Parade car park, and you'll soon spy it among exposed rocky outcrops. Once you've dried off, head to The Bay Hotel and Diner in Maroubra to tuck into a big burger like a legit Sydneysider.
WYLIE'S BATHS, COOGEE
Found just south of McIver's Baths, Wylie's welcomes people of all genders. The 50-metre pool offers 180-degree panoramas of the ocean, including views of Wedding Cake Island (inspiration for Midnight Oil's instrumental rock hit of the same name). Like Bondi's Icebergs, Wylie's has all the facilities — from yoga lessons to massage sessions. Entry is five bucks. It's a great spot for a cool-off along the Bondi to Maroubra walk.
Located at the base of Hermit Bay within the Sydney Harbour National Park, Milk Beach is ideal for everything from sunbaking to snorkelling to fishing. It's a small, insulated beach surrounded by the Heritage-listed Strickland House and offers magnificent views of Sydney. Whether it's a picnic or a walk along the Hermitage Foreshore, Milk Beach is one of Sydney's best-kept secrets. It can be accessed via public transport or boat, and limited off-street parking is available.
MCIVER'S BATHS, COOGEE
Boys, butt out. McIver's is the only coastal pool in Australia for ladies only. It's been that way since 1922, when the Randwick and Coogee Ladies Swimming Club took over the lease from the McIver family. In 93 years, nothing much has changed. The ocean views are still extraordinary and the entry fee is still 20 cents — tossed in a bucket at the entrance. However, in 2010, a visit from a man undergoing a sex change raised some modern questions. Once you've grown tired of swimming, make tracks to Coogee Pavillion for a Pavilion Pina Colada ($18) with your girls.
If you're staying in the inner city, head to Prince Alfred Park Pool also known as 'Redfern Beach' by the locals. It's the buttercup yellow sun umbrellas that bring the riviera vibe, as well as lawns strewn with sun bakers and cute cafe Meadow cheerily aiding post-swim recoveries. The shiny-new facilities nabbed two National Architecture Awards in 2014, and the 50-metre pool is always at that jump-right-in temperature. Ah, that Sydney weather.
Nothing says "you're in Sydney" so much as the Harbour Bridge, and nothing says "I'm swimming in Sydney" quite so well as backstroking right underneath it. North Sydney Pool is the only place which allows you to do just this, in a spectacular location overlooking Sydney Harbour and Luna Park. To make the most out of it, head down there at night, and go for a swim watched over by the lights of the city. The pool also features a gym, a cafe and a restaurant, so you can feasibly spend a whole night there gazing rapturously at the city.
Sydney beaches need not be compared with their foreign counterparts because it's only a slight exaggeration to say we have the best in the world. However, I can't help thinking that Nielsen Park reminds me of the Mediterranean coast. Maybe it's the amazing aqua colour of the water or the stained glass windows of the restaurant. It can get a little noisy with all the kids that are usually there but there is a large, leafy park surrounding the beach which you can escape into to eat your ice cream in peace.
MALABAR OCEAN POOL
For smaller crowds and a laidback, local feel, head to Malabar Ocean Pool. Created in the 1890s, it was closed down by the 1970s (as was surrounding Long Bay) due to pollution. But, in 1997, NSW Premier Bob Carr and the local MP pooled funds for a clean-up and revamp. These days, the water is crystal clear and the views dreamy, especially at dawn and dusk.
If you've made the trip to Sydney, it's worth that little bit of extra effort to get to Currawong beach. It can only be accessed by boat, so jump on the ferry at Palm Beach ('Summer Bay' for you Home and Away fans) and prepare for a phone and internet-free 48 hours. There are no shops so bring food and water with you and stay at one of the cottages for a full-blown Sydney experience. You'll be able to deal with the worst Bondi Road traffic jam with a blissful smile on your return.
Back in the 1930s, Lake Parramatta was one of Sydney's go-to water holes. But, decades ago, thanks to rising pollution levels, swimming and boating were banned. "You could see oil and chemicals on top of the water, let alone what was underneath," one-time local Angus Campbell recalled. Major clean-up programs have, however, restored the lake to its former pristine glory, and, as of January 2015, it's open for bathing, complete with lifeguards. Visit the leafy, sandstone-enclosed freshwater spot two kilometres north of Parramatta CBD. Just keep your eye out for wrestling red-bellied black snakes.
LADY MARTIN'S BEACH
At this little gem you're in good company. Sydney's small harbourside suburb of Point Piper is one of the country's most exclusive and home to one of the most gorgeous, chilled-out beaches in town. Named after Lady Mary Martin, wife of chief justice and politician Sir James Martin, it's a tiny treasure flanked in billion-dollar mansions, but the view is free. Entry is via a narrow lane off Wolseley Road that passes by the Royal Prince Edward Yacht Club. Spend some time post swim picking out your dream house, if you win the lotto and decide to relocate to Sydney you'll be prepared.
There's more than one sweet little beach ripe for the picnicking at Manly Dam. The amenities are pretty good and there's heaps of unrestricted parking, but get your coin purse out for entry on weekends. There are heaps of lush walking tracks, so consider swapping sandshoes for flip-flops. Vehicle access is through the King Street entrance (off Condamine Street, Manly Vale) and a footpath at this entrance allows for pedestrian and disabled access into the park without having to go on the road. The best access points for the bike track is Gibbs Street, Manly Vale or Kirkwood Street at Bantry Reserve, Seaforth.
Offering Sydney's only underwater nature trail, Gordon's Bay is nestled in between the deeply incised gully and sheer sandstone headlands of South Clovelly and North Coogee. It's the eastern suburbs at their stunning best, and the calm waters make it a great spot for snorkelling. The small beach is dotted with local fishing boats, abundant with wildflowers and offers access to some of the most satisfying and aesthetically stunning walking trails on the coast. Access via the coastal walk.
Technically, Redleaf is a fenced off section of the harbourside Seven Shillings Beach, adjacent to Blackburn Gardens. Mid-week, it can be a little piece of inner-east paradise, hidden from the road and only accessible by foot, down the stairs behind the Woolahra Council Offices on New South Head Road. It can get pretty busy on weekends during summer, though. A boardwalk runs around the top of the shark net, and there are two floating pontoons for those who enjoy attracting attention to themselves.
The parking at the easternmost edge of the Eastern Suburbs can be a bit of a drag on a hot day, but if you pray to your parking angel you'll find somewhere eventually. It's worth the frustration, as this laid-back beach is big enough to have a social vibe (there always seems to be a lot of good-looking people here) and the lack of waves means you can bob in the water and still chat to a friend. There's a little kiosk selling snacks and sorbet in coconut shells, too. If you're brave (and skilled) you can do the big jump off the rock on the right like a bona fide Sydneysider.
LITTLE CONGWONG BEACH
If you want to beach like a real local, head to this pretty place in Botany Bay for a spot of 'clothing-optional' sunbaking. It's usually pretty quiet so you can avoid any potentially awkward encounters. If the thought of getting your togs off makes you blanch, just next door is Congwong Beach, where you won't be the odd one out if you're a strictly clothes-on type of person.
BUNGAN BEACH, BARRENJOEY PENINSULA
Bungan is one of Sydney's most undeveloped beaches and has a wild and unspoiled character. The rugged beauty of the cliffs give it a private feel and bushwalkers will love the vivid scenery. It's 600 metres long, running in a south-east direction between Bungan Headland to the north and Mona Vale Headland to the south. There are reasonable breaks for surfers and it's a relief from the crowded waves at more popular beaches. Access by a laneway along Barrenjoey Road — it's the headland just before the descent to Newport. It's a patrolled beached but stay between the flags at this one because there are often rips.
Obelisk Beach has killer views — and not only because it's one of few legal nudist beaches in Sydney. We mean nude. Despite its cult status, it's usually quiet and tranquil, and has great views over Sydney Harbour. It's well secluded as you need to have a certain tenacity to clamber down a rocky track and set of steps to gain access, although there's a large public car park on the Middle Head Road side of Chowder Bay Road. The place is also of historic significance: prior to European settlement in 1788, the area the beach is in was inhabited by Indigenous Australians and Aboriginal sites are found in the bushland all around Georges Head.
Warriewood Beach is backed by 30-40 metre high vegetated bluffs and the reserve occupying Turrimetta Head offers excellent beach and ocean views. The 500 kilometre stretch of beach is sheltered, you never have to fight for a spot on the sand and the facilities are good. Surfing is great up the north end.
Cabbage palm trees, cute little swimming inlets and wide open beach make Wattamolla the perfect place for a weekend escape. Wattamolla (an Aboriginal name meaning 'place near running water') had its name originally recorded as Watta-Mowlee by Matthew Flinders, when Flinders, George Bass and a boy, William Martin, stopped there in their boat, the Tom Thumb II, in 1796. It's a beautiful combination of beach and freshwater lagoon, separated by a sandbar, within the Royal National Park. There's a five-minute walk down a narrow path to the beach (not great for prams), but once on the beach, there's loads of shade from the trees, small inlets for swimming as well as open beach. Wattamolla is a great starting point for 100 kilometres of walking tracks spanning the National Park, including the popular coastal walk from Bundeena to Otford. Access is via a 20-minute car ride from either the Loftus or Waterfall entrance.
Bring your beach brolly to Chinamans Beach, unless you're keen on sticking to the reserve. Bring ample snacks and drinks too, and don't plan on fish 'n' chips — it's properly secluded. The beach is unpatrolled, and usually peaceful and quiet. Lay back, forget your worries back at home, and enjoy the peace and quite. Ah, how's the serenity?
Bilgola Beach forms the floor of a steep coastal valley. It's one of the Northern Beaches' most secluded spots. For an adventurous walk in, take the South Bilgola Headland Walk, which starts at Newport Beach, winding its way through tea trees, bottlebrushes, paperbarks, casuarinas and cabbage tree palms. Alternatively, park just off The Serpentine. You'll find the eight-lane, 50-metre rockpool at the beach's southern end, affording spectacular views of the 60-metre-high Bilgola North Headland.
FAIRY BOWER POOL, MANLY
The enchanting, triangular Fairy Bower Pool was built by locals, for locals, in 1929. It's located alongside Marine Parade, between Manly and Fairy Bower. Adding to the magic are sculptor Helen Leete's Oceanides (also known as the 'Manly Sea Nymphs'), two curving creatures on the pool's edge. When the surf's up, they look a bit like dancing aquatic spirits. Try taking a dip at sunrise, sunset or even after-dark. Be sure to drop into the following beloved Sydney institutions: Daniel San, Manly Wharf Hotel and Hemmingways.
CRONULLA ROCK POOL
Cronulla's main ocean pool lies in the 300 metres of rocky platforms dividing South Cronulla Beach from North Cronulla. Opened in 1932, the pool first served as a training facility for local lifeguards. These days, it's still an optimum spot for lapping and/or casual dipping, offering vast, uninterrupted vistas over Bate Bay. The Council will be making some upgrades in April 2016, adding handrails and stairs and non-slip surfaces. FYI locals call this place 'The Shire'.
ANDREW (BOY) CHARLTON POOL
Hidden away within the green expanses of The Domain, the Boy Charlton pool feels a world away from the city while still being in the heart of the CBD. If you're staying in the city this is a great, super convenient, option. The saltwater pool is perched on the edge of the Harbour, with spectacular views over the city and the Botanic Gardens. Lunch times can be crowded with stressy professional jogger types, and weekends can bring out the designer eyewear crowd, but every other time is lovely. Hang out on the wooden terrace or grab a drink upstairs in the open-air poolside cafe which, incidentally, also sells Pat and Stick's ice cream sandwiches, which are awesome.
You've probably heard of Manly, given the chance any Sydneysider will proudly talk about the beach. You may not have heard of Manly's little sister, Balmoral. Smaller and more romantic, it has a lovely sleepy vibe despite it's popularity. Have a long lunch at the famed Sydney institution Public Dining Room and float it off in the cooler hours of the afternoon.
If your keen for an outdoor adventure on your mini-holiday, hire a kayak from Manly Kayaks and paddle around to this little beach (it can only be reached by water) for a picnic. Then enjoy this little slice of paradise. If you're lucky, you'll see some fairy penguins.
LITTLE SIRIUS COVE
A small stretch of sand surrounded by bushland, this beach has a unique feature — dogs are allowed. So if you're missing your pupper from back home, head down (after grabbing a coffee at Bacino Bar) and spend the day among some new four-legged friends. Pack some snags to cook on the BBQs provided and bask in Sydney's unparalleled beachside beauty.
DEE WHY ROCKPOOLS
Dee Why Rockpools are easily reached by the promenade along the beach, and formed out of concrete walls as well as the natural sandstone wall to the side. While the surfers head down to the beach, the slower-paced head to the rockpools. On weekends there are a lot of mums with little kids, so for a day filled with less high pitched squeals and splishy-splashing, weekdays or late afternoons will allow you to get the most out of the place.
Located at the northern end of the beach, Freshwater Baths was the first rockpool to be opened on the northern beaches, and still maintains its vintage charms. Once a haven for women in the 1920s and '30s who weren't allowed to swim at the male-oriented surf clubs, it now cheerfully welcomes everyone and offers a respite when the waves get rough. The pool is uniformly shallow, at just over a metre, so unless you're really short or unfortunately inebriated there's little chance of anything going awry.
If you appreciate a little early-20th century charm, the harbourside MacCallum Pool will delight you with its unique heritage feel and might inspire you to Charleston along the boardwalk. Like all good things north of the Bridge, it's terribly civilised, so if you turn up and the pool's a little full you can still sun yourself on the grassy knolls and look out across the Harbour. And another exciting aspect about MacCallum is that it's free, which means you have more money to spend on ice cream and dancing shoes.
When the swell is powering in from the south, grab your boardies and hotfoot it to Palm Beach. The sheltered southern corner is a beginner's Nirvana. You can count on mercifully consistently waves, giving you ample time to conquer the whitewash and, when you're ready, take off across smooth, green faces. Need some tips? Cast an eye around for the Manly Surf School van. For après-surf leisure, there's the Barranjoey Lighthouse Walk or a dip in the ocean pool.
Like Palm Beach, Collaroy is shielded at its southern end. Long Reef Point (a splendid spot for snorkelling, by the way) juts into the Pacific, separating the beach from neighbouring Dee Why. So, it's also at its best in south swells. Once you've racked up some experience, have a crack at the gloriously long point break. One word of warning: this one is better avoided when seas are rough or north winds are raging, when the shore break can turn into a dumping ground.
On the city side of Collaroy Beach lies the northern end of Dee Why Beach, formally known as Long Reef Beach (the two beaches are separated by the mouth of Dee Why Lagoon). Here, Long Reef Point also does its protective duty. It, in combination with some solid sand banks, keeps the waves smooth and regular. For practising in whitewater, head down at low tide; if you're ready to tackle faces, high tide is more promising. When winds are strong, you'll find milder conditions in Dee Why's southern corner.
Freshwater Beach is the birthplace of Australian surfing. Exactly 100 years ago, residents got a shock when they saw a Hawaiian by the name of Duke Kahanamoku carve a board out of local timber, jump into the sea and ride the waves, on his feet. Soon enough, everyone was giving it a go. For lessons, get in touch with Surf Skool. Once you're done, the nearby Harbord Beach Hotel (aka the Harbord Hilton) will vanquish your post-surf appetite with some fresh tucker and cocktails.
Get started along Manly's southern stretch and you'll land yourself in esteemed company. Midget Farrelly, Pam Burridge and Layne Beachley are just a few of the surfing legends to have had their early rides here. Like those at Palm Beach and Collaroy, the waves are best when the south winds are a-blowing. Chaos reigns when a north swell is coming in. Options for surfboard hire and lessons are plentiful. Try Manly Surf School or Manly Surf Hire. We recommend hitting up established Manly brewery 4 Pines for a post-swim brew.
Backed by grassy sand dunes, Greenhills is the northern end of Cronulla Beach. It tends to be less busy than South Cronulla — and many of Sydney's other beaches for that matter — which is a bonus for learner surfers. There's no need to worry about driving your out-of-control board into an unsuspecting swimmer. Go here during north-east winds. If you're in need of a teacher, try Cronulla Surf School or Cronulla Surfing Academy.
Beautiful and quiet, Avalon is the last of the more accessible beaches as you head north, shared by surfers and families alike. Plus Baywatch wanted to relocate their filming to Avalon during the '90s. Make of that what you will. Before you leave, grab drinks and dinner at Different Drummer or Little Av, both just a short walk from the beach.
For a long time, the Gledhills were like ghosts. A few people said they'd seen them, but finding proof was difficult. These days, there's more information floating about, but the forest-encircled falls — and the 10 metre wide pool into which they tumble — are still tricky to find. First, pack your rock climbing shoes. Then, drive your car from Mona Vale Road, onto McCarrs Creek Road, until, after about 4.5 kilometres, you reach the teeny-tiny, easy-to-miss bridge that crosses McCarrs Creek. Initially, the track is clear, but, nearing the water, prepare to scramble.
ELVINA TRACK POOL
Not only does this one occupy a rare position above a waterfall, it also affords stunning views of Ku-Ring-Gai National Park. And it's hemmed in by rainforest. The pool isn't huge, but it's definitely big enough to submerge yourself in. You'll find it along the 7 kilometre-long Elvina Track, which also takes in Elvina and Lovett Bays. The starting point is just off West Head Road, 1.3 kilometres from the Coal and Candle Drive junction. Being a service trail for most of the way, the walk makes for easy Sunday strolling.
Despite its 4 million strong population, Sydney is home to a number of secluded beaches. But Resolute Beach takes isolation and wildness to the next level. That's because the only way to reach it is by taking on the eight kilometre Resolute Loop Track, which turns off many a lazy beach-goer. Those with the stamina to handle it are, however, amply rewarded, with an unspoiled, empty stretch of sand, surrounded by Ku-Ring-Gai National Park and affording uninterrupted views over Pittwater. The hike, which begins at Resolute Picnic Ground, takes in a couple of other remote beaches, as well as the Red Hands Cave, home to some impressive Aboriginal rock art.
LADY BAY BEACH
Thanks to Lady Bay's existence, you can spend all day exploring and be utterly naked amid all kinds of wildness by 5.30pm. Tucked into a calm cove near Watsons Bay, this beach is one of Australia's oldest nudist beaches and first went legal in 1976, thanks to Neville Wran's blessing. Keep your eyes on the skyline — the city views are excellent.
Pack your lilo; Bents Basin has rapids. Spend your day throwing yourself down them, just the right amount out of control. Or keep to the still water — it's one of the deepest swimming holes in New South Wales. A dramatic, wooded escarpment provides the backdrop, which means there's ample views for picnickers. Bents Basin is part of a Nepean River gorge and lies between Penrith and Camden, about 50 kilometres from the Sydney CBD. Camp in the State Conservation Area if you want to stay overnight.
Best to make your way to Reef Beach after the tide has gone out. That's when Aboriginal carvings becomes visible in the rocks. In addition, it's an incredibly tranquil spot in Middle Harbour, offering excellent views of Manly and Sydney Harbour's northern section. Stop there while walking the Manly Scenic Walkway or drive to Beatty Street — Reef Beach is a short walk from the car park.
Relaxed and beautiful, Whale Beach feels like you've left the city completely. It's a long drive from the city, but it's worth it, for one of the most beautiful spots on the Northern Beaches. Whale Beach can be a bit of a journey, so we'd recommend making a day of it and taking a dinner picnic or even staying overnight at Jonah's.
You can get to this secluded cove by walking south along Manly's main street. The perfect spot to take a picnic, surrounded by bush, filled with exotic fish and convenient enough to get to by ferry. This is the kind of beach you can imagine your grandparents going to when they were courting. Surf at Fairy Bower, one of the Sydney's best surf breaks on its day, or swim the Cole Classic, Australia's largest ocean swim.
Get there early and Palm Beach is one of the most beautiful places Sydney has to offer. The friendly old-fashioned kiosk was shut down a few years ago and replaced by fancy restaurants to suit the billionaire locals who have their summer houses here, so make sure to bring your own sandwiches. Alternatively, splash out and have breakfast at the Boathouse on Pittwater before you head down to that sweet, sweet Home and Away-starring water.
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