Fall in Love with Your City Again: A Sydneysider's Staycation Guide to the Harbour City

Don't leave the city exploration up to the tourists.
Orlaith Costello
February 27, 2024

We're all guilty of not exploring our own backyards. As a foreigner who's made Sydney her home for the past eight years, I am also guilty of only doing the 'touristy' things whenever family or friends visit. There's history and artistry in every brick and pavement in the city. All you have to do is look around (and up).

The good folks over at Destination NSW and Accor invited me to rediscover my adopted city with a spectacular staycation — one that you can easily recreate on your own time, dear reader. So dust off your walking shoes, pack a sense of adventure and get ready to fall back in love with your city again, one captivating experience at a time.

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Stay Somewhere Central

And by 'Central' I don't mean Central Station, I mean in the centre of the city. The newly opened Novotel Sydney City Centre is a great home base for a weekend staycation as it's right next to Wynyard Station, a block away from Darling Harbour on one side and George Street on the other. The 283-room hotel reopened in November 2023 after a $20-million refurbishment.

It's the first of the Novotel Hotels in Australia to implement a design ethos of "Hypothesis", essentially creating a hotel with less waste, both environmentally and in terms of space. All of the furniture in the suite on levels 21 and 22, including the wet bar, can be moved around to suit the guests' tastes. What struck me about the rooms was it was the first suite that I've stayed in that didn't include generic artwork on the walls. There are a lot of natural elements throughout, with different textured furnishings, timber panelling and soft down lighting coupled with lots of natural light, plus plants everywhere in the hotel.

Downstairs in the lobby, you'll also find the Birdie Bar and Restaurant — which boasts a fusion of British and modern Australian fare on a menu that champions local produce and celebrates Aussie fauna of the feathered variety. Come for the Fremantle octopus and stay for the most garlicky garlic bread I've enjoyed in the city.

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Organise an Architecture Tour

Sydney's architectural landscape is a captivating blend of history, innovation, and modernity — but I bet you rush straight from the train station to work without looking up at the city centre's sandstone buildings.

Even the Sydney Opera House with its distinctive sail-like shells may not be quite what you thought. Did you know that the 'sails' are not sails or shells? In fact, Jørn Utzon the architect who designed it intended for it to resemble clouds. Also, the entire roof is made of interlocking sections and is resting on top of its foundations and supports — which were poured and set on site. Next time you walk around the iconic building, note that there are no protrusions — everything is smoothed out. And the roof isn't actually white. It's a special off-white colour so it doesn't blind tourists and ferry captains in the harbour.

The best part of long-term relationships is discovering new facets, new sides and new interests in your partner. I felt that way when being led around the city centre by Benjamin at Splendour Tailored Tours. I walked down Bridge Street for a year and assumed it was called Bridge Street because Sydney Harbour Bridge runs perpendicular to it — a bit of a quirk, but who am I to judge? Turns out there's a whole river/stream underneath the street, the Tankstream, that was once a bridge (kind of technically is a bridge). Professor Ben revealed the history of the city from the early days of colonial exploration using the map by Circular Quay station, including the Aboriginal walking trails that were used for centuries by the Indigenous peoples to the area which colonists used to navigate the area. Side note: there's a fabulous map by Circular Quay Station for those interested in the city's original layout.

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Felicity Jenkins

Dive Into the Worlds of Art and History

Immerse yourselves in a world of creativity and inspiration with visits to two of Sydney's premier art institutions: the Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW) and the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA).

Currently, the galleries are playing host to the abstract creations of Kandinsky, the thought-provoking sculptures of Louise Bourgeois and the breathtaking creations of Tacita Dean. Although you can buy tickets to these exhibitions to explore by yourself at your leisure, being led through by an expert was something else entirely. I was mesmerised by the highly emotional sculptures of Louise Bourgeois, couldn't stop seeing cellos in Kandinsky's later works (and was blown away by his early interpretations of Impressionism style paintings), and could have spent hours gazing at Dean's The Wreck of Hope.

After you've had your fill of art, dive into history at the Australian Museum. This museum has incredible exhibitions and installations throughout the year, but Sydney is playing host to an iconic (and exclusive) exhibition of one of Egypt's longest-reigning rulers, Ramses II, also known as Ramses the Great. Ramses was a prolific builder during his epic reign, including the world-renowned Abu Simbel temple and the tomb for his favourite wife, Queen Nefertari. Explore the 181 objects included in this exhibition, including sarcophagi, animal mummies, royal masks, jewellery, amulets and other golden items from the ruler's tomb. There's even a recreation of the tomb for a truly immersive experience.

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Rediscover Urban Islands

You've probably been to Cockatoo Island for one of its many festivals and events, but have you really explored the UNESCO World Heritage Site? Pick up an audio tour of the island and delve into its past, and you wander through its labyrinth of historic buildings — rustic warehouses, towering shipbuilding cranes, abandoned prisons-cum-schoolhouses (eek), and heritage homes.

There are two eateries on site with quick bites and drink options (including coffee, wine and beer). Make a weekend of it and stay at one of the historic cottages on the island or snag a site at the campground. There are glamping spots and a grassy area for you to bring your own tent if you prefer.

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Image: Steven Woodburn.

Bar Crawl Around Sydney's Laneways

Did you know Sydney had more laneways than Melbourne at one point in history? Unfortunately, our laneway culture was dismantled as the inner city became solely business-focused. There are signs that this is changing with excellent cafes popping up in heritage buildings in the inner-city lanes — like Bar Mammoni (check out the oyster art installation just on the building opposite) in Hinchcliff House and Aslan Coffee Roasters in The Rocks.

The historic buildings in The Rocks are home to numerous artisan shops, iconic restaurants and cocktail bars. Step inside The Doss House or Frank Mac's to sip on cocktails and drink in the history of the heritage precinct.

Sydney's YCK Laneways between Wynyard and Town Hall stations are the perfect playground for drinks enthusiasts. Keen for a little jazz? transport yourself to New Orleans with the Swinging Cat bar hidden underneath the urban sprawl of Sydney's CBD. Sip on a negroni as you snack on the house-spiced 'voodoo' crisps and wait for the jazz to begin.

For something more above ground, head down Skittle Lane to PS40 for a unique spin on classic cocktails with house-made sodas and creative names. I highly recommend the Grape Expectations, made with a myriad of wine grapes, semillon verjus with cognac, whisky and bianco vermouth, or the Basque Old Fashioned, made with bourbon whisky sous vide with flavours of orange peel, px sherry and Basque cheesecake, or try the signature cocktail the Africola with house-made cola soda, Mr Black coffee liqueur and warm coconut cream on top — a two-temperature spin on an ice-cream float married with an espresso martini.

So, Sydneysiders, it's time to stop taking your city for granted. Take this as your sign to treat yourself to a Sydney staycation and rediscover why people like me travelled from the other side of the planet to check it out — you might find a whole new side to the city you call home.

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Concrete Playground was a guest of Accor and Destination NSW.

Top Image: Destination NSW

Published on February 27, 2024 by Orlaith Costello
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