Sydney conjures up images of the beach, barbecues and the Opera House. It’s all that and more. Read our guide to figure out the top Sydney attractions for families.
Getting to Sydney
The downside is that Australia is far from most anywhere (except for New Zealand). Sydney is on Australia’s East coast which makes it even further. Qantas, the Australian national airline flies to many destinations in Asia, Europe and America. If you are traveling within Australia, it’s best to fly as distances are far. That being said, the drive from Melbourne to Sydney takes about 8 hours and covers some of the world’s most beautiful coastline. The web is full of information on how to get to Sydney so do your research.
Getting Around Sydney:
Sydney is divided into the Central Business District or CBD which is what people refer to when they say “the city” or “downtown” and it’s basically the financial district. Everything outside of that is the “suburbs” even though they are technically within the cities. You have the very posh Eastern Suburbs (where every Aussie celeb worth his/her steak lives), the eclectic Western suburbs (ethnic communities and student towns) and the North Shore with upscale suburbs like Kirribilli and Balmoral.
The buses and trains access these different locations quite easily, but the real novelty is the ferry lines, that form part of the regular ecosystem of Sydney’s public transportation. Taxis are easy to hail down in the CBD but harder in other parts, so ensure that you have a number handy. Car seats are mandatory in taxis and the larger wagon cabs usually have one, but to be absolutely sure, call Lime Taxis. Similarly, buses without handicap access will require you to fold up your stroller but ferries and trains are easier to get onto. Most major train stations have elevators (or lifts) but some like Martin Place surprisingly do not.
Where to Stay in Sydney:
Sydney’s neighborhood culture is very strong in that people tend to stick to their suburb or group of suburbs. Therefore, you can spend your entire trip in the Western suburbs and not even know that you missed out on the rest of the city. I would recommend you stay:
– In the CBD: That’s where the major hotel chains are. Some like the Four Seasons are more geared towards business travelers while others like the Park Hyatt (reopening at the end of 2011) located right on Circular Quay are better for tourists. The CBD is great for access around Sydney and some of the largest tourist attractions like Circular Quay and Darling Harbor are in it. The downside is that it lacks the “neighborhood” feel which is so special in Sydney and is virtually a ghost town on the weekends.
– In the Eastern Suburbs: As mentioned before, the Eastern suburbs is one of the poshest parts of the city and allegedly “where the beautiful people live”. (It’s true, everyone here is toned, tanned and trendy). But you can get a hotel or service apartment in Potts Point, Paddington or by the beach at Coogee or Bondi and experience real Sydney. Beware that Kings Cross in the Eastern Suburbs is Sydney’s late-night district full of late-night revelers and strip-bars. It’s fine during the day but not exactly family-friendly once the sun sets.
– In the North Shore: Kirribilli being just on the other side of the Harbour Bridge offers the most spectacular views of the Opera House in a quaint residential neighbourhood. Nearby Mosman is also offers many options. From the North Shore you can access many of Sydney’s beautiful Northern beaches as well as the CBD.
The Best Time to Visit Sydney:
If you are coming from the Northern Hemisphere remember the seasons here are reversed and Sydney really comes alive between November and February. Granted the city doesn’t experience a very harsh winter but it’s nowhere near as magical as it is in the summer. Some of the summer highlights include the Sydney Festival, (the CBD turns into the world’s largest dance floor), the St. George Open Air Cinema (new releases on a suspended screen and a backdrop of the Opera house and if you are able, charter a boat and experience New Years on the Sydney harbor (expensive but totally worth it).
Fun Things for Kids in Sydney:
Sydney is a ridiculously kid-friendly city primarily due to the refreshingly relaxed and healthy outdoorsy lifestyle of the Aussies. Further, Sydney is not a transient city like many of the world’s metropolitan ones, so in a place where generations live a few blocks from each other, family life and kids are a central part of their existence (along with beaches and bbq.. aahh!).
In earnest, there are so many things to do with kids it’s hard to come up with a list. But I love challenges so here we go:
– Spend an afternoon at Circular Quay and indulge in a beer and the best fish-n-chips with a view at the Opera Bar. Weekend afternoons feature a live jazz band and it’s not unusual to see a bubby or two getting down on the dance floor.
-Pack a picnic and head to the Royal Botanical Gardens for a lounge under the tree while taking in spectacular views of the Opera House, the Harbour Bridge and the Sydney harbour. Don’t forget to check out the fruit bats, one of Sydney’s less aesthetically pleasing but definitely most aesthetically pleasing sites.
-Catch a kid’s show at the world-famous Sydney Opera house
– Meet some wildly fascinating creatures at the Sydney Aquarium at Darling Harbour – makes you realize just how different things are on the other side of the hemisphere.
– Explore Sydney’s amazing beaches: world-famous Bondi as well as some of the harbour beaches more popular with the locals (see below).
-Take the ferry over to the Taronga Zoo to pose with a koala like Oprah did.
-Catch the Saturday market in Paddington (see below) for a great vibe and a fantastic overview of Aussie-wares like soon-to-be designer clothing, homewares and kids’ clothing and accessories.
-Experience the world of “Mums-n-Bubs” activities that Sydney takes to a whole new level: catch a movie or take a pole dancing class with your kids in tow!(see below)
-Stroll through The Rocks for a feel of Sydney’s history with its cobblestone streets and antique stores.
-Take a whale-watching expedition that will transport you out of the harbour into the great, wide Pacific Ocean.
Best Kids’ Shopping Under One Roof: The Westfield Bondi Junction
In terms of shopping the important thing to know is that Australians are not into their “stuff” like the Americans and the Asians are. The result: smaller variety of items, higher quality and higher prices. Melbourne is allegedly the fashion capital of Australia but Sydney has its share of great shopping in the malls in the CBD, the boutiques of Paddington, and the wonderful selection of kids’ stuff at the Westfield Bondi Junction.
The Westfield Bondi Junction shopping center is a multi-building, multi-level mall close to Bondi Beach and right at the Bondi Junction station on the Eastern suburbs train line. It’s your one-stop shop (mall?) for everything you need as it houses most of Australia’s trendy chain stores (Sass and Bide, Zimmerman, Bettina Liano), tons of American brands such as Armani and French Connection, high end names such as Chanel and Bally, and both a David Jones and a Myer (Australia’s largest department stores). But this post is about the kids, so here we go!
On the 5th floor is the Kids’ precinct with everything you could ever need in terms of contemporary fashion for your children: Esprit Kids, Pumpkin Patch, Osh Kosh B’Gosh and Gumboots (an Aussie boutique). Shoes N Sox (their infinitely patient specialists will measure and fit your child for shoes)is a must-stop if you are looking for footwear, and Bonza Brats is great for shoes, clothes and accessories. For room accessories and decor, check out Treehouse, and for toys there is an ELC next door. Stop in at the pet store for a quick look (or not, if it will trigger unwanted emotions) and at the Cancer Council shop for some high quality protective swimwear, hats and sunblock. The necessary evil Target resides on the fifth floor but it is typically not as well stocked as the one in the States. You can find however cheaper clothes and diapers, toys and feeding equipment.
Don’t spend all your money on the 5th floor because you should go down a level to the kids’ department at David Jones, which carries premium Australian brands like Fiona Scanlan (prepare to drop AUD 100 on a sweater and more on a dress) and Industrie. They also have a great range of sleepwear, undergarments like vests and bodysuits (Marquise is a great brand for these), and toys. Finally, make your way over to Seed on the same floor, for expensive but ridiculously cute fashion and accessories.
What you cannot get is nursery furniture (go to a Baby Kingdom, Baby Bunting or Babies Galore) for all that stuff) but you can get diapers and most of the basic baby stuff at Woolworth’s and Cole’s, located on the lower levels of Bondi Junction mall.
If you haven’t exhausted your budget, make a quick stop into Cotton On Kids back on the 5th for cheap and funky everyday wear styles (their cheeky t-shirts were a hit with Karam), and then squat at the gourmet food court with its many wonderful eating options (McDonald’s and the usual fast-food suspects can be found in the fourth floor food court). This place is baby central though, so you might find it a bit crowded at lunch time. If the weather is good, grab a table outside and enjoy the beautiful view. If you are a nursing mum or a nappy-changing dad, the Parents’ Room on this level is the nicest I have ever seen, with large windows offering spectacular views of Sydney.
Final plus: Special parking spaces for parents with strollers. Hallelujah!
Our Favorite Harbour Beaches
Most tourists to Sydney head down to world-famous Bondi Beach which is absolutely worth a visit, but for a truly “local” family beach day, venture out to Sydney’s lesser known harbor beaches. With calmer waters, harbor beaches are a much preferred option for young children as the ocean currents can get quite treacherous. Further most harbor beaches have controversial shark nets which prevents encounters with Jaws and his man-eating friends, always a plus for peace of mind in Australia. Here are some of our favorite harbor beaches in Sydney:
Nielsen Park: Nestled in deep in the eastern suburb of Vaucluse is Nielson Park, part of a national heritage park. Broad sweeping views of Sydney harbor and its adjacent hills greet you as you approach the water which is calm and clean. Nielsen Park rents out as a popular wedding destination because of its natural splendor. But on the weekends you can enjoy it as any of the other Sydneysiders, lapping up the waves or just catching some rays. There is also a Beach House cafe that sells snacks and beverages.
Parking can be a little difficult at Nielsen Park so get there early or grab the first spot you see on approach.
Balmoral Beach: Balmoral, on Sydney’s North shore is truly breathtaking. Soft, white sand and crystal clear waters welcome you and your family to this exclusive residential neighborhood. On the main boardwalk , there are several cafes serving up fish n chips and salads and sandwiches. For a more upscale dining experience, head over to Bathers Pavilion where the kid-friendly restaurant will offer you wine and crayons and the full-service restaurant next door offers a five-course set meal, all with water views. To help digest your food, walk over the bridge to the tiny cliff and contemplate the view from a few feet up. Note: there is no convenience store on the main strip. We ran out of diapers and had to borrow one from a fellow sunbather. Thank God for Aussie hospitality.
Redleaf Pool: Only residents of Woolahra and Bellevue Hill really know about Redleaf Pool, tucked away just off of busy New South Head road. A tiny beach that can get quite crowded, Redleaf Pool has all the atmosphere of a local family haunt. Again, quiet waters make for easy swimming for the young kids and a boardwalk spanning the entire periphery of the pool offers jumping opportunities for the older ones. A raft in the center of the pool provides a resting and viewing place for the swimmers. There is a kiosk for snacks and free parking, if you get there early enough. A bonus is it’s connection to the charming Blackburn Gardens, a quaint little public park with large leafy shady areas if the Aussie rays get too strong on the beach.
Bronte Beach: Bronte Beach is located just a little further south of Bondi beach in the beachside suburb of Bronte. The beach is set on Nelsen Bay and has all the atmosphere of a quaint little Aussie beach town. It’s a pretty wide beach, so not as limited as the harbor beaches mentioned above, but it can certainly pack a crowd on sunny weekends. The best part of Bronte is that large rocks form a shallow pool at the fringe of the water for the little ones to play around it. Totally aussie, totally baby-friendly. Adjacent Bronte Road has tons of pre,mid, or post beach dining and the attached gardens allows freedom for those who want to get the sand out of their bums. Bronte beach is a hot favorite with Sydneysider Hugh Jackman who apparently hangs out there with his kids (or his abs, as seen above) when he is in town. I have missed him every time. Shucks.
Every one of these beaches has decent public change and shower facilities. It’s not always easy with a kid but it would be so much work if they didn’t exist.
Note: It’s best to rent a car and drive to these beaches. Public transportation would take forever and not offer you much flexibility.
The Saturday Paddington Markets
A typically Australian affair is the weekend market:every neighborhood worth its beef has one. But particularly worth visiting is the Paddington Markets on Oxford Street from 10-4pm. Paddington is one of Sydney’s most exclusive fashion districts and it is no coincidence that this market showcases uber-stylish wares from Australia’s most creative vendors. Here you can buy candles and decorative items, original artworks, UGGs at a discount, plants and of course, a myriad of baby items such as clothes, blankets, accessories and toys. You can also check out the “Emerging Designers” section from where many of Australia ‘s biggest names such as Collette Dinnigan have been launched.
Don’t be thrown off by the word “market” here, you can still drop $300 on a dress, just like you would at Neiman Marcus, but at least there is an opportunity to bargain.
If the shopping isn’t enough, the atmosphere certainly is. It can get pretty packed but kids find entertainment in the little play area or with the musicians who engage their audiences with golden oldies like the Beatles and Tom Petty. There are a few options for food, coffees and smoothies to round out your day.
When you are done, check out the boutiques on Oxford Street, grab a hot chocolate at Max Brenner next door, or stroll to nearby Centennial Park for a contrast to the bustling market.
Note: Parking in Paddington on Saturdays can be a nightmare. If you are driving, remember that they are very strict about parking meters and you WILL get fined if you go over.
Lollipop’s Land on a Rainy Day
Sydney is one the most baby-friendly cities in the world, in that there are tons of public parks, pools and beaches to spend your time when the weather is good. However, when it’s not and you’re in a bit of a spot, make your way over to Lollipop’s Land. There are several locations in Sydney but the one in the Entertainment Quarter is the closest to the city.
For $5 for an under 2 year old, and $5 for accompanying adult (includes a beverage and the coffees aren’t half bad), your little one can spend the afternoon in bouncy castles, going down slides and riding the magic teacups. They also have some baby foods and basic snacks like pizzas and cookies.
While there are many indoor playgrounds, I like the size of Lollipop’s Land because there is enough for them to do without getting bored, but it’s still compact enough for you to keep an eye on them without having to follow them around. Guaranteed to get a nap after a couple of hours here!
Our Favorite Kid-Friendly Brunches
Aussies love their children and Sunday brunches are part of family traditions. While most places in Sydney will welcome babies, some tend to be harder to maneuver around with a pram, etc. Here are some recommendations with wide passageways, kids’ menus and outdoor seating that make for a great brunch experience.
Centennial Parklands Cafe: If you don’t live in the Eastern Suburbs, you may very well be oblivious to the existence of Centennial Parks, one of the most beautiful recreational parks in Sydney. You will find tons of spots with bbq hubs, horse-riding, biking, several playgrounds and a lake to make for a great day of family picnic-ing and relaxing. Or instead of a D-I-Y meal, make your way over to the Centennial Parklands Restaurant and Cafe. The restaurant offers more by the way of fine dining, but I really like the cafe with its bright space, outdoor patio, and proximity to a playground. The menu is gourmet brunchy (mind you, you’ll pay for it), and there is an assortment of items on the children’s menu. The cookies for kids and the wine list for adults make it a happy afternoon for all! Beware that it can be quite crowded on the weekends so arrive early or prepare for a bit of a wait.
Bill’s Woollahra: Bill Granger’s casual but sumptuous scrambled eggs have made him a household name in Sydney brunches. While there are three locations in Sydney, the one is Woollahra may be the most pretentious, but it is definitely the best brunch location. Settled on elegant Queen Street, Bill’s offers patio dining as well as a small indoor option (usually empty on warm, sunny Sydney days). They don’t have a children’s menu but their breakfast all day, made-to-order omelettes and freshly squeezed juices make for great baby-friendly options. Plenty of space for prams, large tables and breakfast classics with a twist have Bill’s one of our favorite brunching spots in Sydney.
When you are done, check out some of Queen Street’s exclusive boutiques (especially if you care to drop AUD 500 on a Baby Dior jacket) or nip into educational kids’ store Kidstuff right next door for a post-brunch treat.
Australia – General Travel Tips
Australia is one of the easiest places in the world to travel to with kids. There is a big family culture here, people are extremely friendly, and there are loads of outdoor activities, no matter where you go. Our general Australia travel tips below:
1. Baby supplies are easily acquired at your closes Woolworths or Coles. Both stock diapers, bottles, jar foods, and even blankets and sleepwear if you are desperate. Many pharmacies such as Pulse will stock equipment such as breast pads, teethers, and sterilizers. Pharmacies will also stock all manner of baby medicine such as Otrivin and Panadol, as well as specifically Aussie brands like Bauer, a homeopathic concoction for colic and general stomach aches.
2. If you are looking for jar food for convenient travel, New Zealand brand Only Organic offers a variety of meals for 4 months on for breakfast, lunch and dinner and is available in most supermarkets. Heinz Organic is also available but tends to be more water-based and less flavorful than Only Organic.
3. In the cities, most neighborhoods have their own Early Childhood Centre. These facilities are run by mid-wives and are designed to offer support to parents with children under 4 months. If you need a quick check-up or weigh-in, or need to find a good doctor, see if you can locate your neighborhood ECC. This is a free service, so don’t take up much of their time as they are supposed to be focused on people in the community. Also beware that most good doctors in Australia tend to be quite full up – but they are generally kind enough to understand if you are traveling and have an emergency.
4. In Australia, children don’t go to a pediatrician unless they have a condition that needs specialized treatment. For all generic and routine symptoms like colds, fevers, earaches, etc., Aussies go to their general physician who acts as the family doctor.
5. Buses and trains are the way to go around the cities as taxis in Australia are generally quite expensive. Note that you do not need a car seat in a taxi if your child is over a year old. If you need to call a taxi with a car seat, call Lime Taxis at 13 5463 (13 LIME) or book at limetaxis.com.au. At airports, tell the taxi stand manager that you need a carseat and he will call one forward for you.
6. The Australians are a pretty chilled out bunch, which means that if you are coming from the States, you could be taken aback by their slower pace and friendliness. Most shops will close at 6, except for supermarkets which close at 10 or 11. So if you are from Asia and expect to be shopping past dinner time, ain’t gonna happen. Thursdays is late-night shopping and shops will stay open till 9 or 10 so that’s your one chance to shop.
7. If everything looks quiet on a nice day, it’s because all the Aussies have gone to the beach. Similarly, Aussie babies are water freaks and start swim classes from 4 months on, so don’t be surprised if your un-Aussie baby is getting swum around by all the little Aussie fish.
8. Facilities/provisions are easily available in the major cities – once you move into the rural bits outside the major metropolitan hubs, provisions for children are hard to come by. So stock up and consult your most reliable map for emergency shopping locations.
9. You have to take your kids to see a koala and a kangaroo. They are so cute and you will never see them anywhere else in the world! Similarly, the aquatic life is amazing (see whales and reef sharks below) – go whale watching or snorkeling if you have a chance, off any coasts of Australia, or if the kids are still too young, check out the local Aquarium for some uniquely Aussie specimens.
10. Australia customs is probably the strictest in the world. You need to declare ANY foodstuffs you have in your bags, especially fruits or dairy . If you explain it’s for the baby they won’t fine you but they probably will make you toss it.
11. Babies are called “bubbies”, everywhere and by everyone. Look out for “Mums n Bubs” activities at movie theaters, beauty salons, and even dance schools.
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