Sightsee for free in Sydney’s centre
Expedia.com.au has asked me to share some things to see and do from my home city of Sydney when you’re on a budget, and I am more than happy to put this guide together for you.
10 best things to do on a budget in the Sydney city centre
Sydney has a reputation for being an expensive city. I can tell you, as someone who grew up here and has seen things change over the decades, the reputation is justified. Food, drink, transport – all those everyday things, they do not come cheap in Sydney. But for tourists, who are also looking to fill their time with fun and new things, it can be even more expensive. Before you know it, you can blow your whole budget in a few days on attractions.
The good news, though, is that there are lots of really interesting things that you can do for free in the centre of Sydney. They are all pretty close to each other and you could easily fill a day or two with them.
From historic sites, to natural adventures, interesting museums and modern culture, these free things to do in Sydney will give you a good breadth of experiences
For lots more ideas, you can check out Expedia’s list of things to do in Sydney. But for now, here are my suggestions for things to do for free (or low cost) around the centre of the city.
Royal Botanic Garden
The Royal Botanic Garden has one of the most beautiful locations in Sydney – on the harbour, next to the Opera House, bordering the central business district. For visitors, it’s a stunning location that gives views of the Harbour Bridge and across to the north shore of the city. But it’s also one of the most important botanical institutions in the world with about 9000 species of plants. Wander through and see the displays or spend some time in the shade enjoying the views.
Conservatorium of Music
Sydney’s premier music school is on the edge of the Royal Botanic Garden. The building looks like a castle but was actually originally built as stables for the nearby Government House. Because it’s a school, not all areas are open to the public but you can see three levels of the atrium. There are also free concerts each week.
Art Gallery of New South Wales
The state’s main art gallery is on the other side of the Royal Botanic Gardens and the building is hard to miss with its large Greek style of architecture. The permanent exhibitions inside are free and there are excellent collections of indigenous, colonial, European and Asian art. There is usually an admission fee for the temporary exhibitions.
BONUS: Museum of Contemporary Art
At Circular Quay you will find the Museum of Contemporary Art, which also has free admission for the permanent collection. The museum owns more than 4000 recent works by Australian artists.
St Mary’s Cathedral
Across the park from the art gallery is St Mary’s Cathedral, the most important Catholic Church in Australia. It is free to go in and, if you do, you’ll notice a strange colour inside. The windows were intentionally tinted yellow to keep out the bright Australian sun that the European designers weren’t used to.
BONUS: St Andrew’s Cathedral
It is a short walk to St Andrews Cathedral in the central business district, another magnificent church that you can visit for free. It is the main Anglican Cathedral in Sydney.
The Mint is the oldest surviving building in Sydney’s centre and it is free to go in and have a look around. The site started as a hospital for convicts but then became the first overseas branch of London’s Royal Mint. There is a small exhibition about the history of the building and a nice restaurant and café.
BONUS:Hyde Park Barracks Museum
Next door to The Mint is the Hyde Park Barracks Museum. There is an admission fee to get in but it is definitely worth the cost. This is a World Heritage Site and an extremely important part of convict history, with a museum that tells the story of Sydney during that period.
The Rocks Discovery Museum
This free museum at The Rocks near Circular Quay also has some great information about the convict era – it was here that the British established the first colony. But the museum also takes visitors through the indigenous history and the transformation over the past century from a busy port to a modern city.
While you’re at Circular Quay, admiring the ferries, I would suggest jumping on one and going on a trip across the harbour. A fantastic place to visit is Cockatoo Island, which is just a short ride away. Over the years, the island has been used as a convict prison, a shipbuilding yard, a military defence base and now as a camping site. There’s lots to see and it’s all free to explore.
Australian National Maritime Museum
Catch the ferry back to Darling Harbour where you can jump off and visit the Maritime Museum. There’s lots to see and do with collections about the history of boats and sea exploration around Australia. The permanent exhibitions and some children’s activities are free. However, there is an admission fee for temporary exhibitions and to go onto the vessels moored in the harbour.
Barangaroo Reserve can be seen from the Maritime Museum, across the water towards the Harbour Bridge. It’s a new development that has turned an industrial site into a headland park. It has bushwalks, lookouts, coves and cycling tracks. It’s a perfect place for a picnic with one of the best views in Sydney.
Sydney Observatory was built in 1858 on a hill above The Rocks and was used for decades for research into astronomy and weather conditions. It was also crucial for navigation, meteorology and timekeeping. The observatory is still an important scientific site but is used mainly as a museum these days. You can visit it for free to see the buildings and items including Australia’s oldest telescope.
If you have any other suggestions yourself, please drop me a note in the comments section below!