48 Hours In: Sydney

Australia's largest city has a diverting range of attractions on offer from daybreak to sundown. And now's the perfect time for a dip in the ocean, says David Whitley

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Travel essentials

Why go now?

Summer is drawing to a close in Australia's biggest city, and the sticky humidity is disappearing. It's beach weather season without the sweat: sea temperatures lag a month or so behind those on land, so the water should still be invitingly warm. Hotel room prices are less terrifying – and you can spend that saved cash on the swarm of new small bars and restaurants that are transforming Sydney's drinking and dining scene.

Arrive before 26 April, and you can catch the Annie Leibovitz exhibition (A$15/£9.40) in the Museum of Contemporary Art (1) at 140 George Street (00 61 2 9245 2400; mca.com.au; 10am-5pm daily).

Touch down

Sydney is the biggest and most competitive gateway to Australia. Travelling out next weekend, you can still find fares around the £800 mark from London, around £100 more from Manchester. For the very lowest fares, travel between mid-April and late June. The train from the airport takes 13 minutes to get to Central Station (2) and 21 minutes to Circular Quay Station (3), with a one-way fare of A$15.80 (£10).

Get your bearings

Central Station (2) marks the southern limit of the city centre, which extends past Chinatown and most of Sydney's skyscrapers for about 3km up to Sydney Harbour's main hub, Circular Quay (3) – always busy with ferries. The Harbour Bridge and the historic Rocks district are to the west, while the Opera House (4) is to the east. Further east is the nightlife area of Kings Cross and hip, gay-friendly Darlinghurst. To the west lies Darling Harbour, today a jostle of yacht masts and family-friendly attractions.

Check in

The Swissotel (5) at 68 Market Street (00 61 2 9238 8888; swissotel.com) is surprisingly quiet for the super-central location, and the rooftop pool and Jacuzzi are winning touches. Doubles start at $299 (£187), room only. Also well-located is the Park8 (6) at 185 Castlereagh Street (00 61 2 9283 2488; 8hotels.com), an old hotel that has been gutted and given a stylish makeover. The "park" theme is kept with turf-coloured carpets. The $175-plus (£109) standard rooms (excluding breakfast) are good value for money; add at least 60 per cent for a split-level loft room with iPod dock, microwave and bonus sofa bed.

The new Sydney Harbour YHA (7) at 110 Cumberland Street in the Rocks (00 61 2 8272 0900; http://www.yha.com.au/hostels/nsw/sydney-surrounds/sydney-harbour/) has been designed to hover over an archaeological dig site. En-suite doubles, roughly equivalent to budget hotel standards, start at $141 (£89) for members, with breakfast an extra $6 per person.

Day one

Take a view

Most people assume that they can clamber upon the Sydney Harbour Bridge only by paying for the pricey BridgeClimb. Not true – you can walk across the pedestrian footway for free. Access is via the Bridge Stairs (8) on Cumberland Street. Survey the harbour from 87m up at the Pylon Lookout (9), which includes a fascinating museum (00 61 2 9240 1100; pylonlookout.com.au; open 10am-5pm daily, $9.50/£6).

Take a hike

After trotting back down the Bridge Stairs, take a look at the Big Dig site underneath Sydney Harbour YHA (7) then do a loop around the south pylon at Dawes Point (10) – the views from directly underneath the Bridge are little known but spectacular. Follow the coastline around past the converted warehouses – now high end eateries and galleries – at Campbells Cove (11). Dip into Cadman's Cottage (12), Sydney's oldest house, at 110 George Street; 10am-4.30pm daily except Monday, admission free. The Fine Food Store (13) in The Rocks Centre has some tempting gourmet goodies on the shelves.

Make a short detour to learn about the history of The Rocks at the free Rocks Discovery Museum (14) on Kendall Lane (00 61 2 9240 8680; 10am-5pm daily) before you run the gauntlet of chainsaw jugglers and didgeridoo players around Sydney Cove en route to the Opera House (4). Once at architect Jorn Utzon's masterpiece, don't just go up the steps – head around the back of it. The harbour views are superb, and you'll have them pretty much to yourself. Enjoy your picnic, then head down past the grand buildings on Macquarie Street.

Cultural afternoon

The prolific early 19th-century convict architect, Francis Greenway, built the Hyde Park Barracks (15) on Macquarie Street (00 61 2 8239 2311; hht.net.au; $10/£6.50; 9.30am-5pm daily). Originally designed as a place to keep the newly arrived, unassigned convicts, it went through periods as an immigration depot and government office complex before entering its current incarnation as an excellent museum. Huge murals and annotative touch screens are used to tell the story of the transportation system and early life in the convict colony. You could venture south into Hyde Park and pay your respects at the Anzac War Memorial (16). Or cut through The Domain along Art Gallery Road to (you guessed it) the Art Gallery of New South Wales (17) (artgallery.nsw.gov.au; 10am-5pm, free).

An aperitif

Small bars with decidedly individual characters are mushrooming all over Sydney. The Grasshopper (18) in Temperance Lane (00 61 2 9947 9025; thegrasshopper.com.au) is tricky to find; look for a piece of Astroturf above the door in the lane between the RM Williams and Oakley stores on George Street. The $15 (£9.40) cocktails are arguably the best in town.

Dining with the locals

Argyle Street (19) in The Rocks is a big, upmarket eat street. The Cut at number 16 (00 61 2 9259 5695; cutbarandgrill.com) specialises in top-grade steaks, priced from $35 (£22) before adding side dishes. Saké at number 12 (00 61 2 9259 5656; Sakerestaurant.com.au) is also gaining rave reviews. To save cash, choose one of Sydney's numerous budget-friendly, bring-your-own-wine Thai joints. A classic example is Wok Station (20) at 135 Harris Street (00 61 2 9518 8188; wokstation.com.au) in Pyrmont.

Sunday morning: take a rideHead to Wharf 3 (21) at Circular Quay. Every 25 to 30 minutes from 6.20am, the half-hour ferry ride shows you the best of Sydney harbour, as the morning sun shines on your journey to Manly. At $13.20 (£8) return it's the cheapest way to get an extensive harbour cruise. When you arrive , stroll across the pedestrianised Corso to Manly Beach – at its best in the morning, without the crowds.

Day two

Go to church

When you return to Circular Quay, wander south to St James' Church (22) at 173 King Street (00 61 2 8227 1300; sjks.org.au; 7.30am-4pm on Sundays). Completed in 1822 this is Sydney's oldest place of worship. For all the heritage, however, it's the three-sided, Aboriginal-influenced stained glass window that dominates the side chapel which sticks in the memory.

Out to brunch

Stanley Street is lined with people-watching cafés, of which the Giotto Art Café (23) at number 78 (00 61 2 9357 7210) is a little cracker. It acts as a small-scale gallery, with limited edition prints from local artists on the walls, while the $10.50 (£6.50) eggs, toast and bacon is done just the way it should be.

Window shopping

The new Westfield complex (24) on the corner of Market and Pitt Streets is a glitzier replacement for the old collection of seemingly unrelated mini-malls; it opens 10am-6pm on Sundays, longer hours for the rest of the week.

Just down the road, David Jones (25) at 65 Market Street (00 61 2 9266 5544; davidjones.com.au) is Sydney's premier department store, while the dressed-to-impress Romanesque architecture of the Queen Victoria Building (26) at 455 George Street makes up for the identikit chain stores inside. Alternatively, amble back up to The Rocks and hunt for hand-crafted souvenirs and artworks at The Rocks Markets (27) on George and Playfair Streets. The stalls are open 10am-5pm on Saturdays and Sundays.

A walk in the park

One of Sydney's treasures is the Botanic Gardens. Signposting is excellent, cockatoos fly overhead and the views out over the harbour from Mrs Macquarie's Chair (28) are spectacular. If you've brought your swimming gear, you can pound a few laps in the waterside Andrew Boy Charlton saltwater pool (29) at 1C Mrs Macquaries Road (00 61 2 9358 6686; abcpool.org; 6am-8pm daily, $5.60/£3.50), looking over at the warships in Woolloomooloo Bay. Try to be in or near the gardens at dusk, when the flying foxes wake from the trees and take flight across the city.

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