Why go now?
Sydney's climate is at its most forgiving during spring – October is the month with the lowest rainfall and average daytime temperatures are a balmy 22C.
For a taste of the city, visit the Australian Beer Festival (18-20 October), held at the Australian Hotel (1) at 100 Cumberland Street, The Rocks (00 61 2 9247 2229; australianheritagehotel.com). On a nearby street will be 24 stalls showcasing the best beers and ciders Australia has to offer.
Alternatively, Sculpture by the Sea (sculpturebythesea.com; 24 October-10 November) is a collection of sculptures along the Coogee-to-Bondi coastal path.
Or you could celebrate the 40th birthday of the Opera House (2) at a special concert on 27 October, featuring the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, Opera Australia and Sydney Philharmonia Choirs; tickets are available from A$40 (£25) (00 61 2 9250 7777; sydneyoperahouse.com).
Sydney is served from Heathrow by British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com) via Singapore, Qantas (0845 774 7767; qantas.com) via Dubai and Virgin Atlantic (0844 874 7747; virgin-atlantic.com) via Hong Kong; for indirect routings, see page 9.
It's 11km from Sydney's airport to the city centre. For solo travellers, the A$15.90 (£10) Airportlink train (airportlink.com.au) is a handy way to transfer to Circular Quay (3) station by the harbour, or there is a hotel-drop shuttle-bus for A$14 (£9) per person. Alternatively, a cab to the city and harbour will cost around $50 (£31).
Get your bearings
The Sydney Harbour Bridge (4) links the north and south sides of the city, with the Circular Quay (3) ferry wharves and the Opera House (2) located just east of the southern bridge pylon. This is also the location of the "CBD" (Central Business District), the main features of which are a procession of clothes and luxury goods stores – and the glorious green spaces of Hyde Park (5) and the Botanic Gardens (6). Before you do anything else, though, pop into The Rocks Visitor Centre (7) at the corner of Argyle and Playfair streets (00 61 2 8273 0000; sydney.com; 9.30am-5.30pm daily).
The City Circle rail line provides handy links between the Central Station (8), Town Hall (9) and Circular Quay (3). Buy tickets at rail stations, ferry wharves and on buses. Best value is the MyMulti DayPass – A$22 (£14) to use the transport network including ferries.
At the Shangri-La (10) at 176 Cumberland Street, The Rocks (00 61 2 9250 6000; shangri-la.com), all 563 rooms have harbour views. The hotel's Blu Bar on 36 (36levelsabove.com.au) also offers top-notch cocktails. Doubles start at A$320 (£200), room only.
Alternatively, head to 1888 Hotel (11) at 139 Murray Street, Pyrmont (00 61 2 8586 1888; 1888hotel.com.au), which opened in July in a 19th-century wool store just a few minutes' walk from Darling Harbour. Creative use has been made of the building's original beams and brick. Doubles start at A$219 (£137), room only.
Backpackers need look no further than the Sydney Harbour YHA (12) at 110 Cumberland Street, The Rocks (00 61 2 8272 0900; yha.com.au). A hostel shouldn't have million-dollar harbour views from its rooftop but this one does. Doubles from A$158 (£99), dorm beds A$49 (£31).
Take a view
If your accommodation doesn't come with a view of the bridge, head to Sydney Tower Eye (13), atop the Westfield building at the corner of Pitt and Market streets. At 309 metres this is the city's tallest building; the 360-degree view reveals how far the harbour extends both east and west, and there's the option to try the giddying open-air Skywalk (00 61 2 9333 9222; sydney towereye.com.au). Booking in advance saves 30 per cent on the A$26 (£16) walk-up price. Open daily 9am-10.30pm.
Take a hike
The six-kilometre cliff-top path that links Coogee Bay with Bondi Beach (take the 372 or 373 bus from Circular Quay (3) to Coogee and start by the north end of the beach) is the most popular walking trail in Sydney. You pass two other surf beaches (Bronte and Tamarama) and two narrow coves (Gordon's Bay and Clovelly). There are drinking fountains along the way, so just bring a towel for a (slightly chilly) swim on a warm spring day.
Steep sets of stairs mean this route is not wheelchair accessible, but the same path south from Coogee has no stairs; following this route for half a mile affords its own stellar views of the cliffs towards Bondi. See bonditocoogee walk.com.au.
Lunch on the run
The Bucket List (14) on Bondi Beach (00 61 2 9365 4122; thebucketlistbondi.com), is just the place to land after you've tackled the Coogee-Bondi path. It's all nice and obvious: grilled fish, fish'n'chips, pinot gris and riesling, and exceptional Aussie boutique beers such as White Rabbit Dark Ale. Expect to pay A$19 (£12) for a John Dory fish-burger.
Located halfway between Bondi and the city, Paddington's The Intersection (15) is a side-by-side collection of clothing stores that represent some of Australia's most renowned new fashion designers. The likes of Ellery Boutique (00 61 2 8068 2361; elleryland.com), Ginger & Smart (00 61 2 9380 9966; gingerandsmart.com) and Zimmerman (00 61 2 9357 4700; zimmermannwear.com) can be found at 16 Glenmore Road, Paddington. Stores are open daily.
Bulletin Place (16), upstairs at 10-14 Bulletin Place, opened last year but is already Sydney's benchmark for cocktails-as-an-art-form. The mixologists work with current fresh produce. To give you an idea, it's A$19 (£12) for a Pearly a Quincidence (fresh pears, quince syrup, soda and whisky). Open 4pm-midnight, closed Sunday (no phone enquiries; www.bulletinplace.com).
Dining with the locals
Café Sydney (17) in Customs House, 31 Alfred Street (00 61 2 9251 8683; cafesydney.com) is right beside the harbour and has an outstanding roster of wines and cocktails to go with expensive mod-Oz cuisine. A main course of Cone Bay barramundi costs A$39 (£24).
A cheap-and-cheerful dining option is Frankie's Pizza (18), which opened last year at 50 Hunter Street (frankiespizzabytheslice.com). The place is packed day and night, serving traditional pizza pies and pizza by the slice (A$5/£3).
Sunday morning: go to church
On College Street, St Mary's (19) cathedral is the seat of the Archbishop of Sydney. Here a statue of Mary MacKillop – who in the 19th century established an order to educate Australia's rural poor and who in 2010 became the first and only Australian to be canonised a saint – can be found on the city side of the building (00 61 2 9220 0400; stmaryscathedral.org.au). Mass times vary (see website); open to visitors daily.
Out to brunch
That Sydney's great brunch tradition is "Yum Cha" (dim sum) is a reflection of the quality of the restaurants and delis that make up the Chinatown neighbourhood. Try it at Marigold (20) in the Citymark Building at 683 George Street (00 61 2 9281 3388; marigold.com.au) but book well ahead for weekends. The Yum Cha degustation menu costs A$30 (£19) per person.
A walk in the park
The Royal Botanic Gardens (6) are small enough to mean that you're never far from the harbour and also have interesting wildlife, including flocks of white sulphur-crested cockatoos (00 61 2 9231 8111; rbgsyd.nsw.gov.au). Open daily. It's less than a mile from the gardens to Hyde Park (5), where possums bound around at dusk as if they own the place.
Take a ride
Every guidebook lists riding the Manly ferry as Sydney's must-do day trip, but an alternative with a bit more muscle is rumbling around on the back of a Harley-Davidson. Blue Thunder Downunder (00 61 2 4575 5146; bluethunderdownunder.com.au) will pick you up for a one-hour tour of harbour bays and beaches. One bike plus guide (who drives it with you as passenger) for one hour costs A$130 (£81).
The Museum of Contemporary Art (21), or MCA, at 140 George Street (00 61 2 9245 2400; mca.com.au) features everything from works by Chinese dissidents to Aboriginal artists who present alternative views of colonial Australia through painting, photography or film. Open daily, entry free.
Icing on the cake
Since its launch in 1998, Bridgeclimb (00 61 2 8274 7777; bridgeclimb.com) has led almost three million people – the majority of them foreign tourists – up the 1,439 steps of the south arch of Sydney Harbour Bridge (4) for an unobstructed view of the harbour. Groups have a maximum of 14 people and the climb takes three-and-a-half hours. Ticket prices vary according to the time of day, from A$198 (£124) to A$308 (£192).