WHY GO NOW?
The build-up to Australia Day on 26 January coincides with the onset of high summer - and the disappearance of England's morose cricket fans. They leave behind a city of indulgence, intrigue and implausibly good looks, which is also celebrating its annual festival until 27 January; one highlight is a stage version of Lou Reed's Berlin at the State Theatre ( www.sydneyfestival.org.au).
Sydney is Australia's principal gateway. The only same-plane departures from the UK are on Qantas (0845 774 7767; www.qantas.com.au) and British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com) from Heathrow, via Singapore or Bangkok. Many other airlines offer a one-stop service from Heathrow via their hubs; Emirates (0870 243 2222; www.emirates.com) also offers connections from Birmingham, Gatwick, Glasgow and Manchester via Dubai, while Singapore Airlines (0844 800 2380; www.singaporeair.co.uk) has flights from Manchester via its home base. Kingsford-Smith airport is conveniently a short way south of the city - with an Olympics dividend of a direct train link (00 61 2 8337 8417; www.airportlink.com.au) running every 10 or 15 minutes to key city-centre stations including Town Hall (1), Wynyard (2) and Circular Quay (3). The one-way fare is A$4.80 (£1.90).
GET YOUR BEARINGS
Australia's largest city is one of those rare places, like the Taj Mahal and the Golden Gate Bridge, that usually exceeds expectations. Sydney drapes herself decorously around one of the most beautiful harbours in the world. Key landmarks are the Opera House (4), the Sydney Tower (5) and the Harbour Bridge. Its southern pier is in the oldest part of the city, the Rocks. This area is the home of the excellent Visitor Information Centre (6), on the corner of Argyle and Playfair Streets (00 61 2 9240 8788; www.sydneyvisitorcentre.com); it opens 9.30am-5.30pm daily.
The optimum location in this city of spectacular hotels is the Park Hyatt Sydney (7) at 7 Hickson Road, The Rocks (bookable through 0870 730 1332; www.hyatt.com.au), which is perfectly located at the northern end of the Rocks. The sleek exterior conceals elegant public areas and guest rooms, but reveals the most delicious outdoor pool in the city - beneath the shadow of the Harbour Bridge (and the gaze of Bridge climbers; see Take a Hike). The published rate for a double is A$600 (£240); breakfast is A$80 (£32).
For a neighbourhood feel, head east of the city centre to Darlinghurst. This area is a cultural jumble, with Italian restaurants and Indian takeaways as well as the city's Jewish museum. Darlinghurst is also the hub of the gay community, which each February turns into the longest gay and lesbian party in the world. The Chelsea Guesthouse (8) at 49 Womerah Avenue (00 61 2 9380 5994; www.chelseaguesthouse.com.au). Occupying two of the pretty Victorian terraced houses that typify the area, this chic boutique has doubles from A$143 (£60) including breakfast.
For a budget option away from the backpacker ghetto of Kings Cross, Glebe Point Youth Hostel (9) at 262 Glebe Point Road (00 61 2 9692 8418; www.yhansw.org.au) has beds from A$25 (£10) excluding breakfast - plus a rooftop barbecue.
TAKE A HIKE
For a startling perspective on the city, head along to 5 Cumberland Street (10); get breathalysed, go through an airport-style security check, sign a form promising not to remove any part of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, and dress up in an attractive grey romper suit. This is the foreplay for the Bridge Climb (00 61 2 8274 7777; www.bridgeclimb.com) - a thrilling two-hour clamber. Book ahead; prices vary according to the time/day, typically A$189 (£77).
LUNCH ON THE RUN
A budget alternative amidst the tourist traps of the Rocks is La Renaissance Café Patisserie (11) at 47 Argyle St (00 61 2 9241 4878, open 8.30am-6pm daily), where A$8 (£3.20) buys you a stuffed baguette and a spot in the sun-dappled garden.
Sydney has a couple of excellent free museums. The Museum of Contemporary Art (12) at 140 George Street (00 61 2 9245 2400; www.mca.com.au; open 10am-5pm daily) is an intriguing space, with challenging exhibitions - and a superb café. The Australian National Maritime Museum (13) at 2 Murray Street in Darling Harbour (00 61 2 9298 3777; www.anmm.gov.au; 9.30am-6pm daily in January, to 5pm thereafter) has an extraordinary collection, from funeral poles of the Tiwi people of northern Australia to 1960s posters of Bondi Beach.
If you plan to head out to the beaches or Outback, you could probably do with some cut-price outdoor gear. The place to go is"Adventure Alley" (14), on Kent Street, between Druitt Street and Bathurst Street. Close by, the Queen Victoria Building (15) on George Street is a Victorian arcade that has kept pace with the 21st century. For emerging local craft and design, stop in at the Paddington Markets (16), between Newcome and Elizabeth Streets (Saturdays, 10am-5pm, 395 Oxford St, 00 61 2 9331 2923; www.paddingtonmarkets.com.au).
Head out to the North Shore, and the beachside suburb of Balmoral. Duck into the Bather's Pavilion (17) on Balmoral Esplanade (00 61 2 9969 50 50; www.batherspavilion.com.au, 7am-midnight daily). This artfully converted Twenties bathhouse has floor-to-ceiling sea views and a wide range of Australian wines by the glass. At the Bather's Kiosk you can pick up inexpensive breads and tapenades for DIY canapés.
DINING WITH THE LOCALS
In Sydney, it's often cheaper to dine out than in. For delicious, spicy Thai food, Thai Pothong (18) at 294 King Street (00 61 2 9550 6277; www.thaipothong.com.au) in Newtown (and 50 metres from Newtown train station), is worth a visit. The scallops with coriander and sweet chilli are a good entrée, while the fried snapper is a tasty main. In Glebe, another lively Sydney suburb, the small and sparsely decorated Teriyaki Japanese Fusion (19) at 144 Glebe Point Road does good sashimi and bento boxes. Both restaurants are BYO - bring your own booze, a great Aussie tradition.
SUNDAY MORNING: GO TO CHURCH
Escape the heat and get a sense of history at St Mary's Cathedral (20), on the eastern side of Hyde Park (00 61 2 9390 5100; www.sydney.catholic.org.au). Sunday Mass is at 7am, 9am, 10.30am and 6pm. Guided tours of the gothic cathedral take place at noon on Sundays.
A WALK IN THE BUSH
There's something magical about seeing Sydney's skyline from the wilderness of Australia's bush. A 30-minute ride across the Harbour Bridge from Wynyard station (2) by bus 175 or 178 takes you to the Spit Bridge on Sydney's northern side - and the start of the Spit-to-Manly scenic walk. The fairly vigorous trek, which takes two or three hours, hugs the coastline and winds through sweet-smelling eucalyptus, banksias, bottle brushes and wattle, plus an array of deep red gums. You'll also meet lizards catching the morning sun, and can cool off in the sea from idyllic, near-deserted beaches. The Manly ferry will take you back into the city in half an hour - or you could walk 20 minutes east to the brunch option.
OUT TO BRUNCH
Sydneysiders prefer brunch to lunch, which means you'll never go short of an excellent skinny latte to accompany your scrambled eggs on Turkish bread, Spanish omelette or smoked salmon bagels. Zest Deli Café (21) at 334 Sydney Road (00 61 2 9948 8499) in Balgowlah serves melt-in-the-mouth eggs Benedict.
TAKE A RIDE
Sydney's harbour ferries (00 61 131500; www.sydneyferries.info) are rightly celebrated. When they are not shuttling commuters to and fro, they are used for off-peak cruises. At this time of year, the evening cruise that departs from Wharf 4 of Circular Quay (3) at 8pm is ideal - you get an entertaining 90-minute tour, costing A$22 (£9).