48 Hours In: Sydney in association with Emirates

The party season in Australia's liveliest city kicks off with a big bang tonight - but it continues in style and lasts all summer, says Tam Leach
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The Independent Travel

Tonight they're going to party like nowhere else on earth, in the New Year's Eve celebration on the harbour. Sydneysiders inhabit one of the most spectacular urban settings on earth, a place bursting with culture, cuisine and colour. Happily, air fares drop after Christmas, and a host of summer festivities are just getting started.


The only direct departures from the UK are on British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com) and Qantas (0845 7 747 767; www.qantas.com.au) from Heathrow, via Singapore or Bangkok. Many other airlines offer a one-stop service via their hubs. Most fly only from Heathrow, but Emirates (0870 243 2222; www.emirates.com) also offers connections in Dubai from Birmingham, Gatwick, Glasgow and Manchester, while Malaysia Airlines (0870 607 9090; www.malaysia-airlines.com) has flights from Manchester via Kuala Lumpur. Trains link Sydney's Kingsford Smith airport to the centre. They take 10 to 20 minutes (fare A$12.80/£5.40) and stop at all points on the City Circle loop, including Central Station (1) and Circular Quay (2), which is the main ferry and bus terminal. The KST Sydney Airporter buses (A$10/£4.20) call at most hotels in the city, Darling Harbour and King's Cross. A taxi into town costs about A$30 (£12.50).


Sydney is one of those places where you may feel you know the city already. Key landmarks are the Opera House (3) and the Harbour Bridge. Just beneath the latter is the excellent Sydney Visitor Information Centre (4), on the corner of Argyle and Playfair streets (00 61 2 9240 8788; www.sydneyvisitorcentre.com); it opens 9.30am-5.30pm daily. For forward planning, the Tourism Australia website, www.australia.com is also helpful. Follow the Bondi road to the southeast and you'll pass through the hip areas of Darlinghurst, Paddington and Woollahra before hitting the beach communities on the Pacific Ocean.


Every room in the 36-storey Shangri-La (5) at 176 Cumberland Street (00 61 2 9250 6000; www.shangri-la.com) has a harbour view, and its location beside the Bridge in the Rocks district couldn't be more central. No wonder it has been fully booked for tonight months. Summer prices start at A$440 (£185) for a view, including breakfast. For a neighbourhood feel, head east to café-society Darlinghurst and the Chelsea Guesthouse (6) at 49 Womerah Avenue (00 61 2 9380 5994; www.chelseaguesthouse.com). Occupying two pretty Victorian terraced houses this chic boutique has doubles from A$143 (£60), including breakfast.


At the Sydney Tower's Skywalk (7) at 100 Market Street (00 61 2 9333 9200; www.skywalk. com.au), you are harnessed and clipped on to external walkways at the summit, 250m above the city. A sunset stroll on arrival in Sydney is a truly breathtaking way to take in the lie of the land - and water. Tours run 9am-8.30pm and cost from A$109 (£45). Actual danger rating: none at all, though vertigo sufferers may want to stay away from the railing.


Start in Dawes Point Park (8), under the Harbour Bridge. Wander through the warren of cobbled lanes and stairways that comprises the Rocks district, Sydney's first European settlement. Pause at Cadman's Cottage (9) at 110 George Street, the oldest building in the city. Then leave the restored colonials behind and head down through sleek landscaping onto the west side of Circular Quay (2). Stroll past city slickers on their lunch breaks and check out the schedule of arthouse films at the inspired Dendy cinema (10) (00 61 2 9247 3800) on the east quay. The Quay ends at Bennelong Point, on the steps of the Opera House (3). Continue around the point to the Royal Botanic Gardens (00 61 2 9231 8111; www.rbgsyd.gov.au), ending up at the Palm Grove Centre (11) to marvel at the fruit bats hanging pendulously in the trees.


An excellent budget choice amid the tourist traps of the Rocks is La Renaissance Café Patisserie (12) at 47 Argyle Street (00 61 2 9241 4878), where A$7 (£3) buys you a stuffed baguette and a spot in the sun-dappled garden. Or book ahead for the shady outdoor café of the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) (13) at 140 George Street (00 61 2 9245 2400; www.mca.com.au; museum open 10am-5pm, admission free). The summer menu includes lots of seafood, such as the blue swimmer crab with pink grapefruit and avocado (A$19/£8).


The work of Jacky Redgate is on show next to international exhibits and Sydney Festival specials this summer at the MCA (13), but a far more diverse selection of contemporary Australian art can be found in the many private galleries of Paddington, Woollahra and Darlinghurst. Torres Strait Islander woodcuts can be found at the Aboriginal Art Print Gallery (14) at 68 Oxford Street (00 61 2 9332 1722; www.aboriginalartprints.com); post-Fifties surf culture in Magicians of the Sea at the Australian Centre for Photography (15) at 257 Oxford St (00 61 2 9332 1455; www.acp.au.com; 10am-6pm daily except Mondays, free); and cutting-edge painting and sculpture at Richard Martin Art (16) at 98 Holdsworth St (00 61 2 9327 6525; www.richard martinart.com.au).


South of downtown, Surry Hills is sedately booming. Asian-influenced Longrain (17) at 85 Commonwealth Street, (00 61 2 9280 2888; www.longrain.com, Sundays in January for dinner only) is an old favourite. An inventive cocktail menu (try the Gin Sin: gin, lychees, fresh ginger, kaffir lime and white cranberry juice) and betel-leaf appetisers enlivens the inevitable wait for a space in the noisy dining room.


The parish of St James keeps the community spirit alive in the body of a church (18) that was built by convicts at what is now 173 King Street (00 61 2 9232 3022; www.stjameschurchsydney.org.au). Sydney's oldest surviving place of worship boasts stained glass by modern Australian artists and has an excellent semi-professional choir that sings Choral Eucharist at 11am every Sunday.


Back into the sunlight, cross the top of Hyde Park towards the slate and waterfalls of the calm Aquatic Centre (19), where Sydneysiders bring their offspring to swim. Wend your way between the skateboarders in the square outside St Mary's Cathedral (20), drop down into the cool of Cook and Phillips Park (21), for vegetarian yum cha (known as dim sum in Britain) at Bodhi (00 61 2 9360 2523).


It's Oxford Street, but what a difference a hemisphere makes. The route of the annual Mardi Gras parade is buzzing with intimate stores and cosy cafés - many of them open on Sunday afternoon. Skip the grungier record shops and kebab joints at the Darlinghurst end; stay up in Paddington for the best of the boutiques. At the corner of Oxford Street and Glenmore (22) are a handful of womenswear notables, including the Orient-meets-Victoriana collections of Alannah Hill at 118-120 (00 61 2 9360 9147), fashionistas Sass and Bide at 132 (00 61 2 9360; www.sassandbide.com) and the Hoxton-esque Kitten Boutique (00 61 2 9357 6480; www.kitten.com.au), right on the corner.


From Circular Quay (2), hop on a boat to Taronga Zoo (A$4.80/£2). The Twilight at Taronga concert series runs from 27 January to 25 March, adding a raft of big-name tribute bands to the animal attractions (00 61 2 9969 2777; www.zoo.nsw.gov.au). If the beach holds more appeal, continue your journey on the 238 bus (A$1.60/70p), over to Balmoral Beach. Far from the madding crowds of Bondi and Manly, this quiet gem benefits from both Inner Harbour calm and views out past North Head to the unbroken horizon of the Pacific. The beach is near-perfect: rocky promontory, shaded lawns, kid-sized jetty and even a grassy island, linked to the mainland by a willow-pattern style bridge.