Sydney: Capital of the Southern Hemisphere

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The Independent Travel

News that their city is the capital of the southern hemisphere will leave most Sydneysiders unmoved. As far as they are concerned, Sydney is the best place on earth, end of story. Many visitors agree not surprisingly, given Sydney's unique combination of attributes: a warm, sunny climate, a thriving cultural and nightlife scene, an embarrassment of high-quality, affordable restaurants, dozens of beaches that rank among the world's finest, a laid-back urban vibe, and the unrivalled natural backdrop of the harbour.

The only problem for European tourists is the distance, but that is easily overcome: just embrace the 23-hour flight from London as an opportunity to get down to some serious reading. Or stop off in another world-class city en route: Hong Kong, Dubai, Singapore. Sydney may be isolated, but it is extremely well connected, with direct flights to most points in Asia and the Pacific as well as multiple daily departures to Los Angeles, and excellent links with the rest of the world.

The transport connections provide one reason why Sydney is the southern hemisphere's financial hub. The place may have a carefree image, but people work long hours; recent reports suggest that employees in New South Wales, of which Sydney is the state capital, accumulate 23 million unused days off a year. For outsiders, whether visiting on holiday or business, the fact that Sydney is English-speaking enhances its appeal. Australia's largest city, with a population of 4.3m across the agglomeration, has several mini-financial centres as well as the Central Business District.

Hard work spells affluence for some, and you need it in a city where housing prices rival those of London and "real estate" is a staple topic of conversation. Sydneysiders also play hard, and one of the toughest decisions facing residents and tourists alike is which restaurant to choose for an evening out or even which cuisine. Thai, Japanese, Italian, Greek, Italian, Ethiopian, Nepalese, Lebanese, Moroccan, Laotian, Indonesian?

Then there is the baffling array of cafs, serving coffee guaranteed to satisfy the most demanding caffeine addicts. There are nightclubs. There are pubs. The only thing Sydney lacks is small, atmospheric bars and that is about to change. The Lord Mayor, Clover Moore has announced changes to the licensing laws that will make it much easier to open such bars.

Melbourne has plenty of these places already, tucked away in picturesque alleys, and Melbournites will doubtless baulk at the notion of Sydney wearing the southern hemisphere crown. But while there is a perennial dispute about which is the better endowed city and the more desirable place to live, it is waged mainly by people in Melbourne. Sydneysiders already know the answer.

Across the Tasman Sea, Auckland is often compared favourably with Sydney, being a lively, decent sized city built on a harbour, with its own version of the harbour bridge. The truth is that Auckland is a pale imitation smaller, colder, more isolated, less funky.

Sydney has a beach for every taste. You can have ocean or harbour views. Crashing surf or calm, silky water. Vast sweeps of sand or tiny, picturesque coves. No need to go away the perfect beach holiday is on your doorstep.

Due east of Sydney is the Tasman Sea. In each of the other directions are national parks, on the outskirts of the city or just beyond. The Royal National Park, to the south, has beautiful beaches and coastal walks; Ku-ring-Gai National Park, to the north, is also criss-crossed by walking tracks, and the Blue Mountains, west of Sydney, are a World Heritage site. But there is no need to leave the city to stretch your legs. There are walks along the harbour foreshore, as well as rewarding urban strolls through the city, into the Botanic Gardens, and out at the Opera House, to name just one.

Near the World Heritage-listed Opera House is Circular Quay, the departure point of the cream and green ferries that ply the harbour a rare highlight of a public transport system that leaves much to be desired. Circular Quay is also one of the best places to watch the New Year's Eve fireworks over the Harbour Bridge. Now Sydneysiders have one extra reason to celebrate, with the news that they are officially citizens of the capital of the southern hemisphere. Let's see if they care.

Sydney beat the rest of the world for the diversity of its restaurants and picked up valuable points for hosting the Olympics in 2000 and for its World Heritage Site, the Opera House