Cape Town and Rio de Janeiro may come close, but no other world class city manages to match Sydney in terms of looks. Built around an extraordinarily photogenic craggy harbour, with over 100 beaches lining the coast and big swathes of surprisingly wild national parkland popping up throughout, Sydney is A-Grade eye candy.
It is somewhere you could happily spend a couple of weeks on holiday, mooching around in the sun and splashing in the surf. But it is one of a tiny band of destinations that combines this with a fiercely interesting city, which piles on hip neighbourhoods full of coffee roasters and artisan bakers, as well as a history that is much more compelling than people tend to give it credit for. Sydney is considerably more than just a pretty face.
A comfortable bed
Sydney's higher end hotels have in the past erred towards the well-equipped but slightly dull. The Old Clare is part of a new breed changing this. Spanning two buildings on a former brewery site, there's exposed brickwork galore, hip restaurants, and random barber's chairs, fashion shoot lights and bicycles scattered around the lobby. Supremely comfortable beds are combined with high ceilings, striking grey slate bathrooms and wooden floor urbanity. Doubles cost from AUS$270 (Dh762) per night.
Also engagingly cool is the new QT at Bondi Beach, which has bright, airy rooms with light wood floors, bold bursts of colour and splendid balconies. The appeal comes in the little details, though, such as the mesh bags hanging from the wall with flip-flops in, or the amenities selection that includes packs of cards, dominos and waterproof mobile phone pouches. The sense of fun shines through, and prices start at $320 (Dh1,080) per night.
Decor at the Quay West Suites isn't going to get anyone particularly excited, but that's not really the selling point. These are spacious apartments suitable for longer stays, with kitchens, washing machines and dryer. But crucially, they also have little balconies with tremendous views out over the harbour. Another plus point is the rooftop pool, sauna and fitness suite, which is undercover so usable in winter. Prices start at $370 (Dh1,043) per night.
The Establishment has a bit of rock star cachet – big name indie acts often stay here. It's inside a heritage-listed warehouse complex, and has kept the wooden roof beams amongst other original features. There's nothing cookie-cutter about it, and rooms come with yoga mats, free cookies, iPads and easy-iron sprays. Expect to pay from $414 (Dh1,168) per night.
Find your feet
Many people admire the Sydney Opera House from the outside, but surprisingly few bother going in. And the best way to explore one of the 20th century's most iconic buildings is on a VIP behind-the- scenes tour. This, unfortunately, means getting up early – the tours are run before everyone gets to work so that orchestra pits, giant backstage machinery and rooms full of stored props can be explored unencumbered. The most interesting aspect – something that comes up time and time again – is the contrast between the glamour of the public areas and the mundane functionality of the parts the public generally doesn't see. Tours cost $165 (Dh466).
From there, delve into Sydney's surprisingly entertaining history on Context Travel's $95 (Dh270) Making Of Sydney Walking Tour. This focuses on the old colonial era buildings and the rogue's gallery of characters that had them made. It also explores them in a way that might otherwise be overlooked – diving behind the hospital facade to its gorgeous inner courtyards, for example.
After that, chill out in the Botanic Gardens for a while. A visit gives the perfect chance to explore Australian flora – plus a fair bit of fauna too, with the strutting cockatoos the smile-raisers amongst the bird life. If you fancy a swim by this stage, the Andrew Boy Charlton Pool is built into the side of the harbour.
To top the day off, take on the Bridgeclimb. This sees willing adventurers don unflattering grey suits, clip themselves on to safety cables, then walk along the arch of the Sydney Harbour Bridge until right at the top, 134m up. The views of the harbour are predictably stellar from here, and the sense of achievement isn't drowned out by the fear factor – there are very few moments of looking directly down. Prices start at $248 (Dh700).
Meet the locals
Sydney has a strong cultural scene, and the Sydney Theatre Company in Walsh Bay is well known for putting on conversation-starting productions starring Hollywood big names such as Cate Blanchett.
But this is more a sporting than a theatre city at heart, and the main game in town here is rugby league. The season runs during the southern hemisphere winter, and the top tier NRL has several Sydney-based teams. The easiest venue to get to is the Allianz Stadium in Moore Park – home of the Sydney Roosters.
Book a table
Sydney has managed to muscle its way into the top tier of global dining cities, partly through the quality of Australian produce and partly through a magpie tendency that has seen it embrace styles and cuisines from all over the world. Quay, from its envy-inducing position on the upper deck of the Overseas Passenger Terminal in the Rocks, is one of the universally revered restaurants that has led the way.
It's big on texture and balance, with its tasting menus using ingredients such as hand-dived scallops, umami broth and nasturtiums to go along with fine Australian-raised meats. Four-course tasting menus cost $175 (Dh494).
A new kid on the block is Automata in up-and-coming Chippendale. There's a semi-industrial look, and fully open kitchen, and big bench communal tables in the centre. Under the helm of Clayton Wells, who has worked in top restaurants at home and abroad, the regularly-changing menu tends to emphasise bold, tart flavours – such as oxalis and mustard oil with the black plum and roasted beetroot started and fermented cabbage with the steamed bass grouper. The five- course tasting menu regularly changes, and costs $88 (Dh249).
Also getting people excited is Firedoor, the new venture from British-born Lennox Hastie, who brings his experience from multi-Michelin, Basque dining destination Asador Etxebarri to Sydney. The same principles of cooking everything over an open flame are applied, but the crucial twist is that the woods selected to burn and imbue the food with flavour are chosen according to what would be the best fit for the dish. The chef's menu costs $85 (Dh249).
For an experience, taking a seaplane to Jonah's at Palm Beach is hard to beat. The package – including a scenic flight above the harbour, then dinner on the hillside overlooking the ocean one way, and the yacht-dotted Pittwater inlet the other – costs $545 (Dh1,537) per person. This includes a three-course à la carte dinner and a limousine transfer to the hotel afterwards.
The hottest tables are currently at Hubert, however. A candlelit, wood-panelled, romantic room serves up a nominally French menu, but with notable diversions such as the kimchi gratin side. The rave reviews have come for the astonishingly tender chicken fricassee, in which the whole bird is served up in a bread sauce for $85 (Dh249).
The main shopping centre in Sydney's Central Business District is the sprawling Westfield on Pitt Street. The stores are in the upper middle end rather than true luxury, but they're handily compacted for a shopping spree, and link through to upmarket department store David Jones.
Also linking off Pitt Street, however, is the utterly lovely, Victorian-era Strand Arcade. Here, classy men's shoes and shirts, distinctive jewellery, leather bags and a wide variety of hats are sold from shops that have specialised for years.
The shopping scene at Bondi Beach has undergone something of a renaissance in recent years, and a classic example is Camilla, which sells Asian-influenced, intricately patterned and decorated floaty dresses with price tags creeping towards the $500 (Dh1,410) mark.
What to avoid
Sydney's beaches are justifiably popular, but they are generally not placid beasts. A lifeguard system is in place, with red and yellow flags placed in the sand. These are put at the safest part of the beach for swimming, and the area between them is patrolled by the lifeguards. It may be tempting to go beyond them to find a less-crowded stretch of beach, but you run the risk of being caught in dangerous rips and surf. If you're an uncertain swimmer, the best bet is to go for one of the beachside saltwater pools.
If you want to rush headlong into the Sydney stereotypes, then you're going to need to learn how to ride a wave or two. There are surfing lessons available at several of the city's beaches, but the fastest way to get good is in a private one-on-one lesson with an instructor who can pay close attention to your technique. The Manly Surf School at Manly Beach offers such lessons for $100 (Dh282) an hour.