Sydney, Australia is one of the world’s great cities. It has a beautiful harbor like San Francisco, a thriving Chinatown like New York, a mix of old and new architecture like London, and a vibrant performing arts culture like Paris. But it has one huge advantage over all those other cities – great beaches are just 30 minutes from downtown.
As befits a city whose early inhabitants arrived on sailing ships, life in Sydney centers around Circular Quai -pronounced “key” – the harborside transportation hub where all ferries, most bus and most train routes intersect. A few steps East of the ferry wharf is the iconic Sydney Opera House. A few steps West lies The Rocks, the area where the very first settlers came ashore. A visitor could spend a week in the vicinity of Circular Quai, with its plethora of hotels, shops, restaurants and cultural opportunities, and never be bored.
Just a 5 minute walk from Circular Quai is the Central Business District, or CBD. It bristles with modern skyscrapers of chrome and glass but is also studded with historic buildings dating back to the 1800’s. The story goes that the city experienced a building boom during the 1970’s, aided in no small measure by the completion of the Sydney Opera House. Older structures were being demolished at a furious pace to make room for new office towers until the head of the local construction union – a man known for being stubborn and cantankerous – decided enough was enough. He pulled his men off all the demolition projects and served notice that they would not return to work until some historic preservation guidelines were set. Thanks to his efforts, many beautiful building were saved from the wrecking ball and Sydney now features an architectural heritage that spans its entire existence.
One of the marvels of the CBD is the Queen Victoria Building, a 5 story enclosed shopping mall that stretches an entire city block. Hundreds of trendy shops and eateries fill its cavernous interior. Hanging from the ceiling in the middle of the building is a fantastic clock that shows the time, the month, the day of the week, and the phase of the moon. Its second hand is a sailing ship that circumnavigates the timepiece once a minute. It is one of the world’s great time pieces.
At the edge of the CBD, you can step across the street and be in one of Sydney’s glorious public parks. The Botanical Garden is an area filled with exotic plants and trees that begins at the harbor and extends inland along the edge of the CBD for 2 miles. As is normal in Australia, clean public restrooms are plentiful. There are no “Rest Rooms For Customers Only” signs anywhere. America could learn a lesson from the Aussies about the basics of hospitality.
After World War II, Australia opened its arms to people of every nationality and culture. I believe Sydney is the most culturally diverse community I have ever visited. In the Newtown neighborhood, just a short drive from the CBD, restaurants featuring offerings from the Near East, Middle East, Far East, Europe and South America extend as far as the eye can see. Pizza is also in plentiful supply, of course, having conquered the world the way the Roman Empire never could.
At the ferry landing in Darling Harbor stands a Welcome Wall honoring the steady flow of immigrants to Australia over time. What other country celebrates its immigrants in this way?
For the visitor, Sydney is blessed with an outstanding transit system that makes it possible to see the entire area from the comfort of a bus, ferry or train that is clean, quiet and on time. When the schedule says the train to Cronulla leaves at 1:00 p.m., it means exactly that – not one minute before or one minute after. I even heard the crew of a ferry boat come on the intercom and apologize to passengers for being 5 minute late – and this was during rush hour. Try that on the Long Island Railroad! You can buy a MyMulti weekly pass that permits unlimited travel on any bus, ferry or train for a paltry $60.00 a week. That may be the best transportation deal on the planet.
One aspect of Sydney that fascinates me is the variety of neighborhoods surrounding it. From the ferry, one can visit such harborside communities as Kiribilli, Neutral Bay, Mosman, Double Bay, Rose Bay and Manly. Each one is a jewel nestled on the shores of the harbor, with its own distinctive culture and charm.
I have yet to visit the other metropolitan areas of Australia – Melbourne, Brisbane, Adelaide, Darwin and Perth. Perhaps some day I will, though the distances between cities is enormous. Melbourne is a 10 hour train ride from Sydney. Yet there is an allure about Sydney that puts a smile on my lips every time I think about it. I can’t wait to go back. Maybe that’s the best endorsement of all.