“Sydney Harbour…one of the finest, most beautiful, vast, and safe bays the sun had ever shown upon.”
~ Joseph Conrad, Mirror of the Sea
The morning sun was reflecting off angled glass windows of the Sydney Opera House as we began our walk along the Circular Quay. It was mid-January, the heart of summer in the Southern Hemisphere, and Sydney had just come off an intense heat wave. We headed out from our hotel at eight a.m., armed with an ambitious list of places to see and the hope of getting a real feel for this elegant city.
The Circular Quay (pronounced key) winds around the waterfront, offering grand views of the Harbour Bridge and Sydney Opera House. It’s an exquisite setting and one that changes with the time of day. It was quiet in the early morning, with only the sounds of seagulls and a ferry moving across Sydney Harbour.
Scattered at various locations along the Circular Quay are round metal plaques engraved with quotes from well-known authors who lived in or spent time in Australia. Known as the Sydney Writers Walk, the plaques are embedded in the pavement from the Overseas Passenger Terminal on West Circular Quay to the Sydney Opera House on East Circular Quay.
“What we are and how we see ourselves evolves fundamentally from the written and spoken word. The Writers Walk demonstrates that this evolutionary process continues to channel the thoughts and perceptions of writers who have known this great city and its people.”
~The Hon. Peter Collins, MP, NSW Ministry for the Arts 1991.
We continued along the waterfront toward Mrs. Macquaries Point, a viewing spot named in 1810 for Elizabeth Henrietta Macquarie, wife of the Governor of New South Wales. Along the way, we passed a swimming competition, an intriguing outdoor cinema and the loveliest bench-with-a-view. It didn’t seem to matter which side of the water we faced; the Sydney skyline was stunning from every perspective.
We had caught glimpses of the Royal Botanic Gardens along our walk and stopped briefly at the Visitors Center to confirm directions. “You’re just in time for the 10:30 tour,” the friendly staffer told us. I explained that we were on our way to see the library and some of the city’s architectural highlights, but before I could finish my sentence, her eyes lit up. “Oh, the library! Yes, you must do that. Make sure you enter around the corner at the front. You’re in for a surprise when you walk in that door.”
I wasn’t quite sure what she meant – my only plan was to visit the library’s Mitchell Reading Room – but her enthusiasm and refusal to provide details were intriguing. We thanked her and headed out the Garden gates, passing the Art Gallery of New South Wales, St. Mary’s Cathedral (no interior photography allowed) and the Hyde Park Barracks Museum.
The State Library of New South Wales sits at the corner of Macquarie Street, and just as we had been told, there are multiple entrances. We rounded the corner to the front of the building, headed up the stairs and walked through an entryway lined with beautiful Ionic columns. And there it was, the unspoken surprise: A golden, marble and mosaic map, spread out like an artistic welcome mat along the vestibule floor.
The Tasman Map depicts the voyage of Abel Tasman, the first European explorer to chart the west and northern coastlines of Australia and reach the islands of Tasmania and New Zealand in the mid-1600s. The State Library acquired the original Tasman Map in 1933 and commissioned the marble reproduction for the vestibule floor in 1943.
Morning had turned into afternoon as we headed into the Central Business District. I mailed postcards from the General Post Office at 1 Martin Place – a lovely historic building that dates to 1866 with an ordinary-looking postal store inside – but my planned coffee break at The Grounds of the City was way off schedule. Instead, we quickly grabbed a sandwich and found the Queen Victoria Building, a romantic, nineteenth-century domed structure from Australia’s Victorian-Federation era.
It is hard to say whether the interior or exterior is more impressive. The building takes up a city block and is decorated lavishly with arches and columns, all washed in a pale orange sun-splashed tone. Marble statuary stands atop the entrance, and a stunning domed cupola along with smaller domes of various sizes lines the rooftop. The dome’s interior illuminates in blues and greens, and a magnificent clock hangs from the atrium ceiling. The architecture gives the feeling of a grand museum, but the Queen Victoria Building is actually a shopping mall.
We headed back toward the harbor, walking along George Street through The Rocks, Sydney’s oldest historic neighborhood and site of the first European colony in 1788. It’s a charming place to wander, with cobblestone streets, narrow lanes and a weekend market. The architecture and overall feeling reminded me of Edinburgh, Scotland, and I later learned that the neighborhood’s Argyle Street was named after Governor Macquarie’s Scottish roots in County Argyle.
Our final stop of the afternoon was the Sydney Harbour Bridge. We climbed the Bridge Stairs and made our way to the pedestrian walkway on the eastern side of the bridge. The walkway along the western side is designated for bicycles. We walked almost to the end, stopping for photos and to take in the spectacular views before turning around.
We had clocked almost fifteen miles on Herb’s phone app and decided to head back to the hotel before dinner and a return visit to the Circular Quay to watch the sunset. Our whirlwind, self-guided walk had been a wonderful way to experience Sydney. We were struck by the city’s overwhelming cleanliness. Everywhere we walked, the streets seemed litter-free. And the friendliness. Everyone we encountered went far beyond the typical politeness that you hope for when traveling to a new city. The people we met were engaging; they were earnest; they enjoyed interacting with visitors; and they seemed incredibly happy. Maybe it was something in that radiant summer sun, but I got the feeling that the people we met in Sydney were sincerely delighted to call this place home.