“Sydney Harbour…one of the finest, most beautiful, vast, and safe bays the sun had ever shown upon.”

~ Joseph Conrad, Mirror of the Sea

Early Morning

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.

Starting the day with a selfie by the Sydney Opera House and outdoor café.
The Circular Quay walkway along Sydney’s waterfront.
A ferry passes by Sydney’s Harbour Bridge.
Sydney Opera House in the early morning light.
“Back” side of the Sydney Opera House.

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 spotted quite a few of the authors’ plaques, including Mark Twain…
…Rudyard Kipling…
…and Robert Louis Stevenson.

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.

Swimmers passing the Sydney Opera House.
The St. George Open Air Cinema features a 2,000-seat grandstand, surround sound and a screen that is hydraulically raised from Sydney Harbour to stand three stories high.
View from Mrs. Macquaries Point.
A dreamy spot for watching the world go by!

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.

Sydney’s Royal Botanic Gardens entrance.
Detail of the columns flanking the entrance gates.
The Royal Botanic Gardens is home to a group of ibises, all tagged and accounted for.
The Art Gallery of New South Wales, one of Australia’s largest public galleries, opened in 1874.
St. Mary’s Cathedral was a work-in-progress, with construction beginning in 1868 and completion in the early 20th century. The architectural style is called Geometric Decorated Gothic.
The Hyde Park Barracks was built in 1818 to house convicts. Today it is a museum and a World Heritage site.

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.

Opened in 1826, the State Library of New South Wales is the oldest library in Australia.
View of the Tasman Map from the second level. The cherubs in each corner represent the four winds. The wavy blue lines represent the sea.
The light-filled Mitchell Reading Room.
An interesting art piece, elaborate moldings and stained glass decorate the library’s interior.

Mid-Day

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.

The Queen Victoria Building is a sharp contrast to neighboring modern architecture.
View of the statuary and dome above the George Street entrance.
Looking up into the dome.
The Great Australian Clock includes 33 scenes from Australian history, seen from both Aboriginal and European perspectives.

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.

The Rocks’ Australian Heritage Hotel holds the longest-running hotel license in Sydney. The term “hotel” can also refer to a pub.
The Lord Nelson Brewery Hotel claims the title of Australia’s oldest pub brewery as well as Sydney’s “oldest continually licensed hotel.”
I loved this staircase in The Rocks that leads to Cahill Walk and the Harbour Bridge.

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.

Passing the Sydney Observatory on the way to the bridge walk.
Stairs leading to the Harbour Bridge pedestrian walkway.
On the bridge!
It’s all about that iconic view.

Before Sunset

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.

The Rocks Cafe on George Street is a great little place for dinner, with seating indoors and outside.
The Opera House, nearing sunset.
The outdoor café, where we had started our walk in the morning, was standing-room-only at sunset.
Ferry and sightseeing boats along Sydney Harbour.
Sydney Harbour Bridge climbers on their way…
…to the top!
Luna Park, on the other side of Sydney Harbour Bridge at Milsons Point, lights up the night with its old-fashioned ambiance.
I loved how the ceramic tiles on the Opera House roof change colors in the evening light.
As the sun goes down, these snow globe-like lamps along the Circular Quay illuminate the walkway.
Goodnight, Sydney…

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