The Rocks is Sydney’s historic honeypot, where sandstone remnants of the early colonial settlement still stand and little lanes lead through to the sort of cafés that do a roaring trade in scones. Later additions have made The Rocks even more appealing – the Sydney Harbour Bridge looms over the northern end, while the Opera House sits neatly opposite on the other side of Circular Quay.
It’s an undemanding district of market stalls, old Irish pubs, souvenir shops and more than a few top restaurants. The Rocks is tourist central rather than everyday Sydney life, but still a hugely likeable and well-located harbourside base.
Sydney Harbour YHA
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Want those harbour views without paying a small fortune for the privilege? Then wander on up to the Sydney Harbour YHA’s rooftop terrace. It’s the only hostel in the area, and it has craftly bagged one of the best vantage points.
By most reasonable definitions of a good hostel, this scores highly. Rooms are clean, the air-conditioned dorms have a maximum of six people in, and all have private bathrooms. There’s also a tour desk, a barbecue for guest use and a good kitchen.
But despite the plum views, the aspect that really elevates the YHA above the norm is, well, what it’s elevated above. The building is on stilts on top of an archaeological dig site dating back to the early colonial era, and the signposted paths under the building tell tales of the shops, homes and butcher’s yards of which only the foundations remain. More than a million artefacts have been carefully prised from the site, some of which are on display in the hostel.
X-Factor: You’re essentially sleeping in a museum, looking out over the world’s most photogenic harbour.
Rooms: Dorm beds from A$41, doubles from A$138, four-share family rooms from A$170. 110 Cumberland Street. T: 00 61 2 8272 0900.
Best for character
The outer turrets make the Russell look like a castle, room 8 is supposedly haunted and furniture ranges from wicker chairs to antique wardrobes. There’s a certain timewarp bed and breakfast feel, but a recent renovation has done great things for what has always been a relative bargain in a prime spot. It looks brighter and fresher whilst maintaining a charm absent in many of the nearby luxury offerings – and, in a rarity for Sydney hotels, breakfast is included.
Rooms: En-suite doubles from A$199. 143a George Street. T: 00 61 2 9241 3543.
Best for expense accounts
Bang on Circular Quay, and with possibly the most comfortable beds known to humanity, the Four Seasons is blessed with a certain timeless class. Think wood-panelling in the lobby, leather chairs and the odd vintage light fitting melded unshowily with up-to-date technology. The rooms overlooking the harbour have some of the best views in Sydney (and thus, the world) and Kable’s restaurant is arguably the most underrated in the city. It’s undoubtedly a corporate hotel, but it reeks of non-cookie cutter quality.
Rooms: Doubles from A$289. 199 George Street. T: 00 61 2 9250 3100.
Spanning just over a mile-and-a-half from Circular Quay down to Central Station, the Central Business District is the hub that the rest of Sydney spans out from. It’s not just offices found here – many of the city’s historic buildings, fine dining establishments and prestige shops are crammed in too. Things get progressively glossier as you head north through Chinatown, past the Sydney Tower and up through the after-work hang outs near Martin Place. It’s a living city centre, though – in recent years, waves of highly individual small bars have opened up in once deserted laneways, injecting much needed life and character.
The first task is to find it. The Establishment is tucked down one of the little lanes that trash Sydney’s otherwise nice, simple grid pattern. The hidden away aspect is one of the reasons why it’s a bit of a celeb hang out – the likes of Florence and the Machine stay here when they’re in Sydney – but it’s mainly due to the marriage of luxury and rare individuality.
The Establishment has only 31 rooms, and they’ve all been wrangled into the setting of a heritage-listed warehouse complex. Not being able to remove or alter certain bits – such as the wooden roof beams – give the rooms a distinctive lovability. They look striking too – beds stand in the middle amongst exposed brick, divided from the free-standing baths with screens.
Rooms come with yoga mats, ear plugs, complimentary cookies and sprays to make ironing easier. Everyone’s given an iPad 2 for the duration of their stay, and in a city where most hotels think it’s perfectly acceptable to charge $25-plus a day for internet access, WiFi is mercifully free.
X-Factor: An attention to detail that screams of owners saying: “This is what we’d want in a hotel”.
Rooms: Doubles from A$299. 5 Bridge Lane. T: 00 61 2 9240 3100.
Best for families
This cavernous beast sits right on the edge of the Pitt Street Mall, right in the heart of the action. Yet head up to the rooftop pool and it feels surprisingly tranquil. Frazzled parents should have their eye on the interconnecting kids’ rooms, however. For an extra $60, the Swissotel will transform them with bright green duvets, legions of cuddly toys, kiddy-size desks, cartoon DVDs and colouring books. Blue and pink bathrobes, and a minibar full of chocolate and flavoured milk give a youthful touch to adult luxuries.
Rooms: Doubles from A$267 (£178). 68 Market Street. T: 00 61 2 9238 8888.
Best for backpackers
Begone images of dingy, filthy hostels – Bounce has got backpacker accommodation right. That means shower cubicles rather than curtains, two plug sockets in every dorm locker and a huge, well-equipped kitchen. There’s lots going on – from meal deals and free club night shuttle buses to giant Jenga, arcade game tables and a buzzy rooftop common area with hypercomfy beanbags. It’s clean, it’s bright, it’s colourful, and it’s not too big to feel impersonal.
Rooms: Dorm beds from A$37, ensuite doubles from $149. 28 Chalmers Street. T: 00 61 2 9281 2222.
It’s easy to be sniffy about Darling Harbour – and Sydneysiders regularly are – but there’s never a shortage of things to do. Restaurants, bars and big name attractions such as the Sydney Aquarium line the city side of this harbour inlet, while rejuvenated suburbs of Pyrmont and Ultimo on the other side host Sydney’s casino and a couple of the city’s best museums. The main trump card of family-friendly Darling Harbour, however, is that there’s always something going on – be it free concerts, outdoor food festivals or football tournaments taking place on floating platoons.
The multi-million dollar makeover of the rather tired Star City casino complex was completed in 2011. Redubbed ‘The Star’, the updated look included a fresh new hotel. The Darling shoots straight for the contemporary luxury feel, with the odd Asian touch such as the Japanese sculptures and Shanghai-style shutters over the windows in the lobby.
In the rooms themselves, there’s a strong technology focus – most things can be controlled via the TV, while the rooms have motion sensors which turn off unneeded lights if no-one’s in the room.
The hotel has a certain swagger to it, but none of the off-putting brashness you’d usually associate with casino hotels. It’s actually surprisingly peaceful. The ceiling to floor windows are perfect for gazing idly out of whilst clad in robe and slippers.
Each room has at least one original piece of art work and the tasteful use of black and white Sydney street scene photography gives the Darling a distinctive flair too. It’s a joint for low key as well as high rollers.
X-Factor: The Vegas-in-miniature style pool area, connected to the spa, is as close as you’ll get to Sin City.
Rooms: Doubles from A$289. 80 Pyrmont Street. T: 00 61 2 9777 9000.
Best for location
Medina Grand Harbourside
Just behind King Street Wharf in Darling Harbour and a couple of minutes’ walk from the most happening parts of the CBD, these apartments have struck the geographic jackpot. The rooms are smartly functional and relaxed rather than scrambling for a contrived wow factor – think businessmen bunkering down for a week rather than glossy photoshoots. Top tip? Ditch the so-so studios and upgrade for as little as A$15 to the far more impressive – and spacious – higher category rooms, which come with full kitchen and laundry facilities.
Rooms: Studios from A$169. 55 Shelley Street. T: 00 61 2 9249 7000.
Best for budget without the backpack:
Set a few blocks back from the action in unassuming Ultimo, the Vulcan is a cosy joint that really maximises what it has. It’s not fancy or particularly spacious, but it is very likeable – a muted gold colour scheme and thoughtful little extras keep it above the bland budget chain benchmark. The inner court yard sees billowing exotic plants surround the settees, whilst rooms come with free bottles of water, tea and coffee and handy guides to takeaways in the area.
Rooms: Doubles from A$149. 500 Wattle Street. T: 00 61 2 9211 3283.
Darlinghurst/ Kings Cross
The two sections of Darlinghurst Road, divided by the roar of William Street, sum the split personality of this area to the east of the CBD up. The southern section is leafy, full of small indie cafés, gay-friendly bars and gorgeous Victorian-era terraced houses. The northern section is Sydney’s premier 24 hour nightlife hub – with all the strip clubs, iffy fast food outlets, sex shops and rowdy pubs that entails. Hipsters mix with beer monsters and hardened clubbers, camp mixes with quaintness and cartoon seediness. It really shouldn’t work but it does – and no-one can accuse Darlinghurst and Kings Cross of being short of life.
The Eight Hotels mini-chain has inserted some much-needed charm into the Sydney hotel scene. Sister properties the Diamant, Kirketon and Park 8 are all good choices, but the Altamont has the most winning personality. The lobby has a pool table, free magazines, complimentary umbrellas drying out and the manager’s dogs roaming around, ever eager for a fuss and a cuddle.
The décor is all over the shop, with exposed stone work, aged leather chairs and bright rugs covering otherwise bare floors, but there’s a faint Mediterranean feel. The ‘Tuscan’ roof garden helps on this front.
The Altamont bills itself as a budget luxury hotel – flat screen TVs, quality linen and air conditioning are all present and correct, as is free Wifi. But it has the homely, friendly feel of a good B&B, sprinkled with a dose of avant garde. It’s the sort of place that makes you want to turn a blind eye to the imperfections – the bathrooms are small and poorly lit, for example – and embrace its jumble of arts flyers and mini courtyards.
X-Factor: Unmistakable personality at a reasonable price in a city of largely bland hotels.
Rooms: Doubles from A$157. 207 Darlinghurst Road. T: 00 61 2 9360 6000.
Best for night owls:
Quest Potts Point
The Quest is just off Darlinghurst Road, the main strip of 24 hour bars, nightclubs and less salubrious venues. But it’s just far enough away for a good, quiet night’s (or, more likely, day’s) sleep. Be warned: bathrooms are tiny, but rooms come with a microwave, toaster and fridge, plus full cutlery and crockery sets. The real star is the rooftop terrace with superlative views of the city, however – it’s perfect for a couple of beers before heading out.
Rooms: Doubles from A$138. 15 Springfield Avenue. T: 00 61 2 8988 6999.
Best for flamboyance:
Many of the original features of this 1830s building – the mahogany balustrade, the Victorian tiled floor, and the patterned glass above the front door – have been kept. But the Medusa also has more than a touch of 1930s Miami about it too – the 17 rooms have art deco furnishing and there’s a little reflection pool looked onto by sun loungers in the inner courtyard. The bright pink stucco walls are very Darlinghurst, though – a bit of glam never did anyone any harm…
Rooms: Doubles from A$195. 267 Darlinghurst Road. T: 00 61 2 9331 1000.
This story was originally researched in May 2012 and written for National Geographic Traveller (UK). Why not subscribe to it and read my stuff more regularly?
All content copyright David Whitley.