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For any foreign visitor to Australia, the chances are you will fly in to Sydney, and that you’ll be so jet-lagged by the long flight that you’ll stay there a day or two. And if it’s your first visit you are bound to want to check out those most iconic of Sydney sitesthe Opera House and the Harbour Bridge.
So was it for us as we hopped on the train near our hotel at the Central Station and travelled the few stops to the station at Circular Quay (which used to be called Semi-Circular Quay, but I guess that was too much of a mouthful.) Step out of the train, down the steps and it’s all there in front of you; the Harbour Bridge to the left, the Opera House a short walk to the right and wharves for half a dozen ferry boats right in front of you. And depending on season and time of day, a mix of commuters and many, many tourists.
Any map of the Sydney Harbour area shows dozens of ferry routes linking everywhere that’s anywhere around the harbour, and Circular Quay is the focus where most start and finish. Watching the water here is never relaxing; there is always a ferry arriving or leaving, or maybe three of them apparently vying for a place to dock. A well choreographed chaos, of mainly yellow and green boats, day and night. And to add to the congestion, on the west side of the bay is a cruise-line terminal where a classic modern floating resort, the Carnival Splendor, was docked and spoiling the view when we were there.
Go there if you love ferries, watching them or riding themit’s a must. But the area is perfect for all tourist tastes. A 20-30 minute walk through the historic Rocks streets can take you to the middle of the Harbour Bridge, with perfect views of the Opera House and all that’s around it. 10 minutes in the other direction and you can be walking around the Opera House, looking back to the bridge. In between you can feast on everything from ice creams to gourmet-priced meals, and buy anything from $2 plastic kangaroos to $20,000 opals. Venture just slightly further afield and you can swap all this commercial bustle for the peace and beauty of the Royal Botanic Garden Sydney.
Our choice for a meal while there was the House Canteen at the Opera House; sitting on the sea wall right beside the Opera House, with the water a couple of metres way, watching the ferries and the bridge and eating good and reasonably priced food. The only downsidethe gulls there are so adept at stealing your food that it is served to you under a wire mess cover and there is a gull-scaring dog on the payroll. We returned there at dusk on our last night in Australia and it was a whole different but just as enjoyable experience. The colours in the sky which was clearing from the day's storms, mixed with the lights from the downtown office towers, all reflected on the water with the bridge as a backdrop... And a bonus, as dusk arrived, so did a steady stream of flying foxes (large fruit eating bats) flying from the area of the Botanic Garden, off upstream to roost for the night.
But you are really here for the ferries. So many to choose to from, with reasonable fares which are all paid for, like all the area’s public transit, with a tap-on and tap-off of your credit card or a purchased Opal Card. In our two days we chose to ride the Cockatoo Island and Manly ferries. The ferries are a great way to enjoy a fascinating area and if we'd had more days we’d have taken more ferry trips.

Ferry terminal info
Operating from early morning to late at night, year-round
The boats
The Sydney Ferries fleet consists of 34 passenger ferries, divided into eight classes of boat
Fares depend on the route. AUD $6.79 for up to 9, $8.49 for longer trips (2024).
Tap on and off with a credit card or Opus card.
Sydney Ferries (Transport for NSW)

Includes maps, fares, schedules
When I visited
November 2023

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