EXPLORE SYDNEY ON A BUDGET: 13 CHEAP OR FREE THINGS TO DO
As my friends and I drank wine in the shadow of the Opera House, I couldn’t help but be happy – I was back in Sydney for the first time in five years and I was here for over two weeks!
“Shall we go somewhere else?” my friends asked.
“Sure, let’s get the bill!” I replied.
When our check came, I was reminded of something about Sydney I had forgotten: its high prices. Even with a currently weak Australian dollar, Sydney was more expensive than I remembered.
With its 10 AUD sandwiches, 10 AUD beers, 19 AUD cocktails, 30 AUD hostels (sometimes up to 40 AUD!!!), and outrageous restaurant prices, Sydney can burn a hole in your wallet quicker than actual fire. It was going to be an expensive two weeks if I didn’t figure out how to enjoy the best this city had to offer on a budget. Leaving no stone unturned (OK, probably one or two), I found several ways to save big here – while still filling your days and having a lot of fun.
While Syndey is never going to be the cheapest destination to travel to in the world, there are plenty of ways to save money in Syndey thanks to all the free and cheap things to do there. Between museums, markets, beaches, nature walks, and some local deals, there are plenty of ways to lower your costs on your next visit!
I’ve divided this blog posts into two sections:
Part 1: Free things to do in Sydney
Part 2: Cheap things to do in Sydney
Just click on the link above and get to the section you want!
Free Things to Do in Sydney
1. Get an Opal card
This metro card is free — you just need to load it with money — and worth using for three reasons: it offers discounted fare compared to purchasing one-use tickets (this varies by distance); there’s a maximum fare charge of 15 AUD per day; and on Sundays, the maximum is 2.50 AUD. That means you can go anywhere on the transportation system – whether by metro, ferry, or light rail – and you’ll never pay more than 2.50 AUD! It’s an amazing deal.
- The Mint (a small exhibit on how they used to make money)
- The Australia Center for Photography
- The White Rabbit Gallery (beautiful art)
- The Manly Art Museum
- The Sydney Observatory
- The Rocks Discovery Museum!
3. The Art Gallery of New South Wales
The Art Gallery of NSW is one of my favorite museums in the city. There are so many exquisite landscape paintings, portraits, and statues in its collection by Australian and European artists (and even a few by Monet). It’s a really substantial collection. Some of my favorites were Albert Hanson’s “Pacific Beaches,” Guerard’s “Jebel Cherib” and “Milford Sound,” Peter Paul Rubens’ “Self-Portrait,” and Batten’s “Snowdrop and the Seven Little Men.”
4. The Museum of Contemporary Art
The contemporary art museum also is free and features Australian artists, including many Aboriginals. While I’m not a huge fan of this type of art (bottles on the floor is NOT art), the Aboriginal collection was breathtaking. You can really feel the artists’ connections to their land and culture as well as the pain of past attempts to take it away from them.
5. Visit the beaches
Sydney is a city famous for its (free) beaches, and there’s no better way to spend one of the city’s many sunny days than by enjoying one of them. Try to avoid going on the weekends, when they fill up and you have to fight for space. While Bondi is the most famous, be sure to check out some of these other great beaches:
- Watson’s Bay
- Bronte (my favorite)
6. Take a nature walk
There are a number of stunning public coastal walks that allow you to take in the breathtaking natural beauty of Sydney’s harbor and coastal cliffs. While tons of people do the two-hour Coogee-to-Bondi walk (avoid it on the weekends), I found Watson’s Bay and the Split-to-Manly walks quieter, more relaxing, and beautiful. Some other walks worth checking out are:
- Rose Bay to Watson’s Bay
- Watson’s Bay to Dover Heights
- Chowder Bay to Balmoral Beach
- Jibbon Beach Loop Track
7. Free walking tours
One of the best ways to explore a new city is by taking a free walking tour. These will introduce you to all the major sites and give you a solid introduction to the city’s history and culture. Best of all, these tours are free (just make sure to tip!). Two suggested companies for walking tours in Sydney are:
- I’m Free Walking Tours: Daily tours of the city center and The Rocks (Sydney’s original settlement).
- Sydney Greeters: This is a free service that connects you with locals who will show you their neighborhood (advanced booking required).
Cheap Things to Do in Sydney
8. Take the Town Hall tour
Built in 1889, Sydney’s beautiful town hall is a picturesque Victorian building. On Tuesday mornings, there’s a detailed two-hour tour that you can take for only 5 AUD. It’s a great way to learn some extra history about the building as well as the city.
9. Visit the markets
Sydney has a ton of amazing markets to walk through. No matter what you’re looking for, from antiques to food to local crafts, you’ll likely be able to find it at a market. I love the Paddington Market and the farmers market the best. They draw an eclectic crowd, and the farmers market makes me want to cook nonstop. Here are some other great markets worth checking out:
- Glebe Market
- Rozelle Collectors Market
- Orange Grove Organic Market
- Bondi Farmer’s Market
- Manly Market Place
- Chinatown Night Market
10. Attend one of Sydney’s many events
Since Sydney has a complex about Melbourne being called the culture capital of Australia, it tries to outdo its rival by hosting over dozens of events each year. It has art gallery nights, concerts, festivals, and much more. Most of them are free and can be found on the Sydney tourism website. Some of the more noteworthy events are:
- New Year’s Eve (Sydney is one of the biggest New Year’s Eve destinations in the world)
- Lost Paradise (a 3-day music festival)
- City2Surf (an annual race and fun run)
- Vivid Sydney (an annual light, music, and idea festival)
- Twilight at Taronga (summer music series)
11. Eat cheap!
Need a cheap meal? The sushi trains around the city offer a filling meal for 10-20 AUD, the noodle and dumpling shops in Chinatown offer tasty and authentic meals for less than 10 AUD, and Lentil as Anything (a vegetarian restaurant in Newtown) offers meals on a “pay as you feel” system. Another cheap place to eat is the food court in the MLC Centre, a big office building in the heart of the business district and popular with office workers. From Mexican to sushi to salads to sandwiches, you can find big-portion meals for 10 AUD or less. For more cheap eats, check out:
- El Jannah (chicken sandwiches)
- Chinese Noodle Restaurant (homemade noodles)
- Spicy Joint (spicy Chinese food)
- Spice I Am (Thai food)
- Wish Bone (fried chicken and poutine)
12. Avoid the expensive stuff
In many parts of the world, the high end offers some value and you can walk away from an expensive meal and say “that was worth every penny!” However, that’s not often the case in Sydney. I was always disappointed. From cocktail bars to upscale steak and sushi dinners, I always left hungry, unhappy, and thinking about the lack of value I got. Stick to beer, wine, and the low-end restaurants when you’re in town. You’ll get more bang for your buck!
13. Visit backpacker bars for cheap drinks
Drinking in Sydney is expensive – with beers costing up to 10 AUD each – but the backpacker bars are where to go for a cheap pint. World Bar and Ivy Hotel have backpacker specials for 4-7 AUD, and the Peter Pan Travel Agency in Kings Cross has free drinks on Tuesdays!