From beach bums and bushwalkers to foodies and history buffs, Sydney is a lively, sparkling metropolis with a seemingly infinite number of activities for every kind of traveller. As with everywhere in Australia, though, some of that magic lies outside of the city itself, off the typical tourist track in the beautiful national parks and coastal towns that surround NSW’s capital. I lived in Sydney for nearly 7 years, and during that time I explored far and wide around my home, constantly amazed by the beautiful places that never make it into travel books or tour itineraries.
To truly appreciate Sydney, you need to explore the South Coast and discover the world’s whitest sand, stroll through Australia’s second oldest national park, or camp next to wild wombats and wallabies. And with these 13 awesome day trips or weekend getaways, it will be impossible not to fall in love with Sydney’s hidden gems and local favourites.
What's in this travel guide
1 | Port Stephens
Only a few hours north of Sydney, Port Stephens is a seaside paradise of swirling sand dunes, incredible coastal hikes, and, of course, secluded beaches. Enjoy vibrant volcanic scenery and intriguing coastal landscapes that are a bit unlike anything else.
Head first to Stockton Beach, whose rolling dunes glow golden in the morning sun, to either cruise across the sand in 4WD, on quad bikes, or even on foot. And don’t miss the impossibly scenic Tomaree Head Summit Walk, which offers sweeping views over Nelson Bay and the Fingal Spit. From atop the summit, look out at Zenith Beach, Wreck Beach, Box Beach, and the Fingal Spit, and then make your way back down to the car to visit any of these stunning beaches.
Getting there: Port Stephens is 2.5hrs north of Sydney.
Where to stay: There are a heap of waterfront accommodation options in Port Stephens. I’d specifically recommend Shoal Bay Holiday Park, as it is only a short walk from Tomaree Heads.
Top tips: Hike up the quick Tomaree Heads trail for sunrise or sunset; the trail is so well-maintained and easy that it’s totally do-able even after the sun starts to go down (BYO headlamp).
If impossibly picturesque views over Sydney’s Northern Beaches are your thing (and they should absolutely be everyone’s thing), there is no better spot than the Barrenjoey Lighthouse, accessible via a short but sweet walk near the town of Palm Beach (which you may recognise as Home & Away’s iconic Summer Bay).
This is one of Sydney’s most iconic viewpoints, but there are plenty of other things to do in Palm Beach, including whale watching cruises that depart from the main wharf and bushwalking in nearby Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park.
Getting there: It’s possible to catch a bus from Wynyard Station (in the Sydney CBD) up to Palm Beach, but making the 1hr drive north yourself will give you more flexibility.
Where to stay: The Basin campground in Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park has no car access, so you can either park at the West Head lookout and walk 2.5km or you can take a ferry from Palm Beach (highly recommended if you’re travelling with a swag/esky). Return tickets are $16.40 and can be purchased from the Fantasea ticket office directly across from the wharf in Palm Beach. Check the timetable here, but there’s usually a ferry leaving every hour (on the hour) and returning every hour (at 20min past) from 9am-5pm.
Top tips: From The Basin campsite, walk 2.5km up to the incredible West Head lookout for more staggering views of the coastline.
Looking out over Palm Beach from Barrenjoey Lighthouse
Excellent swimming at The Basin
3 | Blue Mountains
The Blue Mountains is a sprawling and diverse region just a quick drive west of Sydney, and is one of the very best places to escape the buzz of the city and reconnect with the beautiful Australian bush. For a day trip, Wentworth Falls, Katoomba, and Leura are easiest to explore, but there are also heaps of trails and lookouts to discover further afield in Blackheath, Lithgow, and Jenolan.
You could easily spend a week visiting all of the viewpoints and lookouts in this region, so don’t leave without visiting at least a few; Echo Point is immensely popular, but Lincoln’s Rock, Lady Darley Lookout, Sublime Point, and Govetts Leap are also stunning and come without the crowds. If you’re looking for a longer outdoor adventure, the Six Foot Track is one of NSW’s best overnight hikes.
Getting there: The Blue Mountains is a 90min drive west of Sydney and is best explored by car. However, there is still the option to take the train from Central Station to Katoomba and then use local buses or purchase a $50 ticket for the touristy Hop On/Hop Off sightseeing bus.
Where to stay: There are a number of great free camping spots around the Blue Mountains! My two favourites are Perry’s Lookdown and Blackheath Glen Reserve.
Top tips: Avoid visiting the Blue Mountains during long weekends or school holidays, as the whole area becomes wildly busy and it’s difficult to even find a spot to pitch your tent without driving into the middle of nowhere.
Unfairly written off by most Australians, the “Bush Capital” is actually a vibrant and culture-rich city with an insane amount of things to do. And thankfully, it’s only a quick trip away from Sydney! From art galleries and exhibitions, to food and music festivals, to fantastic bush walks, to top-rated local breweries, distilleries, and wineries, you’ll be pleasantly surprised by how exciting this under-rated city really is.
Australia’s first National Park, which also holds the prestigious title of 2nd oldest NP in the world, is every bit as beautiful as it is wild and rugged. Despite the popularity of a few select spots, including Wedding Cake Rock and the Figure 8 Pools, much of the park is delightfully empty to tourists, which means that you can enjoy secluded beaches and incredible cliff formations all to yourself.
The dramatic coastline is best explored end-to-end on the truly epic Royal Coast Track. This 33km track runs from Otford to Bundeena, and with both ends easily accessible by public transport and idyllic North Era campsite situated roughly in the middle, this is a walk every Sydneysider should experience at least once in their lives. Time it with low tide during the winter or mid-week and you might also enjoy the Figure 8 Pools to yourself!
Getting there: The Royal National Park is about 45min south of Sydney and is easiest to explore in a car. Still, both the north and south ends of the park (Bundeena and Otford) are well-connected to public transport, making a thru-hike of the Coast Track or short day hikes in either direction very simple.
Where to stay: The only place to stay within the National Park is at North Era Campground. Spots book up months in advance, particularly for weekends and holidays, but it’s usually possible to snag a Friday or Sunday night about a month out if you’re flexible.
Top tips: Practice the Leave No Trace principles on all of your walks to keep our beautiful park wild and wonderful for future explorers.
As NSW’s second largest city, there is absolutely no shortage of things to do in sunny Newcastle (although it does often feel more like a little coastal town than a big city). Golden sand beaches at Nobby’s Beach, Bar Beach, or Newcastle Beach are the perfect place to soak up some vitamin D before going for a swim in the amusingly-named Bogey Hole, a lovely salt water rock pool with delightfully fewer rips, or strolling along Newcastle’s Memorial Walk with the locals.
The other option, of course, is to jet a further 45min inland and spend your time in the renowned Hunter Valley wine region, where 150 wineries and dozens of first-class restaurants will keep you more than entertained for a day (or three)!
Getting there: Sydney and Newcastle are amazingly well-connected, so you can make the 2-2.5hr drive north yourself, catch cheap public transport, or take a Greyhound bus, just to list a few options.
Top tips: If you just want to go directly to the Hunter Valley from Sydney, there are some excellent and inexpensive tours that will shuttle you around for a full day of wine tasting.
The beautiful Gartelmann Estate
Walking down to the Bogey Hole
7 | Ben Boyd National Park
Ben Boyd National Park is on the far south coast, nearly at the Victorian border, and is by far the longest trip on this list, but it’s a little-explored coastal paradise that I just had to include! With phenomenal beaches that you’ll have entirely to yourself and countless bush walks including the overnight Light to Light walk, there’s so much to discover on the beautiful Sapphire Coast. It will be well worth the drive!
Getting there: Ben Boyd National Park is a 6.5hr drive south of Sydney. It’s possible to get part of the way down the Sapphire Coast using a combination of public transport and private buses, but it won’t get you all the way to the NP.
Where to stay: Base yourself in the nearby town of Eden as you explore Ben Boyd. The Whale Fisher Motel provides basic but clean rooms for $80-100.
Top tips: Break up the drive to Eden by stopping over in Jervis Bay or Canberra, both awesome destinations!
Strolling through Ben Boyd National Park
Ben Boyd National Park
8 | Forster
Located in the Great Lakes region of mid-NSW, Forster is an excellent place to lounge on secluded beaches, watch for humpback whales along the coast, swim in turquoise lakes, and just generally relax in nature. Drive up to nearby Bennetts Head Lookout, a fantastic vantage point from which to see whales and dolphins, and then continue walking over to One Mile Beach to experience the best of Forster in a single afternoon.
I’d actually go so far as to put One Mile Beach on my list of top ten Australian beaches, so don’t underestimate this often overlooked destination! Strolling along brilliantly blue Wallis Lake is a close second in terms of scenery, and Forster is also a great spot to see dolphins aboard a Free Spirit Cruise.
Getting there: Forster is a 3hr drive north of Sydney (there are buses, but it will take you about 6hrs to make the journey, so I’d recommend a car for this one).
Where to stay: Hotel Forster provides awesome rooms right near the water for $100.
Top tips: Take the scenic Lakes Way either into or out of Forster for plenty of secluded lake views (that quickly become photo stops).
Nestled between a lush escarpment and golden beaches, Wollongong is a seriously underrated (but fantastic) destination about 90min south of Sydney. Recent years have seen this former coal region blossom into a vibrant student town that attracts a variety of young creatives and surfers to its pristine shores, now overflowing with great restaurants, trendy bars, boutique festivals, and plenty of natural beauty.
Getting there: The Illawarra/ South Coast train line runs from Sydney to Wollongong throughout the day ($4-8).
Where to stay: There are a number of great places to stay in Wollongong, but I’d recommend nearby Coledale Camping Reserve as the best campsite in the region or Novotel Wollongong ($180) for more upscale accomodation in North Wollongong.
Top tips: When in Wollongong, an awesome free bus (55A/C) runs anti-clockwise and clockwise around the city, stopping at a number of useful spots near the beach, in town, at the train station, etc.
Towradgi Pools just a few minutes’ walk from Wollongong
10 | Kangaroo Valley
For a less salty and more off-the-beaten path getaway, head inland to adorable Kangaroo Valley and spend a day bushwalking or mingling with local wildlife. Three Views Walking Track is a personal favourite, with amazing views over the trees and lakes. Afterwards, be sure to stop by Bendeela Camping Reserve (even if you aren’t camping) to meet the dozens of friendly wombats who live in the paddock.
Getting there: Kangaroo Valley is a 2hr drive from Sydney, although it’s also possible to take public transport (via Moss Vale) in about 4.5hrs.
Top tips: If you’re driving down from Sydney, pop into Fitzroy Falls, an impressive 81m waterfall, on your way through.
Wombat at Bendeela
Driving into Kangaroo Valley
Three Views Walk in Kangaroo Valley
11 | Port Macquarie
This coastal town is a fair drive north of Sydney, but makes an absolutely wonderful weekend getaway for beach bums and animal lovers alike. The best attraction in town is theKoala Hospital,which runs free guided tours of their unique facility every day at 3pm. Knowledgable local volunteers will teach you all about the health concerns and habitat displacement that our beloved koalas face, as well as introduce you to some of the permanent residents (whose injuries or illnesses are too serious for re-release).
After visiting the Koala Hospital, stroll along the 9km Coastal Walk to see the painted rocks along Town Beach & the breakwall and look out over the ocean from Gaol Point or Flagstaff Lookout.
Getting there: Driving from Sydney is the quickest and easiest way to reach Port Mac (4-4.5hrs north), but Greyhound also operates daily buses from Central Station. The trip takes 5-6hrs and costs around $50.
South of Wollongong and about 2hrs from Sydney, this charming coastal town is another local favourite for weekend getaways. The slow-paced main street has a number of great cafes, the beaches are unspoilt, and the famous Blowhole is a great way to appreciate the pumping surf (and get some great photos). Nearby Cathedral Rocks is another popular spot for photographers looking to capture some of that South Coast magic (sadly I did not take that photo above, but you certainly could!).
Getting there: The same Illawarra/South Coast train line that services Wollongong will often continue down the coast and terminate in Kiama, making this an easy and unique day trip without a car.
Top tips: If you are continuing down to Ben Boyd National Park, Kiama makes the perfect stopover to break up your drive!
13 | Jervis Bay
Inarguably home to some of the best beaches in all of Australia, it’s hard to beat a weekend (or even a single day) spent on the shores of beautiful Jervis Bay. Hyams Beachactually holds the official title of World’s Whitest Sand, and even though it’s a mystery how Guinness World Records compared “whiteness of sand” across all the world’s beaches, you’ll stop wondering as soon as you set eyes on this impossibly white stretch of fine, squeaky sand that at times looks more like baking flour.
As the area’s primary claim to fame, Hyams is sure to get busy on a summer Saturday (still practically empty compared to Bondi, mind you), but there are so many other amazing beaches to explore in Jervis Bay. Snorkel, swim, or sun-bake on Chinamans Beach, Murrays Beach or Green Patch Beach in Booderee National Park (also a great place to see some wildlife!).
Getting there: Jervis Bay is 200km (just under 3hrs driving) from the centre of Sydney, making it possible as either a day trip or more of a weekend adventure.
Where to stay: Camp right near Green Patch Beach in Booderee National Park for just $21/night (per 2 people). Not only are you a few seconds from one of Jervis Bay’s best beaches, but you’ll also spend the night surrounded by wild wallabies, rainbow lorikeets and wombats! If tents aren’t your thing, look for an Airbnb in Vincentia (the charming little town closest to Hyam’s Beach).
Top tips: Winter is still a great time to visit Jervis Bay, as you’ll avoid all the summer crowds and have these picturesque beaches entirely to yourself. If you’re going snorkelling, you’ll likely want to wet-suit up before you hop into the freezing water, but if you’re just interested in the coastal scenery, May-September is the perfect window.
The unbelievably clear Jervis Bay
No shortage of photo ops at Hyams Beach
A winter’s day at Hyams Beach
Green Point, Jervis Bay
Getting to Sydney
Most travellers will arrive into Sydney via the Sydney Kingsford Smith International Airport in Mascot (about 10km out of the CBD). There’s a train line that services Sydney Airport, just follow signs for the station below the arrivals area and purchase an Opal card (our local transit card). It’s about $20 to get from the airport to Central Station, even though it only takes about 15min (this section of the tracks is privately owned and it is endlessly frustrating for everyone).
Here’s an excellent local trick that surprisingly few people take advantage of: if you’re on a really tight budget, you can actually walk from the airport to Mascot Station in under 20min and catch the train into the city for the usual rate (around $4). It’s an easy, flat walk that I’ve made many times to avoid paying for the airport train— this map shows the walk from the domestic terminal, but you can also do it from the international terminal.
Where to stay in Sydney
There are so many awesome hotels and hostels in Sydney that it’s difficult to recommend just one! The best areas to stay are The Rocks (located right next to Circular Quay), Bondi Junction, Darling Harbour, North Sydney, and the streets immediately surrounding Central Station in the CBD. These areas all have great access to public transport and are right in the middle of the action when it comes to sightseeing and great restaurants! I can highly recommend:
For budget travellers
Sydney Central YHA: Located about 100m from Central Station in the heart of Sydney, this is a lively hostel with great access to public transport and the best sights around Sydney. They even organise a number of events, like Aussie BBQs on the roof (which is how I tried Kangaroo for the first time) or pub crawls around the city. Dorm beds for $29; they also have private rooms, but they aren’t great value at $120+.
Wake Up: Also right next to Central Station, this hostel offers just about everything the YHA does, minus the rooftop pool. It’s also attached to Side Bar, which is a great backpacker/uni student bar that my housemates and I frequented while we were studying. Dorm beds for $34.
George Street Hotel: Basic centrally located hotel within walking distance of Circular Quay, Darling Harbour, and a heap of public transport. Private rooms for $50.
Forget the budget
Meriton Suites Bondi Junction: A great option in the busy transit hub of Bondi Junction (about a 15min walk from Bondi Beach, but much better connected to the city). The apartments have great views and well-equipped kitchens, which means you can eat some of your meals in to save money for day trips! Rooms $150-200/night.
North Sydney Harbourview Hotel: Located just across the Harbour Bridge with an amazing view of the city, this is an excellent hotel within easy walking distance of the North Sydney train station. The perfect base for adventures up north! Rooms from $200-300/night.
Sofitel Darling Harbour: Located right on Sydney’s lively Darling Harbour, this is a great hotel with stunning views. Some of the city’s best restaurants are in this area and it’s lovely just to wander around in the evenings as Darling Harbour lights up. Rooms from $300-400/night.
Shangri-La Hotel: Fabulous upscale hotel in the historic Rocks area of Circular Quay. The best thing about this hotel is its rooftop bar and restaurant, affording insane views of the Harbour. Rooms $300-400/night.
Getting around Sydney
Public transport is a great way to explore Sydney, with frequent trains, buses, ferries, and a new lightrail line available to get you most anywhere you need to go. Download the Opal appor Google Maps to see timetables and plan your journey. If you don’t already have an Opal card, you can also purchase one from select city stations and most newsagencies or convenience stores; or, better yet, you can skip the Opal and just tap on/off of Sydney transport using Paywave directly on your debit card.
A typical ride on public transport is around $4-8, but if you’re in Sydney on a Sunday, you can take advantage of the $2.70 travel cap— travel as far as you want, all for less than three bucks (not including the airport). For longer journeys, there are bus companies like Greyhound and Murray’s operating routes between Sydney and a number of these destinations for a reasonable price (e.g. Sydney to Canberra for $15-30).
Most of these day trips and weekend getaways are accessible via public transport or other buses, but many will simply be more enjoyable with a car, so it might be worth looking into car hire if you don’t have a vehicle. There are heaps of companies located right at the Sydney airport, just be warned that driving in the city (and finding parking) can be pretty stressful!
If you’re going to be driving around NSW, be warned that Australia has an insane number of speeding cameras and patrol cops compared to other countries, and the fines can easily be in the $300-500 range. So don’t speed, it will ruin your holiday!
Like many countries, Australian car hire companies charge an extra fee for drivers under the age of 25 and it can be as much as the actual hire price. If there’s someone in your group over 25, definitely list them as the driver.
To ensure you have access to Google Maps and the Opal app to get yourself around, I’d recommend picking up a pre-paid SIM card at the airport, a convenience store, the supermarket, or directly at the shop. Telstra provides the best connectivity and you can get 20GB worth of data (valid for 28 days) for just $30, including the price of the SIM. This is the same prepaid plan I use for my phone all the time, but there’s no contract and absolutely no commitment, so it’s also perfect for travellers.
If you don’t get a SIM, the best place to find free wifi is Maccas (McDonalds).
And if you need to navigate without using data, Navmii is a great app for online maps of Australia. I have used this app all over the world and found it to be very accurate! Even if you do have a SIM card, it might still be worth downloading— mobile reception is basically non-existent in the national parks.