Sleep: Sydney

Gorgeous and gregarious, vibrant yet easy-going, Sydney defines all that's cool about Down Under. Moreover its clutch of places to stay are just as enthralling, from luxe properties to a hostel on stilts above an archaeological site

By David Whitley
Published 20 Sept 2012, 14:43 BST, Updated 30 Jun 2021, 11:16 BST

Darling Harbour

Sydneysiders can be sniffy about Darling Harbour but there's never a shortage of things to do here. Restaurants, bars and big-name attractions such as the Sydney Aquarium line the city side of this harbour inlet, while the rejuvenated suburbs of Pyrmont and Ultimo, on the other side, host a huge casino and a couple of its best museums. Darling Harbour's trump card, though, is there's always something going on — be it free concerts, food festivals or football tournaments on floating platoons.

We recommend: The Darling
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 — the epitome of modern luxury, with the odd Asian touch thrown in such as Japanese sculptures, and Shanghai-style shutters in the lobby.

There's a strong technology focus in all 171 rooms — most things can be controlled via the TV — and motion sensors turn off unneeded lights if no one's in the room. The Darling has a certain swagger to it, too, but none of the off-putting brashness you'd usually associate with a casino hotel. In fact, it's surprisingly peaceful — the ceiling-to-floor windows are perfect for gazing idly out of while clad in robe and slippers.

Each room has at least one original piece of artwork and the tasteful use of black-and-white Sydney street-scene photographs gives The Darling a certain classy distinctive flair
too. It's a place for laid-back travellers as well as high rollers.

Rooms: Doubles from A$289 (£193). 80 Pyrmont Street. T: 00 61 2 9777 9000.
X-factor: The Vegas in miniature-style pool area, connected to the spa, is as close as you'll get to Sin City.

Best for budget without the backpack: Vulcan Hotel
A few blocks from Ultimo, the cosy 46-room Vulcan isn't fancy or spacious but it is very likeable — a muted gold colour scheme and little extras such as free DVDs elevate it above the bland budget chain benchmark. Exotic plants surround settees in the inner courtyard, while rooms come with free bottles of water, tea and coffee and guides to local takeaways.

Rooms: Doubles from A$149 (£100). 500 Wattle Street. T: 00 61 2 9211 3283.

Best for location: Medina Grand Harbourside
Just behind King Street Wharf in Darling Harbour and a two-minute walk from the most happening parts of the Central Business District (CBD), this hotel has hit the geographical jackpot. Its 113 rooms are smartly functional and relaxed — think businessmen hunkering down for a week rather than glossy photo shoots. Top tip? Ditch the so-so studios and upgrade for as little as A$15 (£9.80) to the far more impressive, and spacious, higher category rooms, which come with a kitchen and laundry facilities.

Rooms: Studios from A$169 (£113). 55 Shelley Street. T: 00 61 2 9249 7000. 

The Rocks

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 cafes 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, but it's still a hugely likeable and well-located harbourside base.

We recommend: Sydney Harbour YHA
The rooftop terrace of the only hostel in the Sydney Harbour area has craftily bagged one of the best vantage points in the world. Rooms are clean, the air-conditioned dorms have a maximum of six beds, and all have bathrooms. There's also a tour desk, a guest BBQ and a kitchen. But despite the plum views, what really elevates the YHA above the norm is, well, what it's elevated above. It's on stilts atop an archaeological site dating back to the early colonial era. Today, linked by signposted paths, just the foundations remain of the homes, shops and butcher's yard that stood here, although the site has yielded more than one million artefacts, some of which are on display in the hostel.

Rooms: Dorm beds from A$41 (£27), doubles from A$138 (£92), four-share family rooms from A$170 (£113). 110 Cumberland Street. T: 00 61 2 8272 0900.
X-factor: You're essentially staying in a museum overlooking the world's most photogenic harbour.

Best for old English: The Observatory Hotel
Channelling the essence of an English country house, this Langham hotel features heavy curtains, antique-style desks and draped four-poster beds — cool isn't the word; more Laura Ashley meets five-star finesse without the stuffiness. Afternoon tea is taken in the Globe Bar & Brasserie, while the Galileo Restaurant exudes Parisian chic, with a French-inspired menu from chef Jonathan Bruell. An afternoon in its spa, which includes a 20-metre pool and gym, is time well spent. Not cheap, but a little elegance in a prime spot comes at a price.

Rooms: En suite doubles from A$365 (£240). 89-113 Kent Street. T: 00 61 2 9256 2222. 

Darlinghurst/Kings Cross

The two sections of Darlinghurst Road, divided by the roar of William Street, sum up the split personality of this area to the east of the CBD. The southern section is leafy, full of small indie cafes, 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.

We recommend: Altamont Hotel
The 8Hotels mini-chain has injected some much-needed charm to the Sydney hotel scene. Sister properties the Diamant Hotel, Kirketon Hotel and Park8 Hotel are all good, but the 14-room Altamont has the most winning personality. The lobby has a pool table, free magazines and umbrellas.

The decor is eclectic, with exposed stonework, aged leather chairs and bright rugs, while the Tuscan-style roof garden has a whiff of the Mediterranean. The Altamont bills itself as a budget luxury hotel — flatscreen TVs, quality linen, air-con and free wi-fi — but it also has the homely feel of a B&B. It charms you into turning a blind eye to imperfections — small bathrooms, for example — and embracing its jumble of arts flyers and mini courtyards.

Rooms: Doubles from A$157 (£104). 207 Darlinghurst Road. T: 00 61 2 9360 6000.
X-factor: Unmistakable personality at a reasonable price.

Best for flamboyance: The Medusa
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 1930's Miami about it too — the 17 rooms have art deco furnishings and there's a little reflection pool next to the sun loungers in the inner courtyard. The bright pink stucco walls are very Darlinghurst, though. Very glam.

Rooms: Doubles from A$195 (£130). 267 Darlinghurst Road. T: 00 61 2 9331 1000. 

Best for night owls: Quest Potts Point
This handful of serviced apartments 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, though, is the rooftop terrace with superlative views of the city — it's perfect for a couple of beers before heading out.

Rooms: Doubles from A$138 (£92). 15 Springfield Avenue. T: 00 61 2 8988 6999. 

Sydney CBD

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 — 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 hangouts near Martin Place. It's a living city centre — in recent years, waves of highly individual small bars have opened up in once-deserted laneways, injecting much needed life and character.

We recommend: The Establishment
The first task is to find it. The Establishment is tucked down one of the little lanes that deviate from Sydney's otherwise nice, simple grid pattern. The hidden-away aspect is one of the reasons it's a bit of a celeb hangout (Florence + the Machine stayed here when in town), although the marriage of luxury and rare individuality are also a large part of its appeal. The hotel has only 31 rooms; all within a heritage-listed former warehouse complex, complete with wooden roof beams and exposed brick. Rooms come with yoga mats, earplugs and free cookies. Everyone's given an iPad for the duration of their stay, and in a city where most hotels think it's acceptable to charge $25-plus (£16) a day for internet access, wi-fi is mercifully free.

Rooms: Doubles from A$299 (£199). 5 Bridge Lane. T: 00 61 2 9240 3100.
X-factor: The scrupulous attention to detail.

Best for backpackers: Bounce Sydney
Bounce has got backpacker accommodation just right. That means shower cubicles rather than curtains 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 communal rooftop area with ultra-comfy beanbags.

Rooms: Dorm beds from A$37 (£25), en suite doubles from $149 (£100). 28 Chalmers Street. T: 00 61 2 9281 2222. 

Best for families: Swissotel Sydney
This 359-room beast, on the edge of the Pitt Street Mall, is right in the heart of the action. Yet head up to the rooftop pool and it feels surprisingly tranquil. Parents should have their eye on the interconnecting kids' rooms — for an extra $60 (£39) they'll be transformed with cuddly toys, kiddy-size desks and DVDs plus minibars crammed with chocolate and milk.

Rooms: Doubles from £178. 68 Market Street. T: 00 61 2 9238 8888. 

Published in the October 2012 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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