The global spread of the coronavirus is disrupting travel. Stay up to date on the science behind the outbreak>>

Changing tides: redefining Sydney's iconic waterfronts

Australia’s largest city is built around ocean inlets, beaches and an iconic harbour, but changing economic and environmental tides are shifting the shape of its landscape.

By Shaney Hudson
photographs by Chris Van Hove
Published 16 Jan 2020, 07:00 GMT
Kayaking beneath the Sydney Harbour Bridge at dawn
Kayaking beneath the Sydney Harbour Bridge at dawn.
Photograph by Chris Van Hove

The city is stirring. We set out just as the sky begins to blush, turning the bay an oily pink. There is little traffic out on the harbour this early, but our passage requires precision: in a fluorescent line, we wait patiently for our moment, droplets of water dripping from our kayak paddles, phones tucked away, all eyes on our guide. 

The 06.22 Milsons Point ferry passes, and it’s time; buoyed by the strong currents and bobbing in the wake of the ferry, we paddle under the Sydney Harbour Bridge just as the sun rises, filling the bay with gold. Every rivet and beam refracts the light and, despite previously having seen the bridge from almost every angle, gliding underneath its metal underbelly fills me with awe. 

With its beguiling harbour and shining beaches, Sydney is the kind of place that leaves an impression. However, away from the harbour, along its main arteries and beneath the ground, the capital of New South Wales is in a state of metamorphosis: a new light rail network is under construction, extending from the Central Business District (CBD) to the east; a motorway is being built to the west; and Sydney Metro, Australia’s biggest public transport project, is set to deliver 31 new metro stations and more than 40 miles of new railway. The city is a construction zone. 

And yet, the water that curves through Sydney’s sandstone core seem to wash away all its din and sin. The Pacific Ocean laps its eastern coastline, the harbour spills in at Port Jackson, and Parramatta River pushes beyond the bridge to the geographic heart of a city that won’t stop growing. 

Everyone wants a piece of Sydney. Some buy in, spending millions on a harbourside property; others fly in, selfie stick in hand. But, despite this being one of the world’s most expensive places to live, the best things about Sydney are free — namely its waterways and coastlines, from Smugglers Track at Palm Beach in the north to the Figure Eight Pools at Burning Palms Beach in the south. 

But that doesn’t mean it hasn’t been meddled with. Remarkably, over 50% of the harbour foreshore has been artificially constructed, and parts of the coastline have also been irreversibly changed. 

There are more man-made ocean pools here than in any other city in the world, carved into the cliffs, rocky outcrops and beaches. Some, like Mahon Pool at Maroubra, are set close to grassy nature reserves; others, like the pool at Bondi Icebergs Club, lie metres from high-end bars and fine-dining restaurants. 

No matter their pedigree, however, nature is the greatest equaliser: Sydney’s ocean pools are all battered in bad weather and flooded by heavy swells, with the odd fish, stingray or even shark ending up in their waters. 

Boat-building in Lavender Bay. Although boats have been constructed here for more than a century, this is the last remaining workshop of its kind in Sydney.
Photograph by Chris Van Hove

Originally built for competitive swimming, to improve safety and as a Depression-era employment project, ocean pools have emerged as one of the city’s most unique features. Another striking aspect of Sydney’s architecture is its finger wharves, at Walsh Bay and Woolloomooloo — a legacy of the city’s maritime industry. 

“The finger wharves in Sydney are unique; [they’re] perhaps Australia’s first innovation in terms of architecture,” says Eoghan Lewis of Sydney Architecture Walks. When it was built in 1915, the wharf at Woolloomooloo was the largest timber structure in the world. Slated for demolition in the 1980s, it has now found new life as a luxury hotel, marina and residences.

Throughout Sydney, these tiny pockets of maritime history remain. Beneath the railway arches in the harbourside suburb of Lavender Bay, the open doors of a shed reveal a timber ship being built by hand. Although boats have been constructed here for more than a century, this is the last remaining workshop of its kind in Sydney. The carpenter sits on an upturned blue milk crate, using a mallet and chisel to slowly shape the keel. 

““Sydney is rather like an arrogant lover. When it rains it can deny you its love and you can find it hard to relate to. It’s not a place that’s built to be rainy or cold. But when the sun comes out, it bats its eyelids, it’s glamorous, beautiful, attractive, smart, and it’s very hard to get away from its magnetic pull.” ”

by Baz Luhrman

Although the development has opened up the harbour to the public, it’s come at a price. In the past few years, more than 600 social housing tenants living in the local area around Millers Point and nearby The Rocks have been forced out of their homes; the subsequent sale of 193 properties generated A$608 million (£325 million) for the state government and changed the demographic of the neighbourhood forever. 

As industry has wound down, parts of the foreshore have opened up. Barangaroo, located just west of the Harbour Bridge, is the city’s shiniest, and perhaps most controversial, new development. Until 2006, the 22-hectare area was a disused container terminal; in 2015, the six-hectare Barangaroo Reserve was opened to the public — albeit with significant modifications to the original plans, including an increased amount of space for commercial use, the addition of a casino and private apartments, and significantly less public parkland than had originally been proposed. Walking through the meticulously landscaped area, replanted with 75,000 native trees and shrubs, it’s hard to get past the irony of an upmarket dining area in a spot that was known as ‘The Hungry Mile’ during the Great Depression. 

Bronte Ocean Pool. There are more man-made ocean pools in Sydney than in any other city in the world, carved into the cliffs, rocky outcrops and beaches.
Photograph by Chris Van Hove

Saving Sydney
In certain areas across the city where politics has come up short, the public has stood their ground to save their patch of land — and nowhere has been a greater success story than Wendy’s Secret Garden. Increasingly embraced by international visitors, Wendy’s Secret Garden was a place born from mourning. After the death of her artist husband Brett Whiteley, Sydney resident Wendy Whiteley began clearing the invasive species, abandoned refrigerators, tossed beer bottles and scrub from the disused railway near her property in Lavender Bay, transforming it into a magnificent garden filled with sculptures and birdlife. Despite the area blossoming into a much-treasured Sydney retreat, however, it remained government-owned land; its future wasn’t secured until 2015, when the New South Wales Government agreed to hand over the site on a 30-year renewable lease in recognition of its importance to the community. 

Similarly, Chowder Bay, a former military base on the city’s north shore, was opened to the public as a result of intense lobbying by community advocacy groups; it has been maintained by the Harbour Trust since 2000 and has become one of Sydney’s best macro dive sites. Smaller creatures including seahorses and weedy seadragons thrive around its pier, although the reason for this is manmade rather than natural: the concentrated fishing that takes place around the wharf means there are no predators left to eat them. 

Slipping on a snorkel and mask, I wade in, passing stingrays resting in the sandy flats and beds of green seaweed. I follow the net until eventually I find magic in the water: a tiny seahorse, its tail curled in a spiral around the net, just metres from shore, unseen by the fisherman casting a line above. 

Recreational fishing is still popular in the harbour. The state government recommends a ‘catch and release’ practice for anything caught west of the Harbour Bridge, but that doesn’t seem to deter the fishermen who cast a line off Milson’s Point each morning. 

Close to where they fish, a series of hexagon-shaped tiles hug the sandstone foreshore. Visible at low tide from any ferry departing Circular Quay, they’re easily mistaken for a quirky art project. In fact, this is Living Seawalls, an initiative by Sydney Institute of Marine Science, designed to make the harbour a healthier place. The tiles mimic the natural root system of the mangroves that once existed here and are designed to colonise organisms that filter particles and pollutants out of the water. 

“Sydney Harbour is unique, because despite the challenges it has with the building work, boat traffic and cruise liners, the actual water quality is very good,” says Richard Nicholls, owner of Dive Centre Manly. 

Visitors need look no further than the World Heritage-listed Opera House to see for themselves — for the past few years, the northern steps have been the favoured stomping ground of a wild, long-nosed seal. 

Sydney has always been a place for wildlife. A robust fairy penguin colony exists off Manly Cove and over 20,000 whales migrate past the city each winter — but a new venture by Taronga Zoo aims to bring visitors even closer to nature. 

Opened in October 2019, the new 64-room Wildlife Retreat at Taronga is built around The Sanctuary, an animal enclosure home to echidnas, potoroos and wallabies. The retreat is so enticing, even the wildlife have moved in, including a ring-tailed possum we shoo out of the lift on our way to dinner. However, it’s at night, when the gates close and Sydney goes dark, that the retreat comes into its own. Braving the chill, I open the sliding glass doors and find a koala perched at eye-level. Wallabies bounce across the enclosure and possums scamper along the fence. 

But slowly, the harbour draws us back. The view is hypnotic. Ferries roll across the bay, the water shimmering around them like an apparition, and skyscrapers blink slowly against the dark sky. Anchoring it all is the Harbour Bridge; tiny pinpricks of moving light blurring the road as cars cross the threshold between north and south, its pylons standing sentinel and its arch lit in flickering colours that fade in and out, like the heartbeat of the city. 

The new 64-room Wildlife Retreat at Taronga is built around The Sanctuary, an animal enclosure home to echidnas, potoroos and wallabies.
Photograph by Chris Van Hove

Top 8 Sydney's watery activities

Manly Ferry
For many tourists, sailing past major landmarks en route to Manly, a beachside suburb of northern Sydney, is a highlight of their visit. For locals, meanwhile, the route is a vital transport link, with many Manly residents commuting via ferry daily. The iconic green-and-gold Freshwater-class ferries are set to be retired, however, so take a ride while you can. 

When it’s too cold to swim in the sea, it’s time to watch for whales. Between April and November, humpback whales migrate north along Australia’s eastern coast, passing Sydney. While you can easily spot the creatures from the headlands and beaches, heading out on a whale-watching boat with an operator like Go Whale Watching is the best way to see them up close as they breach, flipper-slap and tail-fluke.  

Dive in
Manly Dive Centre, just a short walk from the Manly ferry wharf, offers daily dives at Cabbage Tree Bay Aquatic Reserve, off Shelly Beach. This is one of the city’s best dive sites, and the reserve’s ‘no take’ aquatic policy has seen local marine life prosper, with everything from sharks to stingrays and friendly blue groupers calling the bay home; there are even occasional visits from dolphins. 

Welcome to country
Sydney’s La Perouse suburb is one of the best places to connect with Aboriginal culture. Here, Kadoo Tours’ refreshing First Contact tour, run by local Indigenous guides, includes a ‘welcome to country’ and a traditional ochre ceremony. Every three months, the Blak Markets take place nearby Kamay Botany Bay National Park on Bear Island, showcasing Indigenous arts and crafts. Meanwhile, back in the city centre, a seven-minute light projection called Badu-Gili (water-light), is projected onto the Opera House at sunset every day. 

Cockatoo Island
Sydney’s biggest island has had previous incarnations as a convict prison, a reform school, a naval shipyard and a movie set, but most recently it’s been reinvented as an urban campground, with permanent tents set up close to the water. Public ferries whisk visitors to the site, barbecues can be booked in advance and audio guides are offered to day-trippers.

Sunset drinks
Gazing over the water with a drink in hand while the sun sets is an Australian national pastime, and it would be a cultural faux pas not to partake. The beer garden at Watsons Bay Boutique Hotel and floating beach club The Island both rate a mention, but Opera Bar, sunk below the Sydney Opera House and offering unobstructed views to the Harbour Bridge, is the city’s best spot for a sundowner.     

Sydney by kayak
There are few things more quintessentially Sydney than a kayak with a built-in coffee cup-holder — and nothing better than sipping a latte while watching the sunrise on the water. Running 365 days a year, Sydney by Kayak’s sustainable tours include sunrise tours (as well as morning tours at a more civilised hour), ice cream tours (just pop your gelato in your coffee cup-holder) and, for those keen to pitch in and keep the harbour beautiful, a clean-up paddle tour, collecting rubbish from around Lavender Bay.

From the day the first European fleet arrived at Sydney Cove, the city’s economic, social and cultural lines were drawn: officers camped to the east, while convicts camped to the west. Focusing on the political, historic, cultural and social forces that have shaped the city, Sydney Architecture Tour’s three-hour narrative-driven Harbourings expedition takes in the Opera House, the Sirius building and the Walsh Bay finger wharf precinct and will change the way you see the city. 

The urban campsite on Cockatoo Island, Sydney’s biggest island.
Photograph by Chris Van Hove

Q&A with Serge Dansereau, chef at Bathers’ Pavilion, Balmoral Beach

What’s your best memory of Sydney?
They’re all out on the water. I like boating and swimming with my son Sasha, and we’re sometimes fortunate enough in the quieter winter months to spot dolphins from our boat. It’s magic.

What’s your Sydney Secret?
The Manly to Spit walk is my go-to when wanting to experience Sydney at its best. It’s a nice way to show friends and visitors everything that’s beautiful about our nature and foreshore.

Where do you go to eat?
Sydney is an extremely vibrant place to eat, with very talented chefs offering unique and stylish restaurants. I like to eat locally to where I live in the northern beaches, so I go to Manly’s Saké Restaurant and Bar or Queen Chow restaurants.

How does the water influence your food?
I write menus with seafood sustainability in mind. I use Australian ocean produce like Murray cod, mud crab, marron or King George whiting and locally foraged sea lettuce to create a local food destination.


Getting there & around
British Airways, Cathay Pacific, Qantas, Singapore Airlines, Thai Airways and Virgin Australia are among the airlines that fly to Sydney via their respective hubs.              

Average flight time: 24h.

Sydney Airport has direct train, taxi and bus connections to the CBD. 

Sydney is served by an extensive network of public transport options, including light rail, buses, metro and ferries.

Trip Planner is useful for planning trips on public transport.

When to go
Sydney has an average temperature of 25C in summer and 17C in winter. For sea swimming, the water temperature is best between December and early June. 

More info
Welcome to Country: A Travel Guide to Indigenous Australia by Marcia Langton (Explore Australia, RRP: £22.99)

How to do it
offers flights from London to Sydney via Hong Kong with Cathay Pacific from £728; four nights at the Sydney Harbour YHA in a premium private double room with harbour views costs from A$636.60 (£341).   

Read about eight must-try water activities in Sydney.

Published in the Jan/Feb 2020 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

Follow us on social media 

Twitter | Facebook | Instagram 

Read More

You might also like

How to spend a day in Budapest
A walking tour of Berlin's best museums
Five alternatives to Venice for an Italian city break
Three rivers, five ways: discover Pittsburgh via its waterways
The inside guide to Ottawa, Canada's buzzing capital

Explore Nat Geo

  • Animals
  • Environment
  • History & Culture
  • Science
  • Travel
  • Photography
  • Space
  • Adventure
  • Video

About us


  • Magazines
  • Newsletter
  • Disney+

Follow us

Copyright © 1996-2015 National Geographic Society. Copyright © 2015-2021 National Geographic Partners, LLC. All rights reserved