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On the water: eight must-try activities in Sydney

Take to the water in Australia's largest city, savouring the charms of its inlets, islands and harbour on these eight adventurous tours — from scuba diving to whale watching and kayaking at sunrise.

Published 15 Dec 2019, 06:00 GMT
Kayakers under the Sydney Harbour Bridge at sunrise
There are few more things quintessentially Sydey than sipping a latte on a kayak while watching the sunrise on the water.
Photograph by Chris Van Hoe

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.

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

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