The Insider Guide to Sydney

The Insider Guide to Sydney

Stylebible goes Down Under
By:
Elliot Wilson
Not so long ago, Australia’s cultural capital was deemed to be Melbourne. The Victorian city, with its warmer climate and more robust infrastructure, hosted the Summer Olympics in 1956, and was at the heart of Australia’s economic miracle over the next thirty-plus years. Yet since then Sydney has hosted another Summer Games (2000), and a Rugby World Cup final (2003). Melbourne may still have the big annual tennis and motor-racing shindigs, but Sydney’s booming banking sector and its more vibrant dining-and-dancing scene have turned this into the country’s most vibrant urban centre.  
 
Sydney has plenty of good hotels, and a scattering of great ones (see the Langham). It has a still-small but thriving high-end shopping district (Paddington), and many of the country’s premier restaurants, the best of which fuse the best of Australasian, South Asian and East Asian dishes and ingredients. Plus, there is the Opera House, the vast iron-clad Harbour Bridge, and the golden reaches of Bondi beach: three iconic global venues within a few miles of one another. If you live in New York or London, or even Singapore or Hong Kong, Sydney can feel like a long way to travel – and, indeed, it is. But by any measure, it’s more than worth the journey. 
 
Where to Stay
 
The Langham Sydney
www.langhamhotels.com | 89-113 Kent Street | Tel: +61 2 9256 2222
 
Sydney is a curious place, in that it is a mecca for tourists, and crammed with great things to do, yet virtually all of its hotels cater to the needs of the city’s banking industry. This makes finding a truly relaxing place in which stay, beyond the skyscraper-hotels in the central business district, a tough ask. Enter the Langham. Based on Kent Street, this is a low-rise gem, drafting in the usual pink-and-cream décor and the ginger-flower infusions found in all Langham residencies, but adding its own take on the Sydney experience. Australians are personable and will go out of their way to help, and Jordie was one of the best concierges that Stylebible has ever encountered. We stayed in one of the Grand Langham Rooms, and immediately fell in love with the sheer size of the place and its bed – soft, large and with rich cotton sheets that offer a seriously high thread count. Double-double doors between you and the corridors limit the noise if you want to decompress after a long flight, and while the fitness and spa services are a little mixed, guests can swim in the generously sized pool, and use the well-appointed gym, as well as the full-size championship tennis court located across the road. The food, too, is great: afternoon tea with Wedgewood bone china is a must-do for visitors, while the breakfast is probably the best we encountered down-under. But it is the little touches that endear the Langham. As ever, they care a little more than their peers. It’s the excellence of the staff, the photographic memory of the concierge, and the dog-friendly signs (a pink-coloured, Langham-themed drinking bowl sits in pride of place outside the main glass doors for thirsty pups). This places knocks lumps out of its competitors and is, hands down, our favourite hotel in the city. (Read the full review here)
 
 
Ovolo 1888 Darling Harbour
www.ovolohotels.com | 139 Murray Street, Pyrmont | Tel: +61 2 8586 1888
 
The Ovolo, to my mind, is the ultimate city hotel. Would that its network spread beyond Hong Kong and southern Australia to, say, London, Paris and New York. Perhaps – hopefully – in time. For these are great little places to stay, assuming you can snag a reservation (they often full up fast). Every outlet is different. The one in Noho in Hong Kong is all faux-epoxy-resin-coated, bright whites and deep reds, a modern artist’s dream. In Darling Harbour, management have opted for the inside-out approach, which also lends a pleasant throwback 1980s feel, with its internal brickwork and the prominent glass lifts. We loved the Ovolo for three reasons. First, location. Murray Street is not as central as many of the big-brand hotels, with their soaring spires at the heart of the financial district. But it’s 10 minutes by taxi from Circular Quay and the Sydney Opera House or – if you have another 20 minutes to spare, as we did, a highly pleasant round-the-houses ferry-boat excursion. Second, its blend of convenience and price. We were on the return leg of a long sweep of the southern hemisphere when we arrived and price had, to an extent, started to impinge on our thinking. The Ovolo is very reasonably priced, though that fact doesn’t transform it into a budget hotel. Quite the opposite: you can choose anything from a ‘Shoebox’-sized room, which is not for the claustrophobic, right up through the Queen and King (our choice) rooms, to the ‘Stirred’ suite, with its panoramic city views and rooftop patio. All the rooms come equipped with pop-art daubs in the Lichtenstein mould, brightening up the overall décor and each room no end. Third, the service. There were issues – the breakfast was frankly awful, cold and overcooked (quite the double whammy) but the concierge and the staff were wonderfully helpful, giving us very good advice about what to see, and sorting out baggage and taxis and a late check-out. The dining area is a very nice touch for an affordable hotel, with its internal bar, offering free day-round refreshments, a happy hour, and the Lo Lounge, a social area designed for kicking back and relaxing. This is where you go when you are in town for a couple of nights, and want a good location without breaking the bank. There aren’t – yet – many other options in Sydney like it. 
 
Where to Eat 
 
Saké Bar & Restaurant, The Rocks
www.sakerestaurant.com | 12 Argyle Street, The Rocks | Tel: +61 2 9259 565
 
A short walk from Circular Quay, Saké Bar & Restaurant is a delight, fusing together the best of Japanese cuisine and Australia’s decades-old obsession with the freshest possible seafood. Saké is a short walk from the trains and ferries of Circular Quay, and also a haven for foodies – the street outside is home to myriad farmers markets and street stalls most weekends. But the true magic is found in Saké, which should be first on your tick-list of places to eat in this remarkable city. Filled with quiet chatter from doors-open to closing time, Saké pretty much covers all the bases. The quiet, busy chatter that pervades the intelligent internal décor, which mixes modernism with classic Japanese style, is popular with the financial lunch crowd, busy at weekend brunchtime, and a great place to bring friends or your significant other. And the food is just heavenly, leaving its mark on every part of the tongue and brain. We had edamame to start, followed by kingfish jalapeño and, in our view, the best dish on the list, the tuna ceviche. Kingfish and eel sashimi followed along with spider maki. A special shout-out to the chefs, too, for the dumplings, which are always hard to get right, but the steamed prawn and oiled wagyu dumplings were the best I’ve had outside Shanghai. Everything was washed down with some excellent local dry pinot grigio and a cold-as-ice local craft beer, Three Sheets Pale Ale, brewed two hundred yards away at the Lord Nelson pub. Those with a yen for sake should also heed the establishment’s name: if you are an aficionado of rice wine, this is where you should come. Japanese wines and spirits are enjoying a well-earned revival around the world, and Saké offers one of the largest ranges outside Asia. 
 
Rockpool
www.rockpool.com | 11 Bridge Street | Tel: +61 2 9252 1888
 
If you like your food world-class and your surroundings casual-but-grand, then Rockpool is your place. Australian superchef Neil Perry relocated from the Rocks to Bridge Street in 2013, expanding into a fabulously grand old 1901 building once owned by shipping merchants Burns Philp. Inside, everything is moody and dark, with cast-iron fluted columns leading up to a high, pressed-metal ceiling. The main floor seats 75, the mezzanine balcony 30, and there is private dining for 12. There is something tangibly New York about the place, whether or not by design, thanks to the Art Deco pillars and engravings, and the sandstone and granite superstructure. Yet the ambience is determinedly Australian: for all its gentle grandiosity, Rockpool retains a determinedly smart-casual vibe that attracts diners with a bit of extra money, and who appreciate great food and wine. This is place you come to impress: your partner, a date, your in-laws, yourself, a business client. Then there is the food. We arrived with a serious hunger and were directed immediately to our tables. Orders were taken super-quick – a blessing in a country with such a relaxed attitude to life. We ordered the oysters, a combination that we could have eaten three times over, they were outstanding, and they were followed by two large inch-thick Aberdeen Angus steaks. The food was superb, the service was impeccable - before you'd thought of something, it arrived. We loved it.
 
Where to Drink
 
Opera Bar, Sydney Opera House
http://operabar.com.au | Lower Concourse Level, Sydney Opera House | Tel: +61 2 9247 1666
 
We ambled up to the Opera Bar with no expectations and a half-hour to spare before seeing Florence + the Machine live outside the billowing concrete sails of the Opera House itself. (Word to the wise: listening to live music while staring out at Sydney Harbour Bridge is an amazing experience, but make sure you get right up close to the stage as strict city noise-reduction laws reduce the enjoyment from the cheap-seats further back). But the Opera House surprised us by being seriously fun, full of hip kids and reasonably hip older types all staring out at the water while guzzling champagne, making big, happy, sweaty talk, and chomping away on very tasty meat and cheeseboard. 
 
The Village Inn
http://thevillageinn.com.au | 9-11 Glenmore Rd, Paddington | Tel: +61 2 9331 0911
 
Paddington is fast becoming a haven for Sydney’s fashionistas. It’s a small district, to be sure – more of a districtette, but it’s got chops and ambitions, and the well-tailored increasingly find their feet leading them here come Saturday afternoon (see Where to Shop). Yet there’s another reason to come up here, and that’s the Village Inn. Sydney’s drinking establishments are typically upscale bars or low-brow hotels-cum-pubs, but the Village Inn has a more modern feel: British country pub-cum-New York craft beer speakeasy. There’s a wide range of craft and more mainstream beers on tap, plus a solid range of whites and reds for oenophiles. The food isn’t too shabby either, ranging from a tasty Reuben with sauerkraut and gruyere cheese, to staple starters (fried calamari, shoestring fries) to beer-battered flathead fish and chips and an excellent cheeseboard. Cosy up in one of the leather-lined booths, hunker up to the bar, or gaze through the open shutters as the shoppers pootle past outside. 
 
Where to Shop
 
Shopping - there isn't an abundance of great shopping in Sydney, but if you are looking for designer threads then head to Intersection in Paddington where you will find a host of designer boutiques including Zimmerman, and if you have a boyfriend or husband in tow drop him off at the Village Inn. I feel you should write this part sweetheart. I really wouldn’t know where to start. Again, happy to edit what you write. Maybe include the Aboriginal art place we bought at?
 
What to Do
 
  1. You will need a full week and perhaps longer to see everything Sydney has to offer, but perhaps the best piece of advice is to start at the middle and then spread out, visiting the quieter and more far-flung parts of this grandiose city toward the end of your stay. To start with, head to Circular Quay to marvel at the Sydney Opera House – surprisingly ugly and stained up close but a marvel of architectural wonder and enduring style when viewed from afar. For perhaps the best view, take a guided tour up Sydney Harbour Bridge. Those with vertigo may find this a terrifying experience – and members of the Flat Earth society may get a thrill at the feeling of walking off the end of the globe. The guided tour is not cheap, but it is super-safe and, despite the fear-factor, no visit is complete without a bridge tour. 
     
  2. For the chill-out factor, head for a long walk around the Royal Botanic Gardens, filled with joggers, tourists, strollers, picnickers, wide green spaces, and (of course) a serious collection of trees. Then hop in an Uber and get a lift out to Bondi beach, then wander around the headlands to Bronte beach. It’s a short trip – an hour if you walk, two if you stroll – and it also offers the opportunity of a cheeky drink or two (try Mr Moustache on Bondi for cocktails, and Three Blue Ducks on Bronte for wine and nibbles). 
     
  3. Australia is a hugely sporty nation thanks to its great food, big skies and fresh air, so if you have the time, and depending on the time of the year, get involved, whether as participant or observer. Like rugby? Tick. Cricket? It’s not for everyone, but for the speeded-up version, head to Spotless Stadium or the SCG to bathe in the thrill-a-minute Big Bash League, a two-hour cricket fest provided by the Sydney Sixers and the Sydney Thunder. Come January, gaze in wonder as the harbour fills with superyachts engaged in the Sydney-to-Hobart race. Sydney also hosts fun-runs, marathons, and triathlons galore: health tourism is big business here and for good reason. 
     
  4. Finally, a few pot-luck options. For an excellent morning bite to eat, head to the BarCycle café on Hickson Road, a few minutes walk from the Rocks. A must for cycling nuts, the place is bike-themed but also offers excellent coffee, juices, and a hearty steak-and-eggs.
     
  5. If you want to shake the city from your shoes, jump on a ferry boat at Circular Quay and head out to Manly and the wide-open and often deserted Northern Beaches. In culture terms, you can’t look much beyond the Art Gallery of New South Wales on Art Gallery Road, and the Aboriginal Heritage Museum in Northbridge, which offers an eye-opening insight on how colonialists affected the local landscape and indigenous cultures, and celebrates Australia’s rich history. 
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