Sydney may be a city of five million people but it also has more than 400 hectares of natural harbor waterfront that is best accessed by a remarkable network of walking trails.
We can thank the early colonists’ fear of being invaded for the creation of the Sydney Harbour National Park, which was established in the 1970s when numerous military and naval installations on prime harbor-front property were decommissioned.
Today, in conjunction with a patchwork of local preserves, you can walk through stands of Sydney red gums, she oaks, heath land and sub-tropical rainforest alive with native bird life, explore fascinating historical sites and enjoy jaw-dropping harbour views. Not only that, there are aboriginal middens and rock art as well as secluded beaches far from the madding crowds. Many of the trails also pass alongside some downright spectacular waterfront mansions so you can get your fix of the lifestyles of the rich and famous too!
Taronga Zoo to Balmoral Beach:
History, harbor views, Sydney red gums, beaches and great restaurants are just some of the attractions on this walk.
Take a ferry from Circular Quay to Taronga Zoo and enjoy the vistas from Bradley Head National Park. Take the boardwalk through a stand of pink-barked Sydney red gums to a memorial mast for Australian ships lost at sea; then check out where a Japanese midget sub was sunk in WWII. Relax at Clifton Gardens park and beach before grabbing a bite at Bacino kiosk or the fancier Ripples Café in the refurbished Chowder Bay historic precinct.
Then climb up to George’s Headland where you can explore old military tunnels and marvel at the best view of the harbor from Manly to Double Bay before enjoying tea (or more) with a view at the Tea Rooms in the former Gunners’ Barracks. You’ll also see artists’ studios in the old WWI military hospital before taking the stairs through sub-tropical rainforest down to the broad sweep of Balmoral Bay, fringed by fig-tree-dotted parkland. There are some terrific cafes and fish and chip shops as well as the lovely Bathers’ Pavilion restaurant, in, yes, you guessed it a very elaborate former bath house.
Access: Bus at Spit Junction, Ferry at Taronga Wharf
Difficulty: 12.5 kilometers; extensive stairs
Manly to Spit Bridge Walk:
This walk offers marvelous diversity: views, secluded beaches, Aboriginal sites, and terrific places to nosh.
Start on the cliff-top at North Head, stop at pretty Shelley Beach and its popular Le Kiosk restaurant and then enjoy the delightful path alongside Cabbage Tree Bay adorned with eco sculptures of local sea creatures. Have a dip at the Fairy Bower rock pool and enjoy a meal at the snazzy Bower restaurant (which may have the best ocean views in Sydney). Then stroll past the Norfolk-pine-lined promenades behind the Manly ocean beach before taking the shop-lined pedestrian Corso to the Manly bay beach.
After meandering in front of harbor-front homes draped in bougainvillea, stop for a swim at secluded 40 Baskets Beach.
For sheer drama, walk along the cliff at Dobroyd Head with spectacular lookout views through the Heads to the Pacific Ocean then take a side trail to see the Grotto Point Lighthouse and Aboriginal rock art. Tiny, boulder-strewn Castle Rock beach is a hidden gem before you pass Clontarf Beach, wide Sandy Bay and the Aboriginal middens and sub-tropical rainforest around Fisher Bay.
Access: bus at Spit Bridge, ferry at Manly Wharf
Difficulty: 10 kilometers; medium difficulty
Hermitage Foreshore Track to Parsley Bay:
Tucked below two exclusive Eastern suburbs schools, this walk offers peaks at waterfront mansions and drop-dead views across the harbor from a trio of secluded beaches (Queens, Hermit, and Milk). Along a fragrant path and down a narrow set of stairs lies a sheltered cove with creamy white sand framed by peach-colored sandstone whittled by the water into swirling sculptures. Kayaks and rowboats rest under the shiny green leaves of fig trees where rainbow lorikeets chatter. Oysters cling to boulders at water’s edge. Sailboats bob at anchor.
Surprisingly, this is no remote island idyll, for across a vast expanse of blue water are the unmistakable outlines of the Sydney Harbour Bridge and Opera House.
Explore rock pools, fish from headlands, and wander through pristine native bush with rare Nielsen Park she-oak and sunshine wattle. You’ll also pass by historic Strickland House and the Gothic Greycliffe House with its parterre gardens.
Nielsen Park has a wide sandy beach with shark netting, and the Nielsen Park Café offers gelato and lattes plus bistro fare. You can continue along shady streets to historic Vaucluse House and enjoy a cuppa in its tearooms before heading to pretty Parsley Bay, with its quaint suspension bridge, netted swimming beach, playground and grassy fields.
Access: Bus stops at New South Head Road near Bayview Hill Road and on Hopetoun Avenue
Difficulty: 5 kilometers, easy
Bonus: Stay at the fully refurbished one-bedroom Steele Point Cottage (built as gunners’ barracks in the 1880s) perched on a sandstone cliff over the harbor
Watsons Bay to South Head:
With views, history, village lanes, and beaches this is another must-do Sydney walk.
Starting at Watsons Bay with its famous Doyles seafood restaurant spilling onto the pretty rowboat-dotted promenade, you pass renovated fishermen’s cottages lining village lanes to reach Camp Cove, a popular family beach. Then follow the South Head Heritage Trail along an 1870s cobblestone road to the clothes-optional Lady Jane Bay before visiting the historic Hornby Lighthouse and the military chapel at South Head where you can look through the stained glass windows to North Head.
On the return check out the historic gun emplacements and caretaker’s cottage in the Sydney Harbour National Park as well as walking along the cliff tops at The Gap.
Access: Bus or ferry at Watson’s Bay
Difficulty: 2.5 kilometers, easy
Transport information line: 131500
There are many other wonderful walks along Sydney Harbour and the ocean beaches to the north and south of the city. I would love to hear about your favorites.
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