I haven’t seen them all, so it’s hard to say whether Sydney Harbour is the most picturesque of the world’s harbours. Admittedly, Hong Kong, Cape Town, and San Francisco that I have seen are spectacular, but Sydney Harbour does have many magical qualities that may just nudge the others from the top position.

Anyone who has taken a harbour ferry from Circular Quay near the city centre to the seaside suburb of Manly on the northern side of Sydney Harbour will agree it’s one of the world’s great ferry journeys.

All manner of craft traverses the harbour, from grand ocean-going cruise liners to stand-up paddle boards, ferries, and yachts.

Each harbourside precinct has its unique character, and while many are premium residential suburbs, others are accessible public spaces with parks, beaches, trails, restaurants, and bars.

Iconic landmarks

Explore harbour highlights like the Sydney Opera House on a Captain Cook Cruise.

There are no two better-known structures in Australia than the Sydney Opera House and its Harbour Bridge. They both stand tall in the city and have contributed to luring tourists from all around the world to travel Down Under to admire them.

Both of these tourist landmarks are located within walking distance of each other in an area of Sydney that includes both Circular Quay and the historic precinct known as The Rocks. Circular Quay is where cruise ships berth and ferries depart for various parts of the harbour and upriver to Parramatta.

Ferries depart to various parts of the harbour from Circular Quay.

Thousands of commuters disembark at Circular Quay from various vessels that operate on Sydney Harbour. Some arrive in a flotilla of ferries, while others come via Circular Quay train station or water taxis.

Visitors using public transport will need to purchase an Opal Card, a touch-and-go card used on all modes of public transportation. These can be purchased from convenience stores and are free but require a minimum top-up of AUD20 (roughly RM60).

A ferry journey to Manly is an essential Sydney Harbour activity.

Circular Quay is more than a ferry terminal; its promenade constantly buzzes with activity. Ferries depart for Manly from Wharf 2A or 3 every 30 minutes, and these are the best ferries to admire the harbourside sights. They pass the Opera House, Mrs Macquarie’s Chair, Shark Island, exclusive eastern suburbs homes, and across the heads and the open sea before pulling into Manly.

Sydney Harbour Bridge from Manly Ferry.

Fast ferries cover the journey in 20 minutes, but the bigger and slower ferries are the best to take. Be one of the first to board the boat to ensure a seat on the outside deck.

Other places to visit on a ferry include Taronga Park Zoo, Darling Harbour, Cremorne, Lane Cove, and Parramatta. The shortest ferry journey is across the harbour to Jeffrey Street Wharf in North Sydney for superb views back towards the city skyline.

Seeing the sights

If the budget allows, take a seaplane flight over Sydney Harbour.

Many parts of the harbour are also accessible on foot, and many venues can be freely visited. The Museum of Contemporary Art at Circular Quay is one of the best-located art galleries in the world.

Its inspiring artwork is displayed in the beautiful old sandstone building once home to the Maritime Services Board. Famous works by Lichtenstein and Warhol are displayed alongside the best local contemporary artists.

The Botanic Gardens adjoin Circular Quay, and the Opera House and the floral displays are spectacular. Walk across the parklands to the Art Gallery of NSW, where great masters are displayed, and there is no entry fee except for major exhibitions.

Walk across the Harbour Bridge to the northern side of the harbour for the city’s best views.

Some visitors walk over the Harbour Bridge, while others climb over its iconic arch. It is free to walk from the city to North Sydney; from here, you can return to the city by train or ferry. The Bridge Climb is a more expensive proposition, but surely a memorable climb.

There are many experiences for the 3.5-hour exercise and an endless checklist to complete. For example, nothing can be taken (that’s right, no phones), and you will be breathalysed to ensure you are sober. However, the experience ensures bragging rights forever.

Beauty Down Under: Sydney’s Most Picturesque Harbour
The harbour’s best view is from the top of the Harbour Bridge on a Bridge Climb.

Explore the old terrace houses, warehouses, docks around the Rocks, and atmospheric pubs like the Orient, Glenmore, Fortune of War, Lord Nelson, and the Hero of Waterloo. Most serve meals as well as refreshing beverages.

Continue on foot from The Rocks into the parklands of Barangaroo Reserve where you’ll come face to face with the dominant landmark Crown Sydney entertainment and hotel complex facing Darling Harbour. Darling Harbour is home to the restaurant precincts of King Street Wharf and Cockle Bay Wharf. The Sydney Aquarium and the Australian National Maritime Museum are also situated here.

Absorbing action and adventure

Endless activities are waiting on the water, from sedate-guided cruises to madcap jetboating jaunts at breakneck speed across the harbour. You can sail in a yacht, kayak across quiet backwaters, swim at beaches or pools like the Murray Rose Pool, or visit some of the historic islands in the harbour.

Oz Jetboating Sydney delivers the biggest adrenaline rush.

Perhaps the most thrilling harbourside adventure is jet-boating with Oz Jetboating. As you kit up with head-to-toe raincoats, you just know this will be no ordinary boat ride. Jet boats are named for their speed, and as you see the smile on the driver’s face, you know you are in for a slam-dunking adventure.

The fun starts on the open water just beyond Circular Quay. An abrupt stop means that the rear of the boat pivots around 180 degrees in a monstrous spray of water. Onboard music adds to the sheer excitement as the jet boat sways and sprays its way over the harbour to the passengers’ thrill.

Taronga Park Zoo, on the North Shore, is possibly the world’s best-located zoo in the world. It’s the place to get close to animals, especially some of Australia’s iconic species. In addition, Wild Ropes Treetops Adventure is a series of challenges where participants negotiate wires stretched between gum trees, cross divides on obstacles of ropes and poles that sway in all directions, and then zip-line between stations while zoo-goers watch in amazement.

Harbour lifestyle

Sydney is a popular port of call for cruise ships.

Stylish restaurants, cafes, and rooftop bars vie for the best venues to absorb all the harbour offers. Many attain stratospheric proportions for their location and bill at the meal’s end. The finest restaurants include Quay, Aria, and Bennelong, with all requiring a reservation well in advance.

Away from the CBD, Sails on Lavender Bay and Doyles on the Beach at Watsons Bay are legendary dining locations. The fish ‘n chips at Doyles on the Wharf are within the budget of most visitors. The adjoining beer garden of the Watsons Bay Hotel is the place to be on a summer’s day.

Waking up to harbour views

As a general rule, the closer you stay to Sydney Harbour and the higher the floor, the higher the tariff you will pay for your hotel room. Sydney is not a cheap destination; even a dormitory bed at Sydney Harbour Youth Hostel Australia can be costly.

Park Hyatt Sydney sits at the base of the southern pylon of the Harbour Bridge with uninterrupted views of the Opera House. In bygone days, ocean liners were the main way for visitors to arrive in Sydney.

Hotels such as Ovolo Woolloomooloo are located over the water on an old finger wharf.

Several old wooden piers have been repurposed as chic hotels, with the Ovolo Woolloomooloo perched over the water in Sydney Cove. Pier One Sydney occupies a magical location beside the water below the Sydney Harbour Bridge.

For a conventional, 5-star luxury hotel, you can’t beat the Sofitel Sydney Darling Harbour, especially its club floor rooms with access to Club Millésime and all its club privileges.

Stay over the water at properties like Pier One Sydney Harbour Hotel.

While Sydney is no longer a cheap destination, budget travellers can still enjoy many activities. Stay with friends or choose accommodation in the suburbs and travel into the city for sightseeing.

The harbour especially comes alive with the staging of numerous events and celebrations, such as screening images onto the Sydney Opera House sails. Vivid is a kaleidoscopic series of events, illuminations, and concerts that light up Sydney’s winter skies. Lavish firework displays welcome the whole world to the New Year.

Take in the harbour lights of Sydney during Vivid Sydney. (Image credit: Destination NSW.)

The start of the blue-water yachting classic, the Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race, is flagged off on Sydney Harbour on 26 December each year. Vantage points on the water and around its foreshore are at a premium as the super-maxi yachts head through Sydney Heads.

Wherever you look, the view is always sublime!

*All images courtesy of the author unless specified otherwise.