Let me start by saying Sydney, in fact, Australia itself, was not high on my list of travel destinations. But when my son headed down under for a semester of study in Australia’s largest (barely) city, it seemed worthy of a visit, if for no other reason than to spend some bonding time adventuring in the Outback.

Actually, we never made it to the Outback. I had just a week to spend and it was simply too far out … and back.

Nevertheless, we found plenty to do in the Sydney area and I came away far more impressed by the city and surrounding countryside than I had anticipated. Along the way, we got the chance to hike down a waterfall, wander through one of the country’s wine regions, become indoctrinated in Australian rules football, down a beer at the oldest pub in the country (or was it?), and indulge in a sushi donut.

Ah, the sushi donut. More about that later.

Getting around

Super sprawling Sydney – the city’s footprint is nearly 10 times the size of Los Angeles – is home to just over 5 million people. Traveling through its center and outskirts can be slow going by car, involving mostly crowded surface-street driving. But getting around by bus and train is a relatively easy way to navigate the city. While some buses take cash, an Opal transit card is required on most forms of public transit, including ferries. Cards be purchased and “recharged” at major transit stations and convenience stores throughout the city.

Save your longer journeys for Sundays, if you can. There is an AUS$2.70 (CI$1.63) cap for public transit on Sundays, meaning you can travel hours through or outside the city quite cheaply. On other days, the cap is AUS$15.80 (CI$9.52).

Speaking of money, while hotels and rental cars are relatively cheap in Sydney, food and admission prices are not. Entrees at a sit-down restaurant typically run from AUS$20-$40. Non-happy-hour drinks usually start at AUS$8.

The Fortune of War pub is one of few claiming to be ‘Sydney’s oldest.’

Touring the city

Tours and attractions on and around Sydney Harbor will likely run AUS$40 or more. If you want to climb the famous Sydney Harbor Bridge, figure on spending at least AUS$170. The priciest tour, which is at dawn, runs AUS$388.

We spent AUS$49.50 (online) on the Hop-On Hop-Off bus tour. We found the downtown route on the bus to be more of a real estate primer and marketing pitch. The Bondi Beach route, on the other hand, reveals a substantial amount of history about the districts east of the city center.

On the cheaper side of things, there are the “free” walking tours. These have become very popular in recent years in cities around the world. Typically, a college student or a recent graduate walks a group of people around downtown sites, talking about history and relaying, hopefully, some quirky stories. I put free in quotation marks because at the end of the tour, after schooling you on what comparable tours cost, your guide asks you to pay him or her what you think the tour was worth. Technically, you can get away with paying nothing, but most people cough up an ample tip.

We particularly enjoyed the evening tour of the Rocks area, one of the original hard-scrabble communities for the immigrants arriving in Sydney. For many years, it remained an undesirable and sometimes dangerous area, according to our guide. But in the past decade, a government-initiated renovation has boosted it into a popular dining and shopping destination. You can stop into the Fortune of War, one of three Sydney establishments claiming to be the city’s “oldest pub.” Each has its own justification for the title. You can choose who to believe.

Dubbed ‘the squashed brown paper bag’ by some, this Frank Gehry-designed Dr. Chau Chak Wing Building, home of the UTS Business School, is an award-winner.

The Rocks is also where the Museum of Modern Art is located and it is home to the south end of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. It is also where the Rocks Aboriginal Dreaming tour takes place. The 90-minute tour starts daily at 10:30 a.m. and explores the ways the natural elements of Sydney’s landscape still influence the indigenous people. Book ahead (AUS$44). The tour we tried to make reservations for a day ahead of time was sold out.

Points of interest

Since 1973, residents of the Rocks have been able to look across Circular Quay – the city’s busy ferry hub – and see Sydney’s most famous landmark, its opera house. Designed by Danish architect Jorn Utzon, the UNESCO Heritage Site is home to several performance spaces and hosts 1,500 performances a year. But the most impressive thing about the iconic building with its layered peaked shells is that it’s just wildly cool to look at and to stroll around. The cost of a sunset or nighttime ferry ticket to a destination north or east of the opera house is well worth the price and the time just to see its dark glass windows and white roof lit up at night.

Other stops that are worthwhile in the downtown area include the Queen Victoria Building, St. Mary’s Church, the Australian Museum, the Sydney Tower and the Darling Harbour complex that includes the Sea Life Sydney aquarium and the Wildlife Sydney animal encounter.

Given where these last two were located, next to the Wax Museum, I was expecting a tourist-trap experience. My daughter, however, was insistent on getting up close with a koala and the wildlife attraction offered that opportunity. For AUS$44 (order online the day before for AUS$35) we were able to see not only koalas but kangaroos, platypuses, a host of birds and reptiles and a large crocodile, all in well-designed enclosures. Touristy? Of course. But it was much better than I expected.

Koalas, such as this one at Wildlife Sydney, spend most of their day sleeping.

Fish and sushi

Just one peninsula west, in Blackwattle Bay, you will find the Sydney Fish Market. Compared with other big city markets of its kind, Sydney’s is relatively small, but very customer friendly. In addition to a wide variety of fresh fish and seafood – lobster, octopus, oysters, abalone, sea urchin and much more – there is plenty of prepared fish for purchase, either for take-away or for sit down.

The sushi selection was not only ample, but cheaper than just about any other place we found in the city. It was so reasonable, in fact, that we felt obliged to stuff ourselves, especially when we discovered the Doshi, or the sushi donut.

Let me calm your initial revulsion by quickly noting that there is no dough or sugar glaze involved. This creation is a donut sized portion of rice with a layer of nigiri and other ingredients in the middle. The top is decorated with more fish, avocado, fish eggs and other items to give the appearance of a fancy donut. The result is not only enticing to look at but at AUS$8.50, the Doshi is quite a bargain and a real treat.

The fish market was not our only good dining experience in Sydney. In fact, we were pleased by the quality and variety of offerings, which included not only an ample number of Asian options, but Indian, Middle Eastern and European fare. There are also plenty of craft beer options and, of course, Australian wines.

Colorful historic buildings, such as these near Bondi Beach, line many of Sydney’s streets.

Parks and wineries

Just south of Sydney is Royal National Park, the nation’s first, established in 1879. Australia has more than 500 national parks and the area surrounding Sydney is littered with them. One of the most notable features of Royal National Park are its curiously symmetrical tide pools. Circular pools have been carved into the rock. Some stand alone, some have connected in figure eights, others are more complex. But the site is worth the 7-mile round trip hike down from the coastal bluffs and along the shoreline.

We chose to get completely out of Sydney for a couple of days and on one of those, we headed for one of Australia’s wine making regions, the Southern Highlands, about 75 miles southwest of Sydney. The tranquil region is dotted with some small towns and villages. We lunched at the historic Surveyor General Inn. Built in 1834, it is Australia’s oldest continuously licensed inn and retains its historic feel in the original bar area.

Fitzroy Falls is a nice detour for those indulging in wine tasting in the Southern Highlands. – Photos: Mark Muckenfuss

Waterfalls and wildlife

We visited several of the region’s dozen-or-so wineries before detouring 15 minutes south to see the impressive Fitzroy Falls, which drops 266 feet into the Yarrunga Valley. The terrain, a plateau, with near vertical drop-offs and partially exposed cliff faces, is much like the topography of the Blue Mountains, which we visited the following day.

The popular scenic area is laced with walking and hiking trails and is well known for the broad vistas visitors can enjoy from the rim of the mountains. We had planned a day’s worth of hiking, including the Giant Stairway, which takes you down 800 steps, 1,000 feet below the rim, in view of the iconic Three Sisters rock formation. Unfortunately, we were greeted that morning by rain and dense fog, which obliterated pretty much any view beyond the clifftop guardrails.

Instead, we hiked down Katoomba Falls, which offered its own special, if confined, scenery. After hiking down along several small drops in the stream, visitors can stand on the edge of the canyon where the falls plunge to the rocks below. A flock of cockatoos swirled from tree to tree, in and out of the drifting fog, their screeches mixed with the roar of the water.

It was a memorable moment. Just one of many we enjoyed during our time down under, all of which moved Sydney much higher than it had ever been on my list.

Seen from the water at night, Sydney’s iconic opera house dominates the Circular Quay cityscape.