From the moment I arrived in Sydney for the first time, twenty years ago, I felt like I’d come home. I stepped out of the airport into the bright white morning light, caught a drift of eucalyptus on the air from the gum trees in the car park, and felt my whole body relax. It just felt right.
Of course, it always helps when you share a language with a new country, but there’s more to it than that. Sydney’s not a city you have to try hard to enjoy.
Just as the average Aussie’s first contact with a new person is always a broad smile, your first view of Sydney’s famous Harbour – a huge expanse of water, fringed with interesting bays and inlets – will give you the impression of a city which really wants to show you a good time.
And orientating yourself with that legendary view, perfectly set off by the twin jewels of the Opera House and the Harbour Bridge, is the best place to start.
The first thing I always do when I get back to Sydney is to walk from hotel – the Blue, built on a converted old jetty in the harbourside neighbourhood of Woolloomoolloo – round to the Opera House.
This takes me past Boy Charlton Pool – a fabulous seawater swimming pool, built on the edge of the Harbour and a great spot to get some jet lag banishing exercise. From there it’s a short walk to the Art Gallery of New South Wales, which is an instant intro to Australia’s vivid art history, including a fabulous collection of aboriginal paintings.
From there I turn right to the rocky outcrop of Mrs Macquarie’s Point for my first eyeball of the full spread of the Harbour. Tears always spring into my eyes.
Then I carry on down into the Royal Botanic Gardens, where native flora abounds, ibis strut and fruit bats sleep in the trees (be careful walking underneath them, as you may get an unwelcome splat on your head…). Then it’s round the lovely sweep of Farm Cove to the steps of the Opera House itself.
From there I usually wander on to Circular Quay, where you can hop on the Manly Ferry. This lovely old commuter ferry is a great way to experience the Harbour on the water, looking back at the leafy shorelines, for about £7. Or if you love cuddly marsupials, get the ferry straight over to Taronga Zoo, on a great value inclusive ticket.
Spending as much as possible of my first day in Sydney outside and on the move like this, is my way of coping with the terrible jet lag after the 24 hour flight. My other secret remedy is to get stuck in to one of Sydney’s greatest treasures: the amazing coffee.
Best of all are the fantastic cafes where you can sit outside, getting maximum light on the pineal gland – at the same time as imbibing a good double shot of strong espresso in your flat white, the local speciality (milder than a cappuccino, but not as sickeningly milky as a latte).
My current favourite outside coffee spot is Fratelli Paradiso, on Challis Avenue, in cool Potts Point. The food there is also fantastic, but if they’re full, there are several other good cafes in the same street.
Another outside treat I simply must have every time I’m in Sydney, is the Bondi to Bronte cliff walk, which gives you spectacular views of the ocean coast – as opposed to the gentler Harbour waters – with crashing waves and cool surfers.
Once you get to Bronte beach, there’s a whole strip of great cafes to have breakfast in. A good brekkie is an institution in Sydney, with my local favourite a wonderfully ripe avocado to squash on to sour dough toast, with a squeeze of lime.
Don’t be disappointed by Bondi – a lot of British first-time visitors are, because they’re expecting some kind of tropical paradise beach. It’s actually an urban beach. If you can imagine a beach in London’s Shoreditch, you’ll better prepared to appreciate its unique charms – and not just the tanned and muscled joggers…
You won’t want to swim there, the waves are too rough (I love the the glorious white sand at Watson’s Bay for that), but you’ll want to hang out and soak in the cool scene.
My favourite place for an early evening drink is the bar at Bondi Icebergs at the south end of the beach. Here you can sit in one of those wicker chairs suspended on a chain from the ceiling, sipping a cocktail, watching the waves crashing below. It really puts the Bond into Bondi.
At the other end of the one kilometre long beach – and the people watching on the prom is fabulous – is my very favourite place to eat in Sydney (and that’s really saying something…).
Sean’s Panaroma (the name is a pun on the view of the beach) is small and simple, with no ‘fine dining’ fuss, but simply wonderful food. The menu is short (four choices in each course) and seasonal.
It’s not a cheap beach café – the food is seriously good – but the relaxed atmosphere and friendly welcome, with the chefs busy on the other side of an open counter, is pure Sydney.
It’s very romantic for dinner, but on a sunny Sunday lunch time at an outside table, after that bracing cliff walk, there’s nowhere else I’d rather be.
Maggie Alderson is a bestselling novelist, a fashion columnist for several Australian newspapers, and blogs at maggiealdersonstylenotes.wordpress.com