As the plane glides into its airspace, it’s clear that Sydney knows how to impress. Bordering the inky Pacific, the city is a sprawling, sparkling brocade beneath clouds ablaze with the evening’s last light.
Little more than an hour later, I’m at my hotel downtown. Travel-weary, I’m tempted to soak in the marble-topped bath before passing out, but I’m starving and it’s not even 9pm. I head over to nearby Frankie’s Pizza By the Slice which offers Neapolitan-style pizza, a decent selection of mostly Aussie and Kiwi craft beer and live music every night. I demolish a slice of Puttana (salami, onion, chilli and olives), nursing an Exit Amber Ale as Frankie’s World Famous House Band, which plays every Monday, rocks and surges with infectious energy.
The next morning, I take a sunny stroll to the Art Gallery of New South Wales, a grand neoclassical edifice in The Domain park. Although the gallery also features Asian and European art, I focus on the Australian and Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander collections.
In the Yiribana Project Space, there’s a temporary exhibition of Mervyn Bishop’s striking images of Aboriginal life. I wallow for ages in the glowing blue expanse of The Balcony 2 by the late Brett Whiteley — one of Sydney’s most heralded artists — and am dazzled by the vast Untitled (Jupiter Well to Tjukula) by Uta Uta Tjangala.
The gallery’s enormous picture windows eventually lure me back out into The Domain. I walk along the water to Mrs Macquarie’s Point. The shaded path leads me past the rough stone chair carved by convicts in 1810 for Mrs Macquarie, wife of the then-governor of New South Wales, taking me into the Royal Botanic Gardens.
Although there are greenhouses, a fernery and a grove of more than 300 palm species to explore, the water has me in its thrall — and so I stick to its edge until I reach the Opera House. The iconic 44-year-old structure hosts more than 2,000 events a year. I sneak into its austere lobby to use the toilets which, with the glowing ambience of a Stanley Kubrick-designed spaceship, turn out to be my favourite part of the building.
Outside, the sun shimmers across the harbour, drenching joggers and the patrons of waterside cafés and restaurants. I escape from the throngs around Circular Quay, slipping into The Rocks — a warren of old buildings that hosts design and food markets on weekends.
After the gravitas and diversity of the Gallery of New South Wales, the museum is a tad underwhelming — although its rooftop restaurant has spectacular views of the Opera House.
Although tempted to enjoy a pint at craft brewery Endeavour’s retro Tap Rooms, I decide to have a taste of history instead, walking several blocks to The Lord Nelson Brewery Hotel — the city’s oldest continuously licensed hotel, which brews six ales on site.
Surrounded by nautical regalia and crusty regulars, I knock back a pint of the Victory Bitter, a caramel-tinged British Pale Ale with a bitter kick.
Back in the city centre, I stick with the historical theme, visiting The Strand Arcade, an elegant Victorian complex that has a range of fashion, jewellery, antique and food stores.
I’ve long coveted an Akubra felt hat. Fortunately, Strand Hatters has hundreds to choose from — and after 20 minutes of agonising, I settle on a wide-brimmed olive green one with a barramundi band — and leave the store broke but happy.
A few doors down on bustling George Street, I pop into the home of another Australian icon — RM Williams, makers of timelessly stylish boots handcrafted in Adelaide and loved the world over.
I leave empty-handed and head to The Grounds of the City a short walk away. Already well-caffeinated, I don’t have to call on the services of its coffee sommelier — instead I admire the sumptuous Art Deco-inspired interior and spiffily dressed staff while sipping peppermint tea at the bar.
Over the next few days, I explore more of the city and even head into the snooty and self-consciously hip Inner Eastern suburbs. These neighbourhoods contain a plethora of great restaurants, bars and shops where you can have languid lunches in the dappled courtyard at Pieno, or a flat white at the Brewtown Coffee Roasters.
More welcoming, though, was the taste I had of Sydney’s gritty and unpretentious Inner West. In the rapidly — and controversially — gentrifying Redfern, we have a drink at the whimsical Arcadia — think friendly bar staff, high ceilings and fairy lights.
We head to the nearby Redfern Continental, passing the bright young things feasting in the restaurant, to get to Gunther’s Dining Room. It’s like stepping behind the Iron Curtain: with its wooden panels, banquettes and disco ball, it’s a sexily lit mash-up of ’60s communist chic and contemporary campness. After drinking the best negroni I’ve had, we go next door to Dock, a tiny bar hosting a rambunctious karaoke night.
Sydney is rightly considered one of the world’s gay capitals, and, as a haven for sexual minorities, it really rolls out the carpet to its LGBTQIA visitors. While I wasn’t around for its famously colourful Mardis Gras, I was able to get a taste of its vibrant queer scene when I headed to the Marrickville Portuguese Madeira Club for a dance party hosted by Kat Dopper who, under the moniker Heaps Gay, organises events for Sydney’s queer community.
It strikes me as a special thing to see young people from across the spectrum of gender and sexuality having fun together in the same space. It is all the more poignant for occurring in a country where — until very recently — marriage equality was still up for debate.
My ears are still ringing with the sound of Ariana Grande when, several hours later, I jump into an Uber and head to Manly Beach, a seaside suburb about 20 minutes from the centre.
It’s a little after 6.30am and the sky is glowing yellow and blue as I join the pink-capped members of the Bold and the Beautiful squad, whose hardened regulars swim every morning to the neighbouring inlet of Shelly Beach and back, for a total distance of just shy of a mile.
Tiny fish dart below me as I slice through the calm, clear water — an invigorating 19°C (66°F) that has my teeth chattering.
Slowly thawing, I eat a bacon and egg bun at Bluewater Café on Manly’s pine-lined promenade, then wander up through coastal forest to the lookout point on the Shelly Headland to take in the endlessness of the Pacific below.
After a crisply bitter In Season IPA at the 4 Pines Brewery opposite Manly Wharf, I cross the road for my ferry ride back into the city, chugging past residential enclaves and patches of bush towards the dazzling sails of the Opera House.
As a lifelong swimmer obsessed with outdoor pools, I had to make a pilgrimage to arguably the most beautiful one in the world: the Bondi Icebergs, wedged between cliffs and ocean at the southern edge of the famed Bondi beach.
I’m tired and grumpy when I arrive, but that instantly melts away as I leap into the bracing water, which is constantly replenished by waves smashing against the pool’s sides.
After eight lengths, we amble along the clifftops to the neighbouring suburb of Bronte, where I take another dip in the tidal pool adjoining its beach. Then we wander up between mid-century bungalows to the Three Blue Ducks, a gorgeous pavement café.
Sated by fish pie and hearty braised beef, we order flat white coffees — an Aussie specialty — and lean back, eyes closed to the sun. For a moment, at least, life is perfect. I don’t want to leave.