Cruise from Sydney - the essential guide - Cruise Trail

Cruise from Sydney – the essential guide

“The New Year cruise from Sydney was one of the best vacations we have ever had. What could beat sailing out of one of the most beautiful harbors in the world?”

Australia is a fantastic country that many people have never had the chance to visit. When you do visit for the first time, you will wonder why you waited so long. Sydney, in particular, offers you an opportunity to experience a modern city with traditional Australian flare. Why not choose a cruise package from Sydney, and discover Australia and New Zealand in affordable luxury?

The chance to board a cruise ship and cruise out of Sydney harbor is a spectacular sight. Experience sailing past the iconic Sydney Harbour Bridge and the Sydney Opera House towards the open waters of the South Pacific Ocean.

There are many cruise lines that offer a cruise from Sydney. One of our favorites is with Norwegian Cruise Lines. Cruises depart from Circular Quay, easily accessible from the city. In fact, we can even recommend hotels that are within walking distance of the port and in addition ideally placed for exploring the city easily.

Sydney – a city you’ll want to call home

From the street markets in Paddington and The Rocks, to the peace and quiet of the Botanical Gardens, to the lively shops, cafes and restaurants of Darling Harbour and the stunning architecture of the Opera House. Sydney is like opening up a book of modern history with a distinct British undertone evolving into a uniquely Australian experience.

It is hard not to fall in love with the place.

It is no easy task deciding upon what you want to see in the time you have. For it will never be enough. Perhaps you want to see all the major tourist sights, or if you are a returning visitor, find some more unusual spots off the beaten track.

If you have more time, then the eastern suburbs where the locals live are definitely worth exploring for their hidden beaches, local restaurants and morning markets. 

Where to stay before you cruise from Sydney

Here are the hotels we recommend, read on to find out why and what these areas have to offer, then pick the one that suits you best.

Downtown/Central Business District (CBD)

Sydney’s downtown area is known as the CBD, or the financial district. It is the beating heart of business and commerce in the city. Packed not only with office blocks and the Sydney Tower, there are many shopping malls and boutiques. It’s a short walk to Sydney Opera House and Circular Quay.

  • Radission on George Street
  • The Grace Hotel
  • Park Regis
  • The York by Swiss Belotel

Darling Harbour

Darling Harbour is Sydney’s biggest shopping and entertainment area where you will find a huge array of restaurants and nightlife. It’s also home to Sydney’s aquarium and the wildlife zoo. It’s a great area in which to stay, with everything at your fingertips! Darling Harbour is about a 30-40 minute walk from Circular Quay and Sydney Opera House.

  • Holiday Inn Darling Harbour
  • Adina Apartment Hotel
  • Novotel
  • Park Royal

The Rocks/Circular Quay

If you stay in this area, you will be closest to the port of Sydney. Hotels located in The Rocks are generally more expensive. But often the view is world-class!

  • Rydges Sydney Harbour
  • Sir Stamford Circular Quay
  • Harbour Rocks Hotel

Sydney Suburbs

Sydney has many beautiful surrounding suburbs. One of our favorites is Double Bay. It’s a great place for upscale shopping, restaurants, nightlife and local transportation links.

Note that if you stay here, you are not walking distance to downtown or Sydney Opera House. You would need to use local transport such as buses, trams or even a boat ferry to get you across the harbor.

But it’s a beautiful area and you are surrounded by plenty of shopping and restaurants. And the view from the jetty on the beach at Double Bay looking towards Harbour Bridge is spectacular.

  • Intercontinental Double Bay
  • The Savoy Hotel Double Bay

How to get around the city

Sydney and it’s many enclaves and surrounding suburbs have an excellent transport system.

Don’t be afraid to try out local buses, trams, trains and ferries. The services are usually prompt, clean and well priced. The tram service (“light rail vehicles”) in the heart of Sydney is a relatively new service, and for just a few dollars you can get from Circular Quay to downtown Sydney smoothly and quickly in a minute or two.

Combine these options with walking and you will find you can see and explore a great deal of Sydney in the time you have. We recommend good walking shoes, a great guide, and a day of exploration walking the different areas of central Sydney on foot. Starting at the water, of course!

The best way for visitors to use Sydney’s transport network

Sydney centre is compact but the surrounding suburbs are spread out and whilst walking is the ultimate way to see the city, the trains, buses and trams are easy to use. If you are staying for a week or so then getting an Opal Card is one of the best ways for visitors to smoothly and easily pay for your fare on trains, buses, ferries and trams (“light rail services”).  

Some private ferries also take Opal so you can get across the harbor easily. Just look for the sign “OpalPay accepted here”. Climb aboard, blip your card at the machine, and you’re all set. If you run out of money on your card, just top it up at an Opal retailer, at one of the many Opal machines at various stations, or via the Opal app. 

The card is also good for going further afield, for example to visit the Blue Mountains or the Hunter Valley Wine District.

For shorter visits it is easier just to use your credit card at the start each journey. 

It’s important to do some planning before you cruise from Sydney to ensure you make the most of your time there!

Use our information and suggestions on this page for 4 great ways to see the best of Sydney before boarding your cruise from Sydney Port. Choose what sounds most appealing, where you want to visit, and what suits your budget. Then allow extra time for exploring without a schedule!

How to get from Sydney Airport to Sydney City Centre

Trains and buses offer regular service between Sydney International Airport and the city from 5am until Midnight, every day of the week.

  • Train: You will find the train stations underneath your arrival terminal, clearly signposted in the arrivals lounge. Note that the airport train stations are privately owned and a small fee is charged when entering the station, in addition to the cost of your ticket.
  • Bus: Bus stops are right outside your arrival lounge. Buses from the airport take you to Bondi Junction, Sydney’s transport hub. A single adult fare costs about AUD$5. From here you will most likely need a short cab ride to your hotel.
    To use the train or bus service, we recommend that you purchase an Opal Transport Card at the ticket window at the airport.
  • Taxi: Note that an airport road toll will be added to the fare of your taxi. The cost of a taxi from the airport to the city is around AUD$55 and the journey takes around 25 minutes depending where in the city your hotel is located and how busy traffic is that day.

4 great ways to see the best of Sydney before boarding your cruise from Sydney Port

If I were your Sydney guide this is where we would go. We have divided this into 4 areas, and we love each and every one. As do the locals. It’s no wonder they are proud of their city.

Day 1 : Find your bearings from the waterfront to downtown Sydney

On day 1 before your cruise from Sydney, start your day at Circular Quay. You will find yourself here more than once during your visit so it’s good to familiarize yourself with this area on your first day.

Circular Quay is the central hub for transport of all kinds around the city and for ferries over to North Sydney Wharf. No least, it’s most likely where your cruise ship will be docked (check your cruise ticket!).

If you choose to stay at the Sir Stamford Circular Quay on Macquarie Street, then you are just a few minutes walk from here.

Sydney Harbour Bridge Climb – what a view!

At circular quay, you will find yourself standing between Sydney Opera House, and Sydney Harbour Bridge on the other side. Surrounding you will be street performers and musicians setting up for the day, fast food venues and the like. 

That’s right. Take a few minutes and just take in the view. You made it downunder! If you are a first time visitor this first glimpse of Sydney Opera House and all it stands for will stay with you. If you are a returning visitor then I can assure you we will never tire of this view.

For an adrenaline rush on your first day in Sydney, you may like to start by climbing the Sydney Harbour Bridge. You need to book in advance. It’s windy, but it’s fantastic. And this is one of those “once in a lifetime” opportunities.

The Rocks – Sydney’s historical precinct

After visiting the bridge, a few more steps and you are in the precinct known as The Rocks, Sydney’s historic harbor quarter. The city’s oldest pub, The Lord Nelson, can tell a few stories, but now The Rocks is full of restaurants, boutiques and galleries and lovely to walk around in the evenings.

Most famous of all is the market. Opens on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, every week, it’s a fantastic place to buy original Australian art and jewellery.

The architectual miracle that is Sydney Opera House

From The Rocks, head over to the the Sydney Opera House, which has become Sydney’s cultural heartbeat. If you want a guided tour then I recommend you book before you arrive. 

The official guided walking tour takes about one hour, and you get to see behind the scenes and hear the history. It’s well worth it!

Afterwards, visit the famous Opera Bar for the world’s best backdrop when enjoying purely Australian food and drink.

The Royal Botanic Garden and Mrs Macquaries Chair

Visit the Sydney Opera House gift shop, then head on outside, down the main steps of the Opera House, and towards the gated entrance to Sydney Royal Botanic Garden.

Follow the pathway around the harbor towards Mrs Macquaries Chair, historical stone steps carved into the limestone. It’s a beautiful walk and the views back across to the Opera House and Sydney Harbour Bridge are spectacular.

Downtown shopping at its best

Walk through the centre of the park towards the State Library of New South Wales and out the other side onto Macquarie Street. Head south towards Hyde Park, Australia’s oldest public park Walk across the park and onto Elizabeth Street. Now you are in the heart of great shopping.

If you are hungry visit the iconic department store of David Jones, right on the corner of Elizabeth and Market Street, and my favorite place for a quick city lunch and some window shopping.The food hall is located on the lower ground floor and you’ll find great choices for lunch for the whole family.

Sydney Tower – a bird’s eye view

After lunch, the Sydney Tower Eye is a few minutes walk away. If you book tickets in advance you will save money. I recommend the Sky Tower and Observation Deck. You get a 60-minute guided tour of the Sky Walk, around the outside of the top of the tower, and access to the enclosed Observation Deck. It’s a unforgettable view of what is probably one of the most beautiful cities in the world.

Finish your day at the historical Queen Victoria Building, less than 5 minutes walk from Sydney Tower Eye. This 19th century building houses fantastic boutiques and restaurants and is Sydney shopping at its best.

Day 2 : A boat cruise on Sydney Harbour and an afternoon of entertainment at Darling Harbour

Darling Harbour, Sydney
Darling Harbour, Sydney

A boat tour of the glittering Sydney Harbour

Begin early once again at Circular Quay. Today you will take a boat tour around Sydney Harbour. The harbour is enormous, and offers numerous small coves tucked away from sight.

Choose a reputable company and book tickets before you arrive if you can. Find a cruise that is hosted by locals, and if you love the water choose one where you can stop in a cove for a spot of snorkeling.

Tours can be anything from 1.5 to 3 hours. Choose if you want a nature cruise with whale watching, or a beach and snorkeling boat tour with a picnic lunch! Alternatively you could end your day here and take a beautiful sunset cruise instead to see Sydney lit up at night.

Darling Harbour – Sydney’s playground

Darling Harbour is located about 2.4km from Circular Quay. It would take around half an hour to walk but we recommend you use the metro for a quick 1-minute journey for a couple of dollars each. 

At Darling Harbour, explore Sydney’s waterside, a family friendly entertainment area. Around the harbor you will find Sydney Sealife Aquarium, Madame Tussauds, Maritime Museum, Wildlife Sydney Zoo, playgrounds for the kids, the Harbourside Shopping Center and Cockle Bay Wharf for a huge array of food.

You will find that your afternoon at Darling Harbour will blend into the evening, and you’re in a ideal spot for an early dinner with the family before enjoy the waterfront lit up at night.

Day 3 : North Sydney and wildlife experience

Today you’ll need a good pair of walking shoes, sunscreen and a hat – you’re getting out of the city for the day.

Kangaroos, Koalas and Wombats at Taronga Zoo

Hop on a local ferry at either Circular Quay or Darling Harbour (whichever is closer to your hotel) and head to Taronga Zoo. Captain Cook Cruises offer the “zoo express” from both these locations throughout the day. Taronga Zoo is located on the other side of the harbour, just 12 minutes by ferry, in Mosman.

Buy your tickets for entrance into Taronga Zoo online and include the price of a one-way cable car ride in your booking. Once you arrive at the wharf, ride the cable car up to the entrance of the zoo.

And it’s a zoo like no other. Home to over 4000 animals and 350 species, Taronga is about conservation, education and wildlife health. You will discover how this fantastic zoo both treats and rehabilitates injured Australian wildlife. And you’ll have plenty of chances to get up close to the furry residents.

It is simply an amazing place to visit – as is the view back over to Sydney and its famous skyline.

Manly Wharf, North Sydney

At the end of your visit, walk back down the hill to the ferry. Catch the next ferry to Manly, about a 30-minute ride across the harbour. If you can, take a ferry that stops at Watson’s Bay.

Watson’s Bay is a favorite spot to enjoy a casual seafood lunch at the famous “Doyles on the Beach”. They also offer take-out if you want to find a spot on the small beach there to eat instead of in the restaurant.

Arriving at Manly Wharf, it’s time to explore Manly. If you want an afternoon in nature, hike the paths to Northhead for some incredible views back towards the city.

There is a visitors centre in the forecourt at Manly Wharf that can help you out with walking guides and maps. Otherwise stay around the area of Manly Beach for surfing, sun, shopping and relaxation.

Tip! Book a motorcycle tour and experience this area on the back of an exciting Harley Davidsson motorbike.

At the end of your afternoon in Manly, there are ferries back to the circular quay that take around 20 minutes.

Day 4 : Coastal walk Coogee to Bondi Beach

On day 4 of your stay in Sydney, there is one particular coastal walk we would like to recommend. It’s a 6 kilometer walk that will take you about 2-3 hours, or longer if you want to stop for a swim. This gives you the opportunity to see the eastern shoreline of Sydney. And that’s what makes Sydney spectacular – the blend of an world-class city, powerful nature and golden sand beaches.

You start at the northern end of Coogee Beach, in Dunningham Reserve. Get the tram from Circular Quay. The journey time is about 30 minutes. Alternatively a taxi takes around 10 minutes, depending on traffic, but the tram is much cheaper.

Upon arrival at Coogee beach, just pick up the ocean footpath at the northern end, the walk is clearly signposted.

Coogee is a great beach, the area is known for its lively nightlife. Your coastal walk will take you to the beaches of Sydney including Gordons Bay, Clovelly Beach (great for snorkelling from the shoreline and its ocean swimming pool), Bronte Beach, Tamarama and finally the beautiful stretch of white sand at Sydney’s famous Bondi Beach.

From Bondi Beach there are buses directly back to Bondi Junction if you want an opportunity to shop at the Westfield Shopping Centre. Otherwise, continue on back to your hotel. Try heading out to The Rocks for dinner for a great way to end your last evening in the city.

The best day trips from Sydney

If you have more time and want to travel further afield, there are two day trips in particular we recommend that you book in advance:

The Blue Mountains

The Blue Mountains, so called because of the haze created from water droplets hitting the tight Eucalyptus vegetation on the mountains, are just 90 minutes west of Sydney.

This gigantic plateau of sandstone has been dramatically eroded over thousands of years to creat what we know as the Jamison Valley. The famous sight of the Three Sisters is best viewed from Echo Point.

But the best way to experience the Blue Mountains is using The Scenic Highway. A cable car system transporting you 300 meters over the mountain range.

Alternatively (or in addition to) ride the Katoomba Scenic Railway, zigzagging through the mountains. Hold your breath, don’t look down, and be camera-ready!

If you have enough time, book an overnight stay as the area of the Blue Mountains is very deserving of your time.

The hotel Lilianfels Blue Mountains Resort and Spa located in Katoomba, is a glorious luxury resort dating back to the 19th century. It offers fantastic views over the Jamison Valley and ravines, and is on the edge of Echo Point. The hotel serve local, traditional food at their fabulous Darley Restaurant.

Hunter Valley

The Hunter Valley is located just north of Sydney, starting at the coastal town of Newcastle and stretching inland.

With over 150 different wine producers in this region, You will recognize the well-known names of, for example, Lindemans. But now you have the chance to visit for yourself, and even discover the lesser known names that the locals love. 

It’s easy to rent a car from Sydney and drive to The Hunter Valley yourself if you don’t mind driving on the left. If you decide you want to rent a car whilst in Sydney, do check out the latest rules regarding driving licenses for Australia. You may need to apply for an international driving licence before you leave home, depending on where in the world you live!

Otherwise book a bus tour and join like-minded visitors from all over the world eager to see the landscape and wineries of the Hunter Valley for themselves. Perhaps to really make your visit memorable, that once-in-a-lifetime hot air balloon ride is looking like a reality about to happen?

Need more tips on cruising? We’re here to help!

Cruise Package Australia and New Zealand from Sydney on board Norwegian Cruise Line
Cruise packing list essentials – our 19 best tips
11 Top tips for booking a cruise and avoiding common mistakes
The 8 best cruise ships for families and kid-friendly cruises
Questions to ask to kick-start your planning

Meet the Author

Mattias has nearly 2 decades of travel industry expertise, working with cruise lines, tour operators, airlines, IT providers, hospitality suppliers and everything else in between that makes the travel industry tick. more..