Sydney, the largest city in Australia, has much to offer families with children. Sydney is the Harbour City. It is the largest, oldest and most cosmopolitan city in Australia with an enviable reputation as one of the world’s most beautiful and liveable cities. Brimming with history, nature, culture, art, fashion, cuisine and design, it is set next to miles of ocean coastline and sandy surf beaches. The city is also home to the Sydney Opera House and the Sydney Harbour Bridge, two of the most iconic structures on the planet.
Sydney is a major global city and an important finance centre in the Asia-Pacific region. The city is surrounded by nature and national parks, which extend through the suburbs and right to the shores of the harbour.
Sydney is the oldest European settlement in Australia, having been founded as a British penal colony on 26 January 1788 by Arthur Phillip. This day is now celebrated as Australia Day to mark the establishment of a new nation, although also regarded by many as Invasion Day that marked the beginning of the British appropriation of Aboriginal land. The settlement was named “Sydney” after Thomas Townshend, 1st Viscount Sydney, who was the British Home Secretary at that time.
Sydney is one of the most cosmopolitan cities on the planet, with one third of its population born overseas. European settlement rapidly displaced the Aboriginal people of the Sydney area with colonists largely coming from England, Ireland and Scotland. The Australian goldrush attracted more immigrants, including a significant number of Chinese, with about one in six Australians with convict descent also having some Chinese ancestry. In the early 20th century, Sydney continued to attract immigrants – mostly from the UK and Ireland, with the White Australia Policy preventing non-European peoples (and even Southern Europeans) from settling. Australia’s immigration patterns, and consequently, that of Sydney, changed significantly after World War II, when migrants began to arrive from countries as diverse as Italy, Greece, Germany, Holland, China, New Zealand, India, the Philippines, Poland, Lebanon, Iraq, Vietnam, Thailand, South Africa and the Pacific Islands. Sydney’s culture, food and general outlook well reflect these contributions to the majority Anglo-Celtic institutions and social establishment.
Sydney is recognised worldwide for its vibrant LGBT community. Every year, the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras is celebrated on the first weekend in March, drawing people from all over Australia and the world for the celebrations.
Sydney was the centre of the world’s attention in September 2000 when the city hosted the Summer Olympics – announced by the IOC Chairman at the closing ceremony to be “the best games ever”. The Olympics saw a major building and renovation program take hold of Sydney, positioning it as one of the great world cities of the 21st century.
Sydney’s skyline is large and widely recognisable. Sydney also possesses a wide diversity of modern and old architectural styles. They range from the simple Francis Greenway’s Georgian buildings to Jorn Utzon’s Expressionist Sydney Opera House. Sydney also has many Victorian buildings, such as the Sydney Town Hall and the Queen Victoria Building. The most architecturally significant structures include the Sydney Opera House and the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Skyscrapers in Sydney are also large and modern. The tallest building is the 300-m-tall Sydney Tower, seen rising clearly above the rest of the Sydney skyline.
There are also pockets of architecturally significant housing dotted around Sydney’s suburbs. The inner-eastern suburb of Paddington is known for its terrace houses, while several inner-west suburbs contain streets lined with so-called federation houses (built around the time of Australian federation in 1901). A well preserved example of federation houses in Sydney is in the Inner West suburb of Burwood. Appian Way is a circular street built around a lawn tennis courts complete with pavilion house. The large houses are all architecturally unique and built on large expanses of land featuring old trees and lovely gardens. Further away on the lower North Shore, Castlecrag is a unique suburb, being planned by the architect Walter Burley Griffin in the 1930s.
Children under 4 years old travel for free in Sydney.
Sydney has a good public transport network of trains, buses, ferries and light rail. It is largely a cashless public transport system, with all travel being paid for by Opal Card. Opal cards are free, with credit added for travel.
Children aged between 4 and 15 years old travel half price with their special Green Opal card.
Children aged 16 and older require an adult Black Opal Card. There are other concession cards available to young people, but these are not typically for visitors.
In an emergency when you really don’t want to acquire an Opal card, a white ‘one trip’ card is available from some stations (i.e. one-way trip to the airport).
The cards can be used very widely, to Nowra three hours to the south, Newcastle two hours north, and the Blue Mountains to the west.
Sunday has a daily cap of $2.50 on all travel, making this a very cost effective (albeit busy) day to take advantage of public transport with a family.
For all the sights within the Sydney CBD, a car is not desirable. Traffic is heavy is parking extremely expensive.
If you are staying outside the city centre and want to visit for the day, then many car parks offer weekend deals where you pay a much reduced rate (around $15) to park the whole day until 17:00. This will allow you to drive in, see quite a few sights and then drive back out again.
See and do
The items below have been selected for their suitability for children. More details on them, as well as other attractions can be found in the Sydney articles.
Take a ferry ride. From Circular Quay you have a great amount of options for ferry rides the kids will love. The loop from Circular Quay to Darling Harbour will give great views and last an hour. Ferries to Manly, Watsons Bay, Taronga Zoo and Parramatta all have much to see. Alternatively the King Street Wharf in Darling Harbour has some good trips as well.
Cockatoo Island (Reachable by Ferry from Circular Quay). An large industrial museum to Sydney’s ship building days has cavernous warehouses and tunnels for kids to explore. Also offers overnight camping in prepared tents for the adventurous.
Australia Museum, 1 William St. Natural history museum on Hyde Park
Taronga Zoo. Possibly the best attraction in Sydney, this large zoo is full of well kept animals and a great playground, with cafes dotted all around. Additionally the Harbour views are second to none!
Powerhouse Museum, 500 Harris St, Ultimo (Walkable from Darling Harbour, or take the light rail from Central station). Science Museum with child friendly exhibits.
Balmoral Beach. Very family friendly beach in the outer harbour and away from the open sea
Manly Sea Life Sanctuary, West Esplanade, Manly NSW 2095 (Take the Manly ferry from Circular Quay. Turn left out of the ferry building and it is at the end of the small beach.). Smaller than the Sealife Aquarium in Darling Harbour, this one is more intimate and enjoyable. The Little Penguins on the top floor are quite impressive.
Sydney Opera House, Bennelong Point, Sydney. The famous Opera House often hosts children friendly plays and musicals.
Botanic Gardens / Choo Choo Express. The Botanic Gardens are a great place to take the children for a picnic overlooking the harbour. There is a lack of children activities however, so consider a ride on the ‘Choo Choo Express’ which is a small ‘train’ on wheels that will take you around the large area.
Luna Park, Milsons Point. Heritage amusement park. Most rides are not suitable for very young children, but early teenagers will have a great time.
Australian National Maritime Museum. Great museum for kids to learn about ships. As well as a large, free and air-conditioned indoor exhibition areas there are also a few naval ships and a submarine.
Sydney Observatory, Observatory Hill. Located in a prime position in a park next to the Rocks and overlooking Sydney Harbour, the Observatory is an interesting historical visit.
Sydney Tower Eye, Westfield Mall, CBD.
Hyde Park Barracks, Queens Square, Macquarie St. Original barracks and living quarters for Australian convicts, this museum makes a very vivid look into Australia’s colonial past. The challenging subject matter has been made into engaging stories and hand’s on exhibits for children.
Bridge Climb, 3 Cumberland St, The Rocks. Children must be over 8 and at least 1.2 metres tall. The Bridge Climb is a highlight of any visit to Sydney, although do note it is more exhausting than it looks from the ground!
Sydney Harbour Bridge Walk (near Milsons Point Station from north side). Easier and cheaper than the Bridge Climb! There are still great views to be had, and it only takes 20 minutes to walk across. Get on either in the Rocks or in Milsons Point.
Although every Sydney suburb has a safe and clean playground, they are somewhat hard to find in the city centre.
Darling Harbour Children’s Playground, 1-25 Harbour St. Very good playground with water play in the very centre of the city, surrounded by cafes.
Pyrmont Park Playground, 20 Pirrama Rd. Slightly out of the way past the casino, it is a nice laid back park right on the harbour with excellent equipment and sandplay.
Blues Point Reserve Playground, Blues Point Rd. Average playground, but with great views of the Harbour Bridge right in front of you.
Milsons Point Playground, 38 Alfred Street. Good playground close to Milsons Point train station and with good Harbour views
Berry Island Reserve, 10 Shirley Rd, Wollstonecraft NSW 2065 (Walkable (down a steep hill) from Wollstonecroft Station). Another nice small playground on the harbour, with an added bonus of a small bushwalk around Berry Island itself.
Watsons Bay Playgound, 22 Military Road. After checking out the Gap at Watsons Bay, this close by playground will give your kids something to do whilst you enjoy Fish and Chips from Doyles.
Paddy’s Market, Haymarket (The light rail from Central Station stops right outside in Chinatown). Full of irrelevant goods from souvenirs to toys.
Most restaurants do offer a ‘kids menu’, which often has a short selection of a small portion of pasta, pizza, chicken schnitzel or fish and chips. These are often price about half an adult meal. Quite often a restaurant will provide crayons and paper for colouring in.
Sushi shops are ubiquitous around Sydney and sushi rolls provide a delicious, good sized and relatively healthy snack for kids for about $4. Alternatively there are a good number of fast food restaurants (McDonalds, Hungry Jacks, etc) that offer kids meals. When eating outside, be sure you can find a shady place to eat outside on days when there is strong UV.
The main museums and galleries in Sydney also have a cafe and/or restaurant appropriate for children. Certain days such as a rainy weekend will make these extremely busy so prepare a backup plan.
There are plenty of hotels in the CBD that are close to all the attractions. Possibly those on or near Darling Harbour will work best for families.
Child-friendly bathrooms can be very hit and miss in the main Sydney CBD. Museums and galleries have plenty of relatively clean bathrooms, sometimes on every floor. Public facilities are on offer in the shopping centres and department stores and are mostly clean. Most train stations have toilets after the gate. Almost all cafes and small restaurants do not have facilities. Outside the CBD is can be very hard to locate a bathroom, but the closest shopping centre will have them.
Family rooms (for breastfeeding, nappy/diaper changing and small toilets) are available many places as well, although they tend to get used as a bathroom for everyone during very busy times.
Sydney is a safe city for children to visit, but precautions should be taken.
Sydney CBD can be somewhat inappropriate for children after dark, with drunken and rowdy behaviour evident especially around George Street cinema on Fridays and Saturdays. Darling Habour is generally considered family friendly even after dark, but still recommended to be careful after 10PM.
Playgrounds are generally very safe, but without any security you should still ensure that you keep an eye on your children.
There are plenty of animals that can give your child a nasty bite (such as huntsman spiders, blue tongue lizards) but only when interfered with and it is anyway an extremely rare occurrence in Sydney. If you ensure that your child doesn’t bother any animal then they should be fine.
Although spider bites are very rare, you should nevertheless contact emergency services and try and catch the spider if your child gets bitten. The Redback and Sydney Funnel Web are potentially deadly to people, and especially children.
Snakes are a potential risk, especially the very venomous ‘Brown Snake’, but they are rarely found in Sydney. They may occasionally encroach the outer suburbs the city so be vigilant in those areas.
Sydney is a very sunny place and in summer the UV count can be extremely high causing potential sunburn, as well as the temperature potentially getting as high as 40 °C. This hurts children’s skin even more than adults so do ensure when you go out that each child has:
A large hat to cover their head
High factor suncream over all exposed skin areas
Plenty of water to drink throughout the day
Do this in Summer (October to April) and any other hot days.
Drownings are a major cause of child fatalities in New South Wales. Children regularly drown when unsupervised in the many private pools around Sydney, and rivers and the ocean may seem deceptively calm before undercurrents suddenly pull you away.
At the beach ensure that lifeguards are on duty and ensure children do not swim out too far.