When I was in Melbourne a few weeks ago, the free walking tour was one of my favorite activities. It’s a great way to learn the layout of a city and note which places you’d like to revisit in more depth. Luckily the same company (I’m Free) also offers a tour in Sydney, and I make it a priority on my first day here.
The tours are about three hours long with a 15 minute break in the middle. They are free, but at the conclusion you are encouraged to tip your guide whatever you feel the tour was worth. (Similar paid walking tours run about $30 or so.) This company is modeled after popular free walking tours in many European cities which also run on tips alone. Our guide lets us know that she is not paid anything beyond our tips, but she only mentions this briefly at the start and end of the tour, and there is no pressure beyond that.
The tours depart twice a day from central locations in Sydney. Here’s a view of the city skyline as I walk from my hostel to the starting point:
Our first stop is the Queen Victoria Building, which is like a giant upscale mall, but WAY better than any typical mall. Lots of cute cafes and boutiques. Later in the day I’ll return here to read and relax during an afternoon rain shower.
That little dog in the photo below is Islay, who was Queen Victoria’s favorite dog.
Here are some shots from inside the QVB — I love the elegance of its design, the natural light from the ceiling windows, and the contrasting black-and-white tones. The Royal Clock suspended on the right below is quite impressive. If I remember correctly, there is also a time capsule of sorts — something inside that they will open on a particular date. Here’s what I found on Wikipedia:
On the top level near the dome is displayed a sealed letter which is to be opened in 2085 by the future Lord Mayor of Sydney and read aloud to the People of Sydney. It is written by Queen Elizabeth II in 1986 and no one except her knows what is written. [via]
There are many stalls and vendors selling delectable baked goods. It is literal eye candy.
Beyond the immediate Queen Victoria Building, the shopping continues underground and becomes more of a traditional mall with very high end stores.
We resurface and walk on towards to Hyde Park.
Our tour guide Justine pauses at the site of the old Sydney Hospital, aka Governor Macquarie’s Rum Hospital (the construction of which was paid for by businessmen in exchange for an exclusive contract on rum imports). It’s good luck to rub a certain appendage on the brass boar statue out front.
Throughout most of the 19th century, the St. James’ King Street church on the left below was the tallest landmark in Sydney at 52 meters tall. Now the Sydney Tower (on the right below) holds that record at 309 meters tall.
The Customs House near Sydney Harbor has a very neat exhibit below its transparent floorboards — a mini replica of the entire city.
A shot of the iconic Sydney Opera House.
And Sydney Harbor:
The Museum of Contemporary Art is free to visit — I make a mental note to check it out at a later date.
Steps away from Sydney Harbor is an area called The Rocks. This turns out to be my favorite neighborhood in the city and I return frequently to stroll and eat over the next few days. The weekend market is still in high gear with loads of stalls and carts.
Fun fact: I’m Free operates a free walking tour of The Rocks every night at 6pm; it runs 90 minutes.
True story: as soon as the tour is over, I rush back to order this banana split shake. It’s only so-so.
A tunnel cuts through The Rocks so that this neighborhood is more accessible from Sydney Harbor area.
Hero of Waterloo is one of the oldest bars in the city and it’s rumored to have an underground secret passageway to Sydney Harbor. Our tour guide tells us that at one point in history this bar gave out free drinks and then kidnapped its drunk, unconscious patrons and delivered them to boats in the harbor, where they became “recruits” for sea captains. By the time the hangovers wore off, these men were already at sea and expected to crew the boat. Moral of the story: be suspicious of free alcohol!
Moments later we approach the Sydney Harbor Bridge. If you are feeling brave enough and have deep pockets (to the tune of $200 per person in non-peak hours), it is possible to climb to the very tip top.
Instead, we climb a nearby tower for sweeping views of the harbor.
The tour concludes here. As I walk back through The Rocks weekend market, I notice these glass bulbous knick knacks. They remind me of my Grandpa Henry, who loved to collect such objects and was himself a world traveler. In fact, he and my Grandma Trudie visited Australia many times and loved the continent.
I climb the hills of The Rocks and marvel at views of the neighborhood below. If I called Sydney home, I would endeavor to live in this section of town.
I grab a cheap bite to eat at the market while enjoying the sights and sounds of the city.
Sydney, it’s only been 24 hours and I love you already!