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Australia & New Zealand – Days 1 & 2: Sydney

Hello from Australia!

I flew down with my brother and father a few days ago for a whirlwind family trip through Australia and New Zealand for 16 days, even though I am only taking off 9 days from work due to the American Independence Day! Over the next two weeks, we will visit Sydney, Cairns, the Great Barrier Reef, Alice Springs, Kings Canyon, the Outback, Uluru, Christchurch, Queenstown, Auckland, Hobbiton, Taupo & Rotorura! Usually I travel with a group travel company in order to pack a lot in and meet amazing people, but I decided to plan this trip given it is for my family.

We flew Delta from New York to Los Angeles before boarding a plane to Sydney for a flight operated by Virgin Australia. To say the 14 hour flight flew by would be an understatement. We ate dinner about an hour into the flight & I went to sleep. The next thing I knew we had 4 hours left! It was amazing!

Upon arrival, we called an Uber to travel to our hotel. Sydney has an airport train to the city center, but when you have more than 1 person it is actually more economical to take an Uber. Our room at the Marriott in Circular Quay was not ready, so we refreshed ourselves in the Early Arrivals lounge and started our trip with a quick audible from the itinerary. We had arrived more refreshed and timely than I expected, so I ran over to the Sydney Opera House to see if I could reschedule the tour I had booked for that afternoon to the following day which would allow us to catch a 10:30 AM walking tour of the city. There were no issues and within a minute I was already on my way back towards the city to run and catch the beginning of the walking tour.

One of the things I love to do whenever I travel to a new place or a place I haven’t been to in a while is to take a walking tour as soon as I arrive as it is a great way to get my bearings & learn a bit about the history of the city. I also am a huge fan of the free walking tours which are purely tip based as it has been my experience that the tour guides are better because they have not yet been paid. In Europe, I always try to use a company called Sandeman’s New Europe, but in Sydney there was a company called “I’m Free Sydney” that operates two general walking tours of Sydney a day – one at 10:30 AM and one at 2:30 PM.

Upon arrival at the tour meeting point, we met our tour guide for the next 3 hours, Tracy, and were given a brief overview of where we were standing. The tour started just off the main street in Sydney, George Street, in front of the Sydney Town Hall close to the main shopping area and CBD (Central Business District) of Sydney. We then moved on to the Queen Victoria Building, a long, large building which used to be a market in the early days of Sydney. When the building was first built, it was during a time where horses were the primary method of transportation so all of the floors in the market were intentionally built with a small slope so horse excrement could easily be hosed down to one end of the building on a daily basis. The building has since been renovated to be a shopping mall for both locals and tourists.

We then continued onto George Street, which is the main street in all of Sydney. The part we were on was turned into a pedestrian mall a few years ago with stores and restaurants lining the street. It was similar to New York City’s Fifth Avenue if it was closed to traffic.

We then walked to one of the main parks of Sydney, Hyde Park. We only saw part of it, but there was a gorgeous fountain as the centerpiece with a large church, St Mary’s Cathedral, in the background.

The fountain was commissioned by a Francophile named JF Archibald. Despite the fact that the fountain was supposed to honor France, it actually was based on Greek influences.

While we were in the park, our tour guide took the opportunity to give us a quick download of Australian history. Obviously everyone knew that it was a penal colony, but I didn’t realize a few things. The first was that it was a direct result of the American Revolutionary War as the British could no longer send their convicts to America. Another thing I didn’t realize was that convicts only made up about 25% of the population – the rest of the population was either law enforcement or general people looking for a fresh start. The third thing I learned, which made a lot of sense, was that the convicts that were sent over were mainly convicted of white collar crime – they weren’t murderers or rapists for the most part. Also, the convicts were sentenced to a limited amount of time in Australia and had the option to return home to England should they choose to do so. The majority of them stayed as they began to make a name for themselves and took advantage of the fresh start the move to Australia gave them.

There were also a lot of parallels to the American settlers first interactions with the Native Americans and the Australian settlers first interactions with the Aboriginals. At first, there was a peaceful & curious relationship, but the Europeans brought over infectious diseases that wiped out huge parts of their population. With the benefit of hindsight, the Australians try to respect and honor the indigenous people of their land, but only about 1.5% of the population of Sydney is made up of Aboriginals.

We also learned about how Sydney and Melbourne had a bit of a rivalry in the early days of Australia which continues through to the present day. While Sydney was settled first, Melbourne quickly became a popular destination for settlers. When it came time to form a country and identify a capital, both Sydneysiders and people from Melbourne wanted their city to be the capital. After years of debate, it was decided that a city would be erected between the two hubs, Canberra, to be the capital of Australia.

With the data dump complete, we proceeded across the street to look at the Barracks Museum, which is closed for renovations, but once housed some of the convicts that settled Australia. Across the street was Old Saint Phillips Church, which was the tallest building in Sydney until 1869.

We then passed the Rum Hospital, which was conceived by Lachlan Macquarie, one of the early governor’s of Sydney who had a grand vision for the city. He wrote to the Queen of England to try to get funds for a large hospital in Sydney given the exponential growth of the city. She said no which forced him to think of another plan, which was to use what everyone loves as a way to pay for something needed. He approached the three largest alcohol distributors in Sydney at the time and said he would give them exclusive access to the market for three years if they built him a hospital. They agreed and even took part in overseeing it’s construction – which was not a good idea. It turns out that people who make alcohol also enjoy it, so the hospital was not as structurally sound as it should have been and needed to be rebuilt shortly after it was initially completed.

After our stop at the hospital, we proceeded to the National Reserve Building where the tour guide pointed out the seal of Australia which has an Emu and a Kangaroo on it. These animals were picked because they cannot walk backward, but only forward. While an interesting sentiment, the tour guide also pointed out that Australia is one of the only countries that eats both animals on its seal.

Our next stop was in front of a memorial to soldiers who ultimately gave their lives in a losing invasion of Gallipoli during WWII. Now remembered during ANZAC day, these soldiers from Australia and New Zealand are honored at this memorial in Sydney.

We then proceeded towards Sydney Harbour, stopping at a cannon along the way. Although it was never used in battle, it was on one of the first ships that brought settlers to Australia. It was almost uses against the French who almost invaded Australia, but someone named Napoleon has a few other things on his list of priorities before invading Australia.

After a short break, we finally arrived in the famous Sydney Harbour. After a quick walk around a historical part of Sydney where the first settlers lived, The Rocks, we sat along the water where we learned the history of the Sydney Harbour Bridge and Sydney Opera House

.The bridge was not started until 1923 when, after much arguing and debate, it was finally decided that ferry service across the harbour was no longer viable to meet the needs of the growing city. At 1.6 kilometers long, the bridge was modeled after the Hells Gate Bridge in New York City. Built during a depression where there was a 33.5% unemployment rate, the bridge was referred to as the Iron Lung as it employed thousands of people. A total of 16 people died during the construction of the bridge as there were no safety standards, a stark contrast to the standards of today. The Bridge opened in 1932 to great fanfare and quickly became a symbol of Sydney, despite being called the Coat Hanger by locals.

We concluded our tour learning about the Sydney Opera House, an idea conceived in the 1950’s but not realized until it opened in 1973. The building was designed by an architect from Copenhagen, Jørn Utzon, who beat 220 other entries for the building. He did not consult an engineer when designing the building which made construction much more difficult. The building was supposed to cost $7MM Australian dollars, but wound up costing $102MM and 15 years to build! Due to the delay in the project and the budget issue, the architect was fired and the building was finished by local government officials who tried to interpret what the design intent was as the architect took all of his plans with him when he was fired and went home. The building was finally declared open by Queen Elizabeth II in 1973.After the tour, we took a few pictures of the Sydney Opera House before heading to the pier for a boat tour of Sydney Harbour.

I prebooked us on a 2 hour cruise operated by Captain Cook Cruises. By prebooking, we were upgraded to their “premium” ticket which included a glass of sparkling wine and some desserts during the tour. Since both my father and brother don’t like sparkling wine, I had three glasses before the boat even made it out of the quay!The actual audio commentary on the tour was not as good as I would have liked, but it was still great to see the city and neighboring suburbs from the water.

The actual audio commentary on the tour was not as good as I would have liked, but it was still great to see the city and neighboring suburbs from the water.

After our boat tour, we went back to our hotel to check in and grab a quick snack in the Concierge Lounge before going out to The Rocks for an evening walking tour of that part of Sydney. We were going try to eat dinner before the tour, but ultimately decided we did not have enough time so we stopped at a local bar with live music named The Orient. I had a beer and listened to music for about a half hour before heading to the starting point of the tour.

The tour was operated by the same company as the one earlier in the day & was also a tip based tour. While not as historically informational, we did learn about some of the overcrowding issues typical of the time across the world and about early criminal penalties. At the time, floggings and hangings occurred in public, but the locals were a bit too excited to witness the punishments so they moved them to a location behind the police station. This was still visible from the top of a hill, though, so people just crowded at the top of this hill to watch executions

.We also learned about three bars which claim to be the oldest bars in Sydney, my favorite was called the Hero of Waterloo. At this bar, people would keep getting free beer until they were so drunk the bartender would open a trap door. The following morning, the person would wake up on a boat where they were expected to work as they had just been Shanghaied.

We also got some amazing views of Sydney at night.

After our tour, we went to a small restaurant which had great reviews on TripAdvisor named The Rocks Cafe. Their garlic bread was some of the best I’ve ever had in my life and the braised short ribs were pretty good as well.

After a full day, we headed back to the hotel at about 8:30 PM, grabbed dessert in the Concierge Lounge & went to bed.The following morning, we grabbed one of the best hotel breakfasts I’ve ever had in the lounge before heading back towards The Rocks. I booked my brother on a Bridge Climb tour, something I would have loved to do. I emailed them before I left to see if they would let me do one of their climbs as one of them did not use ladders & only stairs, which I could have easily done. Unfortunately, they said no. That being said, while my brother was climbing the arch of the bridge, I walked across it with my father. On the other side of the bridge, I found an awesome coffee shop named Bay Ten Espresso. It was located in one of the arches under the bridge as part of a co-working space & had a great vibe!

We then started the 1.6 km walk back across the bridge, enjoying the views of Sydney Harbour on the way back.

On the way back, we stopped at one of the pylons which was turned into a museum about how they built the bridge. You could also climb about 200 steps to get gorgeous, sweeping views of Sydney Harbour and the bridge. If you do not do the bridge climb, it was definitely worth the $25AUD entrance fee (mine was $15AUD as I was able to get the concession rate due to my disability). If you do the bridge climb, your ticket comes with admission to the pylon as well.I enjoyed learning about how the bridge was built, some of which I already explained earlier, but was fascinated by some of the pictures showing the lack of safety equipment and harnesses. It was similar to pictures of the construction of buildings like the Empire State Building where people are sitting on beams as they are being lifted by cranes. In order to add a rivet to the bridge it was heated in a furnace, thrown to somebody that caught it in a bucket, held in place by someone and hammered in. There were 6 million rivets needed to construct the bridge. It was also interesting to see how the bridge was constructed from two sides of the harbour until it eventually was joined at the top by a center pin – a scaled model was on display. Basically one part of the bridge was attached to the other via a male / female device. This occured over the course of many hours.

Once at the top of the pylon, we were treated to gorgeous views of not only Sydney Harbour, but of the bridge which we would not have been able to see had we taken the bridge climb tour.

On the way down, we saw stained glass which was added to the pylon as a way to honor the people that constructed the bridge.

Once we were down the pylon, we met up with my brother and headed towards the Sydney Opera House where we had our one hour tour that I had moved from the day prior. We had a few minutes to kill before the tour, so we took in the sun and views from Bennelong Point, the area the Opera house is located on – named in honor of one of the Aboriginal man who greeted the first settlers of Australia.

After checking in for the tour, we proceeded to visit different parts of the Opera House while getting context about how it was built and some of the famous performers that had shows there. I did not realize there were multiple venues within the Sydney Opera House, but we visited one of the small 200 person theatres, the concert hall with a beautiful organ & the actual performance hall where operas take place. Unfortunately, we couldn’t take pictures inside the halls but they were stunning. We did learn about some of the struggles engineers faced when building the structure and what inspired the architect’s design. He grew up in a shipping area of Copenhagen and was fascinated by the sails of ships, this was one of the key elements of the design. It was fascinating to see the structure from the inside – it’s amazing it stands up!

After the tour, we grabbed a late lunch / early dinner along the Sydney Harbour at a restaurant named Searock Grill. It was their happy hour so I was able to get a waygu burger for $15AUD. It was amazing. After dinner, we walked to another restaurant along the water where I had a Belgian dark hot chocolate and people watched before retiring to the hotel for the evening. We headed to bed early as we had a 6:00 AM flight to Cairns the following morning.

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