The Top 10 Things to See and Do in Darling Harbour
Between the glittering water, the majestic Harbour Bridge and the world-famous white sails of the Opera House, Sydney has one of the most iconic cityscapes on the planet. More than 10.6 million visitors from Australia and another 4 million from overseas came through the city in 2018 to experience its distinctive harbour lifestyle, and it’s popularity is no surprise when you visit a place as special as Darling Harbour.
In a city widely considered the place to be, Darling Harbour is a crown jewel. It’s both a tourist hotspot and a favourite among locals, whether it be for a morning coffee catch up, a stroll with the family, a succulent evening meal or a cocktail overlooking the water. To walk around Cockle Bay as the gentle sea breeze carries scents of freshly ground coffee and seared steaks is to know you’ve made the right choice adding this dazzling harbour to your Sydney bucket list. The King Street wharf is where world-class dining and entertainment meets maritime charm and is equally spectacular by day or by night.
Whether you’re travelling for business or leisure, solo or with family or friends, Darling Harbour will leave an impression to last a lifetime. Spend your time relaxing on a leisurely sunset cruise or take things up a notch with a visit to one of the area’s lively bars. With attractions and activities to suit all ages, personalities, budgets and energy levels, there’s no shortage of reasons to put Darling Harbour at the top of your must-see list.
SEA LIFE Sydney Aquarium
With the biggest collection of Australian marine animals in the world, SEA LIFE Sydney Aquarium is an unmissable attraction in the heart of Darling Harbour. A hit with visitors of all ages, the aquarium takes you on an underwater journey through a series themed zones, each with its own unique display of fascinating wildlife from home and across the world.
On your visit to the aquarium, you’ll get closer than ever before with massive sharks, mysterious stingrays, adorable penguins, beautiful turtles, fascinating jellyfish, graceful dugongs, playful platypuses, peculiar sawfish, tropical fish and much, much more. Visit Jurassic Seas to see where life began in the sea and catch a glimpse of the ocean’s most mind-boggling examples of evolution; stroll through the immersive and awe-inspiring tunnel at Shark Valley; admire the quirky residents of Dugong Island; and take the Penguin Exhibition boat ride to meet the aquarium’s coolest residents!
But the aquarium isn’t just an invaluable opportunity to check out the world’s most incredible freshwater and marine life: it also features a variety of special activities and events to ensure your visit is nothing short of unforgettable. Join a glass-bottom boat tour for a unique view of the world under the surface, discover the secrets of yesteryear by exploring a shipwreck, feel the thrill of getting up close and personal with sharks on a feeding tour or find out what it’s like to be a marine biologist for a day. Feeling brave? Push yourself to the limit with Shark Dive Extreme, which the aquarium claims is one of the world’s only guaranteed underwater shark encounters. With 13,000 animals discover and six million litres of water to explore, the aquarium is an itinerary item you won’t regret.
Wild Life Sydney Zoo
Wild Life Sydney Zoo, which you’ll find right next to the aquarium, is an immersive wildlife adventure in the middle of Australia’s biggest city. Focusing on Australia’s iconic native animals, the centre takes a different approach to the larger Taronga Zoo at Bradleys Head with numerous walk-through habitats based on the diverse biospheres to be found across the country.
Kangaroo Walk-About is home to a curious mix of kangaroos, wallabies, echidnas, parrots and one cheeky quokka called Davey, and also features the popular interactive show, Aussie Animal Encounters. Butterfly Tropics is also a must, offering a rare chance to see a number of different species flutter through lush palms and ferns in a shared enclosure with a freshwater crocodile. If you think this one looks pretty mean, wait until you see the monstrously large saltwater crocodile over in the Kakadu Gorge habitat, which is equal parts terrifying and mesmerising. The creature, which measures six metres long from tip to tail and weighs an astonishing 1200 kilograms, is the formidable result of millions of years of evolution and one of the most ferocious apex predators on the planet.
For a change of pace, continue on to Devil’s Den, Gumtree Valley, Wallaby Cliffs and Koala Rooftop to meet some of zoo’s smaller and more cuddly inhabitants, and take the chance to learn a thing or two about how you can help protect Australia’s unique ecosystems. The zoo is passionate about educating, fundraising and championing conservation, and its dedicated staff will always go above and beyond to give you the best possible visit.
Feeling up for something a little offbeat? Madame Tussauds wax sculpture museum is unlike anything you’ve seen before. A playful twist on a regular gallery or display, Tussauds sees countless visitors step through its doors every year to pose for photos with their favourites celebrities and historical figures. Even if you’ve seen photos of the museum’s collection, it doesn’t compare to seeing it up close: the surprisingly lifelike sculptures are eerily realistic and are the next best thing to seeing the individual in person.
Plenty of Aussie stars feature in Madame Tussauds at Darling Harbour, including Lleyton Hewitt, Chris and Liam Hemsworth, Tim Cahill, Hugh Jackman and Rebel Wilson, the latter of whom is the first talking wax figure in the collection. Tussauds also has a host of international icons the likes of Taylor Swift, Barack Obama, Adele, Ryan Gosling and Lady Gaga, so there’s no shortage of photo opportunities with some of the world’s biggest names. But it’s not just a place to stand around admiring at the figures: the museum has plenty of chances to interact with each sculpture in unique ways. Climb across the ceiling with Spider-man, race Sally Pearson in the 100 metre hurdles, measure yourself against 2.29-metre basketballer Yao Ming, try on Ned Kelly’s armour and help Captain Cook rename some of his less imaginative discoveries like ‘Wide Bay’ and ‘Sandy Cape’.
Harbourside Shopping Centre
There’s nothing better than some hard-earned retail therapy, and where better to enjoy it than on the water’s edge at Darling Harbour? The Harbourside Shopping Centre is conveniently situated between the ICC Sydney exhibition centre and Pyrmont Bridge, providing easy access to some of the best shopping, dining and leisure in the area with the iconic Sydney skyline as a backdrop.
Shops are open 10am to 9pm every day and include a selection of retail, souvenir and gift shops that are perfect for a casual afternoon browse. The adjacent dining precinct is an idyllic spot to sit back and relax over some first-class eats and a glass of fine wine while enjoying the humbling views of the city. The shopping centre also features an indoor bowling alley and a flight simulator to keep you entertained, and the wharf outside is a stop for the popular Shopper Hopper ferry on its way to the sprawling outlet centre in Birkenhead Point. Families with children will love Caterpillar Lane on Level 2, where a 40-metre interactive playground of climbing towers, slides, soft play areas and interactive games will keep the kids occupied as long as you need!
Chinese Garden of Friendship
Darling Harbour is a lively hub of culture and entertainment with attractions for people of all ages and persuasions. If you find yourself craving a break from the hustle and bustle, look no further than the Chinese Garden of Friendship just south of Tumbalong Park. This serene, secluded space is an oasis of calm in the heart of the city and will help you rest and recharge before heading back into the thick of the action to explore everything else Darling Harbour has to offer. Inside the walls of the Chinese Garden of Friendship, you’ll find a charming hideaway designed to reflect the harmony and philosophy of a traditional Chinese garden. Meander through the grounds and allow the mixture of lakes, waterfalls, exotic plants and concealed pathways to quiet the mind and soothe the body after a day spent exploring the metropolis.
It was first built in 1988 to celebrate the friendship between Sydney and sister city Guangzhou in China’s Guangdong province and focuses on the Taoist principles of ‘Yin-Yang’ (balanced opposites) and ‘Wu-Xing’ (the five elements of wood, fire, earth, metal and water). With the exception of Good Friday and Christmas Day, the garden is open every day of the year from 9:30am - 5pm (April - September) and 9:30am - 5:30pm (October - March) with affordable admission prices of $6 for adults and $3 for kids. Families of two adults and two kids can enter for the discounted price of $15. The garden also runs three daily guided tours and koi feeding sessions; keep an out for the 12 animals of the Chinese lunar calendar hidden throughout the grounds!
Harbour River Cruise
Darling Harbour is a stunning feature of Sydney no matter which way you look at it, but you simply can’t pass up the opportunity to experience it from the water. The area is the city’s biggest hub for cruise operators and a common starting point for voyages throughout Sydney Harbour. Those on a tight budget can hop on one of the many ferries running between Darling Harbour and countless other waterside locations in Sydney both north and south of the bridge. All you’ll need is an Opal Card from a ticket machine, convenience store or newsagent, or a credit card with contactless payment (at a slightly higher charge).
If you’re after a more premium experience, there is a bevy of options available to suit your taste from operators like Flagship Cruises, Sydney By Sail, Captain Cook Cruises, Champagne Cruises and more. You can book everything from a dining cruise to a private charter yacht complete with high-quality catering -- no matter your choice, it’ll be the cruise of a lifetime.
Spanning the gap between Pyrmont and Sydney CBD, Pyrmont Bridge is a classic landmark of Darling Harbour and Sydney’s inner city. First opened in 1902 to replace a bridge built in 1857, it’s one of the oldest electrical swingspan bridges in the world and is crossed by thousands of pedestrians every day. Given the bridge has been closed to vehicles since 1981, it’s a relaxing and refreshing way to soak in Cockle Bay and the wider Darling Harbour surrounds. Stop in the middle to take some photos of the scenery, and keep your eyes peeled for the plaque installed at the bridge’s west end -- an inscription on the east end celebrates the bridge’s designer, Percy Allan.
What makes the 369-metre Pyrmont Bridge unique is its swingspan design, which allows the middle to be rotated almost 90 degrees (83 to be precise) to allow larger ships to pass through to the end of Cockle Bay. While most shipping has been moved elsewhere since the development of Darling Harbour as a culture and entertainment hotspot, the bridge remains a key piece of engineering heritage and still opens for boats more than 21.5 metres or over 7 metres high. It also opens for demonstrations, so head down to the bridge on weekends and public holidays to catch it completing its graceful turn made possible by steel columns and a base that plunges 10 metres below the seafloor.
Australian National Maritime Museum
Being a harbour city, Sydney has a proud and fascinating maritime heritage spanning hundreds of years. With a wealth of collections and exhibitions, the Australian National Maritime Museum is a highly engaging attraction that puts the spotlight on the significance of maritime history in Sydney and across the nation. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a history buff or a casual visitor -- the museum is renowned for telling immersive stories of Australia’s past through stimulating displays, events and activities suitable for all ages. More than 850,000 people visit every year, from locals seeking knowledge of their home to tourists visiting from the other side of the world. A major attraction within the Australian National Maritime Museum is one of the biggest floating historical vessel collections in the world, comprising former Navy vessels HMAS Vampire and HMAS Advance, former submarine HMAS Onslow and a replica of Captain Cook’s HMB Endeavour. You’ll even get the chance to climb aboard each ship for the rare opportunity to explore the wonders of Australia’s history at sea.
The museum also features a prominent collection covering the deep connection of Indigenous Australians to the sea, and links all aspects of the nation’s maritime past to paint a vivid picture of how water has shaped Australia’s identity. Whatever piques your interest, the museum’s team of passionate experts is always more than willing to guide you through the exhibits and provide fascinating insights on every display.
Sydney Harbour Jet
We hope you’ve spent plenty of time relaxing and unwinding, because it’s time for an exhilarating experience like no other. While wandering around Darling Harbour, you may have spotted a bright, blue-and-yellow blur zipping across the water in a shower of spray -- that’s none other than the Sydney Harbour Jet, one of the most popular tourist attractions in the city. With a launch point near King Street Wharf just north of the aquarium and zoo, this 25-person jet boat reaches speeds of up to 75 kilometres per hour as it hurtles across the water. But pure speed isn’t all you’ll experience: strap yourself in, because the ultra-skilled driver will be pulling off hairpin turns, sweeping fishtails, wild spins and sudden stops with the boat’s power brakes.
The company claims to have been the first jet boat operator to hit Australia, and it probably lays claim to the most scenic location, too! But these rides set against the backdrop of the stunning Sydney skyline aren’t for the faint-hearted, so be sure to adequately prepare yourself for the thrill of tearing past icons like the Harbour Bridge, the Opera House, Fort Denison and Luna Park. Sydney Harbour Jet operates from Friday to Sunday, so make sure you’re visiting on a weekend to secure this experience of a lifetime.
Darling Harbour Fireworks
Who says you need a special event or public holiday to launch some world-class fireworks? Every Saturday night in Sydney, the sky is illuminated with a spectacular fireworks display in Darling Harbour. The show starts at 9pm over summer and at 8:30pm during the cooler months, so you won’t have to hang around until midnight to witness the spectacle. It’s on almost every weekend, but check the schedule online to make sure they’re on while you’re staying in Sydney.
There are a number of fantastic vantage points to choose from, whether it be a prime spot around Cockle Bay or a seat at one of the many world-class restaurants around the harbour. You can also head to Pyrmont Bridge to catch the show from a higher viewpoint.
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