Best things to do with kids in fabulously family-friendly Sydney
Australia seems to rank pretty high on a lot of bucket lists. If the Great Barrier Reef and the Outback are your draw to Australia, don’t overlook the value of spending time in Sydney. The city is really a destination in itself. Simply put, it’s gorgeous.
For those who can’t decide between a city vacation or a beach vacation, Sydney offers a bit of both. In just a matter of minutes, you can step out of the city center and onto a beach; there are over 100 beaches in the Sydney area. If you prefer hiking boots to flip-flops, a short train transports you outside the city limits to the mountains and other scenic spots.
The iconic attractions are the Sydney Opera House and the Sydney Harbour Bridge, but there’s much more to see and do here. The city is extremely family-friendly and easy to navigate. And don’t stress about driving on the other side of the road because there’s really no need for a car in Sydney as you can get just about anywhere by public train, bus or ferry.
Here’s a look at KidTripster’s Top 10 Plays in Sydney, complete with tips for making your vacation even more enjoyable.
1/Featherdale Wildlife Park
217 Kildare Rd., Doonside
Getting to Featherdale Wildlife Park requires a bit of effort but don’t be deterred. It’s just a short train ride (and then a quick bus or taxi) from Sydney. Featherdale offers many opportunities to get up close to animals.
The park feels like a bit of a throwback to the era of smaller, family-owned zoos. It has lots of cages and appears to be less about the landscaping, theming, and conservation than today’s more modern zoos. However, Featherdale has a large collection of Australian native animals including birds, reptiles, and marsupials.
When you enter the park, you can purchase add-ons to your admission, like a koala encounter. Of the three wildlife parks we visited, this park is the only one in the Sydney area that allows visitors to touch a koala while standing next to it for a photo. Spoiler alert: their fur is really soft! On the day that we visited, we also had the opportunity to hold and take a photo with a Dingo puppy. All of these experiences cost extra, but the photos sure are cute, and the experiences are memorable.
As you walk through Featherdale, you’ll be able to purchase food for feeding animals like the wallabies and kangaroos. This zoo was the only one of the three we visited that allowed feeding of the animals which meant you could get close enough to pet and touch them. As I took photos, some friendly animals even got close enough to lick my camera lens!
KidTripster Tip: Although Featherdale describes itself as “Sydney’s Hands-On Wildlife Experience,” not all animals are for touching. Be sure to heed the warning signs. During our visit, we saw one of the gulls steal a little boy’s shoe and take it for a swim. It didn’t end well for the shoe.
You’ll spend at least a few hours exploring here. Food is available, but you’re allowed to bring your own picnic. Cost: Youth (0-2) Free; Youth (3-15) about $17; Adult about $22; Family (2 adults, 2 kids) about $63, depending on the exchange rate.
2/Targona Zoo Sydney
Put on your walking shoes for this zoo because it’s large and hilly, but that view of the world famous Sydney Harbour is stunning.
Many visitors take the ferry from Circular Quay to the zoo. At the ferry drop-off, board the Sky Safari which takes you to the zoo entrance. And it’s all downhill from there (in a good way). You can start your zoo experience at the top of the hill and wind your way back down.
KidTripster Tip: If you don’t take the ferry to the zoo, you can still enjoy the Sky Safari. It’s free to board with your zoo admission. The Sky Safari cruises over the zoo with animals below and the Sydney skyline in the distance. We liked it so much that we rode twice.
A unique attraction at the Taronga Zoo is the Tiger Trek. To enter the exhibit, you board a mock plane that “transports” you to Sumatra. The exhibit focuses on the critically endangered Sumatran tiger. There are fewer than 400 Sumatran tigers left in the wild. At the end of the exhibit, kids learn about how simple choices made while shopping can help save this endangered animal. It’s done in a fun and interactive way that got my kids interested in conservation. Of course, you’ll get to see the impressive Sumatran tigers, too.
The Taronga Zoo has an elephant breeding program and as a result, a large Asian elephant exhibit. You can get an up-close view of the elephants including a cute calf. Keepers are on hand, offering information about the animals.
Of course, you’re in Australia, so you'll see plenty of native animals, too, including koalas. Fun facts: koalas sleep up to 20 hours a day, and they spend their few waking hours sitting around eating eucalyptus leaves. You can pay extra to get up close to a koala. However you can’t touch or hold one; it’s mostly a photo op.
There are several other animal encounters available, including those with penguins, giraffes, and elephants. All of these experiences cost extra and some do require advance booking, so visit the zoo’s website to learn more.
You also can see Taronga Zoo via zipline. The Wild Ropes Course takes you to heights of 30 feet for a bird’s eye view of the wildlife below. There are courses designed for kids (ages 3-8), juniors (age 8-15), and adults. And you guessed it, Wild Ropes costs extra.
KidTripster Tip: The zoo is in the midst of a 10-year revitalization project. Many of the exhibits were closed during our visit. We still saw plenty of animals but be warned that some exhibits may be off limits.
You can easily spend a full day here. Cost: Youth (under 4) Free; Youth (4-15) about $19; Adult about $33, depending on exchange rate. Buy your tickets online to save as much as 20% and skip the ticket line.
Photo courtesy: Thandy Yung
3/WILD LIFE & SEA LIFE
If you want to see the “Aussie Big 5” but don’t want to dedicate an entire day to the zoo, WILD LIFE Sydney might be just the place for you. Located in Darling Harbour, WILD LIFE features koalas, kangaroos, wombats, platypuses, and a crocodile. There are some other animals on display, too, but the Big 5 are really the star attractions here.
As you enter, you’ll walk through the world of butterflies. At every turn, butterflies were landing on us. My daughter really enjoyed the experience. She seemed to be a butterfly magnet. Animal talks and feedings take place throughout the day. Be sure to join in on one to learn some interesting information about the residents.
At WILD LIFE, you’ll have the opportunity to pay for a koala encounter. It’s a photo opportunity only, no touching the koalas. If you just want to get a close-up look at koalas without any glass between you and without paying extra, just head to the cafe. There are some koala enclosures in there. The animals are just a couple of feet away from people.
KidTripster Tip: Whereas Taronga Zoo and Featherdale are almost entirely outdoors, your visit to WILD LIFE isn’t weather dependent as much of the experience is indoors.
Immediately next door to WILD LIFE is SEA LIFE Sydney Aquarium, where you’ll see some of Australia’s underwater animals, including sharks, penguins, jellyfish, and more. The aquarium lets you “dive” into Sydney Harbour (without getting wet!) to get a look at what’s swimming underneath the surface. We even found “Nemo" there or at least a clown fish that sure looked like him. The walk-through tunnels that allow you to see fish, sharks, and stingrays swimming all around you are must-sees. It’s not just about fish, though. The Penguin Expedition takes you up close to a colony of King and Gentoo penguins.
WILDLIFE and SEALIFE are each relatively small and can be fully explored within an hour or two. The other two wildlife locations (Featherdale and Taronga Zoo) offer a better overall wildlife experience, but if seeing a kangaroo is important to you and you don’t want to devote a day to do it, this is a good option.
KidTripster Tip: Before you leave, visit the touch tank SEA LIFE. But a word of caution: hold on to your cell phone. We’re told that many people drop their phones in the tank while trying to snap that perfect photo.
You can pay to visit each attraction individually. Online cost: Youth about $17; Adult about $25, depending on exchange rate. For both attractions, online cost: Youth about $25; Adult about $35, depending on exchange rate.
4/Chinese Garden of Friendship
The Chinese Garden of Friendship is a beautiful spot, right in the heart of Darling Harbour. It’s deceivingly large and unexpectedly peaceful. Tall buildings surround the garden, but once you step inside, you feel like you’ve escaped the city.
This traditional Chinese garden is filled with waterfalls, lakes, koi, and more. The garden was built to honor the friendship between Sydney and the city of Guangzhou, China.
It’s extremely affordable to visit. Cost: Youth (under 12) about $2; Adult about $4, depending on exchange rate.
KidTripster Tip: If you’re worried that a garden visit may bore the kids, don’t! There are some kid-friendly activities offered here. I suggest the scavenger hunt called The Emperor’s Quest. Kids also can dress up in traditional Chinese costumes and participate in daily fish feedings.
5/Darling Harbour Children's Playground
While visiting Darling Harbour, you’ll want to stop at the huge children’s playground. You’ll find the usual stuff like swings and slides, but you’ll also find two large climbing structures and a flying fox that stretches nearly 70 feet.
KidTripster Tip: Take a swimsuit and towel because the waterworks area allows kids to pump, squirt, and play. There’s a sand pit, too.
My kids had so much fun that we returned for another visit the next day.
KidTripster Tip: There are a lot of restaurants in this area from fast food to high-end dining. There’s a McDonald’s, small coffee stand, and an ice cream shop located right next to the playground where you can get a convenient and inexpensive bite.
6/Sydney Harbour Bridge
At nearly 4,000 feet long, the Sydney Harbour Bridge is one of the longest arched bridges in the world. It takes about 30 minutes to cross on foot, depending on how often you stop to take photos. We stopped a lot as the view was breathtaking. Although fencing encloses the bridge, you can position your camera through the fence to allow for some nice shots.
As you cross from one end to the other, you’ll want to stop at the Pylon Lookout. Climb the 200 stairs to the observation point to learn about the history of the bridge and the engineering feat that it took to build the famous steel arch. At the top of the lookout, you can step outside and take in more amazing views of Sydney Harbour and the bridge itself. The walk across the bridge is easy, and it’s free. To visit the pylon, you’ll need to pay admission. Cost: Youth about $6; Adult (13 and older) about $10, depending on exchange rate. Be warned, the lookout is neither stroller- nor wheelchair-friendly.
KidTripster Tip: No matter which way you walk, be sure to check out what’s under the bridge when you exit. On the south end is the Rocks District, Sydney’s oldest settlement. At the other end is North Sydney, just a short walk to the Olympic Pool and Luna Park.
For a more adventurous way to see the harbor, consider BridgeCimb Sydney. You read that, right! If your kids are older than 8 and at least 47-inches tall, they’re able to participate in a bridge climb, provided you’re willing to go with them as a parent or guardian is required. The climb lasts 1-1/2 to 3-1/2 hours, depending on which tour you choose. The cost varies depending on the climb and the date. Cost: Youth starts at about $131; Adult starts at about $188, depending on exchange rate.
KidTripster Tip: Know that you aren’t allowed to take a camera on your climb. So if you’re hoping to get a great shot from the top of the bridge, you’ll have to purchase it.
Photo courtesy: Michael Amadeus
7/Sydney Opera House
Visiting the Sydney Opera House is a no-brainer. It’s one of the most iconic buildings in the world and truly stunning to see in person. It’s really easy to get to as it’s located right in Sydney Harbour and accessible by trains and ferries stopping at Circular Quay. From there, you won’t need directions to get to the Opera House because you can see it from the station. Just start walking towards those famous sails.
Expect to see lots of tourists meandering about trying to get just the right angle for a selfie. You’ll probably want to do that, too.
If you want to take in a performance, check the schedule. The opera house puts on more than 1,600 events a year, meaning it’s more than likely that there’s something to see during your visit.
But that’s not the only way to get inside the building. The opera house offers tours that allow you to step inside the Sydney landmark and walk under its vaulted ceilings. The basic tour runs about an hour. Cost: Youth (under 5) Free; Youth (5-15) about $16; Adult about $29; Family (2 adults, 2 kids) about $75, depending on exchange rate. While everyone is welcomed on the main tour, there are special tours for children and families; however, these tours are only available during Australian school holidays. Check the Sydney Opera House website for dates. Cost: Youth (under 5) Free; Youth (5-15) about $16; Adult about $23.
Photo courtesy: Dan Freeman
8/Royal Botanic Garden
Mrs. Macquaries Rd.
Just steps away from the Sydney Opera House, you’ll find the Royal Botanic Garden. This garden is Australia’s oldest, created more than 200 years ago. The gardens feature native plants, roses, ferns, herbs, palms, and much more.
We took the Choo Choo Express train around the park. It’s geared towards kids and families. It was a nice reprieve after a long day of walking. The conductor narrates along the way, pointing out must-sees in the garden as well as landmarks in the harbour. If you want to get out and explore the garden, you can just hop off. Trains run about every 30 minutes. The ride lasts about 25 minutes. Cost: Youth about $3; Adult about $7, depending on exchange rate.
One of the stops gets you close to Mrs. Macquarie’s Chair. This sandstone bench was carved by convicts in the 1800s for the then-governor’s wife to enjoy the panoramic views of the harbour. All these years later, the view is still lovely which is why it’s such a popular tourist stop.
There is no cost to enter the garden. If you want to learn more about the history of the garden or the wildlife, join one of the free, guided tours that are offered daily. Also look for special events geared to families, especially during school holidays.
Photo courtesy: Royal Botanic Garden
1 Olympic Dr., Milsons Point
Built in 1935, Sydney’s Luna Park was modeled after Coney Island’s Luna Park. It’s a small amusement park with several rides including a ferris wheel. There’s also the Sideshow Alley with fun, carnival games.
Luna Park is worth the visit if not just for the photo opportunity of the famous entrance. The great thing about visiting here is that you don’t have to pay to enter the park. You will need to pay for rides, but you can walk around for free. Buy your tickets online before you go to get the best deal. Tickets are sold based on the height of your child, so purchase accordingly.
KidTripster Tip: Luna Park lights up after dark. You can get a nice view if you take the ferry over from Circular Quay to Milsons Point. The park also is accessible by train, but the view from the ferry is much prettier.
KidTripster Tip: Combine Luna Park with your bridge walk during the evening.
Photo courtesy: Annie Spratt
Ah, there are so many beaches around Sydney, but so little time to explore them all! The great news is that you don’t need a car to reach most of them as they’re easily accessible by public transit.
No doubt, you’ve heard of Bondi Beach. It’s famous for its surfing. You’ll see some surf pros here as well as tourists trying their hand at surfing for the first time. It’s a good spot to dip your toes. If the surf’s too rough, there’s a saltwater bath at one end of the beach that allows kids to safely splash around. Know that this is a popular and crowded beach with tourists and locals alike. Located near the beach, you’ll find plenty of shops and restaurants. Bondi’s accessible by bus, ferry (to Watson’s Bay) or train. If you take the ferry, you’ll need to catch a bus to the beach. The bus stop is a short walk from the sand.
You may consider visiting the Maquarie Lightstation. It’s Australia’s oldest lighthouse. It’s free to roam the grounds. To go inside, you’ll need to pay a nominal fee to participate in a guided tour. However, the tours are only offered every two months. You can walk to it from Watson’s Bay. Or the bus to Bondi passes by it, if you want to hop off and get a look.
Another way to enjoy the beach is walking the 3-1/2-mile trail that starts at Bondi. Walking the entire trail will take a few hours to complete, but along the way, you’ll see beautiful coastline views. The trail is popular and gets pretty crowded.
Another famous Sydney beach is Manly, which is a little more low-key and family-friendly. It’s easy to get to by ferry. Hop aboard at Circular Quay. The ferry runs directly to Manly. It’s about a 30-minute ride and ferries run frequently between the two stops. From the ferry, it’s a short walk to the beach. Manly is a cute town with many restaurants and shops that you’ll pass on your way.
KidTripster Tip: If you’re don’t have any sand toys or sunscreen, there are shops near the beach. We picked up a few buckets and shovels and spent the afternoon playing in the sand.
KidTripster Tip: Both of these beaches offer public restrooms, changing areas, and showers to hose off before boarding the ferry or train. Free, public WiFi is available even on the sand.
KyAnn Lewis is a Portland, Oregon-based journalist, mom, and travel junkie. She’s the CVO (Chief Vacation Officer) for her family, always on the lookout for a good deal and a new destination to explore. She believes one of the most important things that you can give your kid is a passport.
Photo courtesy: Alex King
This writer received some complimentary admissions for the purpose of this review. However, all opinions expressed are solely her own.
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