Sydney is not the capital of Australia as many think; that honor goes to Canberra, a city that like our own capital of D.C., is not part of one of the seven states of Australia. Instead, Canberra lays at the northern end of the Australian Capital Territory, or A.C.T. as it is locally called.
One word to describe Sydney? Beautiful. That may sound generic but my shoddy photography above of the Sydney Harbor (taken from the Taronga Zoo) does not begin to convey the vibrant shades of blue that the water and sky share, or the varying greens that are found in the bush along the road and water, some plants looking like they could fit in along Hollywood Boulevard, others seem to be straight out of the high deserts. And the birds! They were the first real indicator that I was in a foreign country. The first morning in Sydney I awoke bright and early (thanks jet-lag for forcing me to sleep at an early 4 PM the day before!) hearing the most beautiful, and unrecognizable bird songs. Now I know absolutely nothing about birds, much less their calls, and I was shocked that I even realized that these sounded different. I guess music, even birdsong, has a way of seeping into your subconsciousness without you realizing it. These new-to-me birds sang beautifully! Maria would have been in heaven, and probably win herself another Grammy!
I only spent a few days in the heart of the city-like section of Sydney. I did a bunch of touristy things such as walk around the Opera House, have an Aussie beer at the Opera Bar, visit the Museum of Contemporary Art (where I surprisingly pretty much hated the majority of the exhibits; one exhibit featured a taxidermy horse hanging from the ceiling! C'mon now!), visited the aforementioned Taronga Zoo (not the home of the late Crocodile Hunter as I had hoped; his was the Australia Zoo in Queensland) and window shop/latte sip in the trendy Rocks district along the water, where supposedly the convicts chipped away at the rocks to create the town. I also had the opportunity to run the famous City 2 Surf Fun Run, which started in Sydney's CBD (Central Business District) and ended 14 k's later at Bondi Beach (reviewed here on the Races in Places Blog).
I spent the majority of my time in Sydney hanging out at Manly Beach. Sydney is comprised of a series of beaches to the north and south of the main city. These beaches are not at all what you find along the eastern coast of the US. Instead of being long and straight with one beach ending where the next begins, as it is here, these beaches are more like little coves that are book-ended by cliffs. You can't really walk from one beach to the next staying just on the sand. Check out this map and you'll see how the coast curves in and out, and is not straight. Also, the beaches themselves are much smaller. There are few sand dunes and the road pretty much goes right next to the beach, which is lined with palm trees and other green vegetation.
Manly is a cute little surf town with a rivalry with southern Bondi. Bondi was by far more spectacular, as it was bigger with lots of glamour and trend. But the smaller more homey Manly definitely fit my personality much better with its more intimate beach and alternate wharf side. Manly is sandwiched between the ocean and a wharf (seen below). Connecting the two bodies of water is the "Corso," an outdoor strip of shops and cafes. There was a definite laid back feel and while it was too cool to shed the jacket, sitting in the sun offered the therapeutic revitalization I was craving.
While sitting on the beach enjoying a huge hand-held sushi roll was certainly relaxing to the nth degree, I didn't necessarily find the town inspiring, at least not in the heart of the city. One afternoon trip took me to the tip of the Northern Beaches to the Barrenjoey Head Aquatic Reserve. We took a short hike to the lighthouse and it was there I felt the beauty and authenticity of the terrain really start to seep in. Earlier that day I went for a run along Dee Why Beach, another little beach in Northern Sydney. This was a great run because I deviated from my path, sacrificing mileage for adventure, and explored the side of a small cliff bordering the beach (plus running in the sand is a bitch!). I felt I was truly exploring the landscape hands on, which was way more exciting than walking through the CDB. That day was probably my favorite day during my stay in Sydney.
If you should visit Sydney, definitely check out the tourist book staples, but don't hesitate to jump on one of the many ferries, and head out to the smaller beaches. This is where you'll find the true charm of the city and dare I say, country.