Things to do in Circular Quay, Sydney

Circular Quay, home to two of Australia’s most iconic landmarks, is the starting point for many visitors to Sydney. A hive of activity, there is never any shortage of things to do in Circular Quay.

View of Circular Quay with Sydney Harbour Bridge and Opera House in background

Most Australians will probably find this hard to believe (at least my Aussie friends do) but Circular Quay is one of my favourite places in Sydney…in Australia in fact.

Ok, at first glance, it’s a bustling transport interchange, busy with commuters, tourists and noisy with buskers and street entertainers but there is something magical about getting a glimpse of the Sydney Opera House and the Harbour Bridge that never gets old.

About Circular Quay

Once a working port Circular Quay is now many things. A transport hub (the city workers must have the most scenic commute in the world!), a place to dine out, have a drink and home to two of Australia’s iconic landmarks.

If you visit Sydney, it’s likely you’ll end up here at some point. So what should you do there? Here’s my suggestions of what not to miss…

Things to do in Circular Quay

Visit the Sydney Opera House

This building needs no introduction. If there is one thing you should do in Circular Quay it is visit the Opera House. See a show or just sit in one of the many bars and restaurants and watch the world go by. It’s a great place to people watch and soak up the views.

Ferry in front of the Sydney Opera House at sunset

Best photo spot:  Head over the Hyatt Hotel for a view back to the Opera House.

Explore the Sydney Harbour Bridge

Close up view of the Sydney Harbour Bridge.

If one world famous landmark wasn’t enough, Circular Quay has two. One of the most recognisable bridges in the world, the harbour bridge is must see on a visit to Sydney.

You can walk, drive or climb over the bridge. Or just sit and admire it from a distance.

Best photo spot: Some of the best views include looking back at the bridge from the base of the Opera House. To get both the Opera House and Harbour Bridge in the same photo, head over to Mrs Macquarie’s Point in the Royal Botanic Gardens.

Tip: Visit the Pylon Lookout for a cheap way to get up close to the bridge and enjoy the spectacular views without splashing out on the full bridge climb expereince.

Visit Dawes Point Park

At the tip of The Rocks overlooking Sydney Cove, Dawes Point Park is a great place for views across the harbour. You also get a unique view of the Harbour Bridge which runs over the top of the park.

The park is on the site of Australia first fortified position, constructed to protect the cove from foreign invaders. Five Cannons remain from the former Dawes Point Battery.

Admire the view from the Cahill Expressway

I know you are probably thinking why go stand by the side of a freeway but bear with me. Running along the top of Circular Quay station, the road offers some of the best views of the harbour.

You don’t see it mentioned in many guides, in fact I didn’t discover it until my third or fourth visit but the unbeatable view is well worth tracking down the discreet entrances up to the roadway and heading up for a look.

Get on the water

One of best ways to enjoy Sydney Harbour is on the water and there are plent of options available. Many of which are in Circular Quay.

You can

  • Be a Sydneysider and jump on a ferry – be a local for the day and explore the harbour on the extensive ferry network. Or jump on the Manly Ferry for a ride to one of Sydney’s most famous beaches.
  • Sit back and enjoy the views on sightseeing cruise – a number of sightseeing cruises depart from Circular Quay and will take you all around Sydney Harbour. You can choose from cocktail cruises, afternoon tea cruises (my favourite) or even take a whale watching cruise outside the harbour.
  • Jet boat around the harbour – If you are looking for something a little more adventurous then why not take a jet boat around the Harbour?  You’ll see all the iconic sights (if you can bear to keep your eyes open) while doing 360-degree spins and tricks.

Visit the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia

Top of the The Art Gallery of New South Wales building

With a prime spot overlooking Circular Quay, the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia is home to over 4000 works from Australian artists. The museum also holds exhibitions of all forms of contemporary art and from both Australian and International artists.

The MCA cafe offers some of the best views in the city so make sure to take a pit stop here.

Stroll round The Rocks

On the edge of the harbour, The Rocks is steeped in history. The traditional home of the Gadigal (group of  indigenous Australians whose traditional lands are located in Sydney) and the spot where European settlers stepped ashore there plenty of stories from the past to discover.

Nowadays, the narrow cobbled lanes are home to shops, cafes and one of Australia’s oldest pubs. If you visit over weekend make sure you check out the food market on Friday and the gift/souvenir market on Saturdays and Sundays.

Things to do near Circular Quay

There is enough to do in Circular Quay to keep you occupied all day but if you wish to explore further afield there is plenty to do in the surrounding areas.

  • Royal Botanic Gardens – you’ll be hard pressed to find gardens with a better view.  Located next to Sydney’s central business district and on the harbour’s edge, the gardens. Learn about the plants  Don’t forget to take a picnic.

  • Sydney Observatory – head up to Observatory Hill for panoramic views over the harbour.  Explore the southern skies with a night visit.

  • Art Gallery of New South Wales – one of Australia’s largest art galleries, you can easily lose a few hours in here. Discover works from Australian and international artists or check out one of their temporary exhibitions

  • Barangaroo Reserve – Sydney’s new harbour foreshore park. A great spot for a water side picnic or a stroll around the park lands

  • Museum of Sydney – uncover the history of Sydney in this museum which is built around the remains of Australia’s first Government House.

How to get to Circular Quay

Train

Circular Quay station is on the City Circle line which starts and ends at Central and loops around the central business district.

Ferry

Circular Quay is home to the Sydney Ferries hub so most ferry routes begin and terminate here.

On foot

Head downtown to Alfred Street, The Rocks or Macquarie Street to access Circular Quay.

Where to stay near Circular Quay

There is accommodation to suit all budgets near Circular Quay. Here are a few I’ve stayed in over the years.

Budget

Sydney Harbour YHA – My hostel days may be over but this is one hostel I make an exception for. The location is unbeatable. Within a few minutes walk you are on Circular Quay. The roof terrace overlooking the Harbour and Opera House offers spectacular views at the fraction of the cost of nearby hotels.

Luxury

Intercontinental Sydney – if you are looking for something more indulgent then the Intercontinental is for you. Perched on the edge of Circular Quay many of rooms have spectacular views across the harbour and city. They also do one of the best cups of tea I’ve had in Australia.

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