As Australia’s largest city, Sydney is a must for most travelers. Australia in general is not a cheap destination and Sydney as a large city can be trying to see on a budget. We just returned from 5 days in Sydney with our kids and had a fantastic time. We want to share with you what to do in Sydney with kids on a budget, tips for saving money and some options for where to stay in Sydney for families.
Our kids were absolutely mesmerized by Sydney’s iconic Opera House and Harbour Bridge and never tired of seeing them from various angles. In fact Sydney is beautiful from almost any vantage point and has some of the best views of any city. Of course Sydney offers so much more then just these two terrific sites. You could spend weeks exploring all the different neighborhoods, museums and beaches that Sydney has to offer.
- 1 Sydney with Kids on a Budget – What to See
- 1.1 The Opera House
- 1.2 Harbour Bridge
- 1.3 Royal Botanic Gardens
- 1.4 Explore the Rocks
- 1.5 Take a Public Ferry
- 1.6 Visit Manly Beach
- 1.7 Darling Harbour Playground – let the kids play
- 1.8 Walk from Bondi Beach to Bronte (or Coogee)
- 1.9 Visit Taronga Zoo
- 1.10 See the Aquarium and Darling Harbour Attractions
- 1.11 Take a Surf Lesson
- 1.12 Sample the Museums and Art Galleries
- 1.13 Check out the Blue Mountains (nearby)
- 2 Sydney on a Budget Tips
- 3 Family Accommodation Sydney
- 4 Where to Eat
- 5 The Bottom Line
Sydney with Kids on a Budget – What to See
One of the ways we stick to a budget when traveling with kids is by picking a couple key attractions to pay for. We spend the rest of our time doing free activities – wandering the city, finding the best parks and playgrounds and soaking up the feel of the place. Our highlights of what to do in Sydney with kids on a budget starts out with free or low cost activities. We have then added some paid activities that we felt were worth it.
The Opera House
It really is beautiful and an amazing architectural landmark that even kids will appreciate. It is worth seeing it from different vantage points and after dark as well. You will likely start from Circular Quay, a key transportation hub where ferries, trains and buses all depart from. There are always street performers around Circular Quay which our kids always find very entertaining. From Circular Quay, circumnavigate around the Opera House to see it from different angles. You can pay to do a tour of the Opera House or you can buy tickets for a performance if you want to see inside. From the back of the Opera House, you can make your way into the Royal Botanic Gardens.
The Harbour Bridge opened in 1932 after 9 years of construction and is a prominent feature of the city’s skyline. Like the Opera House, you will want to see it from different angles, especially when it is all lit up at night. There are great views from Circular Quay and the Opera House. Of course seeing it from the water on a local ferry is another great way to enjoy the bridge. If you want a sunset photo, across the bridge in Kirribilli (Jeffrey St Wharf) you can get a great shot. If the kids are up for it, walking across the bridge (about 2km) is a fun thing. For $150-300 pp you can experience the bridge through the Bridge Climb, although that certainly wouldn’t be a budget experience!
Royal Botanic Gardens
Our kids need to run off energy and these beautiful Botanic Gardens are a great place for that. Located right beside the Opera House and dating from 1816, there are incredible plants from Australia and all over the world here. Our kids enjoyed running around the green fields and stopping at the cafe for drinks and a treat.
Explore the Rocks
The Rocks area, located at the base of the bridge and beside Circular Quay was the original European settlement. Today it has been polished up for tourists and this is the landing area for cruise ships that visit. It was once a rough neighborhood centered around shipping and whaling. It is a picturesque area to wander through the cobblestone streets and imagine what it would have been like for the first European settlers living there. We did a quick walk through the Rocks Discovery Museum, which is FREE. It provided lots of information about the history of the area and our kids particularly enjoyed learning about the bridge being constructed. There are markets on the weekends that sell a variety of handicrafts and souvenirs.
Take a Public Ferry
For me one of the things I love the most about Sydney is getting around by ferry. Luckily, the kids also find this fun and entertaining making it a great things to do in Sydney with kids on a budget. All ferries depart from Circular Quay and you will need to use your Opal card before you board. Ferries don’t come as frequently as trains or buses, so check the schedule and plan ahead. For most visitors, the best way to experience a ferry is taking the ferry to Manly Beach (see below). There are lots of Harbour cruises available if you want to go on a sunset or dinner cruise, but the public ferries are a great cheaper alternative.
Visit Manly Beach
The two beaches you will hear about the most in Sydney are Manly and Bondi. Both are surf beaches and you will want to watch your kids carefully. Manly is my favorite because of its laid back vibe perfect for families. In summer, spend a day here at the beach. Grab fish and chips and enjoy a cheap lunch out (watch out for the birds!). There are also lots of great ice cream shops for a special treat. The best way to get here is by taking the public ferry from Circular Quay, which takes about 30 minutes. Shelley Beach located on the southern side of Manly Beach is a great spot for kids because it is sheltered by a reef. If you are looking for a calmer beach for little ones, the harbour side beaches of Balmoral and Nielsen Park are great options.
Darling Harbour Playground – let the kids play
We love Australian playgrounds and there are lots of fantastic ones in Melbourne. The Darling Harbour playground at Tumbalong Park is pretty amazing and special. Our kids loved it so much, we went back a second time and they could happily have spent hours here. This is a great option for a families to do in Sydney with kids on a budget. The highlight for our kids was the water play area with dams, pumps and fountains. So many opportunities for creative play here. There is also a huge rope climbing structure, neat flying fox, slides and swings and sand play areas. Hours of fun to be had here for kids. Try to visit during the week as it gets really busy on weekends and the space is quite spread out and large.
Walk from Bondi Beach to Bronte (or Coogee)
Bondi is glitzy and glamorous, but you will want to check out this famous beach. My husband felt like he was missing five abs to walk the beach with all the beautiful people. For me, the best reason to go is to walk the beautiful cliffs between Bondi and neighboring Bronte Beach. This is a very popular walk for a good reason. The huge beaches lead to beautiful limestone rock formations with lovely turquoise water. If the kids are up for, walk all the way to Coogee (6 km). You can then take a bus back to Bondi or towards the city centre.
Our kids loved checking out the street art near Bondi beach, watching the action at the skate park and at the exercise park. They were very curious why a man in high heels and a g-string was doing interesting postures around a pole. But that is Bondi! To get to Bondi, take a bus from Circular Quay (45 min).
Visit Taronga Zoo
Zoos are okay for me, but I normally wouldn’t prioritize them on a quick visit. Since we are zoo members in Melbourne, we receive reciprocal visits to Taronga Zoo. This was a no brainer for me as it was a free attraction for us. However, we were totally blown away by the quality of the zoo and of course its amazing location and would recommend you visit. Taronga Zoo has the best views of any zoo in the world. As you explore the zoo, you are rewarded by magnificent views of the harbour – the Opera House and Harbour Bridge.
The best way to get there is the 12 minute ferry from Circular Quay. If you buy your tickets ahead of time online or at Circular Quay, you will be ready to start exploring right away. Once there, head for the Sky Safari which is a cable car that will take you to the top of the zoo. I loved the views of the harbour from the Sky Safari and the kids loved riding in it and going over some of the enclosures. This is a great added value feature of the zoo and would be worth paying extra for (but you don’t have to!). There are some great shows and lots of educational opportunities for the kids. We did eat at the zoo and I really wish we had packed a lunch. The food here was only okay and fairly expensive.
See the Aquarium and Darling Harbour Attractions
We lived on a boat in the Bahamas for 5 months and saw lots of great marine life. So an aquarium wasn’t at the top of my list. Our Uber driver was this wonderful woman who had access to free tickets and therefore it made it into our itinerary. You can pay to just enter the aquarium or you can pay for a bundled multiple attraction ticket. The other attractions are Madame Tussards, WILD LIFE Sydney Zoo, Sydney Tower Eye and Manly Sea Life Aquarium. Bundled tickets for all 5 attractions are $90/adults or $66/kids and there are many packages available. We really enjoyed the aquarium, located in Darling Harbour. The highlight was the penguin exhibition where you go on a short boat ride into the frigid penguin territory. The kids also loved the walk through shark and sting ray tunnels to get up close and personal.
Take a Surf Lesson
We have been in Australia for 6 months now and Gavin has been wanting to try surfing since the minute we arrived. We figured there was no better place then Bondi Beach in Sydney. The kids signed up for a 1.5 hour lesson with Lets Go Surfing (North Bondi) at $49pp which included their board, wetsuits and instruction. They plan the classes for low tide so that the conditions are good for beginners. After about 20-30 minutes of instruction and practice on land, they headed into the water.
Our kids absolutely loved it and were able to stand up on some small waves. While this may not be a super budget thing to do in Sydney, we felt it was really worthwhile. Our youngest at 5 was too young, so we rented him a boogie board to play around with. There are lots of places to hire boards on the beach for about $10-20/hr.
Sample the Museums and Art Galleries
We didn’t do this because we were just as happy to wander around and do less organized activities. There are some great museums and art galleries in Sydney. Some good ones with kids are the Powerhouse Museum, Art Gallery of NSW, and Maritime Museum.
Check out the Blue Mountains (nearby)
We didn’t visit the Blue Mountains on this trip, but have done it on other trips to Sydney. If you have time to spare, this area is a beautiful place to spend some time in nature. You can take the train or you can rent a car to drive the 1 1/2 hours. You can visit on a daytrip, but staying a night there will allow you more time to soak up the area. There are lots of bushwalks, a cultural centre and waterfalls to keep the whole family occupied.
Sydney on a Budget Tips
- Getting to/from the Airport – the Skytrain that connects the city to the airport is quite expensive and a common complaint. Especially when you are traveling as a family, it makes sense to find something cheaper. We use Uber when traveling and absolutely love the convenience and ease of it. At Sydney airport, they pick up from the Express Pick-up area and there is even an official Uber sign there. On this trip, our Uber driver hooked us up with free aquarium tickets – another added bonus! Uber works for parties of 1-4. If all 5 of us are traveling, we would have to use UberSUV which is much more expensive.
- Flying the Budget Airlines – I am not a big fan of Jetstar and really wanted to avoid flying them between Melbourne and Sydney. However, flying them saved our family $500 which in our heads equated to 5 meals out. When I thought of it in these terms, it simply made sense to fly with Jetstar. Obviously it is a no frills airline, but our short flight to Syndey, worked out totally fine.
- Get an Apartment – for us, this is the biggest benefit of an Airbnb because it allows us to have breakfast in and even cook some dinners. Restaurant meals can really add up for a family and we try to balance some meals out with some cooked at “home”.
- Pack/Buy Lunches – We often pack sandwiches and snacks for throughout the day to avoid eating lunch out. If we don’t have an apartment, we will buy prepared lunch items from the grocery store. Sydney has lots of green spaces to spread out and enjoy a packed lunch.
- Walk as much as Possible – Sydney’s public transport system is not cheap and we found it a lot more expensive then Melbourne to get around. To take public transit, you will need to grab an Opal card for each family member that you pre-load with money. These are available at any corner store or at major stations. Every time you take a bus, train or ferry, you will tap on and off. Adults max out at $15/day and kids max out at $7.50/day.
- Find Happy Hour – drinks can be quite expensive, but many bars and restaurants offer happy hour in the afternoons. There are lots of great places along Darling Harbour to take a break and enjoy a cheaper drink. Watch out because some of them are only Monday-Friday.
Family Accommodation Sydney
We always find it difficult to find hotels that accommodate a family of 5. We once again chose to stay in an Airbnb apartment and it was a great Sydney family accommodation option. It is great to have a kitchen to use, separate bedrooms and a “home” to come home to. Our 2 bedroom apartment was located across the harbour in Kirribilli, which has amazing views of the Opera House and Harbour Bridge. We did manage to lock ourselves out once – oops! This is the apartment we rented.
If you don’t already have an Airbnb account, sign up and use this code to receive $50 off your first Airbnb booking.
The down side of an Airbnb is that you don’t have all those extra services you do at a hotel. For example on the day we left, our flight was not until 10pm, but we had to check out at 10am. This meant we had to find somewhere to store our luggage for the whole day. The solutions was to leave our bags at the Smart Cart location near Circular Quay. This cost $100, but the benefit was they transferred our bags to their location at the airport. There was a long line up to check bags here, so give yourself some time if using this service.
Hotels for Families
My parents were staying at the Holiday Inn Old Sydney, located in the Rocks. We discovered that this would be a great Sydney accommodation for families as the Holiday Inn chain is very family friendly. Kids stay and eat for free and they really mean this, no fine print attached. In fact our kids ate one night with my parents at the hotel restaurant and ate for free (the kids weren’t even staying at the hotel). The hotel has a nice little rooftop pool with lovely views of the harbour and is very reasonably priced.
Click here to see the latest prices at the Holiday Inn Old Sydney.
Another good family hotel option in the centre of the city is the Amora Hotel Jamieson Sydney. They have double double rooms for families at good rates. They have a great pool for the kids to play around in.
Click here to see the latest prices at the Amora Hotel Jamieson Sydney.
If you want the best budget option for families, try the Sydney Central YHA. This is a great hostel and they have family rooms with shared baths at very reasonable rates. Don’t be turned off that it is a hostel. This one has a pool, sauna and free internet and is centrally located.
Click here to see the latest prices at the Sydney Central YHA.
Where to Eat
CHINATOWN – East Ocean Restaurant(421-429 Sussex St, Haymarket), located in Chinatown is a great place to go for dim sum (yum cha here in Australia) any day of the week. We were there on a weekend and the place was hopping with diners and trolleys. The kids love choosing foods to try off the trolleys and it is a great way to try new things and fill up for brunch.
BONDI – The Depot Bondi (286 Campbell Parade, North Bondi) is located a street back from the beach, but you get much better food at better prices here. Australians do breakfast so well and we loved our mid-day breakfast at this cafe. They made kid size portions (with kid size prices) of their mains and smoothies for us.
THE ROCKS – Sake (12 Argyle St, the Rocks) is somewhere special you go without kids or with older kids. My parents babysat for us and we loved this delicious Japanese restaurant that consistently gets rave reviews. The sashimi is top grade and the chef’s classics (Kingfish) will melt in your mouth. Don’t forget to finish your meal off with dessert. The Dragon’s Egg is served with foggy liquid nitrogen that you get to crack open to see its delicious components.
The Bottom Line
It is definitely possible to visit Sydney with kids on a budget. There are lots of free activities to keep you busy for days. Don’t feel like you have to see and do all the glossy and expensive attractions. Spent time in Sydney’s various neighborhoods and beaches to see the Sydney locals know and love.
Have you been to Sydney with your family? What were your highlights and budget tips?
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