Best beaches in Sydney range from lovely Manly, which feels like a sleepy holiday town, and breathtaking Bondi Beach, a first stop for most visitors to Sydney, to northern beaches such as Palm Beach, the fictional town of ‘Summer Bay’ in long-running soapie Home and Away.
It’s the Australia Day weekend down under, a day that Aussies across the nation spend basking in the sunshine, enjoying barbecues in their backyards or picnics in the park with friends, or if they’re lucky to live near the coast, on the beach stretched out on a towel.
We thought it was a good excuse to post our guide to the best beaches in Sydney. Between us, I was also looking for a chance to escape for a while from Hanoi’s glum winter skies.
Sydney is the perfect destination for city-loving beach bums with brilliant stretches of squeaky sand right on its doorstep. The city has scores of beaches on its north shore, eastern suburbs, and even skirting its harbour, where you’ll also find those alluring sea swimming pools we told you about.
You’ll find all sorts of beaches, from slivers of sand backed by sprawling parks on the harbour to kilometres of white sand beach lined with pine trees on the coast at Manly. These are the best beaches in Sydney as far as we’re concerned — the beaches my family took me to as a child and the beaches Terence and I used to frequent when we lived in Sydney for many years.
Best Beaches in Sydney to Spread Out Your Towel, from Bondi Beach to Palm Beach
Sydney’s Northern Beaches
It may only be a twenty-minute ferry ride from Circular Quay in the city, but Manly — which was apparently named after the ‘manly’ aboriginals who lived here — is easily one of the best beaches in Sydney. Manly feels like a sleepy holiday town, and that’s its very charm.
The part of the beach you’ll arrive at first from your walk from the ferry is known as South Steyne, and further south, around a pretty oceanside path at the southernmost end is sheltered Shelly Beach. Offshore, on the rocky point, surfers lap up the swells at Fairy Bower.
North of South Steyne — naturally — is North Steyne, while at the northernmost end the beach is called Queenscliff. A promenade, shaded by Norfolk Island Pines, stretches along the whole length of the beach, making it one of the best for a stroll, skate or bike-ride.
Out on the sand and in the water is the famous decades-old Manly Surf School, credited with teaching the young and old, foreign and not-so-local, how to ride the waves. They also offer surfing day tours along Sydney’s Northern Beaches.
Two things are a must: fish and chips on a picnic table under the pines, and a cocktail at Hemingway’s bar. You decide the order. See our Manly guide for details.
North of Manly, nestled between two headlands, is another one of the best beaches in Sydney, diminutive Freshwater Beach. While not as well known to foreign visitors, it’s an icon to beach-loving Aussies, especially board-riders, having played an important role in our surfing history.
This is the beach where, on Christmas Eve in 1914, Hawaiian Duke Kahanamoku, an Olympic swimming champion, after having had a wooden surfboard made in the style he rode back home in Hawaii, took to the waves, starting a craze that would become a crucial part of our identity as Aussies.
The Duke’s original surfboard is still at the beach’s Surf Lifesaving Club. Freshwater — or Freshy — as the locals call it has a grassy park with barbecues and great surf.
If you hire a car you can continue to explore more of the best beaches in Sydney, which are Sydney’s northern beaches, including — heading north — Curl Curl, Dee Why, Collaroy, Narrabeen, Mona Vale, Newport, Bilgola Beach, Avalon, Whale Beach, and…
Sydney’s northernmost stretch of sand, Palm Beach — or ‘Palmie’ as locals love to call it — is our favourite northern beach and easily one of the best beaches in Sydney. When we lived in the city we used to do weekend drives during the summer where we’d stop off at every beach along the way so Terence could track down the best waves.
Regardless of where he went for a surf we would always end up at Palm Beach where I would happily stretch my towel out on the sand to catch some sun and read a book for a few hours. Some will recognise Palm Beach as the fictional town of ‘Summer Bay’ in Australian long-running soapie Home and Away.
While it’s an egalitarian community in the television show, the beachside suburb is actually home to some of Sydney’s most expensive real estate and wealthiest residents though you wouldn’t know it from the laidback vibe on the beach. The surf can get rough, while on the other side of the peninsula at Pittwater, it’s as calm as anything, sheltered from the ocean swell.
Don’t leave without hiking up to the northern end of the beach to Barrenjoey Head and the handsome sandstone Barrenjoey Lighthouse, dating to 1881. This is Sydney’s northernmost point, at the entrance to Pittwater, with spectacular vistas.
From Palm Beach, you can take the ferry to Ettalong Beach on the Central Coast, which I remember doing one summer with my nanna and great-aunt as a small child. My family later lived close by to Ocean Beach, Umina, where mum and dad had a seafood restaurant near the beach. It’s a very pretty area that’s worth exploring.
Sydney’s Southern Beaches
Sydney’s most iconic beach is arguably one of the best beaches in Sydney, if not Australia, and is the first destination for many travellers to the city. Bondi is easily Australia’s most famous beach.
The beach is home to the Bondi Surf Bathers Life Saving Club, located in a handsome mustard-coloured building that has long served as a community centre. Founded in 1907, it’s officially regarded as the oldest surf lifesaving club in the world. The club is kept busy on weekends when some 40,000 beachgoers can hit the sand.
Bondi is a sprawling, crescent-shaped beach, with the northern end boasting smaller waves than the southern end where boardriders can often be seen tackling some big waves. Like Manly, the beach is also home to a well-regarded surf school.
During spring, Bondi Beach, Tamarama Beach, easily another one of the best beaches in Sydney, and the breathtaking Bondi to Bronte Coastal Walk, which connects the two beaches, become an open-air sculpture park for the two week Sculptures by the Sea exhibition.
At the southern end of Bondi, at the start of the Bondi to Bronte Walk, is the Bondi Icebergs, Australia’s oldest and most famous swimming club. The Icebergs Dining Room and Bar is a terrific choice for lunch or dinner or simply a great spot for sundowners at the end of the day.
Campbell Parade, Bondi’s main drag, is worth an amble. It hasn’t gentrified in the way that some Eastern Suburbs residents would have liked, making the shops and eateries are a mixed bag, but this is what makes Bondi real is many ways.
Tamarama Beach is undoubtedly another one of the best beaches in Sydney and can be reached on foot by heading south along the Bondi to Bronte Coastal Walk. It’s a splendid stroll along the easy walkway around the craggy cliffs, which dish up some dramatic vistas of Bondi, the ocean, and eventually Tamarama, at every turn. (Click through to the link above for more info on the route.)
The first beach you’ll hit on the walk, Tamarama has a fascinating and long history. Sydney’s first amusement park opened here in 1887 with a roller-coaster that climbed and plunged over the sand, an aquarium holding seals and a shark, and vaudeville acts.
Tamarama has long been known as ‘Glamarama’ due its popularity among Sydney’s ‘beautiful people’ — actors, celebrities, models, and the like — although as I said in my post on Sydney’s swimming pools, we spotted more retirees walking dogs (the gorgeous grown old?) and mothers pushing strollers when we visited on our recent trip back home.
Tamarama is a compact beach, backed by a pretty little park, but don’t be fooled by its diminutive size. The beach is home to some wild surf, big waves and rips. As you’d expect, Sydney’s board-riders love it and it’s a popular surfing spot, however, it’s such a stunning place, it’s enough to simply sit and take in the sublime vistas from the beach or headland above.
Slap-bang on the beach, Tamarama Kiosk, known by locals as the ‘Tama cafe’, which sold meat pies, sausage rolls and ice-creams when I was a kid, has had a sleek architectural redesign and is now rather upmarket, selling gourmet sandwiches, great burgers, freshly squeezed juices, and homemade cakes.
Continue around the rugged headland and you’ll come to another one of the best beaches in Sydney, and this is easily one of Sydney’s most beautiful beaches, Bronte Beach. Home to Bronte Surf Life Saving Club, which claims to be one of the world’s oldest surf life saving clubs, launching in 1903.
Bronte Beach has a splendid sea pool, Bronte Baths, dating back to 1887, which is also called Bond Ocean Pool, named after surf lifesaving pioneer Major Bond. It’s another wonderful swimming and surfing spot, although here, too, you have to watch out for the rips.
The shady park that backs onto the compact beach is popular for barbecues, picnics and cricket games — it was a favourite summer destination for my own family and friends for years.
Opposite the beach, a handful of buzzy cafés keeps beachgoers sated, including the charming Bogeyhole Cafe. This delightful eatery is named after the ‘bogey hole’, which is a local nickname for Bronte Baths — ‘bogey’ is an Aboriginal name for safe swimming hole.
If you’re really hungry or want something special, a short stroll away on Macpherson Street is the much-loved Three Blue Ducks restaurant-cafe, ran by five mates, surf-loving Bronte locals Sam, Chris and Jeff, and former Tetsuya’s chefs Mark Le Brooy and Darren Robertson, who have established a kitchen garden out the back and also have a farm with restaurant at Byron Bay.
Don’t be surprised if you find yourself wondering what the real estate costs!
Note: if you continue south along the walking path, which extends all the way to Coogee, it becomes the Bondi to Coogee Coastal Walk. We’ll test out the stretch to Coogee on our next trip to Sydney.
Sydney’s Harbour Beaches
If the Pacific coast beaches aren’t enough to keep you busy, the jaw-dropping harbour hosts even more of Sydney’s best beaches with an abundance of tiny beaches skirting picturesque bays dotted around its shore.
Watsons Bay Beach
One of the best Sydney harbour beaches, and one of our favourites, is the beach at Watsons Bay, a former fishing village that’s home to Doyles seafood restaurant, dating to 1885, and the legendary Watsons Bay Hotel. Fish and chips and cold beers (or seafood platters and white wine) in the sunshine are the order of the day here.
The 1.4 kilometre-long South Head Heritage Trail starts at Camp Cove, Watsons Bay, and makes for a wonderful walk along a cobblestone path dating to the 1870s, finishing at Hornby Lighthouse, where you might be lucky to spot some whales out at sea during whale watching season.
Lady Bay Beach
Nearby, the nudist beach of Lady Bay Beach, called Lady Jane Beach when it was established in 1976, is not far away. Tucked between South Head and Camp Cove, it’s predominantly known as a gay nude beach these days, however, it was popular with naturist families when I was a child.
Nude bathing might not be officially permitted here, although the beach has been known to see some skinny dippers late at night on balmy summer’s evenings. The lovely Nielsen Park Cafe and Restaurant in a light-filled, historic sandstone building is a favourite lunch spot.