Like most great cities in the world, the most interesting inner city suburbs of Sydney each have their own distinct identity. Sydney, like Paris, New York and London, is a city of villages, with idiosyncratic neighbourhoods encircling the city centre that exude character, charm and cool.
Over the years, we’ve lived in or kicked back in the best of them — Potts Point, Darlinghurst, Paddington, Surry Hills, Newtown, Glebe, and Balmain — all lively neighbourhoods with hilly streets lined with cafés, shops, galleries, restaurants, bars, pubs, live music venues, and theatres, with lovely parks to relax in, peaceful backstreets to amble, and on weekends laidback markets to trawl.
As these neighbourhoods are not big on sights, the best way to experience them is to do as the locals do: go out for breakfast, coffee or lunch, browse the boutiques and markets, pop into a gallery to take in an exhibition, kick back in a park with a newspaper or book, down some beers on a balcony of an old pub, see some theatre, listen to some live music, eat a fine meal, and drop into a quiet bar for a cocktail before heading home.
Here’s our very personal guide to the best inner city Sydney suburbs to experience — the ones that we think demand more of your time — and tips for further suburbs to explore if you have the inclination.
The Best Inner City Sydney Suburbs
Our home for years, Potts Point remains one of Sydney’s most interesting inner city neighbourhoods. First settled in the early nineteenth century by affluent landowners who built the suburb’s majestic Georgian mansions and, later, the grand terrace houses that line Victoria Street, Potts Point became home to many of Australia’s literary, theatrical and artistic legends in the twentieth century, who gave it a bohemian flavour.
During the Vietnam War the red light district of Kings Cross developed along Darlinghurst Road to cater to American GIs whose ships docked at the end of the point. These days, despite the seedy main drag of ‘The Cross’, as locals call it, Potts Point residents tend to be well-off city workers (the CBD is a 20-minute walk away) and creatives who start their mornings with coffee at one of the many miniscule espresso bars and end up meeting their book editors or film producers over lunch at one of the many cafés or restaurants.
Tree-lined Macleay Street and its surrounding streets are home to Art Deco gems like Orwell Street’s the Minerva Building and Metro Theatre, and imposing old apartment blocks like the splendid Macleay Regis. Spectacular Sydney harbour views can occasionally be glimpsed between the edifices and enjoyed from a handful of small parks.
To the east are posh Darling Point, Double Bay and Point Piper, home to Sydney’s most expensive real estate, to the west working class East Sydney, Woolloomooloo and the city centre.
Drink Coffee: Café Dov, Gypsy Espresso
Break bread: Infinity Sourdough Bakery
Do breakfast: Chez Dee
Go shop: Arida, Architext Bookshop, Pure and General, Bottega del Vino
Buy local: Organic Food Market, Fratelli Fresh (gourmet groceries)
Grab lunch: Café Sopra
House-snoop: Elizabeth Bay House
Slow down: Beare Park, Rushcutters Bay Park
Down beers: Sugarmill Hotel (Kings Cross)
Savour wine: After Hours Wine Bar
Dine well: The Apollo
Sip cocktails: The Roosevelt
Explore more: Elizabeth Bay, Rushcutters Bay, Darling Point
From Potts Point, an eye-opening amble along the sleazy main drag of Kings Cross’ Darlinghurst Road, with its strip tease clubs and X-rated shops, brings you to the colossal Coca Cola sign that officially marks ‘The Cross’ and beyond that, over the main thoroughfare of William Street that leads to the city, the beginning of Darlinghurst.
At the fork in the road you have the option of exploring two parallel streets, Darlinghurst Road and William Street, both of which are worth a wander, lined with cafés, restaurants and shops. On the shady sidestreets, you’ll discover more terrace houses and more twentieth-century brick apartment blocks, only here the streets are more narrow, the terraces not as grand, and the buildings less stately.
The day starts later in this haven for night owls, where chefs, bartenders, musicians, actors, artists, designers, and aspiring filmmakers can be found in Darlo’s low key cafés, bars and pubs, reading scripts, writing menus, making notes, and sketching designs.
There’s some of the criminal element found in The Cross, which gives the area a certain edginess, but it’s pretty safe. The Sydney harbour vistas may no longer be visible, but an urbane spirit, arty vibe and engaging street life keeps things interesting.
Drink coffee: Bar Coluzzi, Forbes and Burton
Do Breakfast: Le Petit Crème for ‘le bowl’ and eggs Benedict
Go shop: Above the Clouds, Belance
Grab lunch: meat pie at Harry’s Café de Wheels (nearby in Wolloomooloo)
Browse art: Black Eye Gallery, Watters Gallery
Down beers: Green Park Hotel, Darlo Bar
Savour wine: Love Tilly Devine
Play bingo: Darlie Laundromatic
Eat local: Fu Manchu, Buffalo Dining Club
Dine well: Fish Face, Otto (Woolloomooloo)
Sip cocktails: Hinky Dinks, Shady Pines Saloon, The Victoria Room
Watch drama: Griffin Theatre
See bands: Oxford Art Factory
Explore more: East Sydney, Woolloomooloo
Adjoining Darlinghurst is Sydney’s prettiest inner city suburb, upmarket Paddington. Paddo’s backstreets boast some of Sydney’s biggest and most beautifully renovated terrace houses with intricate wrought iron balconies, tiny landscaped gardens, and Porsches parked out front.
The main artery Oxford Street is lined with an array of fascinating boutiques, specialty shops, art and photography galleries, cafés, bars, pubs, independent cinemas, and nightclubs. It’s a long street too, beginning at the edge of the CBD in Darlinghurst, Sydney’s gay district and nightlife centre, where bars and clubs — gay and straight — cram that end of the street, running through Taylor Square, where it becomes Paddington, and extending all the way to affluent old-world Woollahra and beyond that Bondi Junction.
Paddington has long been Sydney’s fashion hub and while high rents have seen many shops in prime locations close, it’s still one of the most enjoyable places in Sydney to hang out and especially to shop.
The intersection at the corner of Glenmore Road and Oxford Street is home to a couple of dozen boutiques belonging to Australia’s finest fashion designers, from Zimmerman to Alice McCall, while lovely, diminutive William Street is the place to head for anything bespoke, from hat-makers (Neil Grigg, Milliner) and handmade shoes (Andrew McDonald Shoemaker) to wedding dresses, jewellery, lingerie, and suits (Matthew Lawrence).
Drink coffee: Alimentari
Do Breakfast: Sonoma Bakery Café
Buy local: Alannah Hill, Ariel Booksellers, Dinosaur Designs, Easton Pearson, Leona Edmiston, Sass & Bide, Scanlan and Theodore
Treat yourself: Just William (handmade) Chocolates
Shop markets: Paddington Markets
Grab lunch: Tuk Tuk Street Bar
Browse art: Australian Centre for Photography, Australian Galleries
Slow down: Paddington Reservoir Gardens, Centennial Park
Down beers: Imperial Hotel, Paddington Inn, The London
Savour wine: Wine Library
Eat local: Four In Hand bar
Dine well: Four In Hand restaurant
Sip cocktails: 10 William Street for Sydney’s best negroni.
Laugh aloud: Fringe Bar comedy nights
Explore more: Woollahra, Centennial Park
Sydney’s hippest inner city suburb, Surry Hills, is, as the name suggests, also its most hilly, so wear your walking shoes. It was once the domain of art students, struggling musicians and aspiring fashion designers — Sydney’s best art institute is nearby, the lower part of the neighbourhood closest to the city centre is the rag trade district, while the area’s countless pubs were once considered to be Sydney’s best live music venues.
Locals now comprise a real mix of people from all walks of life. Ever-increasing property prices have seen those who can no longer afford Paddington move in to renovate Surry Hills’ skinnier, more affordable terrace houses and if the abundance of shops, restaurants, cafés, bars, and galleries are anything to go by, locals tend to be arty foodies who like a drink.
In many ways, with its undulating hills, crooked streets and jagged lanes Surry Hills can be one of Sydney’s more challenging suburbs to explore. But the one-of-a-kind shops, good bookstores, vintage fashion boutiques, idiosyncratic design and homeware stores, ground-breaking galleries, quirky bars, brilliant pubs (from the cool to the classic) and superb fine-dining restaurants such as Marque, more than make up for it.
From Oxford Street, start exploring Crown Street, where you’ll find the highest density of shops (especially vintage!) — you could spend a few hours here alone if you walk its length to Cleveland Street. Riley Street is also interesting, as is the area between Oxford Street and Wentworth Avenue around Commonwealth Street, where I once worked for a photography gallery in a warehouse space that’s now home to one of our favourite restaurants, Longrain.
Drink coffee: Reuben Hills, Single Origin Roasters
Do Breakfast: Café Mint for the chakchouka
Browse art: Brett Whiteley Studio, White Rabbit Gallery
Buy local: Crown Street for Wheels & Doll Baby, Route 66, Grandma Takes a Trip
Trawl markets: Surry Hills Markets
Grab lunch: sausage rolls from Bourke St Bakery
Slow down: Prince Alfred Park
Down beers: Hotel Hollywood (say hello to Doris), Cricketers Arms
Savour wine: 121 BC, Mille Vini
Eat local: Longrain
Dine well: Marque
Watch drama: Belvoir Street Theatre
Sip cocktails: Tios, Absinthe Salon
Explore more: Redfern, Waterloo, Alexandria
Located by Sydney University’s sprawling campus, Newtown is the home and hangout of a huge population of students, local and foreign, giving the neighbourhood a youthful, multicultural vibe.
This was the suburb I hung out in between classes during my early uni days, when I did the first year of an arts degree before switching to film and writing at UTS down the road. In those days, I spent my time trawling the second-hand bookstores and vintage clothes shops or reading in grungy cafés on the main drag of King Street.
On weekends we would return so Terence, who then had a band, could browse Newtown’s many musical instrument shops for guitars. Evenings would see us downing beers in Newtown’s gritty pubs or lining up to see bands like Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds at the nearby Enmore Theatre.
While King Street is still dotted with second-hand shops, vintage boutiques and myriad pubs, and the area is still home to Sydney’s best live music venues, a changing student population has shifted the focus of the food scene somewhat.
Gone are the cosy, neighbourhood Ethiopian, Arabic and Greek restaurants, cluttered with carpets, tourist trinkets and knick-knacks from ‘home’. In their place are sleek bakeries, shiny fast food joints, and quite possibly Sydney’s largest number of Thai and Malaysian eateries.
It’s still an interesting street to stroll, becoming more interesting on Enmore Road, which still has some of the flavour of the old Newtown, but by far the most compelling shops, restaurants and bars are to be found tucked away on the side streets.
Drink coffee: Bell Jar Coffee, Luxe Espresso
Do breakfast: Café 2042
Go shop: Berkelouw Books, localstore Newtown, Pretty Dog
Buy vintage: Reclaim, Retrospec’d, Drunk on the Moon, The Itchy Kitty (at Enmore)
Be a student again: Egg Records, Blue Dog Posters, Gould’s Book Arcade
Treat yourself: Black Star Pastry
Grab lunch: Soda Pony
Browse art: Carriageworks
Slow down: Sydney University Quadrangle, Victoria Park
Snack/sip: Mary’s for Sydney’s best burger and drinks
Down beers: Young Henry’s, Courthouse Hotel
Savour wine: Bench Wine Bar
Eat local: Bloodwood
Dine well: Oscillate Wildly
Sip cocktails: Earl’s Juke Joint
See bands: Marlborough Hotel, Enmore Theatre
Watch cabaret/burlesque: The Vanguard
Explore more: Erskineville, Enmore, Stanmore, Petersham
When we were last in Sydney there was talk that Glebe was set to be the next Surry Hills, with new cafés, bars and restaurants opening so fast it was a challenge for local food writers to keep up.
As with the other inner city suburbs that have gentrified, many of Glebe’s grand mansions and rundown terrace houses have been restored, and its hippy coffee shops and grungy vegetarian eateries replaced with hip cafés and stylish restaurants.
But something of the old days when I lived here as a university student with my teacher uncle still remain, like the bohemian Badde Manors café, where I sipped coffee most days, and Gleebooks, the brilliant bookstore where my aunt worked for many years.
Whereas Darlinghurst was the gay capital, Glebe was home to Sydney’s lesbian community and political activists, and while Newtown was where the students set up home, Glebe was where the academics lived, giving the suburb an intellectual vibe it doesn’t seem to have lost.
The best thing to do is simply walk the length of Glebe Point Road (a street I walked up and down every day), dropping into shops and dipping into sidestreets that intrigue you. Don’t leave without taking an amble along the lovely waterfront of Blackwattle Bay, best for sunset.
Drink coffee: Badde Manors, Mano Espresso
Do Breakfast: Clipper Café, Madame Frou Frou
Go local: Gleebooks, Nature’s Energy
Shop markets: Glebe Markets, Sydney Fish Market (at nearby Pyrmont)
Grab lunch: Wedge Espresso
Browse art: The Tate, Glass Artists Gallery
Slow down: Blackwattle Bay Park, Glebe Community Garden
Down beers: Friend in Hand, Tommy’s Beer Café
Savour wine: Timbah
Eat local: Glebe Point Diner
Dine well: The Boathouse on Blackwattle Bay
Sip cocktails: Bedlam Bar, The Different Drummer
Explore more: Pyrmont, Annandale, Leichhardt
One of Sydney’s oldest and most atmospheric inner city suburbs, Balmain is a wonderful place to wander around on a weekend afternoon. It was a working class suburb that was just starting to gentrify when we lived here years ago, with a big old pub seemingly on every corner and arty cafés and cosy restaurants dotting its charming streets.
Over the years its quaint workers’ cottages, big terrace houses and sandstone villas have been renovated, its second-hand bookstores and bric-a-brac shops replaced with upmarket kids clothing boutiques and homeware emporiums, and its old pubs transformed into gastro bars. It’s easy to see what the big appeal has been for well-off families.
The hilly suburb that sprawls around a few small peninsulas is blessed with water views and an abundance of green spaces, such as Illoura Reserve near Balmain East ferry wharf, right near our old home of Boatman’s Cottage. A favourite picnic spot of ours when we lived here, particularly for New Years Eve, it boasts brilliant vistas of the city skyline and Harbour Bridge.
Another favourite of ours was lovely Birchgrove Park, near posh Louise Road, when some of the area’s most beautiful homes can be found, some belonging to Australia’s most notable actors and film directors.
These days, Balmain seems to be getting back a little of its lost edge with the opening of quirky new cafés and espresso bars. Regardless, one of the best things to do here is something locals have been doing for a couple of centuries: head to a pub, pull up a stool, and down some icy cold beers.
Drink coffee: The Little Marionette, True Religion
Do Breakfast: Little Ethel’s, Kazbah
Swim laps: Dawn Fraser Baths
Go shop: Hill of Content, Montague and Mabel, Punch Gallery, Leona Edmiston Vintage
Treat yourself: Adriano Zumbo Patisserie
Trawl markets: Balmain Markets
Grab lunch: Bertoni Casalinga
Browse art: Kate Owen Gallery
Slow down: Illoura Reserve, Mort Bay Park, Ballast Point Park, Birchgrove Park
Down beers: The London, The Riverview
Savour wine: The Lodge Wine Bar
Eat local: Bistro Bruno
Dine well: Efendy
Sip cocktails: The Cottage
See bands: Cat & Fiddle pub
Explore more: Birchgrove, Rozelle, Lilyfield
Where to stay in Sydney
Click through to read our reviews of Sydney’s best rooms with a view, boutique hotels and apartment rentals. Sydney is easy to get around, whether it’s by foot, public transport, or taxi, so there’s no need to obsess with the location of your accommodation as you would do in cities like Bangkok.
When to go to Sydney
After Perth, Sydney has one of Australia’s most temperate climates, making it a terrific destination year-round. Though winters can get wet and windy, June through August is still a fine time to visit, with festivals and events such as Vivid and Sydney Film Festival. Having said that, our favourite Sydney seasons are spring — when the clarity of light is just magic — and summer, when the long days of sunshine and balmy evenings make Sydney one of the best places to be in the world. The city can also be pretty in autumn.
How to get to Sydney
Countless airlines fly direct to Sydney, Australia’s major airport hub, from the UK, Europe, Middle East, and Asia. We’ve flown lots of airlines into Sydney over the years but we prefer Emirates for longhaul travel.