Escape to Manly, a Seaside Holiday Town in the City of Sydney. Surfing Lesson at Manly Beach, Sydney, Australia. Copyright © 2022 Terence Carter / Grantourismo. All Rights Reserved.

Escape to Manly, a Seaside Holiday Town in the City of Sydney

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Most visitors to Sydney make a beeline for Bondi Beach, including every backpacker who arrives in the city. There’s no denying Bondi boasts a beautiful stretch of sand, but Manly has more charm and a laidback local vibe we find more appealling.

Bondi Beach is gorgeous. I’ve always had a strong connection to the place and that spectacular sandy beach that skirts the bay, and the Bondi to Bronte coastal walk is one of the world’s most stunning strolls. But Manly is like a low-key seaside holiday town, and yet it’s in a metropolis like Sydney. What’s not to love about that?

Bondi was a favourite lunch destination with friends for many years – although the food was never the draw, it was the opportunity to sit in a restaurant and sip white wine while gazing out at those spectacular sea views.

Over the years, though, in its eagerness to appeal to budget travellers there to booze and families who seemed to drop in on weekends to feed their kids fast food, Bondi changed. And sadly it seemed to lose some of its identity.

Escape to Manly, a Seaside Holiday Town in the City of Sydney. Surfing Lesson at Manly Beach, Sydney, Australia. Copyright © 2022 Terence Carter / Grantourismo. All Rights Reserved.

Manly, on the other hand, while it still pulls tourists to its squeaky white sand and pine tree-lined promenade, and also has its fair share of fast food franchises, souvenir shops and mediocre eateries, has an authenticity about it, more of a community spirit, and has a kind of quirkiness reflected in its hippy backstreet cafés and idiosyncratic bars like Hemingway’s.

While it has its hipster spots, like kitschy Manly Wine bar and beachside café-deli The Pantry, as a destination Manly is not quite cool. In fact, its main pedestrian shopping area is what Australians like to call ‘daggy’ and could be in any old suburb. But that doesn’t really matter. In fact, that lack of pretension is partly Manly’s appeal.

But there’s something else that I love about the place even more than that. Manly may only be 30 minutes by ferry from Sydney’s city centre but it has a holiday town atmosphere that makes it feel like it’s three hundred kilometres away.

Manly reminds me of the small seaside communities on the east coast of New South Wales that my family used to take us to for the summer school holidays. They seemed to consist of little more than a main street, a caravan park, and a wharf with a fishing co-op where we’d buy kilos of cooked prawns. They probably don’t even exist anymore.

Escape to Manly, a Seaside Holiday Town in the City of Sydney. Surfing Lesson at Manly Beach, Sydney, Australia. Copyright © 2022 Terence Carter / Grantourismo. All Rights Reserved.

But there’s something about Manly that reminds me of those places. The barefoot locals, grandmotherly types with purple perms pushing shopping trolleys, kids with ice-cream smeared across their cheeks, and surfers with boards under their arms jogging across the burning bitumen road to the scorching sand.

In Manly, sunbathing, swimming, surfing, and perhaps a spot of fishing are the order of the day for locals and holidaymakers, punctuated of course by hamburgers or fish and chips at picnic tables by the beach, or counter meals and cold beers at a corner pub. Visitors will add surfing lessons, a bike ride, and – if travelling with kids – an aquarium visit to their to-do list.

Come late afternoon, it’s time for an amble under the pine-trees along the breezy seaside promenade with the dog-walkers and skate-boarders. Or a lazy stroll around the headland to Fairy Bower and Shelley Beach – a popular path that gets busy with locals pushing babies in buggies, jogging, power-walking, and, later, spreading out blankets to set up sunset picnics with friends.

Escape to Manly, a Seaside Holiday Town in the City of Sydney. Surfing Lesson at Manly Beach, Sydney, Australia. Copyright © 2022 Terence Carter / Grantourismo. All Rights Reserved.

For dinner, Manly’s residents and visitors will line up outside the most popular fish and chip joints, Thai restaurants, or the ever-popular pizza at buzzy Hugo’s on the harbourside at Manly Wharf. We would have added dining on creative Aussie cuisine at the light-filled Manly Pavilion as an option, but sadly it recently closed.

Dinner might be followed by more cold beers and perhaps a game of pool or darts at a local pub like the Hotel Steyne or a fancy cocktail in a tea cup at cosy Hemingway’s, with its bar lined with bookshelves and views of the beach.

Whatever you do, the night shouldn’t be allowed to end before you cross the road one more time to listen to the sound of the waves crashing against the shore so you can let that memory lull you to sleep. Just as it did on those childhood holidays.

Getting to Manly

Take the Manly Ferry (30 minutes) from Circular Quay. It’s a must-do experience in its own right. Timetables and fares on the Transport NSW website. At the time of research, adult single tickets cost $7 and returns double that.

Where to Stay in Manly

We checked into a stylish and very comfortable room for a couple of nights at Q Station, in the quaint, historic Quarantine Station. Set amongst native bushland on the headland above Manly, it would have been peaceful if it hadn’t have been wonderfully noisy with birdlife. The accommodation is in the original old weatherboard and brick buildings that ooze history – make sure you save some time to have a snoop around the buildings and stroll the grounds.

The buildings boast shady verandas overlooking the harbour where you can inhale the eucalyptus-scented air and sip a glass of something in the evening. A delicious breakfast is included but no matter how tempting it is to sit outside in the sunshine, don’t unless you want to lose your bacon to the laughing kookaburras. There’s a complimentary shuttle bus down to Manly Corso and you can easily find a taxi to take you back up if you timed things badly or miss the last bus.

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A travel and food writer who has experienced over 70 countries and written for The Guardian, Australian Gourmet Traveller, Feast, Delicious, National Geographic Traveller, Conde Nast Traveller, Travel+Leisure Southeast Asia, DestinAsian, TIME, CNN, The Independent, The Telegraph, Sunday Times Travel Magazine, AFAR, Wanderlust, International Traveller, Get Lost, Four Seasons Magazine, Fah Thai, Sawasdee, and more, as well as authored more than 40 guidebooks for Lonely Planet, DK, Footprint, Rough Guides, Fodors, Thomas Cook, and AA Guides.

13 thoughts on “Escape to Manly, a Seaside Holiday Town in the City of Sydney”

  1. Love it…that’s my old neighbourhood.

    And, you’re right, it’s changed a LOT but hardly at all.

    Two of the experiences you listed – the walk to Shelley Beach (especially when the surf is up) and sundowners at The Manly Wharf Hotel – are a couple of Sydney’s very finest.

    Bondi schmondi.

  2. Love the photos, all that gorgeous blue! I adored that song ‘Bondi Junction’ when I was a kid but Manly looks even more an idyllic getaway.

  3. Thanks, Lesley. Oh look, Bondi has all that gorgeous blue too, but it’s just become so touristy and less ‘local’ that it’s lost some of its charm. Manly has the potential to become like Bondi but hopefully they won’t allow it to – it’s just lovely. Thanks for dropping by!

  4. Hi Ben – I’m jealous that you could once call it home!

    I remember when we were young (makes us sound so old!) we lived in Glebe and then Balmain and then Potts Point, always renting, and each time our lease would expire and we’d have to look for a new place, we’d often contemplate a move to the beach for a while. But we never did as it always seemed so far away – far from the city and inner city. How things change…

    This time I felt it was just so close – that 30 minutes on the ferry passed by in no time, and the ride was such a joy. And you have this lovely, laidback holiday-town-like atmosphere where people wander around town barefoot and in their bikinis and boardies, and it’s so close to the heart of the city where everyone is scurrying about in their black clothes and suits and ties and stockings and high heels. Crazy! Loved it!

    Thanks for dropping by! :)

  5. Dear Lara,

    I used to look forward to the Manly jazz festival each year because it has such a relaxed and laid back feel about it.

    I have a soft spot for Balmoral beach as it is my favourite in Sydney. It is not as crowded as Bondi and I used to go crabbing around the rocky edges.

  6. We missed the Manly jazz festival this year – we were so disappointed – although it was also raining that weekend.

    Balmoral is lovely too, isn’t it? I had a friend who used to live near there and would always rave about it. Ah, I feel a post on Sydney beaches coming on… :)

  7. I’m going to Sydney in a couple of weeks and would love to visit Manly. I’ve been to Bondi before and maybe it’s the Perth girl in me but I definitely prefer the laid-back, unpretentious beach vibe. Looking forward to catching the ferry to Manly! ;-)

  8. If you’re a Perth girl, you’ll absolutely love it. My mum and my sister and her husband live in Perth so I’m a big fan of the place and that low-key vibe that’s increasingly harder to find on the east coast. Enjoy!

  9. Used to live up on the Coast. Loved making weekend trips down to Manly. Fish and cips on the beach, dancing at the pub and then cooling my feet at the beach. Breakfast at Ashes table – brilliant people watching. Man, this is a great trip down memory lane. Hope it never becomes as crazy as Bondi.

  10. I live in Manly now and it is, without a doubt, my favourite part of Sydney. Last weekend I kayaked to a beach that might as well have been in Thailand and saw a little penguin! I never want to leave!

  11. Aren’t you lucky? I just love it too. You probably won’t believe it, but for many years it was dismissed by Sydneysiders as being too touristy and Bondi was the go-to beach, when it was hip and cool in the 80s. I really became quite smitten with Manly when we were there and loved seeing cool little bars, cafes and shops opening in the backstreets. I still love Bondi, but it’s always so crowded, whereas even when Manly is busy it feels more low-key. Enjoy your time there!

  12. I was in Sydney many years ago for a short time, and must have somehow found out about Manly Beach. I remember being very excited about going and rode the ferry over there (which was a great experience at the time). I don’t remember it in too much detail, only that it was very quiet and absolutely beautiful! I’m glad I saw this it brings back so many great memories of that trip!

  13. Hi Danielle, Manly is on the itineraries for most visitors to Sydney, and it does have its fair share of tacky souvenir shops and the like that cater for tourists, however, it remains resolutely local and it’s absolutely beautiful, and not hard to get away from the tourists to find local spots. So pleased you got there and enjoyed it and this post brought back some memories. Thanks for dropping by!

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