Our Guide to How to Experience Sydney on a Budget
Getting to Sydney on a Budget
A taxi from Sydney Airport to the CBD (Central Business District, i.e. Aussie for ‘city centre’) probably isn’t the best option for travellers in Sydney on a budget, however, it’s certainly the most convenient.
To inner-city suburbs it takes 20-30 minutes, but can cost between A$35-50 depending on when you travel and which way the driver goes. Unless you’re heading to Kings Cross, Potts Point, Circular Quay or The Rocks, tell the driver to skip the Eastern Distributor tunnel which can add A$15 to the trip. Airport shuttle buses, which should be pre-booked, cost around A$15pp, but keep in mind they’ll be dropping other people off too, so are only worth the hassle and time if you’re travelling solo.
The fastest option is the AirportLink train at A$15.40, which takes 10-12 minutes from the airports to the CBD and runs every 10-15 minutes, 5am-midnight. Don’t expect a sleek, clean, dedicated airport express train with lots of luggage racks like you find in Europe. These are dingy, suburban CityRail trains, many covered in graffiti, and during peak hour you’ll be crammed in with commuters paying a fraction of the price you are – it’s an embarrassment for a city like Sydney.
Getting around Sydney on a Budget
Sydney’s taxis are expensive, so only catch them at night and when you’re heading home late from bars and pubs. The rest of the time, the decent bus and train and brilliant ferry systems will do you just fine. An all day transport pass with unlimited travel that can be used on ferries, trains, light rail and buses will cost you A$20.
Much better value if you’re staying more than two days is the 7-day pass with unlimited travel for A$41. Sydney also has a handy free shuttle bus that loops around the CBD every 10 minutes, running along George and Elizabeth Streets, between Central Station and Circular Quay. Oddly enough, though, it only runs 9.30am-3.30pm weekdays, except Thursday when it runs to 9pm, and weekends from 9.30am-6pm.
Sydney is very walkable, however, and walking costs you nothing. Despite appearances, it’s a compact city: you can walk the 2.7kms from Circular Quay to Central Station in 35 minutes, and it will take the same time to walk a similar distance from Kings Cross to Darling Harbour.
Where to Stay in Sydney on a Budget
Accommodation is expensive so travellers in Sydney on a budget can save money by staying in an apartment instead of a hotel. We tried a handful of serviced apartments and especially loved Adina Apartments in Surry Hills, Fraser Suites in the city CBD, and the apartments at The Star, Darling Harbour.
Of Sydney’s boutique hotels, the 8 Hotels brand offers some of the best value digs, while for those on a super-tight budget, the Sydney Harbour YHA at The Rocks has the city’s best value double rooms with Sydney Opera House views.
Shop the markets for affordable eating
One of the reasons we love renting apartments is so we can shop the local markets and specialty food stores for fresh local produce. Sydney has a number of regular farmers markets dotted around the city, including Pyrmont Grower’s Market (1st Saturday of the month, 7-11am) and Eveleigh Markets (Saturdays, 8am-1pm), a favourite with our local eating and drinking expert.
We like Paddy’s Markets (Wednesday-Sunday and public holiday Mondays, 9am-5pm) at Haymarket, Chinatown, which is the best value and brilliant for Asian herbs and fruit and veg. It’s where the city’s Asian community shops and can consequently feel like markets in Bangkok, Saigon and Singapore (only cleaner!).
It’s not a market but a mall, however, upstairs from Paddy’s, in Market City (9am-8pm daily), you’ll find seafood shops, butchers and fantastic Asian supermarkets for great value spices, condiments and sauces, as well as cheap kitchen supplies if your apartment is lacking. If you’re staying at Adina, the superb Hudson Meats, a quality butcher shop-cum-gourmet deli, is across the road.
Simply kick back in the big city
Sydney is such a stunning-looking city (don’t believe us, watch our Sydney timelapse video), that it’s a delight simply to stroll around and take it all in and do very little at all.
Start at Circular Quay and explore the historic Rocks area, with its quaint workers cottages, grand terrace houses and sandstone pubs, and Sydney Harbour Bridge views. Admire Sydney Opera House from all angles, then stroll down George Street or Pitt Street to take in the architecture, old and new; see our local architecture expert’s tips here.
Do a spot of window-shopping or simply take in the splendour of historic shopping arcades like the sumptuous Strand Arcade and Queen Victoria Building. Saunter down to Chinatown, Sydney’s Little Asia, for atmosphere, colour and food, and, if you want to be reminded you’re a tourist, hit Darling Harbour for the waterfront setting, city vistas, hideous post-modern architecture and serene Chinese Gardens, but whatever you do, don’t eat there!
Snack: fast food and picnic supplies
Budget-priced fast food treats that locals love include Chinese buns as well as laksa, ramen, and countless other quick noodle soups in Chinatown, sushi from shops on almost every block, and meat pies from iconic Harry’s Cafe de Wheels at Woolloomooloo (try Harry’s Tiger: meat pie with mash, mushy peas and gravy).
You can create a picnic of cheeses, terrines and crusty bread from farmers markets or fresh oysters, salads and fruit from Paddy’s Markets and Market City shops (see Shop the markets above). David Jones Food Hall (Market Street) also has plenty of gourmet goodies (although can be more expensive), while city supermarkets like Woolworth and Coles, both on George Street, are good for dips, cheeses, cold meats, and crackers.
Picnic in a park
Sydney is a green city, with plenty of leafy parks and gardens where you can pleasantly while away an afternoon: amble through the Royal Botanic Gardens, possibly one of the world’s most beautiful, walk through the leafy Domain, then stroll under the tree canopies in lovely Hyde Park. We’re not fans of touristy Darling Harbour, but it’s home to the gorgeous Chinese Garden of Friendship.
The city is home to some of Australia’s finest art museums and galleries. They’re truly world-class and, good news for travellers in Sydney on a budget: their permanent exhibitions are free (special temporary shows attract fees).
My favourites, where I spent countless hours when we lived in Sydney, are the Art Gallery of NSW and the Museum of Contemporary Art. Our Sydney Local Knowledge guy Richard loves White Rabbit Gallery. Time Out Sydney has a full list of galleries and shows here.
Be crafty, shop vintage
Sydney’s fashionable boutiques beyond your budget? Then hit Eveleigh Artisan’s Market (1st Sunday of the month, 10am-3pm) for clothes, jewellery and accessories from independent designers, as well as contemporary arts and crafts. Shop the vintage clothes stores on Crown Street, Surry Hills – my favourite is Grandma Takes a Trip – as well as Newtown and Glebe. The weekend markets in the inner-city precincts of Surry Hills, Glebe, Balmain, and Paddington, are also worth a browse if you’re in the neighbourhood.
Take to the water
If you’ve got glorious weather, there’s no better way to spend time in Sydney than on the water, whether it’s cruising the harbour on the public ferries, strolling by the sea or lazing on the beach. Grab one of those transport passes (see Get around…, above) and a handy Map Guide to Sydney Harbour, available at Circular Quay, and spend a few days hopping on and off ferries.
You can discover lovely areas by ferry such as Rose Bay and Watson’s Bay in the east, Balmain East and Birchgrove in the inner-west, McMahons Point and Kirribilli on the north side, and Manly, where you could easily escape for a couple of days to kick back by the beach or even learn to surf.
Make sure you do the spectacular Bondi to Bronte walk along the breathtaking coast; take the bus to Bronte and start there. Do all that and you’ll be finding Sydney very hard to leave.
Eat fine food affordably – for lunch
Sydney is home to some of the world’s best restaurants, such as Quay, Marque, Tetsuya, Rockpool, and Bennelong, although unfortunately dinner at these fine diners is out of reach for most budget travelers. However, many of Sydney’s best restaurants offer more affordable lunch menus.
If you want a taste of how great the city’s food is, more affordable alternatives include lunch at the bar at Rockpool Bar and Grill, quality Thai at Longrain or contemporary Greek at The Apollo.
Fortunately for budget travellers, Sydney also has an abundance of cheap ethnic eats in Chinatown, inner-city precincts, and, in their greatest concentration, in its multicultural suburbs, such as Campsie, for everything from Korean to Arabic, Parramatta, and Cabramatta, home to authentic Vietnamese. Noodlies blog is a delicious source of info.
Hit the pub for a counter meal
While Sydney has an abundance of small bars, cocktails are expensive, so hit the local watering holes instead. There a plenty of atmospheric old pubs in The Rocks and adjacent Millers Point, including some of the oldest, such as The Fortune of War, Lord Nelson Hotel and Hero of Waterloo, and in inner-city precincts like Surry Hills, where you’ll find the Norfolk and Hollywood, in Darlinghurst for the Darlo Bar, Paddington for the Paddo Inn, Balmain for the London. Beers are cheap and counter meals are great value; you can get steaks for as little as $10.
Let Sydney entertain you
Cheap happy hour drinks, free museum nights, art exhibition openings, cup-price theatre tickets, and free music gigs and comedy nights will ensure you’ll be kept busy after dark no matter how tight your budget. Check Time Out Sydney to see what’s on when you’re in town.
Getting away from Sydney
If you haven’t seen much of the countryside, hop on a train. Countrylink has some great-value rail passes. Also consider Great Southern Rail which offers affordable fares in their budget Red service on The Indian Pacific, which goes from Sydney to Perth via Adelaide, and The Ghan, which travels between Adelaide and Darwin. They frequently offer discounted fares.
Note: prices were correct at date of publishing.
If you’re heading to Melbourne, see our guide to Melbourne on a Budget.