The best thrifty things to do in Sydney
We can all agree that Sydney is one of the most breath-taking cities in the world. With its stunning harbour, exquisite restaurants and thrilling festivals.
We can all agree that Sydney is one of the most breath-taking cities in the world. With its stunning harbour, exquisite restaurants and thrilling festivals. However did you know that you can experience Sydney on a budget? That's right, there's actually plenty to do so you can head home with change in your pocket. Here's our guide to the best cheap and free things to do in Sydney.
Sydney is made for outdoor exploring. Hiking, picnicking, walking around the sparkling harbour are some of the best things you can do. If staying active isn't quite up your alley, lazing by harbourside pools and local beaches are another way to enjoy what this magnificent city offers when spending time outdoors.
Popular walks in Sydney
The Bondi to Coogee Walk is one of Sydney’s most popular, winding along the coast past famous beaches and rockpools, and always busy with locals and tourists soaking up some sun and topping up their step count. Other favourite Sydney walks include the Spit Bridge to Manly Walk (take the bus to the Spit for $4 and get the ferry back from Manly for $8) and the 6.5km walk from Taronga Zoo to Balmoral Beach (ferry from Circular Quay: $8).
Enjoy free festivals and live music
Sydney’s premier light, ideas and music festival, Vivid Sydney, is held each year and bathes the city’s iconic buildings in light shows and projections every night. Follow the Vivid Light Walk eight kilometres from the Sydney Opera House to Central station and enjoy free projections, installations and live music, and check out all the fun installations and interactive light shows at Darling Harbour. Read everything you need to know about visiting Vivid Sydney 2022 here.
Spend the day at a Sydney beach or harbour pool
A day at a Sydney beach is a cheap way to enjoy the sun, sand and surf – just remember to swim between the flags and wear your sunscreen – and all it will cost you is transport to the beach. Iconic Bondi Beach is a tourist favourite, while Clovelly and Bronte are often less crowded and boast gorgeous ocean pools too. Jump on the train south to Cronulla for a taste of the suburbs and the four beautiful beaches of Bate Bay, all with ocean pools, and grab a beer at Cronulla RSL ($5.50 and a counter meal for $15) before you head back.
Sydney’s Harbour Beaches and swimming pools are as popular as the ocean. Take a picnic to Nielsen Park in Vaucluse or Wylie Baths at Coogee and enjoy the beautiful bush and park-lined shores. If you’re more of a swimming pool person, make your way to the Andrew ‘Boy” Charlton Pool (abcpool.org), a heated salt-water pool on the shore of Woolloomooloo Bay at the Domain. This iconic spot overlooks the naval base and entry is $8. Perch on the concrete steps or swim laps and enjoy the sunshine.
Charlton and Royal Botanic Gardens. Photo by: Andrew Boy
Explore the Sydney Botanic Gardens and Sydney Opera House for free
A walk around Mrs Macquarie’s Chair through the Royal Botanic Gardens is a fabulous way to spend a morning or afternoon and it doesn’t cost a cent – plus, it’s the perfect spot for a picnic overlooking the harbour. Join the Royal Botanic Garden’s free daily guided garden walk from 10.30am to 12.00pm (book online, payment via donation).
Mrs Macquaries Point
Follow the path around Farm Cover to Bennelong Point and the Sydney Opera House, the jewel in the harbour city’s crown. Make sure to walk all the way around the Sydney Opera House and climb the stairs for an up-close look at the sails.
Take some time at the Opera Bar
From here, head down a level to the Opera Bar, arguably Sydney’s best harbour spot for a beer and a meal. Positioned just under the Opera House sails, it gives you a stunning view of the House, the Harbour Bridge, Circular Quay and across the harbour to Luna Park.
Grab a cocktail ($18), a wine ($12) and a pizza ($22) or a snack (from $14) and spend hours on the harbour watching the ferries arrive and depart the Quay. It’s a cheap afternoon in one of the best locations in Sydney.
Take a ferry across the harbour
A trip across the harbour on a Sydney ferry is the best way to see Sydney’s famous landmarks from the water – and it’s much cheaper than an organised cruise. Jump on a ferry across the harbour and under the Sydney Harbour Bridge to the Milson Point wharf ($4). From here, you can swim at the stunning North Sydney Swimming Pool, wander through Luna Park (grab a day pass for unlimited rides from $44) and make your way around Lavender Bay to Wendy Whiteley’s Secret Garden, once a disused piece of land rescued by Wendy in the early 90s and now home to a thriving green sanctuary beloved by the people of Sydney.
Ride a Sydney ferry
Walk across the Sydney Harbour Bridge
Walking across the Sydney Harbour Bridge is a great way to soak up the views down to the harbour, and see the bridge from a new perspective – and it’s free. You can start in the Rocks or at Milson’s Point and make your way across, enjoying the incredible view of Sydney all the way down the harbour.
Walk the Sydney Harbour Bridge
Cheap and free things to do in the Rocks, Sydney
If you’re walking across the Sydney Harbour Bridge from Milson’s Point, you can take the steps down to the Rocks and make your way to the rooftop at the Glenmore Hotel for one of the best views of Sydney Harbour, live music, beer and pub meals. It’s wise to book a table in advance.
There are daily free walking tours in the Rocks (by donation) – check out I’m Free Sydney for walks at 6pm each day and Locl Tour Sydney for two-hour long daily walking tours, also by donation.
The Rocks was the heart of Sydney from colonisation, and there is a lot of history here to explore. You can also do your own walking tour of historic buildings and laneways, or you may prefer to take your own Pub Crawl around the many heritage-listed pubs. There’s live music and it’s a fun afternoon exploring and enjoying the larrikin atmosphere. The Rocks Discovery Museum is a fabulous free family friendly centre with exhibits and information from the earliest times of Indigenous custodians of the land here, through colonisation and into the current day.
Visit the Big Dig Archaeology Exhibition Centre site under the YHA and walk along a boardwalk to spot relics found during an excavation program and learn more about this historic heart of Sydney.
Wander through the Rocks Markets from 10am every Sunday and find souvenirs and keepsakes to take home with you, listen to buskers, eat cheap street food and explore under the shadow of the Harbour Bridge.
Visit Hyde Park
Back up in the city centre, Hyde Park is a beautiful park that runs from north to south through the middle of the city. Pay your respects at the ANZAC memorial here, make a wish at the Archibald Fountain and enjoy the gardens by following steps down past the main path. Keep an eye out for the local bin chickens! Cross the road to visit St Mary’s Cathedral and from here you can wander through the Domain to the Art Gallery of NSW and the Royal Botanic Gardens.
The best cheap and free things to do in Darling Harbour
The Darling Harbour Precinct always has something going on – from installations and live lunchtime music at Tumbalong Park to the weekly free fireworks show at Cockle Bay every Saturday night at 8.30pm.
The children’s playground here is a huge free space with an abundance of activities for kids, including a water play area with fountains and water features, a flying fox and a giant slide with tunnels, balance ropes, diggers and giant swings. It’s an awesome place for kids to run off steam, and if you feel like releasing a bit of adult energy, there are two free ping pong tables in the Darling Quarter. Kids are welcome to play too.
At night, check out Luminous, Darling Quarter’s free exhibition. It’s the largest LED light display in the world – and it’s interactive. You can watch its 557 lights over the façade of the main building here, or on the weekends, you can take control of the console and create a light show yourself.
Chinese Garden of Friendship - Darling Harbour
The Chinese Garden of Friendship is one of the most popular places to visit in Darling Harbour. It’s a tranquil curated garden with beautiful water features, modelled after ancient private Chinese gardens. Entry is $8.
Free museums in Sydney
Many of Sydney’s museums are free (with entry fees to visiting exhibits). The Museum of Contemporary Art in the Rocks has free entry, along with the Art Gallery of NSW. The Powerhouse Museum in Ultimo has free general admission, and afterwards, you can pop down to Chinatown for cheap meals and custard tarts, and wander through the infamous Paddy’s Markets for everything you could possibly want and many things you don’t. Some of the National Maritime Museum is also free, but there is an entry fee for ship access and the latest exhibitions.
Museum of Contemporary Art
Visit Sydney’s weekend markets
Find fresh produce, vintage treasures and stalls from local artisans at Sydney’s weekend markets. From beachside Bondi’s Saturday morning farmers market and Sunday’s market stalls to the fashion and jewellery of the Paddington markets, Chinatown’s Friday night street food market and Rozelle’s collectors market – there’s a market to fit anything you need.
Cheap day trips and overnight adventures
Jump on the train to Cronulla and take the ferry over to Bundeena ($7) and the Royal National Park. Swim at Maianbar, wander the weekend markets and take the Jibbon Beach Walk along the beach, spotting Aboriginal middens and following the path to ancient Indigenous rock carvings. From here, you can begin the stunning Coast Track in the Royal National Park. It’s free to visit when you arrive by public transport. The Coast Track is an epic two day walk from Bundeena to Offord, but if you’re not up to it, you can reach a number of smaller beaches - Wattamolla is a stunning beach and lagoon that’s perfect for lunch and a swim - and return to Bundeena and the ferry home.
You can spot whales along this walk, and there is a viewing platform at Cape Solander in Kamay Bay National Park at Kurnell (take a bus from opposite Cronulla Train Station). Captain Cook landed here back in 1788 and there are a number of significant heritage sites to explore: start at the Kurnell Visitor Centre.
If you’re after a beach without the walking, stay in Cronulla for a choice of bay beaches like Gunnamatta, European-reminiscent rock beaches like Salmon Haul and sandy ocean pool beaches that stretch all along the Esplanade walk from Oak Park up to Wanda Beach. Walk along the beach to Boat Harbour and crystal clear ocean. If you’re driving, stop in at the EG Waterhouse National Camellia Gardens in Caringbah and explore the Hazlehurst Art Gallery in Kirrawee.
You can stay in Cronulla in a variety of accommodation, but if you’re sticking to a budget, check out the Cronulla Beach Backpackers for cheap beachside accommodation.
Day trip to the Blue Mountains
Another fabulous day trip is to take the train up to the Blue Mountains. Board at Central Station and jump off at Katoomba (tickets from $7) in the heart of the Blue Mountains. From here, it’s an easy walk down to the lookout over the Three Sisters and the Blue Mountains National Park. Bring your hiking gear as there are lots of hikes, tracks, waterfalls and lookouts to enjoy – and it’s all free. Grab a meal in a café before heading back to Sydney.
Explore on a Sunday for discount transport
Sunday is Funday and that means cheap fares on the Sydney transport network. Travel all day for only $2.50 per person, and under four-year-olds are free.