See, eat, do: An insider's guide to Sydney, Australia

Shentel Lee, designer at Bowerhaus and Sereni & Shentel, and founder of Kuching Food Aid, on the best places to visit in her hometown.

Take the ferry anywhere, even if it’s a round trip, because Sydney from the water is breathtaking 

I was born and raised a Sydneysider. And, like most Australians, our need to leave the island (or continent, if you will) is part of our DNA. Born to travel far or go walkabout, we can’t wait to leave the land down under the minute we have saved enough to book a flight to anywhere. This works in our favour because we also never fully feel alone when we travel. On every street corner or in every airline queue, chances are you will hear a thick Aussie accent. This is also the reason why I unabashedly tell you that you should always ask an Aussie for travel tips because pretty much all of us have a few tricks up our sleeves on where to go.

Travel is, after all, the greatest form of luxury. It is hard-earned savings well-spent to enrich, inspire and escape. No matter how big or small the adventure, we Aussies always try to make sure we make the most of it and would always have done some research beforehand. We love doing what the locals do and not fall into tourist traps; or at least that is what I personally always hope for before setting out on an adventure. I certainly don’t want to travel to Venice to eat Thai food.

For Sydney, I thought long and hard about what my curated list would look like. The following are places I frequently haunt myself, spots where I would go with my best mates. Why heed my tips, you might ask? After all, I did decamp for Kuching (for love, if you must ask) and spent 13 wonderful years there. I founded businesses, raised a family and fell deeply in love with the Sarawakian way of life. However, six years ago, my husband Bobby and I made the decision to move back to Sydney for our sons’ schooling. And now we happily yo-yo between the two cities. But we truly live the best of both worlds: it’s all about RM6 bowls of laksa in Kuching one day and long walks in the Sydney parks the next.

I am also fully aware that the ringgit does not translate well in daily Sydney life and that the whole visa/ETA process to enter the country can be a sticky process. But we do want you to come. Please don’t give up, buckle in and pay extra attention to my suggestions of free, yes free, things to do while in Sydney, as well as some atas options. Life is all about contrast and balance, isn’t it?


Lee chicly divides her time between Sydney and Sarawak (Photo: Shentel Lee)


These are three of the newest kids in town and chosen because they ooze so much design charm. I have personally visited all three and done the requisite snooping for you. Top of the list is Oxford House — I live not far from here and its location is steps away from Five Ways, a shopping area I pretty much try to avoid because everything is that good. Oxford House’s rooms are cosy, and offer all you need but with scads of style. I love having meals by the poolside and the fact that the Paddington outpost of the famous bookshop Berkelouw is next door is another bonus. If you want to feel like a true local, I would recommend staying here and walking daily to the Organic Bread Bar for a take-away coffee and fresh pastry and then walking down to the city or up to Paddington.

Ace Hotel is where all the cool kids stay. The interiors are slick and eclectic while its location is steps away from central station and the tram. The lobby bar is what Ace is known for as it has a really NYC vibe. Grab a show at the Capitol Theatre down the road or walk a mere five minutes to China Town if you are that type of tourist that needs to eat rice at least once a day.

No expense was spared at the new Capella Hotel which features the dancing Meadow kinetic light sculpture by Dutch art practice Studio Drift, a sight for young and old to enjoy in its lobby. Located on Circular Quay, this hotel is housed in what was once the 1915 Department of Education Building. Many of the original details were kept, which I love because it means a slice of Sydney’s history and heritage has not been lost, a rarity in so many modern hotels. If you want a full-service hotel that is world-class, this is it!

Pro tip: Travelling with your family? Need a serviced apartment that doesn’t cost a bomb? I would recommend Meriton Suites Bondi Junction. For what you get, the price is undeniably good. It is also right above a train station and next door to Westfield.


Ace Hotel is where all the cool kids stay (Photo: Ace Hotel)


If you can drive, hiring a car is an option I would recommend in a heartbeat. Sydney is a large city and we are not known for our public transport beyond the CBD area. That said, we do have ferries, trams, trains and buses all on apps to make it less painful to get around and there is always Uber for when it all gets a bit too hard and you just want to get from point A to B without wasting time. Here’s another pointer: If you are taking public transport, ditch the Opal card and just use your credit card (yes, your international one) to tap in and out. It works and is much cheaper. Please take the ferry anywhere, even if it’s a round trip, because Sydney from the water is breathtaking.


The Sydney food scene has exploded since the city reopened after Covid-19 and everyone, and I mean everyone, wants to eat out, which means you have to book ahead to get into the ones that are on everyone’s radar. If you can’t get a booking, try calling on the day itself as people often cancel at the last minute. For groups of six or more, I would advise booking, say, two smaller tables of three or four so you don’t get stuck with a set menu. Ordering multiple entrees is also the best idea. Sydneysiders are big on eating this way.

Drinks are not necessarily de rigueur these days as everyone is adopting a “health is wealth” mindset. The good news is that fun, non-alcoholic options are aplenty. You can and should always ask for tap water when the waiter comes with the “Still or sparkling?” game face. Never pay for water, even if it’s at the most expensive restaurants! And since we are in Australia and allergies are a big liability, never hesitate to ask your waiter to modify your order.


Don't miss Jane's signature Australiano cocktail (Photo: Jane)

On where to go, Jane, a modern Australian restaurant and wine bar in Bourke Street, Surry Hills, is a gem. Don’t miss the Australiano, its best cocktail. It’s made with Rhubi Mistelle, an award-winning Victoria-crafted rhubarb aperitif, vermouth, bitter citrus and mandarin. Ask for a virgin option if you don’t do the hard stuff. Fusion food is at its best at Ester and this is my brother-in-law and famous foodie Benjamin Yong’s favourite spot. Come for the salt-baked whole mud crabs served with chicken fat baked rice. You would also want to go to Sean’s Panorama in Bondi for a beachside seafood meal set amid quirky interiors while Ursula’s in Paddington serves unfussy, fussy food … if that makes sense.

If you’re looking for some place pretty posh or just pretty and posh, Mimi’s at Coogee Pavilion is it while Lou Lou in Milsons Point is all about fun French food. For Italian food with a whole lot of soul, go to Buon Ricardo or Totti’s Bondi, an al fresco gem that does the best sharing plates. Sweet nautical dreams are made of meals at The Boathouse Rose Bay while the Greek gods would approve should you choose to dine at The Apollo, a well-loved contemporary taverna in the heart of Potts Point. And once night falls and it’s all getting sexy, dark and mysterious, head to Alberto’s Lounge, a warm buzzing trattoria with an extensive wine list.

For the best takeaways, this is where I go to get the good stuff but be prepared to queue: El Jannah in Newtown for the best charcoal chicken; Brother’s Kebabs in Rockdale for an incredible lamb kebab with the works; Black Star Pastry for the watermelon cake; Bourke St Bakery for a sausage roll; Humble Bakery for a finger bun; Flour and Stone for a lamington; The Spruce Goose Diner in Centennial Park for an authentic bacon and egg roll; and, finally the iconic, Harry’s Cafe de Wheels for a hot dog and pie.


Lucy Folk at William Street (Photo: Lucy Folk)


I’m always in favour of ditching the malls in order to head out to the suburbs where the stores there have their own distinct personalities. The best place to start your spree is at Five Ways Paddington. Check out brands and boutiques like Zimmermann, Rachel Gilbert, Venroy, Scanlan Theodore, Lee Mathews, Oroton, Mecca and Bassike. Walk up to Oxford Street and stop by Funkis, where there is a very adorable cafe out the back you should pop your head in to see. Cross the road and walk through the Paddington Reservoir Gardens, a hidden park, then zig-zag up Oxford Street and its many shops until you hit William Street. The pub on the corner is great for a bathroom check before heading down the street.

Don’t miss Lucy Folk and the sensational Puddleduck Toys en route but when you get to the bottom, you will find Alimentari, my favourite spot for coffee and avocado on toast. Locals have warned me never to share this on my Instagram for fear of word getting out, but seeing as we are friends now and you are taking the time to read this, you are welcome. There is a special spot, once again, out the back. Claw your way and get there. If you see a tiny cupcake with fresh cream and a strawberry on it, you absolutely must order it. Just get ready for an unforgettable taste sensation.

Keep on walking and you’ll get to Queen St Woollahra. Get a takeaway coffee from Pasta Pantry and enjoy the tree-lined street. There are many shops and cafes geared towards the locals. Tourists are rarely spotted out here. Don’t miss Victor Churchill (yes, it’s a butcher but so beautiful you need to have a look) and multi-brand store Riada.


Self-guided visits at Art Gallery of NSW are made possible with audio guide application Dora (Photo: Art Gallery of NSW)

Those on a strict budget need to visit to see what’s happening daily. There is always something going on for free in the city. I also use TikTok (search Sydney Free Activities) to get ideas. Visit art galleries, beaches and parks because they are family-friendly and cost nothing. But go prepared — grab some food from a local Woolworths or Coles and make a picnic out of it. The best free galleries, in my opinion, are the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, the Art Gallery of NSW, the Powerhouse Museum and the White Rabbit Gallery.

For parks, I’d say Centennial Park, the Botanical Gardens and Wendy’s Secret Garden while Camp Cove is a top beach because they have the best little kiosk for snacks in the sand, Tamarama Beach (often nicknamed Glamarama) and Bronte. Oh, and as a good Sydneysider, I am compelled to remind you to splurge on SPF. The Australian sun is particularly brutal so slap on the sunblock and wear a hat. Don’t stinge on footwear either. Sydney is a city of walkers so pack your most trusted pair of sneaks.


This article first appeared on Sept 18, 2023 in The Edge Malaysia.

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