The path becomes narrower, filtering sunlight through trees. A lizard darts and, somewhere above, parrots cackle. The cliffs drop away in honeyed sandstone towards the Pacific Ocean. As you walk downwards from clifftops you head into gullies and another world, where giant ferns grow and water trickles between mossy boulders. Yet you’re not in the countryside, but in the heart of Sydney. Follow the path and you’ll sometimes see downtown skyscrapers glittering across the harbour like a mirage.
One of the joys of Sydney is that you can still find corners of wilderness that appear to have sidestepped the 21st century. Many stretches of the city’s coastline are national parkland, and even when tracks meander through suburban streets they retain a tranquil atmosphere. Both the harbour and coastline are easily accessible on walking tracks, yet few visitors realize these tracks exist.
Follow in locals’ footsteps, though, and you’re rewarded with a great urban experience. You’ll appreciate how water is Sydney’s greatest asset, making the city scintillate. Walk down pathways that end in glittering bays and bobbing yachts, and you’ll begin to appreciate why Sydney is frequently cited as one of the world’s loveliest cities.
The path starts just past the swimming baths at the southern end of Bondi and leads to Tamarama and then Bronte, where locals while away the afternoon in the sun at a row of outdoor cafés. Walk on through Waverley Cemetery, superbly located on the clifftops and the resting place of several famous Australians, before arriving at Coogee. Here the small beach is enclosed by green headlands and backed by more chatter-filled cafés.
The walk showcases the ocean, but less well known are the city’s harbour walks. The suburbs of the elegant North Shore offer some of Sydney’s most beautiful rambles. Take the ferry from the city centre across the harbour to Kirribilli. From here, walks meander around a series of bays, sometimes along suburban streets, sometimes through public gardens, occasionally through patches of bushland. You can admire well-kept private gardens and waterside mansions along the way, if you can drag your eyes from the photogenic sweep of city skyline and Opera House. You could finish your walk in Mosman, once a 19th-century whaling station, and now one of Sydney’s chicest suburbs.
For a more rugged walk, consider starting at Spit Bridge and heading eastwards along the harbour from Mosman. The well-signposted track starts off through dense vegetation and mudflats where heron hunt for fish. From here, it’s up and down over the numerous headlands of sprawling Middle Harbour before the dry scrub of the clifftops gives way to the lush sub-tropical vegetation that grows in shaded, hidden gullies. White butterflies flit among giant tree ferns, and water trickles down rocks.
Much of the trail to Manly passes through Sydney Harbour National Park, where you’ll enjoy a great many flowering bushes such as the distinctively Australian banksias. Red-tailed skinks – a type of lizard – are often seen sunning themselves on rocks. Cockatoos tumble through the trees in white and gold, screeching loudly. Lorikeets pester picnickers for food, although few people have the heart to complain about being pestered by birds that look like court jesters in emerald, blue, red and yellow.
As for the native Australian trees, they appear exceedingly odd but can also be strangely beautiful. Some have salmon-pink bark, smooth and cool to the touch and crossed with delicate lines of oozing black sap, while others have white bark that looks as if it has been scribbled on by a furious child with a black pencil.
The rugged part of this walk ends at the suburb of Balgowlah. From here, a concrete path accessible even to wheelchairs meanders through harbour-side suburbs. Although tamer, the scenery is just as attractive: manicured gardens, yachts bobbing at anchor, and green Manly ferries chugging towards the wharf.
Manly has been a seaside resort of Sydneysiders since the ferry service began from the city in 1854, and today the 30-minute ferry ride is still a highlight of any trip to Sydney. The suburb is superbly located on a peninsula between ocean and harbour, and boasts a dozen beaches, some so well hidden in tiny coves they’re known only to local residents. The main beach, on the other hand, is a huge sweep of golden sand that attracts thousands of day trippers and is patrolled by lifesavers in distinctive red-and-yellow caps.
Head on another walk up the hill from Manly, past the hospital and military reserve, and you’ll find yourself at the Old Quarantine Station, established in the 1830s to isolate immigrants suspected of harbouring infectious diseases. There are guided history tours during the day that provide curious insights into Sydney’s immigration history and the rather gory tale of medical science. Particularly popular are night-time ghost tours for those in search of a thrill.
Further uphill, you enter another section of Sydney Harbour National Park, which is home to some rare marsupials and features more Aboriginal rock carvings left by the Kameygal people. The walk ends at the cliffs marking the entrance to the harbour at North Head, where there are incredible views down the water, past islands and cliffs and skimming yachts, to the skyscrapers of the city centre: Sydney at its picture-perfect best.