One of the world’s largest and most exciting, party-all-night, tech-and-innovation, pop-culture festivals is coming to… Sydney, a city which straight-up murdered its own nightlife. The official SXSW website quickly palms-off local tourism ideas to poorly travelled bureaucrats from both the City of Sydney and NSW legislatures who recommend walking around our office spaces, seeing second-rate tourist attractions, buying overpriced coffee and leaving the city to go to more-happening suburbs.
But, it doesn’t have to be like this. SMBtech cuts through all the chaff and gives you a practical guide on what you can do, what you should do and what to avoid – and it’s not what you think. If you’re coming from the US or UK, the lop-sided exchange rates means you can live like a king, but the following can be largely done on any budget.
What follows is the well-worn advice we’ve given to numerous friends and family members who have visited over the years. Plus, some extra stuff that we, er, left out.
Note, this is something of a live document and we’ll be adding to it over time. Feel free to add any suggestions in the comments.
Table of Contents
SXSW Sydney visitors, read this if nothing else
The following sections will save you a lot of time and money and set-you up for all of your local food, transport and internet requirements.
Arrival, transport and general survival
Uber – Sydney is an Uber town. For everything. Forget taxis which are uncomfortable, have third-rate apps and a disturbing variety of driver competencies, there are Ubers of every type everywhere and they tend to all be high quality. Use them from the airport (follow the ‘Ride Share’ signs to the pickup location once you’ve arrived). It’s about $50 into the City. While you can’t use Uber Pool from the airport, you can save a lot of money on shared trips everywhere else and meet new and interesting people (who are vetted by Uber).
It might well be worth signing-up for Uber One discounts and priority service ($10 per month) while you’re here: its services like Uber Eats operate everywhere and (depending on where you’re staying) has many of Sydney’s vast variety of food outlets to choose from along plus, plenty of delivery drivers and riders. They’ll deliver to most places, even if you’re at a venue. Uber can also be used for Grocery delivery (including all supermarket goods, sundries and toiletries), Alcohol Delivery(!), pharmacy deliveries and lately, Car Hire (we’ve not tested that yet). There’s also a service for package delivery (great if you’ve left your keys etc somewhere).
If you need urgent(ish) tech, our big online store, JB Hi-Fi offers delivery by Uber(!)
You can even rent scooters and pay for entire public transport trips at once, although the former is dangerous in Sydney and the latter is more onerous than paying as you go.
Sydney has trains and buses which are slow but generally run to schedule and are all tied into Google Maps so that you can easily plan your journey anywhere. You don’t need a special ‘Opal card’ ticket (although you can buy one for cash), they all work using credit cards and phones to tap-on and tap-off. It’s all very cheap – even long train rides. There’s also the new(ish) B1 bus lines which is a regular, quasi-express route, that heads north out of Sydney and back.
Light rail – The building of Sydney’s new tram service wasn’t popular with locals, but with SXSW Sydney in town, it’s a perfect way to travel up and down through the city between the events and Circular Quay. They’re very frequent and a bit faster than walking.
There are electric scooters in Sydney but they come with numerous unpublicised rules and it’s not uncommon to see riders that have been pulled over by police.
Sydney has made a big push to become more bicycle friendly in recent years but with minimal success. Sydneysiders generally (and too-often, proudly) HATE cyclists and don’t know how to drive when around them. New cycle lanes have been acknowledged as having been designed with car-parking as a priority consideration and many run alongside cars that will open their doors into your bike and send you flying. There are numerous hostile laws regarding riding without helmets and riding on roads. These include speeding fines despite the lack of speedometers.
Driving – Unless you’re heading out of the City you won’t need a car. Fuel is horribly expensive right now, too. If you do choose to drive, keep the Waze app open as a large community updates the maps with live traffic info, hazards as they happen, speed cameras and hidden police.
Internet and cell phone
While this author could talk about Australia’s internet situation longer than most, from a tourist point of view, you’re in luck. Sydney has outstanding 4G and 5G coverage everywhere and you’re often best relying on it more than Wi-Fi. The main network providers are Telstra, Optus and Vodafone with many other resellers piggybacking off these networks. Coverage and performance varies once you’re out of town, but it’s near identical otherwise. You can run your life off your phone in Sydney, so buy a high-data SIM card on arrival at the airport – or any supermarket and most stores (you’ll need ID) – and you’ll be sorted.
Cash and money
Pretty much all of Sydney is now cashless to the point where if you offer to pay with cash, you’ll be looked at like you’re causing great inconvenience. Tap and go (for cards and phone wallets) is ubiquitous in stores and on transport.
Sydney bucket list
Here are the things that you can only do in Sydney which are World Class attractions… even if the locals scoff and take them for granted.
SXSW Sydney sundowners at The Opera Bar, underneath the Opera House – Some of the very best views in the world have been hijacked by the super rich, but this isn’t one of them. While food and drink at The Opera Bar comes with an inevitable, CBD waterside premium, it’s nowhere near what you’d expect.
Sitting beneath the Sydney Opera House as the sun sets, having either family, or couple-friendly, food and drink while overlooking the magnificent Harbour and Sydney Harbour Bridge, as the sun sets (it becomes even more beautiful when all lit up in the dark) is something you can’t do anywhere else and something that will stay with you forever. It will elicit instant Instagram envy for those who aren’t here. The Squire’s Landing is a decent alternative on the other side of the Quay.
Manly Ferry – Sydney Harbour makes Sydney, Sydney. It’s magnificent and there’s lots of it. You could spend a fortune on a tourist cruise, but you may as well use the commuter ferry which goes from goes from Manly (north side by the ocean) to Circular Quay (the middle of the City). There are plenty of other ferries that commuters use to go to-and-from the city, too and they double as a brilliant way of getting around and seeing the waterside areas.
Manly breakfast – Sydney has a fantastic, foodie culture and one of the best bits is brekkie which generally rooted in being a cross between the greatest hits of America, melded with a classic full-English, plus some local and other ethnic flourishes and fusions that’s topped-off by really good coffee. Corporate chains are few and far between and most cafes will pride themselves on both their food and their coffee, no matter where in Sydney they’re located. However, breakfast on the beachfront at Manly – watching the waves, surfers, beach volleyball players and general beach life, has to be the best. If you can get in at The Pantry (which is the best of the best) you won’t regret it.
Bondi Beach – locals will be spitting at mentioning this, but it’s one of the most famous beaches in the world and you should probably go there at least once. It can be a bit of a schlep, depending on where you’re staying, but it’s big and full of dangerously exciting waves. If you’re lucky, you could be fished out of the water by a Bondi lifeguard and appear on the Bondi Rescue reality show.
Beaches and outdoor sun
The essence of Sydney is that it’s a city that’s blessed with an almost-countless number of world-class beaches. Whatever type of beach you like, Sydney has it. There are also numerous activities you can do depending on that beaches’ characteristics. In general, harbourside beaches don’t have big waves while the ocean-side beaches have waves that suit everything from splashing around to world-class surfing events.
Many SXSW Sydney tourists are likely to believe that their experience with Mediterranean and North American sun and suncream prepares them for sunny Sydney days. It doesn’t. Our high-UV sunshine will f*ck you up. We all routinely wear Factor 50 sunblock and still get tanned and skin cancer. Do not think you can handle it, or you will spend much of the following week with something approaching third-degree burns. Hat, sunnies (sunglasses) and sunscreen are mandatory to avoid misery.
Harbourside beaches are generally flat and don’t have waves. This makes them good for swimming, kids, sailing, sea kayaking and stand-up paddle boarding (Note: you legally need life jackets once you’re away from the beach in the harbour). Some beaches, but not all, will have equipment hire available close-by, but check before you go.
Best-beach website listings tend to favour the local North Side and South Side favourites that the authors’ frequent (not unlike this article, to be fair) but it’s a good problem to have as there are very few that aren’t excellent and which are used constantly by the locals. As a north-side denizen I’d include Balmoral, Chinaman’s and Little Manly as local favourites. Greenwich and Northbridge Baths can be good if you want a child-friendly, enclosed, swimming pool-like experience. Cobblers Beach might be the most beautiful, but wearing clothes there is frowned upon. Here’s a decent list of south-side favourites.
Quick safety guide: No one likes rules but our beaches are as potentially lethal as they are beautiful. Swim between the flags where the lifeguards patrol. Those nice, safe flat sections of water, with no waves, are called rips and the current is so strong that they counteract the waves. Surfers use them to get out to the big waves for a reason – they suck you out to sea quickly. If you do get stuck in one, stay calm and swim parallel to the beach until you’re out of the localised current.
If you fight the current, or panic, you’ll be fortunate if the worst thing that happens to you is waking up in your out-of-place swimsuit, being resuscitated by a life-guard, on camera with, with a voice over about how the latest dumb-arse tourist thought they knew better than the locals. Bondi Rescue is aired (and repeated) in over 100 countries.
A common fear is Sharks. Sydney certainly has them but attacks are incredibly rare. The most popular beaches have regular shark patrols and an alarm will sound if one is comes even remotely close to shore. You’ll know where it is because a local life guard will go and try and shoo it away on a jet ski (if they can even find it again).
Bondi Beach (south of the Harbour) is famous, huge and hugely popular but the massive crowds are not for everyone. Manly (North of the Harbour) is narrower and can be equally tightly packed on hot days. There’s a big backpacker scene in Bondi which can give-off a similar vibe to travelling-Aussie hotspots in international cities. Starting on the 20th October, is the popular Sculptures by the Sea Exhibition which lines the gorgeous Bondi to Bronte Beach coastal walk with one of the largest sculpture exhibitions in the world. There’s always something for everyone on display there.
Manly Beach arguably has the advantage of better surrounding amenities and a small-town vibe. It’s got its own night life which caters to young clubbers, sophisticated bar enthusiasts and restauranteurs alike. You should probably try a day and a night around both major beaches and pick your favourite – which will largely be determined by which you’re staying closest to.
Pretty much all other ocean beaches are excellent – North or South of Sydney. Special mentions go to the sheltered Shelley Beach (next to Manly) and Clovelly Beach (near Bondi) which are flat and good for snorkelling. Both have big Blue Grouper families which are big, blue friendly fish.
Another notable beach is Palm Beach on the northern outskirts of the city. Some readers will know it better as Summer Bay from Home and Away. It’s straddled by both the ocean side beach and the big ‘drowned valley’ Pittwater which is good for local boat hire. Watchers of the show will recognise many of the exterior locations here.
Scuba diving is available around northern and southern beaches. Popular trips include visiting the local, docile nurse shark community. Book ahead if you’re interested.
It’s still whale watching season and local tours are reporting record numbers of whales. A boat tour out of the harbour will put you near the EAC highway (as featured in Finding Nemo) that new whale mothers and baby calfs are using for their southern migration.
They’re mostly humpback whales which is good as these often put on a show by jumping out of the water and splashing around. You don’t get to do this or see these creatures up close in many places in the world, so don’t miss out at SXSW Sydney.
Even if the thought of zoos doesn’t appeal, Taronga zoo is one of the very best in the world and worth considering. First up, it’s huge on ecology and preservation. It’s also got huge sites inland where animals can get sent when they need more space to roam, but none of the local enclosures are what you’d call small and barbaric. The dedicated keepers will inform you about all their cherished creatures and there are several popular animal shows which feel more like animal school than a performing bear escapade. Many local parents buy annual passes to hang out there.
Its easily accessible by bus, car and ferry and has some of the very best views on the Harbour – especially from the giraffe enclosure. The on-site food is very good and you can bring your own.
Just note that the famous cable car ride, which goes from the water to the top of the zoo, up a cliff, (and is commonly used by siteseers wanting to see both the Harbour and the zoo from above) is currently being replaced with a new version. Also, as a tip, on very hot days the animals tend to hide out of view at the back of their enclosures whereas they’re more likely to pose and parade around on cooler days.
Other interesting things to do at the zoo including animal encounters and the glamping Roar and Snore overnight stay. There’s also the Wild Ropes Treetops Adventure which is a genuinely challenging, multi-level assault course that’s suspended (potentially very) high off the ground.
Food and Drink
Beer, Wine and smoking
Booze can be bought in bottle shops which are better known as Bottle-Os. These can be independent but there’s usually same-owner partner stores attached to supermarkets. Uber Eats delivers it but there’s also Sydney’s excellent Jimmy Brings.
If you’ve ever struggled to get into wine, Australia – especially Sydney – is a great way to dive in. Rather than dealing with complicated old-world French and Italian vocabularies, Australia’s new-world wines are generally separated into just several, main, grape varieties (rather than the sh*tty brands we export) which are grown in several world class regions around the country.
Cab Sav, Shiraz and Merlot are the big reds that go great with red meat and tomato-based foods. Pinot Noir is often brought in from the cooler climes of New Zealand and is a generally lighter. For whites, Sav Blanc, Semillon, Riesling and Chardonnay are the four main options and suit seafood and salads. In hot weather it’s common for men and women to stick to Rosé all afternoon and all evening. (Don’t hate me for oversimplifying this). Ultimately, there’s no wine snobbery here and you can almost always bring your own bottle(s) to restaurants and save a fortune.
One of Australia’s best wine regions is two hours north of Sydney. It’s called The Hunter Valley and it’s like having the south of France (Provence) on your doorstop. It’s a two-hour drive north up the motorway or you can head inland for a biker-friendly road trip via Wolombi which takes you there the back way, through stunning countryside scenery and unsealed roads.
The best winery with the best view is Petersons (I’ll argue that forever) and around the corner from there is Bistro Molines which offers amazing food with an even-better view. There are many options for accommodation, at varying prices, but the recently renamed Sebel resort – now called Voco – is particularly stunning.
Sydney’s other major tipple is beer and SXSW Sydney is arriving amidst an explosion of new, local craft options that range from dark and heavy cold-weather ales, to light, hot-weather lagers. Don’t go looking for Fosters or Castlemaine XXXX if you’re English, that sh*t is exclusive to you. Good Japanese beer is also common.
Cigarettes, smoking and vaping
Cigarette packets feature horrendous diseases on the covers and have been taxed to the point where a packet of 20 costs almost $50.
Smokers have become social lepers in wowser-operated Sydney and you can’t even legally smoke outside in many areas, so check. While you’ll see cigarette butts on the floor, you’ll get (rightfully) slammed if you’re caught littering with them. Most public bins have partner ashtrays on them.
Some venues will have smoking sections but expect them to be small and horrible. You also can’t eat in them for reasons that no one can explain. This will particularly suck if you’re French. Still, in some venues, the smokers get the best sections.
The high price of cigarettes means that Sydney teenagers and young people have stopped smoking for the first time in [checks notes] centuries. Most have, naturally, moveded onto vapes and SXSW Sydney tourists arrive amidst a grandstanding-politician-led fight to outlaw vaping despite what it’s done to smoking. Vaping is generally acceptable in most places, but it’s considered polite to be discreet when at a venue.
Sydney is a major foodie city. There are few, major, soul-less corporate chains and every independent eatery will pride itself on producing high-quality, high-value food and drink, regardless of its price range.
Almost every restaurant is BYO – meaning you bring your own wine (usually not beer – in which case they’ll sell it themselves) which will save you a fortune and reduces the cost of eating out immeasurably. You’ll usually have to pay a corkage charge but it’s nothing compared to the gargantuan markups you’ll pay otherwise. Still, check before you go – asking if a restaurant is BYO, is common for locals.
Some food and drink establishments let you order using your phone and a QR code on your table and are becoming increasingly common.
Sydney has exceptional casual dining and world-class fine dining. Strangely, there’s not a huge choice in the mid-range – the sort of place you’d go on a date. That’s why you might hear Melbournites laughing at Sydney’s restaurants and food culture, as it’s where they excel. Nonetheless, two easily accessible city-based options are the French Felix and Cantonese Mr Wong.
There’s an enormous global influence on food in Sydney and you’ll find local fusions of global cuisine in most places. There’s a particular explosion in Asian cuisine (especially the myriad Japanese, Chinese and Korean restaurants, in all locations) along with amazing offerings from Vietnam, Malaysia and other countries dotted around. Thai establishments are everywhere and they’re always good. There are also some excellent Turkish and Lebanese restaurants. But, as many English expats will lament, Indian restaurants are often mediocre.
Almost everything is available via Uber Eats, Door Dash and Menulog (the latter has numerous international equivalents that Snoop Dogg advertises).
Sydney food highlights subcultures
Hand-held, single-serve meat pies have a major following in Australia and many people will travel significantly out of their way to visit a famous pie purveyor. Finding top examples in Sydney itself is more challenging but we’ll mention it here in the hope of getting some local recommendations.
There’s also been a recent explosion of gourmet burger joints. These can look rough and ready but aficionados and communities regularly discuss which is the best. The Fatties Facebook group can be a good choice to temporarily infiltrate when seeking recommendations (and getting discounts from vendors). I will personally recommend Super Nash Bros chicken burgers as they are (surely) the best in the world. Also, more recently, Cheeseville (north of the Bridge) has been knocking it out of the park (and even does amazing chicken wings). The Fatties group generally cites Bar Luca as doing the best burger in Australia, but that’s getting challenged more frequently now.
If you’ve never understood the appeal of chicken wings, try Wingmill on Young Street, in Cremorne, North of the bridge (the express B1 bus goes there). They’re sensational. They also do good Poutine with for Canucks. The excellent El Guapo Mexican restaurant is opposite and, up the road, is Curry Palace which looks like most other low-rent Indian restaurants but is utterly legendary on the North Shore. Its Tikka Roll is an Indian kebab that somehow doesn’t exist anywhere else: A nan bread, with chicken Tikka, tikka sauce and a mashed-up onion bhaji, rolled into an Indian kebab. Choose the optional salad but not extra chicken or the spicier sauce as that spoils it.
These establishments are all near the massive, local legend, Oaks Hotel which is huge and has everything you’d want from a Australian pub, whether its pool, sports, food or family friendly areas. Another famous pub is the Newport Arms which is a hefty bus-ride North but massive and overlooks the gorgeous Pittwater. You can get there and back via the B1 bus. In the city, many SXSW Sydney tourists should try-out The Ivy which is a large, multi-faceted corporate, meat-market after work and at the weekends.
For casual dining, Sydney’s range is infinite but I’ll mention two stand-outs. In the city, during the day, check out Sourdough Panini Bakery & Cafe’s amazing meatball baguette. For lunch and the evening, Sydney is blessed to have several Din Tai Fung locations dotted around the city. This legendary Taiwanese soup-filled dumpling restaurant is among the world’s very best and it stands up to being delivered too.
For fine dining, pick your favourite food directory and choose that way. We don’t have the Michelin Guide in Australia, but the local press has a Hat-rating system where one Hat is predictably excellent and having Three Hats is super rare. Prices can vary – a lot. Note, we tend to use Google Reviews more than Trip Advisor.
The best chefs in Australia would still point to the recently reopened Tetsuya’s as being Australia’s crème de la crème. If you want a food memory to take away (and you’re not a fussy eater), go here and have an unforgettable, three-hour, eight-course, wine-matched, degustation meal that, while not being cheap, costs dramatically less than many of the similar, world-famous restaurants that it rivals. A special note about the staff there… they’re well-used to serving older, chicken-schnitty-eating Aussies acting all suspicious of the snooty, posh nosh on offer and pride themselves on making guests from all walks of life feel welcome and comfortable.
Pubs and RSLs
First off, it’s common for pubs to be labelled Hotels in Sydney and this can lead to confusion as, obviously, not all hotels are pubs.
However, Australia has establishments that are similar to pubs, called RSLs. While they’re notionally designed for war-vets, almost every local suburb has them and SXSW Sydney visitors can enter as guests, so long as they sign-in. This is where you’ll find cheaper-than-normal drinks and often lower-end, cheap(ish) pub-food of varying quality which commonly revolves around the Aussie-stalwart, chicken schnitzel aka Schnitty. For the most part, these are predominantly used by locals and the most popular ones are outside the city… but…
A well-kept Sydney secret is that there are several RSLs in the middle of Sydney and they are often open well into the small hours of the morning when everything else is closed. Some have swanky facilities like gyms, billiard rooms, libraries and cheap hotel rooms attached to them – plus numerous other benefits. The main people who seem to know about them are the pokie players – pokie machines being our controversial, poker-based, one-armed bandits that prop-up the establishments.
It often pays to be a member of RSLs due to heavy discounts, but with memberships often starting at just $50 you can often find additional, amazing and often under-utilised facilities with super-cheap prices that even Sydney-siders have no idea about. Furthermore, during Covid, many banded together and a single membership will get you access into most of them. Great examples include City Tatts and Club York.
What’s more, international affiliate memberships that come with some of them mean that you can, for instance, use your Sydney membership to gain access to super-posh clubs in other countries. Think St James’ London where you normally have to be a vetted by aristocrats and global industrialists to gain admission – but you can rock-up with your Aussie City Tatts membership.
There are plenty of local eateries which you should certainly try, but those SXSW Sydney tourists who are suspicious of anything out of the norm, here you go…
First-up, there’s Macca’s – our word for McDonald’s. Despite Sydney’s food culture, it’s considered part of the establishment and long, interstate journeys are often planned-out according to three-hourly Maccas stops. While Sydney doesn’t quite reach the immaculate, Japanese-presentation standards of Big Mac, Sydney’s Maccas are often higher-quality than what’s normal in some countries – where burgers are thrown together and left to fester. Most have McCafe’s which do half-decent coffee and cakes and breakfast is usually served all day. In Sydney, Macca’s is also often the only establishment to be open late. Download the My Macca’s app when you arrive as it’s easier to order and you’ll get access to special offers, delivery and freebies.
KFCs are common, Burger King is called Hungry Jacks (long and boring story), we have a widespread local fast-food chain called Red Rooster which does roast chicken. Roast chicken lovers may also like the legendary Chargrill Charlies which dot the city. You can also buy whole roast chickens for $10 in supermarkets (and smaller amounts for less). Higher-quality burger chains include Grill’d and Betty’s Burgers which both serve beer.
While we have a Taco Bell, you’d be dumb to use it. We have some impressive Mexican food chains that are available everywhere: Guzmen Y Gomez and Mad Mex. If you LOVE Mexican food and want to try some more-upmarket variants on a night out, try El Guapo in Cremorne and Mejico in the city.
Our big supermarkets are Woolies (real name Woolworths) and Coles and these usually have standard-fare sandwiches plus roast chickens if you can’t find anything else.
Pizza Hut and (especially) Domino’s are everywhere but, frankly, you can do better. You don’t have to find a local, artisan, woodfired joint but we’ve a superior (and pricier) pizza chain called Crust which does high-quality pizzas that are consistently very good.
It’s worth adding that while Starbucks does exist in Sydney, it’s only in touristy locations and you’d be an idiot to go there for coffee in Australia. I’m a converted coffee snob, but really… going there is for idiots only.
Before 2014, Sydney had a claim to being one of the very best cities in the world thanks to its amazing beaches and brilliant (and safe) nightlife. Unfortunately, a (subsequently disgraced) corrupt politician called Barry O’Farrell and his cronies used two, uncommon, closely-spaced violent incidents to introduce a curfew which killed Sydney’s night life. Famous hot spots closed down and were subsequently sold to their property developer mates.
We’ now have a situation in Sydney’s night-economy where office blocks and rich, NIMBY residents call the shots to the point where Darling Harbour is silent after 10pm for most of the week, the King’s Cross entertainment hub is full of bourgeoise daytime-fare (like Yoga studios) and Sydney Opera house gets fined for noise-complaints from locals who moved-in opposite.
The days of hundreds of people peacefully walking home through the city at 3am are well and truly gone. There are some half-hearted attempts at a revival and some locals will point to some smaller bars that open later at the weekend, but even the official tourism guides tell you to go to Newtown – which isn’t conveniently walkable – if you want a semblance of normal night life. You can also travel to Manly, in the north, which is quite a trek for tourists.
Fortress Sydney is near the central point of SXSW Sydney and aims to be an all-week, all-night venue – for both food and drink. However, even assurances from the new local government haven’t seen that materialise.
If you want food after 10pm, you’ll be very lucky – McDonalds and a few remaining kebab shops are all that really remains in the city. A handful of restaurants in Surry Hills stay open a bit later.
Late night pubs in Sydney include the notoriously tragic Pyrmont Bridge Hotel (aka The PBH). This gets overloaded with security personnel who will grill you about where you’ve been before entry, scan your ID and take a picture of you to gain entry… to their bottom-of-the-barrel pub. Once inside, you get to spend the small hours with local Ice-addicts, night-shift tradies (construction workers) and weirdos that call it home, while being glared at by security staff.
North of the Bridge is The Crows Nest Hotel which is marginally better.
Visiting LGBQTI folk will want to head to Oxford Street, but will likely be dismayed by how it, too, has been obliterated. Stonewalls is still there (plus some community stores), but there’s not much else that’s left.
Hostile liquor laws
All Sydney establishments operate according to nanny-state liquor-laws called RSA – responsible service of alcohol. You can’t even get casual bar work without first completing a course and passing an exam on it. They’re haphazard laws that are sporadically and randomly enforced and can turn a night sour very quickly.
While some security staff will wave you through when drunk, it’s common to be grilled on how much you’ve been drinking before being allowed into the most bog-standard bar or pub, whether you’ve just come from home or not. Going out for a meal and having wine with it, is often enough for you to be refused admission. Some establishments won’t let you keep the bottle you bought on your table, while eating. Calmly walking up to a venue in smart dress with your family can be enough to be refused entry.
If your mood hasn’t been killed after the initial interrorgation, you then run the risk of a single bar worker pointing you or a friend out to security staff and being informed that you’re barred from being served anymore (and may have to leave). This can happen because you tripped over a step, laughed too loud, looked at a member of staff in a funny way, or for no apparent reason whatsoever.
There’s no guarantee that you’ll be told why it’s happened and, even though it commonly transforms a peaceful group into an irate one, it happens all the time. The police deal out huge fines (to the establishment and staff) if they are deemed to have served someone who is under the influence of alcohol and this is naturally a problem for establishments whose primary existence is to serve the intoxicant, alcohol.
It’s something to be particularly wary of on boat parties – and SXSW Sydney has several planned. There are numerous online stories and angry Google reviews of party boats where attendees have been barred from the bar for no discernible reason and are then stuck sober on the boat, having everyone in your group glared out by security staff for hours afterwards. The only way off is a water taxi and those cost a fortune. Even by Australian standards, RSA is a c*nt of a law but the pollies in charge are not the type to ever change it.
After Dark – Sex and the City
The lockout laws and RSA laws aren’t the only laws to have been fashioned by grandstanding politicians. New South Wales also has some unique sex-related laws too. The usual Hook-up apps operate here but consent isn’t straightforward: In addition to, ‘No means no’ a high-profile case recently buffed this up to, ‘Not saying no, also means no.’ However, the partnering, official government guidelines on having sex push further still and advise you to continually verbally check-in with partners for consent every time you try something different.
And yet, weirdly, despite the grandstanding politician-derived nanny-state vibe that’s been foisted on Sydney’s night life, you can get up to some gnarly things – activities that, by pure coincidence, are often traditionally associated with disgraced politicians – for better or worse.
When our Covid lock-out laws started to be relaxed – prioritising the lowest-risk venues first – gay saunas featured on the number one priority list. Sydney has plenty, they’re often open very late with some going for 24 hours.
Sydney’s Asian influence has brought with it many therapy-related traditions. This means that massage is incredibly common. In places like the UK, the thought of a massage parlour elictis visions of illegal vice dens, but massage is so ubiquitous in Sydney you’ll commonly find old ladies, laden with shopping, having their feet massaged in a local shopping mall. This tradition extends to late-night establishments that offer full-body Thai massages… very cheaply. These establishments are everywhere with the cheaper ones being identified by a red-on-black LED sign that says Open when everything else around it is closed.
Quality of massages varies wildly and there’s a reason for that. On the one hand, you can find places in the city and every suburb that have highly-trained masseuses that will give you a better remedial massage than a posh spa for less-than $100 for TWO hours – which is a great way to finish off a big night and recover by morning. You may get offered extras at the end, but you certainly aren’t expected to say, yes.
On the other hand, some masseuses act like they’ve never given a massage before in their life – because they probably haven’t – because they’re actually there for rub-and-tugs (cheap massages with happy endings for men) or are even straight-up brothels – which, despite everything, are actually legal in Sydney.
A quick search on Google Maps shows a dozen brothels within walking distance Sydney’s Central core SXSW area. Some are much more expensive than others but a quick check reveals you can get laid for just $70(!) That’s cheaper than going on a date! Hmm.
While sex is OK, drugs generally aren’t. Aficionados tell us that the hard stuff (whatever that means) is generally low quality and very expensive compared to countries that sit on the doorstep of major trafficking routes.
That said, medical cannabis for things like chronic pain, insomnia and anxiety has recently started taking off and prescriptions come with a card that you can show to police if required. It’s early days and we suspect that, when this gets more popular, we’ll see all manner of grandstanding pollies and police saying that cannabis is as deadly than heroin etc.
Also note that, despite being legal, mobile drug testing for drivers remains a virtue test – it doesn’t test for impairment. As such, you can fail a cannabis test and be prosecuted for drug driving, if you smoked a joint two weeks earlier. Harder drug users can rest easy, though, as police don’t test for cocaine or benzos or any other drug that, by pure conincidence, is favoured by the more-affluent suburbs of Sydney.
Still, if you’ve some kind of official form to prove a medical exemption, carry it with you because…
Beware police, especially those with drug dogs. Sydney is relatively crime free compared with other countries, but that runs the risk of facing bored police officers. A particular problem is the drug dogs which patrol almost every outside event.
The dogs can stop wherever their handler tells them to, but if you watch them, you’ll notice several officers will frequently converge on individuals that that dog has shown only a passing interest in. They’ll then be spoken to passively aggressively and told they need to be taken away to be searched – which can mean strip searched. Strip searching can leave victims feeling like they’ve been sexually assaulted and molested because that’s exactly what happens.
The areas around the core, SXSW Sydney events are also notable for police carrying out strip searches on commuters on their way to work, using drug dogs as their justification. They’re unfortunately emboldened by Australia’s appalling mainstream news media which police partner with when creating reality-TV cop shows that focus on humiliating and preying-upon poor and vulnerable people.
Australia’s mainstream news ‘journalists’ will routinely ask senior officers for their versions of events – completely unchallenged – when significant/can’t-be-covered-up/marketing opportunities occur. Politicians, also turn a blind eye and use police uniforms as props, when grandstanding about law and order, before thanking them for their service like they are war heroes.
We’ll try and find out more about your rights here, but what we can say is the following: searches often reveal nothing and so using drug dogs doesn’t work and yet they’re still used. Police can manhandle you but if you lay a finger on them expect to be hurled to the floor and pummelled before being charged with Assaulting a Police Officer and having your life ruined.
If you do get caught with drugs on you, ensure that they are accurately measured. A dirty trick that festival goers get hit with is when a few, personal-use pills get weighed inside the container holding them and this leads to heavyweight, drug-dealing charges. While judges will often let you go with a warning, that’s not without having to get a very expensive lawyer and all kinds of psychological reports and promises of attending rehab clinics because tried to pop an E. If you can’t afford this, game over.
Sydney’s two main Casinos lie either side of Darling Harbour and are open all night. During the lockout laws, they were exempt from closing while Sydney’s other nightlife got murdered. They are shamelessly designed to appeal to wealthy Asian tourists but anyone can attend and empty their pockets. The Crown is very new and its opening was delayed on account of its owners’ involvement in organised crime. However, The Star is a long-term fixture that also provides reasonable food and drink. It’s also particulalry useful as a late-night sports bar for major events which are usually on in the middle of the night.
This author is going to struggle on this one. What counts as a night club to non Sydney-siders might not even exist anymore. The likes of Cargo Bar at Darling harbour are closed at 11pm nowadays – a bit later at weekends. The Star’s main venue is weekend-only and, last we saw, has more ID checks involved than visiting a prison. The Crowie and Manly venues are more like musical pubs. Newtown must have something, but it’s got more of an eclectic vibe. We’ll come back to this one.
SXSW Sydney coincides with The Australian Burlesque Festival. Australia has some of the best Burlesque performers in the world and many are coming to Sydney. Despite the reputation for boobs and bums, these shows a female dominated – on stage and in the crowd – and feature performers of all ages, shapes, sizes and genders dancing and performing various forms and combinations of striptease and comedy – generally putting on a show that appeals to everyone. There are plenty of other concurrent, independent Burlesque shows too.
Sydney has a major gym culture and personal trainers are widely available. Major chains include Fitness First, Anytime Fitness, Virgin Active, Jetts and World Gym. Some will allow international members to access them, but it’s always worth checking first.
There are many swimming pools in Sydney and they’re usually Olympic sized. The best, North Syndey Olympic Pool, which lies under the Harbour Bridge opposite the Opera House, is sadly closed due to stalled renovations but we’ve a major swimming culture and finding nearby indoor and outdoor pools is simple.
Parks and Golf
There are many outdoor parks for exercise and many suburbs have golf courses. Golf is generally a people’s game in Australia (unlike England where it’s snobby and/or ridiculously expensive) and it’s usually cheap to rent clubs and do 9 or 18 holes surprisingly near the city. Northbridge is one of the closer courses with good views of the city, but near-to-SXSW Sydney, Moore Park, has one too.
Many suburbs have small (and usually impressive) parks but our big, Central Park equivalent is the Royal Botanical Gardens, behind the Opera House.
High-brow culture, the theatre and cinemas
The official tourist guides desperately try and push Sydney’s galleries and museums as essential visits, but they’re barely comparable to those in other countries.
Musical and dramatic performances tend to focus on The Opera House itself but quality falls off a cliff fast, after that. There are independent theatres with innovative shows, but Sydney’s major venues are trapped in re-runs of the likes of Mama Mia, Wicked, Billy Elliot and The Lion King which are caught in a perpetual cycle and are on their 950th run each. In 50 years time when Sydney is a post apocalyptic zombieland, Wicked will probably be playing somewhere.
Sydney’s cinemas are, however, excellent. If your home country’s options are no go zones filled with scumbags, you can rely upon Sydney offering a venue with well-behaved viewers and high-quality furnishings. There are plenty located around central Sydney and surrounding suburbs and include everytrhing from standard view packages through reclining-chair options to genuine 3D screens and ‘Gold Class’ premium options (which have laid-back reclining loungers and you can order food and drink to be deliverered to your chair, throughout).
Darling Harbour’s IMAX cinema is also back in operation and has some recent blockbusters (and special production) releases being shown right now.
Australia’s globe-conquering Westfield Shopping malls are all over and around Sydney and contain the high street fashion chains and high-end stores you’d expect anywhere in the Western World.
There’s a bit more character around the centre of Sydney – especially around Pitt Street Mall – but most international visitors won’t find much they haven’t seen before.
Those wanting special Sydney, souvenirs might want to check out Opal Stores (our national gem stone) and galleries that feature local artists – especially Aboriginal artists. Just note that, generally speaking, Sydney’s opal stores are considered massively overpriced for cashed-up, undiscerning tourists. However, paintings and Australiana like Didgeridoos can represent much-better value.
Visitors to Sydney can often lament the lack of diversity within the city, usually citing the lack of black faces. To an extent, they’re correct although overlooking the vast Asian populace tends to ask more questions about the questioners.
Of course, tourists might expect to see more Aboriginal people out and about, but they’re often disappointed. There are traditionally dressed performers at tourist hotspots like Circular Quay but very few circulating the main city. Those that you do see are often from impoverished areas like Redfern which backs onto the SXSW Sydney venues. Their communities have been treated appallingly by Australia’s establishment and, to Sydney’s shame, it still shows.
Interestingly, SXSW Sydney arrives the day after a national referendum which seeks to give our First Nations, traditional owners, an official say in government. The legislation should pass despite any protest votes against the shitty government that is proposing it, but the long run-up has been incredibly ugly with opposition pollies and their far-right cohorts, making use of our shit mainstream news media to voice quasi (and overt) white-supremacist rhetoric and BS reasons for voting no, at every opportunity. Hopefully, there’ll be a big, extra party on SWSW Sydney’s opening night… and not a riot.