Pack the sunblock and go to Bondi for the day – for the rock stars, the Japanese tourists by the busload, the South American djembe troupes, the muscle-men in thongs, the glamazons, the old-school surfers, the grommits (young surfers), the sleeping Irish revellers… All find a piece of beach to settle on. While the south end is packed with models, fashionistas and freelance media-types in tiny bikinis and big sunglasses, it’s the north end that attracts families, and everyone else really – the Bondi Pavilion has toilets and cafés and a kids’ playpark (as if the beach wasn't enough fun already).
Take a ferry across the harbour, past the Harbour bridge and Opera House, to Manly 20 minutes north of the city. Marvel as the hidden crooks of coast reveal moored yachts, bush-lined beaches and gorgeous houses hugging earth as they peer toward the water. Manly’s newly renovated quay is full of fresh eating options: Asian noodle and take-away sushi bars, a chocolate café (put the blinkers on the kids) and ice-cream outlets galore. About five minutes stroll from the harbour quay, Manly’s pine-tree-lined beach has an enchanting walk to a bushland park, which backs on to a more secluded beach, the delightfully named Fairy Bower.
Find your way to the Brett Whiteley Studio. Infamous for his explosive life, Whiteley captured the essence of Sydney like no-one else. His studio is set amongst the eclectic, boho streets of inner-city Surry Hills, full of Victorian architecture, cafés and artisan food stores, boutiques and vintage shops.
While you’re feeling arty, go to the Sydney Art Gallery, divided into sections on Australian (including Aboriginal), Asian, and Western (international) art, and hosting kids’ workshops, events and tours. Then walk through the park and down from the city to Circular Quay to the Museum of Contemporary Art, where you’ll also find family workshops, performances, events, school-holiday programs, kids’ activity sheets and even special tours for parents/carers with babies.
If the kids tire of culture, point across the water and promise them a trip to the zoo. But while you're in this part of town, it's worth the short walk up old stone steps to wander around The Rocks, where the first Europeans settled in the 18th century. Very pretty, it’s full of heritage attractions, quirky, crafty shops selling everything from vintage clothes to hand-made puppets, galleries and museums, parks, hotels for every budget, and restaurants, pubs and cafés with outdoor space.
So you promised the zoo. Taronga Zoo is on the north side of the harbour (the North Shore), another great ferry journey away, with vessels leaving from Circular Quay and taking only 12 minutes. Here you can see plenty of lizards and crocodiles and native species, along with the usual giraffes, elephants and lounging lions.
If you think Home and Away looks good on the telly, Palm Beach and Pittwater, Sydney’s northernmost beach suburbs, are the reality. But you'll be more likely to see rich and famous eating oysters than Alf tucking in to a pie. Just north of Palm Beach, Lion Island stands guard at the mouth of the mighty Hawkesbury River, muse to one of Australia's best poets, Robert Adamson, who spends his days recording the unspoilt loveliness of this region. It has great fishing and is navigable for more than 100km – you can rent houseboats for floating family holidays, or take a 3–4hr trip on the Riverboat Postman delivering supplies to the little river communities that dot the foreshore. Infuse yourself with the sound of birdcall and the scent of eucalypt. This is Australia.