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The Sydney Opera House and Circular Quay, as seen from the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Photos by Blaine Harrington III / Corbis
The Sydney Opera House and Circular Quay, as seen from the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Photos by Blaine Harrington III / Corbis

Sydney is a model metropolis

My kind of place: Now is the ideal time of year to visit Australia. David Whitley gives his guide to the country's most iconic city.

Why Sydney?

It would be very easy for Sydney to be the supermodel with a bad attitude. She's so blessed in the looks department - a string of world- class beaches, a snug location around the world's most beautiful natural harbour - that she can get away with being lazy.

Fortunately, there's depth beyond the pretty face. Beneath the surface sheen of the Bondi Beach breaks, zoo with a view and preening Opera House lies a laid-back city of enjoyably peelable layers. The arty, grungy Inner West adds a soul. The rapidly-changing, cool-chasing areas of Darlinghurst, Surry Hills and Paddington provide a relentless energy. Immigration from Europe and Asia provokes an internationalist outlook.

Sydney also feels more compact and manageable than it perhaps should do - the highlights are mostly compressed into a relatively small segment in the east of a giant, urban sprawl. Few cities are easier to dip into but Sydney has a brilliant knack of keeping you occupied well beyond the initial attraction.

A comfortable bed

There's a certain time warp bed and breakfast charm about the castle-like Russell Hotel (www.therussell.com.au; 00 61 2 9241 3543) but a recent renovation has done great things for what has always been a relative bargain in a prime harbourside spot. Doubles from A$199 (Dh752).

Establishment Hotel (www.merivale.com.au/accommodation/establishmenthotel; 00 61 2 9240 3100) - hidden away in a city centre back lane - is a regular hangout for big name touring musicians. The converted warehouse complex has a real personalised luxury feel - yoga mats and complimentary iPads come as standard - and the rooms have strikingly individual looks. Studios start at A$299 (Dh1,130).

For an affordable city centre option, the Park8 (www.8hotels.com; 00 612 9283 2488) is a great example of how to take over an old hotel and make it fun - right down to the park-themed green "turf" carpets. Doubles from A$149 (Dh563).

Find your feet

Kick off at the Pylon Lookout (www.pylonlookout.com.au; 00 61 2 9240 1100; A$11 (Dh42) for marvellous city-and-water views from the Sydney Harbour Bridge, before meandering through the historical The Rocks district and emerging at Circular Quay. Dodge the street entertainers, watch ferries come and go, then head around to the Opera House. The secret is to go behind the back - it's usually blissfully quiet.

From there, a path loops round to the Royal Botanic Gardens - keep an eye open for flying foxes dangling from the Moreton Bay Fig trees - and the Art Gallery of New South Wales (www.artgallery.nsw.gov.au; 02 9225 1744; free entry). An amble through the Domain - a green space often used for concerts and special events - brings you out at Hyde Park. Here, the Hyde Park Barracks (www.hht.net.au; 00 61 2 8239 2311: A$10 (Dh38)) is the most gripping museum in the city - brilliantly telling the extraordinary tale of Australia's past as a British colony for convicts.

Meet the locals

Bondi, Coogee and Manly are Sydney's best-known beaches - partly because they're the easiest to get to. However, the Northern Beaches farther up the coast from Manly are the city's best, and have more of a local feel. Collaroy, Narrabeen and Palm Beach are particularly excellent choices for surfers and sun-worshippers.

Book a table

The Rocks was once a tourist ghetto, but quality dining has made an appearance there in recent years. Quay (www.quay.com.au; 00 61 2 9251 5600), with its A$225 (Dh850) tasting menu, is arguably the city's best place to eat - a showcase for how international influences and local ingredients have made Australian restaurants stand proud on the world stage.

The Cut (www.cutbarandgrill.com; 00 61 2 9259 5695) takes the venerable Aussie steakhouse to new levels - all the beef is listed by where it was reared and comes with a marble count. The staff really know their stuff too. Mains between A$36 and A$70 (Dh136 to Dh265).

The Inner West - particularly King Street in Newtown, is the place for cheaper, multinational eats. Thai Pothong (www.thaipothong.com.au; 00 61 29550 6277) is pricier than most, but serves up the best Thai food in town. Mains from A$14.90 to A$28.90.

Shopper's paradise

The Central Business District has plenty of malls and arcades. The Pitt Street Mall, with its Westfield shopping centre and numerous sub-malls, is the focal point. But the grand Queen Victoria Building (www.qvb.com.au) serves up the chains with a much higher degree of charm. Oxford Street does a better line in independent designers, while The Rocks Markets (www.therocks.com) is the best place for souvenirs and gifts. Held on Saturdays and Sundays, it's unashamedly aimed at tourists, but the quality is very high, and the goods are generally handmade.

What to avoid

The surf may be great fun to play in - whether surfing or just splashing around - but rip currents at Sydney's beaches can be lethal. The flags designating a swimming zone are there for a reason - it's where the lifeguards are and the rips are more docile. Swimming outside these flags is not wise.

Don't miss

If the sunshine and wholesome lifestyle get a bit too much, then Two Feet & a Heartbeat (www.twofeet.com.au; 00 61 1800 459 388) runs A$40 (Dh151) Crime & Passion tours of Kings Cross. It's an insight into a historic underbelly of crooked cops, unsolved murders and seedy stories.

Go there

A return flight from Abu Dhabi to Sydney costs from Dh7,515 with Etihad Airways (www.etihad.com). The flight takes 15 hours.

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