Chances are if you’re visiting Sydney, you’re going to end up in Circular Quay. It’s the access point to the Opera House, the place where you get on the iconic Manly Ferry, it’s home to bars, restaurants and buskers with didgeridoos, but there are also some less well known, more quirky and just plain fun things to do in Circular Quay.
Here’s our favourite 16 – including a seal that lives behind the Opera House, a pond of incredible eels, a Beyonce-themed cocktail bar and a tiny bird treasure hunt by artist Tracey Emin..
Disclosure: Some of the links in this post are affiliate links which mean I earn a small commission if you use them to book. This does not cost you any extra.
Before we start the list though, there’s a tiny bit of housekeeping – for the sake of this post we’re talking about things you’ll find on the right-hand side of Circular Quay if you’re looking out to sea (so the Opera House side) and within a ten-minute walk of the ferry wharves in any direction.
At the end of the post, you’ll also find a map with stars marking the location of all the quirky things to do in Circular Quay I’ve suggested. Click on it and it’ll take you to a larger version you can use to plan your time.
And don’t despair if you want to explore the fun things on the other side of Circular Quay as well, we also have a post on fun things to do in The Rocks.
Fun Things to do in Circular Quay 1. Visit The Sydney Seal
Just behind the Opera House is a set of steps leading down to the harbour – and often, lounging around those steps is a fur seal that locals have named Benny.
For his story (as much as we know about him anyway), check out my full post, but if you just want to add visiting Benny to your list of fun things to do in Circular Quay without all of the background, walk past the Opera House on its left-hand side (if you’re facing the water) right to end to find his step. You’ll know you’re in the right place when you spot the ‘Do Not Feed the Seal’ Signs. It’s listed on google maps as the Opera House Seal steps.
He is wild so I can’t guarantee he’ll always be there, but if you’re at the Opera House, it’s only a few extra steps to find out.
Number 2. Eat an Awesome Cake by Zumbo
Adriano Zumbo makes fun cute cakes in the shape of things like penguins or Frankenstein’s head – and, one of his many Sydney stores in just steps away from Circular Quay in a complex called The Gateway.
The range changes all the time but you’ll normally find the cheesecake (below) that looks like it’s covered with a piece of Swiss Cheese which amuses me every time I see it.
If you’re not a cake fan, you can also pick up macarons at Zumbo, or, the other Sydney sweet-tooth institution Gelato Messina also has a shop in The Gateway just a few steps away.
3. Marvel at The Suspended Tree
Fun things to do in Circular Quay? Erm, how about visiting a tree that’s hanging horizontally about 15 feet up in the air!
The first time I saw the Underwood Ark (as it’s known) I was walking down nearby Pitt Street and I literally stopped in my tracks and reversed. I could see tree roots sticking sideways out the side of a building. Confusion did not come close.
It actually is a real tree – it was dug up, the bark removed and the roots cleaned. As it ages it’ll change from its brown colour to a silver. The tree aims to symbolise the areas past history of shipbuilding and the fact that a stream used to run down this alley many moons ago.
Where to find the Underwood Ark: The best way to find it is to walk down Dalley Street which runs between Pitt Street and George Street – you’ll see the roots sticking out from the laneway. If you come in this way and walk down underneath the tree you’ll end up in Instagram Alley (see below)
Number 4. Find Your Favourite View From the Cahill Expressway
The Opera House and the Sydney Harbour Bridge are the two icons of Sydney, but it’s tricky to get them both in the same photo – unless you go to the walkway of the Cahill Expressway that is. This walkway runs above Circular Quay station and gives an amazing view of both sights (like this one).
How do you get to the Cahill Expressway? There are three entrances – one on Macquarie Street – this is a bit tricky to find at the moment as there are building works but look for a set of stairs that look like they don’t go anywhere just past the entrance to the Royal Automobile Club at No89 (or before it if you’re walking up from the Harbour).
If you’re coming from the Opera House, the easiest way to get there is to take the lift that you’ll find right by Alfred Street – it’s just past the entrance to the Pullman Grand on your left-hand side (with the Opera House behind you) by all the building work.
The last entrance is in The Rocks from the stairs that also take you over the Harbour Bridge on Cumberland Street (just follow the signs to Cahill Walkway.)
There’s an official a viewing point in the middle of the Expressway, but I think the best view comes from slightly to the left of that (this time, I mean left if you’re looking out to the Harbour).
For more ideas of some cool picture ideas in and around Circular Quay, have a look at this post by Roaming Required. He’s found a few new angles.
Fun things to do in Circular Quay 5. Go to The Calyx
This space in the middle of Sydney’s Royal Botanical Gardens has some amazing exhibitions – when I first wrote this post it was home to Australia’s largest indoor green wall.
As I update this it’s getting itself ready to open a new exhibition on October the 1st called Plants with Bite which will feature 25,000 carnivorous plants.
Erm, has anyone tested that so many in one room is safe? What if they turn feral?
No 6. Get some Sydney Honey – or see a Stingless Bee
The bees above are made from plants but there are also real bees that frequent the hives in the Royal Botanical Gardens and these make honey that you can buy in the Garden shop.
It costs $14 a jar and according to the beekeepers at the gardens, tastes like no other honey. Because the bees have an enormous variety of different plants to sample for pollen it really is a mishmash of influences you won’t find elsewhere.
Note: Honey is one of the foods that often can’t be taken between states in Australia so, if you’re travelling around check before you buy some and pop it in your suitcase,
Insect lovers can also visit a hive of stingless bees in the Royal Botanical Gardens….yes, despite Australia’s reputation for being full of creatures with a mission to kill you, at least ten species of bees that live here don’t sting. There’s a colony of them living slightly to the left (if the Harbour is behind you) of the old Palm House.
If you didn’t know that’s what it was though you’d probably walk straight past it – it just looks like two tree trunks and the bees, and the opening to the hive, are tiny. I only know about it as I went on one of the free tours offered in the Gardens every morning at 10.30 – which is another one of my fun things to do in Circular Quay.
7. Learn All About Trim The Cat
Trim was the cat of explorer Matthew Flinders and accompanied him around the world on his journeys. The story goes that as a kitten Trim fell off the ship while at sea, but managed to climb his way back on via a rope! He was then adopted as a favourite cat by the whole ship.
There are a few statues of him around Australia and even some in the UK, but the thing I love most about this one is the little pawprints that lead away from the statue of Matthew Flinders and across the railing to Trim’s statue.
The statue appears on the windowsill of the Mitchell Library (part of the rather fancy State Library of New South Wales) who also now sell a range of Trim merchandise. You can get your own Trim keyring, postcard, book – or even a model of the statue if you head inside. The Cafe is also named after him!
Should you also be a bibliophile you can also add touring the library to your list of unusual things to do in Circular Quay – they offer tours at 10.30am every morning.
Or, you can just walk into the main building (with the super fancy pillars) on the aptly named Shakespeare Place for a quick look round yourself. It has some fantastically ornate touches and the Mitchell Reading room with its glass ceiling and walls lined with books is a sight to behold.
8. Get a Snap (and a Mi Goreng Toastie) in Instagram Alley
Sydney CBD doesn’t yet have the street art culture of its cousin’s Melbourne or Perth, but it’s getting there – starting withThe Burrows, a laneway just off Sydney’s George Street which is covered with a huge mural offering numerous photogenic backdrops for you to enjoy!
The Burrows is also home to Dutch Smuggler, a coffee shop known for its quirky toasted sandwiches – most famous of which is the Mi Goreng toastie. Yes, it’s a toasted sandwich full of noodles and a fried egg! They have also done a spaghetti bolognaise one! These are not people afraid of carbs!
The Burrows’ official street address is 200 George Street, but if you follow the ‘Underwood Ark’ from its roots to its tip and keep going you’ll also stumble across it. That’s how I found it.
Update: May 2018. There’s building work going on around Instagram Alley right now and so it’s all boarded up. The guys at Dutch Smuggler are still there serving toasties a gogo and they tell me that the council are going to get some painting done on the hoardings very soon so, while it won’t look like the above, it will look at bit more exciting than it does now.
9. Drink at The Carter Bar
It’s a Beyonce and Jay Z themed hip-hop bar in the middle of the most corporate bit of the Sydney CBD so I feel it’s my job to mention it to you even though I haven’t actually set foot in the place! It’s at 16 O Connell Street.
Things to do in Circular Quay Number 10. Stand Here and Stamp
This is the main pond in the Royal Botanical Gardens and, if you’re very lucky, as you stamp the eels that live in the pond will come and up to see you – mostly because they think they are being fed. But the fact that they perform on command is not the most exciting things about these eels.
You see when these eels decide to make baby eels, they can’t do it in the pond. It’s freshwater, they need saltwater to spawn and so, in the depth of night they haul themselves out of the water and slither across the grass toward Sydney Harbour where they need to start the swim to their spawning grounds.
But oh, no there’s a wall in the way….what’s a frisky eel to do?
Well, if you’ve ever walked along the sea wall here at high tide or on a windy day you’ll have noticed water splashing in through drainage holes at the base of the wall. Apparently, that’s how the eels wriggle back out to sea.
Once they’ve had their babies, mum and kids slither back to the pond. Okay, I admit, it sounds like something from a horror film, but it’s still incredible.
And yes, I learned that on the free tour of the Botanical Gardens too – I told you it was worth booking.
Sadly you can’t add ‘watching the eels slither out to sea’ as one of your fun things to do in Circular Quay as it only happens at night when the gardens are closed.
No 11: Jump on a Ferry
It’s one of the best things to do in Circular Quay and one of the best ways to see Sydney – and gives you the best view of the Opera House.
If you want to visit one of Sydney’s best beaches, take the Manly Ferry which also gives you the longest ride around the cities amazing harbour
If you want to do a bit of a local’s secret, then jump on the ferry to Cremorne Point Wharf and visit Roberston’s Lighthouse- then follow the Cremorne Point walk to see some beautiful sea views, and to hear about a really cool local story about a couple called Lex and Ruby Graham.
Photographers might want to take their ferry trip out to Cockatoo Island – a real Sydney gem. This UNESCO listed island in the middle of Sydney Harbour has a mixed history of convict life and shipbuilding and there are heaps of old buildings and machinery still there for you to explore.
Originally this part of the post suggested you also take a ride on Ferry McFerryface above – but sadly, she is no more. She was renamed the May Gibbs a while back.
12. Go on a Tiny Bird Treasure Hunt
British artist Tracey Emin recently added 60 odd tiny bronze birds to the 1km stretch of Bridge and Hunter Streets just up from Circular Quay – and it’s really good fun trying to find them.
If you want to give it a try, look up, look down and think ‘if I were a sparrow where would I sit’ – if you want some more clues, check out my longer post on where to find the Tracey Emin birds here.
13. Try Sydney’s Best (and most fun) Burger
The Blame Canada burger at Bar Luca has been voted the best burger in Sydney – but that’s not why they are included here though. That’s because of their ingenuity when it comes to their ingredients.
They love adding things you might not expect to find on a burger (Blame Canada has poutine on it) and past specials have included the Chickarita which was a margarita glazed chicken burger topped with (among other things) pickled melon and the Hella Weiner – a burger with two added sausages! I also love their ability to make puns from what’s in their buns!
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Personally, I don’t think the sides are quite as good as the burgers, so if you’re looking to save a few calories go big on the burger and maybe skip the extras. Bar Luca is at 52 Philip Street
14. Visit the Tiny Model of Sydney
Okay, so it’s getting a bit scratched, half the new buildings aren’t on it – and, it plays havoc with my vertigo if I walk over it, but there’s something super cute about the tiny model of Sydney that lives on the ground floor of Customs House.
The building also has a tourist information office, a nice bar called Quay outside, is home to the library (and foreign newspapers if you fancy a catch up) and last time I was in there had model bats hanging all over it for some strange reason. I guess it’s the same reason why there’s koi carp ‘floating’ round the sky of Sydney!
On top of this building is also the iconic Cafe Sydney – a bar and restaurant with amazing views and could add a bit of class to the end of your day of investigating my list of fun things to do in Circular Quay.
Fun Things to do in Circular Quay 15. Go on a Jet Boat
Okay so it’s in every guide like this and I try and normally I stay away from what everyone else recommends but it seriously is fun. I did it on my birthday a few years ago and had an absolute blast. You will scream, you will get wet and you will come off beaming like you’ve been on a rollercoaster.
16. Have a Sausage Roll in the Opera House
While Bennelong restaurant in the Opera House offers fantastic fine dining, there’s a more casual option inside that many people don’t know about.
Called Cured and Cultured it’s set up around the inside bar and offers a more snacky type menu – you can pop in, grab one of their famous sausage rolls (they take 24 hours to cook – 8-10 of which is braising the suckling pig from which they make the sausages!) and a glass of wine and soak in the coolness of eating inside one of the most famous buildings in the world. If you’re more of a sweet-toothed person try the Cherry Jam Lamington,
Casual doesn’t mean cheap though – the aforementioned sausage roll is $24. The Cherry Jam Lamington (below) is $28.
Disclosure: Some of the links in this post are affiliate links which mean I earn a small commission if you use them to book. This does not cost you any extra.
Want to get out on the water instead? Why not book one of these tours that cruise Circular Quay
Where to Find All My Fun Things to do in Circular Quay
So there you have it, my list of my favourite quirky things to do in Circular Quay – as I said, there’s also plenty of sensible stuff to do around here too – like touring the Opera House, having a drink at the fantastic Opera Bar, you can even catch a movie down there at the Dendy Cinema – but hopefully some of my more alternative ideas have highlighted a few things you hadn’t seen before.
Sharing is Caring
So, have I forgotten anything? Have you found any other fun things to do in Circular Quay? Let me know in the comments.
If you did like the post, then why not share it on social media. Benny the Seal will always be waving a flipper in your direction if you do.