The Quirky Guide to Circular Quay: 27 Fun Things to Eat, See and Do

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 favourites – 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..

16 fun things to do in Circular Quay

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 roughly 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

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.

Benny The Seal lives on the steps of the Sydney Opera House. It's one of our fun things to do in Circular Quay.

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. Another good plan is to check instagram for the hashtags Sydneyseal and Bennytheseal – if he’s around someone has normally tagged him.

Last time I know he was here in March 2019, after a break so long I thought I was going to have to delete him from the post – so you never know when he might appear.

Have a Magic Afternoon Tea

Hotel the Sir Stamford Circular Quay on Macquarie Street love a themed afternoon tea – and one of their most popular is the Wizardry High Tea, $89, which contains such delights as The Sweetest Sorting Hat pastry and Philosopher’s Scones.

Cake stand full of cakes including some looking like wizard's hats from the Magical Tea at the Sir Stamford Circular Quay

Image @Sir Stamford Circular Quay used with permission

It sells out fast so if one is on when you’re in Sydney and you’re keen to try it then definitely book in advance.

You’ll find details of whatever theme they are running right now on the dining section of their website  – they usually also have it on a billboard outside if you’re walking past.

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.

The Underwood Ark is a tree suspended along a Sydney laneway. It's an amazing sight and one of the quirky things to do in Circular Quay

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)

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).

The Opera House and the Sydney Harbour Bridge are the two icons of Sydney. The Cahill Expressway is where you go to get the both in the same photo. It's one of our top things to do in Circular Quay

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.

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?

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,

READ MORE: Where to find Sydney’s Instagram Famous Purple Tree Tunnel ♥

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.

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.

Artist Tracey EMin has scatted 67 tiny tiny statues of bronze birds all over Sydney. Here's what you need to know.

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.

Check Out The ‘Ruins’

If you’ve visited Europe you’re probably used to seeing bits of old wall sticking out of the ground, but, there’s not many such sites in Sydney – the Romans not making it this far and all that – which is why the pile of what looks like old city ruins at the bottom of MacQuarie Street is quite so unusual.

There’s bits of column, curved parks of doorways and all manner of unidentified shapes set in a spiral just sticking out of what’s otherwise, a completely non-descript piece of land.

Pieces of what look like ruins jut out from the ground with the Sydney skyline behind them. This isMemory is Creation Without End, a fun artwork that's a cool thing to see near Circular Quay Sydney
No, Sydney didn’t have a secret ancient city – the piece is an artwork called Memory is Creation Without End by artist Kimio Tsychiya. But wait, there’s a twist – the stones are from old demolished buildings and other structures like the old Pyrmont Bridge that once stood in Sydney – so, is it art or is it ruins?

You can spend some time pondering that one.

Try a Reuben Hood at Piccolo Me

This cute little cafe between the State Gallery and the ‘ruins’ is a lovely place to sit on a sunny day – but they are in here because the names they give their sandwiches make me laugh.

Try a Hammer Time (ham, tomato, cheese and rocket) or a Reuben Hood (corned beef, apple slaw and swiss cheese).

Small cafe with a yellow awning in Sydney

Get Your Mug Shot Taken

The Justice and Police Museum on the corner of Albert and Phillip Streets is a suprisingly fun thing to do in Circular Quay considering it covers a relatively serious subject. It’s full of stories of Sydney’s underworld there were a lot of poisoners in the city back in the day, but also fascinating information on how the police force worked when Sydney was a bit more lawless than it is now.

We went for the 2.30 afternoon talk (which is heralded adults only but really isnt that shocking) and learned all about Henri Louis Bertrand, the mad dentist who, before deciding he wanted to kill his lover’s husband, paraded around Sydney dressed as a tiger – way to stay under the radar there fella.

That’s my serious face.

A nice little touch is the chance to dress up as one of the molls (or spivs) of the 1920s underworld and pose for photos in the old court. I’m rather attached to my hat and shawl combo!

The Sydney Museum directly opposite the Police and Justice Museum is another place for history lovers – there’s not that much fun stuff in there for adults unfortunately (although kids will love to the How Cities Work exhibit if it’s still on) – but they do have the skeleton of a dead dog in the foyer which is random.

Have a Blowtorched Bloody Mary

Mary’s are a Sydney institution – part rock, part hipster, they also do blooming good burgers – and a Bloody Mary covered in melted cheese that the barmen take a blowtorch to melt.

Red coloured drinks with melted cheese and bacon top
While their original homes is in Sydney’s Newtown, they have a new super swish outpost in Macquerie Place, just outside Circular Quay.

In the evening it’s noisy and a buzzing and they have live music upstairs, but if you’re not super hipster and still want to try it, go Saturday lunchtime when there’s barely anyone around.

Oh, and while I haven’t tried them yet, their vegan offerings like the Whole Cauliflower are apparently amazing.

Sing at Frankies

Another Sydney local’s favourite, Frankies Pizza by the Slice on Hunter Street is an underground pizza bar stocked full of pinball machines.

Doorway Frankies Pizza by the Slice, Sydney

It’s a great place to go for cheap pizza and lots of beer – but, Tuesday night is when it comes into it’s own with Hard Rock Karaoke.

Up on the stage you go to destroy your vocal cords belting out your best rendition of AC/DC (known as acca-dacca if you’re talking to any Australian) or Black Sabbath with a live band – it’s not a quiet night out to say the least.

Check out The Queen’s Gardening Skills

Okay, let’s get a bit more refined. Government House is home to the sitting New South Wales Governor and it’s full of pomp and circumstance.

View of Governor's House, Sydney looking up a long pathway edged by flowers

You can take a free tour here most days of the week (but check their website for exact opening hours as official functions do sometimes close it) and it’s a fascinating way for history buffs to spend half an hour.

The decor is amazing and I loved the part of the talk on how the various Governors choose their coat of arms.

Paperbark tree

You can also take a wander around the gardens of Government House without having to take a tour – and one of the first things you’ll see if you do is this rather magnificent paperback tree planted by HRH Queen Elizabeth the 2nd herself on her first visit to Australia in 1954. It seems to be growing rather well.

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.

Trim was the cat of famous Australian explorer Matthew Flinders. There's a statue of him outside the Mitchell Library. Add paying him a visit to your list of fun things to do near Circular Quay.

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!

Visit The Quirky Collections at the State Library

While you’re checking out the cuteness that is Trim, walk either left or right and check out the State Library too – the galleries have some really quirky exhibits like the death mask of author Henry Lawson.

Cast of the face and hands of author Henry Lawson

Death masks are a bit of a thing in Sydney museums!

They were taken of people when they died for a few reasons – as a memory of what the person looked like (as it likely to be the case with Lawson) or to study the person’s features to try and spot any patterns that might indicate predisposition to certain talents and behaviours.

This is why there’s also a lot of death masks in the Justice and Police Museum. Experts were attempting to use a technique called phrenology, which involves reading the bumps on someone’s head to determine if there was any correlation between the shape and those tried for murder – spoiler, there wasn’t.

room with stained glass windows, lined with bookshelves filled with books

While the one wing of the State Library is very modern, the original wing is another story with amazing stained glass windows, ornate carvings and cool floors. Don’t miss the Mitchell Reading Room. It’s lovely. It is still a library though so shhhhhhhhhhh.

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 is a laneway off Sydney's George Street made for instagram. It's also home to Sydney's most unusual sandwich - the Mi Goreng toastie and good place to take a break while exploring our fun things to do in Circular Quay. 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 the council have added some cool hoardings like this one to liven things up a bit.

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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.

Front of the Carter Bar, Sydney

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.

Trying to spot the eels in this pond is one of the fun things to do in Circular Quay - but the eels also have an amazing story.

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.

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.

Ferry MdFerryface is one of the new ferries in Sydney Harbour. Spotting her is one of the fun things to do in Circular Quay

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.

READ MORE A Guide To Sydney’s Awesome Concrete Street Art ♥

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!

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

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.

This model in Sydney's Customs House is a typographic model of Sydney from above. It's one of our fun things to do near Circular Quay

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.

 READ MORE: Where to find Sydney’s David Bowie Mural ♥

Go on a Jet Boat

Okay so it’s in every guide to things to do in Circular Quay and, generally, 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.

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.

Eating in the Opera House is one of the fun things to do in Circular Quay - and it doesn't have to be as stuffy as you might think.

Fun Seasonal Things to Do in Circular Quay

You’ll have to check if these Circular Quay events are on when you are there, but if they are, they’re definitely worth a stop.

New Year’s Eve Fireworks

The big one – it brings thousands of people into Sydney and is quite possibly, the best NYE firework display in the world.

Fireworks on NYE Sydney Harbour Bridge

There’s a whole heap of places to see the fireworks in and around Circular Quay, but expect to have to get there super early or pay big bucks to get in. The absolute best place to get tips, information and advice about Sydney on New Year’s Eve is the Sydney Expert Facebook Group.

Australia Day

This takes place on January 26th and it sees a whole day full of things to do in and around the harbour at Circular Quay including fly pasts by military aircraft, concerts and my favourite, the dancing ferries and tug boats.

Vivid Sydney

For three weeks starting toward the end of May, The Opera House, the Harbour, the Botanic Gardens (and a number of other areas around Sydney) are lit up with glowing displays of lights and ingenuity.

Sydney Opera House sails covered in the projection of a butterly for Vivid Sydney, one of the top things to do in circular Quay

This really is one of the most popular things to do in Circular Quay all year and so it can get very crowded when it’s on – follow our top tip and get there at 6pm (when the lights go on) on a Monday or a Tuesday if you can. Rainy days are also less crowded if you don’t mind getting wet.

Check out the Corpse Flower

Okay, so the above were all pretty normal things to suggest you do in Circular Quay, so let’s finish on one that probably only this blog would suggest – visiting a plant that smells like rotting flesh!

Also known as the Titan Arum, this plant in the Royal Botanical Gardens only flowers once every year or two – and only when it feels like it, but when it does people queue to see/smell it.

Plant with brown and yellow flower and large yellow shoot growing from the top

Image @Royal Botanical Garden Sydney, used with permission

What do you mean that doesn’t sound like something you want to do on your holiday? If it does though, check the Royal Botanic Garden instagram page during your trip as they announce when it’s woken up. You’ll have to be quick if it happens though – it only lasts one or two days.

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.

♥ READ MORE: If you liked this post, also check out our guide to Fun Things to Do in The Rocks ♥

The Map of 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.

If you're coming to Sydney, you're going to end up in Circular Quay at some point. At first glance you might wander what to do there (other than see the Opera House) - the answer is a lot. Check out our locals guide to the more quirky things to do in Circular Quay. #sydney #thingstodoincircular quay #thingstodoinsydney

10 Comments

  1. Lisa

    That Ferry McFerryFace still cracks me up! I must ride it!

    Reply
    1. Helen from Differentville (Post author)

      There were three of us running up and down the wharf by Cruise Bar the other night – trying to get a picture of it leaving Circular Quay with the name on show and the Opera House in the background!!! We all failed. She’s very fast.

      Reply
  2. Leah

    We’ve been in Sydney almost 3 weeks now, and not seen half of these things! I saw the sign for seals but thought it was lying to me haha. I know what I’m doing tomorrow!! A ‘Differentville guided tour’! Thank you

    Reply
    1. Helen from Differentville (Post author)

      You just made my day. Thank you.

      Reply
  3. Susan, Mum to Molly

    I’ve lived in Sydney all my life and love going to the Quay, but have never heard of some of these – so thank you!

    Sadly the Ferry McFerryFace moniker was temporary – she is soon to be renamed the May Gibbs… http://www.abc.net.au/news/2018-01-30/ferry-mcferryface-to-be-renamed-to-may-gibbs/9375688

    Reply
    1. Helen from Differentville (Post author)

      Yes, that’s what the ferry guys told me, although they didn’t know about the name change…a shame.

      Reply
  4. Shiva

    I am going to take my dad for a differentville – Fun things to do at circular quay tour!
    He will love it.. Thanks so much!

    Reply
    1. Helen from Differentville (Post author)

      Brilliant – I’m always so happy when I hear that. Benny the Seal is being elusive right now, but hopefully, he’ll be back from his holidays on your day out.

      Reply
  5. Delphine

    I like the Police Museum, there are some good photos and temporary exhibitions. That’s where I discovered the police mugshots of the 20s and 30s, which are now quite famous and made it into the Museum of Sydney. Interesting to see that it was an operating courthouse all those years ago!

    Reply
    1. Helen from Differentville (Post author)

      The mugshots were the reason I went – I also liked the bit in the booking room which let people describe the suspect with words like ruddy complexion. I think I scored quite highly on their profiling!

      Reply

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