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 alongside enjoying all these things, 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, Sydney’s most unusual sandwich, 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 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
1. Try and Spot 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. 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.
2. 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.
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.
3. 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.
4. 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).
5. Do a Mini Scavenger Hunt
Without giving too much away, the Underwood Ark, may, or may not feature in one of the fun app-based Secret City Trails that have recently launched in the city.
There’s five of them in total in areas like Circular Quay, The Rocks and Chinatown. They were an idea of Transport New South Wales to help give people something to do during the busy rush hour periods when their bus or train might be a bit busy but they’re also a really fun thing to add to a weekend trip to Sydney – or, if you’re a local, they’re perfect for one of those days where you aren’t quite sure what you want to do but you know you want to be outside!
There’s about 5-6 clues in each trail which each let you explore a different area of the city spotting details you might not have seen before.
6. Book a Mystery Picnic in the Botanic Gardens
More Scavenger Hunting. This fun idea by Amazing.co is a great adventure for a Sydney date, or for a group of foodie friends. You book the picnic for your chosen date and then you’re given a set of clues which takes you to independent food stores to collect all the goodies you need for a picnic.
Your last stop is the Botanic Gardens where you get to eat all of your goodies. See more or make a booking here – although, don’t expect to many details, it’s supposed to be a mystery remember!
7. See the Incredible Green Wall
The Calyx in the middle of Sydney’s Royal Botanical Gardens has some amazing exhibitions – and is home to Australia’s largest indoor green wall.
One day I went there and for an exhbition called Plants with Bite which featured 25,000 carnivorous plants.
Erm, has anyone tested that so many in one room is safe? What if they turn feral?
Oh, and if you like flowers and you’re in Sydney in late October/November, you’re going to want to check out this post on where to see Sydney’s best displays of beautiful purple Jacaranda trees.
8. 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.
9. Get 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 the council have added some cool hoardings like this one to liven things up a bit.
10. Discover the Women Who Made Sydney
Circular Quay is the starting point for this fascinating tour by 24 Hours in Sydney. Called Skirting Sydney, the idea came from tour guide and owner Simon’s mum who pointed out that most of Sydney’s history is all about the men that built the city, but what about the women?
On this tour you’ll hear fascinating stories about the Dragon Lady who manned (or should that be ladied) the door of one of Sydney’s most exclusive nightclubs – and if you’re a Sydney local you’ll also be fascinated about where it was located.
You’ll also never look at the corner of Elizabeth and Market Street again when you find out that it’s home to one of Sydney’s most secret and exclusive clubs.
You end up in the Botanical Gardens in an amazing folly that I’ve looked at I don’t know how many times – but never noticed the details inside.
If you love history, you’ll love this tour. The more of you that book the cheaper it becomes. See more on their website here.
11. 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 are 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.
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?
12. Try a Reuben Hood at Piccolo Me
If the mee goreng toastie didn’t float your boat, you 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).
13. Get Your Mug Shot Taken
The Justice and Police Museum on the corner of Albert and Phillip Streets is a surprisingly 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 isn’t 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.
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.
14. 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.
While their original homes is in Sydney’s Newtown, they have a new super-swish outpost in Macquarie 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.
15. 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.
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.
Frankie’s days are numbered as the building has been purchased as part of the development of the new Sydney Metro so get there fast if you want to exercise your vocal cords.
16. 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.
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.
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.
17. 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!
18. 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.
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.
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.
19. 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 Sydney, check out this post on gorgeous Sydney photography spots.
20. 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.
21. 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.
22. 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.
23. 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
24. 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.
25. Go on a Jet Boat
Yes, 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.
If that sounds like fun, you can book boats in advance here.
26. 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.
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.
27. 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.
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.
28. 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.
29. 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.
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.
30. 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.
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.
Where to Stay in Circular Quay
There’s no shortage of hotels in and around Circular Quay. As with everything in this post, I’m just going to focus on where to stay on the ‘Opera House’ side of the Quay – for options on the other side, check out our post on The Rocks mentioned above. Here’s some you might want to check out.
The best-ranked hotel in Circular Quay is The Sir Stamford Circular Quay that offers the Harry Potter Tea I mentioned. It’s also home to one of Sydney’s biggest private collections of fine art. There’s a roof terrace that overlooks the harbour – with a small swimming pool. Some rooms also have views over the Harbour and Bridge. Click here to check rates and availability.
The Intercontinental is where many of the celebrities stay when they visit Sydney. I was walking past once as Barack Obama and his motorcade left the building – and, if it’s good enough for an ex-President, I’m happy to recommend it!
The Rooftop Bar has the most stunning view of the Opera House and Bridge and many of the rooms have harbour views. The indoor pool also overlooks the water. Click to check for rates and availability for the dates of your stay.
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.