Sydney on a budget: sights and sites

by Conor Walsh

Camping on an island in Sydney Harbour isn't just a great way to save money - it also guarantees you a hell of a view. And it's not the only way to enjoy the city without breaking the bank...

I woke up to the sound of a dog urinating against the corner of my tent. It was the only blemish on an otherwise terrific trip to Sydney.

Money was the one notable omission from our otherwise well-packed bags as we landed in Sydney for the beginning of our four-day trip. Our first stay was in Alfred Park Hostel, in a six-bed mixed dorm for AU$25 per person. It was a deceptively large hostel, with a very helpful and pleasant staff who helped us find our bearings in the city. The room was clean and comfortable, and the outdoor terrace was a pleasant area to sit and plan the day. It was located close to Railway Square, which was an interesting 20-minute amble from the centre. As a couple, however, we didn't find dorms the most appealing, and private rooms in the hostel began at about AU$40 (on a par with, if not cheaper than, many other hostels we queried). We were advised to try Cockatoo Island and it was here that our trip really took off.

Tents with a view

Cockatoo Island is a gem in the middle of Sydney Harbour. It is primarily a camping ground, but one that radiates a relaxing atmosphere and boasts every amenity one could require for a short stay. It’s also where much of the X-Men Origins: Wolverine movie was filmed.

We arrived by ferry, tent in hand, and were greeted by a very friendly and informative receptionist. To rent a site cost AU$45 (that's per site, not per person, thus making it cheaper than hostels) and we set up on the very edge of the island within what seemed like touching distance of the Harbour Bridge - slightly more romantic than a six-bed dorm! There were rows of tents in one area that could be hired by the night, along with chairs, mattresses and a lantern, for AU$75. There were also permanent barbecues - on which we cooked our kangaroo steaks - available to rent (AU$1 for 45 minutes), and other amenities such as fridges, sinks, a large seating area, heated showers and immaculate toilet facilities.

For those of limited funds, the ferry is the only way to access the island, but it is a relaxing ride, passing by a plethora of Sydney’s most notable landmarks. It takes about 10 minutes and tickets are less than AU$5, especially if you get them from the machine and choose ‘concession student’, which knocks a couple more dollars off the price.

City sights

A lot of our time in Sydney was spent simply exploring the city. We walked about Sydney Harbour, viewing the Opera House (in front of which there are often free exhibitions), and then along the beautiful promenade, where the ferries leave from and many street artists perform. There was also a hive of activity on the water, including jet-boat rides around the harbour. Using the vouchers we picked up in one of the many promotional booklets available throughout the city, we had 30 minutes of speeding and splashing for AU$20.

We strolled into the city centre and were surprised and impressed by the relative ease with which we could negotiate the CBD, enjoying the various musicians on the pedestrianised area of Pitt Street. We spent a lot of time in Hyde Park, a stone's throw from the impressive St Mary’s Cathedral, and visited Darling Harbour, which showed free movies on a floating cinema screen as a summer promotion.

Fearing our entire budget might be lost on the Sydney Bridge Climb, we simply walked across the bridge instead, which still gave us some magnificent views. The famous Luna Park beckoned to us from the water's edge, and at only AU$25 for an all-inclusive ticket on Friday nights, it’s a great evening's entertainment. Nightlife in Sydney (bar amusement parks!) needs to be well researched if you don’t want your budget spiralling out of control, but drink offers are available and it's worth keeping an eye out for them. One bar I would recommend highly is Marble Bar (488 George Street), which provided us with a free acoustic session and generously poured spirits.

On Sunday lunchtime we were treated to a free jazz concert in Café Sydney (31 Alfred Street, Circular Quay), a fantastic way to relax after a Saturday night. We eventually got the bus to Bondi Beach, and spent our final hours there watching the beautiful people as our pasty bodies took on a reddish tint. We spent our last night on Cockatoo Island exploring the shipyards built by Australia’s convicts before cracking open a bottle of Merlot and admiring the million dollar view from our 45 dollar site.