How to Spend a Layover in Sydney

Sydney layover

Pssst … Wanna know a travel hack? Of course you do.
One of my favorite ways to travel for free is to book a layover flight on your way to your destination. For example, when I scored my tickets from the USA to New Zealand for $220, there were two options:

1:  SFO – Sydney layover (2 hours) – Auckland
2: SFO – Sydney layover (9 hours) – Auckland

Which of these options do you think I chose? If you guessed #2, you’re right and I hope you get a free upgrade on your next flight 

Anyway, some time between booking my tickets and 2 days before I was supposed to fly (ahem, the latter option), I had a sudden realization: “What am I going to do in Sydney?!”

After a little bit of research, asking friends, and some travel groups, here is my mini guide to a layover in Sydney!

Note! I had a 9-hour layover in Sydney in November 2016, from 9AM to 6:45PM. This was a “stopover flight” on my way to New Zealand. I recommend having at least four or five hours in your layover if you plan to go sightseeing in Sydney (and if you don’t want to miss your plane!)

The Basics: Before You LeaveSydney layover

Wait! Do you need a visa?

I traveled to Australia using my U.S. passport, which means that can enter the country with an ETA (Electronic Travel Authority) visa. It’s an extremely easy process and you apply for it online. To do so, go to the official website, fill out the form, and pay the $20AUD / $15USD. My visa was accepted in a few minutes and confirmed via email. You won’t get a physical copy – all of the information is stored in their online system.

When you arrive at the airport, there are little electronic machines that scan your passport and give you a piece of paper. You then go to a second set of electric gates, scan your passport and paper, and voila – you’re in Australia!

Where Do I Store my Luggage?

One of the most important questions for any jet setter on a layover 
Assuming you arrive in SYD airport from an international flight, there is a Smarte Carte office at the southern end of the international Arrivals Terminal (T1) right across from the Blooming Trails florist kiosk. I paid about $10 to store my small suitcase for a few hours and the location is perfect. If you go towards the other side you’ll end up in the train station that will get you to the center.

Do I Need Cash?

Australia uses the Australian Dollar (AUD), which was 1 USD to .75 AUD when I was there. During the layover I didn’t exchange currency because credit cards are accepted virtually everywhere.
Note: use credit cards without a foreign transaction fee, like Chase Sapphire or Barclay Arrival
The only con is I didn’t get a cute coin with a kangaroo on it :(

How Do I Get to the Center of Sydney?

There are two ways to get to the center of Sydney: you can either take a taxi/Uber for $35 to $48 AUD/$26 to $35 USD, or take the train for $18AUD/$14 USD. I took the train, so I’ll describe what to do here:

From the International Arrivals terminal, go to the very northern end. There should be an escalator going downstairs, which is where there are trains going into the city. You can buy a paper ticket from one of the kiosks, which is $18AUD for one-way. Take the T2 line to Circular Quay, which will be our first stop. It should take about 20 to 25 mins total.

Ready to check out Sydney? Let’s go!

First Stop: The Harbor Sydney layover


After you get off at the Circular Quay station, you’ll be in the heart of Sydney’s harbor. Sunny skies, blue water, and such a fun atmosphere – When I got here, I honestly couldn’t believe how gorgeous it was! There’s a lot to do around this area, which is we’re going to be walking around today.

While I didn’t go on a ferry during this layover, I really wish I did! Some of my friends recommended the Manly Ferry – it a quick 30-minute ride, has gorgeous views of Sydney’s skyline, and is a cheap $15 AUD. The ferry leaves twice every hour and is great if you want to chill out and give your feet a break from walking.

The Sydney Opera House

Sydney layover sydney opera house

When I was planning my layover in Sydney, the only thing I had in mind was the Sydney Opera House. It’s practically the 8th Wonder of the World!

After getting off of the airport train I made a beeline to Hickson Road Reserve, which is this little park/pier area where you can take nice pictures of the Opera House. It’s about a 10-minute walk from Circular Quay and goes through an area with a few bars, restaurants, and art galleries. I think I spent a good 30 minutes sitting by one of the piers and staring at the Opera House, like am I really here?! and Snapchatting my friends photos. 

Did you know? Jorn Utzon, the designer of the Sydney Opera House, won 5,000 Pounds for his design. UNESCO declared it a World Heritage Site in 2007 and hosts over 3,000 events every year! 

By this point, I wanted to get to know the Sydney Opera House a little closer and walked over to the base of it. To be honest, I had no idea that it was on the mainland: I always thought the Opera House was floating on a little island near Sydney and that you had to take a ferry to get over there. Whoops!

Anyway, I highly recommend walking over to the main entrance of the Sydney Opera House (and maybe even peeking inside). It’s also a lovely place to sit down, people watch, grab some lunch, or take selfies photos of your environment.

Sydney layover sydney opera houseShirt: Haola / Necklace: Jet Set Candy / Undereye circles: Redeye flight on Qantas  

The Government House & Royal Botanical Garden

Sydney layover royal botanical government house

The next “tourist attraction” on my list was the Government House, which was conveniently located right across the Opera House. Nice, huh?

The Government House overlooks the Sydney bay and is the home of New South Wales’ governor, sort of like the White House for the President of the USA. There are free weekend tours that last 45 minutes and go through the house. Unfortunately I got there during a special event and couldn’t get a tour, but I would recommend checking it out!

The Queen Victoria BuildingSydney layover queen victoria building


After wandering around for a while, it was time for lunch – which, conveniently, is our next stop. The main entrance is on George Street and on the outside, it looks like a fairly average gothic-ish style building, but on the inside …

It’s amazing! The photo above doesn’t do it justice, you have to visit in person. The building was built back in the early 1900’s and features stained glass mosaic, huge clocks hanging from the ceiling, and colorful walls. You might have also noticed the Christmas trees – like I mentioned, these photos were taken in November when the holiday season was in full swing. :)

I stopped by the Queen Victoria Building to grab a mid-layover snack and do some people watching, but it’s also great if you love to shop. Bonus: the building is gorgeous when it’s illuminated at night!

Chinese Garden of Friendship

Sydney layover chinese garden

This hidden gem wasn’t even supposed to make it onto the guide – whaaat? Seriously!
When I was planning my Sydney layover, I only had the four things mentioned above: Sydney Opera House, Government House, Queen Victoria Building, and a little bit of wandering around downtown. I had no idea that I would be left with three extra hours in my trip. #experttravelplanner 

Thankfully I checked Yelp and found the Chinese Garden of Friendship. It’s a short 10-minute walk from the Queen Victoria Building and in the Chinese/Korean district of Sydney. The admission is $6 AUD / $4.5USD. The park is so lush and green, and there were birds everywhere! For the best view, climb up the hill and sit in the red pavilion (pictured above) or walk across the bridge and admire the fish.

Bonus: The Garden has all 12 signs of the Chinese zodiac – can you find yours? They’re red metal sculptures next to a stone that lists each animal’s traits. 

Sydney CBD (Central Business District)

Sydney layover CBD town hall

This layover in Sydney was almost over, but I had one more thing on my list: buy souvenirs
You know that phrase, “Take only photographs, leave only footprints“? Well, not in my case. I was dead set on getting a tacky magnet of a koala in sunglasses with the words AUSTRALIA in different colors, and nobody was going to stop me!

I read that the cheapest souvenirs were in Chinatown, where you could get t-shirts for $5AUD and magnets for $3AUD. After stocking up on bottle openers and keychains, it was time to go to the CBD. They also mentioned that George Street is full of trinket shops, where I happily stopped by and grabbed the aforementioned koala magnets for my collection. I would tell you the names of the souvenir shops, but to be honest, they’re all the same. Just pop into a few stores, compare the prices, and buy what you need.

Souvenirs aren’t the only things on George Street – if you have time, check out the Sydney Town Hall! Since it was summer down there, the flowers were in full bloom and it looked gorgeous. Apparently locals like to use the building as a meet-up point and can often be sitting on the stairs and waiting for their friends.
(If you get lost, just ask one of them. )


Bon Voyage!

Sydney layover CBD

To get back to the SYD airport, go to Circular Quay station and take the same line to the International Terminal. Don’t forget your baggage and souvenirs!

That’s about it – I hope you enjoyed my mini tour through Sydney and are excited to visit on your own. Feel free to comment below with questions or what you want to see in Sydney :)

Bon voyage!


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18 thoughts on “How to Spend a Layover in Sydney

  1. Whoa, this is super cool, Luda! Good on you for squeezing in this layover visit… but I’d expect nothing less from you, of course. ;) That Chinese Garden looks like a hidden gem!

  2. Love that you managed to do so much in such a short time. I love squeezing as much as I can from my vacations an this is a good intro to Sydney for me. Thanks.

  3. That sounds amazing! You really fit a lot into your layover! I’m always nervous that I won’t have enough time to explore on layovers, this was helpful if I ever have one in Sydney!

    1. Haha, I totally know the feeling! I went back to SYD airport earlier than usual because I didn’t want to miss my flight and ended up with an extra hour 🙈

  4. You really made the most of your time and saw so much. I was lucky to spend 3 weeks in Sydney for work and I loved it. The zoo and aquarium there are really impressive.

    1. 3 weeks is amazing! I heard a lot about the Aquarium, I’ll be sure to add it on my list when I visit Sydney next time (hopefully for more than 9 hours :))

  5. I’m Australian (from South Australia!) but have never had the chance to visit Sydney. You’re so lucky! Definitely one of the cities in my own country I hope to visit very soon :)

    1. I think you’re the lucky one, Australia is gorgeous! And Sydney is definitely worth the visit :)

  6. Sydney is such an amazing city I can’t imagine only having a layover there – but if I did I would do exactly what you’ve outlined here!! Hits all the best (but not mainly touristy) things!

    1. Aww thank you so much! I tried to include a mix of both, but it’s definitely a city worth coming back to visit! :)

  7. Super helpful post! I’m a kiwi so I don’t need a visa to nip out in Aus on a layover. It’s great when you can pack so much into time otherwise spend in boredom in the airport. All great things to do! I love Sydney’s waterfront areas.

    1. So lucky! New Zealand was my final destination after the layover and it was gorgeous as well! And you’re right, much better than trolling around the airport haha :)

  8. Did you apply for the visa before your trip like in advance or when you were about to leave for trip?

    1. Heya! I applied for the ESTA about a month and a half before my trip, but I think they instantly approve it (I applied and got the approval email 15 mins later).

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