Winter in Sydney is a drag. As a city very much about its coastlines, sunshine and outdoor activities, the rain and cold make Sydney – and Sydney-siders – quite inhospitable. While there are certainly blindingly bright sunny days to be had in the middle of August, these are far outnumbered by stretches of miserable rain, cold grey mornings and blustery, tomb-dark evenings that begin as early as 5pm.
Thus, when the bitter gales whipping off the harbor finally begin to mellow and the sun warms and intensifies, Sydney starts its annual metamorphosis from cranky old crone to frolicking party pal. Full revelry won't begin until December, when three months of music festivals, open air cinemas, cultural fairs, cricket matches, food fests and beach parties ensue, but the shoulder season is great time to travel because hotels are cheaper and the beaches are far less crowded.
Every year, spring in Sydney brings with it a full schedule of special events. So, aside from the general enjoyment of outdoor touristic waterfronts such as Cockle Bay, Sydney Fish Markets, Manly Beach and Circular Quay, there are some specific events on that can enhance visitors' cultural understanding of what makes this stunning city tick.
While it's not quite bohemia, Sydney has a very healthy fine arts scene. Just as spring kicks off, the Sydney Biennale is winding down (to Sept 16), but it sets the appropriate tone for lovers of contemporary art. Finalists for the Doug Moran National Portrait Prize are on show in the city until 9 October, while Sculptures by the Sea again sees installations and art works strewn along the picturesque coastal walk from Bondi to Bronte (18 Oct – 4 Nov) – a great way to take in the beaches and enjoy local art works simultaneously.
Glimpsing some local contemporary art in Sydney is made even easier by the Art and About initiative that runs throughout September and October, with exhibitions and installations set up in random places about the city. For travelers who want a more focused look at Australian contemporary art, the MCA is a prudent diversion, conveniently located at Circular Quay.
Music is a big part of life in Sydney, whether it's a dance festival or opera. Obviously, the Sydney Opera House has an impressive year round program, this spring including Just for Laughs comedy festival (12-22 Oct), Planet Earth in Concert and Blue Planet (25-27 Oct), the Legendary Count Basie Orchestra (13 Oct) and Scissor Sisters (27 Sept).
One major music event that heralds the warmer weather for younger music lovers is Parklife, an outdoor festival with electronic bands, DJs and indie rock/pop/dance artists, held in the gardens of Centennial Park. Classical music is also featured this spring, with the Australian Chamber Orchestra performing concertos by Mozart, Handel and Vivaldi (Oct 13) and Verdi's Aida playing at the Opera House throughout September and October.
Sydney is a kid-friendly destination with lots of fun outdoor activities geared towards families and younger travelers. Aside from a vast array of patrolled beaches and green spaces, there's Taronga Zoo, a short ferry ride from Circular Quay and the Sydney Aquarium at Cockle Bay in the city. Right next door is Wildlife Sydney Zoo, which has one of the world's biggest crocodiles and hosts weekly Koala Breakfasts where guests start the day with a buffet breakfast amid trees filled with koalas.
In the same precinct is the recently opened Madame Toussauds, open every day, there are daily cruises around the harbor, plus the Sydney Monorail Treasure Hunt that stops at the city's most picturesque points, inviting kids to find clues and enter a competition to win a family holiday on the Gold Coast.
For families interested in sustainability, the Cruelty-Free Festival in Belmore Park in Haymarket showcases vegan food, local organic produce, with more than 60 food vendors, market stalls, live entertainment, face painting and cooking demonstrations.
Sydney's beaches are tough to stay away from when the weather's good. October and November will have some brilliantly dry, blue days without the punishing heat of summer. Still, beach-goers should don a hat and sunscreen, Australia's UV rays being a lot higher than those of other equally as sunny places around the world.
The most obvious beach destination is Bondi, which has everything: food of all types (fish n chips to fine dining), showers, a gym, a topless area, a skate park, lots of sand and green spaces. It also gets very crowded.
A nice alternative is Watson's Bay, a five-minute drive away on the headland. It's not a surf beach, so it's better for kids, plus there's a park and food/change facilities close by. Bronte is also close to Bondi Beach, with more park space and seats and barbecues. The sea here is generally rough and not good for weak swimmers.
On the north side, Manly is a great family beach and easily accessible by ferry (30 minutes from Circular Quay). There is also Clontarf beach a 10-minute drive away from Manly. It's off the beaten path in one of the city's most affluent neighborhoods, so expect to find many residents there. Another attractive, affluent beach is Balmoral Beach on the north side. It has a lovely promenade and lots of green space, but also gets crowded at weekends.
You can explore the waterways by ferry to find a cove of your own: www.sydneyferries.info