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A Few Days in Manly, Sydney

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Manly beach promenade. Photo: Flickr / jimmyharris

By Daniel Schwartz for Fathom | Manly, one of the wealthy suburbs surrounding Sydney, is packed with enough top-notch dining, drinking, and surfer-style shopping options to put a serious dent in any wallet. But that's not stopping anyone from flocking to the seaside hamlet for a day at the beach, fish and chips by the water, and a few schooners of cider come nightfall.

The rent isn't cheap, but the lifestyle is simple. You'll need a tank and board shorts. You'll probably stop wearing shoes. And you'll never want to leave.

THE LAY OF THE LAND

If the sun is shining, and it usually is, the ferry from Circular Quay will be packed. Sydneysiders en route to seaside relaxation look on in disbelief as camera-ready tourists push outdoors for passing views of the Opera House, slanted sail boats, and headland as the ferry glides north. (It's hard to blame them. It's a gorgeous commute, and the views never get old.)

Manly is a peninsula that straddles Sydney Harbour on the west and Tasman Sea to the east. Sydney Harbour National Park fills the southern end, the tony residential area is in the north, and the main action is concentrated in the narrow center. The wharf ends at the pedestrian Corso, the commercial epicenter of Manly that's filled with surfers in their swimmers (Aussie for bathing suits) and stilleto'd beauties in summer skirts. The Corso spans Manly at its narrowest point, and within minutes, you've reached the beaches at the other side.

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The ocean-water pool at Fairy Bower. Photo: Flickr / TenSafeFrogs

WHAT TO DO
Go to the Beach

The beaches are less crowded on weekdays, so you're almost guaranteed an open plot of sand for tanning, sleeping, and reading. Manly Beach is divided from north to south into three sections: Queenscliff, North Steyne, and South Steyne. If you're looking for a lively beach scene, you'll find it here, along with great surfing waves. If you find yourself marveling at the flawless bodies of practically every local, you won't be alone.

Shelly Beach is directly across from South Steyne, tucked into Cabbage Tree Bay. The appropriately named beach is covered in tiny, multicolored shattered shells and draws a cozy, family crowd. The moms are chatting, the kids are easing their way into the wave-less water, and you can't help but smell someone else's lunch. If you manage to snag one of the two public grills, you can snack on a sausage while you sip that beer you undoubtedly snuck onto the beach. On Sunday nights during the summer, fire twirlers and outdoor ravers dance to the beat of the drums at a really fun but really bizarre free-for-all party that attracts midnight BBQ'ers, friends with brews, and alarmed tourists (that would be me).

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Grab a board and head in. Photo: Daniel Schwartz

The Sporting Life

You can't fully experience the Manly vibe without picking up a surfboard. Go ahead, pretend a little: You're a pro, you practically live at the beach, and your tanned, toned body is evidence. When you've stopped daydreaming, head to Manly Surf School for lessons that start at $70 for two hours. If surfing is too much, you can get outfitted to paddle surf, an efficient, relaxing way to explore the coast.

If you're looking to get your laps in, head to Shelly Beach for calmer waters or stop at the seaside saltwater pool along the way. Yes, there are lots of pools at the beach in Sydney. The surf can get rough and it's tough to swim for exercise in the ocean. These pools are carved into rocks near the sea; the ocean splashes in, filling the pools.

Rent some snorkeling equipment on the walk over and explore the sea life by the rocks off Shelly. Keep your eyes peeled for water dragons and dolphins!

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Listening to the sound of crashing waves at North Head is a whole day event. Photo: Daniel Schwartz

Commune with Nature

The International College of Management, Sydney, is a former Catholic seminary turned university located on a hill five minutes from the ocean. Come for a stroll: The grounds are beautiful. (Nicole Kidman got married here.) Don't be startled by the myriad of noises Australian birds are capable of. If it's late enough, you'll find bandicoots and bunnies roaming the lawns. (I didn't know what a bandicoot was before coming here. It's like a cute mouse, although "cute" is in the eyes of the beholder.) A running path leads from the school into Sydney Harbour National Park. Venture through bush fields, scale the headlands, and explore abandoned barracks. Trek to North Head for particularly stunning views of Sydney or to spend an afternoon of gazing into the Pacific's deep blue horizon.

The Shopping

You'll find the usual nice selection of clothing, jewelry, and souvenir shops, but you'll quickly notice the Corso is dominated by one retail category: surf shacks. Favorite Australian brands include Billabong, Quiksilver, and Rip Curl. On weekends, the open-air Manly Market Place is the go-to for fresh produce and local designs and crafts. For a taste of the northern countries down under, the small and funky Nordic Fusion carries Scandinavian clothing, homewares, and accessories.

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An instant pick-me-up in the form of a bacon & egg roll at Hemingway's. Photo: Daniel Schwartz

WHERE TO EAT
Breakfast

Great nights with an Aussie crowd usually make for groggy mornings. Stabilize with a book and an egg sandwich at Hemingway's Manly, where solid Americana is served with solid ocean views. Check back in the evening for drinks and good fun: this is one of Australia's best small bars. The Bower also offers a good breakfast menu with outdoor seating right along the waterfront. If you're only up in time for lunch, fresh seafood and an impressive burger await.

Lunch

Take a dip in the ocean before lunch — fish and chips taste way better if you're just coming out of the water. Fishmongers is a local favorite. The Ivanhoe delivers on value with delicious seafood snacks and burgers hovering around the $10 mark. Head to Four Fish, directly opposite North Steyne, for serious servings of fish and chips and fresh seafood you can select from the tanks. You can eat-in, but it's better to take away and enjoy the massive servings on the grass overlooking the beach.

Dinner

At iconic Australian steakhouse Ribs and Rumps, few things are more satisfying than donning a bib, digging into a rack of pork ribs twice the size of human head, and wheezing between bites to tell the waitress, "Yes, I would like another beer."

For a more refined dining experience, The Pantry is a romantic, open-air brasserie on Manly Beach promenade that specializes in European fare and sunset views. Thai food is generally done well in Sydney, and I loved getting shared plates at Mortar and Pestle and Chat Thai.

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Underground, undercover, and unexpected. Photo: Courtesy of Brklyn

WHERE TO DRINK

Manly Wharf Hotel, an expansive, multi-sectioned bar a few steps from where the ferry docs, attracts a well-dressed crowd of locals for casual drinks. Sundays, the bar's most popular night, is the best time to come to make new friends.

For a few more drinks, a round of pool, and a louder beer garden vibe, head to Hotel Steyne, where a mix of indoor, outdoor, and rooftop sections host big crowds into the early morning. If you're still thirsty, Moonshine Cider and Rum Bar upstairs offers a large selection of ciders — just make the climb before it closes at midnight (11 p.m. on Sundays). For DJs and dancing, hit the new, dimly-lit Beach Club. You'll party with good looking people on the rooftop sun deck and at the tequila bar on the ground floor. The various floors are worth exploring, especially after a few drinks.

If you're looking for a laid-back night with a twist, venture out to one of the discrete small bars managed by Eat.Drink.Manly. Brklyn is an underground speakeasy with a moody ambience, hidden behind an unmarked door at Sugar Lounge. When most bars are closing shop, Brklyn is still serving New York-style snacks and great cocktails.

WHERE TO STAY

The hotel scene is concentrated around the Corso, although other options are available. Q Station is an idyllic boutique hotel in Sydney Harbour National Park, minutes from Manly center and surrounded by bush. The setting and the views of Sydney Harbour are amazing.

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Sunset from the ferry: Sydney's public transportation at its finest. Photo: Daniel Schwartz

HOW TO GET THERE

Fly to Sydney: Qantas flies direct to Sydney from New York (JFK), Dallas/Fort Worth, and Los Angeles.  

Ferries: The Manly ferry runs roughly every 20 minutes from Circular Quay and takes about a half hour. Service terminates around midnight. Buses take a little longer and run at all hours, but they're much less scenic. Here are schedules.

Read more on Fathom: Sydney's Best Beaches, The Best View in Sydney, Fathom's full Sydney guide

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