Sydney Harbor, Neutral Bay and the Ferry
Sydney was born when folks came ashore nearby, and the city has always been centered, commercially and literally, on its beautiful harbor. It makes a great place to start your visit. And yes, Nemo swam through it. Officially the harbor is called Port Jackson harbor but nobody cool ever calls it that.
The rail stop you want is Circle Quay (pronounced “key”). If you are walking, the area is downhill the central downtown, so stroller friendly. Going home is your business.
Find a Bench
Speaking of Nemo, find a bench, or if you'd like something to eat or drink, a table at one of the gumzillion cafes alongside the harbor, and feel free to feed the sea gulls, those nasty birds that almost got plucky Nemo (I always almost cry at that part). Your cafÃƒÆ’Ã†'Ãƒâ€š© table mates may not appreciate the feeding frenzy, but the kids will, and they can run around right in front of you while you mull over an espresso. There are usually street performers about (called buskers down here), including the weird mime guy all painted silver that is everywhere I ever travel to (but why is it I never see him on the plane?)
If you think of the harbor as a big “U”, the closed end of the U, where the ferries board, is also a place to buy souvenirs. While not the cheapest source in Sydney for this kind of stuff, the selection of stuffed koalas, kangaroos, Nemo, T-shirts, mugs and everything else like that is awesome, and the shops are all right there. Keep an eye out for products made in Australia; they are often significantly more expensive and if it is OK with you, many shops have similar or identical items made elsewhere much cheaper. The shops are quite visible, so if buying stuff is not on your agenda, they should generally be avoided with some fast parental footwork.
Near the shops are a collection of restaurants (McDonalds is just through the archway, outside a bit,if you must) and semi-clean public toilets. The ferries which we'll get to in a moment also all have toilets that are a bit cleaner but generally only seat one at a time, plus they move with the motion of the ferry. This is also the place in Sydney to get the best views of the Habror Bridge.
There are a number of ways to see the Harbor, and you must see the Harbor from the water or you might as well leave the kids to learn about Sydney from the Discovery Channel and skip the jet lag. You can learn about some options for paid tours online.
If you are in for a pricey but leisurely tour, perhaps at night with cheesy narration, there are several harbor cruises just for tourists. Look for the info booth near the ferries. Prices were around A$25 in 2004.
However, the regular commuter ferries are our choice of how to see the Harbor. Adult fares across and back start at A$9 in 2004 and during the midafternoon you are likely to have most of the vessel to yourself. There are some versions of an all-day one-price-for-all transportation pass card that also include the ferries, so check if you are gonna be riding around a lot. If you buy just the over and back ticket, save it until you exit the ferry; you need it to get on and again when you disembark.
The slightly inpatient but generally pleasant people who work at the ticket booths need to know where you are going to sell a ticket, as technically there are no “I am a dumb tourist and want to see the opera house” routes. There are many destinations signposted, but if you would like a suggestion I suggest Neutral Bay and return (i.e, roundtrip).
Neutral Bay first of all has a moderately ironic name which appeals. Perhaps better yet, that ferry chugs out past the magnificent bridge (photo op), churns ‘round the opera house, passes Pinchgut Island (former prison; the name refers to the starvation-level rations given out. The island is pictured just below, with the stone tower) and offers a stunning view of the Sydney skyline before stopping across the harbor at some very wealthy suburbs. I did not find much to spend time on in Neutral Bay, but there are some very nice houses to gawk at, and little tummies might appreciate the chance to get off the ferry if the waves were a bit much.
Leaving the ferry dock sit in the back, coming back sit in the front for the best views. There are seats inside for rainy days and outside for nicer days, upstairs and downstairs depending on your knees and stroller. You do not have to get off at the other side if you just want a roundtrip harbor viewing journey. The whole trip last 30-40 minutes. Nothing is sold about the ferry and, as mentioned, there is a small toilet.
Can't beat this for serious vacationing.