It's been said that Melbourne has the culture while Sydney has the flash. Although Sydney-siders might argue with that assessment, the attraction of Australia's metropolis has much to do with its incomparable physical setting, and a cosmopolitan cachet that shows itself in the plethora of smart stores and restaurants and some of the world's sexiest beaches.
But Sydney has also preserved its history. A great way to experience it is by heading to The Rocks (www.therocks.com), a heritage district that sits at the end of George Street and is only a few blocks from Sydney's downtown. A dramatic hillside characterized by outcrops of sandstone, it was here, more than 200 years ago, that the British under naval captain Arthur Philip first established a white man's settlement/penal colony that gave birth to the modern nation of Australia.
Overlooking magnificent Sydney Cove, The Rocks was once a rough-and-tumble neighborhood populated by prostitutes, thieves and rowdy sailors' bars. Today, the area has been transformed into a showcase for dozens of restored 19th-century buildings as well as restaurants, galleries and a lively weekend market. Savor Cadman's Cottage, Sydney's oldest dwelling, which was built in the early 1800s, and marvel at the famous Argyle Cut, a tunnel constructed through solid rock by convict laborers using hammers and chisels.
For a different take on this multi-faceted city, go to Darling Harbour (www.darlingharbour.com), which spreads in a semi-circle around Cockle Bay. It's a glittering complex of buildings that includes the Sydney Aquarium, the National Maritime Museum, a massive convention and entertainment center, and the 32,500-square-foot Chinese Gardens, which Australians boast is the only authentic Cantonese-style garden of its size outside China.
Sydney prides itself on its profusion of parks, and there are few lovelier anywhere than the Royal Botanic Gardens (www.rbgsyd.nsw.gov.au), laid out on the shores of the harbor and located only minutes from the Central Business District. Created in 1816, the 74-acre gardens contain the site of the earliest cultivated land on the Australian continent.
Divided into three sections and punctuated by tranquil ponds and extensive lawns, the gardens are noted for their huge variety of palms like the Bungalow variety with its feather-shaped fronds as well as a superb rose garden and Herbarium.
Strolling along the footpaths, you'll no doubt encounter some of the dozens of species of exotic birds like the brightly-tinted Rosella, White Ibis and Laughing Kookaburra. And in this lush setting, you'll begin to get an idea of what makes Sydney such a knockout.