Visiting Australia — is Sydney or Melbourne better?

Feb 11, 2022

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Australia is truly a magical place. If you have been fortunate enough to visit and spend some time there, you already know this. And from 21 February, you’ll be able to visit once again. That is the date when Australia will once again reopen its borders after almost two years and welcome back tourists and other visa holders.

From 21 February, travellers with proof of vaccination will be allowed to enter the country, as officials alter their COVID strategy and begin a new phase in which Australians learn to adjust to life with the virus. But most unvaccinated international travellers are still not able to visit.

“The condition is you must be double vaccinated to come to Australia. That’s the rule. Everyone is expected to abide by it,” Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said during the announcement.

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The problem with Australia is there is so much to take in that a single trip is never enough time. When you only have limited time there, you may have to make some tough choices about where to visit and what to skip. So, if you only have time to go to one of the two biggest cities, Sydney or Melbourne — what are the differences and how should you choose?

Sydney

Sydney is likely to be the first place you think of when visiting Australia — after all, it’s the country’s largest and most well-known city despite the capital being the much smaller Canberra, near the East Coast.

Pros

The sights
Sydney has a long list of attractions, namely the city’s most recognisable landmarks — the Sydney Harbour Bridge and the Opera House. These are both in the centre of the city and a stone’s throw from each other. The Opera House is open for visitors and events, but be mindful of its COVID-19 safety protocols. There is also an amazing bar on the bridge side called the Opera Bar, where you can sit right on the water soaking up the sights of one of the world’s most impressive harbours. You can also climb the harbour bridge which is an experience I would highly recommend.

Related: 8 things to know before visiting Australia right now

Image of the Sydney Harbour Bridge courtesy of Vivid Sydney's Facebook page.
(Photo of the Sydney Harbour Bridge courtesy of Vivid Sydney’s Facebook page)

The beaches
Beyond the harbour, Sydney has plenty of other attractions like the fantastic beaches everywhere (look beyond Bondi!). Among the hundred or so speckled around the harbour, I recommend Manly — a 30-minute ferry ride from Circular Quay, or Bronte, which is free. There’s also Coogee beach, which is superb for both swimming and surfing and Tamarama is a great choice, too.

Weather
Sydney has mild winters compared to the more southern Melbourne, though it can get very humid in summer. Typically it won’t get much cooler than 13 degrees in the coldest months. Summer though can see temperatures soar to 42 degrees!

Fitness
And if you’re a fitness fan, you’ll find locals out and about enjoying the climate and beaches, exercising as much as they can. This includes running around the cliffs between beaches and turning any playground or park into a gym.

Cons 

Prices
Even if you are used to London prices you might be shocked at how expensive Sydney is, especially for accommodation. Sydney CBD (central business district) five-star hotels can easily be £300 plus per night and a pint of craft beer around £7.50. Groceries are also surprisingly expensive from most supermarkets in both cities — no £3 Tesco meal deals here!

Lack of nightlife
Even before the pandemic-induced lockdown of Australia’s borders, Sydney’s nightlife was likely to prove disappointing to travellers looking for late-night revelry. The city introduced strict lockout laws back in 2014 as a reaction to alcohol-fueled violence in the CBD, which led to the demise of large parts of the city’s nightlife. Expect to turn in early with 3:00 a.m. closing times and no entry after 1:30 a.m.

Photo Taken In Sydney, Australia
Photo by Christine Wehrmeier/Getty Images)

Melbourne

Australia’s second-largest city (only just) is further south. This means the climate is a little colder, the city a little darker and more serious but arguably, has more culture.

Pros

The cosmopolitan vibe
Melbourne is considered to be the most European-style city in Australia. Since it’s a remarkably young country, Australia doesn’t have the sort of historical architecture that you might find in Europe. Nonetheless, it still manages to have European charm, both through its beautiful buildings and multi-cultural lifestyle. There are hidden laneways and cocktails bars, street art and 24/7 nightlife that Sydney-siders only have a distant memory of. Want to enjoy a cocktail at 4:00 a.m.? You can do it in Melbourne. For most of the past two years, this nightlife was non-existent as Melbourne was one of the most locked-down cities on the planet as the country tried to contain COVID outbreaks. But now that Australian government officials have reversed course and decided it’s time to “live with the virus,” the trademark late-night activities are back.

One more thing. The coffee in Melbourne is some of the best in the world — Melburnians take it very, very seriously.

Read more: What is the fastest route to fly to Australia?

The sporting culture
Melbourne is also a sports-mad city. Though there is plenty of sport in Sydney, Melbourne prides itself on being the sporting capital of the country. It is the home of the Australia Football League as well as Australia’s only Formula One Race. And of course, the multi-million dollar Melbourne Cup. One of the best times to visit Melbourne is in late January when the city really comes alive during the Australian Open Grand Slam tennis tournament at Melbourne Park where more than half a million people flock to enjoy the tennis action. While this year’s action was overshadowed by the controversy surrounding tennis star Novak Djokovic’s deportation due to being unvaccinated, the Australian Open is always a highlight of the sporting calendar.

Cons

Weather
Melbourne doesn’t have some of the benefits of its northern sibling, like mild winters and beautiful beaches. While not as harsh as Northern European winters, they are still long and cold lasting from May right through to the Spring Racing Carnival in October. You will hear the expression “four seasons in one day” in Melbourne — the weather can change from sunshine to hail within an hour.

Read more: 10 reasons you should visit Australia

Lack of nearby beaches
Though there are beaches 20 to 30 minutes from the city centre at Port Melbourne and St Kilda, these are not the sort of beaches you will want to spend all day at. The sand isn’t quite as clean and light, the water not as clear. Otherwise, you’ll need to drive at least an hour from the city to get to places like Black Rock and Mount Martha.

The CBD zone of Melbourne city, Australia. Photo by Boy_Anupong/Getty Images.
The CBD zone of Melbourne city, Australia. (Photo by Boy Anupong/Getty Images)

Bottom line

Both cities are great to visit but noticeably different. If you’ve never visited Australia before and are looking for in-your-face classic tourist activities and Instagrammable heaven, then Sydney might be the best choice. But if you’re looking for a destination where you have to scratch the surface a little to discover some rich culture, give Melbourne a try.

Or ideally — visit both!

Featured image by Crystal Cruises

Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airlines or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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