Sydney is ready to dazzle queer travelers

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Dykes on Bikes roar down Oxford Street for Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras in 2018.
Heather Cassell

The water in Sydney’s harbor sparkled in the sun. It was breathtakingly beautiful. Just when I thought the waters lapping at the shores of Australia’s commercial hub couldn’t get more spectacular, I went to Bondi Beach, where surfers rode perfect sea green waves.

Sydney, the capital of New South Wales, is a spectacular harbor city filled with natural beauty, art and culture, a hopping culinary scene, and a lively LGBTQ community.

Australia opened its borders February 21 for the first time since COVID-19 struck in March 2020 and forced the continent to close its borders to the world.

Since opening to the world, COVID-19 cases immediately spiked, according to a Johns Hopkins University graph on Google. Cases have since gone up and down, but are now on the rise again. Most Australians (85%) are fully vaccinated, according to the New York Times.

Currently, Australia is requiring international travelers to be double vaccinated, test negative prior to departing for the continent, complete a Digital Passenger Declaration form, and obtain an Electronic Travel Authority. However, as it goes with COVID-19, rules change regularly. Travelers can find updates for safe travel to Sydney on the New South Wales tourism and government websites.

Beachgoers enjoying the sand and sun at Bondi Beach in Sydney, Australia.Heather Cassell

It’s an opportune time for Australia to reopen. Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, the two-week LGBTQ cultural festival that kicks off summer down under, is hosting WorldPride in 2023.

The festival is certainly anticipated to welcome hundreds of thousands of people from around Australia and the globe for the event’s 45th anniversary and to mark the fifth anniversary of Australia winning marriage equality. In 2018, the celebration attracted an estimated 300,000 festival-goers for its 40th anniversary after Australian voters said “Yes!” to same-sex marriage at the ballot box. Australia became the second country in the world to do so.

At the time, I was one of those celebrants as a guest of Visit New South Wales and Qantas Airways, which has been a major sponsor of the festival since 1997. The airline is proudly LGBTQ-welcoming, led by its out gay chief executive officer and managing director Alan Joyce.

Qantas is currently only offering flights from Houston and Los Angeles airports. New Yorkers will have to wait until 2025 for a new type of first-class nonstop flights to Sydney, reported Conde Nast Traveler.

Mardi Gras will be the first global in-person queer event for Australia since the pandemic hit two years ago.

Coincidentally, the newly renovated Sydney Opera House, which was closed in 2020 for two years for a $200 million dollar upgrade, will celebrate its 50th anniversary. The world-renowned theater, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is instantly recognizable due to its unique modernist architecture that has defined the Australian city for nearly 50 years. I highly recommend taking the opera house tour, especially after its major renovation.

I enjoyed lunching at the Hyde Hacienda Sydney Bar + Lounge admiring the view overlooking the Circular Quay near the famed opera house and Sydney Harbour Bridge. The city has plenty of natural beauties to explore, from climbing to the top of the Harbour Bridge on the BridgeClimb to checking out the top of Sydney Observatory Hill Park.

What to Do

Get your bearings by taking a walking tour. I took the Sydney Gay Village Walking Tour led by Planetdwellers Travel co-founder and managing director Mario Paez.

Planetdwellers also hosts the annual Mardi Gras Sunset Cruise, a must not miss event that sells out every year.

Sydney is a good wandering city with many cool treasures to discover. One not so hidden treasure is The Rocks, the oldest part of Sydney and one of the coolest parts of town; Sydney’s gardens, parks, and markets are also worth seeing. If you’re looking to spend time by the water, go on a coastal walk that connects the city’s beaches.

Another option is to spend a day at Bondi Beach, which is filled with surfers, sunbathers, and fun things to do. For a day at Bondi Beach, I suggest breakfast at Harry’s Bondi and lunch at Yucatan-inspired Chupacabra for a seaside handmade taco and margaritas. Check in at Bondi Icebergs Club to enjoy the saltwater pool overlooking Bondi Beach and clean up for a sunset dinner at Icebergs Dining Room and Bar.

Check out the queer nightlife at Universal Club, The Colombian Hotel, Ivy Pool Bar’s Poof Doof, The Imperial Erskineville, or The Oxford Hotel.

Where to Eat

Cuckoo Callay’s is one of my favorite places that got my day started right with whimsical breakfast dishes and excellent coffee.

Gay-owned favorite eateries in the gayborhood along Oxford Street in Darlington are Claire’s Kitchen at Le Salon, where you can also be entertained by the cabaret; Belloccio Restaurant, and Thai Nesia Restaurant.

During Mardi Gras, make a reservation for “The Queen’s Feast: A Last Supper for All the Senses” produced by Bloodwood Restaurant and Bar lesbian chef and owner Claire Van Vuuren and some of Sydney’s top female chefs.

Vuuren also produces Heaps Gay Street Party during Mardi Gras and other queer events.

The Darlinghurst neighborhood was alive with excitement leading up to the 40th annual Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras parade in March in 2018.Heather Cassell

Darlinghurst’s neighboring neighborhood, Paddington, offers two excellent lunch and dinner worthy restaurants. Seafood restaurant, Saint Peter and farm-to-table French inspired restaurant Fred’s.

On my first day in Sydney, I lunched at Hacienda (mentioned above). On my last day in “The Harbor City,” I lunched at China Doll at Woolloomooloo Wharf.

Bea at Barangaroo House’s chef took me on a culinary journey through Australia.

Where to Stay

I stayed at boutique hotel, the Larmont Sydney and luxury hotel Ovolo Woolloomooloo.

The Larmont was close to Darlington at the top of Kings Cross in the Potts Point neighborhood, a bustling neighborhood teaming with life.

Ovolo was a quiet and residential escape from Sydney’s hustle and bustle located in the upscale Woolloomooloo neighborhood right on the paddocks below Potts Point.

Getting There & Around

Flights recently opened to book to Sydney for Mardi Gras (end of February and beginning of March) and the fares are reasonable from New York.

Sydney is filled with car services, taxis, and rideshares, as well as a robust public transit system with underground trains and buses.

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