Visiting Australia: Is Sydney or Melbourne better?

Oct 16, 2019

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If you’re making the long journey to Australia and only have limited time there, you may have to make some tough choices about where to visit and where 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 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.


The sights
Sydney has a long list of attractions, namely the city’s most recognizable landmarks — the Sydney Harbour Bridge and the Opera House. These are both in the center of the city and a stone’s throw from each other. The Opera House has 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 harbors. You can also climb the harbor bridge which is an experience I would highly recommend.

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 harbor, Sydney has plenty of other attractions like the fantastic beaches everywhere (look beyond Bondi!). Among the hundred or so speckled round the harbor, 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.

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 55 degrees in the coldest months. Summer though can see temperatures soar to 107 degrees!

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.


You might be shocked at how expensive Sydney is, especially for accommodation. Sydney CBD (central business district) five-star hotels can easily be $380 plus per night and a pint of craft beer around $9.50. Groceries are also surprisingly expensive from most supermarkets in both cities.

Lack of night life
And if you love night life and expect a global city like Sydney to have amazing clubs and late-night bars, you’re likely to be disappointed. The city introduced strict lockout laws in 2014 as a reaction to alcohol-fueled violence in the CBD, which have killed large parts of the city’s night life. Expect to turn in early with 3 a.m. closing times and no entry after 1:30 a.m.

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


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


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 multicultural lifestyle. There’s hidden laneways and cocktails bars, street art and 24/7 night life that Sydney-siders only have a distant memory of. Want to enjoy a cocktail at 4 a.m.? You can do it in Melbourne. Oh and 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 sport-mad city. Though there is plenty of sport in Sydney, Melbourne prides itself as 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 multimillion 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.


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 center 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.

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