How To Explore Sydney During A 12 Hour Layover

by Jackie
Published: Last Updated on
Sydney Opera House is one of the best places to visit during your layover in Sydney, Australia

What can you see during a 12-hour layover in Sydney, Australia? Luckily you can see a whole lot of the downtown city area! 

This was our first time visiting Australia so we were eager to see the top highlights in Sydney and Australian landmarks, such as the famous Opera House. We love taking advantage of long layovers and the ability to leave the airport. 

In this post, we’re sharing our recommended things to do during your layover in Sydney and also logistics with luggage storage and transportation during your Sydney stopover.

With the awesome things to do in the city, our goal was to stretch our legs, get some fresh air, and see as much of Sydney within our short time frame. Although the weather wasn’t great for us with the overcast skies and occasional rain, it didn’t stop our exploration.

We appreciated how all of the major sites were walkable and close enough to a subway system. The city is tourist-friendly since there are signs everywhere pointing to various sightseeing destinations.

If you’re planning a trip to Australia and have more time, consider spending 2 days in Sydney, pairing a visit with an exciting celebration such as New Year’s Eve, or leaving the city for fun weekend getaways such as to Royal National Park to see waterfalls. Other memorable experiences include taking a road trip or backpacking through the country

Interested in our other layovers that we’ve done? Read more about Beijing, China, Singapore, Narita, Japan, and Brunei layovers.

(*Disclosure: We have affiliate links in this post. As an Amazon Associate, we earn from qualifying purchases. If you click on it and make a purchase, we receive a small commission. There is no additional cost to you. Appreciate the support.)

Things to Do During a 12 Hour Layover in Sydney, Australia


Our first stop was visiting Chinatown and to see the Chinatown entrance gate. The area itself was small as it is the main plaza area with shops, restaurants, and bakeries.

We visited before 9am so many shops and restaurants were not open, but we smelled food and baked goods getting prepared.

It’s one of our traditions to see various international Chinatowns and to see similarities with San Francisco’s Chinatown which is near our hometown.

We explored Sydney's Chinatown during our layover.

We love taking photos with the Chinatown friendship gates as we travel around the world.

St. Andrews Cathedral & Town Hall

The next stop was the St. Andrews Cathedral and the Town Hall, which were a few blocks away from Chinatown. The cathedral and the town hall are located next to each other.

The cathedral has beautiful architecture and was quiet in the early morning. We didn’t go inside the buildings and admired it from the outside.  

View of the St. Andrews Cathedral in Sydney, Australia

Queen Victoria Building

Definitely go to the Queen Victoria Building. It’s a beautifully restored shopping center with boutique shops and cafes.

There are two historic clocks hanging from the ceilings. The place is picturesque with the stained glass windows throughout the center.

Outside Queen Victoria Building in Sydney, Australia

Visiting Queen Victoria Building is a must-see during your Sydney layover.

Inside of the Queen Victoria Building as it's a multi-level shopping center and has a clock tower coming from the ceiling.

Queen Victoria Building has many beautiful stained glass windows around the building.

We love the stained glass windows at Queen Victoria Building.

Hyde Park

We walked through Hyde Park to see some greenery. On our entrance to the park, there was a cafe and a lifesize chess board game. Although we didn’t have time to play a game, we can easily see it as a fun way for two people or a team to spend an afternoon. The chess pieces were made out of plastic so they were easy to move around.

The park has the Archibald Fountain which is a good place for photos and to relax. There were several benches around the area to enjoy the view.

During our visit, we say many Australian white ibis munching on the grass.

From the park, you’ll see the Sydney Tower, the tallest building in Sydney, in the background.

Hyde Park Archibald Fountain

Hyde Park with a view of the Sydney Tower in the background.

Check out the Sydney Tower in the back.

Australian White Ibis walking around Hyde Park

Historic Macquarie Street

Macquarie Street is a long road that connects from Hyde Park and ends at the Royal Botanic Gardens.

Across from Hyde Park, there are several historic sites to visit Hyde Park Barracks Museum, The Mint, Parliament House, Sydney Hospital, and State Library. All of the sites are open to the public to visit.

We went inside the Mint as admission was free and there was information on the building of the Mint.

We also walked through the courtyard of the Sydney Hospital which had unique architecture and didn’t have the sterile concrete building facade as back in the U.S. for hospitals

Sydney Hospital courtyard

Sydney Hospital has pretty architecture

Royal Botanic Gardens

The Royal Botanic Gardens is another great place to surround yourself with greenery and views along the water. It’s a giant park and lots of green trees, plants, gardens, and endless amounts of grass. Admission is free.

Wear your comfortable walking shoes for a nice stroll or run through the park. The garden has a castle, which is the Government House. During our visit, there wasn’t public access. According to the website, there are daily tours available.

Royal Botanic Gardens Government House

The garden also hosts several tours at the garden. There are free volunteer-guided tours every day at 10:30am and an Aboriginal Heritage Tour is also available to learn about the aboriginal people. More information on the tours are here.

We saw many tourists take advantage of the Choo Choo Express train where you sit in a red train and ride through the park. There are four stops along the tour and tour takes 25 minutes. It departs and arrives at the Queen Elizabeth II gate next to the Sydney Opera House. Cost is $10 AUD for adults and $5 for children.

Royal Botanic Gardens with a unique hanging plant

Royal Botanic Gardens courtyard

Royal Botanic Gardens caged decor

Help! I’m trapped at the Royal Botanical Gardens!

Sydney Opera House

We finally arrived at the famous Sydney Opera House from the Royal Botanic Gardens.

The Opera House was crowded with people taking photos and selfies, yet it was awesome to see in person. We loved the view of the Sydney Harbour Bridge from the Opera House.

The Opera House has tours available. We didn’t take a tour but it looks cool to learn more about the architecture and history of the building.

During our visit, the Queen Elizabeth II gate from the Royal Botanic Garden had an exhibit on “Water Stories: The Global Water Crisis in Images.” It was amazing to see how this precious resource is hard to come by in countries such as the U.S, India, China, and more.

Sydney Opera House is a must-visit during your Sydney layover.

Selfie with a side view of the Sydney Opera House

Circular Quay

In the same vicinity of the Opera House is the Circular Quay. The area is the harbour area with plenty of restaurants along the waterfront and souvenir shops. You can also take ferry rides from this area and several cruise lines dock here. We saw a Carnival cruise ship here.

Circular Quay with overlooks the main Sydney area

The Rocks and Harbour Bridge

Around the corner from Circular Quay is The Rocks area. You can’t miss it as the area has brick buildings and cobblestone grounds and considered one of the oldest areas in Sydney. There were plenty of cafes, pubs, boutique shops, and restaurants. The baked goods looked scrumptious in one of the cafes.   

Another great opportunity is to walk along the Harbour Bridge from The Rocks. We followed signs that pointed to the bridge along George Street, walked up a flight of stairs, and were already on the bridge. It is the perfect place for a walk or run. Plus, there were awesome views of the city, Circular Quay, and the Sydney Opera House.

If you want to go higher and climb up on the bridge itself, check out the Pylon Lookout. The cost is $15 AUD for adults. We opted for the free lower level route and walked across the bridge.

At the Sydney Opera House with the Sydney Harbour Bridge in the background.

View of the Sydney Opera House from the Sydney Harbour Bridge

We can never get enough photos of the Sydney Opera House. View from the Sydney Harbour Bridge.

City View from the Sydney Harbour Bridge

View of the Circular Quay from the Sydney Harbour Bridge


Whew! It was already the late afternoon and were tired from all of the activities. Typically, we would stop by somewhere for a food break. However, we headed back to the airport for a late lunch. I know, you’re thinking why airport food?

We have the Priority Pass card (a great benefit from our Chase Sapphire Reserve credit card) which allows access to the airport lounges that accepts the card and offers free wifi, snacks, and beverages to guests.

The Sydney International Airport didn’t have any lounges that accepted Priority Pass, but we could use our card to spend $36 AUD per person at different restaurants. We were in Terminal 1 and opted to eat at Benny Burger. There is a delicious veggie burger made out of beets for the vegetarians.

Meal at Sydney Airport's Benny Burger with a burger, fries, and juice

How to leave Sydney Airport to Downtown Sydney

We are fans of taking public transportation and Sydney has an awesome subway system. The routes are easy to read.

Sydney Airport has a station that leads directly to the Downtown/Circular Quay area. Unfortunately, arriving and departing the airport adds a “Sydney Airport Station access fee” so the cost is $18 AUD per person for a single trip ticket to leave the airport. It was too expensive for us and sought to find another opportunity. Taxis were available, but we didn’t want to take them.

An alternative route to leave the Sydney Airport and to head downtown is to walk 30 minutes from the airport to the Wolli Creek station. We asked the information center on how to access to the Wolli Creek subway station, received inaccurate information, and went along a sketchy route against traffic and road construction. 

Tip: Only do this walk if you have the time during your Sydney layover.

On our way back we found a better and safer way to get to the Wolli Creek station from the airport. The directions are below:

1. From Arrivals, cross the street to go towards the carpark/rental cars.

2. Follow the road towards “Express Pick-up,” and you’ll go through the rental car section. Continue to follow the road.

Follow the walkway signs to head back to the airport temrinal3. You’ll be next to the side street and see the sign “To Marsh Road” and it’ll lead you to a walkway bridge.

Follow the signs of the walkway to Sydney Airport4. Go up the bridge, cross the street with apartments, and then head to Cahill Park.

5. Follow the walking path in Cahill Park and you’ll reach the street light. Cross the street when you see the Woolsworth Supermarket

6. Turn left at Woolsworth Supermarket, and go up the street to the main restaurant plaza.

7. Cross the plaza and you’ll arrive at the station.

Was it worth the trek? Yes it was, as Cahill Park was nice to walk through. In addition, it was much cheaper. From Wolli Station to Central station, the cost was $4.20 AUD per person versus over $18 from the airport station. It’s a savings of 76%. Credit cards accepted as payment.


Check to see if you need a visa. I thought that we could get a transit visa on arrival as a U.S. visitor similar to the experience in Beijing. (A transit visa allows visitors to stay up to 72 hours in Australia before departing.)

Nope! As we got our boarding passes from Ho Chi Minh City to Bangkok, the Thai Airways customer service agent asked us about our Australian visa. Time for panic mode. We had to apply for the visa weeks in advance for approval (90% of visa is processed in 50 days, according to the Australian transit visa site). My heart literally sank and dreaded sitting in the airport.

After some Justin’s amazing Google Search, he found an alternative option which was to complete an electronic visa. The process is to apply for the visa in another country outside of Australia, pay $20 AUD per application, and get instant approval.

Luckily, no passport photo is needed and the visa is good for one year. The application took less than 5 minutes to complete per person and we were approved. We didn’t have any issues with Australia’s customs.

Luggage Storage at Sydney Airport

We had two Patagonia Black Hole Duffel 60L as our carry-on luggage.

The Sydney International Airport has on-site luggage service via Baggage Storage Smartecarte. If you’re in Terminal 1 on Arrivals, drop off your bags at the Baggage Storage desk and Smartecarte associates look after them. You pay per luggage piece and by hours. The cost of a hand/carry on luggage is $9 AUD for 4 hours, $11 for 8 hours, or $13 for 24 hours.

We opted for the most cost-effective option and went to the storage lockers, also hosted by Smartecarte. They were located outside in the parking garage/rental car area. The lockers have small, medium, and large sizes available and rental was for 24 hours. Small locker was $10, medium was $12, and large was $14. We rented the medium size locker, and it was big enough for both of our duffel bags.

Just note that your luggage is not attended, so use at your own risk. The lockers are secured as you use a six-digit code provided to you during the rental process to open the locker and retrieve items. The locker can only be opened once and then the rental ends. We would use the lockers again if we had another short layover.

Although we had a short time during our Sydney layover, we loved exploring the city. We wouldn’t hesitate to return to stay for a longer time to explore other parts of the city. The Bondi to Bronte Coastal Walk is on the bucket list!

If you’re planning a trip to Australia, check out our other Australia adventures:

Have you visited Sydney before? What are some of the places that we missed during our layover?

Save this pin to your Australia board on Pinterest!

We're sharing what to do during a layover in Sydney, Australia. In this photo, there is a man kayaking in the sunset and the view of the Harbour Bridge.

Featured photo credit: David Gallo via Scopio Photos

Pin #1 photo credit: Mads Schmidt Rasmussen via Unsplash

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Ruth graham October 9, 2020 - 5:06 am

I love Sydney. I’m British but used to live in Australia. Reading this brought back some great memories of an awesome place.

Jackie October 12, 2020 - 3:59 pm

Thanks Ruth. We’re glad to hear that Sydney provided memorable experiences during your stay. We can’t wait to return to Sydney and visit other areas of Australia in the future.

Jamie November 6, 2020 - 10:02 pm

Love it! Can’t wait until we are able to get back to traveling.


Jackie November 8, 2020 - 2:40 pm

Thanks Jamie! We can’t wait to return to Sydney again in the future.

dinah jumawan October 12, 2022 - 11:49 am


Jackie October 14, 2022 - 10:56 am

Hi Dinah. It’s great to hear that you’ll stop by Sydney for a layover in May 2023. We visited Sydney in August.


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