How to have a budget break in the heart of Sydney

Want a trip to Sydney but don’t want to go into debt for a short break? Well, despite Sydney’s reputation as a money vacuum, The Rocks in the shadow of the harbour bridge may be your dream destination.

This area is known as the birthplace of Sydney, and is a warren of imposing heritage buildings, boutique shops and charming restaurants. And don’t forget the fantastic views of the Sydney Opera House and bustling ferry port.

Here’s our guide to getting the best value out of a visit to The Rocks.


It’s hard to go past YHA Sydney Harbour, just a short stroll to the Sydney Harbour Bridge.

It would be a standout for its location alone, up top, and down below.

Up top, the rooftop bar has stunning views overlooking the Sydney Opera House and the harbour. It’s a champagne view on a beer budget and with a few drinks on hand, it can be hard to peel yourself away.

Down below, the property has been built over an archaeological site called the Big Dig. It’s an excavation that explores the early convict history of the area, and instead of being covered over or even glassed over, much of the dig area is open to the hostel. So where you would expect a floor, there is an open archaeological dig. The word unique gets thrown around far too much in my professional opinion, but in the case of this building, it’s warranted. 

In between is the accommodation, and you should dispel all your preconceived notions of hostels. There are no noisy drunks – not even us – it’s spotless, the staff are friendly and engaged and it’s a fraction of the price of the surrounding accommodation offerings. 

And don’t be concerned that as an older person you may stand out. When we visited, more than half the people looked to be over 40 or older. 

It’s also next door to an absolutely charming pub called The Australian Heritage Hotel that I can’t recommend enough. Try the coat of arms pizza with roo and emu. 

A private, en suite room at YHA Sydney Harbour

So many things to do

The Rocks is an area positively drenched in upmarket, expensive attractions, but here are a few of our affordable favourites.

The Rocks Market. On every weekend and features upmarket jewellery, clothing, art, crafts and food. The food stalls also offer a cheap alternative, for lunch and breakfast, to the surrounding restaurants. We shared a gozleme and two drinks that came to less than $25 for two. Bargain.

Sydney Opera House: You can pay for a tour around this iconic building (concession tickets are $35) or just simply stroll around yourself. There are also plenty of places to eat and drink. 

And don’t think you have to fork out hundreds of dollars to see a performance. The opera house hosts many affordable events from seniors’ dance classes to craft workshops and even movies.

Ferries. Instead of paying for expensive boat tours around the harbour, why not take a ferry? Ferries leave every few minutes from Circular Quay and travel the length of the harbour. 

We took a ferry to Manly for a stroll around this laid-back suburb, treated ourselves to fish and chips and a gelati and with a boat leaving every half hour were back at Circular Quay without much fuss a few hours later. 

Harbour Bridge. Fit and enthusiast types can take the bridge climb, for which you will not get much change out of $400, but you can simply stroll over as well. There are steps up to the bridge, and a lift for those who can’t navigate the steps. There’s also a grassed area underneath for picnics and yoga classes. 

Museum of Contemporary Art Australia. This imposing Art Deco building houses Australia’s premier collection of contemporary art with a strong emphasis on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art. It’s free to get in, there are free guided tours and excellent accessibility for people with mobility issues and tours for people with hearing and vision loss. The MCA café offers stunning views of the bridge and opera house. 

Walks. You can read up on the history of this fascinating area yourself, which seems hard, or you can take a guided walk, which seems easy. There are tours daily, with prices starting at just $30 for concession holders. Be warned, The Rocks area is not mobility friendly. Some ‘streets’ and alleyways are just stairways and there are plenty of cobblestoned paths. 

What’s your favourite part of Sydney? Why not share your experience in the comments section below?

Also read: Five things to do for the over-50s on Hamilton Island

Jan Fisher
Jan Fisher
Accomplished journalist, feature writer and sub-editor with impressive knowledge of the retirement landscape, including retirement income, issues that affect Australians planning and living in retirement, and answering YLC members' Age Pension and Centrelink questions. She has also developed a passion for travel and lifestyle writing and is fast becoming a supermarket savings 'guru'.
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