The Mole Diaries: Sydney
Hannah Fairbairn is studying Maths at the University of Sheffield, and she spent her third year abroad at the University of Sydney. Here is her guide to the Australian city!
1. Before you go
Most importantly, make sure you have sorted out your visa and flights in plenty of time, and ensure you have some form of travel insurance. Make sure you have some accommodation organised before you arrive, even if it is just a week’s stay in a hostel, as it will put you at ease when you get on the plane knowing you have a bed waiting for when you get there. I would advise arriving at least a week before orientation so you can spend this time searching for somewhere to live (if you haven’t already found somewhere), get a feel for Sydney and potentially meet other international students in a similar situation to you. Sydney Uni sets up a Facebook group for international students arriving each semester, and this is a great way to meet people and ask any questions you have. People also tend to advertise accommodation on here.
Ensure you’ve got a decent amount of money to survive on, at least for the first few months, even if you plan on getting a job, as this can take time and if you want to do any kind of bar work you have to pay about $200 just to take the Responsible Service of Alcohol (RSA) qualification which is a legal requirement for anyone serving alcohol.
2. What to pack
Sydney gets cold in Winter!! Don’t be fooled in thinking you’re going to Australia so won’t need any Winter clothes, Sydney gets below 10 degrees regularly during the Winter (and if you’re visiting Melbourne, Tasmania or New Zealand it gets even colder). No, it’s not icy conditions, but if you’re not prepared you’ll feel the cold!
Be aware that most Australian homes are not well insulated, nor do they have central heating, I was often colder in my Sydney house over winter than I was in a Sheffield student house! So pack a few hoodies, long trousers and some kind of light but warm jacket (I found a gilet to be perfect). Sydney also gets semi-tropical storms year round so make sure you have a waterproof jacket and/or umbrella - it’s easy to get caught out as they come from nowhere! And of course, pack your beach/summer gear – Sydney has regular +30 degree days throughout Spring and Summer, and you’ll want to make the most of having amazing beaches on your doorstep! I also wear glasses so a pair of prescription sunglasses were a godsend for me.
Another tip about packing – don’t fill your suitcase! The likelihood is you’re going to buy a few things during your time away, and you’re going to want to bring them all home again, so try not to fill your bag with unessentials, as you’ll regret it when you’re trying to pack to come home again. Be aware as well that your flight home may have different baggage allowances to your outgoing one – I was allowed 2 bags on my way out but only 1 on my flight home, so I ended up having to ship a couple of boxes home as I had too much stuff, which cost me about $300.
3. When you arrive
There are three main options for when you arrive at Sydney airport – train, shuttle bus or taxi. Taxi is the most expensive option; if you’re heading somewhere near the uni it will probably cost you around $30. The train is pretty good; it goes directly from the airport to Central Station (which is where most of the hostels are and is a 10-15 minute walk to uni) or into the city centre if that’s where you’re staying. I think it’s about $15 for a one-way adult ticket, which you’ll have to buy as you won’t have your student card until orientation. Alternatively you can buy a weekly MyMulti ticket* for $44 which gives you unlimited access on trains, buses and ferries anywhere in Sydney, which may be quite a good option for your first week as you’ll probably be wanting to get around quite a lot. However, it can be quite daunting getting on a train and finding your way to where you’re staying in an unknown city on your own for the first time, so a good alternative is the shuttle buses. There are quite a few companies at the airport which offer this service; you shouldn’t have to pre-book it but you can if you’d prefer. It’s normally around $15 and takes you straight to your door, providing you’re staying somewhere between the airport and the CBD (city centre). Most hostels are in this area so it’s a really good option which is cheaper than a taxi.
* Update: MyMulti tickets and other paper tickets are no longer valid/available. They have been replaced by Opal smartcards.
4. Getting Around
Sydney is really easy to get around on public transport, and is actually relatively cheap (especially when you get your student card, then it’s half price!). Most suburbs have a train line running through them, and a single trip into the city from student areas with a student card normally costs around $2.
Sydney also has a pretty comprehensive bus service; anywhere without a train station will have a bus route that heads into the CBD. Buying tickets for buses is a bit strange; sometimes you can buy a single ticket from the driver but normally you have to find a newsagent which sells them. You can buy single tickets, a 10 trip ticket or a weekly MyMulti ticket (UPDATE: Summer 2016. This ticket has been replaced by the Opal top up smart card). I usually chose the 10 trip ticket as it worked out the most economical when taking the bus to and from uni each day. Prices vary depending on the “zones” you’re travelling between, but it’s never extortionate (I paid about 80 cent each way for my commute to uni). If you’re unsure where to find a shop selling bus tickets, check out this website.
At some point during your time in Sydney you’ll want to go on one of their ferries, whether to get to Manly, Taronga Zoo or just for the fun of it! You can go from Circular Quay to Darling Harbour if you want to go under the Harbour Bridge (definitely recommended!). Prices for the ferries vary depending on where you’re going, they’re a bit more expensive than the bus and train but they’re still reasonable, and you can’t leave Sydney without having been on at least one! There’s also a couple of tram routes (such as around Darling Harbour) but these only tend to be worth using if there’s no other options or if you’d rather not use the bus.
If you’ve got a smartphone I would recommend downloading the app TripView Sydney (I coped with the free Lite version fine), it has up to date bus and train times which can be extremely useful – I often discovered that my bus was running late so would go to the nearest station instead and catch the train to uni.
I found the most daunting part of going abroad was not having any accommodation for the semester sorted beforehand. Be prepared to pay a lot! Rooms can cost anywhere between $130-$400 pw depending on what you go with.
Sydney Uni provides some accommodation but it’s very limited and the majority of it is very expensive. However, they have a few residences which are very reasonably priced (less than $200pw) and right near uni so I would advise applying early to those before you arrive. Most places aimed specifically at students, such as Urbanest, are very expensive (over $360pw) but if that’s within your budget then they’re great places to live. Other than these places, the best thing to do is use sites like Gumtree to search for places looking for housemates (this is what I did). If you’re willing to share a room you can normally find something for about $130-$200pw, depending on where you want to live. I would say an average cost for a private room is around $200-$250pw. However, one piece of advice I would give is don’t just look at the suburbs near the Uni – since public transport is pretty cheap and reliable it’s often worth looking a bit further afield as rent gets cheaper and it really doesn’t take too long to commute in. I managed to find a private room with a double bed for $170pw in my second semester, with only a 30 minute door to door journey to uni. Don’t be afraid to consider living with professionals rather than students, it makes for a much more authentic Australian experience as you’ll meet a more diverse range of people.
6. Sydney University
Your academic experience will differ greatly depending on your home university and the course you’re doing – some people only have to pass and for others their mark abroad will count towards their final degree back home.
Your home university will also let you know how much freedom you have in choosing modules, but if you have the chance to try something different, give it a go. I was only allowed to take maths modules, so was limited in my choices, but I made the mistake of choosing a couple of “advanced” modules in my first semester. I thought I would cope fine as I was averaging a good mark in Sheffield but the difference in difficulty between them and normal modules was huge and I really struggled. So my main piece of academic advice would be to avoid advanced modules if you can!
With regards to the rest of my experience at the university, I loved the campus – it’s a great mix of modern and traditional buildings, with plenty of green space around too which is really nice. It’s located about a 30-40 minute walk from Circular Quay, or a 10-minute bus ride. The closest train station is Redfern which is just a 10 minute walk from the campus so the uni is very accessible.
7. Top things to do in Sydney
1. Circular Quay
Everyone that visits Sydney wants to see the iconic Opera House and the Harbour Bridge, so get yourself down to Circular Quay, and you might as well hop on a ferry while you’re there, or see a show in the Opera House! You’ll never get bored of the view.
2. Visit the beaches
Sydney’s famous for its spectacular beaches, in particular Bondi and Manly. These are musts to go to, but in the Summer they get insanely busy, so make sure you go in the cooler months to see them in their full glory, or go early morning before the tourists get there. Also try some of the less well-known beaches such as Bronte, Coogee and Clovelly as these often don’t get quite so busy. The best way to see them all is to do the Bondi to Coogee coastal walk – only takes a couple of hours and is a must do while you’re in Sydney!
3. Taronga Zoo
Admittedly I’m a massive animal lover so I went twice, but it’s so worth going, not only because you get to see all the native animals here, but it overlooks the harbour so has a spectacular backdrop of the opera house, bridge and CBD. Plus you get to go on a ferry to get there!
4. Sydney Tower
Most people ask if I did the bridge climb, but instead I did the Sydney Tower Skywalk – it’s a fraction of the price and you’re strapped on as you walk around the top of the highest building in the city, so the view is unforgettable, and if you go at sunset it’s even better. If you don’t want to walk around the edge you can just go to the observation deck (which is only $16 for a student) and stay there as long as you want, taking photos or just taking in the view.
5. Sydney New Year
If you’re doing a year in Australia you have to spend New Year in Sydney! Be aware that if your accommodation doesn’t last over New Year then you’ll have to arrange alternatives early as hostels and hotels book up months before and prices go up massively! If you have a friend whose house you can crash at this is probably your best option.
6. Vivid Sydney
If you’re lucky enough to be in Sydney in May/June, you have to head down to the city for the Vivid lights festival, which lasts for 3 weeks. The city gets transformed into a huge light show, with art projections on the Opera House, Bridge and many of the city buildings. It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity, spectacular to watch and has an all-round amazing atmosphere.
8. Weekend Trips from Sydney
Sydney’s in a great location for taking short day or weekend trips. Here’s a few I would recommend doing:
1. Blue Mountains
They’re so close and are like nowhere else in the world; don’t put off going or you’ll find you’ve run out of time!
2. Hunter Valley
If you like wine then I would recommend doing a day trip to Hunter Valley, it’s a really fun day out if you go with a couple of mates and it’s great to try some of the local wines.
3. Surf Camp
If you’re going to Australia you MUST learn to surf!! The best way to do this is to take a weekend trip to Surf Camp, which is located about 3 hours drive south of Sydney (near Wollongong). The camp will pick you up and drop you off in Sydney and you’ll have an amazing time! I would advise not going during the Winter months as the sea is considerably cooler during this time, but you’ll still have lots of fun if you do! Alternatively, if you don’t want to go to camp but still want to learn to surf there are surf schools at Manly and Cronulla, or you can buy or hire a board and teach yourself at many of Sydney’s beaches.
Internal flights are pretty cheap if you look at Jetstar and Tiger Airways (return is approximately $110-$140), and Melbourne is only an hour’s flight away. If you just want to see the city a weekend is long enough but if you want to do the great ocean road too you’ll have to allow a bit longer.
9. Food, Drink and Nightlife
Australia is a proud multicultural country, and as a result of its close proximity to Asia, every city has a wide mix of different cuisines. Depending on where you eat, it normally isn't too expensive and at times it’s cheaper than buying ingredients from supermarkets (the big supermarkets are Woolworths and Coles).
Newtown is a fantastic, quirky place for pubs, bars and restaurants and it’s just a 10-minute walk from uni. Chinatown also has a good selection of Asian restaurants and food stalls. King’s Cross is where all the big nightclubs are, but it’s notorious for violence, prostitutes and general seediness! However, if you’re after a big night out that’s where you’ll want to head. I tended to prefer to just drink in pubs, as it can be expensive to have night on the town – alcohol is very expensive everywhere in the city and getting home after a night out can be difficult. There are night buses but they’re not very regular and don’t go everywhere, so often a taxi is the only option which can be extortionate late at night.
My favourite places to eat and drink were both in The Rocks – a must visit place is a pub called The Glenmore. It is located pretty much next to the Harbour Bridge and it has a rooftop bar overlooking the harbour and the Opera House. If at any point you’ve forgotten where you were in the world, this place will remind you! Plus, the drinks are very reasonably priced for the city which is a bonus! However, my favourite restaurant, a steak restaurant called Pony (located just down a flight of stairs from The Glenmore), is a bit less affordable. Steaks tend to start at $35, but they are very much worth the price as they’re the best steaks I’ve ever had. If it’s a special occasion or there’s a special someone you’d like to eat out with, this is the place to go. They also have a gourmet burger takeaway joint in the CBD which is slightly more affordable.
10. Top Travel Tip
Jetstar has a Price Beat Guarantee policy, which they cleverly hide on their website so not many people are aware of it! Basically if you find another company (usually Tiger) offering flights at a cheaper price departing within an hour of one of their flights, they will beat that price by 10%. All you have to do is follow the steps in the link above. I used this 90% of the time when booking flights and saved myself so much money doing so! Jetstar generally offer a better and more reliable service than Tiger do too so it’s really worth doing.
11. Where Should I Visit?
Australia’s a huge place, so you’ll never have the time or money to go everywhere you want to go! But if you’re there for a year you’ll have over 3 months of holiday over Christmas so make the most of it. Everyone will have somewhere top of their list for where they want to go, so make sure you get there. If your friends want to go somewhere else, consider travelling on your own - this is the best chance you’ll have to travel independently in a relatively safe environment. I travelled the East Coast on my own, and it was one of the best things I did during my year abroad. Yes, it’s where everyone goes, but there’s a reason for that! I went from Byron Bay all the way up to Cape Tribulation in Northern Queensland by Greyhound bus, staying in hostels, and everywhere along the way was incredible. Fraser Island and the Whitsundays are musts, along with the Great Barrier Reef and I would highly recommend spending at least a day in the Daintree rainforest.
There’s also many places in Queensland where you can hold a koala (which is illegal in NSW), these include Lone Pine Sanctuary and Australia Zoo near Brisbane, Currumbin Wildlife Sanctuary near the Gold Coast and the Wildlife Habitat in Port Douglas. Uluru and Tasmania are good places to go for Spring/Easter breaks, and if you want a true Australian experience then consider heading to Darwin and Kakadu in the Northern Territory. Western Australia has some incredible untouched beaches and Perth is a nice city, but it is very isolated so can be expensive to get to.
12. Final words of advice
1. Make the most of your time and try something you can’t do at home!
For me this was ocean swimming, which I did every week at Bondi. You might want to try surfing, skydiving, scuba diving, footy (Aussie rules) or something else. Say yes to any new and exciting opportunities you get, you’ll probably never get the chance again! Make sure you leave with no regrets.
2. Mix with the locals.
It’s very easy to just stick with your fellow international students, but if you do this you’ll be missing out on so much! I ended up living with a few Australians and had opportunities I never would have got otherwise. The best example of this was getting a free flight over Sydney Harbour in a 2-seater plane as my housemate was a pilot!