Bondi Beach, 7 kilometers east of the CBD, is Sydney’s most famous swimming spot. Trendy and accessible, most tourists are steered towards its crowded direction by guidebook or hotel clerk and never venture to any other beach.
Luckily for me, when I visit in Australia, I reside in a decidedly non-touristy part of Sydney: the northern suburbs. Here, in a laid-back beach town, I’ve got easy access to the stretch of pristine coasts that are Sydney’s best-kept secrets. Maybe it’s the foreignness of names like Curl Curl, Narabeen, and Bilgola that make them sound out of reach. In reality, though, even the farthest one is not much more than an hour from downtown Sydney and the closer beaches can be reached in half that time by car, ferry, and/or bus.
You should start with Manly, an iconic strip of sand with an endless supply of popular restaurants and quaint boutiques. This is the most touristy of the northern beaches, full of international students and day trippers, but it’s still quainter than Bondi (for now). If you’re into trendy nightlight, head out on the weekends to join up with Aussie’s young and beautiful. There’s a ferry that will take you straight there from Sydney.
Next up is Freshwater (“Freshie” to locals prone to shortening any and every word), the birthplace of Australian surfing. A quieter, family friendly suburb with rows of green, leafy streets, the beach is one of the prettiest and best for swimming.
Tourists typically don’t venture past Freshwater, but we’ve barely gotten started. Curl Curl is where to go if you want to feel like a true local. The waves are often a bit rough and the surf club culture – folks who gather to combine voluntary lifeguard service with competitive surf sport –is strong. There’s no real town center here but who needs it when you’ve got the ocean to occupy your time? Dee Why is the “city” of the Northern Beaches. It's the most multicultural area and, although it’s getting increasingly expensive, one of the more affordable areas to live in the northern suburbs. The main drag has recently undergone an upgrade, offering loads of new dining options, and a great stretch of park for young families to picnic and play.
Make it to Narabeen and you’re really starting to get away from the maddening crowds of Sydney. A beautiful lake makes for nice walks and lots of water activities for young kids. Fishing is popular and a lovely camping ground in summer fills up with mostly with Australian tourists. Keep trucking north to Newport, a quiet suburb that is home of the famous Newport Arms Pub. And don’t forget about nearby Bilgola, a hidden enough gem that it can feel like you’ve got the place all to yourself. Try to make friends with a local who owns a cliff side house for the best views, but even wandering around on your own will lead to some excellent photo opps.
In Avalon is a group of tight-knit locals famous for telling McDonalds they couldn’t open a store there. Instead seek out the neighborhood markets and cafes. Ask a passerby what’s happening in town that week to get the cultural scoop or check out notices at the Avalon Recreation Centre.
And now we’re at our last stop and, outside of Manly, our most well-known one – at least for Australians. That’s mostly because of the TV shows that use pristine Palm Beach as a backdrop, most famously Home and Away, a soap opera that has been running for over two decades. You’ll have to brave what locals refer to as “the bends,” a stretch of winding road leading to “Palmy” that makes commuters want to tear their hair out. But the views that await are worth every turn.