There is a lot of free fun to be had for families in Sydney. It costs nothing to explore the city's natural beauty, from its famous beaches to lush parklands, and many of the best museums and galleries have free entry. If you know where to go, you can have a great time without breaking the budget.
Sydney is surrounded by water, so there’s always a place to jump right in. More than 100 beaches line the coast, ranging from tranquil bays to sweeping surf beaches. The famous waves of Bondi and Manly are perfect for swimming and bodysurfing, or you can seek out calmer waters at Coogee or Malabar. Harbour beaches are ideal for kids with sheltered conditions and hardly any swell. Popular spots include Camp Cove, Parsley Bay, Chinamans Beach and Balmoral.
There are hundreds of gorgeous gardens dotted throughout Sydney. Stroll through the Royal Botanic Garden, a green oasis in the middle of the CBD, and enjoy a picnic with an incredible view of the Sydney Opera House from the harbourside lawns. Older children may want to join the free guided tours that depart daily from the Visitor Centre. Barangaroo Reserve sits on the water on the other side of the Sydney Harbour Bridge and is a picturesque spot for exploring native gardens, lazy picnics and swimming in the protected Marrinawi Cove.
Centennial Park is an enormous green space on the eastern edge of the city with almost 200 hectares of parkland, gardens, ponds and trails. Kids will want to get dirty at the Ian Potter Wild Playground, an immersive space of bamboo forest, banksia tunnels and waterways. Wander the boardwalks that run through the Badu Mangroves at Bicentennial Park or cycle some of the 60km of trails that wind through Western Sydney Parklands. In the city, kids can burn off some energy at the adventurous playground in Darling Quarter. Be warned – they will get wet!
Get a sense of how grand Sydney’s coastline is by following it on foot. The Barangaroo Foreshore Walk and Glebe Foreshore Walk are perfect for little legs, scooters or even prams, and will show you the harbour from another angle. The famous Bondi to Coogee Coastal Walk is more challenging, with a few steps and steep parts, but is easily broken into smaller sections that will suit everyone. You can make a whole day of it with stops to catch a wave at Bronte, swim in the ocean pool at Clovelly or snorkel in Gordons Bay.
Bondi Beach, Bondi
The Fairfax Walk at North Head is a 1km loop with a flat, paved walkway that still feels like a proper bushwalk and has stunning views out over the ocean. If you have some little lighthouse fans, catch the ferry to Watsons Bay and follow the South Head Heritage Trail to the candy-striped Hornby Lighthouse. You can even have a swim at Camp Cove along the way. Older kids looking for adventure should tackle the 10km trail from Manly to Spit Bridge, where they’ll walk on paths, rocks and sandy beaches, or the 3.5km section of the famed Coast Track between Bundeena and Wedding Cake Rock.
Away from the coast, the Great River Walk in Penrith is an easy trail suitable for walking, bikes and prams, with lovely views over the Nepean River and Blue Mountains. There are plenty of places to break the journey at overwater platforms, playgrounds and picnic spots. Take the Rivercat to Parramatta to follow the paved path beside the tranquil river and then continue onto the new boardwalk that juts out over the water. You can also find bushwalks of varying lengths and levels winding through Western Sydney Parklands.
The vast Australian Museum is a wonderland for kids and it’s absolutely free (excluding special exhibitions). Start in the Dinosaur gallery where they can marvel at fossilised skeletons and life-sized replicas then visit the extinct Tasmanian tiger and lots of deadly creatures in the Surviving Australia exhibit. The Burra playspace is full of games, puzzles and interactive artworks that will stimulate even the youngest minds.
The Powerhouse Museum has free entry to most of its major exhibitions, which change regularly and focus on fashion, technology and design. The permanent galleries at the Australian National Maritime Museum are free, though if you want to climb aboard the ships and visit the latest exhibitions you’ll have to buy a ticket. Aspiring crime fighters will enjoy the Justice and Police Museum, which covers everything from bushrangers to futuristic forensics.
Learn the fascinating legends of Cockatoo Island, one of the city’s World Heritage-listed convict sites that sits right in the middle of Sydney Harbour. Pick up one of the free kids’ activity books from the Visitors Centre that’s packed with fun ways to explore the historic buildings. Rouse Hill Estate in Blacktown is one of Australia’s most important historic properties, dating back to 1813. Open on the second Sunday of every month, there’s lots for the family to enjoy from the historic buildings and beautiful gardens to the animals on the farm.
Junior art lovers are well catered for at the Art Gallery of NSW, where entry is free for everyone. Activity booklets are available at the welcome hubs and encourage kids to follow special art trails and then use their imagination to draw their own works. Look out for the special labels for kids alongside many of the artworks, which make the pieces more meaningful for them. Then join one of the free tours of the amazing architecture in the new Sydney Modern building, get creative at a workshop, listen to Storytime and check out the unique children’s art library.
The Museum of Contemporary Art is also free to enter. Pick up an art chatterbox or conversation cards from the Inside/Out resource room to get the whole family talking as you explore the galleries. Kids can get creative at the ArtPlay workshops or join the immersive Story Tree storytelling time. Both experiences are free, though you will need to book on the website. Casula Powerhouse in Western Sydney is another great free option with lots of immersive and interactive exhibits.
Destination NSW acknowledges and respects Aboriginal people as the state’s first people and nations and recognises Aboriginal people as the Traditional Owners and occupants of New South Wales land and water.