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A backpacker’s guide to Sydney

Updated 21 Feb 2012

Adventurous activities, pristine beaches, and thriving nightlife are just a few attractions that lure backpackers to Australia, but whether your plan is to spend one month or one year in the country, your experience wouldn’t be complete without some well-spent time backpacking in beautiful Sydney. 

Just beware, Sydney is a great city with so much to offer - culture, arts, music, adventure, nightlife, food - and many backpackers that come to visit, decide to stay permanently. 

Regardless of your intentions though, here’s a guide to make sure you have the time of your life backpacking through Sydney.

Visas for backpackers in Sydney

Before you pack your bag and book your ticket, you should know that you must have a visa prior to entering Australia. 

All visa applications can be found on the Australian Department of Immigration website where you have the option to apply online or download the forms and mail your application to the Immigration Department along with any necessary documentation.  

ETA Short Term Visa

An Electronic Travel Authority (ETA) short-term visa allows visitors to travel to Australia for holiday/vacation purposes for a maximum of 90 days with multiple-entry into the country within that time frame. This visa is ideal for backpackers who are looking to spend a short time in Australia.

Note that ETA visa holders are not allowed to work in Australia while on this visa. The cost of this visa is 20 AUD, and processing time is generally within 24 hours.

Working Holiday Visa (Subclass 417)

For applicants from Belgium, Canada, Republic of Cyprus, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Hong Kong, Republic of Ireland, Italy, Japan, Republic of Korea, Malta, Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Taiwan and United Kingdom.

The Subclass 417 visa allows travellers from the above mentioned countries to work in Australia as a way to supplement your travel funds. This visa is valid for twelve months from the date you enter into the country, with multiple-entry privileges within those 12 months. Visitors on a subclass 417 visa DO have the option to apply for a second working holiday visa; however, you must spend a minimum of three months as a seasonal worker in regional Australia.

The only restriction is that you cannot work for any one employer for more than six months.  The cost of this visa is 270 AUD, and processing time for this visa is generally 4 weeks. 

Work and Holiday Visa (Subclass 462)

For applicants from Bangladesh, Chile, Indonesia, Iran, Malaysia, Thailand, Turkey and the USA.

The subclass 462 visa is very similar to the subclass 417 visa in regards to eligibility and restrictions; however, the only difference is that those travellers visiting Australia on a subclass 462 visa are not entitled to the option to extend the visa for a second year.  The subclass 462 work and holiday visa is valid for 12 months from the date you enter into the country, and you are granted multiple-entry privileges within those 12 months.  The cost of this visa is 270 AUD, and processing time is generally 4 weeks.

Packing list for backpackers in Sydney

When it comes to travelling for any significant amount of time, the saying: “less is more” is valuable.  Whether you intend on travelling to Sydney for one week or one month, knowing what to pack is certainly crucial.

The weather in Sydney is typically gorgeous year-round.  Even in the winter months (June to August), temperatures peak to 70°F (21°C) during the day, and drop to 45°F (7°C) at night.  Pack a light jacket or sweatshirt if you plan on travelling during the winter, but you won’t need too much more (leave the woollen peacoats, scarves, mittens and hats at home). During the summer months (December to February), don’t even think about bringing a sweatshirt or jacket, as temperatures generally do not fall below 60°F (16°C) at night. On the other hand, a swimsuit and a light cardigan is a must.

Wondering if you should pack your laptop or iPad?  Nearly every hostel in Sydney offers Wi-Fi or Internet services, and Internet cafés are also scattered throughout the city, making it very easy to access email and Skype. So lugging these expensive electronics across the world may not necessarily be worth it.

One absolute must, however, is a travel adapter!  Australia uses three-prong electric plugs (Type I), so unless you’re from New Zealand or Argentina, your electronic devices won’t fit into the plug points.  The good news is that converters are easy to find at convenience stores or dollar stores if you do forget to pack yours or just need a back-up one.  

Australia runs on a GSM network, just like many countries in Europe and Asia.  Feel free to pack your mobile phone, however just make sure it is unlocked prior to your departure, so you will be able to purchase a SIM card and use the mobile network.  If your mobile is not compatible with Australia’s network, have no fear - you can easily purchase inexpensive mobile phones (which often include a SIM card and minutes) when you arrive in Australia.  Australia’s biggest providers are Vodafone, Telstra and Optus, though other providers are available and may offer cheaper plans or rates depending on how often you will need to make phone calls or send text messages.  

Backpacking hostels in Sydney

Sydney has very much embraced the backpacker lifestyle over the years.  Hostels or backpacker accommodations are located on nearly every street corner in the CBD, and the streets are flooded with travellers strapped with heavy backpacks to their backs.  

Hostels are the cheapest and most popular accommodation.  Many hostels in Sydney offer 4, 6 or 8-bed dorms (female only, male only, and mixed) as well as private rooms or suites for those looking to embrace the backpacker lifestyle without the noisy disturbances throughout the night.  Prices vary, depending on the year.  Summer is peak tourist season in Sydney, and many hostels increase their prices by 10 AUD or 20 AUD per night.  Winter is often the best time to visit when the weather is still nice and the hostel rates are still very affordable, with some hostels even offering prices of 12 AUD per night in a 4-bed dorm.  

When it comes to choosing a hostel in Sydney, the biggest question to ask yourself is: Do I want to stay in the city or near the beach?  If you want to stay near a beach, Bondi and Coogee are great areas that have great restaurants and pubs right along the beach.  For the city-dwellers, check out Surry Hills, Darlinghurst and the CBD areas; here you’ll be steps away from some of the city’s biggest attractions and hottest pubs.

Websites like and are great resources to start your hostel search; these sites allow you to look for hostels based on location and ratings, and you can read reviews from other travellers.  Depending on the time of year you choose to visit, it is recommended that you book your hostel at least 24-hours in advance to guarantee yourself accommodation for the night.  

Backpacking tips for Sydney

Choosing to spend some time backpacking throughout Sydney and greater Australia is certainly an exciting time, but how can you make this experience something you’ll never forget?

  • Embrace the buzzing backpacker social scene. Many hostels organise Backpackers Nights as a way to get everyone in the hostel together.  Activities include nights out at pubs, trivia nights, beach BBQ’s and movie nights.  Participating in Backpackers Nights is a great way to meet other travellers and experience Sydney’s thriving party scene.  

  • Use public transportation. Cityrail buses and trains are easily accessible and can transport you to Bondi and Manly beach and the Blue Mountains.  Many hostels are located within walking distance to many of Sydney’s major attractions or train station/bus stop, making it easy to get around the city and not miss a beat!  You can purchase train/bus tickets (daily or weekly passes) at train stations and most convenient stores.

  • Be adventurous! Sydney offers a ton of adventurous activities for backpackers.  Want to go skydiving?  No problem.  Bushwalking?  Go for it!  Feel like climbing a bridge? Sign up!  Want to learn how to surf?  Pack your swim suit!  Whatever adventure you are looking to get into, Sydney has it.  Don’t be afraid to push your boundaries and be daring.  It’s not every day that you’ll get to experience Australia, so enjoy the thrills that this city has to offer.

  • Spend your money wisely. Sydney is an expensive city which often deters many backpackers from visiting; however, there are plenty of ways to have the time of your life without going broke.  

  • Sign up for daily e-mail coupons from LivingSocial and Groupon. Many activities, like surf lessons, scuba diving lessons, and restaurant deals are offered at half-price.  

  • Cash in on the happy hour specials. Many great pubs throughout the city offer cheap happy hour prices that include 4 AUD pints and 10 AUD dinners.

  • Take advantage of the free attractions, like the Sydney Opera House and Harbour Bridge. Not only will you get some great photo opportunities, but many of the major tourist attractions won’t cost you a dime. Not to mention, your backpacking experience would not be complete without spending some quality time riding some waves, hugging koalas and getting lost in all of the excitement – something that’s a cinch to do for free!

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