Few cities are so abundant with forest-like parks, coastal walks and beaches as Sydney, which is best explored on foot. If you do one hike here, the Hermitage Foreshore track has it all. The trail offers a side of Sydney’s eastern suburbs most visitors don’t see. Grand old houses meet lush bush, calm water, endless swimming opportunities and a new city view at every turn. It’s uncrowded and relaxed, and despite the blue-chip surrounds, it is delightfully unpretentious.
The official 1.2 mile trail runs from Bayview Hill Road in Vaucluse, a well-to-do harborside suburb, and leads north to Nielsen Park; but you can extend the walk by continuing all the way up to the ferry wharf and waterfront restaurants at Watsons Bay and on further to the tip of the South Head peninsula. The extended version is about 4.3 miles one way, though it can be done in parts. Allow three to four hours for swims, snack stops and drinks along the way.
If you are driving, leave your car parked around New South Head Road and weave down through Vaucluse to the end of Bayview Hill Road, where the track starts. This stretch of coast will impress even the most jaded Sydneysider and is filled with glistening views of Shark Island, Fort Denison and some of Sydney Harbour’s famous landmarks, including the Sydney Harbour Bridge and the Opera House.
Stroll north to Milk Beach, an ideal stop for your first swim. This shore features rocky overhangs that act as sun shade, and some of the best city views over the water. The secluded beach sits right below the heritage-listed Strickland House, a cream-coloured estate whose manicured gardens are open to the public from sunrise to sunset.
After a dip, ascend the bluff back to the trail between Milk Beach and Nielsen Park, which winds around craggy sandstone cliffs. Inhale the scent of eucalyptus and red gums, and keep your eyes open for native white flannel flowers and the feathery pink petals of blueberry ash. Next, you’ll wander through Nielsen Park, a tree-lined public reserve. (On its adjacent bay, Shark Beach — which is safer than it sounds, because of its large shark net — is being upgraded and is closed to swimmers until early 2024.) At the north end of the park, take the pedestrian path that hugs the coast, rather than continuing along the road.
Once you leave Nielsen Park, the next section of the walk is mostly through the residential backstreets of Vaucluse and is an opportunity to admire its mansion-lined streets. The signage to Parsley Bay, a tree-shrouded U-shaped bay, is rather discreet, so keep an eye out for a narrow laneway on the left-hand of the road.
That path descends between houses to an iconic white footbridge that suspends across the small bay. This area is an idyllic spot for a picnic and a swim off the small jetty, which you’ll find by following the honey-colored rocks to the spot where you will see others slipping into the water. Then dry yourself in the sun and drink in the salty air.
Exit Parsley Bay up a northbound set of stairs near the small jetty and walk along the Crescent, a suburban street, to Hopetoun Avenue and then Palmerston Street to get to Gibsons Beach Reserve (the south end of Watsons Bay). Continue north along the shore towards the enormous Moreton Bay fig trees, stopping in for a coffee and cake at Baithouse in the Tea Garden, a cafe in Watsons Bay next to a waterfront library. Or for a refreshing ale in the sun, grab an outdoor table on the deck at Watsons Bay Hotel.
Watsons Bay can be the end of the walk. If you have an extra mile in you, continue north along the beach on Marine Parade, a road that weaves through the streets of historic miners cottages (now tightly held real estate), and down to Camp Cove Beach, a protected, glassy cove sitting right at the mouth of the Sydney Harbor. At the north end, a laid-back beach kiosk serves coffee, orange juice and ice-cream. This is also where you’ll get on the South Head Heritage trail. Follow signs to the heritage-listed Hornby Lighthouse, which is still active today, past Lady Bay Beach (for nudists) to South Head, where the harbor meets the ocean at its famously narrow opening. Waves pound the cliffs below as sailboats skim across the water heading to the north harbor suburbs of Mosman, Balgowlah and Manly.
Distance: 4.3 miles (7 kilometers)
Difficulty: Easy, mostly flat.
Good for kids: Yes
Time to walk: 3 to 4 hours, with stops
Where to eat/fill up your water bottle: Baithouse in the Tea Garden, Watsons Bay Hotel, Camp Cove Kiosk
Public transport: At the end of the walk, if you are taking public transport home from Watsons Bay or back to your car parked at the beginning in Vaucluse, you can get on a bus at the Military Road terminal in Watsons Bay. Bus numbers 325 and 380 leave from here regularly. You can also take a ferry from Watsons Bay directly back into the city to Circular Quay.