I can’t imagine there are many major cities in which you’d spot someone lugging a surfboard down the sidewalk. In that respect — and many others — Sydney is unique. It’s a city of tunnels, many of them containing or leading to upscale shopping, and of water with a network of high-speed ferries available to take you most anywhere. The harbor (or harbour as the Anglophiles here spell it) is truly breathtaking with the opera house and Harbour Bridge playing sentry to the bustling downtown on one side and the posh homes of the well-heeled on the other. Sidewalk and subway observation reveals the Sydney metropolitan area as surprisingly young, but perhaps the over-40s are simply tucked away in cars and suburban homes. In any event, they’re not strolling around downtown. Downtown is occupied by smartly dressed young professionals and teens clothed in 80s punk attire. Be sure to walk on the left side of the sidewalk lest they trample you.

We arrived here on Sunday, Nov. 25, after an uneventful flight (sadly, no college football broadcast on the plane for Him) from Cairns. I had finally succumbed to Him’s sickness, adopting the awful hacking cough and congested nose, and I’d like to think my recuperation was a deciding factor when we went a little outside our budget and booked a room at Aaron’s Hotel in Chinatown (average price of about $110 a night). To someone who has been nightly cocooning oneself in a sleep sheet to avoid contact with questionable hostel linen, this place was luxurious.  In addition to a shower with actual water pressure, room No. 215 boasted its own toilet, complimentary soap and shampoo, a nightstand and spotless white towels and bed linen (Oh yeah — there was a mini fridge and a flat screen TV too). I was ready to climb into bed right then and there, but alas, it was 10 a.m., and there were things to see and do.

It’s late this evening, the night before our flight to Tasmania, so in the interest of time, I’m going to list highlights from our five days as Sydneysiders:

– Caught a show at the Sydney Opera House. This actually wasn’t as glamorous as it sounds. The ticket clerk bamboozled us into paying $45 each to watch area “college” ballet students perform. It seems in the Australian language, “college” translates to “Pre-K through junior high.” Yep, we paid nearly $100 to watch someone else’s kids’ dance recital. Admittedly, the kids were awfully cute, bouncing up and down in their cute little bumblebee costumes, and many of the older children were quite talented. It just wasn’t what we were expecting. Too bad we missed “Little Orphan trAshley.”

*Note: Surprisingly enough, the exterior of the opera house is not white, as I always assumed it to be. The sails are actually sand-colored.

-Strolled through the superb Royal Botanic Gardens: Signs here actually encourage you to walk on the grass (how nice!). The park, which overlooks Farm Cove, is home to stately ficus and beautiful red and purple flowering trees. We spotted a Kookaburra and several noisy parrots. This is a great place to have a picnic — or a nap.

-Took two FREE tours of the city: A few years ago, lifelong Sydneysider Justine and her boyfriend, Ross, decided to start a company offering free guided tours of their beautiful city. The Aptly named “I’m Free” tours lead you to Sydney’s most famous landmarks and into hidden corners many residents probably don’t know exist. Each spot has a story to go with it. We took a 3-hour day tour with Justine and joined Ross for a 1.5-hour evening tour of the Rocks district. I think my favorite spot was an alley strung with an assortment of bird cages. Justine called it a “memorial to birds,” another attempt by Sydney to prove it’s more cultural than rival Melbourne.

*Note: These tours are technically free, but Justine and Ross work hard and they make a living off tips. Don’t be a louse: Tip them if you take a tour.

-Him learned to surf at Manly Beach. With a $10 off coupon (available in the “Official Sydney Guide”), a two-hour surf lesson through the Manly Surf School costs $60. Him says it was well-worth the price. I can’t say. I felt awful that day and passed out in the sand near his class. I did, however, hear the lifeguards urge surfers and swimmers to exit the water due to a possible shark sighting in the area. Kelly, Him’s instructor, told the students they could accept a raincheck if they so desired, but none of them did, and only one person was eaten by a shark.  Just kidding, no one was devoured. To see photos of Matt hanging 10, visit Manly Surf Snaps.

-Hiked the Coastal Walk from Watson’s Bay to Bronte Beach: This is a beautiful trek weaving along the rocky coastal cliffs from cove to cove. Highlights include the view from South Head Heritage Trail and the famous cove known as Bondi Beach. Contrary to that rousing Australia documentary I rented from the library, Bondi didn’t have any Speedo and bonnet-clad lifeguards. The only scantily clad Australians we saw on the Coastal Walk were a handful of fat old men sunbathing in the nude at Lady Bay beach (odd name for a nudist beach without any female visitors) and a middle-aged Bondi beachgoer who flashed  his hairy butt cheeks while changing in the Bondi parking lot.

Four-dollar bottled water and $100-dollar “budget” accommodation make Sydney an expensive city for American tourists. Yet I’m convinced a trip to Australia would be quite incomplete without it In fact, it would be a bit difficult to arrange a trip to Oz without Sydney because pretty much every domestic flight connects in the New South Wales capital.