6 Observations About Sydney

If you haven’t noticed by the 13-part trip report, I really loved Sydney. Not only because I got to meet my dad’s side of the family (aka the best people in the world), but because I just loved the overall vibe. That being said, here are a few things I observed (both positive and negative) about Sydney:

1. Sydney is not as expensive as everyone says

Sticker shock is something you hear from those who visit Sydney. In my experience it wasn’t that expensive. I went to several shopping malls and found great bargains. Plus, there are some great discount shops in the Blacktown area.

Restaurants and fast food shops are reasonably priced – even prices at Starbucks were similar to those in the US. The only time I experienced sticker shock was when I picked up some aloe vera gel from a local pharmacy after an awful sunburn. The price for a bottle that looked straight out of a 99 cent store? $15!

Blow-out sale on King Street
Blow-out sale on King Street

2. There are few religious institutions

Something that struck me when I came to the US as a kid were the number of religious institutions everywhere. There was a street in El Sobrante, CA where a new church was built across from an old one. In the town where I live, there are two churches adjacent to one another, with another one down the street. My former high school rents out the gym for church service on Sundays and every time a business closed during the recession, a religious institution opened in its place. It’s not even like I live in the bible belt – this is supposed to be God-less, liberal Northern California.

So after a while of driving around the various suburbs and walking through the city, I realized something was obviously different. There were hardly any religious institutions (I came across two). Perhaps Australians just aren’t as religious as Americans. In any case, this struck me as odd.

Church near Manly Beach - a rare sight
Church near Manly Beach – a rare sight

3. American brands are scarce

No Banana Republic, Sephora, or Forever 21 (thank God!). This makes it kind of tough to navigate a mall, but eventually you figure out what brands are worth buying and which ones to avoid.

Small businesses really dominate the scene. Even at shopping malls, you’ll find lots of non-chain shops. I loved how there were entire markets designated for folks who made a living unloading merchandise purchased in bulk from China. Small businesses seem to be thriving and I love that the spirit of independent business ownership is alive and well. You’ll hardly see a Starbucks outside of the really touristy parts of town. Contrast this with my suburban town, where we have seven Starbucks stores. I’ve been told most locals prefer local coffee shops over Starbucks anyway.

That being said, there was a 7-11 on practically every corner. Like, everywhere. I walked into a couple, hoping I’d hit the Vanilla Reload jackpot. No such luck, of course. Still, if you get a craving for a gallon of blue slushy, you will not have to go far.

4. The Opera House needs a power wash

Sorry, but I have to say it. The Opera House is looking pretty worn down. For a place that is constantly photographed and serves as the country’s tourism symbol, it needs to be in better shape. I understand cement structures are difficult to keep pretty. A nice coat of paint and a scrub down of the cement, and it will look as good as new.

Visiting the Opera House reminded me of going to a Britney Spears concert years ago: What you see in pictures does not measure up to the real thing. Worse for wear and past its prime.

Sydney Opera House Sydney
The iconic Sydney Opera House

5. Public Transportation

Getting from the suburbs to the city center is incredibly easy. With bus/train stations conveniently located near residential neighborhoods, there’s no need to drive. More importantly, public transportation is actually clean and pleasant. The trains aren’t as fast as say, the BART trains in the US, but they’re much more quiet and on the way to the city you’ll enjoy pleasant views of the surrounding suburbs.

Sydney public transportation
Train from Quaker hill into the city

6. They’re living the American Dream

The more I spoke with locals, the more I realized Americans are getting screwed. Tax-wise, they get more bang for their buck. Free universal health care and low-interest student loans that don’t have to be paid back until students graduate and obtain employment.

Speaking of employment, a bachelor’s degree is actually valued in Australia. My cousin is the same age as I am and got a great job at a tech firm straight out of college. Meanwhile, I frantically sent out resumes for 6 months before I got a job that required a BA, but that any middle school drop-out could do.

When I told my cousin that the average American family pulls in $50,000 per year, she looked seriously sad. “How do people survive?”  This, after she told me about someone she know who makes $20 per hour working at K-Mart ($25 on weekends and two and a half times that on holidays).

Small businesses dominate, people are taken care of, education encouraged. After seeing the way people lived, I realized they are living the American Dream.

Final Thoughts on Sydney

I loved Sydney and look forward to returning and seeing more of Australia. Aside from meeting my dad’s side of the family for the first time and realizing how much I’d missed out by not knowing them all these years, I could totally see myself living there. The people are much more laid back, level-headed, and seem to have achieved a healthy work/life balance.

This trip marked the first time I returned home, feeling I was coming back to something better than I had left behind.

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  1. Australia is becoming more and more Americanized, if you like all of those things about Australia you should read their most recent budget. Worst still is their new consumer credit legislation.

    • PointChaser

      Reward credit cards aren’t up to par anywhere else (except maybe Brazil, where you can pay a credit card with another credit card). The overall quality of life is better there and people get more bang out of their tax dollars. More importantly, there are more opportunities for business and less competition for it than in the US.

  2. Thanks for this. I’m looking forward to visiting next month.

  3. I am in Sydney right now. My last day of a 7 day stay.I agree with your observations. All transportation integrated into one pass, tax wise, clean and safe. It’s the first time seeing the opera house and I don’t see the worn down. In fact it looks it was built to last forever in great shape.
    Great place to visit.

    • PointChaser

      Maybe I’m too nitpicky (or maybe they washed it down in time for the royal visit), but it looked worn down when I went. I love the city though and hope to see more of Australia soon.

  4. Did you find any types of reload cards or Visa gift cards at the 7-11 stores there? Also, if the 7-11 stores there do have Visa gift cards, is it easy to liquidate them at a K-Mart in Sydney (since there are no Walmart stores in Australia)? It would be cool if this manufactured spending hobby ever spreads internationally.

    Also, I’m surprised that this is the first time you feel like you’re not coming home to something better than you had left behind. I wonder if that’s because of the destinations themselves, or because those places just weren’t your taste. I’m guessing it’s probably a little bit of both.

    • I saw thath the supermarket chain woolworths have prepaid VGC and MCGC that can be loaded with $20-500. I don’t know if you can obtain a PIN or if in case you do get a PIN, you can unload those funds in some kind of Australian version of BB.
      When I buy things everytime I click credit they ask for PIN . If I press enter they makd me sign the receipt. So I don’t think they have a debit/credit dicotomi in the same way US. I saw at King’s Cross they have a place were you can bet on horses and sports and I was planning to do a research to see if you can pay with CC without being CA and in case you win or in case you return the money if. You can get cash. I believe there must be sime loopholes for MS . I stay for such short time I rather just do some sightseeing.

      • PointChaser

        I actually found an aAustralian points and miles blog a while ago (can’t remember the name), so I think the game is alive there too. As for credit cards, whether they’re PIN enabled depends on the bank that issues them.

    • PointChaser

      Unfortunately not, otherwise I definitely would have stocked up. I grew up in Germany and always thought it was a better place to live, until I went back in 2011 and realized I was better off in the US. My trip to Afghanistan/Turkey/Dubai was a mixed bag and while I do eventually want to settle in Afghanistan, there’s no doubt people in the US have it better than all of those places (I don’t care how fancy Dubai is – it’s a facade built on the exploitation of migrant workers). Australia offers a great quality of life, education is valued, small businesses thrive, and people are much better at balancing work and life – it’s what America aspired to be but is slowly failing at. It’s really too bad because I think Americans are some of the hardest workers in the world, but they’re not getting as much out as they put in.

  5. Might be doing Sydney as my first solo trip ever.. Anything you’d recommend out of the norm?

    • PointChaser

      I did pretty much the touristy thing for two days and spent most of my time visiting family. The Harbour Bridge climb sounds fun – definitely on my list for my next trip.

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