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Sydney

Sunny, sexy, and sophisticated, Sydney (pop. 4.1 million) basks in its worldwide recognition as the shining star of the Southern Hemisphere. The "Emerald City" is one of the most attractive on earth. Some people compare it to San Francisco -- it certainly has that relaxed feel -- but the gateway to Australia is very much its own unique city.

First, of course, there's the Sydney Opera House, one of the most recognized buildings in the world. This white-sailed construction on Sydney Cove, designed by Jørn Utzon, is the pride of the city -- but there's far more on offer.

You can walk across that other great icon, the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Those with a daredevil spirit can join a BridgeClimb Sydney tour across catwalks and ladders to the top of the main arch for 360-degree views across the Opera House and the ferries and boats far below.

Sydney is one of the biggest cities in the world -- but fortunately most of the interesting things are concentrated in a relatively compact area around one of the finest urban harbors in the world.

There's so much to do in Sydney that you could easily spend a week here and still find yourself crashing into bed at night exhausted by trying to see all the main attractions.

Sydney's greatest summer experience is on the beaches -- and with over 20 strung along the city's oceanfront and dozens more around the harbor, you'll be spoiled for choice. The most famous is Bondi, a strip of golden sand legendary for its Speedo-clad Lifesavers and surfboard riders. From here a "must do" is the 3.2km (2-mile) coastal path that leads off across the cliff tops, via Tamarama Beach (dubbed "Glamourama" for its chic sun worshipers), to Bronte Beach, where you can cool down in the crashing waves.

Another beach favorite is Manly, a 30-minute ferry trip from Circular Quay. Pick up some fish and chips and head for the main beach, flanked by a row of giant pines that chatter with hundreds of colorful lorikeets at dusk.

The best time to return is in the early evening, when the lights of the skyscrapers around Circular Quay streak like rainbows across the water of the harbor, and the sails of the Opera House and the girders of the Harbour Bridge are lit up -- it's magical.

History is enshrined in its many museums and art galleries, while modern Sydney comes alive in the more recent developments around Darling Harbour and the restaurant and entertainment area nearby at Cockle Bay and King Street Wharf. At Darling Harbour you'll find the world-class Sydney Aquarium. You can also start your gourmet tour of Sydney's Contemporary cooking style, which encompasses the best of freshness with spices from Asia and flavors from the Mediterranean.

Add to this the side trips to the gorges and cliffs of the Blue Mountains, the wineries of the Hunter Valley, and the dolphin- and whale-watching around Port Stephens, and you'll see why Sydney gets so much praise.

The frugal traveler will find that, compared to many other major international cities, Sydney offers good value. Food and public transport are cheap, and attractions are generally not prohibitively expensive. (Senior and student prices are almost always available with ID.) The price of a hotel room is far cheaper than in other major population centers such as New York and London.

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