I just got back from spending 5 days in Sydney. The harbor (harbour?) bridge and opera house were, indeed, stunning. After little Adelaide, which has a population of 1 million but has a city center of mainly 2-story 19th century buildings, Sydney felt like a proper metropolis. While the city was full of anonymous glass and drab 70s skyscrapers, its location of being spread out across various inlets and a peninsulas still made it incredibly scenic. It was also very green, which added to its attractiveness. From what I've heard, it's a more humid climate than Adelaide, and certainly, for 3 of the days there was a fairly constant drizzle. Most surprisingly, it was quite hilly, and in places it felt like San Fransisco (especially to my knees).
But underneath the modern glitz, Sydney has a lot of historical significance, as it was where the first fleet landed and set up camp in 1788. Unlike other countries, Australians haven't been too keen to glorify their convict origins, and much of the original city was torn down. We did get to see the preserved barracks, built in 1819 to house prisoners working for the state (most prisoners were assigned to a free family basically as slave labor. Some prisoners, generally the most recalcitrant ones, remained in the government's direct control to do public works). We spent a lot of time staring at things and squinting, trying to imagine what the land would have looked like 200 years ago.
We also saw the first Catholic and Anglican cathedrals built in Australia, an exhibit of Islamic Art at the art gallery, the house of the governor of New South Wales (not to be confused with the premier of NSW, who actually controls the government.) The governor of NSW is much like the Governor General, except on a state level instead of a federal one. In other words, it's an archaic and symbolic role characterised by incredible pomp and circumstance and excessive Anglophilia. The house, built in 1845 and located in the botanic gardens only a spitting distance from the opera house, was designed by an English architect who never set foot in Australia. The result is a Scottish castle, which is dark, formal, and apparently unbearably hot in the summer months. Outside it looks completely out of place next to the gum trees, and inside it looks like a 1960s movie set of a castle done up in the Georgian style (complete with gratuitous portraits of obscure British royals), due to a misguided attempt to 'contemporize' the furnishings. Dave thought it looked more like a VIP airport lounge. It was interesting though, to see oil portraits of the early governors from back when the governor of NSW was the governor of Australia. I especially wanted to see Governor Bligh, of mutiny on the bounty fame. After the mutiny, he became governor of Australia. He looked short and unpleasant, although apparently his harshness and competence served him better as commander of a penal colony than it did as a ship's captain.
We also went to the Sydney zoo, which is quite large and spread out through beautiful parkland. It was full of lots of Aussie animals, including 11 of the 15 most deadly snakes, saltwater crocodiles, which 'only' kill 1 person a year, according to the sign, a kangaroo with a joey in her pouch, and ridiculously cute koalas. The animals did their best to give us a show, one that would probably earn an R rating if it were broadcast on television. Highlights were: (stop reading if you are easily offended or under 17) An escape-bent emu intimidating a group of Japanese business men in the petting zoo, a bit of sexual role-reversal involving a very frisky lioness and a quite grumpy lion, and a chimpanzee digging around in his butt hole, pulling out a big shit, and then eating it. Didn't realize chimps ate their own feces, though maybe it was deranged behavior as a result of confinement. More tamely, both the tiger and the cobra were came up to the glass to let us get a good look. My one disappointment was that the dingos didn't make an appearance.
On our final day, we took a ferry to Manly, a little resort town about 30 min. There was a very scenic 9 km hike that we did part of, but after 5 days of 8 hours of standing/walking straight, our feet started to rebel. We did get to see a bit of what the natural landscape around Sydney looked like though. Again, it was amazing how lush and green it was, and also how deceiving the landscape is, as it is almost completely unsuitable for agriculture.