My love letter to Sydney: you’re not London, but that’s why I love you

The skyline of Sydney, Australia's oldest and largest city. Photo: Mertie/Creative Commons 2.0.

Sydney is no London, writes Gary Nunn, but it certainly has its own compensations.

Just over a year ago, I returned to Sydney after six months in the original ‘big smoke’ – London – and my heart sank.

It was the worst bushfire smoke-polluted day of the year. You could smell it inside the airport. 

I’ve now lived in Sydney for the same duration I lived in London – eight years – and I desperately needed to conjure some favourable comparisons.  

To prevent me returning here pining for the bigger, buzzier city, whilst there, I listed the ways Sydney trumps London (which, despite the following, remains my joint favourite city).

Today, I opened that list and re-read it. It feels like a good time to remind myself of all the things that are great about Sydney; things that, hopefully, soon enough, we’ll all be able to look forward to again.

They range from things so obvious we perhaps take them for granted: Sydney has more ocean pools than any other city in the world – 35 of them. (Second is Cape Town, with 19.)

During London’s heatwave, on a 36 degree day, there was a three hour queue and punch ups at my local lido. 500 people stormed the outdoor pool. Police arrived to prevent further brawls.

The ocean pool at Bronte, one of the many magnificent ocean pools along Sydney’s coastline. Photo: Andrew Gregory/Destination NSW.

There was literally nowhere to cool down. The nearest beach is a four hour round trip, where the tide is either out so far, you have to wade through a kilometre of sludge sand to get there, or it’s in so far, there’s no room on the beach. Hell on earth. In Sydney, I’d have 35 ocean pools and a dozen purpose built ones to choose from. 

This was common: in London queues exist for everything. Anger often bubbles just beneath the surface. Four minutes till the next tube is a ‘severe delay’ – because the station gets dangerously overcrowded. 

Queues like this barely exist in Sydney (except on the roads; buy a bike). When they do, the end of them is always a pot of gold: salted coconut Messina ice cream; a Bourke Street Bakery creme brûlée; freshly made bircher. These are the things we should queue for. Not toilet roll. 

Then there are those things that are perhaps less obvious unless you’ve lived in a city like London, where I sometimes felt unsafe. I rarely feel unsafe in Sydney. 

There were also the quirks – in London, it’s harder to get a small coffee, they’re often vast, making my mocha consumption obesity-risking, unlike in Sydney where the coffees are smaller, better, lighter, skinnier. 

And gloriously independent, too – not the chains like Starbucks that are ubiquitous in London.

London has over 200 Starbucks outlets, whereas just 22 exist across Greater Sydney. Image: Stock photo of a Starbucks cup of coffee at London’s Tower Bridge.

London is dominated by chains. Sydney has so many independent eateries, each with its own personality. Healthy food is far easier to find here. 

Even Sydney water tastes better than London’s slightly metallic, sometimes cloudy water.

For the insatiably curious, London is a quandary. It’s the paradox of choice; a phenomenon explained by psychologist Barry Schwartz: infinite choice can feel paralysing instead of how it should feel: liberating.

That means, with Sydney’s thriving theatre scene, it’s often easy for me to pick what I’ll see this week from the varied but gloriously limited options. In London, the choice overwhelmed and paralysed me; a juggernaut of options careering me into discombobulation.

While the Sydney Opera House is one of the world’s most famous performing arts venues, if not buildings, Sydney’s theatre scene trails that of London, writes Gary Nunn – which isn’t always a bad thing, he opines. Photo: Cement4802/Creative Commons 1.0.

With fewer evening temptations, in Sydney, I can reclaim the day and reclaim 6am – there are no 2,000 capacity nightclubs packed to the brim on a Tuesday night. 

Mostly, London tested my principles, hourly. 

Beggers were everywhere. Homelessness had noticeably increased. People now regularly come into the tube carriages, get on their knees, and beg you, tears in their eyes, their destitution and desperation heartbreakingly clear.

Yet I had to do what every Londoner does because I didn’t myself have enough money for them all: develop a stoic, cold exterior; pretend they weren’t there. I’m ashamed of this. It reminds me of the privilege we enjoy here. Guilty privilege. 

Homelessness absolutely exists here and is no less heartbreaking. But it isn’t in every train carriage, or outside most churches – rows of sleeping bags, each one a dagger through my heart – and an indictment of the austerity agenda of the Tories. 

On one of my final days there, I was again late for an appointment because, London. En route, I ignored a tourist asking for directions – my third that day; I barked, “Stand on the right!” to anyone unacquainted with the golden escalator rule, and I shoved my way through pensioners and children to board a tube after five had gone by with zero space inside. In short: after six months, I’d become a true Londoner again.

Landing in smokey Sydney, although it felt awful to inhale, I finally did something it felt amazing to do.

I exhaled. 

The sun setting behind the Sydney Harbour Bridge at the end of a gorgeous day. Photo: Joel Carrett/AAP Image.

Gary Nunn is editor-at-large of the Sydney Sentinel. Twitter: @garynunn1