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The 12 best bars to drink like a local in Sydney

Step away from the tourist magnets and seek out martini-centric bars, raucous beer pubs, surprising wine lists and establishments offering mezcal in the middle of the city

An Old Fashioned in a smoked barrel. (Photo: Pylyp Sukhenko, Unsplash)
An Old Fashioned in a smoked barrel. (Photo: Pylyp Sukhenko, Unsplash)

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More than half a million people are expected to descend on Sydney in mid-February over the two-plus weeks of WorldPride, an event that’s expected to inject A$112 million ($78 million) into the state economy and provide a much needed boost to the harbor city’s night life.

WorldPride, which includes the 45th anniversary of the renowned Mardi Gras parade, is going to be one of the biggest events the city of 6 million has hosted since Covid-19 restrictions kept residents in their homes—and visitors away from Australia’s shores—for two years. 

While bars by the beaches and around Harbour Bridge and the Opera House are obviously appealing for visitors, don’t let their accessibility blind you to less conspicuous (and equally charming) drinking holes farther from the waterfront. Step away from the tourist magnets and seek out martini-centric bars or raucous beer pubs in the buzzing Inner West, surprising wine lists in the swanky Eastern Suburbs and establishments offering mezcal in the middle of the city.

Cheers, then, to 12 of the best places to drink like a local across Sydney.

Maybe Sammy
If you only visit one Sydney haunt, consider Maybe Sammy in the city’s historic Rocks district, ranked No. 29 on last year’s World’s 50 Best Bars list. The place, which evokes the Rat Pack-era glamor of the 1950s, currently boasts a Stardust menu of 12 signature blends for around A$25 each. The gin-based My Fair Lady is presented with a large bubble on top, which bursts into scented vapor, while the Elizabeth Taylor-inspired National Velvet is a smooth vodka and sake concoction served in a pink teacup.

As added value, bartenders will occasionally erupt into a perfectly choreographed dance routine (or equally well choreographed cocktail shaking). There’s live music on Thursdays, while a DJ spins ’50s and ’60s tunes on Fridays.

Cantina OK!
What the venue lacks in size, it makes up for in pure alcoholic punch. This standing-only ode to mezcal in the city center, ranked 41st on the World’s 50 Best Bars list, often has a line, but it’s certainly worth waiting on. The staff is as warm as the bar itself (lose the jacket). The Margarita OK! packs a punch, with tequila, mezcal, lime and orange oil (A$22). Or try the La Petit Mort, which is made with a hefty dose of mezcal that’s distilled in a raw turkey breast, served with rambutans. It’s a drink you can use to start your night or, potentially, a fire.

10 William St.
Whether you’re coming from the beach or the city, book before heading to this wine bar wedged among Paddington’s high-end fashion boutiques. The small tables make it easy to nudge knees with a date, and the menu has soul and swagger. Don’t miss the house special of smoky fish roe bottarga that comes with a soft, warm pretzel. Freshly made strozzapreti puttanesca is punched up with capers and olives (A$35). To counter the salt, try a glass of Il Vei Malvasia, a rustic Italian wine that’s fermented in the bottle, or the Mortelitto Grillo from Sicily. 

Paski Vineria Popolare
Styled after classic Italian enoteche, the cozy, walk-in-only wine bar Paski is a recent addition to Oxford Street. Browse the illuminated industrial shelves, which house about 450 varieties from small producers. There’s no paper menu: Everything from food to booze is on the frequently changing chalkboard. Among the more unusual wines are the orange-hued Terragno from Italy (A$19 a glass) or, from closer to home, the Australian Poco Rosso, a highly drinkable chilled red.

Even if you’re not hungry, order the addictive focaccia served with olive oil. For more substantial but equally wine-friendly fare, Paski’s booking-only restaurant upstairs is one of Sydney’s rare gems that stays open till midnight.

Dean & Nancy on 22
A sophisticated vibe complete with leather booths and marble tables sets the scene at Dean & Nancy. Although the place boasts sweeping city views, the Around the World cocktail menu takes drinkers far beyond Sydney. The Giza (A$27), presented in a smoking wine decanter reminiscent of the peaks of Egypt’s famous pyramids, is a surprising espresso martini twist, combining raspberry and hibiscus burnt honey with filter coffee.

The also impressive bar food menu has plates designed for sharing. Sample the saltbush fritters, which come with a creamy aiolilike emulsion served in an oyster shell. Happy hour kicks off at 4:30 p.m., with a selection of reduced-price half-size drinks. Book ahead; it fills up fast.

Bar Planet
A stone’s throw from the famed Enmore Theatre in the city’s Inner West area is Bar Planet, a psychedelic French-influenced martini bar. The dimly lit venue is brought to you by the same team as Cantina OK! Martinis are customized: Grab a paper menu and circle your preferred spirit, preferred dose of vermouth and whether it’ll be an olive or a twist. If that sounds like too much work, order the dirty martini or the Chateau (both A$21), essentially a chamomile vodka-laced lemon meringue pie in a glass.

Along with drinks, there’s spiced popcorn to snack on while admiring the shimmering intergalactic terrazzo bar created by Australian artist David Humphries. Come for a solo drink midweek or on a Friday night first date. 

La Salut
Only a curtained doorway separates La Salut from the 100-year-old neighborhood watering hole the Norfolk pub, but this Inner West tapas bar transports guests to Barcelona. The wine list is a book-long tour through Spain, so lean on the very knowledgeable and friendly staff. The Lectores Vini Pomagrana, a light, chilled red from Conca de Barbera made from Trepat grapes (A$16), is a refreshing drop for a balmy evening. Then, white vermouth with anchovy-stuffed olives can ably wash down a full and flavorsome plate of cured ham shoulder (A$32).

Other snacks include a pork neck skewer on whipped cod roe, a superb surf and turf riff, and the paprika-dusted Western Australia sardines with house-pickled onions, which are reminiscent of less-delicate pickled herring. To pair with dessert, including the cheesecake with fresh, seasonal apricots infused with a sherry-thyme, there’s fortified Casa del Inca Pedro Ximenez (A$18). La Salut tastes like another country, even if the music sounds like the pub next door. 

Bar Conte
Bar Conte specializes in one thing and one thing only: the Negroni. On a quiet corner of Riley Street, the place is lined with Italian posters for a buzzy vibe that refrains from veering into kitsch. Open the menu for a brief history lesson on the bitter Italian aperitif’s origins, then eyeball the many variations on offer, featuring rare vermouth and a deep selection of gin. Stick to the classic: The Conte’s Barrel-aged Negroni (A$30) uses Antica Formula vermouth; for something lighter, the sbagliato is laced with Cinzano 1757 and prosecco instead of gin.

In other beverages, the tightly packed, all-Italian wine list takes a journey through Piedmont, Tuscany and Puglia; the small European beer offerings include Sardinian lager Ichnusa. The house cocktail weaves its way through the food menu too: Briny Sydney rock oysters arrive with a Negroni dressing, while the housemade tiramisu packs a long Campari-orange finish.

The Bearded Tit
The Bearded Tit, a self-described “local clubhouse for the parched, hungry and curious,” isn’t for the easily offended, but it offers a good time in the city’s Inner West suburb of Redfern. Grab a booth inside among the taxidermied birds and gilded mirrors and browse the extensive drinks list for a local craft beer or wine, or explore the “make-out caravans” in the courtyard for something more private. The short cocktail list includes the dry but fruity Pash Rash, with Stolen Golden rum and the passion fruit liqueur Passoa, which packs a punch at an affordable A$18.

For fortification, the limited food options include hot dogs. Book for Wednesday’s Queerbourhood night for live dance, music, drag or cabaret performances. 

Henry Deane at Hotel Palisade
Spread across the top two levels at Hotel Palisade in the Rocks, Henry Deane’s bright rooftop is the perfect perch for sunset views of Sydney’s skyline and harbor. The John Lemon, made with vodka, lemon sorbet, curacao and lemon myrtle (A$20), is lovely tipple when the humidity is rising. For more of a kick, the Coffee Culture is a caffeinated take on the Negroni. As accompaniment, the Wombok Parcel is a mini-morsel filled with charred wombok (Napa cabbage), mushroom and pickled cabbage, while raw kingfish arrives in a pool of fermented pumpkin juice, mustard and marigold.

Little Felix
Fans of this cozy Champagne and cocktail bar range from the after-work crowds to pretheater sets. Down a winding central business district lane, the bar’s petite tables and plush seating are suited to small groups looking for French-inspired small plates—think duck terrine, charcuterie, oysters, frites—and strong drinks in a mellow atmosphere. Cocktails nod to both 1920s Paris and modern classics like the Gin Gin Mule (A$25); with lashings of gin and cold-pressed ginger, it’s a refreshing antidote to the summer heat.

Meanwhile the Penicillin, comprising Chivas 12, lemon, honey, ginger and Islay scotch, is a warming tonic for a sore throat after a few too many nights out. Alternatively, embrace the spirit of Paris and splurge on a Champagne magnum.

Dear Sainte Eloise
Between the polished art deco buildings in Potts Point and the partygoing pell-mell of Kings Cross, there exists this happy medium. Dear Sainte Eloise has a wall-size wine selection and tables spilling into the alley, making it ideal for people watching and local pet owners. On a wine list nearly as long as the George Orwell memoir it references (Down and Out in Paris and London) are gems like a Giacomo Boveri Timorossa white or South African Viognier (around A$17 each). Bewildered by choice? The “mystery glass” is free if you can name the grape and region.

The serious menu includes small plates like porcini and pecorino croquettes, anchovy and pickle brioche, and Brussel sprout salad with farro, walnuts and reggiano.

After a drink or two, Oxford Street, the famed strip that’s home to the Mardi Gras parade, may beckon. A few local LGBTQI-friendly favorites along the once-called rainbow mile are the Stonewall, Palms on Oxford Nightclub, Universal and the Beresford (on Sundays). 


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