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Sydney is the largest city in Australia, boasting many of the nation's cultural and financial institutions -- as well as truly dramatic natural scenery. Although it is a modern city strongly influenced by British roots and current American popular culture, Sydney's real character is derived from its exotic location and brash beauty. Walking through the glass and concrete downtown, known as the Central Business District (CBD), you could be in any other Western-culture metropolis -- until a fluorescent red and green lorikeet parrot swoops overhead or an unexpected flash of the brilliant blue harbor appears between the skyscrapers.

Any proper visit to Sydney must begin in the harbor, which is both the birthplace of the city and its current iconic centerpiece. The area is called Circular Quay (pronounced "key" by locals). It is hard to imagine a more picturesque setting for a city's heart than this, with the Opera House and Harbour Bridge displayed against the inlet's bright water.

Sydney spreads across a massive geographic area, but the majority of its most interesting areas can be found near the ocean coast, in the area known as the Eastern suburbs. Oxford Street, the main thoroughfare running east from downtown to the ocean beaches, hosts Sydney's famous gay and lesbian Mardi Gras parade and is popular year-round for its upscale shops and cafes.

Photos: 11 Best Australia Experiences

Sydney is a well-balanced blend of a big-city lifestyle and the laid-back Australian mentality. Although Aussies who hail from other towns often disparage Sydney for its flashiness and hectic pace, urban inconveniences seem minor here compared to places like New York and London. Tourism is a huge industry around Sydney, and locals are accustomed to providing visitors with service, helpful directions and a rousing welcome to the stunning city that they call home.

--written by Tracy Elsen


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