Whether you’re planning a day trip or a longer stay in Sydney’s Northern Beaches, you’ll find many fun things to do in Manly to keep you busy. The number of nature-based activities in Manly is one of the reasons why I prefer Manly to Bondi, the other famous beach destination in Sydney.
Walks in Manly
Manly offers some of the best coastal walks in Sydney. You will find easy strolls from one beach to another but also longer hikes that will take you to some of the best lookouts in Sydney Harbour.
1. Manly to Spit Bridge
The Manly to Spit Bridge coastal walk offers spectacular views of Manly Cove and Sydney Harbour. It’s quite a long walk (10 kilometres one-way, and you can catch a bus to come back) but apart from a few stairs, it’s rather easy.
2. Manly Beach to Shelly Beach
This is one of the easiest walks in Manly. The walk starts at the end of Manly Beach where the Manly Surf Club is. A flat well-built path takes you along the rocks and Cabbage Tree Marine Reserve. There are a few sculptures along the way to keep you entertained as if the view wasn’t enough. You’ll also meet a few water dragons chilling on the side of the path. In about 15 minutes, you will reach Shelly Beach.
Don’t stop at the beach. I recommend walking up the stairs to the car park and check out the Shelly Head lookout. If you keep walking, you can continue walking all the way to North Head Sanctuary.
3. North Head Walk
It takes approximately 10 kilometres (three hours) do the circuit from Manly Wharf, but you can also do side walks if you have more time. There’s also a bus going back to Manly Wharf if you don’t want to walk all the way.
The North Head walk offers spectacular ocean views and takes you through bushland and swamp areas, and it’s also an opportunity to learn more about history. It was used as a quarantine station back in the 19th century. With its strategic position at the entrance of Sydney Harbour, North Head is also an important military site. During WWII, it was one of the most heavily fortified sites in Australia and you can learn more about it during your walk. You will also cross the Memorial Walk with monuments to honour those who served Australia during major military conflicts.
The Fairfax Lookout is one of the main reasons for visiting North Head. The views of Sydney Harbour and the City are iconic.
4. Manly to Freshwater Beach
On the other side of Manly Beach, opposite Shelly Beach, you can walk to Freshwater Beach. If you’re keen to walk a bit further, the Curl Curl boardwalk, just after Freshwater Pool, offers lovely ocean views with nice rocks. The Curl Curl to Dee Why walk is also great. If you find it too long, you can always come back by bus.
5. Manly Dam walks
Manly Dam is the largest freshwater lake in Sydney. There are many walks in Manly Dam with various lenghts. The most popular one is probably Manly Dam Circuit, with scenic views over Manly Reservoir. There are also remnants of Aboriginal camps near the dam. It takes about three hours to complete the 7-kilometre circuit. The walk isn’t particularly hard but you’ll go on uneven terrain and climb up a few stairs, it is recommended to wear good shoes for this walk.
You can also swim in the lake and it is reputed for mountain biking and watersports.
A bus to Manly Vale will take you to Manly Dam. There is also a car park nearby.
Snorkelling and scuba diving in Manly
With Sydney Harbour on one side and the ocean on the other, there are many opportunities for scuba diving and snorkelling in Manly.
6. Cabbage Tree Reserve
Cabbage Tree Reserve can be accessed from Shelly Beach. A nice walk from Manly Beach will take you to the small bay on the ocean side of Manly. It’s well protected from the wind and the surge. It’s also a great choice as you don’t need to worry about the tide times to snorkel or scuba dive at Shelly Beach.
Unless you’re visiting in summer, the water can be cold there. I recommend bringing a thick wetsuit for diving or at least a Sharkskin for snorkelling, especially if you’re used to Queensland’s warm waters like us.
When snorkelling or scuba diving Cabbage Tree Reserve, you’re almost guaranteed to see a lot of rays (including the beautiful Fiddler Ray if you’re lucky), blue groupers and old wives. When the water is colder, you may see giant cuttlefish – we only see a cute small one. The place is also famous for Port Jackson Sharks.
Do you find scuba diving scary? I know the feeling. I have now done more than 200 dives, so I’ve shared my experience about overcoming my fear of scuba diving in this article; I hope it can help!
7. Fairlight Beach
Fairlight Beach is a short walk from Manly Wharf, on the bay side. It’s often quieter than Shelly Beach, and also a good spot for scuba diving and snorkelling. As it is located in Sydney Harbour, it is well protected. The visibility isn’t the best so it is recommended to dive there around high tide. We saw a beautiful ray, blue gropers and many different types of fish.
8. Kayaking and SUP
Are you thinking of buying an inflatable kayak? We love how we can now explore more places easily since we got one. Check out my tips on how to choose an inflatable kayak and the most important questions to answer first.
Manly Beach is reputed for being one of the best spots to go surfing in Sydney. So surfing is one of the best fun things to do in Manly. It has pretty consistent break picking up swell most of the year. It is often suitable for begginers and you can rent a board there or join a surfing lesson.
You may be interested in walking to the next beach, Freshwater Beach, the birthplace of Australian surfing where, in 1915, Duke Kahanamoku from Hawaii demonstrated this ancient board riding technique.
10. Sailing in Manly
Manly is a reputed area to learn how to sail. There are tours for tourist to get a sailing experience in Sydney Harbour. If you’re in Manly or Sydney for long, you can also join a course to learn the basics and a yacht club to race during the weekend.
Manly is known to be a bike-friendly area with bike lanes, bike racks and even tools to repair bikes near the ferry wharf. Cycling is one of the most fun things to do in Manly for nature lovers that don’t have much time in the area. If you don’t have a bike, you’ll find a few shops in Manly to hire one.
There’s something for all level of experience and adventure. You can leisurely cycle along the beachfront, explore North Head or go mountain biking in Manly Dam. See more ideas of bike tracks and routes here.
Wha are the most fun things to do in Manly for nature lovers? Share your experience in the comments below!
Where to stay in Manly
There are so many fun things to do in Manly that you should consider staying overnight. Prices can get a lot more expensive during weekends so keep this in mind when planning your trip.
If you’re looking for a quiet place to stay with great views of Sydney Harbour, check out the Q Station* in North Head. The hotel offers stylish rooms and a private beach.
There are also many more options in the busy areas in Manly near the beach, the wharf and The Corso. The Sebel* for example offers rooms with sea views at Manly Beach and Manly Quest* is on the other side near Manly Wharf.
Where is Manly and how to get there?
Manly is located north of Sydney, at the start of the Northern Beaches. You’ll find Sydney Harbour Bay on one side and the ocean on the other. The best and most scenic way to get to Manly from Sydney CBD is via boarding a ferry to go across Sydney Harbour. If you time it well, you can go back at the end of the day to enjoy the sunset behind the Harbour Bridge.
I would not recommend going to Manly by car. There are car parks available but it gets rather busy during weekends. Some are free for up to two hours but get very expensive after.