Technically Sydney’s Northern Beaches start at Manly, and if you’re on a time limit, it’s a good option. Particularly lovely is tiny Shelly Beach with its crescent of sand back by cabbage tree palms and exceptional snorkelling. In your rental car, you can get up early, head over there, swim and sun, and be back in time for lunch.
But there’s more to explore if you have all day. It’s 28km from Manly to Palm Beach (check out our Palm Beach guide here), Sydney’s most northern point, and there are beaches the whole way. In fact, they’re on both your right- and left-hand sides, some facing the ocean, others looking over Pittwater, the body of water between the peninsula and Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park.
Some Sydneysiders will tell you it doesn’t feel like you’ve arrived on the Northern Beaches until you’ve crossed the bridge at Narrabeen. So why not stop there? What you’ll discover is Narrabeen Beach, a 3km-long stretch of sand, broken at its northern end by the entrance to Narrabeen Lagoon.
If you follow professional surfing, you’ll probably have heard of North Narrabeen. It’s one of the most consistent breaks on the coastline, hosts surfing events, and has raised world champions like Layne Beachley, Tom Carroll, and Pam Burridge. It’s a great spot to watch the action, but only if you know what you’re doing – it’s not the most welcoming wave for an out-of-towner. If you’re just starting out, neighbouring Collaroy is a better spot.
The waves in front of the North Narrabeen SLSC are often patrolled, so look for the flags if you want to head in for a swim. Otherwise try the rock pool or hit the sandy beach at the entrance to Narrabeen Lagoon for paddling in calm waters.
There’s an excellent 8km loop walk around the lagoon that will take you back to nature. There are 190 species of birds living in the vicinity – keep your eyes peeled for black swans and egrets. There are picnic spots along the way if you’ve thought ahead and packed your lunch, but there are also places to eat at Berry Reserve. Find a table overlooking the water at H2O Café Restaurant and lunch on burgers, salads, and snacks.
Before the sun begins to go down, walk around the North Narrabeen headland to the Turimetta Beach for some of the best views in the area.
Get excellent value from your rental car by heading further north to Bilgola Beach, which doesn’t get as much love as Whale Beach or Palmy despite its dramatic headland.
Like many of Sydney’s beaches with great surf, Bilgola’s shore break can prove tricky and there are also often rips. Seek out the patrolled section of the beach or jump in at the rock pool at the beach’s south end. If you’re looking for seclusion, you’ll normally find it here, so bring plenty of sunscreen and a book and make the most of the sunshine.
If you’re hungry, Zubi at Billy’s is so close to the sand you can almost put your feet in it while sitting on terrace. Three local brothers own the place and know exactly what their clients want: great coffee and simple, tasty food like smashed avo on toast, veggie-packed salads and toasted sandwiches.
When you want to stretch your legs, there’s a 2km walking trail at the south end of Bilgola Beach that leads to Newport Beach. The path goes over the headland and reveals some incredible views along the coast and over the ocean.
While the surf beaches tend to hog the limelight, the beaches facing Pittwater offer a completely different experience. A huge favourite in this part of the world is Clareville Beach. Tiny waves lap up against the sand, sailing boats and dinghies are moored in the calm waters, and tall trees at the edge of the sand provide plenty of shade on summer days.
They also protect a patch of lawn where there are seats and a barbecue. Don’t forget to pack your rental car with an esky of hamburger patties and salads, so you can cook up your lunch in the great outdoors. Otherwise, pick up some chicken tacos, Vietnamese salad, or a smoothie bowl at nearby Girdlers Avalon.
If you’ve ever wanted to try stand-up paddle boarding, Avalon SUP has a meeting point right near the Clareville car park. Either hire a board if you’ve had a go before or book a lesson to discover the basics.
When you’re ready to hit Sydney’s Northern Beaches, hire a rental car from the Sydney Downtown location before you go exploring.