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What to Do in Manly with Kids: A Local’s Guide

Angela Saurine lived in Manly, NSW for more than 20 years. Now, she loves to revisit the beachfront town with her son Oliver as often as she can. These are some of their favourite spots

Crowds enjoying a Summer's day at Manly Beach © Destination NSW
Crowds enjoying a Summer's day at Manly Beach © Destination NSW

At the southern end of the Northern Beaches lies the Manly peninsula, fringed by Sydney Harbour on one side and the Pacific Ocean on the other.  

Despite its popularity as a coastal holiday destination, there are still plenty of secrets to uncover in Manly. As any local will tell you, there’s a captivating hidden side to this Northern Beaches suburb.  

After two decades, I thought I knew the area like the back of my hand. Then came 2020, self-isolation with a two-year-old son, and endless hours exploring Manly during lockdown 

With scenic walking tracks to explore, calm swimming spots and fantastic family-friendly eateries, I share some of Manly’s best-kept secrets below.  

6 Things to Do in Manly with Kids: A Local’s Top Tips

Couple enjoying a walk along Marine Parade
Couple enjoying a walk along Marine Parade

It’s a phrase that’s often said, but when it comes to this Northern Beaches suburb, it’s especially true: Manly has something for everyone. Look beyond the luxe and you’ll find walking tracks, secret beaches and picnic spots galore.  

If you’re planning to spend a day in Manly with kids, you can pick one or two from the list below. For a longer stay, these activities are well worth a place in your Sydney holiday itinerary.  

Here are six of my favourite spots in Manly, all perfect for a day trip: 

1. Shelly Beach Walk

An aerial view of Shelly Beach at Manly © Destination NSW
An aerial view of Shelly Beach at Manly © Destination NSW

No matter how many times I do the coastal walk from Manly Beach to Shelly Beach, I never get tired of it. On sunny days, when the clear turquoise water laps against the sandstone rocks as you pass locals dining alfresco at The Bower Cafe, it feels a bit like being in the Mediterranean. 

It takes around 15 minutes to do the walk in one direction, but we usually take it much slower than that, stopping to see the ever-present water dragons, the Oceanides sculpture at the edge of Fairy Bower pool, and the stainless-steel sculptures of various sea creatures that can be found in the surrounding Cabbage Tree Bay Aquatic Reserve, including sea dragons, eastern blue gropers and gloomy octopus, embedded in the rock.  

Oliver loves crawling through the tunnel of this sculpture on the Shelly Beach Walk in Manly
Oliver loves crawling through the tunnel of this sculpture on the Shelly Beach Walk in Manly

Oliver always loves climbing through the tunnel in the sandstone rock along the route that was carved by a sculptor as a Bicentenary project in 1988. Snorkelling at Shelly Beach offers the chance to see wobbegong sharks, giant cuttlefish and elegant wrasse, and there’s a kiosk at The Boathouse restaurant where you can grab a coffee or a bite to eat. 

2. Manly Cove

Manly Cove in Sydney © Tourism Australia
Manly Cove in Sydney © Tourism Australia

Nicknamed ‘The Office’ by locals, because it’s such a popular place to hang out, the calm beach along East Esplanade is ideal for kids to play, swim and splash around on floaties as you watch ferries zipping back and forth across the harbour and boats bobbing nearby.  

It’s not unusual to see a row of prams lined up by the stairs, or children racing dump trucks or riding balance bikes along the walkway. There’s a grassy area where you can roll out picnic rugs, a modern amenities block and a set of swings to add to the fun. 

It’s especially special at dusk, when the sun sinks behind the bushy headland in the distance and the sky turns a spectacular pink and orange. After that, the families usually disappear, quickly replaced by large groups of Brazilian backpackers ready to take to their slacklines. 

3. Secret Sydney Harbour beaches

Collins Beach in Manly © Destination NSW
Collins Beach in Manly © Destination NSW

There are plenty more beautiful beaches to be discovered in Manly, but some require a bit more effort to get to. Hire a kayak from Manly Kayak Centre and paddle past the multi-million-dollar harbourfront homes and around Smedley’s Point before making a beeline for Quarantine Beach, which was the first port of call for passengers disembarking ships to be assessed for contagious diseases such as the Bubonic plague, smallpox and Spanish influenza for much of the 1800s.  

Pop into the museum at the Q Station retreat’s visitor centre at the wharf before continuing on to explore the gorgeous secret beaches, like boat-access only Store Beach (my favourite place for a dip), Collins Beach and Little Manly Cove. 

Book your Manly Kayak guided tour with your kids here!

4. Manly 16ft Skiff Sailing Club

Manly 16ft Skiff Club
Manly 16ft Skiff Club

One of the few restaurants in Sydney that has a deck over the harbour, the nearby Skiff Club is a top spot for lunch or an early dinner for families. I remember going there with my Mum and Dad when I was a kid, and I know it’s somewhere I will return time and again throughout my lifetime.  

The stylishly refurbished venue is the perfect place to splash out on a seafood platter, with classics like chicken parmigiana, pizzas and burgers also on offer. There’s also a reasonably priced kids’ menu featuring fish and chips, spaghetti Bolognese, crumbed chicken tenders and a cheeseburger. 

5. Tokyo Joe

Tokyo Joe in Manly
Tokyo Joe in Manly

If there’s one cuisine guaranteed to satisfy all ages, it’s Japanese, so Tokyo Joe is a great eatery to go for a family dinner while you’re in town. Located opposite Manly Beach adjoining the Manly Pacific hotel, kids eat free with any adult meal purchased, so it’s also friendly on the budget.  

The menu consists of all the usual favourites from the Land of the Rising Sun, including sushi, sashimi and gyoza, designed to be shared. Decorated with neon lights, the large, funky venue also has a few arcade games that are sure to be a hit with older kids. 

6. Spit Bridge to Manly Walk

Weaving around the harbour, past secluded beaches and through native bushland, this 10-kilometre walk is an excellent way to soak up Sydney’s magnificence. There are a few hills involved, so it’s more suitable for families with older kids, but they are well worth tackling for the views at the top.  

Along the way, you’ll find some of Sydney’s best family beaches perfect for a picnic and a swim, including Delwood Beach, Fairlight Beach, Forty Baskets Beach, Castle Rock Beach and Clontarf Reserve. But my preferred place to take a break is Crater Cove at Dobroyd Head, where you’ll find a cluster of ramshackle old fishermen’s huts built along the clifftop. It can be reached by detouring down an unmarked track through the bushes that leads off the main path.  

The last section when starting from Manly takes you through a strikingly more tropical environment – all ferns, caves and trickling waterfalls. Upon arriving at Spit Bridge, cross over the road and catch a bus back. 

A waterfall on the Manly to Spit Walk © Tourism Australia
A waterfall on the Manly to Spit Walk © Tourism Australia

Weaving around the harbour, past secluded beaches and through native bushland, this 10-kilometre walk is an excellent way to soak up Sydney’s magnificence. There are a few hills involved, so it’s more suitable for families with older kids, but they are well worth tackling for the views at the top.  

There are some delightful places to stop for a picnic and a swim along the way, including Delwood Beach, Fairlight Beach, Forty Baskets Beach, Castle Rock Beach and Clontarf Reserve. But my preferred place to take a break is Crater Cove at Dobroyd Head, where you’ll find a cluster of ramshackle old fishermen’s huts built along the clifftop. It can be reached by detouring down an unmarked track through the bushes that leads off the main path.  

The last section when starting from Manly takes you through a strikingly more tropical environment – all ferns, caves and trickling waterfalls. Upon arriving at Spit Bridge, cross over the road and catch a bus back. 

Where to Stay in Manly

The view from a room at Peppers Manly Beach

The location of Peppers Manly Beach is about as good as it gets! Just across the road from the beach at South Steyne, you can fall asleep to the sound of waves crashing against the shore, watch the pine trees blowing in the breeze and pop over the road to build sandcastles whenever you feel the need. 

It’s also a few blocks away from the Manly Wharf, where the harbour ferry stops, providing easy access from Central Quay and Sydney Airport. 

The pool at Peppers Manly Beach
The pool at Peppers Manly Beach

Previously known as the North Tower of The Sebel Sydney Manly Beach, the hotel is now managed by Accor Vacation Club. It has 42 studios, apartments and suites to choose from, two pools and secure undercover parking. 

Family-friendly Cafes & Restaurants in Manly 

Here are some of Manly’s best eateries to visit with kids: 

  • Manly 16ft Skiff Sailing Club: A local institution for generations, the Skiff Club offers spectacular seafood to enjoy on the over-water deck. Weeknight specials are a big drawcard for local families and visitors alike. 
  • Tokyo Joe: Chic decor and delicious Japanese cuisine make Tokyo Joe a must-visit for families. Share plates of bao buns, gyoza and karaage chicken wings for a memorable meal out with kids, who eat free with a paying adult.
Angela and Oliver at Tokyo Joe's in Manly
Angela and Oliver at Tokyo Joe's in Manly
  • The Bavarian: Located at Manly Wharf, The Bavarian is great value for families. Fill hungry tummies with German-inspired fare like pork belly, sausage and a range of Haus Schnitzels. Don’t forget to check the daily specials and lunch combos.   
  • Fratelli Fresh: Pizza and pasta are always a hit with kids, and at Fratelli Fresh, both can be prepared gluten-free. For parents, vibrant house salads and steaks hit the spot, as does the blue swimmer crab spaghettini. 
  • The Boathouse Shelly Beach: Relaxed dining is in store at this chic Shelly Beach eatery. Menu highlights include shareable starters and sides, as well as a notable breakfast spread.  
  • Bistro Manly: Directly opposite Manly Beach, this beachfront restaurant serves casual-but-elegant French cuisine for the whole family. Kids will love the ‘Little Ripples Menu’ including a rainbow ice-cream sundae for dessert, while grown-ups tuck into Australian seafood and steak. 

Visiting Manly with Kids: What You Need to Know

Oliver at Manly Cove at sunset
Oliver at Manly Cove at sunset

When is the best time to visit Manly?

Manly is at its best in summer, when the maximum temperature is around 25°C to 27°C, but it’s also the busiest time of year, with up to 1000 people pouring off the ferry every 20 minutes. My tip is to get there early, before the crowds build up throughout the day. In winter, you may get to spot whales passing along the coast on their annual migration. 

How can I get to Manly?

The best way to get to Manly is by hopping on board one of the iconic Sydney Harbour ferries at Circular Quay. The trip takes you past the Sydney Harbour Bridge, Sydney Opera House and Fort Denison before docking at Manly Wharf. Manly ferries run seven days per week, with a service at least every 15 to 20 minutes.  

Several local bus routes also stop in Manly, running through North Sydney and the Northern Beaches.  

Where do I catch the ferry to Manly?

The Manly Ferry at Manly Wharf © Destination NSW
The Manly Ferry at Manly Wharf © Destination NSW

The direct ferry to Manly leaves from Wharf 3 at Circular Quay, travelling without stops. If you’re starting from another suburb, Circular Quay is a transport interchange, making it easy to transfer from adjacent bus, train or light rail stops. Several private ferry services also travel to Manly, including one connecting Circular Quay and Manly with Watsons Bay Wharf. 

How long is the ferry ride from Sydney City to Manly? 

The journey from Circular Quay to Manly takes around 22 to 30 minutes, depending which size vessel you catch. The gate closes a couple of minutes early, so be sure to check the ferry timetable.  

How can I get from Sydney Airport to Manly?

If you’re coming from the airport, take the 15-minute AirportLink train line to Circular Quay Station. There, you’ll find the ferry terminal just across the road, where you can catch a Manly Ferry. Pick up an Opal card at the Domestic or International terminals for easy transfer.  

You can also take a taxi or rideshare service from the airport, but traffic can be heavy at peak times, and the trip can take up to 90 minutes. Public transport tends to be quicker and cheaper.  

What is the best way to get around Manly? 

Riding bikes to Shelly Beach in Manly © Destination NSW
Riding bikes to Shelly Beach in Manly © Destination NSW

Manly is very accessible without a car, and you can reach most destinations on foot. For a faster option, hire a budget-friendly bicycle from Manly Bike Tours. Boasting an extensive selection of mountain bikes, cruisers, tandems, and children’s bikes, they have options to suit every rider. 

Manly is perfect for cycling, with over 20 kilometres of designated cycle paths connecting secluded beaches, marine reserves, and the National Park. You can even take a bike on Sydney ferries to explore the rest of the city.  

More Information

Manly – Destination NSW  

Peppers Manly Beach  

The writer was a guest of Accor.

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