How a commuter bridge turned into a bucket-list experience (2024)

I’m standing on a steel walkway 440 feet above Sydney Harbor when a voice crackles over my headset. My guide tells me to look right and take in one of the world’s most stunning skylines.

The view: the familiar clamshell roof of the Sydney Opera House, ferries crisscrossing the sparkling water. Below me, cars and trains rumble across the Sydney Harbour Bridge, the world’s tallest steel-arch span. But up here, as twilight descends, with my head nearly in the clouds, it feels like I’m floating over a toy city.

I now see why scaling the Sydney Harbour Bridge ranks as one of Australia’s most popular experiences, attracting more than four million climbers (including, recently, Michelle and Barack Obama) since the first customer stepped onto its steel beams 25 years ago this week on October 1, 1998. The climb has helped make the bridge an instantly recognizable landmark, and the experience a lure for anyone visiting the continent. It also helped change tourism around the world.

Climbers pay more than $200 (U.S.) for the privilege of standing above a commuter roadway in nearly any weather and absorbing the incredible view from the Coat Hanger, the nickname locals gave the bridge even before it opened in 1932.

But few climbers stop to think about the novelty of it all: how Australia turned a piece of infrastructure—a commuter bridge—into an unlikely global tourist attraction that has inspired similar bridge experiences around the world, from New Zealand and Japan to Portugal and West Virginia.

Taking a chance on bridge climbing

As thrilling as it is, the Sydney bridge climb is surprisingly easy, attracting customers ages eight to 100. The summit has been the site of countless marriage proposals and more than 30 weddings. Every five minutes during peak periods, a guide leads small groups onto the bridge superstructure. Climbers ascend ladders and followcatwalks built for maintenance workers. They must wear harnesses and remain clipped to safety cables during the entire journey.

Perhaps even more daring than the climb was the journey to create it. In 1989 Paul Cave, the president of a tile manufacturing company, had a rare chance to climb the bridge during an international business conference hosted in Sydney. He saw the excitement in his colleagues’ eyes and instantly realized the tourism potential.

“Their reaction … was just quite amazing,” he told the University of New South Wales in a 2012 video on business leadership. “I thought I‘ve just got to share this with the world.”

(See some of the world’s most architecturally impressive bridges.)

How a commuter bridge turned into a bucket-list experience (1)
How a commuter bridge turned into a bucket-list experience (2)

Until that point climbing the bridge had been largely a renegade middle-of-the-night activity, says Barry Newling, an official with the state government agency that owns and operates the span. He admits to hopping a gate and sneaking out over the harbor himself when he was a university student in the 1970s. “The bridge had no security on it,” he says.

But it would take nearly a decade to turn the climb into a business. When Cave requested government permission, he received a disappointing response: a letter with 64 reasons why he couldn’t safely do it.

Undeterred, he methodically began to address every objection. For example, the government was concerned that climbers would distract drivers. Cave’s answer: Outfit each visitor in a blue-grey jumpsuit that blends into the bridge.

Another worry was that customers could drop something on the roadway. “We don’t want things falling,” says Newling, who negotiated the latest bridge climb contract. “You can’t have any loose clothing, cameras, sunglasses. Imagine a camera falling from high and smashing a windscreen. You’d have a catastrophe.”

Cave’s response was to require all customers to pass through metal detectors.

Then there was the fear of drunk climbers. The answer: mandatory Breathalyzer tests.Other accommodations include outfitting climbers with helmets, headlamps, gloves, rain gear, and even handkerchiefs that clip to their suit, reducing the chance they’d drop onto the roadway.

Finally, after more than nine years of planning, Cave and his investors won permission to turn the Harbour bridge into a travel adventure, and it welcomed its first guest in October 1998.

How a commuter bridge turned into a bucket-list experience (3)

The thrill of urban adventures

The experience appealed to a new generation of thrill-seeking tourists. “People wanted more than just the usual, than just seeing the sites. They wanted to do things which at least on the surface look a little scary,” says David Beirman, an adjunct fellow at the University of Technology Sydney, where he teaches tourism and destination marketing. “The bridge climb ticked a lot of boxes.”

The climb also helped pave the way for a surge of new urban adventures, such as traversing glass-floored observation decks and scaling skyscrapers. “In a way the climb was really extreme tourism. It was a little bit ahead of its time,” Newling says.

When the bridge climb contract came up for renewal in 2018, officials ultimately awarded the concession to a company other than Cave’s. New offerings now include an Aboriginal-themed climb with an Indigenous storyteller who points out ancient landmarks and shares Sydney’s precolonial history.

In the decades since the first climb, the commuter crossing had been transformed “from a postcard to a global bucket list experience,” Cave said in a statement after his company lost the contract. “It has been a privilege for us to make a hero of the bridge.”


Since the Sydney Harbour Bridge Climb debuted in 1998, many other places have launched similar urban adventures. Here are a few:

Story Bridge Adventure Climb, Brisbane, Australia
Visitors reach a 262-foot deck over the Brisbane River, offering views of the city, mountains, and islands.

Matagarup Bridge Climb, Perth, Australia
Not only can customers ascend the suspension pedestrian bridge over the Swan River, but they can zipline down.

Akashi Kaikyo Bridge Tour, Kobe, Japan
Visitors follow a catwalk underone of the world’s longest suspension spans, and then take an elevator to the top of 948-foot-high bridge tower.

Auckland Bridge Climb, New Zealand
Along with climbing the bridge, thrill-seekers can bungee jump over Auckland Harbor.

Porto Bridge Climb, Portugal
The tour scales a concrete arch of the Arrábida Bridge, reaching more than 200 feet over the Porto River.

Bridge Walk, New River Gorge National Park, West Virginia
The walkway under the New River Gorge Bridge crosses a dizzying 876 feet above the water.

Larry Bleiberg is a Charlottesville, Virginia-based travel writer. Follow him onInstagram andFacebook.

A version of this story appears in the February 2024 issue ofNational Geographic Magazine.

How a commuter bridge turned into a bucket-list experience (2024)


How many steps up is the Sydney Harbour bridge? ›

It takes 1,332 steps to reach the top of the Summit, which is equivalent to 504 calories. 3. The Sydney Harbour Bridge is the world's largest steel arch bridge, totalling 1,149 metres. 4.

What bridges can you climb in Sydney? ›

Climb The Sydney Harbour Bridge.

What is the history of the Sydney Bridge climb? ›

History. The concept of BridgeClimb originated in 1989 when BridgeClimb's Founder and Chairman, Paul Cave, assisted in organising a Young Presidents Organisation World Congress in Sydney, which included a climb over the Sydney Harbour Bridge.

What is the name of the bridge in Sydney Australia? ›

The Sydney Harbour Bridge is one of the world's most recognisable landmarks. Not only is it the largest steel arch bridge on the planet, but it also spans one of the globe's finest natural harbours.

How difficult is the Sydney BridgeClimb? ›

Anyone who can sustain moderate physical exertion up to 3.5 hours over 1.75km should find the BridgeClimb exhilarating. If you're 75 years of age, or over, you can climb with a Certificate of Fitness signed by your GP.

How much does it cost to walk on top Sydney Harbour bridge? ›

The Sydney Harbour Bridge is spectacular and can be thoroughly enjoyed for FREE thanks to the protected walking path that goes from one shore to the other.

Is it illegal to climb the Sydney Harbour bridge? ›

The NSW Government has introduced increased penalties and new structural changes to prevent people climbing the Sydney Harbour Bridge illegally. The new security measures aim to minimise major traffic delays and increase the safety of innocent bystanders travelling on the bridge.

What should I wear on Sydney BridgeClimb? ›

Wear comfortable clothing on the day of your Climb (you may need to wear this under your Climb suit if the weather is on the chilly side for extra warmth!) Wear comfortable, enclosed rubber-soled shoes such as running, sport or hiking shoes. PVC and leather-soled shoes are not ideal.

How long does it take to walk over the Sydney Harbour Bridge? ›

The walk across the bridge should take from 15 to 30 minutes, depending on how many times you stop to admire the harbour and take photos. By walking across the bridge from north to south, you enjoy the best views because you are walking towards the city, not away from it.

Is the Sydney BridgeClimb free? ›

There are three ways to do the Sydney Harbour Bridge walk; The free pedestrian walkway at road level. The low-cost Pylon Lookout, and. The pricey Bridge Climb tour experience.

Do trains go over the Sydney Harbour Bridge? ›

Sydney Harbour Bridge is a major transportation channel linking the Sydney CBD to North Sydney. It moves approximately 160,000 road vehicles and 480 trains each day, and 1.3 million pedestrians and 400,000 bicyclists annually.

What is the underwater bridge in Sydney? ›

The Sydney Harbour Tunnel is made up of three sections: twin 900-metre land tunnels on the north shore, twin 400-metre land tunnels on the south shore and a 960-metre immersed tube across the harbour.

What bridge do you see when you get to Sydney Australia? ›

The Sydney Harbour Bridge is a steel through arch bridge in Sydney, New South Wales, Australia, spanning Sydney Harbour from the central business district (CBD) to the North Shore.

What are the 7 bridges in Sydney? ›

The loop links together the seven iconic bridges of Sydney the Sydney Harbour Bridge, Pyrmont Bridge, Anzac Bridge, Iron Cove Bridge, Gladesville Bridge, Tarban Creek Bridge and Fig Tree Bridge as well as other points of interest along the way like Barangaroo Reserve, Circular Quay, co*ckle Bay, Darling Harbour, the Bay ...

How long is the walk across Sydney Harbour bridge? ›

The walk across the bridge should take from 15 to 30 minutes, depending on how many times you stop to admire the harbour and take photos. By walking across the bridge from north to south, you enjoy the best views because you are walking towards the city, not away from it.

Is there a weight limit for the Sydney Bridge Climb? ›

BridgeClimb Sydney does not have a weight restriction however if you are on the larger size you may find it difficult or uncomfortable to walk along the catwalks before the ladders to the arch.

How far is the 7 bridges walk Sydney? ›

The course opens at 7:30am and closes at 4:30pm. We recommend if you wish to complete the entire 28km course to start your walk before 11am.

How many miles long is the Sydney Harbour bridge? ›

The bridge and its approach spans, totaling 2 3/4 miles in length, required 52,000 tons of steel and more than 6,000,000 rivets to construct, in a job that lasted nine years.

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