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Paul Yore: Word Made Flesh at Carriageworks
Photograph: Supplied/Carriageworks

Sydney Festival’s best free and cheap events in 2023

Here are our top picks of the most wallet-friendly arts events this summer

Alannah Maher
Written by
Alannah Maher
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Disposable income shouldn’t be a barrier to squeezing the most out of artsy and cultural offerings. The city is set to sizzle when Sydney Festival fires up the summertime revelry with 25 days of events this January. There are more than 100 events to  choose from – 26 of those will be free, and a bunch of them won’t cost you an arm and a leg either. 

If you won’t make it to Sydney this summer or you’re staying home for any reason, the Sydney Festival At Home program has been created so anyone, anywhere, on any device can discover and enjoy Sydney Festival content any time. It features an evolving mix of livestreams, work from emerging artists and more – and it is all totally free to view.

Meanwhile, if you’re getting out and about, we’ve rounded up our top picks of free Sydney Festival experiences, as well as events for under $30 and less than $50. Bust out your planner and fire up the group chat, it’s time to make this a summer to remember, at any budget. 

Thirsty for live music? Sydney Festival's music programmer shared his top gig picks with us.

The best FREE Sydney Festival events

Art at Carriageworks
Photograph: Supplied/Carriageworks | The Huxleys, ‘Hibiscus’, 2022

Art at Carriageworks

Carriageworks is being transformed into a portal of colourful, queer new reality this summer. With the joint powers of Paul Yore’s installation Word Made Flesh and the Huxleys’ exhibition Bloodlines combined, you can immerse yourself in a whole lot of glittery good times and historical tidbits. Conceived as a cacophonous, kaleidoscopic ‘gesamtkunstwerk’, Word Made Flesh imagines a queer alternative reality, erected from the wasteland of the Anthropocene, performatively implicating itself into the debased spectacle of hyper-capitalist society. Meanwhile, Bloodlines utilises the artists’ skills in costume design, performance and photography. This major new exhibition from Melbourne’s dynamic duo honours legendary queer artists lost to the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Better yet, everyone is invited to get into the disco rhythm of it all at Bloodlines’ Opening Night Party (Wed, Jan 4, 7-10.30pm), featuring live performances from the Huxleys, Betty Grumble, Aaron Manhattan, Benjamin Hancock, Felicia Foxx, Simone Page Jones and banging tunes from DJ Charlie Villas.

From Jan 5. Carriageworks, Eveleigh. FREE. 

Offering free gigs at dusk in the Seymour Centre courtyard and coinciding with four brilliant Sydney Festival events, Seymour Nights will champion local artists and new sounds, featuring performances by Montgomery Church, the Dollar Bin Darlings, Elana Stone and more talented performers. With an outdoor bar, vintage games and food truck fare to snaffle up, get into a night of live music from some of Australia's most vibrant voices and ensembles, all in the leafy, summery surrounds of the Seymour courtyard. Explore the full Seymour Nights at Sydney Festival program here.

January 5-22. Seymour Centre, Chippendale. FREE.

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New major public artworks by First Nations artist Brenda L. Croft have been unveiled along Barangaroo's waterfront. The outdoor exhibition, titled Naabami (thou shall/will see): Barangaroo (army of me), has just launched as part of Sydney Festival. The installation is all about honouring the area's namesake, ancestral Cameraygal woman Barangaroo (c. 1750 to 1791), and her legacy. It features 60 large-scale photographic portraits of contemporary First Nations women and girls, including minister for Indigenous Australians Linda Burney, environmentalist Lille Madden, blues songwriter and performer Marlene Cummins, and director first nations at the Powerhouse, Emily McDaniel.

Jan 5-29. Barangaroo waterfront. FREE.

Sydney Festival events under $30

Lock yourself in solitude inside the safe of an Art Deco hotel. English jazz musician and spoken word poet Alabaster DePlume has prepared a piece, in isolation, for you to experience in your own isolation. Promising poetry and soundscapes that no one else will ever hear.

January 10-29, Kimpton Margot Hotel, 39 Pitt St. $29+BF.

There’s a very good chance you’ve strolled by it a hundred times walking through the CBD, but now Sydneysiders will be able to discover what’s inside the distinctive ‘Mushroom Building’ in Martin Place. During Sydney Festival, the below-ground level is opening up for a limited time only, as this unpretentious and unrenovated space transports Sydneysiders back to a '70s-style underground live-music haunt. Across 16 nights of eclectic, cutting-edge music programming, visitors to the Fest’s pop-up after-dark venue can hear punk to pop, jazz to metal, indie to ambient and plenty in between. And, of course, there will be ample opportunities for a dance. Expect performances from Alice Skye, Lil Silva, Potion, Party Dozen, Coloured Stone, HTRK and more.

January 5-29. The Weary Traveller is at the CTA Business Club, Martin Place. Entry from $29. 

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Head down to the bowling alley for an inspiring, involving and highly original all-ages dance work. Adelaide’s award-winning company Restless Dance Theatre brings its movement magic straight to the heart of a Sydney games arcade for a family day out with a difference. Performed across the lanes and around the audience, Guttered is both captivating and playful, as it explores the power of making one’s own mistakes, and the ways people living with disability are often over-protected. Bring the kids and make a day of it by enjoying a game or two after the show. As the only patrons allowed in the arcade on performance days, Guttered audience members will have the run of the place.

January 18-20. Kicks Tenpin & Arcade, Parramatta Leagues Club. $20-$30+BF.

Sydney Festival events under $50

Sydney Town Hall will be filled with 26 tonnes of sand for this operatic experience that must be seen to be believed. Sun & Sea is a durational English-language opera work performed in the round (and on the sand), and viewed from the balcony above. Written and created by Lithuanian artists Rugilė Barzdžiukaitė, Vaiva Grainytė, and Lina Lapelytė, this sensory performance confronts themes of climate emergency with humour and power.

January 6-8. Sydney Town Hall, 483 George Street. $39+BF.

Nineties nostalgia just got physical. To a soundtrack of floor-filling bangers from what was arguably pop’s finest era. This high-energy circus-comedy-cabaret extravaganza is a toe-tapping love letter to the style, music and sass of the 1990s. The show is stacked with big tricks and even bigger characters, like world-famous hula hooper Lisa Lottie, musclebound strong woman Cassie Jamieson and celebrated circus legend Vincent Van Berkel. Throw on some Spandex, a cute choker and some low-rise jeans and get ready for an over-the-top ensemble performance that will suck you into an Oz Style fever dream.

January 12-22. The Seymour Centre, Chippendale. $30-$59+BF.

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Step into a den of delight in the heart of Sydney Festival. Cabaret's rare jewel and your host for the evening, Andrew Bukenya, will invite you into Darlo’s intimate underground space to join in a night of frivolity, glamour and delight. Joining you in our piano bar will be the cream of Sydney’s music scene, including legends of cabaret, classical, jazz and musical theatre. With a different guest every night, Darlo Supper Club is the place to be to sip Champagne, devour delicious delicacies and be delighted by Andrew and his guests.

January 24-29. Eternity Playhouse, Darlinghurst. $45+BF.

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