Sydney’s larger museums and art galleries are where you can experience a well-rounded dose of arts and culture. However, for something a little offbeat (and sometimes more fun), we’ve found the most quirky, niche museums in Sydney; they’ll have you laughing, gagging and wondering in awe at vintage vehicles, magic tricks and the human body – all in the name of education.
Unusual museums in Sydney
It’s all aboard for a one-way trip to public transport geekery at the Sydney Bus Museum, which has a huge collection of vintage buses kept at the hundred-year-old Leichhardt Tramshed. You’ll be able to poke around everything from the 1924 Ruggles, a cute, boxy little thing for only 22 people, all the way up to those stuffy white-and-blue Mercedes-Benz buses, which have us reminiscing about peeling ourselves off the pleather seats on a sweaty summer afternoon. Unlike other museums, it’s all about interactivity here. You can peer into, climb on and nosy around many of the exhibits to your heart’s content, and the space is manned by enthusiastic and knowledgeable volunteers, many of whom are bus industry retirees who just couldn’t keep away. What takes a day at the Sydney Bus Museum to greater heights (literally) is that included in the ticket price is a ride to or from the QVB on a vintage double decker bus. Sit upstairs and enjoy the view as you whirr (at a low speed) over the Anzac Bridge, where you’ll get lots of quizzical looks from passing pedestrians.
We’ve been growing up on May Gibbs books for over a century now, meaning there’s plenty of happy nostalgia for young and old alike on a visit to the beloved author-illustrator’s home overlooking Neutral Bay. Hark back to when you were a wee gumnut yourself by reliving the adventures of Snugglepot and Cuddlepie featured on the watercolours, postcards and prints scattered throughout the mini-museum. What you may not expect is to learn is that Gibbs a phenomenally independent, ahead-of-her-time woman. We learn that being paid an eighth of what her male counterparts were earning when she worked as a newspaper cartoonist made Gibbs a shrewd businesswoman who supplemented her income by selling pictures to print on chocolate boxes, linens and bottles of ‘Snuggleport’. She also refused to cook or sew, often just eating apples and cheese during mealtimes, and that people frequently mistook her husband for her secretary, given she did the driving and he did the typing. The house itself is a carefully maintained example of Spanish mission architecture filled with mid-century furniture and lived-in knick-knacks that make the place transportative. After the tour you’re welcome to stick around and enjoy the gardens, perhaps with a cup of tea and a scone from the Nutcote’s small café. And don’t hesitate to pick up a bookmark on the way out – Gibbs bequeathed the copyright from her characters and stories to disability charities.
Hypochondriacs and WebMD enthusiasts, this one’s for you. For a stunning confrontation with your own mortality, pay a visit to this specialist museum housed within the University of New South Wales. In its possession are 2,000 specimens of human disease, obtained from the organs and tissue of autopsied patients who’ve generously given their bodies to science. You’ll see appetite-busting specimens of everything from tapeworms and typhoid to tuberculosis and teratoma, an alien-like tumour that grows its own hair, skin and teeth. Exhibits are accompanied by a detailed clinical history of the ill-fated donor patient, giving the weird fleshy bits you’re looking at some (sad) humanity. There are sections dedicated to lifestyle diseases that’ll have you signing up for the gym and throwing out your spirit cupboard, plus a trippy Oculus Rift exhibit where you can ‘walk’ through an artery. Sure, the lighting and décor are a little fusty lab-chic, but what’s inside the cabinets is some morbidly fascinating stuff. If you’re the kind of person who can’t watch an episode of Embarrassing Bodies without feeling your dinner shift north then this one’s not for you.
Given the Museum of Fire’s almost wilfully oblique name, many will have little idea of what to expect from this niche museum as they’re waved off by smiling front desk staff. Well, be prepared for a full frontal assault of super-eerie life-sized dioramas illustrating the horrors of home fires. They don’t hold back – we’re talking flame-blackened bedrooms, shredded curtains, melted appliances on gloriously ’80s retro fit-outs, and even burnt dolls and teddy bears to really drive fear into the depths of the heart. Each exhibit is peppered with urgent all-caps signs blaring ‘KEEP CURTAINS SECURED AND AWAY FROM COOKING APPLIANCES’ and ‘IT TOOK 12 SECONDS FOR THIS SET OF PYJAMAS TO BURN’. If you can fight through the urge to rush home and check you’ve turned off the stove, the rest of the museum swaps trauma for awe, with an extensive collection of historical fire trucks. There are some seriously regal vehicles here, stretching as far back as horse-drawn fire carts from the 1800s. They’ve also amassed a catalogue of ornate brass helmets and uniforms from Australian firefighting history, plus bushfire tankers used during the war, and (if you’re a real emergency services nerd) you can flick through district station records from the last 100 years.
Melbourne may be known for them, but Sydney was the OG tram city, with an extensive network that operated for 100 years until the mid 1900s – even the Harbour Bridge opened with two tram lanes. At the Sydney Tramway Museum you’ll get a first-hand feel for how families in the olden days got to the city, beach and everywhere in between. The Loftus museum operates vintage tram rides every Wednesday and Sunday over four kilometres of track to the Sutherland and Royal National Park. We recommend going for the latter option – you’ll end up at a picturesque little picnic spot so bring a spread (there’s a tiny kiosk for ice creams and sausage rolls), before heading back into the 21st century. Back at the museum they’ve got an extensive collection of tram cars lovingly restored by an army of volunteers, who meticulously log their progress online. The delight is in the detail – from wooden interiors to the vintage advertisements still lining the ceilings. They’ve also got specimens from overseas, including San Francisco, Nagasaki, Milan and Berlin, plus the city’s only “prison tram”, which carted crooks between Darlinghurst Courthouse and Long Bay Gaol.
The Magicians Cabaret Theatre has long been favourite with out-of-towners, known for their flashy dinner shows packed with old world Paris-inspired dance, song and magic. But they also keep a side hustle, operating the mysterious Australian Museum of Magical Arts by day. Those who still dust off their David Copperfield or Penn and Teller DVDs every Christmas will get a kick out of seeing tonnes of magic paraphernalia up close. And yes, you’ll learn the mechanics of a few entry-level tricks (after you sign a ‘magician’s oath’ of secrecy). Razzle dazzle aside, it’s the exhibits detailing the history of the craft – the plans, patents, costumes and literature – that hold much more allure. They too, have a grand reveal: the enormous levels of human inventiveness and imagination that go into creating magic.
Delve deeper into our history
Not just places for school excursions and escaping the summer sun, Sydney’s museums are where you’ll uncover stories about the people who’ve made this city what it is today, its natural history and the science, design and innovation that’ll propel us into the future.