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People gather around a giant, glowing pink-and-purple Christmas bauble
Photograph: Darling Harbour

Seven ways to celebrate Christmas at Darling Harbour

'Tis the season to be jolly at Sydney’s favourite playground by the harbour

By Time Out in association with Darling Harbour
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The holiday season is upon us – yes, already! – and it’s just as well, because we’ve been itching to get out and about, socialise and gather with loved ones after a long year. One of the best places to do it all is Darling Harbour, a long-loved and ever-changing precinct that is like nowhere else in the world. A family haven by day and a buzzing scene by night, this waterfront playground is turning it on with special holiday events to suit every age, budget, interest or occasion. We’ve rounded up seven of the best ways to celebrate the festive season in the heart of the Harbour City.

Want to win the ultimate Darling Harbour Christmas experience? You can choose from two massive prize packages worth thousands of dollars when you enter this festive competition. From tickets to Guy Sebastian's national tour, a two-night stay at the Sofitel Sydney Darling Harbour and $350 worth of dining vouchers to a night at Novotel Sydney Darling Square, an annual pass to all Merlin attractions (including Sea Life Sydney Aquarium and Madame Tussauds Sydney) and a private gondola ride on the Darling Harbour Ferris Wheel, this is your chance to have a Christmas you won't ever forget.

Enter here, or look out for the stickers on the floor around Darling Harbour, scan the QR codes and fill in your details – it's that easy. Plus, there will be fun games on social media to play that will double your chances of winning. Good luck!

Celebrate the festive season in Darling Harbour

Marvel at an entrancing and inspiring new piece of public art
Photograph: Darling Harbour/Zhu Rui

Marvel at an entrancing and inspiring new piece of public art

A dreamy new art installation has landed in Tumbalong Park in the heart of Darling Harbour to spread joy and holiday cheer. Sky Castle features a cluster of giant arches that light up with colours and sound in response to the movement of visitors underneath them. The effect is something like a magical xylophone: as people enter and leave, the music crescendos and subsides like a lush orchestral piece. Created by art and technology studio ENESS, the work has been made to feel like a miniature city of rainbows, evoking the hope that comes after every storm. It will be available to view from November 12 to December 26.

Sail across or above the shimmering harbour waters
Photograph: Darling Harbour/Craven Images

Sail across or above the shimmering harbour waters

There are two brilliant ways to bask in the sparkly harbour waters this summer (that don’t require a yacht budget). First, grab a mate or a date for a spin in a pedal boat and cruise around in style as you admire your picturesque surrounds. Seating up to four people with shade cover to keep you cool, you’ll get a gentle leg workout as you glide past giant Christmas baubles floating around Cockle Bay. If you prefer to sit back and let someone else do the work for you, hitch a ride on the Darling Harbour ferris wheel – the best vantage point to see all the festivities, lights and decorations adorning the precinct. Whisk away friends, family or a special someone for 360-degree views of the Sydney skyline from 32 metres above the ground. 

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Capture a colourful memory with giant Christmas decorations
Photograph: Darling Harbour/Bronnie Barnett

Capture a colourful memory with giant Christmas decorations

Break out your biggest smiles and best poses in front of larger-than-life decorations dotted around the harbour. Start at the Convention Centre Forecourt, where a six-metre-high giant bauble will light up its surroundings – and your selfies – in kaleidoscopic colour. Over at Darling Square a glowing tunnel of fairy lights will greet you near the Exchange building. Come and make a wish for a golden year to come, and have your phone handy so you can share the magical moment on the ‘gram. Finally, travel along the boulevard to visit the six-feet-tall Christmas presents shimmering over Tumbalong Boulevard and pretend to be one of Santa’s elves as you pose for an adorably oversized piccy.

Get in the holiday spirit with a festival of free, family-friendly entertainment
Photograph: Darling Harbour

Get in the holiday spirit with a festival of free, family-friendly entertainment

The flurry of gifts and non-stop shenanigans that accompany the holiday season can be brutal on the budget, which is why the Darling Harbour Christmas Festival, supported by 2DayFM, is providing free entertainment, fun activities and prizes for the whole family to enjoy. Over two weekends in December (11-12 and 18-19) Tumbalong Park will come alive with plenty of holiday cheer, with a live Christmas concert hosted by Emma Palmer from Play School. It will feature headline performances from Mahalia Barnes, Monica Trapaga and the Guardians of Groove, Prinnie Stevens and Jade MacRae, plus DJs, a special super group of Sydney musicians, and performers from the Australian Institute of Music and Destructive Dance Steps. There will also be face painting, giveaways by the 104.1 2DayFM Black Thunder crew and an exciting appearance from Santa himself. Don't miss the tasty line-up of food stalls (with goodies from Toastiesmith, Mr Bao and KOI Dessert Bar), or the pop-up bar. And from December 1-12 you’ll be able to stretch out any end-of-year tension with 12 days of free yoga sessions. Led by resident instructor DeeDee Connor and held on the Village Green at Darling Quarter, the classes are open to both adults and kids.

 

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Reunite with loved ones over a festive drink by the water
Photograph: Darling Harbour

Reunite with loved ones over a festive drink by the water

Summer is the season of frosty beers al fresco, after-work cocktails and Champagne toasts long into the night – which is exactly what we’re all craving after months spent in lockdown. And if this festive season marks the first time you’re catching up freely with friends and family, you’re going to want to make sure the drinks are ice-cold and flowing. Luckily, Darling Harbour has a bar to suit your needs. Watch the sunset with a spritz in hand on Café del Mar’s rooftop terrace, as resident DJs bring the party energy every Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Feeling fancy? Pop champers over million-dollar harbour views and French-inspired morsels at the Champagne Bar by Sofitel, or go casual with a few tinnies from Bucket Boys, which stock an extensive range of craft beers (and some natural wines to boot). Over at the Watershed Hotel there are classic pub favourites with a contemporary twist to enjoy, while late-night cigar lounge Cohibar is the ideal place to take in Sydney’s glittering skyline over a nightcap. Or why not sip cocktails in the clouds at Zephyr, on level 12 of the Hyatt Regency Sydney – this open-air oasis boasts the city's largest range of digestives and aperitifs. And finally, don’t forget Pontoon Bar. The waterfront venue on Cockle Bay Wharf is much-loved for its slick interior, cracking cocktails and good vibes.

Book a fine dining experience you won’t soon forget
Photograph: Sea Life Sydney Aquarium

Book a fine dining experience you won’t soon forget

After months apart there’s no better way to convene with loved ones than over a bountiful feast, and Darling Harbour rises to the occasion with several options for fancy dining. Up on the mezzanine level of the Darling Exchange (aka the Bird’s Nest) is XOPP, a modern Cantonese restaurant from the folks behind Chinatown legend Golden Century – whatever you do, start with the namesake XO pippies to find out why it’s one of Sydney’s most loved dishes. Over at Nick’s on Cockle Bay Wharf you can partake in the quintessential summer pastime of eating seafood by the water, with platters of fresh lobsters, prawns and oysters stacked high. After a truly unforgettable meal? You can now book a private dinner at Sea Life Aquarium, where you’ll have turtles, rays, sharks and tropical fish cruising past as you partake in a three-course dinner. Alternatively, retreat to the Gardens by Lotus for a spot of serenity. Located by a koi pond inside the beautiful Chinese Garden of Friendship, get your serve of their signature dumpling selection from Wednesday to Friday, and enjoy bottomless yum cha on weekends.

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Keep it casual at one of these relaxed eateries
Photograph: Darling Harbour

Keep it casual at one of these relaxed eateries

If you’re looking for something more friendly on the wallet, there are also a raft of casual eateries that offer princely feeds on a midweek budget. Japanese-inspired watering hole Harajuku Gyoza lends itself to boisterous group dinners, filling you up with izakaya-style snacks, house-brewed beer and a lively atmosphere. Modern Vietnamese eatery Hello Auntie’s bottomless spritz brunch is back, swapping $70 for cocktails and zingy dishes like cured salmon with crême fraîche, tamarind gel and Jerusalem artichoke. Over at Auvers Café the team are dishing up photogenic brunches alongside dreamy art on the walls (that you can purchase, too). Meanwhile, family feasting is catered for at waterfront restaurant Planar, which boasts a mod-Oz menu encompassing big brekkies, burgers and pizzas, and at Braza Churrascaria, which offers a Brazilian barbecue experience complete with giant skewers of meat carved at the table. And for unbeatable views of Darling Harbour, grab a table on the balcony at Blackbird Café and chow down on everything from salt and pepper squid to pork ribs.

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