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Close up of Sydney Opera House
Photograph: Destination NSW

The 12 most beautiful buildings in Sydney

Take a tour of the city’s most striking structures – the old, the new and the controversial

Written by
Time Out editors
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Ok, we'll concede that Sydney has not done the best job in retaining its architectural heritage. The ease with which developers can knock down buildings and throw up new ones has robbed us of some treasures. Nevertheless, this is still the city that commissioned one of the most famous buildings in the world, and there are more than a few built wonders to admire, from grand colonial houses to post-modern marvels by design legends.

You can also visit some breathtaking examples of outdoor design in Sydney, at one of the prettiest public gardens in and around the city.

RECOMMENDED: Tiny homes and cosy cottages where you can stay in NSW.

Sydney's most beautiful buildings

  • Theatre
  • Sydney

Yes, yes, it's an obvious one, but this is the most instantly recognisable building in the world we're talking about. And in fact, despite its iconic status today, it’s something of a miracle that Jørn Utzon’s visionary design was chosen in the sleepy Australia of 1957 – although less surprising that Utzon was subsequently fired and his vision compromised. It’s still an impressive sight, almost five decades after it opened, and the Opera House offers different tours that allow you to get intimate with the building, including some hosted in different languages and full ‘experience' packages. If you don't feel like shelling out, it's still free to sit on the steps for a quick lunch and walk by the water and gaze in marvel at those 1,056,000 pearly, self-cleaning Swedish tiles. During Vivid Sydney they’re lit up with colourful projections. Bennelong Point, Sydney 2000.

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  • Sydney

Designed by George McRae to resemble a Byzantine palace, the QVB occupies an entire block on George Street, and once dominated the Sydney skyline with its dramatic domed roof – an inner glass dome encased by a copper-sheathed outer one. Completed in 1898 to celebrate Queen Victoria’s golden jubilee, it originally housed street markets. It has survived long periods of neglect, and demolition threats were finally quashed in the 1980s when a $75 million budget restored the building to its former grandeur. It now houses 200 outlets, including shops, cafés and restaurants. Of particular note are the coloured lead-light wheel windows, the cast-iron circular staircase and the original floor tiles and lift. 455 George St, Sydney 2000.

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Dr Chau Chak Wing Building
  • Things to do
  • Ultimo

After five years of public speculation about the design, this Frank Gehry building was opened in February 2015, at which time Governor-General Sir Peter Cosgrove (in reference to media commentary) described it as "the most beautiful squashed brown paper bag ever seen". The building has a 5 Star Green Star rating from the Green Building Council of Australia, with sustainable design elements including the timber used, energy and water efficient fixtures and services, and 20,000 litre rainwater tank. The Dr Chau Chak Wing Building is the home of the University of Technology Sydney's Business School, and you can view it from the vantage of the Goods Line, the urban walkway stretching from Central Station to Darling Harbour. 14-28 Ultimo Rd, Ultimo 2007.

  • Museums
  • Vaucluse

The oldest ‘house museum’ in Australia nestles prettily in a moated 19th-century estate, surrounded by ten hectares of prime land, with its own sheltered beach on Vaucluse Bay. From 1827-53 and 1861-62 this was the opulent home of William Charles Wentworth. The Historic Homes Trust has endeavoured to keep the place as it was when the Wentworths were in residence. In the kitchen a fire burns in the large grate and hefty copper pans line the walls; a tin bath, taken on European travels, still displays its sticker from London’s Victoria Station; the drawing room is sumptuously furnished, and has a door that hides a secret (just ask a guide to open it for you). Open Wednesday to Sunday. 69A Wentworth Rd, Vaucluse 2030.

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  • Museums
  • Sydney

Harry Seidler built this house, his first commission, between 1948 and 1950 for his parents, Rose and Max. The ambitious architect came over from New York, where he had been working for Bauhaus guru Marcel Breuer, specifically to build the house; it was the first local instance of ‘mid-century modern’ domestic architecture. The house is a flat single-storey box resting on a smaller box, with a section cut out to form a sun deck and floor-to-ceiling windows. The original 1950s colour scheme has been restored, and the furnishings are by important post-war designers such as Charles Eames and Eero Saarinen. Max and Rose Seidler lived in the house until 1967; it’s now run by Sydney Living Museums, and open to the public every Sunday. 71 Clissold Rd, Wahroonga 2076.

  • Things to do
  • Sydney

Designed in 1834 by William IV’s architect, Edward Blore, the plans for Government House (the official residence of the NSW governor) had to be modified to take account of local conditions, such as the Australian sun being in the north rather than the south. However, the original Gothic Revival concept remained, and today’s visitors can still enjoy the crenellated battlements and detailed interiors that look far more like a castle than any house we've seen. Past governors have dabbled in redecorating and extensions with mixed results, but the marvellously restored State Rooms are now the best example of Victorian pomp in the country. The current governor doesn’t live here, but it’s still used for state and vice-regal functions. Don’t miss the exotic gardens. Macquarie Street, Sydney NSW 2000.

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  • Things to do
  • Sydney

C Bruce Delitt caused an uproar in 1934 with the Art Deco geometry of his memorial in Hyde Park to the World War One dead. The memorial’s stepped roof recalls ancient ziggurats, while bronze bas-relief friezes by sculptor Rainer Hoff are a typical Art Deco touch. The $50 million Centenary Project upgrading the memorial, including Delitt’s original vision of a water cascade reaching Liverpool Street, has given this stunning monument a very cohesive glow-up. Hyde Park South, Sydney 2000.

  • Things to do
  • Walks and tours
  • Auburn

The most striking thing about the Auburn skyline is the white dome of the Auburn Gallipoli Mosque, flanked by two slender minarets rising out of a shallow valley along the railway. It’s a classical Ottoman-style mosque that was designed by Turkish architects, constructed from marble shipped over from Turkey and painted according to Turkish designs. Sadly the call to prayer can only be broadcast inside the building due to noise restrictions, but even without it, when you stand in the beautiful gardens of the mosque you feel like you could easily be in Istanbul. 15-19 North Pde, Auburn 2144.

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  • Shopping
  • Chippendale

This 2013 glass building is covered in greenery was designed by French architect Jean Nouvel and botanist Patrick Blanc. It’s the first of its kind in Australia thanks to its eco heliostat – a plane mirror which reflects sunlight, which conserves and produces solar power for the building. Urban sustainability is the name of the game, with low-emission central thermal tri-generation power plant, water recycling plant, rooftop gardens, smart metering systems and wide open green spaces. The building contains apartments, shops, restaurants and a 13-screen cinema. 28 Broadway, Chippendale 2008.

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  • City Life

Imagine if somebody wanted to demolish the Barbican in London and replace it with luxury apartments. That’s the situation faced by the 1979 Sirius public housing development, designed by Dutch-born Tao Gofers in the Brutalist style and taking the form of a stack of concrete boxes rising next to the Harbour Bridge in the Rocks. A contemporary critic complained it looked “as if designed by a group of droogs from Clockwork Orange" – which is why we love it. Its days may be numbered – all the inhabitants have been kicked out – but you can still admire it from the street. 38-70 Cumberland St, The Rocks 2000.

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  • Museums
  • Elizabeth Bay

No expense was spared on this handsome Greek Revival villa, designed by John Verge for NSW colonial secretary Alexander Macleay in 1839: it boasted the finest staircase in Australian colonial architecture, and breathtaking views of Elizabeth Bay and the harbour. But Macleay’s extravagance proved fatal, and his debt-ridden family were forced to move out. Over the years the grand old house was vandalised, partly demolished and finally divided into 15 studio flats. Now run by the Historic Houses Trust, the house once again breathes noblesse, wealth and good taste and is open to visit Friday to Sunday. Rooms are furnished as they would have been in 1839-45. 7 Onslow Ave, Elizabeth Bay 2011.

  • Travel
  • Sydney

This timelessly chic 382-room hotel is housed in an 11-storey corner block – a loose copy of the Tribune Tower in Chicago – that began life in 1930 as the headquarters of department store giant Grace Brothers. During World War II General MacArthur directed South Pacific operations from here. A total refurbishment was completed in 2005, but many of the original features, such as the lifts, stairwells, marble floors and ornate ironwork, have been retained and restored to their former glory. In the heart of the CBD, it cuts an impressive figure compared to many of the cookie-cutter towers of Sydney's urban epicentre, thanks to its Gothic Revival with an Art Deco twist design. 77 York St, Sydney NSW 2000.

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