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Close up of Sydney Opera House
Photograph: Destination NSW

How to have the ultimate arts escape in Sydney

Don't let the Sydney's stunning natural beauty deceive you – the city is the perfect escape for culture vultures

Written by
Time Out editors
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Melbourne sure likes to claim the title of "Australia's cultural capital", but there are other cities in Australia that house a world-class arts industry. 

Consider this: if Melbourne is a dark and mysterious Charles Blackman painting, then Sydney is a bright and colourful Grace Cossington Smith. Colour, light and heat pervades Sydney and it’s reflected in the city’s zest for culture, not to mention its dining scene and penchant for the outdoors.

Planning an arts and culture escape to Sydney? Here's our guide to making the most of a creative getaway in the Harbour City. 

Recommended: 50 things everyone in Sydney needs to do at least once.

Do
Photograph: Creative Commons

Do

It’s fair to say that anyone who’s grown up in Australia is fairly familiar with the Sydney Opera House. Or are you? As it turns out, there’s a tonne of history, stories and facts about this iconic building that would surprise even a dedicated Sydneysider – and you can find out all about them on one of the Sydney Opera House tours.

These tours take you to all the nooks and crannies that you wouldn’t normally see at a regular Opera House event while also sharing with you some of the venue’s colourful history – from construction disputes to live chickens on cellists. 

You’ll also get to peek inside the new digital experience, which recreates the Sydney Opera House concert experience in an immersive digital theatre.

If you want to visit the raw, beating heart of Sydney's creativity, put aside at least half a day to visit Newtown. The inner west suburb is humming with creativity, with its main drag, King Street, packed with cafés and cool stores. While you could spend all day exploring its every laneway and sidestreet, for first-timers, the big drawcards in Newtown are its array of vintage fashion stores and its collection of street art. 

If the allure vintage and upcycled fashion is what hooks you, drop into stores like Vintage@313, Cream and Uturn to trawl through the thousands of retro threads. The stores themselves are well worth a stickybeak too, even if you’re not set on buying. 

Now if you’re keen to discover Newtown’s street art, it is entirely possible to do so using the “what’s that over there” technique. However, if you’d like a wee bit of guidance, the Newtown Grafitti Map shows you where all the major murals are scattered around the suburb.

If you're interested in the visual arts, a trip to Art Gallery of New South Wales is a must. The grand gallery was established in 1871 and is the leading museum of art in New South Wales and Sydney, as well as one of Australia's foremost cultural institutions. It holds significant collections of Australian, European and Asian art, and presents nearly 40 exhibitions annually. When we visited the showstopping exhibition was Streeton (Nov 7, 2020-Feb 14, 2021), the most significant survey of Australian impressionist, Arthur Streetonthat has ever been held. Notably, AGNSW is the home of the Archibald Prize, arguably Australia's most famous art prize. 

And although White Rabbit Gallery doesn't have the same impressive facade of AGNSW, it's certainly one gallery not to miss. You'll find Judith Neilson's four-storey temple to contemporary Chinese art in Chippendale where it houses one of the world's largest collections of 21st-century Chinese art in a sleek modern outfit. 

You'll also want to make time to pop into the Museum of Contemporary Art. The MCA is one of Australia's leading institutions of art by living artists, and regularly hosts exhibitions that present contemporary artists (both Australian and international) in a manner accessible to all visitors – not just those with an understanding of art history and terms.

Eat
Photograph: Anna Kucera

Eat

Everyone who visits Sydney should really go to Bondi institution, Icebergs, at least once in their life. Not only will you be treated to fine food, but you’ll also be privy to some of the Harbour City’s best views (when we visited we were treated to a literal rainbow over Bondi Beach at sunset) along with a selection of its most stylish set. 

The location of the restaurant is just the entrée; the combination of refined Italian fare and elegant service is really what puts Icebergs in our restaurant hall of fame (quite, literally).

Before checking out the art, entertainment and shopping of Newtown, we suggest fueling up at Cuckoo Callay. This dinky train station café speaks right to Melbourne’s “cafés should be squished into any and all available street space” maxim. Whether you choose to sit inside or outside, there’s an air of the bohemian about the venue, which serves up an all-day menu of brunch and brunch-adjacent fare. There's a strict no bookings policy so head there on a weekday for your best chance of being seated (or opt for takeaway from the window stall).

If you want food as pretty as Sydney itself, Concrete Jungle should be on your list. Conveniently located in Chippendale (an easy walk from Central Station), this café is all about serving up wholesome meals that just happen to look incredible at the same time.

For an edible representation of Sydney, order Concrete Jungle’s signature dish, the Blue Majik Smoothie bowl. The dish consists of banana, pineapple, coconut milk and blue spirulina blended and topped with puffed granola, blueberries, toasted coconut and edible flowers. It looks like the beach and tastes like a summer holiday. If you’d prefer heartier fare, there’s plenty of traditional options available – though if ordering toast we’d recommend opting for it with the house-made banana and blueberry jam.

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Drink
Photograph: Anna Kucera

Drink

The semi-subterranean Poly might technically be a wine bar, but it's pretty easy to spoil your dinner by generously sampling the bar snacks menu. They say don't fill up on bread but it's hard advice to follow with Poly's anchovy toasts. The grilled mortadella is lighter, though packed with flavour thanks to the pineapple mostarda that turns it into something akin a Hawaiian pizza.

A selected list of wines by the glass is offset by the extensive bottle list, which is largely European. It's not all wine at Poly, though, with a number of sake, cocktails, beers and ciders available too from a bar staff who clearly know their stuff.

Bodega x Wyno is a wine and tapas bar brought to you by the Porteño restaurant family. The venue is a delightful Frankenstein's monster of sorts, combining Surry Hill's old Bodega tapas bar with the site's former occupant, Italian wine bar 121BC.

Its lineage means Bodega x Wyno allows guests to experience the best of both worlds, whether you're looking for a shared dinner of small plates or an evening sampling fines wines. The team know their stuff too; instead of offering wines by the bottle or the glass, all wines are effectively available by the glass. Simply let your server know what sort of wines you're into and they'll find something to suit your tastes. And if nothing else, be sure to order the fish fingers, garlicky slices of charred toast topped with tender ceviche. 

  • Hotels
  • Boutique hotels
  • Surry Hills

From the website through to the minimalist lobby, every detail in Paramount House Hotel has been carefully considered, meticulously placed and kept affectionately local.

On our recent visit, we stayed in one of the loft rooms, a stylish two-storey space with a secluded courtyard and an elevated bed (complete with the softest linen) overlooking the living space. 

Regarding amenities, the room is kitted out with Aesop hand soap and cream, but also shampoo, conditioner and shower gel in the shower and bath. With loft rooms, you'll want to be very comfortable with any potential roommates because while there's a separate room for the toilet, the shower and bath unit is in the living space. 

Shrug off that prudity by popping open one local bevvies found in the mini-bar fridge tucked away under the sink, which doubles as your dresser, kitchenette and bathroom mirror.

Your mini-bar is a cut above the industry standard and, in addition to a premium selection of beers and wines, comes stocked with all the accoutrements to make a fine cheese platter. Of course, if you don't want to sloth out inside, the hotel is next door to Chin Chin as well as around the corner from DOC. Or enjoy the best of both worlds and order delivery to enjoy as room service.

Want to catch a show while in Sydney?

  • Theatre
  • Theatre & Performance

If you find yourself developing cabin fever during lockdown, then shake it off with Sydney Dance Company (SDC). You can take advantage of their brand new online offering, Classes on Demand. Filmed in SDC’ iconic Wharf Studios, nestled under the Harbour Bridge, Classes On Demand is a DIY library of video sessions that will teach you a raft of dance styles pitched at all levels of ability, from beginners to professionals who need to stay limber in lockdown. It doesn’t even matter if you’re dead set on becoming a dancer, the classes are just as cool for workout routines, or to have a bit of a giggle at your totally un-co ways while sinking wine. It's $29.95 for a month-long subscription, which is basically a dollar a day, with no lock-in contracts. You can access Classes On Demand by creating a subscription here. “Dance is the perfect way to maintain your physical and mental health while having fun,” says Rafael Bonachela, SDC’s artistic director. “Taught by some of Australia’s best teachers, including former Sydney Dance Company dancers, it’s a library of online classes that you can access whenever suits you and wherever you are.” Love SDC? Here's what you can look forward to later in the year. 

  • 5 out of 5 stars
  • Theatre
  • Musicals
  • Darling Harbour

Is Hamilton, the smash-hit American history musical that won a whopping 11 Tony Awards and a Pulitzer Prize when it debuted on Broadway in 2015 and won the hearts of critics and audiences the world over, as good as everyone says? In a word, yes. If you want to stop reading here and just book your tickets, we’ll understand.  There is a reason it is the most hyped show on Earth, and its writer and first star, Lin-Manuel Miranda, is now a household name. Some 3 million people watched the musical when it appeared on Disney Plus in July 2020, and almost 8 million more have seen it live, in cities across the US and in London’s West End. Now it’s Sydney’s turn, with the only production of the show in the world right now playing at the Lyric Theatre.  With the soundtrack available on Spotify and the original Broadway cast version available to anyone with a Disney Plus account on demand, Hamilton is competing not so much with other musicals for your dollars and attention (there are no other shows of this type that can match the show’s tactical brilliance), but with itself. Most in the audience are at least familiar with the show by this point, and quite a few are able to mouth along to every word behind their masks. If you can see the original Broadway version any time you want and listen to the soundtrack 24 hours a day, what power does the staged version still hold?  In a word, magic. The entire cast is extraordinary, with every dance move sharp as a tack and the constantly shifting

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  • Theatre
  • Musicals

If you're an Alanis stan, chances are you've been singing ‘All I Really Want,’ at the top of your lungs in readiness for Morissette’s hit musical Jagged Little Pill arriving in Sydney. Unfortunately, in a bummer note that wouldn’t be amiss in the roll-call disappointments in ‘Ironic’, the show has been postponed until as-yet-unannounced dates in 2022 because of the ongoing lockdown. That means we’ll have to wait a little longer to see the swish multimillion-dollar refurbishment of the Theatre Royal too. Ironically enough, the five Grammy Award-winning album was sadly shuttered three months into its New York run by the unfolding global shemozzle of 2020. It's a big blow for teenagers in the mid-‘90s who thrashed out in front of a mirror screaming, “You, you, you oughta know…” into a hairbrush. The smash-hit Broadway musical is adapted from the revered (by a certain generation) Canadian singer-songwriter’s seminal album of the same name. Relaying the pressures of love and life on the suburban Healy family, trying to overcome the scar of a shocking event in their community, the show hangs on a mum named after album track ‘Mary Jane’. The gloriously emo lyrics of adored hits like ‘You Oughta Know,’ ‘Hand In My Pocket,’ and the ironically unaware of the actual meaning of ‘Ironic’ form the basis of the pop-rock show's emotional beats. And as a bonus, Morissette has written two brand-new tunes too. It's all about hope, and that’s surely something to cling onto in these still unsure

  • Theatre
  • Musicals
  • Sydney

Disco is back, baby! It’s time to dust off your sequin jumpsuit and polish the mirror ball, because the Studio at Sydney Opera House is set to play host to a sparkly cast of acrobats, aerialists and vocalists in Velvet Rewired running from October 1 to November 14. The new show premiered at the 2020 Adelaide Fringe Festival to rave reviews. Starring the inimitable Marcia Hines – who is reprising her role as ‘the Diva’ from the original Velvet production – Velvet Rewired transports audiences back to the 1970s when the heels were high, the hair was big and the parties were wild. It tells the story of a young man on a journey of self-discovery and redemption, while also paying homage to Studio 54, the famed New York nightclub that was all about glamour and excess. At the helm of this production will be award-winning theatre director, Craig Ilot (he also directed the 2015 stage version). Joining Marcia Hines in key roles is a talented line-up of performers, including Tom Sharah, Joe Accuria and hula hoop extraordinaire, Craig Reid. And with an epic soundtrack featuring dance floor anthems like ‘It’s Raining Men’ by the Weather Girls, ‘Ain’t Nobody’ by Chaka Khan and Rufus, and the Patrick Hernandez classic, ‘Born to be Alive’, it promises to be a euphoric celebration that will have you singing along in your seat. Tickets for this cabaret spectacular are available now (with a special under-30s price on Tuesdays to Thursdays), so if it’s a guaranteed good time that you’re after – w

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  • Theatre
  • Theatre & Performance

Fans of The Phantom of the Opera primed for peak chandelier-dropping will have to wait a little bit longer to see West Side Story star Josh Piterman play the mask-wearing proponent in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s world-famous musical. Opera Australia (OA) has announced that both the Sydney Opera House run in September and Arts Centre Melbourne run in November have been postponed to as yet unannounced dates in 2022. The decision was made to protect the health and safety of the community in both cities currently in lockdown. The lockdown scuppered work on sets and costumes, with the enforced closure of OA’s manufacturing workshops, and also prevented rehearsals. Even after both cities re-open, there will most likely be restrictive capacity limits in place that would not allow a show of this scale to get enough bums on seats to break even. OA’s artistic director Lyndon Terracini said, "This has been a really difficult decision…  After making box office history at the Opera House, it was clear that Australians were very excited about this new production of the world’s most successful musical, and we’d brought together a fantastic cast of Australian performers. It’s heartbreaking to have to postpone." OA is encouraging ticket holders to keep their tickets for 2022. They will be contacted when new dates are announced. Don't despair. Here are some awesome cultural events you can stream online.  

  • 5 out of 5 stars
  • Theatre
  • Musicals
  • Haymarket

UPDATE, June 28: As of June 26, the Greater Sydney region including the Central Coast, the Blue Mountains and Wollongong is under a compulsory two-week lockdown until 11.59pm on July 9. Many events in Sydney have therefore been cancelled or postponed until after this period. There is something perfect about Come From Away being the first theatre back on Melbourne's main stages. The musical is set on 9/11 in the tiny town of Gander, Newfoundland, to which 38 planes were diverted when United States airspace was closed in the wake of the terrorist attack. The almost 7,000 passengers on board, terrified, claustrophobic and desperate for news about what was happening, were taken in by the people of Gander and surrounding towns, nearly doubling the population for five days. The townsfolk gave them food, shelter and most importantly, kindness and comfort during the most horrific time in recent American history – until 2020, of course.  The underlying message of kindness and compassion in the face of unspeakable horror is one that's sorely needed right now. When the planes begin to land, the women of Gander start up a collection for donations, with a song that could have been penned last year: "Can I help? Is there something I need to do, something to keep me from thinking of all the scenes on the tube? I need something to do 'cause I can't watch the news, no I can't watch the news anymore..." The feeling of helplessness, of being unable to tear yourself away from the news and of de

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  • Theatre
  • Musicals

NOTE: This show has been postponed until 2022. You can read more here. We've spoken about ghosts at the Sydney Opera House before, and the lights left on to keep them company. But now the greatest phantom of them all is set to haunt the iconic white sails. Opera Australia, in association with The Really Useful Group, will strike up the discordant organ to announce, with a caped flourish, the arrival of arguably Andrew Lloyd Webber's most famous musical. The Phantom of the Opera will open on September 3, with West Side Story star Josh Piterman in the title role (and ghoulish half face mask). The Aussie star recently brought The Music of the Night to the West End, playing the Phantom in London right up until that production was forced to shut down. “Words cannot describe how I feel about being cast in this Sydney Opera House season,” Piterman says. "The role of the Phantom has truly been a lifelong dream of mine and donning the mask on the West End stage in such a legendary production was magical in every way. Experiencing the global effects of [lockdown], especially on the theatre industry over the past year, has been difficult for so many. Which makes it an even bigger honour to now be able to play the Phantom at home, helping to resurrect our industry and bring people back to our theatres.”  He’ll be joined by rising star Amy Manford as ingénue Christine, the chorus singer whose heavenly voice draws the Phantom up from the pit. The WA soprano has many strings to her bow, hav

  • Theatre

If you’re the designated ticket-booker in your theatre-going party, you know how stressful it can be to pick the right seats. How far back can you sit and still make out an actor’s facial expressions? Will you end up with neck cramp if you sit in row B? Just how restricted is that ‘restricted view’ seat on the side? Will you feel like you’re in another postcode if you can only afford the back row? What even is the difference between the stalls and circle? (Hint: stalls are always downstairs – the upstairs balconies in a theatre are called the circle or the mezzanine). Over our many hours spent sitting and awing at dramas and comedies and one-woman experimental monologues, we’ve gathered plenty of intel on exactly where you want to be in our city’s most important theatres. Here are our tips, from the absolute best seats to the surprising bargains you can sometimes nab. RECOMMENDED: How to score cheap theatre tickets in Sydney. 

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  • Theatre
  • Musicals

UPDATE, July 9: As of June 26, the Greater Sydney region including the Central Coast, the Blue Mountains and Wollongong is under a compulsory lockdown until at least 11.59pm on July 16. Residents can only leave home for essential reasons. Essentially all events in Sydney have therefore been cancelled or postponed until after this period.  Musicals are back in a big way this month, with smash hit Hamilton joined by fellow Broadway sensations including bittersweet 9/11 drama Come From Away, Sondheim classic Merrily We Roll Along, Irish film brought to melodic life Once, and slash-happy dark comedy American Psycho.  We're also pumped for Sheridan Harbridge's encore as criminal lawyer Tessa in Griffin's powerful hit Prima Facie, spine-tingling thrills in terrifying British horror story The Woman in Black at Ensemble Theatre, and stage legends Linda Cropper and John Bell joining forces at STC with Grand Horizons. Recommended: Read our interview with Sheridan Harbridge and Prima Facie director Suzie Miller.

  • Theatre
  • Musicals
  • Chatswood

If you love a good musical extravaganza and watching supremely talented people do their thing, you won’t want to miss the Willoughby Symphony Orchestra’s Last Night of the Proms when it returns to the Concourse Concert Hall for two nights only in September.  This special production – in honour of the tenth anniversary of Chatswood’s beloved entertainment and cultural centre – will see the orchestra and choir come together with the Pacific Opera to perform stirring renditions of symphonic and choral classics like Elgar’s 'Pomp and Circumstance Marches', Arne’s 'Rule Britannia' and Parry’s 'Jerusalem'.  At the baton will be renowned Sydney conductor, Guy Noble, who has worked with all major Australian orchestras and presented concerts with the Beach Boys, Randy Newman and Ben Folds. Other special soloist guests include Jacqueline Dark, considered one of the country’s most illustrious operatic mezzo-sopranos, and virtuoso pianist Vivian Choi, who has captivated audiences around the globe and was a recent finalist in the 2020 APRA AMCOS Art Music Awards. She is set to thrill audiences with her electrifying take on Prokofiev’s dramatic 'Piano Concerto 1'.  This annual symphonic gala has been a sell-out in previous years, so if you want to be part of the rapturous Covid-safe crowd, don’t hesitate to secure your seat.

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