Don’t let the majesty of Sydney’s fine harbour distract you from its sophisticated cultural offerings. Apart from its natural beauty, Sydney has a thriving arts scene with an events calendar to rival any metropolis.
While it is the perfect backdrop against which to share a bottle of red watching the sun set behind that bridge, its celebration of Australian and international talent is its original and true heart.
A requisite photograph for the swathes of tourists visiting Sydney every day, serving as proof of a visit to the Harbour City, are the wide smiles framed by glorious blue skies and the breathtaking Sydney Opera House in the background. However, first-time visitors are immediately surprised by the millions of tiny cream-coloured tiles covering the iconic structure. The surprise best symbolises a visit to Sydney – you only think you know what you are going to experience.
Hidden Delights of the Harbour
The Sydney Opera House, despite having reached its 40th year, is still better known for its brave design than for its place as a ‘house of opera’. Many visitors miss the true Opera House experience – that is, as home to Opera Australia, The Australian Ballet, Australian Chamber Orchestra, The Bell Shakespeare Company and Sydney Symphony Orchestra. While it is the perfect backdrop against which to share a bottle of red watching the sun set behind that bridge, its celebration of Australian and international talent is its original and true heart.
Surprises like these can be found everywhere in Sydney, even in the tourist traps that arty types tend to ignore. Directly to the west of the Quay are the historic Rocks. Known more for its pubs full of raucous backpackers than its high culture, the Rocks area has been a Sydney hotspot since the first fleet. Unlikely as it may seem, it is also home to myriad private galleries, but the real standout is the Museum of Contemporary Art. The MCA showcases contemporary Australian art, including a fabulous collection by modern indigenous artists. It also regularly hosts acclaimed international creative types, most recently, Yoko Ono, Anish Kapoor, Yayoi Kusama and Annie Leibovitz. And the surprise? A rooftop café with an incredible harbour view – because you can only ignore the view for so long.
The Hungry Mile
After enjoying a crisp white from the MCA rooftop, there is little need for travel for your next cultural fix. The waterfront wharves of Walsh Bay just to the west of the Harbour Bridge should be the next stop. Hickson Road, known as the ‘Hungry Mile’ during the depression years when men would line up for a day’s work is now among the most desired real estate in Australia. It is here that Sydney’s maritime heritage has been carefully preserved with an eye to develop the area as a world-class arts precinct.
Home to quaint cafés offering local and international delicacies, and restaurants operated by renowned chefs, The Wharves also host The Sydney Theatre Company, where up-and-coming Australian actors and playwrights tread the boards among bigger name stars. If you needed another reason to visit, Oscar winner and former artistic director Cate Blanchett often appears in shows, which have also recently featured another local thespian heavyweight, Geoffrey Rush. The Wharf is also home to the extraordinary Bangarra Dance Theatre, which mixes contemporary and traditional dance and songs to tell the stories of its Aboriginal and Indigenous performers.
But don’t limit your cultural experience to the big names. Local playwright and director Leonie Tillman says Sydney has a “great wealth of acting and directing talent from around the country on its stages, supported by the amazing work of its designers like Oscar winner Catherine Martin”. She suggests the beautiful new renovation at the Eternity Playhouse for a bit of musical theatre, a fun new direction for the Darlinghurst Theatre Company now housed there. Alternatively, for theatre “with an independent flavour in a kooky, squat-like venue”, Tillman recommends The Old 505 on Elizabeth Street near Central Station.
Down the Rabbit Hole
As difficult as it may sound, allow yourself to be drawn away from the harbour foreshore for just a moment. Up-and-coming inner suburb Chippendale, walking distance from Central Station, is in the throes of renewal, and it is this period just before complete gentrification that is often the most electric. Designing types seem to seep out of the woodwork, seeking excellent coffee, mouth-watering baked goods and quirky restaurants along the way. It is among this excitement and rebirth that White Rabbit Gallery (whiterabbitcollection.org) has found its home. Featuring one of the world’s largest collections of contemporary Chinese art, it’s a fascinating place to lose yourself ‘down the rabbit hole’.
But, when the time to take in the physical beauty of the Harbour cannot be put off any longer, there is no better place than Shangri-La Hotel, Sydney. Fortunate guests watching Sydneysiders making their daily commute across the waters from the three-hatted Altitude restaurant on the 36th floor are at once the envied and the vicarious. Could one ever become complacent of this view? Do locals ever tire of its magnificence? One suspects when they do, the exuberant talent and creativity that Sydney has to offer might serve as a suitable substitute. For long gone are the days when “Australia” and “culture” were never seen in the same sentence. While the ‘beaches, babes and barbecues’ cliché once served the Australia that the country wanted to sell to the world, that redneck, crocodile hunting, beer swilling Australian, if it ever existed, is truly a relic of times past.
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Will be staying at Shangri La Sydney next week, and again in July.
Looking forward to it.