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Sydney, Culture Capital

Sydney Harbour and Opera House
Sydney, Culture Capital
Sydney is a city where there is always something happening and where not a few weeks go by without fireworks exploding in the sky, seemingly celebrating nothing but the city itself.
By Julie Schwietert Collazo, AFAR Local Expert
Photo courtesy of Tourism Australia
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    Sydney Harbour and Opera House
    Sydney Harbour and Opera House
    The Sydney Harbour Bridge stretches out across the harbor and the iconic Sydney Opera House is reflected back in the glistening water. This is the Sydney you’ve heard about and seen in photos. If you're content to enjoy it from the outside, stroll around the walkway between Circular Quay and the Rocks, the historic site where both Sydney and Australia were founded. If you're keen to see the inside of the Opera House, book tickets for a performance (the venue hosts much more than opera) or take a guided tour. A variety of experiences are offered, including one which features a meal overlooking the harbor.
    Photo courtesy of Tourism Australia
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    Must-See Museums
    Must-See Museums
    There's more to Sydney's artistic life than the Opera House; Sydneysiders take great pride in their city's museums, too. In terms of visual arts, favorites include the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, strong on multimedia work by Australian artists, and the Art Gallery of New South Wales, established in 1871. The latter features an extensive collection of Australian and Aboriginal art, as well as works by international masters. A lesser-known jewel is the intimate Brett Whiteley Studio, located in the former workspace of the late Australian painter and sculptor. But the title of oldest museum goes to the Australian Museum—a treasure trove of dinosaur fossils, taxidermy animals, and cultural artifacts that dates all the way back to 1827.
    Photo by Bjanka Kadic/age fotostock
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    Sydney, the Festival City
    Sydney, the Festival City
    If there was ever a city for festivals, Sydney would be it. Whether it’s music, food, wine, or lights, Sydney plays host to a number of epic events throughout the year. Perhaps the most famous of all is Sydney Festival. Held in January of every year, it fills the entire city with music, art, theater, and dance—and many of the events are free to the public. There is Good Food Month, Australia’s largest and most loved food festival in October, and although not necessarily a festival, the annual Sculpture by the Sea event is the largest and most celebrated art exhibition of its kind, taking over the coastal walk between Bondi and Tamarama beaches from October to November.
    Photo courtesy of Destination NSW
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    Abundant Markets
    Abundant Markets
    Sydney bursts with markets that sell everything from organic food to new and vintage clothes, art, jewelry, and general bric-a-brac. Perhaps the most famous is the open-air Rocks Market. Held every weekend in the historic Rocks precinct and with the famous Sydney Opera House and Harbour Bridge as the backdrop, it doesn’t get much better than this. Stalls offer everything from handmade gifts and sweets to unique jewelry and Australian souvenirs (known as Australiana). There's also the Rocks Friday Foodie Market, where you can pick up a delicious breakfast or lunch from local purveyors. Other favorites include the Bondi Farmers Market, with fresh jams, flowers, and local olive oil, and the Eveleigh Market outside the Carriageworks art space.
    Photo courtesy of Masaru Kitano/Tourism Australia
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    Thriving Street Art
    Thriving Street Art
    In addition to its formal museums and arts institutions, Sydney has a thriving street art scene, with spray-painted murals, wheat-paste pieces, and stencil art found in alleyways and on building walls all around the city. Newtown, however, is the neighborhood that has the greatest density and most varied types of street artwork. A 10-minute train ride from the city center, Newtown features what's believed to be Sydney's oldest surviving piece of street art, the I Have a Dream mural, painted in 1991. Two notable legal graffiti hubs are the Sydney University Graffiti Tunnel and along Bondi Beach, where anyone is free to paint with approval from Waverley Council. Some restaurants even feature street-style art inside, including Three Blue Ducks in Bronte Beach and Mary's back in Newtown.
    Photo by Simon Descamps/age fotostock
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    Historic Sydney
    Historic Sydney
    Sydney—and indeed all of Australia—began as an exceptionally large prison for 165,000 convicts from Britain. Evidence of these controversial beginnings are scattered throughout the city at such historical sites as the Hyde Park Barracks and on the Cockatoo Island convict site. The Hyde Park Barracks, designed by a convict who was an architect, is now a museum. On Cockatoo Island, visitors can walk the Convict Trail to see installations that convicts built to house themselves. Looking back even further, there are significant Aboriginal sites and exhibitions all over the city, including a must-see collection of artifacts at the Australian Museum—Australia's oldest museum—on College Street.
    Photo courtesy of Claire Mandel/Tourism Australia
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    Urban Walking Tours
    Urban Walking Tours
    Sydney is a fairly compact and flat city, which makes it perfect for exploration on foot. The city government has produced a number of excellent self-guided walking tours, most focused on history, with detailed maps and, in some cases, free, downloadable MP3s. Tours range from topics like Aboriginal history and culture to architectural preservation and even the Gritty Newtown Historical Walking Tour, a stroll through a seamier side of Sydney. Walsh Bay also has a sculpture walk with an associated app. Experts in other subjects lead fee-based walking tours; among them is popular TV personality Maeve O'Meara, whose Gourmet Safaris in areas like Cabramatta introduce clients to the city's culinary diversity. And don't forget the most famous tour of all—the Sydney Harbour BridgeClimb—which offers a bird’s-eye view of Australia's oldest city.
    Photo courtesy of Masaru Kitano/Tourism Australia
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    Eclectic Architecture
    Eclectic Architecture
    The complexity and diversity of Sydney's political and social history could be told through its architecture. There's no single style that predominates here; instead, the diverse styles on display—from classical (Art Gallery of New South Wales and Customs House) to Second Empire (Sydney Town Hall) to modernist (Sydney Tower Eye and the Rose Seidler House)—show how Sydney was caught in the clutches of colonial hands, struggling for its own autonomous style, and how it sought to take advantage of the city's landscape and natural features. To appreciate these diverse (and often divergent) styles, head to the observation deck or 360 Bar of Sydney Tower Eye, Australia's second tallest structure, where you can enjoy panoramic views of the city.
    Photo by Tibor Bognár/age fotostock
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    Sydney's Musical Milieu
    Sydney's Musical Milieu
    Beyond the famed Opera House, Sydney is home to dozens of formal and informal venues where local and international performers play every type of music imaginable. For classical, chamber, and symphony performances, City Recital Hall is the place to buy a ticket. In the summer there are numerous live outdoor music festivals, which also feature electronica and various other genres. Check out spots like Brighton Up Bar and the Oxford Art Factory, both in Darlinghurst, for up-and-coming Australian acts; the two-stage Camelot Lounge for folk and global beats; and Max Watt's House of Music, which attracts international groups. Big-name headliners take the stage at the Enmore, ANZ Stadium, the Domain, and the Opera House Forecourt.
    Photo by Andrea De Martin/age fotostock
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    Sydney's Aboriginal Culture
    Sydney's Aboriginal Culture
    Australia's indigenous Aboriginal population pre-dates the colonial era by many thousands of years. Australian Aboriginals are the heart and soul of the land and represent the oldest continuous culture on Earth. In short, they have a wealth of knowledge and tradition to share with locals and visitors alike. Learn more about their culture at Bangarra Dance Theatre in Walsh Bay, where contemporary choreography is performed by indigenous dancers; Belvoir St. Theatre, which regularly schedules plays by Aboriginal playwrights and actors; and Boomalli Aboriginal Artists Cooperative, which exhibits work by Aboriginal artists. Another worthy activity is a harbor boat tour with the Aboriginal-run Tribal Warrior, which concludes with a traditional cultural performance. Other Aboriginal-focused tours are offered in the Rocks, at the Royal Botanic Garden, and in Barangaroo.
    Photo courtesy of Dominic Harcourt-Webster/Tourism Australia