Sydney’s Best Museums and Cultural Attractions

We’ve all heard about Sydney’s biggest cultural attractions like the Sydney Opera House and the Harbour Bridge, but how about a convict island turned event site or the local theater that launched the careers of Mel Gibson and Cate Blanchett? Sydney’s best cultural attractions are world-class and getting better every day. Contemporary favorites include Carriageworks and the Museum of Contemporary art, while the Art Gallery of New South Wales has one of Sydney’s best aboriginal art collections.

Bennelong Point, Sydney NSW 2000, Australia
Designed by Danish architect Jørn Utzon, the Sydney Opera House was inspired by its dramatic setting on Bennelong Point in Sydney Harbour, a location that’s long been sacred to the native Gadigal people. While construction took 16 years, including four years to figure out the spherical solution to the icon’s soaring sails, any controversies melted away when the masterpiece was completed in 1973. The same outside-the-box thinking that built the shell-shaped sculpture seeps through its walls today in the form of boundary-pushing opera, theater, and dance as well as contemporary music and mind-opening lectures. The landmark is also home to the beloved Opera Bar and Bennelong Restaurant upstairs, where diners can eat pavlova shaped like the landmark in which they sit.
245 Wilson St, Eveleigh NSW 2015, Australia
The brick-and-iron warehouses of the old Eveleigh Railway Workshops host a diverse lineup of experimental music, theater, film, and fine art. Located on the border of Redfern and Waterloo, Carriageworks was restored to keep the historical roots intact while providing a space for cutting-edge culture. Every Saturday, more than 70 stalls fill the former railyard outside with organic produce, artisan breads, specialty coffee, and exotic flowers as well as street food from the likes of chef Kylie Kwong during the farmers’ market. Fuel up at the market and then get inspired by whatever is on display inside this artist-run venue. Big annual events for Sydney Contemporary, Pacific Runway, Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, and the Sydney Festival are also held here throughout the year.
Harbour St, Sydney NSW 2000, Australia
The largest and most storied of the Sydney Harbour islands, Cockatoo was once an Aboriginal fishing ground, a naval shipyard, a girls’ reform school, and a gruesome prison. Today, it offers fascinating walking tours, a casual café, and a number of events such as the Biennale of Sydney. When most visitors line up in the evening to catch the ferry home, those staying on the island are just setting off on a leisurely sunset stroll. They can watch the city light up from what feels like another world and then retreat to their campsite, canvas “glamping” tent, heritage home, or modern apartment until they wake up to birds and boats the next morning.
Queens Square, Macquarie St, Sydney NSW 2000, Australia
Since opening in 1819, Australia’s first barracks has housed British convicts, female immigrants, destitute elderly women, courtrooms, and government offices until it was finally declared a museum in 1979. During a twice-daily tour, or with the help of an audio guide, visitors get a glimpse of how high-skill prisoners lived, worked, and slept (on hammocks) during the 19th century—often freely working in the city by day but sleeping alongside more than 1,000 thieves, conspirators, bank robbers, pirates, and bushrangers by night. Offered in the original convict bakehouse and store, a house-made pot pie, burger, or cake with a schooner of beer at Bakehouse is a welcome end to the experience. Outside, freedom has never felt so good.
Art Gallery Rd, Sydney NSW 2000, Australia
The Australian collection here includes almost 19,000 pieces ranging from paintings and decorative arts to modern photography, pop art, and screen-printing. The Yiribana Gallery is renowned for some of the best permanent and rotating exhibits of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art in the world. Every Wednesday evening, the museum hosts Art After Hours, an inspiring night of workshops, talks, and live entertainment that lasts until 10pm. Once you’ve finished exploring the galleries, duck behind the museum outside to find Brett Whiteley’s whimsical Almost Once, a sculpture of two massive matchsticks, one burnt out, the other waiting to be ignited. In 2017, the New South Wales government committed $244 million to help transform the gallery into an expanded future museum called the Sydney Modern, slated to open in 2021.
140 George St, The Rocks NSW 2000, Australia
Set on the western side of Circular Quay, the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia (MCA) is the country’s leading institution for modern art. While access to touring international exhibitions from the likes of Tatsuo Miyajima and Annie Leibovitz incurs an entrance fee, the permanent collection of more than 4,000 contemporary works by Australian and Torres Strait Islanders, from Gary Carsley to Lena Yarinkura—plus a rare collection of artist notebooks, music, letters, and sketches—is always free. Come on Wednesday night when the gallery is open until 9 p.m., or for the adults-only Art Bar on the last Friday of the month. The rooftop café offers occasional live music and DJs plus glittering views of the Sydney Opera House and Harbour Bridge after dark.
343 George Street
The real sailboat-shaped cultural institution in Sydney is not the Opera House, but the Australian National Maritime Museum, a soaring canvas-covered structure built high enough to house tall masts. The museum, located on Darling Harbour, the city’s busiest industrial area for much of the 19th and 20th centuries, was founded to share Australia’s maritime history with the world. Permanent and special exhibits focus on the deep connection of indigenous Australians with the ocean, early exploration, immigration, commerce, defense, adventure, sports, and identity. The museum also boasts one of the largest collections of floating historical vessels, including a replica of Captain Cook’s HMB Endeavour, the former Navy destroyer HMAS Vampire, and the former Navy submarine HMAS Onslow. Visitors are invited to climb aboard and even do occasional coastal trips on the Endeavour, which completed a 13-month circumnavigation of the country in 2012.
1 William St, Sydney NSW 2010, Australia
Australia’s first museum was opened in 1827 in Sydney with the goal of showcasing unique specimens relating to the country’s fascinating natural history. Initially called the Sydney Museum or Colonial Museum, the institution was renamed the Australian Museum in 1836 and reopened in its current location on Williams Street in 1857. The small collection of curiosities has grown to more than 18 million objects of cultural or scientific significance. The museum also plays a leading role in natural and cultural research on Australia and the Pacific, and offers a rotating slate of exhibitions, events, overnight experiences for kids, and even ecology-focused trips abroad. In 2017, a new permanent collection called 200 Treasures debuted, featuring crystals, skeletons, and a Roro feather headdress from Papua New Guinea.

The museum is currently undergoing an expansion and refurbishment in the leadup to the blockbuster exhibition, Tutankhamun: Treasures of the Golden Pharaoh, which will debut in 2021. The museum will remain open during renovations.
1003 Upper Fort Street
In the 1850s, a rugged hill overlooking Sydney Harbour was capped with the Sydney Observatory at the behest of English astronomer and clergyman William Scott. What started as a sandstone structure used primarily for time-keeping and navigation developed into an observatory that has been illuminating the southern sky for more than a century. Sydney has much more light pollution today, but the original retractable copper dome does a good job of blocking it out to bring distant constellations and nebulae into view. The resident astronomer will target planets such as Jupiter and Saturn as well as only-in-the-southern-hemisphere sights such as the Southern Cross constellation or the astronomer’s favorite: Jewel Box, a rare cluster of glimmering stars whose different colors reflect distinct ages.
69A Wentworth Rd, Vaucluse NSW 2030, Australia
For a glimpse of Sydney‘s high society, visit Vaucluse House, a beautiful villa and garden in the Eastern Suburbs near Watsons Bay. A gothic revival mansion built in 1803, Vaucluse House once belonged to ex-convict Sir Henry Browne Hayes, who was shipped to Australia from England for abducting a banker’s daughter. Some punishment. The mansion also served as the home of writer, explorer, and local dignitary William Charles Wentworth. Once you’re done eyeing the antiques and memorabilia, check out the tropical gardens and settle in for a cup of English breakfast and a warm scone at the well-appointed tearoom. There’s also Milk Beach and the Hermitage Foreshore Track nearby, a gorgeous coastal walk for those looking for a little more adventure.
31 Lamrock Ave, Bondi Beach NSW 2026, Australia
Gallery director Adrian Newstead sources bark paintings, sculptures, and ceremonial artifacts from Aboriginal artists throughout Australia and curates works for local and international shows.
More from AFAR
Sign up for our newsletter
Join more than a million of the world’s best travelers. Subscribe to the Daily Wander newsletter.
AFAR Journeys
Journeys: Africa + Middle East
Journeys: Africa + Middle East
Journeys: Africa + Middle East
Journeys: Africa + Middle East
National Parks