While the Opera House and Harbour Bridge will always be on a ‘things to do in Sydney’ list, the city is investing heavily in the arts and culture to attract tourists in other ways. Singapore-based KIARA INMAN takes a trip to Australia’s biggest city, where she explores new art galleries, behind-the-scenes tours, and a world-class production in the form of Wicked the Musical. She also finds some incredible bars and Sydney restaurants!
Things to do in Sydney
#1 Indigenous culture at the Art Gallery of New South Wales
Erin Vink is a Ngiyampaa woman, whose blonde hair and green eyes are not what I was expecting when we were told an indigenous person and curator of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art would be leading our tour. As she guides our small group around the fascinating exhibits at Yiribana Gallery, within the new wing of the Art Gallery of New South Wales, she shares stories of the artworks’ creators, her ancestors, and the land.
This powerful exhibition is inspired by the Aboriginal language of Sydney, and the word ‘burbangana’, which means to ‘take hold of my hand and help me up’. It explores familial ties, cultural inheritance, history and resilience. Diverse displays including paintings, sculpture, photography and woven baskets tell the history of Australia’s First Nations people across country and time.
You can visit the exhibition at your own pace. However, I recommend a tour with Cultural Attractions of Australia. You’ll be guided by one of the gallery’s indigenous curators, like Erin, who can provide a deeper understanding of the collection.
The experience includes a meal at the Gallery’s MOD Dining by Clayton Wells. (He has previously worked at Automata, Quay, Tetsuya and Noma). In a soaring space with harbour glimpses, we feast on dishes pretty enough to rival the artworks all around us. From Meredith goat cheese and green vegetable tart with lemon myrtle to XO spanner crab noodles with crisp fried shallots, coriander and green onion, followed by a divine caramelised pineapple and liquorice cheesecake, this is easily the best meal I’ve had at an art gallery yet. The Australian-focused wine list is also a highlight.
#2 Sydney restaurants and bars
That evening, we continue our fine-dining excursion at the showstopping O Bar & Dining. The revolving venue spins 47 storeys above the sparkling lights of Sydney. Executive Chef Michael Moore has created a menu of fresh and flavourful dishes here, like mandarin and pepperberry glazed duck with fragrant red rice, golden raisins, spiced almonds and burnt orange; and steamed Murray cod fillet with zucchini flower, roasted hazelnut cream and lemon and herb. We also splurge on wine pairings, each wine perfectly married to the food and explained beautifully by our waiter, Frank.
You can choose between two courses or three, but I highly recommend including dessert. The burnt citrus brûlée with white chocolate crème, naval orange caramel, grapefruit granita and mandarin jelly is so good I want to lick my plate clean. The servings are generous, the service is flawless and the views over Sydney are unmatched.
Sydney’s bar scene has definitely emerged from its cocoon. Indeed, it now rivals the best in the world. Just a short stroll from O Bar & Dining, we discover Maybe Sammy. This is the sort of place where Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin would have been at home. The creative cocktails have a hint of the theatrical, with pink-jacketed bartenders and a drinks list inspired by the idea of a personal ‘Mirage’ where things are not as they seem.
My Infinity cocktail, for example, comes in a small plastic boat with a bubble you pop to release a smoky vapour before sipping. When Wei, our bartender, notices me fanning myself with a coaster, he ducks over and dramatically presents a pretty fan for me to cool myself down with. No wonder Maybe Sammy has been named in the World’s 50 Best Bars.
#3 From the Harbour Bridge to the Opera House
It’s a crisp, blue-sky spring morning when we make our way up the 1,332 steps to the top of the world’s largest steel arch bridge, the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Our guide Gemma keeps us distracted from the scariest moments by sharing fascinating stories about the structure. For example, the story of Vincent Kelly, who miraculously survived falling from the bridge while it was being constructed in 1930. Or of Francis de Groot, who beat NSW Premier John Lang to the ribbon-cutting ceremony by barging in on horseback and cutting it with his sword. Did you know, too, that the bridge is held together by six million hand-driven rivets?
Nicknamed “The Coathanger” by locals, it’s the lofty vistas from the top of the bridge that people really come for. And the views do not disappoint, stretching to the horizon in every direction. Before descending, our guide snaps our photos in front of the Aboriginal flag that flaps at the bridge’s apex.
After the climb, we walk around to the Opera House to new restaurant Midden by Mark Olive for lunch. Here, Aboriginal chef Mark draws on his heritage to infuse dishes with native ingredients. We munch our way through Australia’s coat of arms with a grazing plate of smoked kangaroo and emu, alongside regional cheeses, native thyme hummus, and even lemon myrtle tandoori crocodile. I’m still dreaming of the signature bush pavlova with native fruit coulis and roasted wattle seed cream!
Chef Mark is in the restaurant during our visit and he explains to our table that middens were piles of shells discarded by First Nations people in gathering places in Australia. He adds it was a dream come true to open a restaurant at the iconic Opera House. Its a place where his people have gathered for thousands of years.
Exploring one of Australia’s iconic buildings
A backstage tour completes our experience, with Mark acting as our guide, taking us into the nooks, crannies and concert halls underneath the famous white sails, and sharing secrets of the famous faces who perform here. We even stumble upon one of them, Tim Minchin, composer of Broadway musicals Matilda and Groundhog Day. He’s there rehearsing his show for the Opera House’s 50th anniversary, giving us a first-hand glimpse into the magic that happens daily at this famous performing arts centre.
#4 Wickedly good theatre
The grand finale of our time in Sydney is seeing Wicked the Musical at the Lyric Theatre. Celebrating its 20th anniversary in 2023, this production is one of the most lavish staged in Australia. I’ve seen the show before in London and Singapore; this version feels fresher. The themes of female friendship, good versus wicked, racism and political power plays seem even more relevant now than when it was written, and the cast, costumes and staging are first class.
Both women leads are fabulous. Courtney Monsma brings a playful sparkle to Glinda the Good, while Sheridan Adam’s Elphaba the Wicked blows us away with “Defying Gravity”, the show’s most iconic number. Many in the audience are dressed as their favourite witch (green outweighing pink by a good margin), and the standing ovation makes it clear this show is as wickedly good as its reputation. In fact, it’s well worth flying to Sydney for!
Where to stay in Sydney
The Star Grand Hotel (star.com.au) offers timeless luxury with harbour views, and unsurpassed dining, nightlife and entertainment on your doorstep. The Novotel Sydney Darling Square is conveniently located in the CBD, overlooking the Chinese Gardens and Darling Square precinct. It’s offering a 10% discount for stays during Wicked The Musical. For bookings, go to all.accor.com.
What to see in Sydney
Wicked The Musical is playing at the Lyric Theatre until late January 2024. For tickets and travel arrangements go to wickedthemusical.com.au/travel.
What to do in Sydney
Where to eat and drink in Sydney