Sydney is an art-inspired city at any time. Along its tree-lined streets you see the architecture close up, whether it harks back to colonial European roots, or salutes the golden sandstone and splendid light of the coast, or defies history and gravity to spiral up to the skies. Every plate of food is a visual composition. The pedestrians all seem to be on their way to a Vogue shoot. But they’re warmly stylish, chiefly intent on living and sharing the good life in a city rich in broad plazas, open beaches and everyday art.
Not far from Customs House, the city’s oldest building, is the spot where the first convict ships landed and their passengers crawled up the slope, sick from their long months at sea. The area now gleams with hotels and cafés casting their reflections on the water. Every year, the neighbourhood breaks out in light installations for three weeks during the Vivid Sydney festival. When the lights first go on, the sails of the Opera House become a screen for moving images lit up against a black sky. Boats glitter to and fro, and one by one the buildings around the harbour sparkle, video vignettes running across their façades.
The harbour bridge is lit up and tiny dots of fluorescent green dance on top. Those are the glow-in-the-dark vests of tourists who have ventured on a night climb. It only looks foolhardy. They’re all harnessed and safely herded while they try to ignore the sea below and their guide’s breezy statistics on how many workers fell to their deaths during the construction. To stave off the panic, you get a playlist from the decade of your choice to inspire the dancing, numerous pictures to take home, and stellar views of the light installations from up there.
Vivid Sydney is more than just lights. It features music and dance performances, design workshops and creative forums. Sydney also observes March as art month, and it has a biennale (the next one is in 2020, if you’re one to plan ahead). And all year round there’s art to be seen up close. Sydney has a clutch of art museums and galleries showing contemporary and indigenous art, but even more visual treasures hide in the alleys, sometimes behind the murals and the graffiti that riff on Australia’s history of colonisation and genocide, make you stop, puzzle and sometimes flinch. To see all this, you need to fan out from the Central Business District and visit the neighbourhoods that, despite creeping gentrification, hold on to their history.
In the still gritty environs of Chippendale, there once was a brewery, and in later years there was plague, gang violence and poverty. Now a building that used to be a service depot for luxury cars is home to the White Rabbit Gallery, which holds the world’s largest collection of 21st-century Chinese contemporary art. In Surry Hills, the Brett Whiteley Studio has changing exhibits in a gallery on the ground floor and, upstairs, the late artist’s studio, maintained as is. In Redfern, murals and installations tell the history of the Aboriginal people of Australia. Even all the way out in Manly, where surfers and backpackers enjoy a perpetual summer, there is a sculpture walk. Like a whisper that turns your head for a minute from the sunshine and sea breezes, exquisite bronzes are set in the rocks, of shells and sea animals that seem to have washed in with the tide. On the streets inland, the graffiti is a bold backdrop to bustling markets and buskers, and the changing shadows on it make it ever fresh.
If only you had a friend in the city who would walk that walk with you, take you around those streets and pop in at just the right places for tea and cake. Well, you can have the next best thing—Culture Scouts, a company that runs small group tours that blend art, food, history and culture, and also boosts small local businesses. There are thematic tours of the most colourful neighbourhoods, including encounters with people who live and work in them. If you are looking for something not on the menu, they will design a tour for you. The walks are always changing as is the artscape of the city itself. In addition to the street art, our guide pointed out the concrete graces of Indigo Slam, the prize-winning home of the art collector Judith Nielsen. In the lobby of Old Clare’s, a historic hotel on Kensington Street, she showed us the idea of ‘unbuilding’—a part of the hotel left as is, in which you can still see the scarred brick and the guts of the edifice. And peep into the city’s heart and soul.