Sydney Opera House: A Visitor's Guide

Written by Karen Hastings
Nov 19, 2019

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Among all the tourist attractions in Sydney, the magnificent Sydney Opera House is the shining star. Perched on Bennelong Point, a tongue of land protruding into Sydney Harbour, this UNESCO World Heritage Site has become almost synonymous with Sydney itself.

Shaped like huge shells or billowing sails, its cluster of roofs blends beautifully with the harbor location. Water surrounds it on three sides, creating an illusion, from some angles, that this confection of graceful curves floats effortlessly on the sea.

Opera House
Opera House

Despite its undeniable beauty, this famous building had a turbulent past, and you can discover this and other fascinating details about its construction on a Sydney Opera House tour.

American architect Louis Kahn once said, "The sun did not know how beautiful its light was, until it was reflected off this building." Once you, too, lay eyes on this architectural marvel, glistening in the sunshine, you'll understand why this word famous landmark is one of the top things to see in Sydney.

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Touring the Sydney Opera House

Taking a guided tour is the best way to see the Opera House and really appreciate the architectural ingenuity of this famous building. The one-hour Sydney Opera House Official Guided Walking Tour takes you behind the scenes to see places you can't access on a self-guided tour.

More than just an opera house, the structure encompasses theaters, studios, a concert hall, rehearsal and reception rooms, restaurants, and a spectacular open-air forecourt overlooking the harbor and city. You'll also learn fascinating stories about the building's history from an expert guide and discover what inspired its construction. To experience another part of this famous Sydney landmark, you can upgrade your tour to include a tasting plate from the al fresco eatery, Opera Kitchen.

One of the best sites to photograph the Sydney Opera House is Mrs Macquarie's Chair in the Royal Botanic Gardens, which borders it to the south. Better still, hop aboard a ferry or harbor cruise and capture a photo from the water.

Also try to catch a performance here, so you can appreciate the building's interior and acoustics, but make sure you purchase opera house tickets for performances well in advance. For details on Sydney Opera House events, opening hours, and backstage tours, visit www.sydneyoperahouse.com.

Badu Gili Light Show

While you're in Sydney, try to visit the Sydney Opera House at night to see Badu Gili, meaning "water light." This free seven-minute experience lights up the opera house's eastern Bennelong sail every night with projections of First Nations art. The show takes place daily at sunset, 7pm, 8pm, and 9pm and is best viewed from the top of the Monumental Steps.

If you're lucky enough to be at the Opera House for New Year's Eve, you can capture fantastic photos of fireworks exploding above its glowing sails.


Sydney Harbour in the evening
Sydney Harbour in the evening

This much-celebrated international icon has a rocky past. In 1957, the government selected Bennelong Point, once home to the Gadigal aboriginal people, for a cultural center. After launching an international competition for its design. Danish architect, Jørn Utzon emerged as the winner. But from the outset, the project was fraught with controversy. Technical problems delayed construction, and costs mounted. Disappointed and disillusioned, Utzon withdrew from the project in 1966 and left the country.

The Opera House was finally completed 10 years later than planned. The cost of the building, originally estimated at A$10 million, had multiplied tenfold, but the money was raised by a series of Opera House lotteries. The Queen officially opened the building to the public on October 20, 1973. Utzon did not attend the ceremony, and his name was never mentioned.

In 1999, the Sydney Opera House Trust and NSW Government spearheaded a reconciliation with Utzon and encouraged him to submit a set of design principles to guide further work on the building. In 2004, a year after the Opera House celebrated its 30th birthday, the NSW premier opened the newly refurbished Reception Hall, a collaboration of the inspired Danish architect, and renamed it the Utzon Room in his honor. This room is the first authentic Utzon interior in the building.

After 2004, Utzon collaborated with his architect son on several other building improvements. The most significant was The Colonnade, which opened up the shared foyers of the Playhouse; The Studio; and Drama Theatre, with large windows and glass doors, so visitors can enjoy harbor views from these areas. Queen Elizabeth II opened the project in 2006, formally recognizing the talented Utzon for his incredible vision.

Today, the Sydney Opera House is undergoing a $202 million renovation to improve acoustics in some of the performance spaces; upgrade technology; and open up new areas to the public, also making it more accessible to visitors with disabilities. The project should be complete by 2021.

Getting to the Sydney Opera House

  • Catch a Sydney Bus, travel by City Rail, or hop aboard a Sydney Ferry to Circular Quay, which is a five- to seven-minute walk from the Sydney Opera House. For details, visit the NSW Transport website.
  • A complimentary shuttle bus for elderly and mobility-challenged patrons runs between Circular Quay at Stand B on Alfred Street (under the Cahill Expressway) and the Vehicle Concourse.
  • For Sydney Opera House parking, head to Wilson's Sydney Opera House Car Park at 2 Macquarie Street, with vehicle access adjacent to the Sydney Opera House Forecourt.

What's Nearby

  • The Royal Botanic Gardens are a five-minute walk around the waterfront from the Sydney Opera House, and many visitors combine these two attractions in a one-day visit. Best of all, if you're taking self-guided tours, admission to both is free. Highlights of the gardens include the Palace Rose Garden, the Australian Native Rockery and The Tropical Garden. The gardens are also a lovely place for a hillside picnic overlooking the harbor, and you can also dine in the on-site café or restaurants.
  • Circular Quay, a major hub for Sydney ferries and harbor cruises, is a leisurely stroll south from the Opera House along the Waterfront Promenade.

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imageSpectacular Sydney: After exploring the iconic Sydney Opera House, spend time seeing all the other top attractions in Sydney. Climb the Sydney Harbour Bridge for breathtaking views over the serpentine waterways, soak up Sydney's history in The Rocks, and visit the family-friendly attractions at Darling Harbour. While you're in this beautiful harbor city, don't miss exploring nearby attractions on rewarding day trips from Sydney. A short drive from the CBD, you can hike in the Blue Mountains, taste your way around the Hunter Valley, or cruise along the Hawkesbury River.

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