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Sydney Opera House: A Visitor's Guide

Written by Karen Hastings
Updated Sep 16, 2022

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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.

Opera House
Opera House

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.

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 seeing this word famous landmark is one of the top things to do in Sydney.

Touring the Sydney Opera House

The Sydney Opera House
The Sydney Opera House | Photo Copyright: Hamilton Lund, Courtesy of Sydney Opera House

Taking a Sydney Opera House guided tour is the best way to 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, discover what inspired its creation, and learn about the materials used in 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.

If you just want to see the Sydney Opera House inside on a self-guided tour, you can wander through the foyer and dine in one of the restaurants.

Also try to catch a performance here, so you can appreciate the Sydney Opera House design from the inside, as well as its excellent acoustics, but make sure you purchase opera house tickets for performances well in advance. Check the website for details on Sydney Opera House events, opening hours, and backstage tours.

Badu Gili Light Show

Render of Kaylene Whiskey's work Dolly visits Indulkana (2020) projected onto the Opera House's eastern Bennelong sail as part of Badu Gili: Wonder Women
Render of Kaylene Whiskey's work Dolly visits Indulkana (2020) projected onto the Opera House's eastern Bennelong sail as part of Badu Gili: Wonder Women | Photo Copyright: Daniel Boud, Courtesy of Art Gallery of New South Wales and Sydney Opera House

While you're in Sydney, try to visit the Sydney Opera House at night to see Badu Gili, meaning "water light." This free six-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, 7:30pm, and 8pm and is best viewed from the top of the Monumental Steps.

Planning to be in Sydney during late May and early June? You're in luck! Vivid Sydney, an annual "festival of Light, Music and Ideas," illuminates the sails of Sydney Opera House, and other top landmarks, with a vibrant digital light show. It's a great time to get your camera clicking.

And 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 Opera House History

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. They 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. They 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. He also worked on The Studio and the Drama Theatre, which has 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.

The Sydney Opera House just emerged from a $275-million renovation, which improved acoustics in some of the performance spaces, including its world-class concert hall; upgraded technology; and opened up new areas to the public, also making it more accessible to visitors with disabilities.

In Jan, 2022, a new Centre for Creativity opened as one of the final projects of the renovation. This new venue, in the north-west corner of the ground floor, hosts hands-on workshops and performances featuring themes like design, First Nations cultures, dance, engineering, and more.

Visiting the Sydney Opera House with Kids

Wondering how to help your kids get the most out of a visit to the Sydney Opera House? Sign them up for the Junior Adventure tour during the school holidays. Packed full of Sydney Opera House facts for kids, this one-hour adventure shares some little-known secrets about this famous attraction, and includes interactive games to engage curious young minds.

The Sydney Opera House also hosts performances and programs especially for families and kids. Check the events calendar for details.

Where to Eat at the Sydney Opera House

Dining near the Sydney Opera House
Dining near the Sydney Opera House | Photo Copyright: Jacquie Manning, Courtesy of Sydney Opera House

After you've seen a performance or toured this iconic building, you might be feeling a bit peckish. Don't worry, you'll be spoiled for choice with an exciting lineup of Sydney Opera House restaurants.

For casual dining with harbor views, head to Opera Bar or Opera Kitchen. Alfresco seating is available at both venues. Portside Sydney is perfect for a pre-theater dinner with the family, or coffee and dessert.

Celebrating a special occasion? Bennelong is the best place to splurge. Helmed by celebrity chef Peter Gilmore, this fine-dining venue takes opera house dining to the next level, serving up innovative Aussie cuisine.

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 – except on Sunday evenings.
  • 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?

Looking for things to do near the opera house? These top Sydney sites are right nearby:

  • The Royal Botanic Gardens are a five-minute walk around the waterfront from the Sydney Opera House. 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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