Australia: Sydney culture secrets (+WIN)

By Catherine Smith

Sick of shopping and with time to explore before the next great meal, Catherine Smith walked her feet off exploring some of Sydney's culture highlights.
The Art Gallery of New South Wales' integrated 1871 sandstone building and new wing is worth a visit.
The Art Gallery of New South Wales' integrated 1871 sandstone building and new wing is worth a visit.

1. Sculpture by the Sea
Bondi Beach, October 23 - November 9

Billed as the world's largest annual free outdoor sculpture exhibition, Sculpture by the Sea is the visual arts equivalent of huge community events like Opera in the Park or Symphony Under the Stars.

Every summer since 1997, crowds have walked the spectacular clifftop from Bondi Beach to Tamarama admiring works created specifically for their sites. Submissions have just closed for the 100 places from artists from all around the world. Last year our own Wallace Arts Trust awarded Auckland sculptor David McCracken the first award, selected from 12 New Zealand artists; this year there's bound to be more.

Between shows, there are a few permanent works to see, as well as a spectacular Aboriginal rock drawing, one of few that is visible around the inner city.

There are plenty of super eats too - the famous Icebergs club above the swimming pool at one end of the beach, or the trendy The Bucket List at Bondi Pavillion, right on the beach. Sydney doesn't get better.

2. Art Gallery of NSW

The integration of the magnificent 1871 sandstone Art Gallery of New South Wales with its newer wing opens the space out to views over the city to the Botanic Gardens. If you want your sandstone overdose, start your walk at the State Library. The turn of the century Mitchell Wing houses David Scott Mitchell's unrivalled collection of Australiana, plus a rotating exhibition of works.

Even if you don't linger, pop in to admire the marble mosaic reproduction of the Tasman Map on the 1940s entry lobby and realise how far this place has come.

A quick march through the domain brings you to the Art Gallery. The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander collection was started only in the 1960s, an interesting contrast to the early settler works in the Grand Courts. And the old European Masters are worth a look before you head down to the stunning moderns in the John Kaldor Family Collection (see American conceptual artist Sol LeWitt, until August 3).

3. Museum of Contemporary Art Australia

Right at the beginning of The Rocks tourist zone, MCA is my favourite first art stop - if for no other reason that its top floor cafe has the Sydney trifecta of a view - Harbour Bridge to your left, Opera House to your right, harbour in the middle. Magic.

The food is always fresh and interesting, the staff perky, and the coloured loos worth a visit.

Architecture buffs will love how the modern block (reopened in 2012) merges with the 1940s former Maritime Services Board offices, with stairs spilling down to meet the busy pedestrian precinct around to Circular Quay.

As well as hosting intriguing touring shows the Museum rotates an inspiring collection of the best of Australian contemporary works. The annual Primavera show of young artists is worth a trip (Sept 23 - Nov 30).

4. Walky walky

I love any insiders' tours, especially when they combine my favourite three things: art, architecture and a decent food stop or two.

A trio of feisty young architects take small groups on Sydney Architecture Tours.

On two feet or two wheels, these thoughtful and irreverent guys expect you to critique too. As you march about examining what's good or bad about old and new buildings in the inner city, you'll spot public spaces that work (or don't) and some cool innovations in Gold Starred sustainable buildings.

Expect to argue, expect to see the city with new eyes, expect to long for thinkers like this in our own city. And learn to dislike more and more, the Renzo Piano starchitects who fooled the city planners.

If, like me, you've been too scared to ping open the doors of the poshest Woollahra art galleries, you'll love Isobel Johnston's insider tour - she knows the gallerists, she knows her art, she makes it fun and accessible.

Between galleries in gorgeous terraced houses and industrial spaces, you race past some of the best delis and cafes in the suburb so you won't faint with hunger. Make a point of stopping at primo butcher, Victor Churchill, it's art on a meat hook.

There is a downside - you'll be weeping with serious wallet envy as you'll want to buy everything. One day.

5. Backstage at The Opera House: Celebrating 40 Anniversary Tour

Yes, I know, the Opera House is hardly a Sydney Secret. But after years of admiring, photographing and walking around the glorious building, I finally took an insider tour of one of the few places that truly deserves the label "icon".

The guides, helped by crisp video presentations, are well-versed in the intricate history of the build, the decade of architectural feats and the politics behind those white sails, and gave me a whole new excitement for the building and the daring people who made it happen sixty years ago.

Theatre buffs can also take a backstage tour into the bowels of the building, with plenty of insider goss. Stop for a drink on one of the terraces, it's magic at sunset or as a cruise ship sails out past the Harbour Bridge.

WIN

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- NZ Herald

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