It can be easy to get swept up in the crowds moving through the waterfront streets of Circular Quay, with everyone making their way in different directions, trying to get a better view of the beautiful glowing installations dotted along the walkway.
The chill of the cold night air seeps through the layers of warm winter clothing people have wrapped around themselves. But they don't let that scare them away - they are there for the lights, the music, the street food and the magic of Vivid Sydney.
This year marks the eighth year the annual winter lights, music and ideas festival has been running. Vivid is the biggest festival of its kind in the Southern Hemisphere, and this year's festival is bigger and better than ever.
It is a special way to experience Sydney, whether it is a first-time visit or if Sydney is a home away from home. Vivid is the perfect excuse to hop across the ditch for the weekend, or longer.
It is comparable with the lights festivals we have in New Zealand, such as the LUMA Southern Light Project that ran over the first weekend of June in Queenstown, but Vivid is on a much, much grander scale. It's not just one park that is lit up as the colder months draw near, it's the entire city. For a record-breaking 23 nights, Sydney is illuminated by more than 80 light installations and projections created by 141 different artists from all over the world, including eight New Zealand artists who are showing their work in some of the festival's most popular locations where they will be seen by thousands of people.
Vivid spreads from Circular Quay to Darling Harbour, Campbell's Cove, Chatswood, Martin Place, The Rocks and, this year, the Royal Botanic Gardens - and that's just scratching the surface. There's nothing quite like seeing the Sydney Opera House glowing with beautiful, hypnotic projections.
This year Vivid celebrates Australia's indigenous culture with the Songlines projection on the sails of the Opera House. The spectacular work has been made by a collaboration of six indigenous artists: Karla Dickens, Djon Mundine OAM, Reko Rennie, Gabriella Possum Nungurrayi, Donny Woolagoodja and the late Gulumbu Yunipingu.
Being among these impressive and beautiful works is awe-inspiring. The light walk through Taronga Zoo is enchanting.
Even though I had never visited before, I wasn't disappointed I couldn't see the wildlife, when the moving, larger-than-life creatures - giant ocean turtles, monkeys, a crocodile, platypus, tiger, bear and more, created by Ample Projects - roamed the zoo, while the real animals slept.
I did end up spotting a baby elephant and some giraffes out for a late-night snack while taking in one of the best views in Sydney. The projection on the entrance of the zoo was as marvellous as what lay within its walls and the ferry that took me back across the harbour to Circular Quay gave an amazing view of the entire city lit up with changing-colour lights.
Visiting Sydney simply to see the Vivid lights and explore the various precincts was enough in itself - but Vivid has so much more to offer. I was lucky enough to attend one of the festival's many Ideas talks and conferences. The chance to hear from some of the leaders in their creative fields is rare. I sat in on writer, stylist, photographer and creative director Margaret Zhang's Game-Changers Talk, and what she had to say about the way she operates her growing business empire was inspiring.
The scale of the Vivid Ideas line-up can be completely overwhelming and those who attend are spoilt for choice, with the programme showcasing other influential personalities including US director Spike Jonze, Beau Willimon, known for his work on
creator Jenji Kohan - and there are more Ideas conferences and workshops to come, not to mention the Sydney Film Festival, which is also in full swing and folds into the greater Vivid festival.
The events are easy to get along to and cost from $6 to $100 plus.
Going to as many of them as possible will be time well spent in Sydney.
When you aren't admiring the lights from a waterfront restaurant, or taking in a wealth of knowledge from interesting speakers, there's always the musical aspect of Vivid to capture the imagination.
The festival's music line-up is even more extensive than its jam-packed Ideas programme. This year's headliners have included New Order, Bon Iver, Esperanza Spalding and Anohni, with many artists still set to perform before the festival ends, including Bjork, who will be displaying her Bjork Digital Exhibition for free.
Watching Bon Iver perform his Vivid Live exclusive show, Cercle, in the round of the Sydney Opera House was a personal highlight and a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Fans were treated to a retrospective look at some of his best work - many New Zealand fans would have travelled to Australia just for him. New Zealand artist Tiny Ruins also made her mark on the festival, performing a show live at the Sydney Opera House.
So, whether you are one of those who love to rock or rave, or you prefer something a little more subdued and intimate; whether you consider yourself a culture connoisseur or not, Vivid is worth a visit.
It has a fun family vibe as well as offering plenty for those wanting to party.
As a destination event, or a happy surprise on your holiday to Sydney, this is a festival for everyone.
Avoid the masses
Catch Sydney's Vivid Festival with a bit of space and quiet.
Take the escalators in the galeries
Vivid has taken over Sydney's hippest food and shopping precinct for the first time this year. As the first indoor installation, I was a little dubious as to how it would compare to the spectacular outdoor displays at the Museum of Contemporary Art or Customs House. Though the show was nothing spectacular from ground level, it was a whole knew adventure as I stepped on to the escalator. I let it carry me closer and closer, and it was then I understood the installation's beauty. Standing directly under the screens and watching them as they overlapped and danced with one another was a brand new experience. thegaleries.com
Enjoy a picnic at the Royal Botanic Gardens
The Cathedral of Light is one of the most talked about - and busiest - installations at Vivid this year. Created by Mandylights and located at the Royal Botanic Gardens, it is 70m long and made up of tens of thousands of LED lights individually encased in small plastic flowers. On the first night I tried to dive into the crowds and walk through the illuminated tunnel. But being squashed like a sardine was no fun. My second attempt was a greater success: I parked myself on the grass nearby and shared a late afternoon picnic with a friend to witness the exact moment the lights were switched on at 6pm.
Grab a sneak peek of the MCA
While walking back from my picnic along Macquarie St, I stopped in between a hotel and a news agency - at the top of Moore Steps. After years of battling through the crowds at Circular Quay and the Rocks, I finally found the perfect lookout away from the traffic. The picturesque spot leant itself to the perfect opening, showcasing the MCA at its finest. As I stood there taking it in, many people pounded down the steps, seemingly unaware of the spot's perfection. Being slightly elevated, I marvelled at the lights reflecting off the MCA into the harbour.
Walk across Darling Harbour
Darling Harbour is one of Vivid's most crowded spots. Taking a stroll over Pyrmont Bridge provides a 360-degree view of the event without the need to peer through heads. On your left is the fascinating harbour light show, while on your right is the Maritime Museum display. And when you reach the Pyrmont side of the bridge, you can stop for a treat at the little gelato store.
Qantas flies daily from Auckland to Sydney with Economy Class return tickets starting from $540. qantas.co.nz