Sydney is gearing up for its annual Vivid festival, writes Lauren Mabbett.

Plenty of people will remember the first time they saw the Sydney Opera House. I was 33 when I first sighted the famous white sails — they were framed by the night sky as brilliant illuminations danced across them.

The already amazing building was decorated in bold designs. From technicolour dreamscapes to scenes of massive wild ferns, heaving lava lamps and the broiling skin of giant lizards. I'm pretty sure buildings don't normally look like this.

But normal is put on hold when the Vivid festival comes to Sydney, as I discovered on my visit there last year.

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The harbour bridge — of which I first caught a glimpse in the light of the setting sun — is now a skylark in the dark, a flashing rainbow of changing lights. But it's the projected animations on the opera house that hold me transfixed. I'm so focused on them that it's not until I turn around to take a selfie (yes, travelling alone I had to take a lot of these) that I see the entire city skyline is also covered in colours. My photos don't do this experience justice. I put my camera away for a moment and just enjoy what I'm seeing.

I take the walk through to the Royal Botanic Gardens where I get to see smaller works like How Many Lightbulbs (in which the phrase "How many light bulbs does it take to change a person?" is written in bold bulbs) and Midnight Sun (a flaming disco disc that rises alongside the harbour).

A river of people walk through the gardens, taking in the magic. I feel safe being here on my own as I'm constantly surrounded by people, whether it's other solo travellers or families enjoying the lights and sounds.

If the lights from the many displays surrounding you aren't enough, you can also purchase flashing headbands or balloons from stalls scattered throughout the area — about $10 each.

After my first taste of the lights, I head to a bar called Venue 505 to check out the musical side of Vivid.

Phantasos illuminates more than 3,000 individual LED lights on the Luna Park Ferris Wheel. Photo / Destination NSW
Phantasos illuminates more than 3,000 individual LED lights on the Luna Park Ferris Wheel. Photo / Destination NSW

This Surry Hills bar is somewhere I'd love to come with gal pals on a Friday night. Cute candles, couches, it almost feels like a poetry cafe. The owner says they've been running about 12 years and feature local music artists, known and unknown, as well as international touring acts. I sit at the back near the bar and start regretting not ordering a pizza as the smells keep wafting past me. Arcing Wires open the night with jazz tunes, a clearly passionate band with a drummer who deserves a decent shot at 15 minutes of fame. He stole the show many times with extravagant solos that would make John Bonham's mouth water. Funk Engine is the main act, covering US band Lettuce's tracks and they've packed out the bar with loyal fans. You have the choice to enjoy it from your table and keep chatting, or head to the dance floor and rock out up close.

I get back to my hotel, the QT Sydney, exhausted from my first full day in the city. I've walked more than 20,000 steps so that deserves a spa bath, I think. The best thing about this is I can watch The Simpsons from inside the tub. Bliss.

Saturday morning kicks off with a quick smashed avo from the QT's Gowings Bar and Grill and a taxi ride out to the Paddington Markets. It's sunny and most people have a coffee, or a dog on a leash — or both.

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I begin browsing and notice these markets aren't just for knick-knacks, people are selling everything here. Guitars, pillows, dog beds. Of course you still see all the usual bits like candles, art and food.

Jewellery is a popular selling point here with each vendor claiming to hand make all their work. I pick up a cute, heart-shaped ring and a pair of stainless-steel earrings. Everyone's in good spirits and it's a charming, feel-good way to start the day.

Paddington Markets. Photo / Destination NSW
Paddington Markets. Photo / Destination NSW

I head out to see more Vivid lights, but this time taking the walk from Darling Harbour to Barangaroo.

This proves to be my favourite part of Vivid — a sensory overload as I take in the music accompanying a light show with fountains that would give the Bellagio in Las Vegas a run for its money. The star of the show is Phantasos; the towering ferris wheel which is, you guessed it, covered in flashing lights. All the surrounding buildings have joined in showing off their colours as well. It's overwhelming.

If you can't get out on the water, just standing on the bridge at Darling Harbour is enough to get a great view of the entire spread.

Later, I find more great music at a bar called Cake Wines Cellar Door. Tucked down an alleyway it's a little hard to find, and it's on the taxi's second pass around the block that I spot the venue. It proves to be worth the fuss. Once again the bar is absolutely packed — it's a regular hot spot for the locals. On the musical menu tonight is Outliers — a showcase of jazz, house or world artists.

The winelist features a natural selection — wines made with minimal human intervention. The crowd is friendly and approachable — a recurring theme on this trip. I sit at the bar with a glass of their Adelaide Hills rose and bop to the DJ.

My final day I visit the Tramsheds Growers Market, by Jubilee Park. It's full of fresh fruit, vegetables, homemade pasta and almond milk stalls, as well as sweets and breads. At The Butcher and the Farmer, diners eat in an old tram, a reminder of days when the venue was a tram depot. This is where I close my Sydney trip with good coffee and warm memories.

Tramsheds Growers Market. Photo / Tramsheds Sydney
Tramsheds Growers Market. Photo / Tramsheds Sydney

WIN A trip for two to Vivid Sydney

Thanks to Destination New South Wales, we're giving one lucky reader the chance to win a trip for two to this year's festival. The prize includes:

● Return Economy Class airfares from Auckland, Wellington or Christchurch to Sydney
● Three nights' accommodation at one of Sydney's hottest designer hotels — Ovolo 1888 Darling Harbour
● A Captain Cook Cruises 7.30pm Vivid Dinner & Drinks cruise for two people
● Return airport transfers for two

To be in to win, go to nzherald.co.nz/win, find the Vivid Sydney competition page and enter your details. Competition closes on Saturday, March 9 at 11.59pm.

Prize must be redeemed for travel during one of the following dates; June 2-5, 2019; June 3-6, 2019; June 4-7, 2019; June 9-12, 2019; June 10-13, 2019; June 11-14, 2019. Winners must confirm chosen travel dates within 7 days of acceptance of prize. Travel dates are not changeable. Other terms and conditions apply.

CHECKLIST

GETTING THERE

Qantas

flies direct from Auckland to Sydney, with return Economy Class fares from $383.

DETAILS
Vivid festival runs from Friday, May 24 to Saturday, June 15.

ONLINE
sydney.com