Chris Schulz has some bright ideas on how to best enjoy the illuminating event over the Ditch.


You're standing in front of the Sydney Opera House, watching in awe as giant beetles and ladybugs scuttle across its curves.

Across the water, as ferries and yachts zigzag around the harbour, the Museum of Contemporary Art is lit up like a disco ball, with giant neon lights flickering across its bricks and pillars to the tune of chillwave and dubstep.


All around Sydney, buildings, bridges, landmarks and parks are lit up with spotlights and laser beams shimmering across them. The Harbour Bridge alone has 15 Aquabeams shining off it; Taronga Zoo has glowing tiger cubs and turtles on display.

It's so bright you can barely tell the difference between day and night.

Too lit? Sydney's Vivid festival, three weeks of lights, art, music and all kinds of other stuff, is the definition of the word.

From Darling Harbour, through the central city, into the Royal Botanic Garden and around the waterfront to the Opera House and Taronga Zoo, more than 50 free exhibits are on display as Vivid gets under way from May 24 until June 15.

Like moths to a flame, that means people are everywhere. Lots of people. Last year, 2.25 million of them attended Vivid, including quite a few Kiwis, and this year's event is likely to be just as big, possibly even bigger.

So, instead of standing on Sydney's waterfront stuck like a deer in headlights, here's a little advice for anyone planning to attend.

Spike Lee makes his first visit to Australia for the festival. Photo / Getty Images
Spike Lee makes his first visit to Australia for the festival. Photo / Getty Images


Do you watch every episode of your favourite TV show in order, then scout YouTube for the deleted scenes, extras and commentaries? Then you're a completist, and you'll want to try to see everything Vivid has to offer. Don't. That's ridiculous. There are too many lights, concerts, panel discussions and experiences to be had to attempt that. Even if you had the entire three weeks free, you'd struggle to fit everything in. You'll need two or three nights alone to properly take in the 3km trail of free light installations around the city. Instead, get planning. Pick and choose the things you want to see. If they cost, get tickets in advance. Prioritise. And leave room to visit the things you like most twice. Some set-ups are so good they're even better a second time.


Unless you want to feel like you're at the Big Day out circa 2004, avoid Vivid's opening night. It gets squishy. On weekends, Sydney's waterfront is just as chocka. Locals know the best time to go is on weeknights. Lights are switched on at 6pm, and for the best view you'll want to park yourself in front of the Park Hyatt so you can see the Opera House blaze up with bugs. From there, wander around the waterfront, past the museum, through the city and then to the Botanic Gardens. Set aside time to stretch your legs up to Darling Harbour: some of Vivid's best displays can be found there.

It's not just Aussies involved, there are plenty of Kiwis at Vivid too. Most of this year's expat exhibitors have created attractions with a bit of a chill factor. Timothy Li is part of the team behind Timber Aurora, a design that looks like an electric dragon's tail, but is actually a bench seat. For Ali Megahed's Nostalgia Above, you'll need to look up to find a bunch of cloud formations nestled between buildings. And Angus Muir, who's had displays at Auckland City Limits, Splore and Northern Bass, has a new one called Zig-Zag. Wondering who's who? Look out for the little name tags around each display. It will tell you if a Kiwi is involved.


Robert Smith of the Cure will perform at the Rod Laver Arena. Photo / Getty Images
Robert Smith of the Cure will perform at the Rod Laver Arena. Photo / Getty Images

Music is a key part of Vivid, and the festival has scored major exclusives in the past, including Kraftwerk, The Pixies and Morrissey. This year, Robert Smith's band of mascara-clad worriers The Cure are the big drawcard, but those tickets are long gone. But you can still catch bewitching Brit star FKA Twigs, electro giants Underworld, indie darling Sharon Van Etten or synth-pop star Maggie Smith. These acts are often tied to exclusive deals, meaning they can't play extra shows or visit New Zealand, so it pays to get your tickets in advance.

Sydney's waterfront eateries absolutely pump during Vivid. If you haven't booked, good luck getting a table. You're better off eating an early dinner elsewhere in the city, then heading down for Vivid. Try the super-flash food court at Westfield on Pitt Street opposite Myer, just a 10-minute stroll from the waterfront. They have plenty of options, from cheap Mexican to super-expensive dumplings, and everything in-between. Got kids? Pack a few snacks, or prepare to queue for ages for ice cream. You'll probably be nagged to buy a bunch of lightsabres, light up caps and wristbands too. There are plenty of people selling those around the place. They're the ones strobing so brightly they could be mistaken for a member of Daft Punk.

When Spike Lee's BlakKklansman lost out on the best picture Oscar to Green Book earlier this year, the director didn't stay in his seat, force a smile and gently clap. Instead, he got out of his chair and tried to leave Hollywood's Dolby Theatre. "I'm snakebit," he told reporters backstage. "I thought I was courtside at the Garden and the refs made a bad call." Expect more big calls and bold conversation topics when Lee visits Australia for the first time. Politics and movie-making will be on his mind when he takes the stage at the Sydney Opera House for a 90-minute interview that's bound to be controversial. Let's hope he doesn't need to walk out this time.

The only thing kids love more than staying up late, nagging you for light-up helmets and eating free ice cream is dancing through archways made of glowing orbs. There are multiple chances for them to do that at Vivid. Try Beetopia, a buzzy installation involving interactive bees. Take them through the Firefly Field, a display involving 500 separate moving bulbs. Or let them gasp at Circa, 12 rings that glow in time with circadian cycles. If they're too tired for any of that, just jump on a ferry, wrap them up in a jacket, and take in all the sights from the sea. Vivid is just as good from the water. You'll escape the crowds too.

Vivid Sydney Opera House. Photo / Creative Commons License
Vivid Sydney Opera House. Photo / Creative Commons License




flies direct from Auckland to Sydney, with return Economy Class fares from $649.

The Vivid Festival is on at venues around Sydney, from May 24-June 15.