Australia is home to one of the world’s oldest indigenous cultures, boasts an impressively unique natural habitat, intriguing colonial history and plays humble abode to some of the world’s deadliest beasts. If you think coming up close and personal with a lion in Africa is scary…wait till you see what lurks behind unassuming bushes in most Sydney backyards!
From brilliant science oriented museums to comprehensive collections of southern-hemisphere antiquities and all manner of fascinating embalmed creatures and wacky modern art, Sydney’s indoor attractions are just as alluring as its outdoor ones; so plan a few museum visits during your stay and you’ll make your vacation in Down Under an educational one too.
Here’s out top pick of Sydney Museums:
The Australia Museum is a fair dinkum institution in Sydney. There’s nay a local who doesn’t remember his/her first visit as a child, being completely overwhelmed by the humongous whale skeleton at the entrance. Showcasing impressive collections of native Australasian flora and fauna and a very comprehensive exhibit of indigenous artefacts, the Australian Museum is the country’s oldest ‘showpiece’ and has retained a reputation for being one of the world’s best in the fields of palaeontology and anthropology. Oh yes…this is where you’ll find all those nasty spiders and super poisonous snakes soaking in formaldehyde. Best to see what they look like, so at least you’ll be able to recognize them when you’re out and about!
Sydney’s most beloved natural history museum has a fantastic section aimed specifically at the under 5s, so head here if you happen to be travelling with little tots. Smack bang in the middle of the CBD, this museum is housed in what is possibly one of Sydney’s most stunning buildings. Ok, perhaps second to the Art Gallery. If you only have the time and inclination of visiting one museum, make it this one.
Once you’ve wrapped your head around our fluffy and furry inhabitants, best you head to the Museum of Sydney to learn all about the history of our bipedal inhabitants. Built on the site of the country’s first-ever Government House, this particular museum concentrates on the history of the country’s indigenous tribes, their initial contact with European settlers, their tribulations during colonialism and the rise, rise and rise of the population from 1788 right up to the present day. Recently renovated, the exhibits here are incredibly extensive; there are photographs, unearthed artefacts, personal documented accounts of the first convicts and Aborigines as well as super modern, and high-tech installations to bring Sydney’s history well and truly to life. Here, you’ll also see relics of the First Fleet and a plethora of temporary exhibits.
There’s not a person in Sydney who doesn’t LOVE the Powerhouse Museum! Its ever-changing interactive displays of all things scientifically über-cool means you could visit it a dozen times a year and never see the same thing twice. This museum specialises mostly in technology and science, boasting some of the best hands-on exhibits we’ve ever encountered. Learn how lightning strikes, gravity and electricity work and admire the world’s oldest steam engine which happens to be three-storeys high. Your biggest problem here will be bumping the kids off the displays so you can have a go. If you’ve ever uttered the words “how on earth does that work?” visit the Powerhouse and find out.
It’s not hard to imagine why Australia has such an obsession with water. It’s fair to say that the country’s very existence is inextricably linked to the seas, and every aspect from its inception to commerce, play and survival is documented at the Australian National Maritime Museum in Darling Harbour. Climb down into a submarine, a navy battleship or up to a lighthouse for a taste of real sea life, and spend hours perusing the maritime artefacts on show from every corner of the globe. The museum boasts regular, and usually fascinating temporary exhibits from all over the world, so we suggest you purchase a ‘Big Ticket’ and see it all at length. Once again, as seems to be the norm in Sydney’s museums, there’s plenty to keep the kids busy for hours on end, so head here first thing in the morning and don’t plan on getting much more accomplished for the rest of the day!
The University of Sydney’s in-house museum houses the largest collection of old and dusty stuff in the entire southern hemisphere. The incredibly nifty displays, which run the gamut from the ancient Greeks, to the Etruscans, Romans, Egyptians and all others in between are beautifully laid out, as is their ’50 objects & 50 stories’ exhibit which details the history and acquisition of each and every piece. Incredibly interesting and at times even macabre (the mummified bits and bobs in particular), this museum seems to be utterly lost on most tourists, which scores it even more points for being a tranquil and enticing place to head to. Those interested in archaeology best not miss this one.
This museum rates as one of the most visited and, although the exhibits are certainly worthy, this may have also something to do with the fact that is situated in one of the city’s most glorious spots: the Domain. Sydney’s best Art Gallery showcases both native and imported artworks, ranging from ancient indigenous to contemporary Australian and European masterpieces as well as a vast array of creations by some of the world’s most renowned artists.
This gallery is absolutely word-class and contains an insane amount of art, so do plan to spend several hours engrossed in its exhibits, building and surrounding park. Entry to the permanent exhibits is free, but you’ll need to pay to view the travelling temporary shows. It may be also worthwhile to check out the map on the museum’s website, to best ascertain which sections you’ll be interested in exploring before you even head there.
To be honest, one need not need be interesting in the Jewish culture per say to appreciate this museum, but it is so incredibly well documented and put together, that the refreshing thing is learning about one of the country’s most intrinsic sides from its very first start (a lone convict aboard the First Fleet) right up to the present day. The exhibits are set out on different levels, each concentrating on a specific aspect of the Jewish culture. From the religious history, through the holocaust, initial settling in Australia and the influence on the local fashion industry, the Jewish Museum is a fab little gem right in the heart of the inner city. Funnily enough, there are quite a few Jewish museums around the world yet this David-star shaped intimate portrayal is much more educational, moving and confronting than many others one could visit.
Sydney’s Barracks is a wonderful inception experience….a rather haunting museum about itself. In the early 1800s this is where all male convicts young and old were jailed, eventually becoming an asylum for immigrant destitute women and orphaned young girls who were sent here during the potato famine in the 1850 and 1860s. This is an exceptionally good museum if you wish to delve a little deeper into the harsh existence of Australia’s hapless convicts and early immigrants, particularly if you have any family convict history. The guided tour is a must and, at just $10 entry (also includes a discount to the Sydney Museum) it’s really a must-see for Australian and English history buffs.
Ironically, this museum is renowned as much about its excellent rooftop harbour-view restaurant than it is about the art showcased below, so if you do wish to admire some of the best of Australian contemporary art and enjoy one of the best dining experience in Sydney, head here mid-afternoon and do both in one swift swoop. This museum has been recently remodelled, and the addition of an art nouveau black and white building alongside its old architectural marvel can be quite bewildering; which is the ideal state to be in to admire some of the modern art inside. Like it or hate it, contemporary art is always rather enticing. Whilst some exhibits are (clearly) beautiful, others may be a little harder to decipher, and some may be just plain puzzling. It is always said that art is nothing if not subjective, then by all means come here and make up your own, subjective, mind.
CWM is a private art gallery and rates among the best in the city. It showcases impressive sculptures, drawings and paintings and is a must for anyone who loves classic modern art…or was left totally bewildered at the above-mentioned Museum of Contemporary Art. Unlike popular belief, one does not need to be a multi-millionaire to visit a private gallery! This one in particular is welcoming, staffed by friendly artists who shun all thing modern-art inspired weirdness and prefer stunning, beautiful artwork one need not be on heavy drugs to decipher. Of particular interest to visitors may be the simply breathtaking oil paintings of the Australian outback. All works are by famous and up and coming local artists and, if you actually are in the market to buy a new artwork this may well be the perfect place to head to. For goodness sake do not take children here! They drop a $10,000 sculpture and guess who’ll be buying it?!
The insider’s last word…our own personal favourite
Brett Whiteley may have had an illustrious career which saw him soar in London and New York, but it was painting his beloved Sydney Harbour which he quoted as his most ardent passion. Whiteley is a much beloved Sydney icon and, in case you’ve never actually heard of him, best you do a little research and then visit his eponymous studio in trendy Surry Hills. Brett Whiteley was a pained artist who suffered from serious bouts of alcoholism and drug abuse, yet it must be said that his talent deservedly won him various local and international awards and propelled him to being considered Australia’s number one modern artist. His most coveted painting, The Olgas for Ernest Giles, sold for 3.5 million bucks and still remains an Australian record. His inherent talent for creating colorful, evocative artworks is purely splendid. The Surry Hills museum was Whiteley’s home and work space and intimately displays his incredible work.