My favorite childhood photograph is from the early seventies, from one of my family's annual pilgrimages "up north" from Melbourne. In the picture, my mother, my three sisters, and I are fanned out on the steps of the Sydney Opera House; its famous flares, which had been finished just a year earlier, seemed to billow in the wind. We are all smiling and looking out toward the water. It isn't easy to sum up an iconic city in a brief, sentimental snapshot, but to me, the image crystallizes my feelings about Australia's premier city. The enthusiasm I see in my young face in that photo is the same feeling I get every time I come back—Sydney is a place of reinvention, one that promises endless possibilities. Sydney is about breaking the rules.
Whether it's the annual Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, which began here in 1978 as a protest movement and paved the way for gay rights throughout Australia, or the 2000 Summer Olympics, a watershed event that firmly placed the city in the global arena, Sydney residents are increasingly demonstrating an intense national pride. No more apologies for geographical isolation, goes their new mantra. Sydneysiders no longer look overseas for inspiration; more and more, they are finding it in Sydney itself, distilling the best parts of their city's internationalism without discarding its unique cultural quirks. (Exhibit A: Office workers wear flip-flops to work.)
One essential attribute that Sydney's neighborhoods once lacked was—how to put this delicately?—culture. Renowned as Australia's sun, sand, and sex capital, the city has spent the past five years quietly evolving into a more sophisticated, more thoughtful version of its former self, and the districts to bookmark are no longer the ones you'd expect. Don't worry, the bronzed-surfers-on-Main-Street phenomenon is still alive and well. But the non-beach-related suburbs are finally getting their due: ex-industrial areas, the inner west, and the docklands are all coming into their own as essential destinations. The arts scene is lively, and theaters are full (especially when well-loved Aussies like Cate Blanchett or Geoffrey Rush—both alumni of Sydney's Belvoir Street Theatre—are performing). Social and environmental changes are on the agenda, thanks to the city's newly minted lord mayor, Clover Moore, a fiftysomething independent known as much for her progressive platform as for her flamboyant personal style (spiked black hair, dark red lipstick, dog collars). Since taking office last April, she has made a commitment to enhancing "Sydney as a City of Villages" and celebrating the uniqueness of each of its disparate enclaves.
Sydneysiders are reveling in the knowledge that they live in the culture-and-style capital of the New World. As their town grows and flourishes—the population, now 4.2 million and counting, has risen by 11 percent since 1998, thanks to a decade-long real estate boom and an influx of young professionals—the sun shines ever brighteron this most laid-back of international cities. As for tomorrow...to borrow a favorite phrase from Nicole Kidman, one of the city's best-loved daughters: Bring it on.
Surry Hills and Waterloo
Author Ruth Park set her best-selling novels The Harp in the South and Poor Man's Orange in a gritty, Depression-torn Sydney. The fictional Darcy family lived in Surry Hills, a Dantean inner-city hell where razor gangs roamed the streets. But the neighborhood's bad old days are well and truly behind it: instead of a seedy bar on every corner, there is a buzzy new café, and real estate prices are the hottest topic in the bars and restaurants that line Crown Street. Meanwhile, nearby Waterloo, once an industrial no-man's-land, has emerged as one of Sydney's best rags-to-riches stories. The action takes place along a short stretch called Danks Street (a misnomer, these days), where boutiques cater to every craving—aesthetic and culinary.
Young locals, priced out of ritzier areas like Woollahra and Double Bay, have turned Surry Hills into a thriving urban village, and the restaurant revolution here marches apace. Red Lantern (545 Crown St.; 61-2/9698-4355; dinner for two $54), a converted terrace house painted a provocative shade of scarlet, serves updated versions of Vietnamese classics. The shallow-fried whole snapper with fish sauce, lime, and ginger and the roll-your-own rice-flour crêpes are local favorites. • A few doors down is Café Mint (579 Crown St.; 61-2/9319-0848; lunch for two $23), a storefront dishing up well-priced food with a North African spin. Order the delicately fragrant breakfast couscous spiked with cinnamon and honey, or the meze plate for two, and let the charming waitstaff talk you into a second caffè latte—they make the best in town. • Old-time bistro favorite Tabou (527 Crown St.; 61-2/9319-5682; dinner for two $93) has the Rive Gauche ambience down: menu scrawled on a gilded mirror, bentwood chairs, bloody steaks, perfect pommes frites, and double-cooked soufflés. • Celebrity chef Kylie Kwong, who has a popular cooking show down under, is still packing them in at her minuscule hot spot Billy Kwong (355 Crown St., Shop 3; 61-2/9332-3300; dinner for two $85), where she serves up dishes (crispy-skinned duck with blood orange sauce) inspired by her Chinese family's recipes. • The late art-world enfant terrible Brett Whiteley called Surry Hills home in the eighties, and his studio (once a T-shirt factory) is now an "art museum," the Brett Whiteley Studio (2 Raper St.; 61-2/9225-1881). There's an exhibition space downstairs, while the upstairs has been preserved as it was when Whiteley lived there, complete with memorabilia, postcards, photographs, and artwork. Whiteley did achieve a certain notoriety during his lifetime (he struggled with heroin addiction), but only since his death have his haunting, light-infused paintings been fetching jaw-dropping prices at auction. • The Pacific, an antipodean answer to New York's Soho House (both bear the stamp of designer Ilse Crawford), is slated to open in the old Railway Institute building on Elizabeth Street—next to Central Station—this summer. • Forget the forbidding public-housing blocks towering behind you and settle in for an espresso at the Danks Street Depot (1-2 Danks St.; 61-2/9698-2201; lunch for two $27), part of a collective of galleries called 2 Danks Street, in Waterloo. This contemporary art complex includes established local dealers such as Utopia Art Sydney, Brenda May Gallery, Stella Downer Fine Art, and Gallery Barry Keldoulis. • Around the corner, Country Trader (197 Young St.; 61-2/9698-4661) specializes in 17th- to 20th-century French antiques. The vast showroom is overflowing with Louis XVI furniture and massive chandeliers displayed in a hushed, rarefied atmosphere. • Waterloo's pièce de résistance is Fratelli Fresh (7 Danks St.; 61-1300/552-119), a grocery store-provedore set in a converted warehouse. The merchants bring a comforting, Italian-inspired sensibility to their array of gourmet goods: stacks of imported canned tomatoes, dozens of olive oils, crinkly brown paper bags or boxes in place of plastic bags. There is also a dazzling selection of cheeses, produce (always impeccably displayed), herbs, imported butters, pasta, and hard-to-find items like tiny fresh figs, truffle oil, and Italian sodas. A new café, Sopra (61-2/9699-3174; lunch for two $28)—Italian for "above"—recently opened; weekends see hipsters and the stroller set alike jostling politely for position to get their Eurofix.